Something New is Forming: Anam Cara Community

Anam Cara.

It’s a Celtic phrase that refers to this ancient idea of a “soul friend,” someone who knows your insides even better than your outsides.

I love it. The phrase itself might be Gaelic, but it’s found in all cultures across time and history. It’s an idea of deep knowing and deep understanding.

As this pandemic has forced us all into a new reality which, inherently, means that we can’t “go back” to the old way we were prior to March 2020, some new sparks have flown and new seeds have been sewn, encouraging us all to discover what community might mean, now.

The Lutheran Church I’m a pastor in (ELCA) is exploring some new ways of doing the spiritual life. I was approached in early 2021 with an idea: what would a “digital-first” community look like that explored spirituality, worshiped primarily through a digital interface, and grew community without geographical restrictions?

I told them I had no idea what that would look like, but that we do see glimpses of it all over the place now.

After six months of study, exploration, meditation, and a good bit of hesitation, the green light has been given to formally explore this kind of community. A shout-out to my partner in this exploratory time: Matt Hansen, a seminarian who comes from the digital marketing world, was imaginative, integral, and will continue to play a part in this work.

We don’t know a lot about what it will look like, act like, or turn out to be in its final form, but my co-curator Jason Chesnut (you may know him from the Ankos Films and the Slate Project) and I know this much:

-it will be both theologically and socially progressive

-it will have an eye toward the medium we’re working with (aka: we’re not just video taping a church service)

-it will be diverse in every way it can be

-it will be exploratory in nature, but grounded in the best parts of our tradition

-it will be a place where Anam Cara, soul friendship, is cultivated because physical proximity will not always be possible.

We’re calling it Anam Cara Community, and it’s just now being formed and birthed. There will be many touchstones: web presence, video, short podcast (cause there are too many long ones out there), blogging (most likely here), social media, scripture studies, worship gatherings, perhaps even an in-person retreat when it’s safe. Our goal is to create opportunities and resources not only for folx curious about spirituality, but also for pastors who need ideas and inspiration. In this way, this community will be unique, formed by both professional church people, non-church people, and people who fall somewhere in-between.

But it will take time, patience, and discernment for it all to come together. New things take time. You’re invited to be a part of the walk an the Way.

All of the above touchstones will begin trickling out, with more fully-formed offerings coming in early 2022. Our goal is to have our initial digital-first worship gathering at the start of Lent of that year.

I’m reminded, Beloved, that the Apostle Paul and much of the early church were in community together largely through letters and shared stories. That was the “digital-first” medium of their day.

Which makes me think this is not only possible, but probably needed for this next phase of our communal life.

More soon. #anamcara

Pastors Are Healthcare Workers

Pastors, in so far as they are pastors, are not medical doctors.

Pastors, in so far as they are pastors, are not nurses.

Pastors, in so far as…you get the picture, are not lab technicians, breathing specialists, or any other kind of medical aid.

But they are, I think, healthcare workers. And before you write this off (and few other claims I’ve made on social media have attracted ire like this particular one) let me explain…

Well, first, let me share a memory.

By his green scrubs I knew that he was a breathing specialist. At Northwestern Memorial Hospital in downtown Chicago, the green scrubs were reserved for the breathing specialists, the blue for the M.D.’s, the grey for the surgeons, and the purple for the Chaplains.

There was a code blue. At a code blue the right people all get a page: the attending doctor, the floor nurses, the specialists (should there be one), and the Chaplain.

They all gathered around the body, doing what they could to revive the patient and the breathing specialist turned to the Chaplain and said, “Get in here! We need you. You’re part of the team.”

Now, being part of “the team” doesn’t make you a medical professional, but it does, I think, make you a healthcare worker.

Now, let me explain a little bit more…

President Biden asked “local docs, ministers, and priests” to encourage people to wear masks in this pandemic. He did so because he knows that, in America at least, clergy still hold a particular kind of sway with their congregants.

Yes, it’s waning, but it’s there.

And, especially in a health crisis, that kind of sway brings with it an inherent responsibility to do a few things, in my view.

First: they cannot shy away from speaking openly and honestly about public health and the public good. Many faith communities have come to believe that speaking about masks and vaccines is speaking partisan politics, and that is just a flat out pile of horse shit (insert ivermectin joke here).

Pastors are called upon, by nature of their office, to speak about things that concern the public, their parishioners, and the common good, which is precisely why they were asked to encourage their people to wear masks. The common good is not partisan, Beloved. Hence why it’s called “common.”

Secondly: pastors must follow the best science available. They must. They must hold hands with science, especially in a health crisis like this one.

It is their responsibility to encourage people to do what the best scientists and medical experts are encouraging humanity to do. In a pandemic there is no time or space for fringe medical ideas. In a pandemic there is no excuse for, “Well, 1 out of 10 doctors think differently…” There’s always one crap doctor out there, one quack scientist, and yes one crappy pastor (maybe more, now that I think about it). There’ll always be that one.

But that one little guy? I don’t think you need to worry about that one little guy. Focus on the other nine.

Finally: it is precisely because pastors don’t think that they have this kind of responsibility that they remain so silent on these kinds of public health issues that have a real impact on the common good. But, think with me now, how many healing stories are there in the scriptures? How many stories involve communal health and wellness?

Hundreds, from Genesis to Revelation.

Jesus provided free health care! We’re used to talking about health from the pulpit when it comes from the scriptures, so why are we so silent when it comes from the newspaper?

The key to all of the above, though, is for pastors to stay honest about their role as a healthcare worker, and this is very important (and, I think, the confusion over this piece caused so much backlash when I presented this idea on social media):

Pastors are not trained to diagnose physical ailments and, in most cases, mental illness, either.

Pastors are not experts in medicine, and should not offer some sort of personal opinion from the pulpit and claim it has medical authority backing it up.

Pastors cannot look at a major health crisis and give their own advice on the topic, prescribing a course of action for their parishioners that differs from the best science available (this has been a disaster in this pandemic, and caused serious harm to both parishioners and the church at large).

We have an issue in this pandemic, I think, with pastors parading themselves as things they are not.

They cannot, in their pastoral role, encourage their parishioners to burn their masks as if they have the medical knowledge to make such a prescription, choose “faith over fear” and tell people to skip the vaccine, or take some sort of cocktail of horse dewormer and prayer as some sort of prophylaxis. They are not medical professionals.

And, at the same time, they cannot claim to be agnostic on the subject, saying nothing at all when it comes to the health of their parishioners and the common good. They are not without responsibility and authority.

Pastors are, for better or for worse, healthcare workers in this society. And as such, they have a responsibility to speak openly about the best scientific advice available on the topic, not overstepping their role, but not sloughing it off, either.

Pastors are healthcare workers.

We need to make sure we’re taking on that role with humility, honesty, and the gravity it deserves.

Scars and Wounds and Now

How can you tell if something is a scar or an open wound?

I mean, on the body it can be easier to make that assessment. Right now my left side is stitched up from some minor surgery last week. We took the bandage off last night for the first time. Looks normal, stitching in tact, all that jazz.

It will be a scar in a few weeks, a scar that will remind me to wear sunscreen with greater diligence. No need to flirt with skin cancer any longer; I’ve been to that dance and, it appears, have been able to exit without needing my ticket punched.

But this morning I’ve been reflecting on scars and wounds, bodily and otherwise. I’m reflecting on it because I’m in the final stages of getting my certification as a professional coach with an emphasis on walking with people through grief, through the aftermath of a death of some sort (relative, job, dream, etc), and active dying. And this lingering pandemic, festering, as it is, has made this certification all quite timely.

When it comes to emotional and spiritual trauma, I think one way you can tell if it’s a scar or a wound is by having pressure applied to it and waiting for the “ouch.”

I’ve seen, and experienced personally, wounds of loneliness call forth an “ouch” in these days.

I’ve seen, and experienced personally, wounds of partisanship call forth an “ouch” in these days.

Wounds around fatigue. Balance. Job insecurity. Fear of the unknown, both rational and irrational. Worry around safety of family members and loved ones. Relationship strains and troubles.

Lots of ouches.

The first step to turning a wound into a scar is tending to it. See, that’s the hard part, right? We’re never quite sure where a wound is sometimes, because we really haven’t looked at it closely in a while. We just assume it’s healed, or healing, or…

Have you looked in a bit? Where is the ouch for you?

Poet Nayyirah Waheed is all about tending to the wounds of life. “Rub honey on it,” she often writes in her short, but shocking, lines.

Rub honey on it.

Tending to our wounds is more than just looking at them. This past weekend I looked at an errant Nerf dart laying in our hallway a number of times, thinking at each pass, “Someone should pick that up…” until yesterday that someone became me (and it should have always been me, right?).

We look at things all the time without doing anything about them.

We look at wounds all the time without rubbing any honey on it.

It stings to do that work, by the way. Healing often hurts a bit.

But it has to happen for a scar to form.

Scars say “I’ve been there,” which, for a world of wounded people, is a wonderful gift and sign of grace. Open festering wounds, of which there are many, don’t usually allow someone to help another person with the same wound, heal.

But a scar?

Well, in this pandemic, in these days, I’m trying to look at the wounds I have, and rub some honey on them.

So, be honest, don’t let this crisis go to waste: where is the ouch?

There’s Just Something About Mary

Madonna-of-Częstochowa

“When you want to get in good with someone,” my father said, “you sometimes talk to their parents. Usually their mom.”

This was the response I got when I asked my father why some Christians speak to Mary or pray to Mary. Now, in my tradition that wasn’t our practice, but it made sense to me. If Jesus wasn’t answering the Divine phone, or if you weren’t sure you even had permission to make the call, his mother may lend you her ear, right?

While my Lutheran tradition doesn’t practice this piety, we have a long, though often hidden, tradition of holding Mary, the Mother of Our Lord in high esteem. Luther himself was known to lift her up as a model of saintliness. The “Theotokos,” the “God-Bearer,” a ship that carried the Christ across the sea of the cosmos…that deserves some reverence and a heartfelt nod, right?

But even apart from her role in history, mothering and motherhood are essential pieces of the fabric of our communal lives.

I’ve had many mothers, by the way. I say that not to dismiss my own biological mother; far from it! I say it more to acknowledge that the ways we mother each other, distinct from giving birth, are essential pieces of care that we extend in this world. The mothers of my friends often watched out for me, provided me with things I needed, tended my wounds and provided care when my own mother was working or not in proximity.

An upper-classman at my university, a young man in the same field of study, would have me over for tea and honey to see how I was doing on a regular basis. He took me under his wing in many ways, mothering me while I was 800 miles away from my biological family.

We are at our best when we mother one another.

And Mary, in her role in the Divine drama, was not only the mother of the Christ, following him all the way to his deathbed (like any parent worth their salt), but also the mother of humanity, on the lips of so many in their hour of need.

When George Floyd called out for his mother, all mothers were summoned. Mary was summoned.

It’s no wonder that St. Paul and St. John of the Beatles noted that “in the hour of darkness, she is standing right in front of me…” In our hours of need, we all need mothering.

But not only the comforting mothering, but also the advocate mothering. In John 2 Mary advocates for the power of her son, giving instruction that the wedding attendants should listen to him. This Mary of the scriptures is mirrored in the mothers shaking their fists at the courthouse over their inaction on sensible gun legislation as their babies are murdered in schools and on street corners.

“Listen!” they scream.

Mary is mirrored in mothers shepherding their children across borders into a new life, much like she did when she safeguarded her son in the Gospel of Matthew from that blood-thirsty Herod, fleeing with him across borders from Bethlehem to Egypt to be raised in safety.

Mary is mirrored in the mothers yelling loudly that we must watch out for our children in these days because they are vulnerable to this virus and cannot yet be vaccinated!

Mary was not just tending to her son’s needs, she was fighting for them.

I’m writing all this because this coming Sunday, August 15th, is the Feast of Mary, Mother of Our Lord, and if I were in a pulpit I’d ditch the common texts for the day and celebrate the feast of this God-Bearer not because she’s Divine, but because she mirrors Divine action in hard times.

And we’re in hard times, Beloved.

Humanity is at it’s best, Beloved, when we’re mothering one another. Mary reminds us of this.

There’s just something about Mary…

Half-Time Adjustment in Churches for the Pandemic Playbook

It would be absolutely frightening to be a parish pastor right now.

I’m being totally honest, and I’m speaking from a place of privilege because I am not in that position at the moment.

Please know I realize this.

But the amount of fretting I would be having over in-person worship at this moment would probably put me on sick leave, even without any Covid symptoms.

Because the call of the church is to praise God and look out for “the least of these,” and as the Delta variant now accounts for over 90% of new Covid cases in the United States, and as children who, as of this writing cannot be vaccinated if they’re under twelve, are now even more susceptible to this strain, and as some people STILL REFUSE DESPITE THE SCIENCE to get the vaccine (note: some can’t for health reasons…but they’re few and far between), my gut would tell me to go all virtual again.

Or, at least meet only outside.

Or, at least, to ask children not to attend.

Or, at least, refrain from any singing at all.

Or maybe my gut would tell me that everyone would have to show their vaccination card to attend. But, honestly, even that won’t work because break-through illnesses, though mild, have already appeared in the vaccinated.

So I’d probably just ask that families not bring children.

That may seem extreme, I know. And it might be the case that some areas of the country, where vaccinations are on the rise and spread is low, don’t need that kind of restriction. Localized plans are probably necessary.

But at the very least I’d be considering a “halftime adjustment” right now in the reopening plan.

And if you’re reading this and it’s sending you into a bit of a panic, or making you a bit angry, just take a second and imagine the struggle your pastor is feeling right now.

Because, Beloved, it only takes one kid getting sick from a possible transmission within the church building to cause real harm not only to that child (or unvaccinated adult…please, get the shot!), but also to that pastor who wrestled for the last year and a half, survived scathing emails and people leaving the church over a health crisis on either side of the divide, and felt stuck between a rock and a hard place on this.

But all of the above should not stop the conversation and the questions from happening.

If the church is truly about looking out “for the least of these,” and that right now is the unvaccinated (by their own choice, but they’re our neighbors none-the-less) and the children who cannot yet be vaccinated, what should it do?

P.S. If anything, cut your pastor all the slack in the world. Please. For their health. And yours.

Welfare Christmas and a Christian Community that Still Doesn’t Really Get the Point

Carbs are only bad for those who aren’t hungry

I’m not sure if the band Everclear is a “one hit wonder.” I’m not really sure what qualifies a band to have that moniker. Like, what are the metrics for that?

Regardless, their most popular song was on heavy rotation when I was a teen. Their rock anthem, “Buy You a New Life” is a heartfelt and heartbreaking story about being poor and having unrealized dreams. The song is an ode to the artist’s daughter, a promise that he would “buy her a new life” that looked nothing like the one he had growing up with an absent father and overworked mother.

My favorite lyrics in the song happen right at the beginning where the band takes privileged religious folks to task:

I hate those people who love to tell you
Money is the root of all that kills
They have never been poor
They have never had the joy of
A welfare Christmas

Do you know the “joy” of a welfare Christmas?

I remember one time when I was working in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago as a middle school teacher, one of the church members of the parish where the school was located shook their heads as they saw one of our families drive up. It was the early 2000’s.

“An SUV,” they said with contempt, “and this family is on welfare…”

What he didn’t realize, of course, was that if that mom wanted to get a job without white folks like him looking down on her, she had to drive up in a car that worked, looked nice, and didn’t throw off any red flags. What he didn’t take into consideration was that the single mom who worked two jobs to afford that car did so because she wanted her kids to be accepted without question.

And yes, she wore the same dress every time we had a parent-teacher conference. It was her nice dress. Respectable dress. Her power dress for a society that deemed her powerless because she was a woman of color, a single mom, a renter, a…name one of the ways we denigrate people.

He didn’t get the point.

In the 6th chapter of the Gospel of John, the Gospel lesson for this coming Sunday, we find Jesus on the run from the crowds. He had just fed them, a story colloquially known as the “feeding of the 5,000,” and they had their hearts set on having him rule them.

But Jesus, kinda knowing that they wanted to make him king (we always are looking for a leader to make things right, right?!), hops on a boat and sails away. So the people give chase, and when they catch up to him, they want him to give them bread again. You know, like he did before.

Jesus, though, says that miracles do not a savior make, and instead claims that he is the bread of life, and that they should seek after him and not some bread that would be moldy in a bit.

When preachers typically talk about this text they usually lift up the spiritual nature of it all, and how those greedy people just wanted a handout from Jesus and didn’t really get his message.

And my question for those preachers, for you, is this: have you ever known the joy of a welfare Christmas?

We are so quick to look down on this crowd for wanting food out of Jesus, but food was not easy to come by in the ancient world.

And, if we’re honest, for many it’s not easy to come by today!

I know why people who can’t afford fancy cars or clothes buy them. They know that nothing lasts in this world, they’ve seen it in their own lives and hearts, and so if you have it you gotta use it, or else it’s gone.

I explained this mindset, explained to me by those students and families who taught me so long ago to reframe my white, middle-class worldview, to a very kind colleague of mine who, without skipping a beat said, “I don’t think that’s true. They could open a savings account. It’s greed, pure and simple.”

And then he sipped his $5.00 latte.

What if this story about Jesus being the bread of life is less about spiritual hunger, and more about the idea that, if you’re following Jesus, you won’t allow your neighbor to go hungry?

I mean, what if the people aren’t misguided and are simply hungry, and their community, a community who had just experienced miraculous generosity, didn’t quite get the picture yet?

Perhaps when Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and will never be thirsty again,” he means that the community that forms around the message of Christ is one that will always, never hesitatingly, never waveringly, feed others and provide good, life-giving water without thought of cost, without an inkling of merit, without ever uttering, “do they deserve it?”

See, I don’t think this text is about the people in the story. I think it’s about most of us reading it who have “never known the joy of a welfare Christmas,” most of whom can’t really contemplate what it might mean to be actually hungry and not just on some Keto diet. Who haven’t given up bread for the carbs, but because we can’t afford it.

And look, I’m not suggesting we start a bunch of feeding programs…I mean, those are good and all…but what if following Jesus meant you looked at why folks are hungry in the first place and start to put safeguards in place to prevent that from happening in the world. Like, what if Christians became known for advocating for great employment, wages that are livable, education that is affordable, food that is healthy and shared (not hoarded), and clean water that is a priority not a PR issue?

Geeze, it’s almost like following the one who claims that being next to them will ensure that hunger and thirst are “no more” might lead people to do some very radical things in this world.

That almost seems to be the point…

Anyway, that’s probably where I’d go if I were preaching this week.

On Staying Until You Leave

My best friend never texts me back immediately.

In fact, sometimes not at all.

And I’m not offended by it one bit because I kind of envy him. He has this practice of leaving his phone in his room when he’s home, at least until the kids are in bed and the house is quiet.

And when he’s at the office? It’s largely on silent mode.

He’s largely mastered the art of being present, mostly because he puts in some long hours on the regular.

I envy that because it’s a practice I have not mastered yet, even with my meditation discipline and my (feeble) attempts at focusing.

This week’s Gospel lesson (Mark 6:1-13) doesn’t look like it’s about being present at first blush, but I think it is, actually.

Jesus is present in his hometown, and the folks are so distracted by the fact that they have known him all his life, know his siblings, know his parents, that they can’t wrap their mind around his gifts and abilities. They aren’t present with his now, they only remember his was.

It reminds me of the time I met Molly Ringwald and was kindly asked not to inquire about any of her film career from the 1980’s (which I can list by heart in year of release). Instead, we were encouraged to ask what she’s up to now.

When Jesus sends his disciples out, he says to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave a place.” (vs 10) It was probably offered as simple lodging instructions because, well, when you don’t have a pillow and someone offers you one, you stay by that pillow until you’re ready to find a new one, right?

But today this verse speaks to my heart differently. I mean, what if we took seriously this idea that we need to stay in the place where we are? That is, when you’re visiting with someone, don’t put the phone on the table, but rather leave it in the car. Or on silent mode.

And when you enter your home at the end of the night, don’t lug that workbag in with you. You’re home, not at work.

Or if you, like me, mostly work from home, the office is off limits after 5:30.

I needed this verse a few weeks ago. On our family vacation I took three separate work calls, and I really shouldn’t have.

I knew I shouldn’t have, and my family predicted I would take them (because they know me much like Jesus’ neighbors thought they “knew” him), and I had the opportunity to prove them wrong and I blew it.

Totally blew it.

But, and here’s the thing: it’s not just about “being present” to be respectful. What if there are insights and spiritual awakenings that are missed out because we’re missing out on the moment?

Like, what if beautiful and wonderful, miraculous even, things are happening in our midst, like they had the potential to when Jesus was in his hometown, but we’re not aware enough to see them?

By staying present our present can change, by God, and even become disconnected from our past…if only we’d stay where we are until we leave there.

Anyway, that’s where I’d go if I were preaching this week.

On Real Miracles

I struggle with the miracle stories that the scriptures contain.

I struggle because “miracle” is such a tricky word to define, and so many define it so narrowly, and praying for miracles doesn’t really seem to make them happen very often…

I’m not saying you shouldn’t pray for miracles, Beloved. In times of desperation all sorts of prayers escape my earnest lips and I regret none of them. I’m just saying that the cause and effect here doesn’t seem to hold much water.

I know it might be weird for a pastor to say that, but I kind of wish more would with regularity. Religion gives shallow comfort when it encourages people to hang their hope on the almost-impossible.

I’ve sat in hospital rooms where someone given a less than ten percent chance of surviving breathed again on their own. Is that a miracle, or is it just a statistically rare situation? Is it both?

Birth is, in itself, kind of a miraculous event if you ask me. Death can be, too. In fact, I’d say any thing that causes awe to blossom in the heart is quite miraculous.

Miracle is a tricky word to define.

In the ancient world there were lots of miracle workers, by the way. Traveling healers, itinerant preachers and prophets, magicians and sorcerers…they were all making their way through the world, and ancient Palestine, making their case for disciples and followers. That’s all to say: the fact that Jesus healed people and performed so-called miracles didn’t make him unique in the ancient world, and it certainly didn’t “prove” he was divine like so many pastors tell you (who obviously haven’t done their homework).

No.

The thing that set Jesus apart was not the miracles he performed, but rather who was blessed by them: the poor, the marginalized, those who couldn’t pay, the outsider, the outcast, the untouchable, the enemy.

That is Divine.

Take for instance the miracle stories we get this Sunday where Jesus raises the dead daughter of a religious leader and is grabbed by a perpetually bleeding woman (Mark 5:21-43). In both of these cases the true miracle, in my mind, isn’t them returning back to health, but that he would cross the social, ethical, and religious lines of the times, lines that literally defined you in the ancient world, and did so with abandon.

To touch a dead body would make you ritually unclean. Jesus doesn’t hesitate to become unclean in the eyes of the world to bring new life to someone.

To engage with a woman who was have difficulty with a menstrual cycle that would not stop would make him, as a man, unclean. Jesus doesn’t ostracize her or get angry at her or immediately go and purify himself with the rituals of religion. Instead, he blesses her.

Go another layer into the story, though. Jairus, the man whose daughter was sick and dying, was a religious leader of the day and, if we follow the story, was probably at odds with this wandering prophet preaching radical grace. And yet Jesus doesn’t withhold his presence from this man who probably doesn’t think or believe the same way he does. Instead, he extends his hand to him.

I mean, it’s kind of like it’s meant to be that this story is coming just when the headlines are emblazoned with the story of Roman Catholic Bishops seeking to excommunicate Joe Biden. Have they not heard? Have they not read? The Jesus that they (we?) claim to follow and emulate was not about to let disagreements stand in the way of grace.

I struggle with the miracle stories in the scriptures. Miracles that defy the odds are rare, and they don’t seem to discriminate between those who believe and those who don’t (thank God…everyone deserves to beat the odds sometimes, right?). But, then again, everyday miracles that inspire awe are not so rare, but also show no partiality, which is pretty cool.

At the end of the day, though, the true miracle of this story is that Jesus would break down the walls that prevent people from being gracious to one another, and he’ll do so without batting an eye, apologizing, or worrying about how it will look to the public.

And that, Beloved, is a real miracle in my book.

Anyway, if I were preaching this Sunday, this is probably where I’d go…

Extraordinarily Ordinary

The Kingdom of God is like an irresponsible gardener.

The Kingdom of God is like a huge weed that overtakes every other plant.

The Kingdom of God is like a microscopic animal that reacts with the environment in large and explosive ways.

The Kingdom of God is like a hopeful parent on the porch, waiting for their child to drive home long past dark.

These are all examples, in a way, that Jesus uses to describe “the Kingdom of God.” Some of these show in this week’s Gospel lesson (Mark 4:26-34)

And note: Jesus does not mean some sort of “heaven” when he’s talking here. The Kingdom of God is not heaven in the scriptures, Beloved.

The Kingdom of God in the scriptures is Earth, home, hearth, community that loves each other.

But, why doesn’t Jesus just come out and tell us what the Kingdom of God is? Why this fanciful language?

Lazy theologians will tell you it is because Jesus wants you to figure out a puzzle. That’s a cop out.

But what if the Kingdom of God is, in and of itself, a puzzle? What if it is a paradox of sorts? What if the Kingdom of God is comprised of broken people who, through Divine love, change reality for the better?

Perhaps Jesus uses parables to describe the Kingdom of God because the Kingdom of God is extraordinarily ordinary. Like, the components are ordinary. But the result? Extraordinary.

Perhaps when people really love each other it takes over all other grievance trying to grow in the soil of community, like a mustard weed in a garden?

Perhaps when people really look out for one another, that takes precedence over every other selfish desire, and the whole community is lifted like a loaf that has some yeast snuck in it?

Perhaps when we throw true affection around like seeds things just start to grow in our lives, and we’re not sure how, but we start to harvest it and share it together?

Perhaps in a world where society will tell you perfection is wealth, and in a religious reality where establishment churches will tell you perfection is obedience, Jesus is suggesting that the Kingdom of God looks nothing like that, and it’s difficult to describe, but when you see it?

You know.

Anyway, that’s where I’d go if I were preaching this Sunday.

We Didn’t Start the Fire…

The genius of St. Billy of the Joel’s tongue-twisting classic “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is how he recounts 20th Century history in percussive prose punctuated by a catchy interlude at breakneck speed. In an instant we all wanted to memorize the lyrics and, though we all got tripped up at “Panmunjom” early on, the smart rhymes (he made “Bridge on the River Kwai” and “children of thalidomide” work!) made it all stick like Velcro on the brain.

We didn’t start the fire…but we could tell the story

Which, Beloved, is exactly what this Sunday’s Gospel reading is all about for those of us who are left behind these centuries later: we know the story.

We know the story, but we too often change it to suit our particular proclivities…which is what happens with stories. None are incorruptible. Like misheard lyrics to a favorite song, God’s story has been shaped and reshaped by people in ways that have been less than helpful.

It happens.

The way that stories move and shift over time are one of the ways they continue to live and breathe, for better or for worse. When it came to “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” I for a long time thought he said “Bacon, Reagan, Palestine…” instead of “Begin, Reagan, Palestine.” A line that was a recounting of geo-politics was, in my brain, a line about pork products and politics.

A little shift changes everything, right?

There are many responses to this propensity to have stories shift and move over time. Some would contend that the fact that a story is corruptible means it can’t be trusted at all…which is bogus on the face of it, Beloved. After all, even your own memories have shifted in your plastic brain over time. It doesn’t mean you can’t trust your memories, it simply means you have to be honest about the limitations there.

Another response is kind of like a huge universal shrug. Who knows what can be trusted, so why bother?

But there is another response which, I think, needs some focus, especially on this coming Sunday where we recount the birth of the church.

You see, yes the church has sometimes lost the lede when it comes to the Jesus story. That’s undeniable, OK? We’ve made fences where feedboxes should be. We’ve kicked sheep out of the fold because they didn’t fit the flock we had in mind. We’ve turned Jesus from a prophet into an idol in so many ways, it’s difficult sometimes to get back to that wandering Galilean when his alabaster-white likeness is stuck on pedestals around the world.

When the church is at its best, it is honest about its limitations…especially it’s propensity to shape something into its own preferred image.

But there is something that the church has historically said, and can get back to if it musters the courage: God is love. And if God is love, then Jesus is the love letter, and the flame-heads who appear in this week’s Acts reading, then, are those who are charged with reading and re-reading the love letter for a world pining to be in love with something that lasts.

And, see, if we can get back to that…well…that’s hopeful. A little shift changes everything, and sometimes for the better.

St. Billy’s chorus is an earworm:

We didn’t start the fire. It was always burning since the world’s been turning.
We didn’t start the fire. No we didn’t light it but we tried to fight it.

I mean, when it comes to the Pentecost event, we see there that we didn’t start the fire…we know this.

But instead of fighting the idea that God is love and the Christ is the love letter…which so much of the Christian church has done, by the way, as it holds hands with civic religion and “bathroom bills” and further marginalizes the margins…it needs to re-embrace the idea that God is in love with the margins.

Is in love with humanity.

Is in love with the world with such an intensity that the only appropriate symbol is, well, a raging fire that will stop at nothing to catch everything up in that love.