how to do nothing

There’s this story about Jesus healing a crippled woman in a synagogue on the sabbath. There were all kinds of rules, then, about what you could and could not do on the sabbath, and healing was very clearly against the rules. It wasn’t so much that it took too much out of the healer to heal one crippled woman, it was more that the synagogue staff really needed ONE DAY off from the crowds of sick and worn out people seeking healing and relief. Jesus is in a synagogue on the sabbath, receives a crippled woman seeking healing, lays his hands on her and says “woman, you are set free!” And the woman stands up straight and walks out of the synagogue healed.

The bosses of the synagogue are non-plussed: “Don’t get the wrong idea!” They shout to the crowds who saw Jesus heal the woman. “We don’t heal on the sabbath here! There are rules and regulations about all this! Take your crippled mothers and leprosy-ridden children home and come back during regular business hours!”

I studied this story with some of my favorite theologians -the Jr. High youth of Manassas Church of the Brethren circa 2013 – and their reading of the text is, to date, the most profound I’ve heard.

“Wait a minute,” the middle schoolers said. “The guys who got mad at Jesus, the bosses of the synagogue, wasn’t their job to make sure everybody followed the rules? That was sort of their work?” “Yes,” I said, wondering where they were going with this. “Well, then weren’t THOSE GUYS doing EXACTLY what they got mad at Jesus for doing? Weren’t THEY working on the sabbath?!”

Blam. Jr. High theology is the best theology.

In another story about a similar thing, Jesus heals someone else on another sabbath and, when the synagogue bosses get predictably angry at him for breaking the rules, he says “DUDE. YOU GUYS. The sabbath was made for PEOPLE – it’s for our own good, meant to be a means of grace. People weren’t created for the sole purpose of following the rules of sabbath. Don’t y’all know by now that I AM GOD? I can break the rules if I want to. And, uh, if I’m breaking the rules and I’m God, then you should probably pay attention to how and why and in what ways rule-breaking makes sense.”

I have spent the last month on sabbatical from my work as a pastor. I haven’t had any earth-shattering revelations about myself or the world. I just…rested. I prayed, I read, I hiked. I spent a lot of time doing nothing with my dog, and staring at flowers in the process of blooming. I saw friends I haven’t seen in years. I got to be Dana, instead of Pastor Dana.

I love being a pastor, and I love my congregation, so the distinction I felt this month between the two – Dana and Pastor Dana – sort of surprised me. It surprised and pleased me to recognize that I have managed to build a life that is still rich and full even without my work, which often feels all-consuming. It surprised and delighted me that in 31 days, I did not once feel bored or lonely. I felt curious and unencumbered, relaxed and attentive to the world.

I sat down yesterday to write a sermon for the first time in several weeks and the weight of my work settled once again on my shoulders. This job is a half-time commitment, 20-25 hours per week, but that doesn’t come close to capturing the mental and emotional responsibility of caring for the spiritual well-being of several dozen folks, or working alongside them to exist as a community of witness and faithfulness. I don’t know how to describe the work to people who have not done it. It is consuming. Pastors are in danger of allowing the work to consume them, body, mind and soul. I have been surprised and pleased this month to realize that I have actually been doing a decent job of avoiding that.

In his book “Living Buddha, Living Christ,” Thich Nhat Hanh says “When we are caught in notions, rituals, and the outer forms of the practice, not only can we not receive and embody the spirit of our tradition, we become an obstacle for the true values of the tradition to be transmitted. We lose sight of the true needs and actual suffering of people, and the teaching and practice, which were intended to relieve suffering, now cause suffering.”

That’s what Jesus meant when he told the angry bosses that the sabbath was made for people, not the other way around. Traditions, rules, habits, practices intended to relieve suffering end up causing it when we pledge our allegiance to institution and ritual instead of the spirit…instead of the Spirit.

My congregation paid me a month’s salary to step away from the outer forms of practice, to take a break from being their pastor and re-orient myself to the true value of our tradition, the real purpose of our work and witness. It’s a privilege, I know, but it shouldn’t be. Everyone deserves rest. Everyone deserves sabbath. It is a gift and a grace and – more than that – the rhythm of work and rest is written into God’s design for life.

If you haven’t rested for a while, why not? Maybe it’s because circumstances aren’t allowing you; but maybe it’s because you, like me, get caught in the outer forms of practice, the rules and regulations, the inhumane pace of modern life, the lie that your worth lies in your productivity. Here’s a dispatch from my small re-orientation, a tiny bit of advice from a mostly-rested body: take a vacation day. Use your comp time. Don’t answer email on your day off. Stop participating in the destructive falsehood that humans are not worthy of rest, that our value lies in what we DO or accomplish. It’s what I’m attempting.

pick a side

I did 30 days of yoga, started taking a multivitamin and slept a full 8 hours last night, so all these disparate pieces of processing the last couple years’ grief and anger are finally falling into place.

Today, I finally managed to recognize that I believe Jesus is asking us to choose sides. It’s not a conservative versus progressive kind of choosing, or a Republican versus Democrat kind of choosing, or a Duke versus UNC kind of choosing, but it is choosing sides nonetheless. Over and over again, the choice is set before us to choose to honor the dishonored, believe the maligned, center the marginalized – or not. The denominational structure I left is designed to forbid people within it from making this choice. The system asks every individual who functions within it to “represent the fabric of the whole church” and give equal weight to both poor and rich, abuser and abused. But that is the exact opposite of what Jesus asks of us.

I don’t think it is possible to “represent the whole fabric of the church” and follow Jesus’ commands. It’s not just difficult, it is actually impossible. Jesus says “blessed are the poor, the hungry, the reviled” AND “woe to the rich, the over-filled, the highly respected.” We get called to honor the ones who are without honor in the world, and reminded that in God’s realm, the last are first and the first are last. Over and over again, Jesus points out the person the rest of the crowd has ignored and makes them the center of attention. Over and over again, Jesus invites us to see the world from the perspective of the underside. Over and over again, Jesus calls us to go cast our lot with the hungry, the oppressed, and the outcast. Not just pity them or give them charity or tokenize them, but to go, listen, learn, honor, and follow the people the world hates. You can’t run a majority-rules, profit-motivated, representing-the-whole-fabric, everybody-gets-the-same-airtime kind of organization and follow those commands. Trying to do both at once is impossible, dangerous, and harmful.

The misguided attempt to follow Jesus and keep everybody happy leads you do things like remove a Black Lives Matter statement because a powerful white man asked you to do it. It puts you in the position of being required to defend an abuser instead of protecting the people he harmed. It leads you to asking brilliant, compassionate queer people who insist on their sacred worth to sit side by side on a stage with people who have insulted, threatened, and demeaned them, as if each position were equally valid. It asks you to require your leaders of color to pretend that the vile, racist trash they receive in their inboxes and voicemail is legitimate discourse and respond to it as such. 

You can’t follow Jesus like this. It’s not just that trying to hold space for every perspective or finding a “middle way” is a difficult position to be in, a complicated role that we should respect for its challenge. It is actually antithetical to the radical call of Jesus. And, in my experience, it kills you. Sometimes slowly, sometimes all at once. But death is sure and certain. That’s why I left, and it’s why I’m writing about it: I don’t want to die. I want to choose the other side.

the risk of birth

Here’s a Madeleine L’Engle poem that I always think of during Christmastime:

Sometimes I suspect that our insistence on the use of the word “unprecedented” and our slack-jawed confusion at the state of things is grounded in a sense of historical and situational hubris. Things feel awful and chaotic right now. If you are a practiced doomscroller, like me, the benefits of knowing what’s going on around the world can be quickly outweighed by our collective alarmist pessimism. In general, modern-day American humans are fairly ahistorical. We don’t understand ourselves as situated within a very long, cosmic sweep of time. This year feels different than last year, and the last five years feel like they’re trending in a worsening line, and it is very easy to get very fatalistic very quick.

And, to be honest, the reality of climate change and the destruction of the planet ARE irreversible, doggedly slouching toward assured self-destruction if we humans don’t take swift and decisive action to change our ways.

But other things, like plagues and tyranny, are, in the grand scope of human existence, just part of human existence. Yes, American democracy is a farce, but democracy in America has always been a farce. Yes, we are still in the midst of an on-going global pandemic that is killing millions, but this has happened many times before in the course of human history. Yes, our society is crushing the poorest and most vulnerable among us in favor of lining the pockets of the already obscenely rich, but isn’t it sort of utopian to imagine that human society would ever trend any other way?

I’m not saying that utopia is impossible – every bit of scripture I read and everything I know about following Jesus is command and invitation and encouragement to live against this grain of human tendency toward violence and oppression. I’m all in on following Jesus into another way of being human together. It is the raw material of my entire theological framework.

But somewhere along the line, we started assuming that all of that would be…easy. Or given. Or unchallenged. Somewhere along the line – at least in my privileged, middle-class, white, southern, american christian formation – the status quo became acceptable, and we started assuming that things would, for the most part, work out. We got the idea that we wouldn’t have to suffer or grieve or be cast out or challenged or faced with impossible, life-altering decisions.

Which was, to be fair, our own dang fault. Jesus never says that living another way or practicing mercy or pursuing peace or being people of grace and justice will be easy. In fact, he says things like “this will tear families apart.” He tells people to give up burying their dead parents in order to follow him. He predicts weeping and gnashing of teeth, wars and rumors of war, earthquakes and famines that are “only the beginning of the suffering.”

Some of us know this better than others. Those of us who have been on the underside of empire, who have lived intimately with the suffering inflicted by unjust and callous systems of the world understand that the status quo is usually pretty awful. That has always been true, and it is still true, today.

All of this was true on the night that Jesus was born – his parents had just been forced by the government to undertake an expensive, dangerous journey in order for their Adjusted Gross Income to be accurate in the IRS accounting system. Plagues and famine were stories woven into Mary and Joseph’s religious upbringing. As soon as Jesus was born, a jealous king would kill all the baby boys in town in a cruel attempt to keep a hold on his immense political power, and Jesus’ own family would be forced to flee their home as refugees.

Sure, yes, this time is awful. Lament is real and necessary and a spiritual practice gifted to us by God. We SHOULD notice and name and cry out about all the ways that life sucks. And, we might also remind ourselves that none of this is actually “unprecedented.” All of this HAS happened before. Pandemics HAVE raged and killed percentages of the human population. Governments HAVE abused their people and their power. Families HAVE been torn apart because some want to follow Jesus and others are hell-bent on serving only themselves.

That’s the whole point, actually. It’s why Jesus came, in the first place. Not to institute some sort of exit plan and gift those of us who are fed up with the state of things a parachute and a push out of this standard reality, but to remind us and invited us and reassure us that IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY. That there is ANOTHER WAY OF LIVING. That God did not create us to live selfishly unto ourselves, but that we are created as people who belong to one another, called to love one another, practice mercy, and work together so that everyone might experience it.

Jesus wasn’t born in a palace, and he didn’t run for office. His preaching didn’t show up in the headlines or on CNN, and both the religious authorities and political powers hated his presence so much that they colluded to have him assassinated. Christmas isn’t meant to be pablum, insipid insistence that “all is calm” or “everything will be fine.” Christmas is God tearing open the heavens and coming down to earth – in the midst of all of it, all the violence, all the death, all the grief, all the suffering, all the joy, all the delight, all the love, all the mercy – to show us that another way is possible.

So, if you’re feeling less than festive right now, you are in good company. This is no time for a child to be born, right? But here, in the midst of omicron raging and gun sales skyrocketing and democracy crumbling; now, in the midst of hurricanes swirling and drought extending and industry emitting on; right here and right now, love still takes the risk of birth. We are always invited in, to take the risks ourselves.

if we make it through december

For most of my life, the Christmas season has been very busy and very regimented. Our family’s Christmas schedule was as follows:

December 23: Attend my Aunt Susan’s Christmas party, which included similar menu and guest list for 40 years. Eat sausage balls.

December 24, day: If we’re industrious, a trip to the market which everyone always told me was my great grandma, Granny Etta’s regular Christmas Eve tradition. Christmas celebrations with my mom’s side of the family, started as a tradition when my Papaw worked as an air traffic controller on Christmas Day. Probably eat red velvet cake.

December 24, evening: Hop over to our friend Sue’s house for creme de menthe brownies and laughter before church.

December 24, 11pm: Christmas Eve service at church. Leave after candle-lit Silent Night in silence. Watch for reindeer on the ride home.

December 25, pre-dawn: Wake my little sister up far too early. Eat cinnamon rolls with mom & dad; open stockings. If it was an odd year (like, as opposed to an even one – they split their time between our house and our cousins’), welcome the grandparents and JoJo’s oyster stew for breakfast. Wait for the call from my cousin Ashley to ask why we were being so slow and when we’d get our butts over to my grandparents’ house.

December 25, daytime: Gather at JoJo and Bobby’s house for presents, party mix, ham, jello salad, coconut cake and custard, the occasional dance party. Return home and collapse.

I know there were adjustments to this schedule that I don’t remember. My parents tell me that when we were really little, we managed to squeeze in visits to several other houses on Christmas Day itself. There was a lot of obligation and a lot of celebration and a lot of tradition. It did not change for decades. When I became a pastor, I started missing all the stuff before Christmas Day (#pastorlife). My sister and brother-in-law started hosting Christmas at their house earlier in the month so we could all be together (#jointcustodylife). And as my grandparents aged, a lot of work went into adjusting the schedule around accessibility and their needs. Two years ago, we visited Bobby in the nursing home instead of sitting in his living room for hours waiting for him to finish opening his mountain of presents. Last year, we didn’t do much of anything (#pandemiclife).

This year, I am feeling the loss of all of that in new ways. Like, I have known for years that the intensity of that high-intensity holiday agenda was not my cup of tea. I have known for a while that things weren’t going to stay the same forever. But somehow, this year, with Bobby’s death in January of 2020 and both JoJo and Mammaw dying in 2021, and the ongoing global pandemic messing with every attempt we make to gather, it’s all hitting especially hard. I don’t like change.

Covid is also messing with my work life, causing our joint Christmas Eve service plans to be adjusted and making me anxious – again – about bringing stray infections back home. I’m sad, and anxious, and grumpy and stressed. I hate feeling like this, because I am usually an even-keeled, calm kind of person. I like being an even-keeled and calm kind of person. I detest being out of sorts, impulsive, needy and thoughtless. But right now, I am all those things. (If Enneagram jargon means anything to you, I am an Enneagram 5 who is currently existing as a nasty 7 stressball, and the experience of that wild swing is almost more upsetting than the cause.) I talked to my sister yesterday and after listening to me rant wildly for a while, she said, “Uh, maybe you need a drink. And also some herbal gummies.”

I know that this is a temporary state, that Christmas will come and go, that the intensity of Omicron Covid will wax and wane, that my wild Enneagram 7 energy will dissipate. I know that grief will reconfigure itself into something a little easier to live with, that Jesus will get born whether or not we eat sausage balls or coconut cake or sing Silent Night or take communion or not.

But my grandparents won’t ever come back to life. Christmas gatherings won’t ever be the same. I’ll never hear my Mammaw cackle with delight over some silly gift. I’ll never see JoJo’s expression of satisfaction when people open gifts she’s bought them. Bobby won’t ever ask me if I got up before breakfast again. And I hate that so much.

Just here to say that I am not well this Christmas season. I am healthy and safe and well-loved and warm and FINE. But I am not well.

And it’s okay if you are not well, either.

anger fronting for grief

The local United Methodist conference sent out a COVID-19 update to all their pastors yesterday, and so our partner congregation where we’re sharing Christmas Eve service is evaluating needed precautions. The rector of a large Episcopal church down the road (who is one of my favorite Twitter follows) shared that he’d been in a meeting of clergy and public health experts just before sharing his church’s announcement that all their Christmas Eve services have been cancelled save the outdoor carol singing.

Omicron is incredibly contagious (like, experts are making measles comparisons), and the situation is changing by the hour. If you made your decision about Christmas Eve with last week’s data, or even yesterday’s, then your data is outdated and you should probably re-evaluate. Especially if you’re part of a congregation where there are many unvaccinated folks, or where you’re no longer wearing masks in worship, the risks are much higher than we thought a week ago. From all accounts, it looks like the next few weeks are going to be rough. For the love of God, can Christian worshippers at least TRY not to exacerbate that harm?

I am angry this morning, which I know is a front for deep grief. I’m angry at the virus, which is just living its life, totally unaware that we humans are grasping at straws in its wake. I’m angry at the US government, unable to provide care or advice in ways that keep people safe. I’m angry at my larger church bodies because, unlike my Methodist and Episcopal colleagues, I have received ZERO guidance on how to navigate gathering for Christian worship in a pandemic. Yes, there have been some helpful one-off webinars. Yes, I am blessed to have plenty of ecumenical relationships that clue me in to what other churches are doing and advising. I know that other districts in my own denomination have even created very helpful, data-based guidance on when to pause in-person worship. But here? We’ve been on our own.

My congregation is fantastic. We have navigated every one of these decisions with grace and patience. I have not received one single complaint about how worship has happened this entire time, and even when we disagreed about the best course of action, we have done so in ways that helped move the decision along. I honestly cannot convey the depth of my love for this community. And I know that this is not the experience other clergy have had.

But there has been zero guidance from outside our tiny congregation about what to do in the midst of a global pandemic that is killing millions and spreading in exactly the kind of setting that Christians use to worship week in and week out. There are plenty of legitimate reasons for that: our larger church is not equipped with staff to keep their finger on the pulse of every change. Our district is fairly divided on questions like “is COVID-19 real?” and “are masks symbols of government control?” I get that saying anything definitive in this context is dangerous. I’m not really angry at particular people, whose jobs I KNOW to be impossible; I’m angry that we keep perpetuating a system that makes those jobs impossible in the first place.

I’m angry this morning because I am grieving. And one of the losses I’m grieving is the loss of trust in a church institution. I woke up this morning feeling compelled to post a Facebook status that encouraged my fellow clergy and church leaders to re-evaluate the safety of their Christmas Eve worship plans. And then I got incredibly angry because I feel a *responsibility* to my colleagues to do that, since no one else is going to do it.

It might very well be true that I should just shut my mouth and mind my business and take care of my tiny congregation and leave everyone else to make their own decisions. Except that’s not how I was raised, it’s not how I was taught, and it’s not what Jesus asks of us. We belong to one another. So I will go write a dumb little Facebook post that might lead one more congregation to re-think their plans and keep a few people from getting sick. And I will be angry while I do it, all the while knowing that this immense anger is what’s holding my grieving spirit together.

best books

I read a LOT of books this year. My running total is at 105 as of this morning, and I expect to read 3-4 more books before the year ends. I read more than usual this year, in part because reading is a coping mechanism and in part because I leaned in hard to romance novels and mysteries, which are almost all quick reads. None of those romances or mysteries made this Best Of 2021 list, but they might rate a post of their own because I probably owe a chunk of my 2021 well-being to the way those genres unfailingly resolve any tension introduced and can be consistently relied on to end on a high note. If you can’t find resolution in real life, fiction is a pretty good substitute.

Which is part of why I’m surprised, looking at this list, to find that so much non-fiction made the cut. Let’s start there.

Wild Mercy: Living the Fierce and Tender Wisdom of the Women Mystics, by Mirabai Starr

I picked this book up because a speaker at an online conference used one of the contemplative practices that are embedded in the book during her keynote address. This is a cross between a textbook and a workbook. I learned about mystics I’d never heard of and was invited to put down the book and enter into modes of prayer that I hadn’t tried. I’m going on sabbatical in March, and several of the mystics I was introduced to in this book are going to be my friends during that time.

How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America, by Clint Smith

This book deserves all the accolades and recommendations it’s gotten. Smith builds the book around pilgrimages to various sites of historical interpretation. He visits Monticello, the Whitney Plantation, New Orleans, New York City and several other places where people are interpreting America’s history of slavery, racism and white supremacy. It’s history and social commentary in the shape of a travelogue and Smith – who is a poet – is the perfect tour guide. In fact, I heard him speak a couple of months ago and he said that he was so inspired by the *actual* tour guides he met at these places, by their patience and hospitality and grace, that he wanted to model his writing after their work. I grew up visiting plantations on school field trips and battlefields on family vacations, and only this summer participated in a state-sanctioned tour (at Historic Stagville – if you’re local and haven’t taken a tour there, DO IT.) that was explicit about telling stories of the enslaved people’s resistance in that place. This is the book to read and share with your relatives who are scared about Critical Race Theory, because it is so deftly written and powerfully crafted and manages to be simultaneously strikingly upsetting and gently invitational.

See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love, by Valarie Kaur

Oh, this book is GOOD. Like, the kind of good that led me to ration my reading so I wouldn’t finish it too soon and could extend my morning porch reading of it by another couple of days. I learned after I finished it that some friends were reading it as an assigned text in a seminary Theopoetics course, which makes complete sense because it is both theology and poetry. Kaur writes in a way that weaves stories from her personal life into her spiritual commitments so seamlessly that I was left with my mouth hanging open. I don’t teach seminary courses, but if I did, I would probably pair this book with a chapter from James McClendon’s “Biography as Theology” and leave students to draw their own conclusions. You might know Valarie Kaur’s name because she partners with Rev. William Barber in his public theological work, and her sermon about the darkness of the womb (which I heard in one of Dr. Barber’s Watch Night services a few years ago) went a bit viral. Her book is even better than that clip.

The Book of Delights, by Ross Gay

Gay is a poet (another one…maybe my 2022 reading list should include more poetry!), and this book is a master class in the practice of paying attention. He chronicles daily delights, from one birthday to the next. Some of the delights are what you might expect (love, laughter, etc.), but most of them are tiny moments. Gay trained himself to notice those moments when he felt delight, and then he wrote them down, day after day. For someone who used to keep a blog called “I Like Today Because Of…” and, then, alternately “The Daily Discipline,” this book was perfect. Put it in your daily devotional reading rotation.

And, then, there was some very good fiction, too.

Matrix, by Lauren Groff

This is not THE Matrix, despite how often I want to add the article to the title. It’s a novel about nuns, but it is also a novel about power. I read Mary Sharratt’s “Illuminations” earlier in the year, which is a novel based on the life of Hildegaard von Bingen. Hildegaard was a mystic and a Benedictine abbess and that book is very, very good. But reading it so close to reading this one colored my expectations for what “novel about nuns” should be, and it took me a while to settle in and figure out what Groff was doing in this one. Once I did, though, I was mesmerized. If you are someone who thinks about or lives in the places where religion, gender and power often intersect, then this book is for you. I am still figuring out what I think about Marie, the main character who is hell-bent on bringing her vision to reality and protecting her flock along the way.

The Night Watchman, by Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich is just a master. Go pick up anything she’s ever written and your existence will be improved by it. This book is loosely based on the life of Erdrich’s own grandfather who worked as a night watchman and also helped lead the fight against a very real, very horrible campaign against Native American dispossession in the 1950s. I heard another author say that this was one of her favorite books of the year because of the sheer, startling number of full, textured characters that Erdrich managed to include in one book. One of my favorite kinds of fiction is fiction where I learn something important about the world while being completely absorbed in the narrative, and Erdrich manages to do that on levels I can hardly appreciate.

Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague, by Maggie O’Farrell

If you’re not up for reading about pandemics in your fiction, go ahead and skip this one. But if you can handle some plague background to a fantastic story, this book is for you. The story is about Shakespeare and his wife and the loss of their real-life son, Hamnet. I resisted this book for a while because that plot summary sounds SO DRY AND BORING AND ALSO WHO CARES ABOUT SHAKESPEARE’S DEAD SON? But I was very, very wrong. Plus, this is a story from a time of plague that we KNOW eventually ended. And we KNOW that even though Shakespeare’s life included immense tragedy and complication, his life and work continues to have enduring meaning for humanity. And there’s something soothing about all of that, in the same way that reading romances and mysteries for the guaranteed resolution soothes some unmet need for certainty in these unprecedentedly uncertain times. And also, Maggie O’Farrell can write the lights out.

carols

Advent is dragging on and Christmas is near and I am scraping the bottom of the barrel for these morning words. I have seeds of ideas for things I want to write about, but I am tired. So here’s a little music instead of words for today: my tried and true Christmas music playlist that, as years go by, has morphed into mostly a sampling of various versions of Go Tell It On the Mountain. I’d love to hear what your favorite Christmas songs are, too. (If this widget isn’t working, here’s the playlist link)

give me jesus

Yesterday, someone from my hometown plastered one of my Facebook posts (in which I encouraged people to get a vaccine, a booster, and wear masks in public) with anti-vaxxer conspiracy theory screenshots. This person has long-ago unfriended me over there, and I don’t know what motivated them to choose this day to re-engage. I was curious about what they were up to, so I clicked over to their profile. I found lots of anti-vax propaganda, support for Kyle Rittenhouse, mocking of feminists, liberals and trans people, and intense right-wing political involvement. It was *disturbing.* And every bit of it was cloaked in Christian language.

I deleted those comments immediately, so it’s no use clicking over to try to find out who I’m talking about, but if you know them, then you already know them. And, besides, I’m pretty sure all of us have someone like that in our lives right now – someone we thought we knew pretty well, someone who we assumed was on the same wavelength as we were, people who were raised in similar ways with similar values who are, seemingly all of a sudden, going off the deep end.

And look, these are apocalyptic times. Everyone is reeling and grasping for something that feels steadying. Human brains hate uncertainty and novelty and will do everything in their power to make it stop. Plus, if you, like me, are a white person in America, some of this apocalypse has to do with knocking us off our age-old thrones and might be especially upsetting. The instinct to stock up on guns, rant and rave against government mandates and entrench ourselves in the familiar racial hierarchies that have kept white people on “top” all these years is both appalling and also kind of understandable. The ground is shifting. How will we respond?

A bunch of the propaganda on that person’s facebook page had to do with sheep who trust the mainstream media and the over-reaching government to keep them safe. I definitely do not trust the media or politicians to be invested in anything other than their profit margins or re-election chances. But I DO trust Jesus.

I know that sounds pretty pious and self-righteous, but a) I am, after all, a pastor and b) where else are you going to go when things fall apart? Jesus has gotten generations of people through millennia of apocalypses. And Jesus is pretty damn explicit about what we are to do when things get rough: love your neighbor and your enemy. Put down your weapons. Align yourself with the most vulnerable among you. Jesus is explicitly against living a life governed by individual self-protection or net worth. He is against wealth, and violence of all kinds. None of that is void when the world gets hard to live in. In fact, it becomes all the more important.

Jesus is not in favor of children carrying assault weapons in the street. He does not instruct us to fight for individual freedoms over collective well-being. Given that he wasn’t white, he’s definitely not a fan of white supremacy and the many evil systems it has spawned. Many who are first will be last, he says, so figure out where the end of the line is, go hang out there and live a life that honors, respects, values and loves the ones who always seem to end up on the underside of power.

What I’m saying, in this rambling train of thought, is that pasting Jesus’ face on your abhorrent political and racist behaviors is disgusting. It’s inevitable – people have co-opted truth for power in every age – and it is also evil.

I don’t know the answers to figuring out how to talk to your right-wing relatives at Christmas dinner, and this particular person has voluntarily removed themselves from my life, anyway. But I do know that in the apocalypse, in the ground shifting under my feet, in the chaos of reeling and grasping and violence and death, I’m sticking with Jesus.

(If this kind of Jesus isn’t the one you’re familiar with or the one you see named in your right-wing facebook friends’ feed, maybe check out Matthew chapters 5-7. That’s Jesus in a nutshell.)

sermon leftovers

My sermon this week had too much material. And my congregation needed another thread of the passage more than they needed this one. Did you know that preaching is actually much more personal than straight Biblical exegesis? If you’re hearing good sermons, it is because your preacher is paying an equal amount of attention to YOU and your community as they are to the text. That’s how preaching works. And my congregation didn’t need a sermon about beheading this Sunday morning, but SOMEBODY sure does. So, here: I saved you a plate of sermon leftovers.

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I love the North Carolina Museum of Art. It is right down the road from my house, it is filled with beauty, and admission is free. I always visit the Rodin sculptures and the mummy’s coffin and this weird piece that I intentionally visit and then intentionally forget because it activates some mild form of trypophobia that I didn’t know I had until I encountered this painting hanging on a museum wall. And, if it’s on display, I always visit Kehinde Wiley’s “Judith and Holofernes.”

Well, “visit” is sort of an unnecessary verb, because this painting is TEN FEET TALL and you can’t avoid it if you’re in the museum and it is on display. It is incredible:

The story of Judith is from the Bible. Well, kind of. The book of Judith is deutero-canonical, and you won’t find it in Protestant-published Bibles but if you have a Catholic version, you can read for yourself.

Judith is a fierce widow who is angry that her fellow Israelites do not trust God enough to mount resistance against Holofernes, the Assyrian leader who is in charge of King Nebuchadnezzar’s campaign of world domination and is oppressing and killing the Israelites. Frustrated with their inaction, Judith takes matters into her own hands and travels with her maid to Holofernes’ military camp. She uses her charm and wiles to ingratiate herself to him and eventually scores an invite into his tent. When she arrives, she finds Holofernes drunk and out of it and takes the opportunity to chop off his head, killing the enemy leader and leaving the Assyrians in chaos, saving Israel. Judith carries Holofernes’ head back to Israel, and shows everyone what she has done. In their joy and relief, King Uzziah exclaims that she is “blessed among women.”

That “blessed among women” line is how the topic of beheading merits a place in the plot line of the Christmas story. There are two other women in scripture who get called “blessed among women.” Jael, whose story is parallel to Judith’s (read about her in Judges 4 & 5), also brutally kills an enemy leader (tent peg through the skull, y’all, which is, technically, one approved behavior for someone practicing “biblical womanhood.”).

And the other woman in scripture who is called “blessed among women” is – well, have you guessed, yet? Yep, it’s Mary, Mother of God. When Mary runs to her cousin Elizabeth’s home to find refuge while she grows the Son of God in her womb, Elizabeth sees her, feels her own baby rejoice in utero, and exclaims: “Blessed are you among women!”

Luke doesn’t choose his characters’ dialogue willy-nilly. He knew exactly what that title meant, exactly where it had shown up in scripture before, and exactly what readers would hear when Elizabeth proclaimed Mary to be among the ranks of those who are blessed among women. Mary herself is about to sing an exquisite praise hymn that riffs on ancient scripture and forwards themes of liberation and salvation from generations of her ancestors – she knew exactly what “blessed among women” meant, too.

Imagine reading that Mary is, like Judith and Jael, “blessed among women” and then writing a hymn lyric that calls her “meek and mild.” Imagine reading that Mary is only the third woman in generations worth of story and salvation to receive this title, knowing that the other two are warriors who heard the pain of their communities and killed the oppressors, imagine hearing Mary’s song that *literally* says that she’s aware she is about to join in the movement of God tossing powerful off their thrones and sending the fat, rich oppressors away…imagine knowing all that and then deciding that Mary is a sweet girl, important but ignorable, a minor character in this story.

Mary is explicitly compared to Jael, who killed the enemy by tricking him and impaling a tent peg through his skull. Elizabeth tells Mary that what she’s doing is akin to Judith beheading the oppressor of her people and bringing his head home on a stick. Mary is fierce. Mary is someone to be reckoned with. Mary is a warrior. She is like unto Kehinde Wiley’s image of Black Judith in a Givenchy gown dragging the head of her white woman captor back home to declare that all oppression will cease.

It is worth wondering about how birthing a baby is like beheading an enemy. It is worth wondering how Elizabeth finds ferocity in this nurturing of life instead of ending it. It is surely a point for us to ponder that Luke insists that “blessed among women” can include brutal murder AND tender care. And it is worth putting that question up against the words of Mary’s soon-to-be-born son, who commands that those of us who follow him love our enemies, do good to those that hate us, pray for those who curse us, do unto others (even the ones who hate and persecute and kill us) as we would want them to do unto us.

Still, the point remains. Wiley may as well have painted Mary up there in those ten feet of ferocious, warrior energy. That’s who Mary is, and who Mary was called to be and who Mary agreed to become when she said yes to God. Anybody calling her “meek” or “mild” hasn’t got a lick of sense.

happy birthday, dad!

It’s my dad’s birthday!

My dad is tall, goofy, dependable, funny, curious, and always up for an adventure. He’s not great at sitting still, but he’s always got a plan for what to do next. When I failed to launch my initial college career and landed back in his house, he made a couple calls and got me into a school close to home for freshman year. When I finally moved out, he spent the next ten years sending me a handwritten postcard EVERY WEEK. He’s super hard to buy gifts for, because while he loves golf and Virginia Tech football and he travels all the time and he’s become something of a foodie in his retirement and is always interested in what to read next, his main interest is PEOPLE.

Which, to be fair, he gets pretty honestly. Dad told me recently, when he retired, that he did not miss work much at all, but he did really miss the people. He’s a numbers guy, but by the time he retired he was also the Guy In Charge, and I think some of his most rewarding successes were less to do with accounting and far more to do with winning the trust and forging authentic relationships with the people he worked with – the ones who were in charge of him, and the ones he ended up in charge of himself. “You know, B,” he said, “people just want to be seen and respected.”

So, if you see Rob today – in the real world or online – wish him a good one. It’s been a rough year, a rough couple of years, and he could maybe use an extra dose of love and joy. I’m so glad he was born, and I’m so glad he’s my dad.