collective inability to care

Next week is Holy Week. Yesterday was the 5th Sunday of Lent. Someone on Twitter said that this has been the fastest Lent, ever, but a friend said their therapist said it’s actually the 57th week of Lent – over a year of penitence and fasting.

I wrote last year about missing Love Feast at the beginning of the pandemic and being unable to participate in virtual substitutes. There are more substitutions available this year, from people I know and respect. But I’m still unable to participate. It hurts too much.

2 years ago

Actually, it feels worse, now. I’m fairly confident that my tiny congregation will figure out a way to wash one another’s feet in October. The pandemic is starting to recede. In another month, I’ll be fully vaccinated. I know that there is hope on the horizon.

But this year has been an apocalypse. So much has been revealed for what it truly is. Our collective lack of care for one another has been front and center – in the country and in the church. Why do we wash feet? Not because it’s a cool ritual to host twice each year that creates some inside baseball language and confuses outsiders. We don’t wash feet for the sake of washing feet; we wash feet in order to learn, again and again, to live as people who understand our role in the world as sharing and receiving love.

I have been so deeply disappointed in the amount of energy that churches have dropped into technology and equipment when it is compared to the amount of energy we’ve spent making sure our neighbors are well and cared for. For a year, my inboxes have been filled with webinars about streaming platforms and online funerals. For a year, the church has watched millions of people get sick and die, millions of people fall into poverty, millions of people struggle to find housing or food and, instead of gathering our resources to join in with those who are working their tails off to create alternatives and serve with grace and mercy, we have spent our time and money on BETTER WEBCAMS.

Of course this is not a zero sum game. There are ways to innovate with worship practices AND be deeply engaged in loving our neighbors. But the number of stupid articles I’ve read about How To Livestream Your Worship Service far outnumbers the stories I’ve heard of congregations who decided to give more, serve more, get more deeply involved in local outreach or politics or community organizing.

And it has been an entire year, and we are going to miss another Love Feast because of our collective inability to care for one another (which is the irony of all ironies), and I am just flat out of patience for prioritizing institution & industry over living, breathing, suffering human beings.

Enough, already. Enough.

what kind of death?

Sermon 3/21/2021

John 12:20-33

Earlier this year, our congregation hosted a series called “The Art of Dying.” The name came from Brother Aaron’s history knowledge: in Latin, it’s “ars moriendi” a 15th century Christian text that taught faithful people how to “die well.” The text was composed in the wake of the Black Plague, a pandemic that killed somewhere between 75 and 200 million people.

In the shadow of so much death, people were seeking ways to die well. The book was published in two versions – the shorter one composed of just 11 woodcut images that people could easily understand and memorize. What did it mean to “die well” in the 15th century? In the short version, it meant resisting five big temptations: lack of faith, despair, impatience, spiritual pride and avarice.

We don’t talk a lot about what it means to die a “good” death, these days, though that series we hosted over the winter was a great opportunity to consider some usually taboo topics. Our culture doesn’t like to talk about death at all, really. But, like in the 15th century, the last year’s plague has forced us to confront some of those questions. We have done some thinking, together, about what it might mean to die well.

What does it mean to die a good death? We spend so much time trying to avoid death altogether that we miss out on the opportunities to understand that there might be different kinds of death, different ways of dying, different meanings behind different endings.

//

In our text this morning, Jesus is talking about death. In John’s gospel, Jesus is kind of obsessed with “the hour.” He puts people off again and again when they try to compel him to reveal his divinity or tell more of the story saying that his “hour had not yet come.” But here, in chapter 12, Jesus is clear: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”

And he follows that up with a strange little parable: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

Jesus is telling his disciples that he is going to die. But he is also telling them something important about the KIND of death he will die: this will not be a worthless death; it will bear much fruit.

That doesn’t mean that Jesus is perfectly serene, facing his own earthly end. He says, immediately, “my soul is troubled, but I am determined to allow God’s name to be glorified.” And here, at this confession, a voice speaks from the heavens – just like at Jesus’ baptism, just like at Jesus’ transfiguration – and says “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” Some of the people standing there heard the voice, others heard what sounded like thunder.

Jesus sees their shocked faces, and says “the voice is for your sake, not mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

And John lets us know: “He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.”

The kind of death he was to die. Jesus spent a lot of time trying to explain to his disciples that he was GOING to die, but this line from John tells us that he also wanted them – and us – to understand the KIND of death he would die.

We don’t often think about different KINDS of deaths, do we? Even the idea of a “good death” or the “art” of dying is sort of hard to get our 21st century heads around. Our culture spends more time avoiding death altogether than it does sifting through the different kinds of deaths – good, bad, tragic, pointless, fruitful…

Can a death be…fruitful? Jesus seems to be saying that his own death will be this kind of dying. And, more than that, he also seems to be inviting us to consider signing up for it: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor,” he says.

Rev. Denise Anderson, in her commentary on this passage, reminds us that “change, even when welcomed, means death.” She tells a story about having the “unenviable task” of pastoring a congregation that was on the way toward being dissolved – the end of its life together. “We realized,” Anderson says, “that change would either happen with us or tow us. We could die to some things so that we could live to others, or we could hold onto what is and die with it. Only one of these is a faithful way forward.”

Our theme for this Sunday is “again and again, we are being reformed.” Jesus is trying to explain to his disciples that he is about to lose his life – and that this is both inevitable and FRUITFUL. And he is also inviting his disciples, then and now, to understand that dying to some things is the only way to live.

I do not think that Jesus is asking us, here and now, to become actual flesh and blood martyrs – although following Jesus is costly, and we have no real way of knowing where faithful discipleship will take us. I do not think that Jesus is asking us to hate ourselves. But I DO think that Jesus is telling us that unless we surrender all of our selves to God’s transforming love, we will not find the truth of abundant, eternal life.

There’s this weird part of Jesus’ comments in this passage, where he says “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” Jesus is not talking just about Pilate or the Roman Empire when he talks about “rulers of this world,” and his words are not only referring to Donald Trump or other selfish world leaders who drag us into war and poverty.

The word “world” in this verse is “kosmos” in Greek, and it doesn’t mean the whole natural world that God created; it means the human hierarchies and structures that we impose on God’s creation. Some scholars say we might translate it as “the System.” Jesus says, as he invites all of us to learn how to die to some things in order to become fruitful followers: “Now is the judgment of this System; now the ruler of this System will be driven out.”**

The System imposes a structure of dominance, violence and death onto God’s good creation – it happened then, and it happens now. The System is not some conspiracy theory, hidden away in basements and back rooms; it is the powerful structures of society that govern how we live, act, and interact. In 2021 America, the System is better known as White Supremacy.

White Supremacy isn’t just an evil philosophy that attracts skinheads and neo-nazis, it is the operating principle behind nearly every one of our government agencies, societal institutions and habitual social customs. It isn’t just a few evil people pulling strings; it is an essential piece of the DNA of the American history, narrative and identity. Our nation was built on white supremacist assumptions: that all men are created equal (unless you are not white or don’t own property); that declares life liberty and happiness as the rights of man (unless you were a “merciless Indian savage,” as the Declaration of Independence names Native Americans. It has been present through slave labor, Japanese internment camps and police brutality, and it has been present through “voluntary” segregation, unjust hiring practices and centuries of economic inequality. The System is what some of us began to see as police murders of unarmed Black people began to fill the headlines over the last several years. The System of white supremacy is what motivated a young white Baptist man to kill eight people this week in Georgia spas, six of them of Korean and Chinese descent.

White supremacy is The System that governs us and that lives in us. It is what Jesus came to judge and drive out. And it is what Jesus asks us to die to.

I struggled for several days to say this in a way that made sense, and of course Rev. Dr. Barber said it so much better at a rally in Georgia yesterday:

Jesus told his disciples about The System, John tells us, because he wanted them – and us – to understand what kind of death he was going to die. Jesus consistently refused to participate in the System of his day – over and over again, he refused to retaliate with violence. Over and over again, he refused to inhabit roles of abusive power. Again and again, Jesus refused to participate in the System’s insistence on domination, violence and death.

And again and again, Jesus sets us free to die to the system, ourselves.

Our congregation has been working at exposing the System in our world and in our own hearts. We have been learning ways to recognize the System at work when we see it – and this is no small feat. For those of us who are white, the System of white supremacy is so deeply rooted that it often FEELS like dying when Jesus judges and drives it out of us. I know you know what I mean: that moment of defensiveness when someone confronts your prejudice, that feeling of shame or guilt when God convicts you about your own contributions to oppression. It does not feel good. It hurts. We want it to stop.

And there’s really good reason for this: it hurts because it is a death. Death of the System that is rooted inside of us. Death of pieces of ourselves that we were pretty dang attached to. Death of certainty. Death of being centered. Death of being right. Death of understanding the world around us.

This is what Jesus asks of us: to die to the System so that we can be set free to live for love. To move beyond our wants, beyond our fears, beyond the safety of the System into the truth of the gospel: that Jesus will draw all people to himself.

It is tempting to keep the System hidden, to make excuses, to distance ourselves from it in order to keep living these blissfully oblivious lives that we love. But Jesus is inviting us to come and see what is real and true, to peek behind the curtain and see for ourselves what is really happening. Jesus invites us to recognize the ugliness of the System’s ways and learn to hate them, so that we might learn how to live with love eternal.

Thanks be to God for those invitations, even when they hurt, even when they demand that we lose parts of ourselves. Thanks be to God, the one who knows us fully and wholly, in whose wisdom we can trust to cast out what needs to be cast out and hold fast what needs to be held fast. Thanks be to God for the example of Christ Jesus, dying in order to live, a grain of wheat falling to the ground in order to bear so much fruit. Amen.

**with gratitude to Charles L. Campbell’s commentary in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2

bibliophile

I am a bibliophile. I’m always reading, always reading about reading, always thinking about what to read next. Reading is education, escape, comfort and challenge. I can’t really remember not reading – even before I could do it on my own, all the adults in my life read to me.

Right now, I’m about to finish Lisa See’s novel “The Island of Sea Women,” about women haenyeo sea divers on a remote Korean island called JeJu during the Korean War. Lisa See’s writing style is not my favorite, but her books tell me stories that I have never encountered, stories about real history and imagined people from across the world. I can’t get enough of them. I read The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane a couple years ago and images from that novel live, still, in my imagination.

The main character of The Island of Sea Women is a sea diver named Young-sook. The book follows her through the span of her long, full, rich, exhausting, tragic, triumphant life. On Jeju, haenyeo divers are known to be strong, tough, and in charge. They make fun of their weak husbands for sitting around under trees debating philosophy while the women dive deep into the sea to harvest sea urchins, abalones and octopus. The women in this world bring home the <seafood> while the men tend the home-fires.

But Young-sook, like most girls, never learns to read or write. Women didn’t need to be literate to be leaders, there, and the girls in her family needed to become divers and earn money – not waste their time sitting in school rooms.

I know that reading and writing are tools of liberation. I know that for most of human history, women didn’t get to wield them. As recently as 1820, only 12% of the world’s population could read and write. In the United States, teaching an enslaved person to read or write was punishable by a huge fine, imprisonment or whipping.

Things are different today: now, only 14% of the world’s population *can’t* read or write. But the reality that this thing I love so wholeheartedly would have been inaccessible to me had I been born in any other age never fails to shock me. What would I have done? Would someone have taken pity on me, seen my desire and taught me phonics? Would I have written in secret, like Lady Whistledown from Bridgerton or taken a male pen name like George Eliot? I cannot imagine a life without books. I don’t want to.

Today is my sabbath day, and I just booked a private book buying appointment at one of my favorite local bookstores, where I will spend the gift certificate my brother-in-law gave me for Christmas. It’s not like I need to add anything to this teetering To Be Read stack, but oh, the JOY of browsing stacks and shelves, of discovering some new novel or that book I’ve been meaning to read for years. There’s so much to learn, so many stories to fall into.

Take a look: it’s in a book.

killing us all

I tweeted that yesterday after having a sizeable portion of my week co-opted by a white man’s temper tantrum, and it is real.

But after I emerged from a day filled with Zoom meetings – too many of them involving implications of a white man’s temper tantrum – I caught up on the news and learned that another white man had a temper tantrum (or, as the local sheriff, who has his own history of anti-Asian racism, called it, “a bad day”) and killed eight people. Six of them were Asian women.

Here’s the thing: when white men throw fits in my white lady world, I usually only lose my time and my patience. When white people have bad days in the world of others, they often end up taking their lives.

And: I know that my own straight white lady temper tantrums have stolen time and well-being from other people.

Yesterday, in two separate and unrelated conversations, someone tried to insist that using less pointed or more convenient language to address racism and white supremacy is important so that white people will be more likely to listen.

This is not true. White people’s comfort is not more important than the lives of people of color. Ever. Wringing our hands and trying to find “acceptable” language so that white people will feel comfortable taking responsibility for racism and its murderous violence is an absurd and ineffective project.

To call explicit, violent acts of white supremacy and racism “bad days” or “bad behavior” is to be willingly obtuse. Choosing to focus on “sex addiction” or “the perils of social media” instead of the ways that white supremacy and patriarchy drives white men to act out violent domination wherever they find themselves is only an attempt to contort our precious, fragile white egos as far away from the truth as we can get.

Let’s just be honest about it: white supremacy is killing us all.

get with the program, patrick

This is my favorite St. Patrick’s Day video:

Get with the program, Patrick!

Wars have been fought over some of those attempts to understand God as Trinity: Creator/Christ/Holy Spirit. The problem is, supposedly, that none of our human explanations can actually explain how God exists. But in reality, the problem has been that whoever gets to define God gets to hoard earthly power.

Religious belief gets co-opted and crafted into bludgeons far too often. It’s happening now – the Vatican just issued a statement declaring that Catholic priests “can’t” bless same-sex unions because it is against Catholic doctrine.

Poet and writer Padraig O Tuama created a beautiful erasure poem out of the evil of that statement:

I’m not Catholic, and I’m not someone whose same-sex marriage will ever be affected by these religious proclamations. It’s important, first, to listen to people who fall into both of those categories to hear their own response, whether it be pain or defiance.

But here’s my take, as someone who deals in the implications of theological questions for a living: any institution that steadfastly refuses to hear, acknowledge, confess and repent of the kind of harm that modern religious institutions have wreaked on the people whom God loves, cherishes and delights in has absolutely no moral standing to make this kind of proclamation. None.

Once, when I was a beginner preacher, I confessed in a sermon that I did not know the answer to one of the questions the text had posed. I got immediate critique: “don’t ever say ‘i don’t know’ in a sermon.” I think, now, that the feedback had more to do with tone and style than the actual choice to admit my own ignorance from the pulpit, but back then it wrankled.

I think saying “I don’t know” is one of the most faithful, honest, orthodox postures available to any of us who deal, daily, in the business of interpreting the Divine. I’m sure I use the phrase at least once a week. It is far better to admit ignorance in the face of the greatest mystery in the universe than to squeeze the one who created all of this into some narrow, tiny box that feels convenient enough to carry around in your pocket.

God is so much bigger than any human brain can imagine. And God declares, over and over and over again that GOD LOVES. In fact, God IS love. There is nobody – no pastor, priest or pope – and no thing – no official statement, polity, law or human-created barrier – that can change the fact that God loves us, delights in us, and is absolutely overjoyed when we enter into covenant relationships that nurture one another’s well-being and create opportunities to practice the relational existence of our trinitarian god.

God is love, and love comes in one million different forms, and they are all holy.

love & outrage

I’ve been thinking a lot about power and privilege, lately. Some of that is because new examples of people abusing it ping my inbox several times a day. Some if it is because I am feeling convicted about the ways I inhabit my own.

Two years ago, after a week’s worth of White Men Behaving Violently, I took to Twitter. “The news this week,” I tweeted, “mostly makes me feel like straight white men should be banned from a) owning guns b) being clergy and c) governing any.thing.”

That tweet caught the attention of some straight white pastors in my church, who were very upset that I would express a sentiment about whether or not they should be pastors in my church. They demanded a defense. They demanded I be fired. They were appalled that someone who worked for a church would have the gall to say something like this.

These straight white pastors were the same ones who have been actively erecting policy and procedure to ban LGBTQ people from being ordained in our denomination. They are some of the same people who regularly demean and dismiss women clergy. It is not lost on me that my tiny tweet landed squarely in the sweet spot of that “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” command from Jesus. That tiny tweet is still doing its work, too: earlier this year, one of those pastors misquoted it in a powerpoint presentation to convince his congregation they should leave the denomination.

I work with straight white male pastors every day. I support their work. My job is literally comprised of asking them what they need and helping to find it for them. My congregation has called & credentialed four people in the last four years: two white women and two white men. I recognize that the uproar over that old tweet is not about me, but about the way that power, privilege and fragility work. The story is always the same.

I am trying to move myself from anger about the same story happening over and over and over again (another straight white man in our context hosted a table read of the fragility script this week) and learn from it. Sometimes, in some contexts, I am on the underside of the power and privilege equation: in the Church of the Brethren, I am part of a tiny minority: less than 1/4 of ordained ministers are women. And sometimes, I am the person with more power: in the Church of the Brethren, we’re so white that we don’t even publish statistics about the racial make-up of our clergy. In most situations, I inhabit spaces of privilege and marginalization AT THE SAME TIME.

Because I am almost always in a position of white privilege, I understand the impulse to respond to challenge with resistance, reluctance and anger. Having our position challenged is not comfortable. I have definitely chosen the road of closing up my ears and retreating into condescension. I have certainly attempted to silence the voices of those whose words are inconvenient to me. I know how threatening this can feel, because I have felt it.

And, because I am sometimes in a position of marginalized minority, I also understand how deeply harmful and violent it is to be consistently silenced, put down, condescended to and shut out of conversations. When this happens persistently, over time, it is toxic and infuriating and does deep soul harm. I have definitely found myself choosing a louder volume or a more sarcastic tone or an all-out assault just to make myself heard. I know how dehumanizing this can feel, because I have felt it.

So: I am trying to learn the ethical jiu jitsu of observing someone’s reaction to being challenged or being silenced and just…letting it be theirs. I am trying to observe how other people inhabit roles of power and privilege and, instead of feeling anger and stopping there, to find empathy in my own experience, to make note of it, and learn. Has someone with a particular role of privilege INFURIATED me, again? Oh, let me study that response and create a reminder for myself to do otherwise when I’m in a similar position. Has someone who’s been marginalized challenged me to hear and see them more fully? Oh, let me take note of the ways they did that so I can be better at asserting my own existence in another context.

I am not good at this. Right now, I am almost always angry. I am trying to learn from mentors and teachers and people who have lived for decades observing and responding to these violent structures of power – to hear their wisdom. I listened to a podcast interview of Ruby Sales yesterday. Ruby Sales is a theologian, human rights activist and Civil Rights legend. She is intimate with the dynamics of power and privilege. In this interview, Sales leaned heavily into her formation in Black folk religion – the tenets of LOVE for everyone.

Ruby Sales

“Love,” Sales says, “is not antithetical to outrage.”

This is what I’m trying to learn: to be simultaneously outraged and filled with love.

a sermon

It’s halfway through Lent, and I am running out of things to write about here in this daily discipline. Here’s this week’s sermon on John 3:14-21, which I preached for chapel at Bethany Seminary and, in a slightly different version, with my own congregation.

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For most of my life, I have been terrified of snakes.

Snakes are bad, right? There’s a serpent right there in the Garden of Eden, the avatar of all that is evil. Tricky, tempting, mysterious and fatally dangerous. Best to avoid them at all costs. Let the snakes exist in their realm of darkness and me exist in my realm of light.

But last summer, there was a rash of snake sitings here in my North Carolina neighborhood. It’s hard to say if the snakes were having a banner year or if we humans, stuck at home during a global pandemic, were just getting in their way more often than usual. I watched a six foot long black snake slither up the sidewalk and into my apartment building’s breezeway one afternoon, but when I called the emergency maintenance number, they told me “snakes are not an emergency.” “Not an emergency,” my FOOT.

But the worst part, by far, were the copperheads. Copperheads are native to North Carolina, a species of actual, bonafide PIT VIPER that make their homes in brush and weeds. The wooded walking trails through my neighborhood are, it turns out, highly hospitable to pit vipers. My daily walks included copperhead sitings one day out of every three. PIT VIPERS. In my neighborhood. On my walking trails. UGH.

What do you do when the thing you fear the most becomes a regular occurrence in your day-to-day life? I googled “copperheads,” and found the official position of the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission: “The best plan for citizens of North Carolina is to learn about snakes and alter habits to minimize negative interactions, and in the process, learn to coexist with snakes.”

LEARN TO COEXIST WITH SNAKES, huh? I decided to try. I turned to the internet to shed some light on the subject.

It turns out that copperheads ARE venomous and they DO bite people kind of a lot. But their venom isn’t super deadly, and they only bite people when people accidentally intrude on their activities. And, they also usually give a “dry” or “warning” bite at first, with very little or no venom, giving us blundering humans time to recognize that we have trespassed and to get out of the way. Copperheads also eat rodents and insects, which means they also take a ton of ticks out of the neighborhood. Copperhead venom has the potential to slow cancer growth AND Parkinson’s disease in humans.

And since copperheads aren’t naturally aggressive, it was easy to keep an eye out for them on the walking path and just…walk around them. Okay. I can do that.

I am still not looking forward to copperhead season returning this year, but at least I understand them as fellow neighborhood residents, coexisting with me and all the humans, even with some helpful traits. I dragged my fear into the light, examined it a bit, and look: now I’ve even shared some cool copperhead facts with all of you!

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Our text this morning begins with a snake reference. It is not usually the part of the text that we pay attention to when we get to the third chapter of John’s gospel: our ears and eyes are drawn immediately to verse 16, which could all recite in unison from memory: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

But that famous one-liner isn’t without context, and when we rip it out of the chapter and slap it on bumper stickers and brochures, we mangle the gospel and do violence to the good news.

The verse comes in the middle of a long conversation that Jesus has with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and religious leader. Nicodemus is highly learned and a power broker. He knows all about what the Torah has to say about a Messiah, and he tells Jesus that he believes he has come from God. But he’s come to talk to Jesus and ask his questions at night – in the dark. The text doesn’t explain why Nicodemus has chosen to approach Jesus at night, but Jesus’ responses to the religious leader help us to make some assumptions.

John doesn’t tell us explicitly that Nicodemus was ashamed of his curiosity about this powerful teacher and healer, but we can hear, in their conversation and in his choice to visit Jesus at an unspecified, unofficial location where he wouldn’t be easily seen and where he didn’t have to wear his Pharisee hat quite so obviously that Nicodemus is doing some serious internal wrestling.

“You have to be born again,” Jesus tells Nicodemus. But the religious scholar and teacher is just CONFUSED. “What do you MEAN?” he asks. “I don’t understand.” And this is when Jesus slides in the snake reference:

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

Now, all the rest of us are just as confused as Nicodemus. Uh, what was that, Jesus? A SERPENT in the WILDERNESS? I thought this passage was about accepting you as my personal savior, not about SNAKES.

Jesus is throwing ol’ Nicodemus a bone, here. Nicodemus was a scholar. He would have recognized what Jesus was talking about immediately. In the book of Numbers, while the Israelites are out wandering in the wilderness, the people start to complain against God. In return, God sends poisonous serpents into their camp as punishment. The people begin to repent, and God instructs Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it high on a pole. Anyone who repented and looked on this bronze serpent would be saved from the snake bite and from their disobedience, and live. people had to face the truth of their own disobedience head on.

In order to be saved, the people had to face the truth of their own disobedience head on.

Nicodemus knew that story. He understood that it was a story about looking upon the very thing that brought death in order to receive life. He knew that the Israelites had been invited to face their own internal darkness in order to be saved.

We don’t hear from Nicodemus again in this scene. Instead, we hear Jesus continuing to explain that facing ourselves is a necessary part of salvation:

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him…the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

John 3:16 is about salvation, yes. But salvation is not magic, and it is not divorced from the real, messy, complicated realities of our lives. Salvation requires taking a good, hard look at ourselves, shining a light into the places that we’d rather keep obscured, facing the truth of who we are and how we live. Being born again isn’t just a whitewashing of identity; it involves real, painful, vulnerable exposure and the kind of transformation that sometimes feels like being scrubbed raw.

In his commentary on this passage, scholar Lance Pape says that this is a story “about how any one of us might reject the light offered to us because of the way it exposes what is dark in us.”

Those of us who are part of the white Christian church in America should be intimately familiar with this dynamic of rejecting light for fear of being exposed.

We know that white evangelical and mainline Christians were overwhelmingly more likely to vote for Donald Trump and to support his persistently harmful policies. We know that statistics show that white Christians are far more likely to express anti-black racist attitudes than any other demographic group. We know that our own denomination persists, decade after decade, in harming and excluding LGBTQ siblings. We know all this, but we also choose, collectively, again and again, to ignore, avoid and reject the light of truth because we are terrified of what happens if and when our own darkness is exposed.

Again and again, we choose to save face instead of facing ourselves.

What would it mean to welcome the light of critique, correction and repentance when it comes? What would it mean to choose to be born again by willingly exposing our whole selves to Christ’s light?

One of my very favorite verses in all of scripture is the writer of Ephesians riffing on this theme of light and darkness:

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light 9 (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) 10 and find out what pleases the Lord. 11 Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. 12 It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. 13 But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light.

Everything exposed by the light becomes visible – and everything that is visible BECOMES LIGHT.

We don’t know exactly how Nicodemus responded to Jesus’ critique. One might imagine that Nicodemus left that conversation like a certain other man who encountered the light of Christ inviting him to be honest and work toward transformation – the rich man who heard Jesus tell him to sell everything and give it to the poor, who “became sad, for he was very rich.”

But we do hear about Nicodemus again, toward the end of John’s story. After Jesus’ death, Nicodemus shows up with myrrh and aloe and spices and linens and helps to prepare his body for burial. That is a humble act of someone who has faced themselves and been saved. For those of us who identify with

Nicodemus, the religious scholar, the church leader, the one struggling to make sense of Jesus’ call to be born again by living in the light – it is a redemptive possibility.

Moses held up the bronze snake in the wilderness as invitation for the unruly Israelites to face their own disobedience and, in so doing, be saved. Jesus says that he himself will be lifted on a cross so that we, too, can face our own darkness and, in the process of being humble, honest, vulnerable and transparent, be transformed; made into light itself.

Because God loves the world so much, she gave us her son, so that we could look upon his broken body there on the cross, be confronted with our own brokenness, allow Christ’s light to expose and transform it and be ushered into infinite, abundant, eternal life – in the light.

arugula anxiety

My tiny seeds are sprouting out on the porch. Well, some of them are, at least. The tomatoes, basil and squash are moving at a normal pace, but the ARUGULA! Oh, the arugula! I walked out to check on the seeds on Friday morning and gave a whoop of surprise to see tiny arugula seedlings sprouting. Then, yesterday, my eyes popped out of my head to see how much they’d grow in under 24 hours and this morning, well, I might have to take special trip to the garden to transplant them into their permanent homes sooner than planned.

I’m a little wary of this fast growth, to be honest. Will their tender stems survive? Aren’t they too crowded in those tiny pots? Is arugula SUPPOSED to sprout so furiously? I don’t really like change, in general, and this daily change is a little unsettling.

I’m struggling, these days, to get my head back in the game of Going Places and Doing Things. I keep trying and failing to do future planning, both professionally and personally. I know that I need to get a handle on some things that need to/will happen a couple of months from now, but I just…can’t.

I’ve spent an entire year mostly in my tiny apartment, taking serious precautions about where and when I go anywhere, being conscientious about masking up when I do. I cancelled trips, preached to a computer screen, and circumscribed my little life severely.

And now, after all that intention and effort, after such a long season of being on high-alert, it’s time to let the defenses down…or at least start thinking about how to do it. I’m finding it difficult.

I know that, sometime this year, my little congregation will be able to gather indoors again. I know that we need to think about the best ways to do that, how to continue connection with beloved people who’ve joined us from around the world since we’ve been online, how to center the most vulnerable among us so that their participation is safe and welcome.

I know that, sometime this year, I’ll need to start planning ahead for the program I manage, thinking about traveling and coordinating travel for others, too. I know that the work there is good and has great potential to expand, and that once all of us are less consumed with immediate need and impending risk, there will be huge possibilities.

I know that, sometime this year, I’ll be able to think about gathering with friends or sitting in a coffee shop or, well, generally thinking about future life plans. I am looking forward to all of that, but it also feels terrifying. It feels like I’ve been frozen, stuck, staying safe by staying still and the thought of moving again is SCARY.

I think this is all natural. Maybe it’s part of what trauma feels like. I know for sure that it is part of my own internal chemistry and personality: change, for me, takes a long time to ease into. I do not love novelty or uncertainty. I prefer to have researched all the eventualities and possibilities so that I know what I’m getting into.

I should have read up on arugula and its growth timeline before I decided to plant it out there on the porch, I guess.

There is no way to research “how to emerge from a year-long global pandemic.” No one has really done this, before. I imagine it’s helpful to reflect on what’s been good and healthy, these last few months, and what’s been especially hard. In order to keep the good parts and let go, joyfully if tentatively, of the bad ones.

I LIKE not traveling for work. I’d like to keep doing that. I LOVE growing things on my patio and in the garden. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoy the movement challenges that helped me survive the winter, and will be leaning into moving my body more regularly and with intention. I am grateful to be anchored and centered in the town where I live, and want to commit myself more deeply to being a part of the community right here.

I am So TIRED of having to feed myself three times a day, seven days a week. I will joyfully leave the cooking behind and return with delight to regular lunch dates with other people inside restaurants. I HATE not being able to browse shelves at the library and the local bookstores, and will try to carefully return to leisurely indoor book browsing. It has been very hard to feel confined – to know that I can’t just hop in the car and go see my family or an overnight road trip to a state park, and I will gladly return to fun, regular weekend getaways.

This categorizing – breaking down HUGE change into more manageable chunks and sorting them into good and bad elements – is really helpful, for me, at least. It makes the big, scary, looming, intimidating THING much more quantifiable and understandable. It makes me feel capable of weathering the transition.

I just googled arugula. Turns out, it grows super fast, reaching full maturity in 4-6 weeks. This is what’s *supposed* to happen, this rocket-speed germination and maturation. Just gotta get my wits about me, lean in to the change and keep up with this new life right here in our midst.

de-centered cruciverbalist

At the beginning of the year, I bought a New York Times games subscription. I already have a regular NYT *news* subscription, which I used to share with BVS volunteers around the world and recently re-upped to support journalism during the pandemic (I subscribed to my two local papers, too!). But in January, after reading a few people talk about how the crossword had become a soothing daily ritual, I subscribed to the GAMES.

That might have been some of the best $20 I’ve ever spent on myself. Every morning, I print out the NYT crossword, and after I walk the dog and pray I solve the puzzle with my coffee. It’s just challenging enough – not too many DUH clues, not too many obscenely obscure ones – that it keeps me coming back for more. (This is the opposite of my current monthly Move Your Body challenge: the impossible, expanding, more-than-one-minute PLANK challenge, which is about to do me in.)

The crossword is super satisfying: one clue per line, one letter per box, each box connects to another. Solving the puzzle is the purest hit of dopamine. The work I do is very rarely measured in task completion metrics: there is no way to assess with clarity whether or not a sermon hit home, if a pastoral conversation addressed deep needs, how following a hunch about the Holy Spirit’s leading for the life of a congregation is going to pan out. Can you imagine handing someone a satisfaction survey after you’ve prayed with them in the midst of great trauma or great joy?

The sure and certain crossword rules are such a relief. The thrill of *finishing* one is a delight.

Yesterday, my friend Carynne – who knows I’ve been in training toward becoming a cruciverbalist – sent me this article from the Washington Post about how the crossword industry is undergoing a reckoning. “What’s common knowledge,” the article asks, “and who gets to decide?” It turns out that when people other than white men create crosswords, people other than white men see themselves reflected in the puzzles. One crossword constructor, Brooke Husic, talked about how creators cue the word “bra”:

“To me, it’s so obvious when someone who doesn’t wear a bra and has never worn a bra includes bra.” She specifically cites past clues such as “It makes the torso more so” or any variation that includes “uplifting” and counters with a clue from one of her recent puzzles: “Item often not worn while working from home.”

In February, the NYT featured Black crossword constructors for Black History Month. I noticed the clues (about Marcus Garvey, John Lewis and Cardi B), and also felt the disconnect that some [white] players complained about. There is, it turns out, a lively crossword community of people whose interest in the puzzles borders on obsession, a community that the article’s author suggests might make for a good television show like The Queen’s Gambit. I will binge watch the heck out of that show.

And like so many other parts of our American society, white people got mad about being de-centered. In the crossword puzzle. They called the Black History Month puzzles full of “obscure” and “alienating” clues. White people sure are whiny, aren’t we?

Drew Hart talks about de-centering like this: imagine that we are all in a group together and whenever we meet, I stand on top of the table in the center of the room, while all the rest of you sit in chairs around the table. Every time we gather, I’m standing on top of the table in the center while everyone else is seated, down below. It happens every time, and we all sort of grow used to it, even though it is absurd, bizarre, and clearly involves seriously messed up power dynamics.

Now imagine if one day, someone in the group finally decided to ask me to come down from standing on top of the table and, instead, choose a seat here around it with the rest of you. Huh. Of course, to me it feels like being demoted or discriminated against: I have always been up here in the middle! But in reality, the move from the tabletop to the chair is just getting all of us on more equal ground. It is correcting what has been wrong for so long. It’s actually good for all of us for me to quit putting my dirty shoes on top of the table and take a seat there, next to you.

Without intentional attention and invitation to change it, whiteness is centered EVERYWHERE in America. Our nation is built on the premise of white supremacy. It’s not just in the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, it is also in our classrooms, our congregations, and our hearts. It is even, it turns out, in our crossword puzzles.

I loved this article, because it made me examine a tiny little blip of awareness that I’d had when I solved those Black History Month puzzles. “Huh,” I thought. “This puzzle has a lot of sort of strange clues that I don’t know the answers to. I’ve heard the name Marcus Garvey but I don’t know anything about his headwear. They must have got a newbie in to create these puzzles if they’re too hard for me to solve. I don’t really like this one. I think I’ll take note of who made it and just be ready the next time I see their name to expect not to like the puzzle.”

All of that happened subconsciously, on a Sunday morning before I’d finished my coffee. I wasn’t even quite conscious of it as it happened inside my own head, but all of my assumptions about how I – a white crossword puzzle solver – should be centered, how the puzzle should cater to me, how my comfort was the most important part of this endeavor – were active and operational. Even though I barely noticed them.

This article made me pull out that barely conscious script and examine it. “OH! I was uncomfortable because I was being de-centered. In the crossword puzzle. Tricky! I was being asked, as I solved that puzzle, to get off the table and sit down where I belong, in a chair alongside everybody else.”

This is what de-centering feels like. It is uncomfortable. It often makes the formerly centered people SUPER MAD. Like, unbelievably mad. As in, mad enough to not just write an angry letter to the NYT crossword editor, but mad enough to pass violent laws, support torture, and drag decades old practices of hatefulness out from the dumpster to give them new life.

But the discomfort of getting de-centered is GOOD. It is something to lean into. It is worth holding up, examining, and learning about. It’s an opportunity to ask ourselves where the assumption that we should have been centered came from in the first place. It is an invitation to enter into more honest, more mutual, more equitable relationships.

And that invitation can come from anywhere – even the daily crossword puzzle.

one year

Last March 12, I emailed my church leadership to suggest that we cancel that Sunday’s potluck given the weird news about COVID-19. Over the course of the next few hours, things got more intense, our council chair talked to her epidemiologist daughter, and by that evening, we’d decided to move entirely online for “at least the next two weeks.”

That was a year ago.

In my initial email to the Coordinating Council, I wrote: “I sense myself becoming a bit anxious about unknown possibilities and want to be sure that we take wise precautions and care for the most vulnerable among us. What do you all think?”

I found that thread by searching “potluck” in my email – easy to spot, since we haven’t had another one, since.

By that point, I was becoming more than a bit anxious. I was freaking the fork OUT. I called my sister, tried to explain the magnitude of what I was feeling and how the world seemed like it was ending. Always the practical one, she asked what there was I could do about it, if the world was actually ending. I started tracking my activities daily, to keep a log of potential exposures. I thought, then, that someone who could confirm that they were fairly isolated might end up being able to serve in ways that other, more compromised people could not. I thought, then, that we would launch war-time efforts to keep everyone safe. I thought, then, that there would be opportunities to join forces and pitch in and work through the crisis. It felt like the beginning of every apocalyptic, dystopian novel I had ever read.

In a lot of ways, I was right. This has been horrific. It has been an apocalypse – a word whose actual meaning is “a revealing, an uncovering.” But I was also very, very wrong: in America, we did not join forces, band together and work in tandem to get through the crisis. Instead, those of us with safe and privileged homes locked ourselves into them and allowed those without that safety to get sick and die.

Of course, this is not entirely true. Thousands and thousands of people have been leaning in, working together, doing good, curative, healing, problem-solving work. My own congregation, bless them, has had our common life deepened in completely unexpected ways over the last twelve months.

Leadership decided early on that we would keep worship online as long as local case counts were above a certain number, and that clear, data-based, early decision has saved us time and time again. We worked to find an online platform that fit our congregation’s needs. We planned monthly outdoor gatherings to make sure we all really did exist from the neck down. Over the summer, we completed our discernment process and joined the Supportive Communities Network, becoming publicly affirming of LGBTQ siblings. Moved by the Black Lives Matter movement, we dug into our own racial identities and the whiteness of our congregation and followed the Spirit’s movement into self-reflection, repentance and joining in God’s justice. We launched THREE licensed ministers from our congregation into ordain-able calls. We grieved, we rejoiced, we welcomed new members, our online worship services led to the highest average attendance in at least 15 years. We called new leadership in 2021 and have more people involved in guiding the ministries of the church than at any time since I’ve been pastor. This week, we’re sending hand-painted greeting cards to local nursing homes, working to implement a fantastic Healing Racism mini-grant project focused on sharing anti-racist kids’ books, practicing visio divina around Lenten art with our neighbors at the local Methodist Church, planting new groundcover on the eroded front lawn, AND applying to join an intensive, two year program to understand how racism has shaped our community and our congregation.

All of this during a global pandemic when we haven’t met for in-person worship in one calendar year.

I spent a lot of the early parts of last year utterly infuriated with all the ways that my colleagues and fellow Christians were simply refusing to alter their worship practices and, in the process, contributing to the spread of the virus and the persistence of the pandemic. I am still unimaginably angry about that, especially as I have watched congregations and church leaders continue to resist change even after their gatherings have sickened or killed people they love. I have tried, for an entire year, to understand the motivations for this behavior. I have mostly failed.

I know that my congregation is tiny and connected to reliable internet service and generally technologically adept. Even the oldest members of our congregation jumped into online gatherings with a super short learning curve. I know that we have agility that other congregations do not. I know that this contributes to our choices.

And I am still baffled at the lack of creativity, the insistence on continuing deadly worship practices, the ways that the church has not only refused to adapt but also been stiff-necked, selfish and ornery about being “forced” to act in the interest of others.

In ecumenical contexts, my congregation is not beyond the pale. The conversations I have with local and national colleagues from other traditions are similar: as things begin to loosen and risk diminishes, how will we return to in-person gathering safely? What do we need to grieve after an entire year of this kind of adjustment? But in my own Church of the Brethren district and denomination, we are among the minority of congregations who have foregone in-person worship all year. Conversations in those contexts are not helpful; they mostly make me wonder how I will continue to work alongside these colleagues and siblings who have made choices that are so vastly different from my own, balanced on a calculus that I do not understand and, on my worst days, I judge as explicitly harmful.

It has been an apocalypse: uncovering so much about who we thought we were and where we thought we belonged. Revelation is good and healthy and can move us toward richer, deeper, more liberated life. And it can also feel like being scrubbed raw, torn apart.