There is a classification of religious critique from within religion – particularly the mainline liberal Protestant tradition that I lump into a giant bin called Hypocrisy. This classification will invariably observe that people leave the church not because they do not like the Christian faith but because churches more clearly follow the values of the dominant culture (individualism, consumerism, dominating power, personal righteousness) than the movement of Jesus followers counter-culturally centering faith and values that are communal, non-violent, servant-led, forgiveness-embracing, and empowering of minority voices.
We are hypocrites. We play power games. We are judgmental. We center our worldview and comfort.
This is hardly a newsflash. It’s been true since… well the original disciples? (Which of us is greatest… should we stop ‘those people’ from doing things in your name?) Acts 6? (Bread to our people first, then maybe to “those” people.) Constantine? (The adoption of the ancient church into Imperial religion.) I have no issue with this classification of critique. And I agree with it as being part of the 21st-century flight from, and disinterest in, organized religion. I don’t have time to develop that thought here but even restricting ourselves to a cursory glance at the American church as it moved from the “idealized” 1950s, struggled with racial and gender biases during the Civil Rights movements, with great notoriety, ran headlong into the very public financial and sexual abuse scandals of the 80s and 90s, followed closely by yet more denominational splits over, well… everything, but most particularly LGBTQIA+ equality. The memes and tweets in question are absolutely right on. And who can blame a person for checking out of that!
I have a single problem with these memes and tweets: I also think they are out-of-date… by about 30 years. I work next to a high school… I get to interact with high schoolers a fair amount. They mostly have zero experience of the church. None. Their parents left for these reasons, and more (or less), but they will largely tell you they don’t go and have never gone – unless its with their grandparents. They didn’t leave the church – they have never been. And when they say things like “hypocrisy” they are mostly just parroting what they have heard their parents say. In fact… today I find many of those same high schoolers are highly curious about the church and faith – but almost like Nicodemus coming to Jesus in the night – they don’t want to be SEEN being curious… or going.
This is why I think one of the greatest callings in 2023 of the church(es) needs to be a return to the evangelism of Jesus (that is evangelism, sharing of good news, done ‘the Jesus way’). I often call it “restorative (or reparative) witness”. The world needs to know – the church is hypocritical… but not more (or less) than they are. And we know that! Furthermore, we are committed to wrestling with that toward a future in which the way in which we are the Body of Christ more clearly reflects who Jesus is in the world. We tarnished that image – and we are called to repair the breach we created. And I think – more than that, I have committed my life – to the idea that not only is the church wrestling with its hypocrisy and seeking to restore its wholeness (our wholeness) a worthwhile thing but that it is an essential reality. The world without the ecclesia (the community… the church) is a much sadder, harsher, and more unjust place than the one with it. And if that doesn’t feel fully true – then make it so!
In the ever-haunting good words of Flannery O’Connor:
“I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it, but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it.” (page 90, Habits of Being – from a letter to Elizabeth Hester on how Flannery’s Southern gothic writing is not “in spite of” her faith – but because of it. “If you live today you breathe in nihilism. In and out of the Church it’s the gas you breathe. If I hadn’t had the Church to fight it with or to tell me the necessity of fighting it, I would be the stinkingest logical positivist you ever saw right now” (HB, 97).
It’s the annual Kukla Family (after) Christmas Letter – settle in for a long winter’s nap…
I don’t know about you – I have my suspicions, but I have been wrong before – but we are tired. Anything I say after this about how much I love my kids, about their activities, about holiday spirit, about the phenomenal partner and beloved I have in Caroline, about the ways you inspire me and I love my larger community co-workers, and joy: let me ensure that the record is clear… this year was like one long mile 11 on Robbie Creek half marathon. It wasn’t the sharp incline of mile 9 where running is barely possible (and the photographer takes your picture because your barely moving)… mile 9 we know why we are exhausted and we understand why we feel so unproductive. It isn’t mile 10 when it’s a sharp downhill and you feel the partial elation of incredible speed mixed with the terrible reality that you can’t stop if you wanted to… no it’s mile 11. That flat (but feels uphill) drudgery where you are close but miles away and you are not sure why but you just don’t really have it in you – people are cheering and it makes you mad – don’t cheer me, just shut up! (Seriously… mile 11 isn’t pretty – or at least I am not pretty on mile 11.) You don’t want to hear it.. you just need to keep moving. I will be honest – a great deal of 2022 was one long mile 11. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t also precious and wonder-full and rewarding… but…. One long mile 11 y’all.
Danielle – let’s start with Danielle because she is the biggest pick-me-up ever. Danielle has long been known as pure, unadulterated, refined joy. Smiley D. Here is a little secret: she throws more tantrums than all our other kids combined (anecdote warning, I don’t actually have data on that)… but here is the other thing. They don’t stick. She is so easy to pull out because while she is free to express disappointment and hurt… it’s almost as if the ease with which she does creates the ease with which she leaves it behind. She teaches me! And so whether it’s not making the volleyball team with her best friend this year, but being elated she made the other team because she just wants to play, or being in the soccer goal against a team we should never have played and having a barrage of goals scored against her and not missing a beat – she is the picture of the value of wearing your heart on your sleeve. And it is her spiritual gift she offers freely to the world. If you don’t know this, that girl would also love to go to space… like she REALLY loves space. Shatner tells us it’s depressing up there… I don’t know him, nor do I know space, but I wonder if space is what you bring to it because as he says, there is nothing there. And as I would add… nothing to distract you from you. So I wonder if space is what you bring to it… kind of like life but with less noise. And I’m sure one day that girl is going to bring joy to space.
Meredith – if Danielle is the easiest to mood shift… Mere is the hardest. That girl has always been solid – since the moment of birth she is one giant toned muscle of unrelenting intention. That isn’t always easy to parent but it’s almost always awesome to watch. This has been the year Mere moved into junior high (half time at Treasure Valley Math and Science Center like Elizabeth), moved into official teenage years, and continues to blossom in so many ways… though apparently that now includes make-up. That’s a new one for us. Understand that with two previous teenagers we have never yet had a kid go on a date… have a “significant other” or be even a slight bit interested in “all that”… our house has never had make-up in it! Which is how we earned Meredith in our life. I’m pretty sure she will be the death of us (in all good ways…or mostly so…). She continues with gymnastics and she basically reads any and all books as if they are one-sitting short stories (I also know a bit about that). She also got her first phone per the family rule: if you get straight As in the first quarter of 7th grade you get a phone early. Between books, gymnastics, and a phone… we actually see Meredith once in a while…. Once in a long while.
Elizabeth – would probably prefer I say nothing, and I will walk the line. E continues to wrestle with anxiety and finding their own way and that continues to be a journey I’d sign up for every day. We have shared much of that journey elsewhere so suffice it to say E has grown a lot in being able to live with anxiety… anxiety of non-conforming gender, social anxiety, and the general sense that E will define themselves against all the expectations. E has done good hard work in coming to a place of greater comfort with all of that – using all the resources available. E continues to work in the church Food Pantry for 4 hours every Monday… something they do well and love and were allowed to do in the place of youth group. They did Pit (the big percussion non-marching part of marching band) in marching band at the high school (despite some rounds in the emotional boxing ring with mom and dad) and ended up being grateful we “made them do it”. (Usually, it takes 10 years to learn that – E told us that on the last day of marching band season and we even kept ourselves from gloating… much.) Next year E starts high school and has paved the way for that jump to land well (high school for us starts in 10th grade.). They did a Boise State Honors Flute chorus, and are gearing up for trying out for the Boise Philharmonic Youth Orchestra in the spring. E writes, reads, plays SIMS, and swings… and jumps around the house like the energizer bunny…. It’s a coping mechanism so we mostly get used to feeling the whole house shake… except occasionally when Warren (whose room is beneath E’s) reaches his limit. All in all, I’m amazed at how well E and E’s siblings work out the fact that they play with very different rule books… and that they do that with understanding and empathy – and that will make all the difference (everywhere).
Warren…. Deep breath – the kid is a senior in high school… that’s not even fair… deep… breath. He is a lot of work. Kid has always been a lot of work. Maybe that is the way of first children. I don’t know – I only had one. He continues to be the person in our family who bore the marks of COVID the most. Not actual COVID, which to our knowledge he has still never had, but the COVID world. Trying to keep motivated… keeping joy… keeping engaged when nothing is “the way it’s supposed to be”. And yet the kid still amazes me in two ways in particular: he took the second year of AP Calculus. He BARELY got through AP calculus last year. His joy and skill with math seemed to crumble under online COVID world and that carried into last year with Calculus… but with a LOT of work he got through it… and then – when he didn’t have to take any math and against our wishes – he took the second year (AP Calc B/C) while dealing with senior-itis on top of it all. We said: why? He said he could do it. And he did. God, I love that kid. He also got a job at Chipotle. It has been a great experience… he doesn’t like managers, he hates scheduling, he doesn’t like mean people (of which there are a lot), and he struggles with the politics of Idaho in the workplace. So many great life lessons… and he has learned to make great burritos. I always said.. “when this kid learns long obedience in the same direction (that’s Nietzsche writing about art) look out, he will change the world.” This year I realized it.. he has arrived.
Caroline is the glue parent – she is why this all gets done. And it ain’t easy. The whiteboard is full… negotiating drivers and carpools and activities and my work schedule makes it all that much harder with so many night meetings and long days and yet she keeps it all spinning to some detriment to her peace of mind. She is a bedrock kind of person and because of her, we are a house built upon stone. She continues at Allstate where she celebrated her 16th year, and has resumed helping in the kitchen at church (since we can do meals again) as well as on the church finance team.
We are tired y’all. But it’s good tired.. mostly. I reflect a lot on responsibility. It’s my job really. You could say my job is about faith… religion… God… you could say it’s about a lot of things, but I will tell you it’s about responsibility. “Love thy neighbor as yourself” I recently read something that points out how often we hear that but still externalize the act of love as me acting on another person. But what if we hear that word about recognizing the neighbor is an extension of yourself. Love thy neighbors AS yourself. That’s the responsibility. This world is full of messaging to take care of yourself. And it’s full of guilt to take care of “others”. But the messaging I predicate my life’s work upon is about taking care of the world AS yourself. Our lives enrich the life of the world. “Seek the welfare of the city in which you live because its welfare is your welfare.” There is no life apart from the other. We are all one. Thus… responsibility. We are an interwoven universe of life responsible to the welfare of all.
Why do I share that? Because life happens… but responsible life is work. It’s heart on your sleeve feeling all the feels and finding joy, its stubborn unrelenting intention, its learning to walk your way and respect others with compassion and empathy, and it’s finding our place and digging down deep in it, it is being the bedrock for each other. My family teaches and witnesses that to me… and I’m so very grateful for them all. And I’m grateful for you too. 2022… has come to a close. I can’t say it was great… but great things happened in it. I can say I’m tired… but I’m not done – mile 12 is waiting… and my metaphor has to go away because I fully intend to keep at this for a long, long time.
My hope for 2023.. my hope for you and me – we are one after all – in 2023 is that we step into that with joy and tenacity and responsibility to each other. It is after all just another day waiting to see what we bring to it. It’s less about what it holds in store for us than what we fill it with – and looking around at the people I’m grateful to call family and friends, neighbors and co-workers. I feel pretty good about what is in store.
Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!
My first (not chronologically but in the sense of bright lights whose voice and wisdom still speak to me through the years) mentor and teacher in pastoral care was a gentle giant in many ways. He also was a dauntless prophetic voice quite capable of piercing all your protective illusions. His name was Rev. Dr. Percy Johnson… though I don’t recall using all that title baggage… I remember him as Percy. Percy worked at Grady Memorial Hospital which was, and is, holy ground for me. I did class hours, an internship, and a residency there in Clinical Pastoral Education, and two of my brightest lights of guidance were supervisors and mentors I met there.
Percy, however, did not work at the main hospital – he worked down the road at the Infectious Disease Hospital. Percy wore no visible trappings of religion – he walked among a population that was deeply traumatized by religious people. I can recall him, with crystalline clarity, speaking to us about how he was called into ministry with people suffering from HIV/AIDS. Percy had been Marine Force Recon in Vietnam… and when he started ministry he recalled a person who had HIV who no one would visit for all the fears those days of the AIDS epidemic put on our hearts about people with AIDS… but Percy looked in and saw a fellow veteran… a veteran like him… who was being treated like a pariah… and Percy would not let that happen. With a marine’s (as much as a pastor’s – at least as I recall it in my fading but clear memory) sense of duty and care, he walked in and sat and listened and attended… he did not judge, he did not preach, he did not fix… I mean I don’t know that he didn’t… but I KNOW that he didn’t. I imagine that he was a well of deep compassion and you-are-not-alone-ness, gentle but strong… a Peter-like-rock carving out space to grieve and hope and heal… all without a word. I imagine Percy was, in that moment and many, many others, present to a person for whom few if any others were willing to be present. Present to a person that few if any others weren’t standing outside judging without knowing. Present to a person who very well may have kicked out of our, the Church’s, hallowed halls.
My absolute favorite confessional statement of the Church comes from the Holy Spirit section of the Presbyterian Church (USA) Brief Statement of Faith:
In a broken and fearful world
the Spirit gives us courage
to pray without ceasing,
to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior,
to unmask idolatries in Church and culture,
to hear the voices of peoples long silenced,
and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.
To unmask idolatries… to hear the voices of peoples long silenced….
Since 1988 December 1st has been designated World AIDS Day. It feels in many ways the world I live in has forgotten AIDS… after all we learned and grew, other pandemics have raged, and we are a people of short memories. And more than just a little, I imagine, many of us feel (if we feel at all on the subject) a sense of guilt when we look back… after all, we stayed on the other side of the glass and we judged. We created silence… the silence of the closet… the silence of people no longer in the room… the silence of a grave before anyone was dead. We held to idolatry and closed our ears to the voices of people long silenced.
I cannot go back to that time, but I will not look away from it. The words we speak are never unlived. The legacy of our silence, of our harm, of our rejection… it echoes and rings out still in the silence and the silencing. Generational harm is real, and generational trauma is powerful… and pervasive. We imagine it was yesterday and so it is water under the bridge… but that simply isn’t how we work, how the human heart works… how our bones work. Because even if we do not – our bodies remember.
A friend has me thinking this morning about trees and silence. And as I was reflecting on that I thought about the growth rings inside the tree. A tree is dead inside. I never knew that until today. The heartwood of the innermost tree is dead (it is the tree that once was) and yet so long as the exterior living tree protects it, that part of the tree itself protected by the inner and outer layers of bark, it will not rot. The living tree embraces its dead and former self and in death, that center still provides the structural heart and strength of the tree.
I’m not fully sure what to do with that but it’s teasing at my heart and mind. Nothing of our history is dead to us… its there in our bones – it is our strength or our downfall… and our history continues to shape us – whether we are aware of it or not. And so we are called to enter the room where we once slammed the door… we are called to listen to the one we once silenced… we are called to care for wounds we once caused (wounds that are still causing present and future harm). We are called to attend to the dead within the living… and let it shape our future.
I mean not to let that wax poetic. I play with words because they play with me… I’m not yet sure what tree rings and the dead being encased in the living is trying to tell me, but I am sure of the harm me and mine have caused and the listening I owe that harm – the reparations I long to attend to… and I have a heart to follow where the bright lights of my life are leading me: to pray and witness and unmask and hear and work… so now I must go, I have a tree to hug and listen to the whispering it is doing in the enforced silence.
Moscow (Idaho) is a ghost town… in all the ways we mean it. Violence struck at the core of it in a way that most felt only happens in “other places”… and the dead linger and even more so the sense of fear of what and why and when next…
The violence of Moscow rang out in Virginia too… as it has on so many campuses and elementary school buildings, and public transportation and… well bars and community gathering places as it did again Saturday night in Colorado.
On Sunday morning when these prayers went up in worship an Iranian woman in the back of our congregation lifted up her voice in tearful solemnity, “they are killing women and children in Iran…. shooting them in the streets – and it’s the government doing it…”
A friend and colleague reached out to me in particular about the Colorado shooting. I’m an advocate and friend and parent in the LGBTQIA community and they worried for me… worried for my family… worried how close to home that might have hit.
They all hit close to home though: all of them.
She helped me to articulate that… to pause and feel that… as I start this day I recognized that I wasn’t letting myself feel the pain of it. I need to feel the pain of it. We all do.
Why these things keep happening down through the ages and in our seemingly quiet neighborhoods, in particular, is far above my pay grade… but I can’t help but imagine that a significant portion of that is because we stopped feeling the pain of it. And we don’t want to feel the pain of our lives… and so we just keep transferring that pain onto others…
Why do I tell you this story, Mary Oliver queries a the end of my favorite poem*, “so that your heart break open and never again shut to the rest of the world”. We are experts in living like Pharoah – with our hard hearts… we call it resilience. But I beg you otherwise… I beg you to bleed and whine and hurt and… break down and stop…
It is not ok. This is not ok. I am not *fine*
“…by the waters of Babylon… we laid down and wept… and wept… for thee Zion…”
If you need a partner in grief, please reach out.
If you need an ear without answers but a broken open heart…
I am here.
Please let yourself feel the feels in whatever way is authentic to you.
But you need not do it alone.
Moscow is home. Iran is home. Colorado is home.
We are all our neighbors. These are all our people.
And I weep for the pain I feel for us all.
There are many things I love about my job. There are many aspects of my job for which I am grateful that God helps me to do well. There is no place and part of my job where I feel more fully enveloped in my call, and the holiness of it, than sitting with a family to plan a funeral. It is the most holy and inspiring work I do… I tell myself, metaphorically, to take off my shoes and to “tread” lightly but surely upon these hallowed halls of a person’s most intimate and treasured relationships. We talk of their history, what made them laugh and what left them in tears… and the treasured threads of their life now seemingly torn from our lives.
Orson Scott Card’s most famous book is Ender’s Game. A sci-fi fantasy novel used by military schools to talk about tactics and leadership. The figure of Ender (the main character) is controversial and includes quite a bit of material with which to talk about the ethics of leadership… military engagements… even personal relationships. All that leads us to the better of the books, the sequel to Ender’s Game: The Speaker for the Dead. The penance Ender assigns himself from the events of the first book led him to the role of listening to the community of the dead and learning through those listening sessions who that person really was at the core of their being. He then sums that up as he speaks to all the loved ones, friends, acquaintances – the whole of the community – on behalf of the recently deceased… he is the “Speaker for the Dead” with an aim towards truth and justice and maybe even love. He does it because he once killed that which he did not know or understand… and the guilt of that makes him commit to tell others’ stories when they too are misunderstood.
I give you that synopsis because I feel a kinship with Ender in that task of being something of a speaker for the dead. It is why my most treasured moments in my work is sitting with family and friends and hearing the stories of their recently departed loved one. Not simply the good stories – but hearing of that person in all their complications, all their faults, all their gifts… all their realness. And capturing in those stories a testimony of who they were before God and their neighbors. It is holy work. It is work that I think also makes me understand the world in a kinder, more loving, and more just way. Like Ender.
And so this Sunday, when we celebrate All Saints Day in worship we will read the names of all those in our community who died in the last year. We will read and speak their name at the Communion Table… we will ring a bell for each name. We will let the toll of that bell fall about our ears pregnant with the whole of who that person was… and while we will not have the time to tell their stories –their stories will ring in our ears and echo in our hearts through the tolling and we glimpse for a moment the sense to which the Sanctuary in which we toll and tell such stories is made holy by thousands of lives that have walk there, testimonies of time and energy to promote abundant life, guidance and love given to curate a space of belonging and repair, and that we carry on the legacy of all those saints with fear and trembling… to do for others what they have done for us. We shall walk hallowed halls with hope and appreciation that we do not walk alone.
It is holy, and it is so very good.
We have been hearing from Psalm 139 about being Fearfully and Wonderfully made… and that we are woven in love for love. We have not read the beginning of the Psalm which may be one of scripture’s greatest testimonies of the steadfast love and presence of God:
“You search out my path and my lying down, are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, it is so high that I cannot attain it.
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings for the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.”
We have all experienced despair… and we have all watched someone we love go through it. Despair is a futile sense that there is nothing we can do, that there is no meaning, no hope, no tomorrow. And if tomorrow comes – the sun is not coming out with it… we might call such despair being “cut off from God” whose fabric is all the realities we can longer feel: love, hope, and worth. In despair one cannot find love… can now wrestle the way to hope… cannot be valued… because we are cut off from it and any reality they may is lost to us as we are lost to them.
“You search out my path…”
We do not come to worship to find God. We might say that sometimes… but God was never lost.
We are lost… and we are cut off from the reality of God and all that is good both around us and also within us. And the good news is not that God redeems us by making us good again… but that God’s redemption finds us to show us that we were always good, and of worth, and loved, and woven in grace and hope.
God the patient and persistent reality of love… waiting, inviting, and weaving itself around you – around us… hoping against despair that we will feel it and know it deep down into our bones. And when we cannot? God just keeps on keeping on: loving, inviting, sitting, caring, trying, hoping against despair and knowing that in whatever moment a trickle of all that breaks through enough that our eyes can see, or our hearts can feel: God will be there.
I hope this day that you know: you are loved.
I hope this day that you too can patiently hope against despair and love the world and all that is in it.
The most famous part of Ezekiel’s ministry is very clearly the “valley of bones” vision. Ezekiel is told to prophesy to a valley of dried-up bones. The bones reflect Israel, the bones reflect the valley of the shadow of death…the bones reflect moments in our life full of despair and cut off from any sense of the future. The words of Marcus Aurelius from the movie “Gladiator” come to mind: “There was once a dream that was Rome, you could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish.” And it has vanished before his eyes.
I think it is into such a moment that Ezekiel is called. God questions if life can return to such a place and people in history…and then urges Ezekiel to free his imagination and allow life to seep back into this forbidden landscape. Ezekiel does—and the text tells us you can hear the noise of bone hitting bone as these scattered and parched legacies of ruin rattle together and sinews wrap them like wild vines and skin grows up over these bony protests that life still has a chance…but this is not yet life.
A miracle? Sure. But life? Not so much.
I love this moment in the text. To me here is its real power: sometimes we have all our bones back in place—but there is not yet life in us. We are the walking dead… still very much feeling the pull of the grave clothes holding us to the tomb, and suffering from “the sickness unto death” that is despair: a life without a future. And into this Ezekiel is provoked by God to prophesy a SECOND time. Ezekiel calls on the breath that is carried on the four winds to breath itself (again) into this dust that it might have life. We were God-breathed once…and we can be again. “There was a dream….” And then these sacks of dried-out bones become alive. TRULY alive. They gasp for air and their lungs are filled and it had to be as shocking as their death: to find that promised life and realize it had found them against all odds at this late date.
And then God says something like: I will do this and more for Israel, so go and tell them that they shall yet live and feel my breath—my Spirit—pass between their lips…and it shall be good (the liturgy of Genesis’ creation story is not done with us, not ever).
I share this vision to Ezekiel with you because I think we live in just such a valley right now. I think we live in the moment after Ezekiel’s first moment of prophecy but before the second and we are walking around wounded and in the place of death and despair…and we aren’t really alive. The bones are all there—but no muscles, no real flesh and no blood. We are just barely holding on.
Youth and children are feeling a crippling sense of anxiety, and we are not mobilizing enough resources to help them all. This all predated COVID but has been greatly exacerbated by it, and we are experiencing a mental health crisis all around us.
Employers are saying no one wants to work, workers are saying no one will hire them (I have been on both sides of this; please do not dismiss it—this challenge is real), and places of business have unpredictable hours as they are simply shutting down when they lack the resources to be open.
Almost every city is experiencing a housing crisis…add in a wage crisis…and there are seemingly insurmountable challenges to offering a sustainable livelihood for all people. Given current inflation rates, most people will need at the very least a 10% raise in salary to hold even with inflation (not to earn more, just to have the same buying power next year that they had this year). How many do think will get it?
Whether it is Church or PTO or Marching Band or the Soccer club (those are just the ones emailing me), no one can find the volunteers they need whom they had a few years ago…no one. All of these groups are staring at parents, saying: we need you. And all our parents are saying “we have nothing more give…we are the tree at the end of the book (The Giving Tree) and at best we are only a cut-off stump now.”
Isaiah uses THAT metaphor. Through the buildup of Isaiah’s initial ministry, he keeps returning to the idea of Israel as a forest of trees cut down, stumps all around. until he gives that famous word: but a shoot shall come from the stump of Jesse….
I think we live in a time of stumps and bones…and I do not believe I’m overstating it. In fact, I think I am barely scratching the surface. I’m not going to leave you here because that is not my objective, so I cannot keep scratching for now. We do NEED to see our context and the landscape correctly if we are going to take the next steps… and we need to take the NEXT steps. Because the valley doesn’t stay bones; and the shoot does come up: the grave is not the end.
I believe the Church of flesh and blood is needed in such a time as this. I believe that more than ever we find ourselves in a time when we need the Church: not steeples and budgets, but the church that is conclaves of resilient people reminding themselves that they are not alone. Communities of grace, people of unyielding love, carrying each other in turn through the hardest stretches of our shared journeys because we have made the decision that these journeys shall be shared. It is no mistake that Ezekiel does not raise and create a single skeleton and then a single person living and breathing. God has no small vision. God does start out to save individuals—God is the God of all-or-nothing gambits: let’s raise the whole dang valley of bones!
I work for a Church, so it’s no surprise that I think it’s a special kind of answer to our current plight. Hear me: I do think it’s a special kind of answer. But it doesn’t have to be my church…or any church, per se. What it does need to be is communities of covenant vulnerability and togetherness. We need places where we share our real lives and our real struggles, and we don’t give up on each other or ourselves. We need places that are willing to double down on wonder and curiosity and hope. Not a hope that someone else will fix all this, not magical-thinking hope, but gritty “get in there and bring down the injustices and plant seeds and pull weeds and water the dang ground even when no crop will break up through that parched and weary land.” Hope that says you will not keep me down… because that me is actually us and together we are just too stubborn to lie down and die. The kind of hope that made Ezekiel start talking to bones, as ludicrous as it was.
We are all tired. We have all had too much asked of us. We are all more than a bit paralyzed about whether we can do anything about it. And I’m not sure that I’m in any better place…but I strongly suspect that the way forward will never come so long as I’m looking for it alone. We need each other. And the heart in me that longs for wellness in you is begging you to let the sinews of commitment and the flesh of shared lives and the blood and Spirit of hope flow in you again—to get yourself up, find a group of people whose lives you might imagine will enrich yours and whose lives most surely will be enriched by you,: and go there and hang out there…and let life thrive in you again.
We cannot do this alone. But we can do this. To paraphrase my favorite benediction (thanks to Marvel and the show WandaVision): we have said goodbye (died like this) before… so it stands to reason we will say hello (life will find us together) again. Amen to that!
We went to a planetarium at the Museum of the Rockies and at the end the docent put up one of the new James Webb telescope images that is rocking the internet these days. It was fun to see that image up on the huge globe screen. But what I loved most is what came next. He said, “I thought it would be fun for you to see this, but I can’t really say anything more because I don’t even really understand what we are looking at here.”
I love that comment. I enjoy multi-discipline learning and promoting a large swatch of learning – but most of that is done at a very shallow level. We can master very little in life… we can enjoy a LOT! I enjoy shallow dives into learning about geology, anthropology, astronomy… learning more and more about the wonders of creation. But even if I may regurgitate some of that learning… I must admit I never really know what I’m talking about because there is a wide gulf between reading about something and being an “authority” on a subject.
It’s why I love the title of Fred Craddock’s old preaching book, “As One Without Authority.” I too am a person who speaks a lot about a lot as a non-authority. That is good… so long as I remember to check myself because most of the time, I am barely scratching the surface of the knowledge in any given area. And this, my friends, is what I think Micah means when he says, “walk humbly with your God”. Humility isn’t about debasement. Humility is about a wondrous curiosity attached to an understanding of the limits of our knowledge. God alone is God. We walk with humility before God… but also before each other. We share our wonder, our discoveries, and our curious questions – but always as ones without authority.
Star Wars moment… but really an anything moment. Trolls will troll, and SW fans are the worst. Which is why it’s great to find an uber-fan like my friend Matthew who just appreciates and even defends while admitting the flaws and challenges… (I told you to pass on ALL that you had learned) he commented on fandoms complaints raging on “continuity errors” to the new Kenobi series. There are legit ones. But folks get so “can’t see the forest for the trees” about them. Continuity Errors is code for hating on plot choices to sacred material. It’s when something in a new movie or book is hard to line up with something from a previous book or movie. Star Wars is full of them.
You know what else is full of “continuity errors”. The Bible. (you know… that text for which a great many people claim it’s inerrant and infallible?)
And the clearest continuity errors about which there are whole courses of studies? The four (DIFFERENT) Gospel Accounts. And John? We created a category of synoptic (seen-together) Gospels because John, the sequel to the ”original” trilogy, is so full of continuity errors that the witness is clearly ‘seeing differently’.
And here is the key (yes I’m getting back to SW but you knew I was going to go far afield and then find a connection, right?)… Witness. The Gospel’s full name implies that none of the four ARE the Gospel… but each is “According to…” thus Matthew’s Gospel (and the others respectively) are “Κατα Μαθθαίον” According to Matthew. The Gospel is a story/truth/claim that has no concrete accessible reality. It is a story accessed by stories of witnesses who give us their versions… and together they paint a picture of the “truth”. It is such with all history. (I recently wrote that Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address has no less than 4 authoritative versions from Lincoln himself and none of them are exactly the same as the Associate Press’ copy of the live event.)
So… what we have is witness accounts with continuity errors….
So… it was mind-blowing to me to have his epiphany that we can think this the same thing with the SW universe (which even uses the language of canon for what are authoritative texts approved by the powers that be)… none of this is objectively how it all happened a long, long time ago in a galaxy far away… its all just ”according to” material… oral histories and witness accounts rife with continuity errors… and the truth is out there… but not concrete, objective, unambiguous, attenable story. It’s all just approximations of what happened “from a certain point of view”.
I believe some of the most revelatory and empowering moments in scripture come from moments in which we experience not the divinity of God… but the deep and abiding humanity of God… and particularly God’s vulnerable solidarity with the lament and grief for the brokenness of creation.
On the day after another tragic school shooting that has left at least 19 elementary school children dead and two teachers… in which our children find themselves preparing for another round of active shooter drills in their own classrooms around the nation… in which we take “last day of school” pictures with our kids while recognizing that yesterday was the last day for 19 children and they didn’t even know it. And their parents’ and friends’ worlds were irrevocably broken and taken from them in ways that will resound with unrelenting pain for the rest of their lives… in which this particular grief joins a long litany of such grief.
In the wake of that we find our nation angry, hurt, and looking for answers…
In the wake of that we hug our children harder and longer…
In the wake of that we look at our own concerns and problems as trivial gifts of life….
In the wake of that we ask ourselves why we can’t solve this….
In the wake of that we ask our leaders why they won’t solve this…
In the wake of that we stop… and we crumble… and we grieve…
And I find myself drawn to God’s grief with us.
It was not just “Jesus wept”…
Hosea speaks out the gut-churching compassion of God…
Paul speaks of creations growing in labor-like pangs of lament for what is not yet…
Moses confronts God with responsibility to never give up working toward a better tomorrow…
Isaiah and Exodus speak of God moved to draw close hearing the cries of God’s people…
Jeremiah’s lamentations dance a complex grief with God and alongside God…
Jeremiah speaks again this complexity voicing God’s definitive word: “I am a God nearby, and not far off…”
God is moved to mourn for Moab… to wail even… to sob and weep…
And Jesus… drawing close to the cross, pulls aside to weep for Jerusalem…
“If only you knew the ways that make for peace….”
Today we give ourselves the grace to be bound up in all the feelings.
Today we give ourselves the grace to do nothing because we are world-weary.
Today we give ourselves the grace to rage at the machine and spit in the eye of the hurricane.
Today we give ourselves the grace to name the complex anger-grief that mourns, weeps, and wails.
Today we give ourselves the grace… to be wrapped in the arms of our mother-God.
But tomorrow must be different. We are long overdue to be…
Drawn close to the suffering heart of brokenness
Halted from perpetuating systems of harm and trauma…
Resolved to write a better story… to live our loss through transformed ways of being…
Formed and forming each other in the ways that make for peace…
Vulnerable before each other and with each other and for all the each others.
Oh God… our God… help us to make it so… to make it so beyond our prayers and in our actions.
Oh God… our God… make us to make it so…
Oh God… our God….