Tracking Jesus Inside the Empire

I moved to Washington, D.C., in 1986 for a nine month internship with Sojourners community. Twenty-two years later, I still live in D.C. I’ve lived in three different houses, all in the same neighborhood of Columbia Heights, all within four blocks of each other.

Rooftops in Columbia Heights
Rooftops in Columbia Heights

I still work for Sojourners. Over the 22 years, I’ve had five different jobs for which I was more or less paid: peace ministry intern, director of the internship program, assistant editor, associate editor, and poetry editor. (On the side, I also freelanced as a pastor/worship leader; had a few horticultural gigs working at the greenhouse and herbarium on the grounds of the Washington National Cathedral and a landscaping job for a military retirement home; taught poetry classes; led retreats; and proctored the tests for those taking the GREs.) I live six blocks from where I work.

Even though I live in the capital city of the most militarily powerful country on the globe, my “world” has remained relatively small and contained. I didn’t intend to stay in one place for so long. My desire was to be much more itinerant—owning little, moving frequently, living in the moment. A “bird of the air,” a “lily of the field.” More along the lines of a free-wheeling St. Francis, rather than a cloistered St. Clare.

But, it turned out to be “otherwise,” as poet Jane Kenyon puts it. And I’m extremely grateful for the “otherwise.” I realize now that this accidental vow of stability has rooted me in a neighborhood and given me a perspective on events that I might have missed … otherwise.

It’s given me a perspective on empire and Pax Americana from the vantage point of those who live 20 blocks from the White House, in the District’s Columbia Heights neighborhood that has had a 30% poverty rate and 11% unemployment rate all the years I’ve lived here.

This experience now leads me now to explore a “theology of place” in urban America from the vantage point of my 100-year-old row house in Columbia Heights.

That’s what you’ll find on this blog … questions about place, people, transition, rootedness, dispossession, owning, stewardship, urban biophilia, green cities, blocks abandoned by empire, oral histories, cracks in the architecture of despair, city planning, urban ministry, city theology, the art of the unexpected, indigenous urban worship, beauty breeding hope, poetry, murals, magical urbanism, guerilla gardening, bible-busting, and tracking Jesus through the back alleys and side streets of “the most important city in the world,” as an obnoxious advertisement for Riggs Bank used to say.

I’m hoping it’ll be the most amazing pilgrimage one can take without ever leaving home.

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Second Wednesday in Advent

"The Holy Thing" by Bruce Manwaring
“The Holy Thing” by Bruce Manwaring

“Everyone should open their heart very wide to joy, should welcome it and let it be buried very deeply in them; and they should wait the flowering with patience. Of course, the first ecstasy will pass, but because in real joy Christ grows in us, the time will come when joy will put forth shoots and the richness and sweetness of the person who rejoiced will be Christ’s flowering.”Caryll Houselander, woodcarver and mystic

In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, ‘Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.’”Luke 1:26-28

The eight-day Jewish “Festival of Lights” called Hanukkah just concluded. It commemorates the victory of the Maccabees in reclaiming the temple in Jerusalem’s from the Greek-Syrian ruler Antiochus IV. As the people prepared to dedicate the temple, they realized they only had enough purified oil to kindle the menorah for a single day. Miraculously, the light continued to burn for eight days. Each evening of Hanukkah one more menorah candle is lit with a special blessing. The candles are not to be “used” for light, but only for enjoyment, savoring their beauty.

“We will prevail through the dark night,” sings Rabbi Shefa Gold in her Hanukkah song from Zechariah, “but not by might, and not by power, but by Your Spirit. These are the words of God.”

Jewish midrash tells an interesting story on how the first menorah was made. Apparently, Moses had a difficulty remembering God’s instructions on menorah making. Every time Moses left the mountain he would forget the pattern, so God engraved the design into the flesh of Moses palm. Torah scholar Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg says that after this experience Moses’ hands took on new power. Later, when Moses instructs Joshua to lead the Israelite force against Amalek, Moses does not direct with his staff but only his open hands. “In this gesture, according to one midrash,” writes Zornberg, “ Moses models prayer to his people fighting below. In a surrealistic description, their involvement in battle is refigured as a miming of Moses’ prayerful gestures: ‘they saw Moses kneeling down, and they knelt down, falling upon his face and they fell upon their faces, spreading their hands to heaven.’” Whenever the people modeled Moses, they prevailed.

What a powerful image of nonviolent resistance! In the midst of a battle, all the Israelites knelt down to pray as Moses instructed them. “As long as the Israelites gazed upwards and submitted their hearts to God in heaven, they would prevail,” says the Mishna Rosh Hashana, “and if not, they would fail.”

What healing of the masculine to you need in your life?

Ad … vent. A d v e n t (slowly breathe in on the “Ad” part and out on the “vent” part)…There! You prayed today. Keep it up!

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print..