First Monday in Advent

“Advent is a season of silence and rest with God. Take time to focus and examine your conscience. What is the shape of your emptiness? How are you still connected to God’s abiding beauty? This Advent, how will you fulfill the work of giving Christ life?”Caryll Houselander, woodcarver and mystic

“When Jesus entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him and saying, ‘Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.'” Matthew 8: 5-6

Advent is a time of ambiguity. It invites us to embrace conflicting images. Not to harmonize them into one, but to simply let our soul be tempered and strengthened by the fire this conflict creates.

In the story of the centurion asking Jesus to heal his servant, we have the warrior and the weak. Our imagination expects several things.

First, since Jesus has just healed a leper, one of the least of these, maybe he’s tired and doesn’t need to heal again.

Second, Jesus isn’t a collaborator with the Romans. Why would he even speak with a centurion—storm trooper of the state?

Third, we expect the mighty centurion to ask for something for himself or one of his family—not to act with compassion for a servant.

Finally, we don’t expect the Roman commander to become an occasion for Jesus to be amazed, saying, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.”

Today, pay attention to your response to ambiguity.

Breathe in. Breathe out. It’s Ad…..vent.

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

First Sunday of Advent

“There is great virtue in practicing patience in small things until the habit of Advent returns to us.” Caryll Houselander, woodcarver and mystic

“Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.”—Romans 13:11

Gathered around the Advent wreath, the youngest child asks: Why do we light this candle? The elder answers: We light the first Advent candle to remind us of the promise of the prophets that a Messiah would come, bringing peace with justice and love to the world.

Advent is about knowing what time it is. Though we try to stay spiritually awake, we are human. We fall asleep. We are lulled into the addictive habits and patterns of the world. We begin to act and think and live like unbelievers—like those whose vision is not shaped by God.

There are basic question that every human will eventually ask. Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? These are the essential questions of the human spirit. They are the questions that launch the quest into the nature of our mystery. Advent is a time specifically set aside in the liturgical year to accompany those questions.

It will require us to walk in dark places, sometimes without even a flicker of light. We will listen to prophets railing about the end of time—exploding our known and familiar world, our moral and cognitive self-understanding—until we are blown back to our essential elements. Advent will reduce us to atoms, bits of stardust. “We are only syllables of the Perfect Word,” says Caryll Houselander. We will be uncreated. We will be made feminine, until our nothingness becomes a nest.

On the first Sunday of Advent we must get ready to get ready. The alarm clock is about to go off. We are about to be roughly roused. We will be shaken to the very depths, so that we may wake up to the truth of ourselves. For this, we must prepare. God invites us on a journey. We are only lacking one piece of information. We have no idea where we are going.

What do you need to do to prepare?

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..

December 2, 1980: Maura, Ita, Dorothy, and Jean

“When a woman is carrying a child she develops a certain instinct of self-defense. It is not selfishness; it is not egoism. It is an absorption into the life within, a folding of self like a little tent around the child’s frailty, a God-like instinct to cherish and, some day, to bring forth life. A closing upon it like the petals of a flower closing upon the dew that shines in the heart. This is precisely the attitude we must have to Christ, the wellspring of Life within us, in the Advent of our contemplation.”Caryll Houselander, woodcarver and mystic

“Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of Abba in heaven.”Matthew 7:21

On December 2, 1980, Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan—Catholic missionaries from the United States—were murdered by National Guardsmen in El Salvador. Dorothy and Jean were driving to the airport outside San Salvador to pick up Maura and Ita.

On the way back from the airport, they were pulled over at a roadblock by National Guardsmen. The four women were taken to an isolated location, raped, tortured, and shot. Then they were buried in a shallow grave beside the road. The National Guardsmen were also “good Catholics.”

These four women died in the same manner as many of the poor Salvadoran people they served. They are martyrs because they laid down their lives in love for the poor—just as Jesus calls all Christians to be prepared to do. The witness of these four women teaches us about listening to the call of Christ, taking up the cross and following Jesus, and being born again.

A stone cross and small plaque mark the country road where the four women were buried. It reads: “Receive them Lord into your Kingdom.”

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

First Thursday in Advent

 "Fishers of Men" by Rex DeLoney, Little Rock, Arkansas
“Fishers of Men” by Rex DeLoney, Little Rock, Arkansas

“This Advent, our Advent, is a time of creation. God’s spirit abides in us—brooding over our waters—shaping and forming us, being formed and shaped by us. God alone knows what we shall become. God has visited us with grace and favor. Are we ready to become Light?”Caryll Houselander, woodcarver and mystic

“As Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers … And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately, they left their nets and followed him”.—Matthew 4: 18-20

There is a church near my house called “Fisherman of Men Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith, Inc.” The insistently masculine language always makes me laugh. It’s as if the church-namers knew that the narrow image of a patriarchal God was on its way out and so over- compensate. Or to paraphrase Shakespeare, “Me thinks they doth protest too much.”

Paradoxically, I find this invitation from Jesus to Peter and Andrew, then James and John, to be distinctly subversive of patriarchy. Jesus woos them like a lover. He seduces them into leaving their fathers’ houses, like young women leaving home to join the home of their husband’s family.

These men respond to Jesus as if they are in love. There is no cognitive decision making. They fall in love. They drop their nets—representing their known world. They follow, like a lover after her beloved. They have eyes only for him.

When were you last in love?

Breathe in. Breathe out. It’s Ad……vent.

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

The Good Book and Gay Marriage

Bill Wylie-Kellermann

Yesterday in Minneapolis, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) crossed an historic threshold as Presbyterians in the Twin Cities area voted to eliminate all official barriers to the ordination of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people as ministers and lay leaders in their 2.4 million member denomination.  With their vote the Twin Cities Presbyterians were the 87th Presbytery (a regional governing body) to vote yes, giving the denomination the majority of votes needed to approve the landmark change.

In light of this historic event and other debates closer to home, I want to repost a 2008 item below.

***************************************

One of my faith heroes and friends, Bill Wylie-Kellermann, a United Methodist serving as pastor at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Detroit, recently engaged in a faith-based debate for Newsweek about what Scripture teaches on same-sex marriage. I found it very insightful. His dialogue partner was Barrett Duke from the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Their online discussion was a follow-up to the Newsweek cover story by Lisa Miller, Our Mutual Joy.

It’s this kind of thoughtful interaction that can help people of faith grow together in Christ—while hopefully (in my opinion) moving us toward a Christian faith that asks about the “content of one’s character,” one’s fidelity to God, and how one manifests God’ love both materially and spiritually to the poor and the least of these, rather than sexual customs or mores.

Another interesting exchange to recommend is Jon Stewart’s interview with Mike Huckabee on social conservatism and gay marriage. Respectful, funny, and enlightening.

Here’s a bit from the Newsweek exchange, but read the whole thing:

Bill Wylie-Kellerman: I found the cover story by Lisa Miller quite good over all, and stimulating, raising a number of things about which I’d like to talk, beginning with the very nature of marriage in church and society. That is actually a matter of some theological confusion. I love the Bible, and stake my life in the biblical witness, and it is that which calls me to the struggle for full inclusion of gay people and their gifts. I know we disagree.

Barrett Duke: Greetings. I look forward to our conversation. This is a very important topic, not only for the church but also for our culture. I believe Christians must submit to the Bible’s teachings, and I believe the Bible is unequivocal in its teaching that homosexual behavior is sinful. That being the case, it is impossible for me to accept same-sex marriage, which legitimizes a sinful behavior.

I think Lisa Miller’s NEWSWEEK article was atrocious. It was obviously biased in its attitude from the start. It is evident to me that Lisa already had her mind made up and was simply interested in trying to convince her readers that she was right. Of course, she is within her right to do that, but she was hardly honest in her treatment of the Bible in the process. She dismissed it without even giving it opportunity to speak. Her comment, “Religious objections to gay marriage are rooted not in the Bible at all, then, but in custom and tradition …” was offensive and uninformed. My objections to same-sex marriage are very much rooted in the Bible. If NEWSWEEK actually intended to be an honest mediator of this issue, they should have published pro and con articles by respected Bible scholars rather than engage in such blatantly obvious opinion journalism.

Wylie-Kellerman: By laying out a clear argument, public conversations are invited. I also know it was a great breath of air for gay folks to read a theologically literate argument on their behalf. They are so constantly hit over the head with Scripture, to which we must surely come.

Ms. Miller called the mix of civil and religious elements of marriage an often “messy conflation of the two.” I agree. On the one hand, a marriage is a civil contract between two people and the state with certain rights, responsibilities and privileges implied. On the other, it is also often an act of worship between two people before God, surrounded by prayer and support from a worshiping community and with the presence of ongoing pastoral care. It seems to me only over the former that the state should have authority. In the Episcopal Church, for example, marriage is one of the sacraments. In Methodism, it is a service of worship. This means we have the intrusion and participation of the state in a sacramental act of worship. That’s more than messy.

Duke: I’m sure some considered the article a “breath of air,” but they have not been well served. It is not a theologically literate argument. It didn’t even deal with many of the key Bible passages. Reading Ms. Miller’s article, one could get the impression that the New Testament is silent about the subject of homosexuality, which of course it certainly is not. Furthermore, my objections to same-sex marriage are not based solely on the Bible’s teachings. The Bible informs my opinion about this issue, but the question I think we are trying to answer is, what does God have to say about this? It is clear that the Bible condemns homosexual behavior. Since I believe that the Bible is God’s word, and I have good reason for this belief, then it must mean that God condemns homosexual marriage, so the Bible cannot be used to help create an argument for same-sex marriage. Whether one wants to create a nonreligious, i.e., civil, marriage or not, it doesn’t change what is the clear biblical teaching about homosexual behavior.

Wylie-Kellerman: I want to go forward here speaking out of the conversation which I hear going on in Scripture, one pertinent to the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people. The direct sanctions in the Levitical code against male homosexual acts arise during the period of the exile. They are part of the purity code that set boundaries against assimilation into Babylon. Much of those laws concern dietary restrictions. Think Daniel and Meshach and friends and their refusal to consume the imperial diet. The boundaries of the community are being proscribed and protected by the code. As I understand it, the body itself becomes the image of community. So all of the body’s entry and exit points, all orifices are regulated: what goes in as resistance to the empire—like kosher table—has served Judaism’s cultural identity throughout the Diaspora. By the time of Jesus, however, these boundaries had been turned on their sides. The purity code was turned against women, the sick and disabled, and poor people. They were the unclean.

At great personal cost, Jesus set about in his life and ministry to welcome the unclean into his community and to his table. He violated the purity code with his body, even finally on the cross. In the Book of Acts (chapter 10), the Holy Spirit urges Peter in a vision to eat unclean foods, and he says that would be an “abomination.” Precisely so. But the Spirit persists, and he accedes, which really means he is able to welcome and eat with a gentile, Cornelius, otherwise unclean, then on his way to visit. St. Paul spends a lot of his correspondence thinking this through in writing about the law (more than the purity code, but really set in motion by its stricture). For him the issue is whether the “wall of hostility” (Ephesians) would run down the middle of the common table, even the communion table, dividing Jews and gentiles in the Christian community. In the church, the movement is toward fuller and deeper inclusion. It is that which culminates in Paul saying there is neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, male nor female for we are all one in Christ. In the context of the American freedom struggle, this was understood by the church (sometimes poorly and certainly belatedly) to imply, there is neither black nor white. Today I hear the summons to say, in Christ, there is neither gay nor straight.

Continue reading “The Good Book and Gay Marriage”

Al-Zaidi’s Shoe Protest and “Weapons of the Weak”

There is something of the biblical prophets in Iraqi journalist Mutadar al-Zaidi’s protest against President Bush at yesterday’s news conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.

Bush was in Baghdad to sign a “security agreement” with Prime Minister Maliki, which calls for U.S. troops to leave Iraq in 2011 – eight years, and thousands of lives, after the America’s 2003 unwarranted invasion.

Al-Zaidi, a cameraman for Cairo-based al-Baghdadiya TV, who had been kidnapped last year by Shia militants, apparently just snapped when President Bush said that the Iraq invasion had been “necessary for US security, Iraqi stability, and world peace” and that the “war is not over.” Al-Zaidi hurled his shoes – a devastating cultural insult – at President Bush’s head from a distance of about 12 feet, before he was thrown to the ground and hauled away. (Video.)

While most news reports have turned the incident into a joke and focused on President Bush’s quick evasive action and his quip about the shoes being size 10, it’s worth looking at what al-Zaidi actually said.

President Bush: “The war is not over.”

Mutadar al-Zaidi: “This is a farewell kiss, you dog!”

When the first shoe missed its target, al-Zaidi grabbed a second shoe and heaved it too, causing the president to duck a second time.

Mutadar al-Zaidi: “This is from the widows, the orphans, and those who were killed in Iraq!”

There is something of the biblical prophetic curse in al-Zaidi’s actions and words.

In Deuteronomy 27, Moses says: ‘Cursed be he who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’ (Deuteronomy 27:19)

Proverbs 26 is disgustingly clear about fools: “As a dog returneth to his vomit, [so] a fool returneth to his folly.” (Proverbs 26:11)

Lamentations 5 reflects the desperation of a conquered people: “Remember, O LORD, what is come upon us: consider, and behold our reproach. Our inheritance is turned to strangers, our houses to aliens. We are orphans and fatherless, our mothers [are] as widows. We have drunken our water for money; our wood is sold unto us. Our necks [are] under persecution: we labor, [and] have no rest.” (Lamentations 5:1-5)

Al-Zaidi is currently being “questioned” (God help him and us!) by security forces to determine whether he acted alone. The streets of Baghdad are filled with people in support of al-Zaidi’s prophetic protest.

This “shoe protest” against President Bush is an example to me of a particularly effective symbolic  protest against the oppressor by the oppressed. It’s an example of using “the weapons of the weak“, everyday acts of cultural and political resistance by those who would otherwise be viewed as powerless, against the the powerful.

Jesus Bees and Street Honey

I love bees. I took a semester of bee-keeping when I was studying biology at the University of California, Davis. It was always a great adventure to ride my bike out to the veterinary medicine school where there was a “study hive.” I would spend hours tracking particular bees in the large glass-walled hive. For extra credit in that course, I wrote a collection of “bee poems” to submit with my research.

Someday, I’ll take up the renegade art of urban beekeeping and sell street honey in the inner city. (It’s actually illegal to keep bees inside the District of Columbia.) Read  here for more on the joys of backyard beekeeping.

Bees also have a time-honored place in Christian history. There are several mentions of bees in the Bible. And they are considered to have attributes of Jesus due to their honey and sting. According to an interesting article by Croatian vet students about animal symbolism in Christian art:

Honey symbolizes gentleness and charity, and sting symbolizes justice. Furthermore, bees are of the symbols of resurrection. Three winter months during which it does not come out from the bee-hive remind us of three days after Christ’s death when his body was invisible, then appeared again and was resurrected. The organisation of life in the bees community, with perfectly defined interrelations and relation to the queen-bee, became almost the ideal of Christian virtues. On the other hand, bees and bee hive symbolise eloquence, and are presented with the three known holy orators called “Doctores melliflui” (scholars sweet as honey). They are: St. Ambrosius, St. Bernard of Clariveaux, and St. John Chrysostom.

There’s also a fascinating bible study out there somewhere on Judges 14 where a hive of bees in the carcass of the lion distracts Sampson as he is on his way to “take” his enemy wife. Tell me what you find. The Hebrew word for bee is: devorah. It’s etymologically related to the words for “speaking” and “choosing a direction.” It’s associated with prophecy.

Of course, most folks have heard that bees are under attack from climate change and mono-crop agriculture. So eat your honey, plant native wildflowers, don’t use pesticides, and love your bees..

Biden: First Catholic Vice President

Another historic “first” that hasn’t been too highlighted in the news is that Obama’s victory brings with it Joe Biden as the first Catholic vice president of the United States. Biden is a good representative of most American Catholics. He loves his church. He respects its traditions. He listens carefully to its teachings and to the bishops who are its shepherds. He tries his best to live out his faith in the midst of the world. He forms his own conscience. He tries to act with mercy. He also demands that bishops provide real pastoral answers to contemporary issues, not simply archaic legalism. Sometimes this puts him into creative dissent with some aspects of the Catholic hierarchy.

Oh well. That’s like most of us. We say our prayers and get up the next morning and try to follow Jesus.

I pray that there will be an American bishop who is strong enough and secure enough to engage Joe Biden in an authentic, intellectual, compassionate, public dialogue on the role of the church and the state, the way scripture shapes and guides our values, the centrality of respect for human life and dignity, the role of forgiveness in public life, the way churches and governments can participate in God’s loving vision for the world beyond denominations, creeds, or nationalism. But this needs to be a bishop who respects Biden and his role, not one who is trying to punish him, humiliate him, or use him as a foil for what’s wrong with “liberalism.”.

Cracking the Architecture of Despair

I had a wonderful time Tuesday night at the Servant Leadership School in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Thanks to Tim Kumfer, I was able to debut material from my upcoming book Who Killed Donte Manning?: The Story of an American Neighborhood. It’s due out in May 2009 from Apprentice House press at Loyola College in Baltimore.

I appreciated the response from the audience who asked the essential question of our day – and maybe any day: How do we maintain hope in times of despair?

Since we were talking about urban architecture and how it influences the soul of a community, I answered citing Mark 13:1-2 as an example. And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” and Jesus replied, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down.”

When we survey the “great buildings” around us – which we might understand to be the overarching architecture of despair – we hear Jesus saying: See this mighty facade meant to intimidate you and make you feel small and helpless? I say to you: Not one pebble of despair will remain because I will destabilize these monuments to might by cracking their foundations with hope.

Hope is a decision we have to make every day. Just like they say in A.A., you’ve just got to be hopeful for the next 24 hours. We are surrounded by a world that is addicted to despair. The addiction is to hopelessness, and therefore helplessness. But we can decide to resist that addiction by being intentional about choosing to live in hope. We make that decision every day, one day at a time.

One thing that helps us choose hope is by breaking down the architecture of despair into its component parts. Learn the details of the stories inside that architecture. In every way and in all places, the actual human stories within the facades will reveal – yes, terror, yes, great injustice – and also, always, human ingenuity, compassion, love, acts of kindness, an irrational acts of hope that crack the foundations of the architecture of despair..

Keeping an Eye on Things

When I want to see live gospel stories, I go to the Amoco station at 14th and Euclid in my Washington, D.C., neighborhood.

One Saturday morning I stopped at the gas station for a cup of coffee. I was standing at the front door lowering my lips to a steaming Styrofoam cup when the Wonder Bread truck pulled up to unload the weekend deliveries. The driver opened the cargo bay doors and began off-loading flats of bread.

Creative Commons http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/
Roadside Pictures/Creative Commons 3.0

Across the parking lot, a woman in her late 40s saw the truck full of bread and made directly for it. She was thin. Her clothes were not clean. Her face was drawn with cold.

The driver seemed nervous to leave her standing next to his open bay doors as he wheeled the deliveries into the store. He glanced at me as if to say, “Keep an eye on things.” She did indeed appear to be weighing whether she could grab a couple of loaves and run. She didn’t.

When the driver returned, she asked him very politely, but with a certain level of desperation, if she could have some bread.

“Sister,” he said, “it’s not mine to give.” She asked again, for just one loaf. With some anguish, he turned his back on her, saying again, “It’s not mine to give.” She walked away.

The driver looked at me, embarrassed. He seemed genuinely ashamed that he didn’t give bread to a sister in need.

The driver was correct in saying that the bread was not his to give. There are inventories to be filled and every item must be accounted for, lest he be accused of stealing. In one sense, the bread is “owned” by Interstate Bakeries Corp. In another sense, a more human sense, bread is to be shared.

In the crisp morning air, Jesus’ question in Luke’s gospel was stretched like a spiritual tension wire between the delivery driver and myself—Who among you, when your child asks for bread, would give a stone?

LAST AUTUMN, another scene unfolded at that same intersection. I attended an impromptu prayer service on the sidewalk across from the gas station. A young man, Erlin, had been killed there in a gang altercation two nights earlier. The word went through the neighborhood that his mother wanted to pray.

Twenty people were crowded around a scrawny maple tree. Someone had taped Erlin’s picture to the trunk. His elementary-school-age nieces and nephews held votive candles purchased at the dollar store.

Erlin’s buddies from his “crew” were there too. They lined up behind his mother, forming a kind of honor guard. They wore dark glasses. A few had guns shoved down the front of their nylon running pants. Some, out of respect for his mother, had put their weapons—thick chains and baseball bats with nails hammered into the ends—behind the dumpster a few yards away.

A woman from Erlin’s church led prayers. The little kids said they hoped “Uncle Erlin” was in heaven. Local activists pleaded for an end to the violence, begging his crew not to retaliate.

Finally, his mother asked to speak. In her soft Jamaican accent, she said how much she loved her son. She said he struggled to do the right thing, and that watching him struggle had broken her heart.

Then she turned to his friends—his fellow gang members—and said the most amazing thing. “He was my son,” she said. “You were his brothers. Now you are my sons and I am your mother. Now we are family. This is the way it is.” She expected his “brothers” to be at her table for jerk chicken and potatoes any time they were hungry. She expected them to help her fix things around the apartment. They must come to her with their problems, and she would pray for each of them every day.

In the gathering dark, I heard the line from John’s gospel echo and twist. “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing by, he said, ‘Woman, behold your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.”

There is nothing at the intersection of 14th and Euclid to mark the miraculous moment when the kinship model of Erlin’s family shifted. Nothing to mark his mother’s blunt and radical understanding of what makes a family. But the plain prayers of children and ordinary people have soaked the dusty ground. The blood of a young man, who struggled to do the right thing, anoints the place—like on a sacrificial altar.

Ownership vs. kinship. Bread alongside blood. Where do you go to see the gospel unfold?

Reprinted with permission from Sojourners, (800) 714-7474, www.sojo.net.

.