“Our very life depends on continuous acts of beginning. But these beginnings are out of our hands; they decide themselves.
Beginning precedes us, creates us. There is nothing to fear in the act of beginning.
More often than not it knows the journey ahead better than we ever could."
John O’Donohue

27 December 2015: "Free-Range Parenting," Sermon at First Christian Church Sacramento and Tapestry Ministries

Luke 2:41-52: Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him.After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house? But they did not understand what he said to them.Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years and in divine and human favor. 

I’m not sure exactly when it is developmentally, but there is a point in childhood when “going missing” stops being a frightening prospect and becomes a need and a source of exhilaration. It’s not a permanent change. We continue to crave paternal care at turns even in our own adulthood. But it is a crucial point that marks the beginning of our creation of an independent self and the beginning of our own unique journey with God.

It came early for both of my children. At 4 Olivia used to love to hide behind the church organ or under the pastor’s desk during coffee hour, sometimes with toys or art supplies to keep her company, sometimes just talking to herself. At 5 Eli lived inside perpetually locked doors in our home because he would often just wander out into the neighborhood. I remember being a kindergartener myself and separating from my grandmother in department stores seeking solitude, hiding under the clothing racks and often falling asleep there before I was eventually (and frantically) found. 

I remember feeling seen and knowing well that when the time came to be found, I would be found. And I relished the quiet of my enclosure. I was able to hear the passing conversations around me, and also able to ignore them when the movements of my own mind and heart were of greater interest. Sometimes I imagined. Sometimes I prayed. But I never felt afraid, and I knew already that my solitude was sacred. I have since sought out that same solitude and intimacy with God that I discovered in my childhood, nourished by many experiences of “going missing.”

In today’s gospel passage, the 12-year-old Jesus “goes missing” in the heart of a bustling city, having separated from his parents and their pilgrimage group. It’s been suggested to me by a friend that this story of Jesus tarrying in the temple is absurd, evidence of the fictional whim of the gospel writer. After all, what parent could lose track of their 12-year-old son for three days, only to find him caring for himself and others beyond anything they imagined him capable?

Our struggle to imagine the scenario is in part due to historical and cultural distance. We have a distorted picture of the gospel when we attempt to impose our own experience of traveling with children onto the story of the holy family’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem. We position our own hypervigilance and constant entertainment of even older children as the norm of parenting. But in the context of ancient Palestine, children were part of a larger community on the move together. They were clearly cared for but expected to follow understood protocols for keeping in motion. They would travel by foot or animal for days at a time with multiple families organized for safety and shared experience.

The holy family was also, we should remember, a family with a refugee history, accustomed to traveling long, difficult distances in search of basic security. The system of collective migration in the ancient world--in pilgrimage, resettlement, and exodus alike--would have demanded a great deal of self-sufficiency from children no longer “in arms.” They would not have remained consistently within a nuclear family unit as the larger group moved forward. They would have been loosely attended to by the whole community of adults, and would have structures of care for each other with older children tending to younger. We should imagine these ancient pilgrimages as moving neighborhoods, improvising shared responsibility without the benefit of a home base. The travels were extreme and exhausting, and the possibility of a child being lost in the fray, though it may shock us, was not distant.  

We are also estranged from this gospel story by our tendency to read all of the Jesus narratives through the lens of his exceptionalism. Ironically, even as we celebrate the incarnation this time of year, we tend emphasize the divinity of Jesus rather than his humanness. Surely in this case the gospel writer intended this to some extent. This gospel is one of precious few windows the scripture gives us into the life of Jesus as a child--the preserved story of Jesus’ life in the Bible essentially leaps from his infancy to his adult ministry. There are a few exceptions to be found outside of the New Testament canon, but we rarely if ever get to read those.

My personal favorite comes from the Gospel of Philip, a fragment of Coptic text found in the Egyptian desert in the 1950s, a part of the groundbreaking Nag Hammadi discovery. In it, Jesus is a young boy, playing in the streets with a group of friends. One of his friends, a boy named Zeno, accidentally falls from the roof of a house and dies. Already aware that Jesus is different from the other children, the townspeople immediately turn on him, blaming him for the boy’s death. Exasperated with denying the accusations, the boy Jesus resurrects Zeno and demands that he set the record straight. It is our tradition’s version of the classic superhero narrative, the strange and awkward discovery of supernatural powers, and the need to reconcile them with a world that does not understand them. We find that too in today’s gospel passage: Jesus stepping out into power that others cannot readily accept, then stepping back into “obedience” and social norms for a time as his wisdom and abilities continue to grow.
But I think we miss something crucial in the story if we focus only on the extraordinary qualities of Jesus, without seeing our own children, and ourselves, in him. Clearly, Jesus’ wisdom and courage were exceptional even to parents of children who grew up quickly in the harsh realities of ancient life. All of the adults in the story are stunned by Jesus’ insight and confidence. He is left in the story to “grow in wisdom,” with this background experience as a marker of his exceptional future. But truthfully, all children coming of age have the capacity to stun us with their God-given wisdom and courage, and often do if we are paying attention.

A few years ago, a parent and blogger, Lenore Skenazy, published what has become a wildly popular and controversial book titled “Free Range Parenting: Raising Safe, Self-Reliant Kids.” In the book and many posts and articles since Skenazy argues that Americans live in the generation of “the most wanted child,” the child born of privilege and fantasies of exceptionalism. We live in the age of “helicopter parenting,” where parents intervene in the smallest interpersonal struggles among children and map out their their futures in excruciating detail. Skenazy’s response is that, in a time of both rational and irrational fear, we must give our children more freedom than we believe we can. We must offer them, as early as possible in childhood, the space to move through the world with their own discretion and their own devices.

There was a time last year when my son Eli, then 9 years old, begged for the independence to walk five blocks alone in Berkeley to visit a friend. I thought a lot of this passage and of Mary’s state of mind as I deliberated too long over the request. Eli is my dreamer, and spends most of the day elsewhere--imagining himself as one character or another in elaborate dramas of good and evil. I worry about his willingness to remember that he is not actually a highly-trained ninja warrior as he crosses the street. I worry about his tendency to incorporate everyone around him into his games, and how that might be exploited. But his desire was so sincere and so urgent that I could not deny him. I sent him on his way with a dozen specific instructions and a cell phone to text me each time he started to cross a street, if anyone spoke to him, and when he arrived at his destination. He dutifully, though impatiently, complied. After a few hours of play time, he told the host parent he was going to walk back home. Since we had not made a preliminary plan, she was unsure that he should do so alone. She tried calling me, but I was showering and not picking up the phone. Deferring to caution, she insisted on walking Eli home.

By the time he arrived, he was a mess of tears. “I thought I was finally grown up enough to be alone for a few minutes.” It was almost two days before he fully recovered from the hurt. As I reflected on that experience while writing this sermon, I sensed that Eli might have felt something like Audre Lorde when she wrote: “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crushed into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” And I realized that both in my overprotective actions and in the implicit contract between myself and the other parents in my circle, I was teaching my son two things: a) the world and the people in it are not safe for you, and b) you have no agency to keep yourself safe. They were not new lessons. I realized that they were encoded in practically every aspect of our relationship since his birth.

The alternative honestly frightens me. The alternative is to acknowledge that our work is not to keep our own children, our biological or chosen children, safe from a world of danger. It is to make the world safe for all children, to invite the reality that all children are our own children, and that we must allow them to meet the world and to meet God on their own terms, despite the dangers. 

In the aftermath of her book on free-range parenting, Lenore Skenazy has set her attention to resisting the forces of alarmism that drive adults to fear the sight of unattended children, to report parents to the police for neglect when 9, 10, 11, 12 year old children are left to play or wander alone in less than perfectly controlled environments. I have some resistance to the metaphor of God as a kind of supernatural parent. I believe that God operates outside of our understanding of such relationships, and meets us in ways we cannot pattern or expect. But there is a parallel here to those times when we sense that God has gone quiet, has disappeared in the midst of our journey. We grow in the knowledge of God’s love and care especially when they seem least readily apparent, when we are trying on our own hands and feet and seeing how far they can take us. It is true that we have genuine reason to worry for our children, in a world rife with disappointments and dangers. But my fear is that our ways of protecting our children constrain their discovery of their sacred purpose and strength. As Lenore Skenazy wrote in Free Range Parenting: “We don’t remember the times that our parents held our handlebars. We remember the time they let go.”

Even more importantly as Christians, we have to see that our ways of keeping our children safe from a position of American privilege fuel discrimination and isolation in the broader web of our human relations. Those we deem “our” children take precedence over the children of others, and are judged more worthy of full lives, whether we take this view conscious or unconsciously. But our faith teaches us that all children of God are our children. In his last Christmas sermon, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.”

We cannot pretend that our children are growing up into a peaceful, secure, and civilized world. But it is irresponsible to try to protect them from the dangerous world they will have to live in as adults. Our children haven't yet isolated themselves by selfishness and indifference; they do not fall easily into the error of despair. They are considerably braver and more creative than most adults. Our responsibility to them is not to pretend that if we don't look, evil will go away, but to help them, and more often than not to watch them and learn from them, as they discover new means to contend with it.

From a position of exaggerated privilege, we are able to make choices for our children that, whether or not we admit it, operate at the exclusion of families whose lives are infinitely more harrowing than our own. We are able, or believe ourselves able, to guard our children by the fiercest standards, and this version of parenting is celebrated. Our hyperattention to every detail of children’s well-being and formation is taken as basic sanity, despite the insane things it makes us do. “The idea is that if you’re worrying, then you’re doing the right thing,” says Lawrence Balter, a professor at New York University. Worrying “is like a demonstration to yourself that you’re being responsible,” he says. It has become our national pastime.” 

I believe that a part of what Mary “held in her heart” following Jesus’ disappearance  was the dawning realization that the child Jesus, though he was chronologically young and vulnerable, was not ultimately her possession or her sole responsibility. She knew, and we as parents, whether biological or not, must know that our children’s well-being and destiny lie with God and with the complex world that they will inherit. And it is perhaps most troubling to realize that they are prepared. That they already know what they need to know, much sooner and with much more certainty than we can imagine. To acknowledge this is to acknowledge that we, too, have had for so long all that we ever needed to navigate the beautiful, terrifying world. We have the love of God, the resources of community, and if we will accept it, the urgent intent to make safe passage and exploration the inheritance of all children, everywhere.

A poet once wrote, “There is a gate to Christmas. It is an ancient, tiny gate--child wide, and child high.” May that be the gate we enter as we walk into this new year, as the children we have been and still are, and with the children who, ultimately, we are all called to parent into self-reliance.

8 November 2015: "100 Square Feet," Sermon at Tapestry Ministries

Jesus was simply not interested in people’s relations to God in abstraction from their material practices and conditions. He touched souls bodily, and bodies soulfully, as sites of spiritual healing and material well-being. ~Catherine Keller

Scripture: Mark 12:38-44
As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at the banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Each of the narrative lectionary readings this week introduces us to the figure of the widow. The simplicity of that naming is deceptive. We could spend an entire sermon series exploring the person of the widow and what she represented for ancient Jewish morality and early Christian culture. We have glimpses of that depth here in the gospel reading. If we take a moment to see past the basic truth of her poverty, we see that Jesus names the widow as a moral exemplar and teacher of the gospel. She is honored for her courage and her faith. Jesus upholds her actions as a direct critique of the others gathered.

But if we read just a bit back in the story, we can see that the widow’s presence in the gathering guides us to much more than a trite stewardship sermon about giving until it hurts. Jesus says, “Beware of the scribes who…have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses…” Which is to say, those gathered are not worthy of blame only for failing to give sacrificially to the treasury. More importantly, Jesus points out that what they are hoarding is stolen wealth, acquired through active oppression of the most vulnerable in society. For a widow, a small dwelling may have been her only remaining resource for herself and her children in the wake of a life tragedy. The widow’s “mite,” as we have come to call it, could well have been compelled by a culture demanding tribute. But it can equally be seen an act of defiance, a claim to the blessing of God despite her dehumanization at the hands of speculators. It is a blessing that Jesus readily conveys and invites into his ministry.

The gospel text presents some familiar dangers. It is far too easy to read the story of the widow’s mite as one more instance of Christianity’s moral triumph over the iniquity of ancient Judaism—as the need for Christianity to redeem and redirect wayward Jews. The gospel also bears the danger of romanticizing poverty, suggesting to us that the widow’s destitution buys her easy moral standing. The theologian Amy-Jill Levine argues that it was precisely this question that likely shaped this passage historically. The disciples, as we know, defined themselves by their willingness to abandon incomes, property, and families to follow Jesus with nothing more than a staff and a robe. It is common for us as Christians to understand this refusal of the corrupting influence of the world, this willingness to live on the daily provision of God, as uniquely about Jesus—and therefore uniquely about us. But by the time of the writing of the gospels, there had been a significant tradition of Jewish voluntary poverty, and the Jesus movement owes no small part of its image of sacrificial discipleship to that tradition.

This choice of poverty surely stood in opposition to the excess of the Roman Empire. And the gospel often depicts Jewish communities as pawns of the empire, fully corrupted by the love of money and power. But a more historically accurate picture of the controversy, Levine argues, is that there was argument both for and against the abandonment of family and property as a means of devotion. I believe we have these same controversies now. There were and continue to be serious questions about whether poverty itself is sacred. And both Jewish and Christian traditions have built ethical frameworks to support families and communities through the thoughtful use of resources as an equally legitimate form of devotion. They suggest that there are ways of living in and of the world that are also the ways of God.

We also encounter the widow as a “type” in the reading from 1 Kings. Her circumstances are possibly more dire. The scripture tells us that she was gathering sticks to make a last meal for herself and her son with the little bit of meal and oil left for them, knowing that she had nothing more to provide. She hoped, we can presume, for a peaceful death. God offers her reality to Elijah as provision and as teacher. In nourishing Elijah through her, God also provides for the widow and her son, interceding in crisis and converting what little remains into enough for the family to contemplate a future. It is worth noting that no charity is active in the way we usually understand it. God saves those in need through those in need. God combines the resources of the marginalized to create abundance. And God would rather work there than anywhere else.

I can’t leave this passage without saying a word about what happens next. In the text immediately following where the lectionary leaves off, the widow’s son does die—or at least goes into respiratory arrest—presumably from the continuing effects of malnutrition and exposure. The widow blames Elijah, for offering hope only for her to suffer her son’s death shortly after. Elijah takes the boy away to his room and begs God to revive him, and God does. It is my sense that this passage was needed by the history writer to correct for any impression that Elijah’s magical powers were responsible for feeding the widow and her son, to make it clear that it is God’s movement working miracles beyond Elijah’s power.   

The scripture gives us the widow, then, as a model of faith at the absolute end of probability, the place where only God can turn despair to hope. But the scripture also continually offers the widow as the model of our shared social responsibility, the demand that we build a society that does not fail those who fall between the cracks. The widow was the mark of failure of a patriarchal system, a system that kept property and access from women except through their associations with men. The story of Ruth’s marriage to Boaz, also presented in this week’s lectionary, demonstrates that women had to use incredible resources of will and strategy to secure their futures when their husbands died. This is, of course, one of the places where the historical scriptures routinely fail us by refusing to indict the system itself, by refusing to acknowledge that women with control of their own financial resources could much more easily bear the loss of a marital partner. And it cannot offer us an analysis of the wealth and privilege that inherently depend upon the disposability of some. Capitalism as it has evolved cannot proceed if everyone is provided for. It must extract from and discard many in order to enrich few.

Earlier this year, the New York Post published a profile of a young man from Wisconsin who had recently moved to New York City to pursue his dream of working as a chef in a high end Central Park restaurant. Grayson Altenberg had come from a small, rural community, with plenty of living space and close connections to family, friends, and neighbors. His encounter with the realities of the New York City housing market were harrowing. A studio apartment—averaging about $3000/mo in the outer reaches of the city—was an impossibility with his starting salary. He was determined to maintain some quality of life while contending with the challenges of the move, and he spent his early time in the city walking Central Park, talking to people he met in and around it, eating, reading. Eventually, he came across an ad on Craigslist for an apartment a five-minute walk from his restaurant for only $1,100 per month. The ad was humorous, describing the apartment as: “so small you can’t have three friends over at the same time; one of you will have to wait outside in the hall” and “so small you can’t gain weight once you move in.”  The apartment, which Grayson took in the end, was a total of less than 100 sq ft in size, a little smaller than many of the SRO units available here in the Bay for those transitioning from homelessness. It’s just large enough for a bed, a hot plate, and a small desk, with a standup shower in an adjacent room. Grayson eats his meals on his lap.

The question of small living in our culture has many dimensions. For some landlords, there is the opportunity to subdivide living space and garner more income. For some homeowners, there is the opportunity to reduce their own living space to get support with mortgage payments. For many renters, the decreasing size and amenities of living are part and parcel of a surreal housing market, and acceptance and adaptation are simply the only means of survival.

But there is also an intentional move to small living celebrated in architectural and interior design circles—mostly young singles and couples who have chosen to construct tiny, fashionable dwellings to reduce their carbon footprint and embrace their time outside of the home. Some are slightly larger than Grayson’s New York apartment, but it is not unusual for tiny homes for two to run about 250 sq ft, the rough equivalent of Grayson’s single dwelling. They include innovative storage and mechanical designs, lofted beds, multipurpose furniture and flexible floor plans depending on the habits and interests of the occupants. Some are fixed, some are movable. Some are urban, some are rustic. They represent a cultural urge to “live light,” to not take more than is our due, to immerse in nature and community out of the home, and a fascination with the gadgetry and efficiency that can make this possible. Tiny livers are generally zealous and evangelical. And they build their tiny houses often on vast stretches of unoccupied land.

But tiny living does not get universal rave reviews. Many find it unimaginable. In response to a recent Dwell Magazine feature on the architecture of tiny houses, one blogger expressed her incredulity: "Look, I'm not criticizing you. I commend you for making this giant leap. Since we humans seem comfortable with pillaging Mother Earth of all of her resources, I believe more people should think like you. But 250 square feet? What the hell happens when your tiny house partner farts Mexican food farts, huh? Where do you escape to? Nowhere. You have nowhere to run. All you can do is walk three feet to the other end of the house and pray. Or maybe you can run out into the tiny forest surrounding your tiny house."

We most certainly have a culture used to owning more, taking up more space. But we also have a millennia long tradition of people making life work with less and less space and fewer and fewer resources, squeezed by the pressures of consumptive economies. And we have evidence of survival despite the odds. As friends and internet commentators poked fun at his tiny dwelling in New York, Grayson Altenberg replied, “This is all I need for the time being. My routine works here. I can get up in the morning. I can still take my shower. I can still make my coffee. I can get myself to work in five minutes.” 

Surely we can and should expect more from life. Mere survival threatens isolation and despair, and more importantly continues to support systems that we know are wildly unjust. But I don’t believe our spiritual or ethical journeys really begin until we ask ourselves—or are forced to—how little we can actually live with.

It is undeniable that we have the space, the resources, the technology and the examples to provide all of the homeless, all of those who have been cut off, all of the abandoned of our society with decent transitional living spaces at the very least. A place to rest, a place from which to connect to the world with dignity and hope for the future, a place to call home. What we lack is the will to do so. We lack the urgency of God’s intervention in the life of the widow in 1 Kings—the story that tells us that we must make basic provision a reality in our lifetimes, now.

The great lie of the Bay Area housing crisis is an argument that proceeds from scarcity. It is true that we have underbuilt housing. It is true that we have wrongly built housing. But more importantly, we have failed to make housing a human right rather than a privilege of concentrated wealth. A few weeks ago in our faith journey discussion, we approached some important questions about Christian discipleship given the crises of homelessness and rising income inequality. We questioned the ability of a wage economy—built on efficiency and always to benefit large property owners—to provide for the needs of the most vulnerable. We questioned the concept of equality as a way to meet the ends of justice. We also shared some of our own sources of resistance to the gospel’s suggestion that financial provision should not necessarily be tied to the volume of work we perform. For many of us, that is a difficult pill to swallow.

One of the things that remained with me from that conversation and informed my reading of this week’s scripture was the idea that we are often doing two different things when we consider our own welfare and when we critique the system. It is not exactly hypocrisy, but it is more a dissonance. We know that the scripture asks us to resist injustice, and we sense ourselves to be both agents and victims of injustice. It can be difficult to know where to stand and how to act.

This is how the scripture spoke to me this week. We must work at times from frighteningly limited resources. Tapestry finds itself in that predicament periodically, as do many of us in our own lives. And the scripture assures us, first, that suffering is not God’s will for us, and second, that there is beauty and grace even, and maybe especially, in our places of deepest need. God did not send Elijah to a lavish home for a feast of beef and wine and Sleep Number bed preprogrammed for him, but into the arms of despair. And God sent Ezekiel to a desert of dry bones to practice resurrection. God deliberately asked the prophets to work from sites of crisis as nourishment and as promise. And today we see, in the widow’s tiny kitchen, God’s hands working to convert nearly nothing into sustenance, and sustenance into justice. May it be so for us as we pray over the future of this ministry and as we reach out to the urgent need that surrounds us.  

21 June 2015: Tapestry Ministries Guest Sermon

Whose Armor? (1 Samuel 17:1-50)

Invocation, based on “Song” by Muriel Rukeyser 
(published in Poetry Magazine, October 1941 and The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser, 2006)

The world is full of loss; bring, wind, (O God,)
our home is where we make our meeting-place, 
and love is whatever we shall touch and read
within that face. 

Lift, (O God,) the exile from our eyes; 
grant us peace to look, life to listen and confess, 
freedom to find to find to find
that nakedness. 

The poet Tony Hoagland wrote: “Some questions have no answer./Raised, they hang there in the mind/Like open mouths, full of something missing.”

Many have said and many more will say in the days ahead that what has taken place this week is unimaginable, inexplicable, unspeakable—some will even say it is a question with no answer. And it is true that we can ask many questions now to which we are not likely to get answers. The ones that I cannot shake are, “Where were you, God?” and “Is no place safe?” But there is much that can and must be said. The coming days will demand that we not shrink from explaining and proclaiming—from the seemingly endless work of disarming racist hatred, work that we can only hope to undertake together.

So I am grateful that we are here, together, even though we are most certainly, as Hoagland wrote, “full of something missing.” We are full of the something missing of a circle of prayer silenced in the midst of its uncompromising Christian being and witness. Nine families are full, achingly full, of something missing. Mother Emanuel is full of the something missing of safe harbor, of sanctuary from harm. We are full of the something missing of a sacrifice our God would never demand. We are full to choking with the something missing of black lives taken one after another, day after day.

Until Wednesday night, I had a different message to offer you today. I am gratified, I suppose you could say, that that message did not toy with the caricature of David and Goliath, the one that we use as casually to describe wars as football games and political contests. My heart never felt a rousing celebration of the conquering underdog. I never wanted to offer you a call to arms with God’s endorsement, on God’s behalf, against an imagined enemy. It was never about us and them.

But the message I wrote before Wednesday was also sorely inadequate, because it failed to tremble at this particular brutality. And a sermon that cannot be preached now honestly should not be preached. Rabbi Irving Greenberg once said that the systematic murders of Nazi Germany demanded an end to recreational theology. “No statement,” he wrote, “theological or otherwise, should be ever made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.”

And so I rededicate this time today in the certainty that we have no space to say anything that we would not say to those nine saints who opened wide their arms to a broken and dangerous soul desperately in need of God’s saving grace, and were killed for it. Any statement, theological or otherwise, that does not address the relentless assault on black humanity should not be made.

But I do want to tell you something about that other sermon along the way. I want to tell you because you were all in my heart and mind when I wrote it, and because it still rings true for me, though now more painfully so. I want to tell you about how, after rereading the David and Goliath epic, that punchline of a rock between the eyes and a giant’s fall, what stayed with me was how David refused Saul’s armor. How he walked into this impossible moment with just a simple tool, one that he knew well but that no one thought would be enough to protect him. 

I want you to know that I thought of this community, and how you each in your own way have refused to carry inherited burdens and deadening identities. How I see us all daring to be free and authentic in every way we can. I want you to know that I was moved to pray for all the ways that we still dress ourselves in prefabricated defenses, so much so that the tenderness of God and our human family has to fight to reach us. I want to tell you how this community is helping to undo my cultural inheritance of isolation, reaction, rage, addiction, and ignorance.

And I want to share with you that I meditated before I wrote that other sermon with the images of those courageous black women who this spring stood their beautiful bodies proudly, fiercely in the center of numbing consumption, power-building and brokering on Market Street, in a city intent on denying the existence of anyone who is not male, white, rich, young, and able- and thin-bodied. I want to tell you that I think that what they did—risking assault, arrest, and contempt—the truth they spoke with their bodies, is a glimpse of what can save us all.  

But there is some greater urgency now to make sense of this David and Goliath story as a whole. There are so many things this scripture tells us that I wish it didn’t. So much so that I struggled with whether we should really read it out loud into this loving place, on this day. I don’t know about you, but I find myself ambivalent about scripture that way a lot. There are conclusions here that are not only not true, but painful and harmful because of the way that they are not true right now. Like the underdog will always win. Like, if we are worthy, God will defend our vulnerable bodies against those intent on doing them harm.

So most importantly, I have to say, I have to insist, that the story of David and Goliath is a myth. It is a myth in the most literal and academic sense. It is a historical fiction that takes absolutes and categorical certainties that we wish were true and turns them into a story that we can carry along with us as if it were the eternal truth. Both the hero and the enemy are larger than life, superhuman, and arrayed with the clearly visible forces of good and evil. We want the Philistines to be undone, need them to be for the story of a chosen people to proceed according to plan. We want David to be the undeniable chosen king. The story delivers precisely what it sets out to deliver—a complete arc of a fantasy of conquest, packaged and ready for illustration in our children’s bibles.

What that shell of a young man walked into Mother Emanuel with was also a myth—caricatures of heroism and imagined enemies. His words were a robotic recitation of social indoctrination. He put on his predecessors’ armor, the shallow, fearful, reactionary script taught to him by a culture of chosen hatred, and he built a battle to justify wearing it. Of all the things that I think the David and Goliath story gets wrong, it gets this right: we do violence when we bear the armor of borrowed words and actions. And we are responsible for setting it down, everywhere and at every time.

The warmth and welcome and hope the family of Mother Emanuel showed was the opposite of armor. It was living scripture: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers,” the Book of Hebrews admonishes, “for by doing so some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” We hear reports that the simple human truth of that worshipping community almost undid the myth, almost loosed its grip long enough to save them and him from what ended up taking place.

But of course the story of David and Goliath is not just about David and Goliath. It is more expansive and intractable. It is about two human communities, viewing each other as threats to limited resources, and to each others’ very identities and existence, set up for a battle they deem necessary and unavoidable. “The Philistines occupied one mountain,” the story reads, “and the Israelites another, with a great valley between them.”

The community of Mother Emanuel does not only reckon itself a sanctuary, though it is that and will unquestionably remain so. But Mother Emanuel is also a place set down deep in that valley between the Israelites and the Philistines, determined to make a way to peace in the midst of endless battle. Yesterday Rev. Michael Eric Dyson published an op-ed on Mother Emanuel’s place in the history of black church resistance to racist dehumanization: “In too many other places,” Dyson writes, “black self-worth is bludgeoned by bigotry or hijacked by self-hatred: that our culture is too dumb, our lives too worthless, to warrant the effort to combat our enemies. The black sanctuary breathes in black humanity while the pulpit exhales unapologetic black love. In a country where black death is normal, fiendishly familiar, black love is an unavoidably political gesture.”

Mother Emanuel Church opened her doors for worship this morning. I am at once stunned and unsurprised, given the community’s history of courage and determination. Our lives, the physical spaces we occupy, the communities we nurture, are in very real ways limited. There is no denying that our lives are fleeting and our efforts only a small piece of the vast work to be done. Particularly at times like this we can come to see ourselves and our efforts as hopelessly insignificant, we can begin to shrink under the weight of a destructive force that just won’t let up. So I suppose I understand the temptation to embrace myth, to set ourselves down in a larger-than-life story that rouses us to celebrate a final victory we secretly fear will never come and that we know will only come at someone else’s expense.

But I do not believe this is the kind of hope God intends for us. The dauntless example of Mother Emanuel teaches us that we do not have the luxury of mythologizing our greatest hopes, as if we are incapable of acting from the site of our pain. We must begin where we are. We cannot go around or over what has happened, only through it “like open mouths, full of something missing,” in clear view of the precious fragile life that is ours to protect.

That poem I read has an epigraph, a line quoted from the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. It says simply, “We are what is missing from the world.” The struggle to overcome racist fear and violence will most certainly take the rest of our lives, and the lives of our children, if not theirs. But along the way we will love each other, and we will sing the joy, the true sanctuary, the true victory that that love is wherever it is.

Mother Emanuel Church was living freedom when they welcomed a stranger into their circle of prayer. There is a burning part of me that wishes they had not. But if we imagine that choice, we know that they could not have made it and had any hope of freedom. And neither can we. We cannot build freedom from inside armor. We have to build it with our doors, our bodies, and our hearts open to both the joy and the pain that will certainly come.

This work is ours. As we are in God’s hands, it is in our hands. May we belong to it and to each other, entirely, in spirit, mind and body.

Benediction, from "Let it Come Down to This,” by Hafiz of Shiraz

“…the right equation you need to solve the greatest dilemma is just too vast. So let it come down to this, let it often come down to this, when thoughts of the infinite can no longer delight you…pray to your hands.”

Our hands are made for work and for love. May God guide and bless your hands, in all that they do, and may they welcome, comfort, and challenge all those you meet.

20 June 2015

What To Do When Grief Has No Horizon 

"Pray to your hands,"
the ancient voice answered.

My father could not have fathomed
its meaning, nor his.

But my son finds the words in a dream,
already his inheritance.

Which means three things:

His hands make a sandwich, substantial,
to feed his own mythic hunger.

His hands write a story, illuminated,
where a monster becomes a beloved
(there are alternate endings)
and we get maps to unknown treasures,
to be revealed in the sequel.

And his hands, unmistakeable,
though larger than I remember,
leave traces of tenderness on my face.

That way sons don't do anymore,
after a certain age.

21 May 2015

"It was a kind of transformation. I never thought about birds." 

You should set the crow to work
as soon as you can.
For the pennies you spend on peanuts,
you create in her a grinding hunger--
for home, for mother, for lover.
It will serve you well.

She will unhaunt your days,
gather up the frayed edges of your life,
bind them with remnant thread.
You can trust her
not to store up treasures.
There is no marketplace
for what we have forgotten
to remember.

Her gathering is all
the erotic joy of the find,
solitary flight and impossible vision
turned to tenderness and submission.
She relishes your carelessness;
it is your courtship.
      Take a moment to hear that.

She needs you to unclench.
How else could you love
her blue-black anonymity
and her plaintive common caw,
if you couldn't call her curator,

19 May 2015

All of your meaning, all of your integrity or looks
—it must be put into words. 
And the words come without clothing. 
~Howard Thurman

I will admit to fearing death,
though not the dark passage.
It’s all the indelible living,
marks of this awkward lumbering
through embodiment,
what I won't have time to redeem
or erase.

The one nearest my heart
archives compulsively—
tastes and words and treasures—
lest he be forgotten.
I disintegrate compulsively,
lest I be remembered.

But the body can’t live and be silent both.
It speaks all it does not intend,
leaves residue and imprint,
like the shimmering ghost of the snail’s path,
like the improbable weight of a chest full of moths
pressing down four feet—
perfect circles, perfect square,
perfect uselessness.

Inevitably, what will be left of me,
after all the ventured obscurity:
tax returns,
sloughed skin,
uneaten greens,
love, intended.

20 April 2015, Alcatraz


It seems as likely
that what Narcissus came to,
wandering the overgrowth without destination,
was that waiting well of sadness
in his own heart,
the prison of remembering.
It was the sinking, not the surface,
that lured him in.
And he couldn't help but stare
into the eyes of someone so near and unfamiliar,
into the dark pond spawning ample life
of brief tenure.
Flowering on the muddy banks of loss
is just the way of tenacious things.

Though you can't help but wish he had known 
her ruinous beauty, 
tremor of breath,
depth calling to depth.

16 April 2015, Spanish Bay

Spanish Bay 

I went out alone in rising light
to the place they say the explorer mistook
for Monterey.
This ghostly crescent of sand
not asking for a name.
That's always the way, it seems.
Set sights on one place, find another,
then reckon,
or fail to.

With my back to the four story facade,
no high sun casting shadow,
it is still a virgin sea
rousing virgin shore,
elements undiscovered
except to each other, endlessly.

Beneath the scene,
the anxious dunes are losing ground.
But now, in windless dawn
and still dreaming surf,
they sprawl ancient and valiant,

In the catholic view,
only I am waiting to be found.

3 April 2015

Book of Hours

The retrospective of my life's loves
is likely to reveal:
a coarse forgotten tug from virginity,
the still smoldering mass
of locomotive steel from the head on,
a raging river of near misses,
and now you, like Norwegian winter,
full dark waiting
before the noon hour.

Speaking of extreme north,
there is also, you know,
the distress of summer,
the unrelenting sun
seizing vigils and vespers,
the blinding dominion of all lauds.

The greater part of our mystery
and disassembling,
that delicious release
of bone from muscle and mind from matter,
crammed into two hours
of desperate dark.

I can't say I'd rather.

16 February 2015


When you stumble from bed this morning--
that way you do
with the night's dream journeys
stirring at your heels,
an improbable teaching on your tongue,
twigs and sand and wizardry
tangled in your hair--
you will claim a decade.

While I wait,
my prayers for you still
come so swift and furious
that they trip over each other,
and I am forced to concede
that I have no claim over your destiny,
not even a petitionary one.

The day you were born,
sibling to three whose lifetimes
began and ended in the womb,
your heart
(still today so tender it cannot bear suspense)
recoiled from the drama of delivery.

You became in that moment
and remain
not my reward for tortured patience,
but an ethereal thing,
spirit in boy form,
arriving at its own pleasure.