“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


18 September 2016: First Christian Church, San Jose

The Wait

Yesterday was Hildegard’s feast day.
I was 18 years old when I met her
on the lips of a lover,  
under a ceiling of impossibly close stars
in a meadow in Pennsylvania.
'With my mouth,'
God says,
Hildegard wrote,
he whispered,
'I kiss my own creation,
every image I have made out of the earth’s clay.

In the same year of her life,
her feet kissed the threshold
of the convent.
Imagine: finding tenderness
on earth and in heaven
at once.

Not that it comes without question.
Her pen poured out the questions that rose to meet God's answers.
It came to pass, when I was 42 years and 7 months old,
that the heavens were opened
and a blinding light of exceptional brilliance
flowed through my entire brain.
And so it kindled my whole heart and breast like a flame,
not burning but warming
...and suddenly I understood
the meaning of the expositions of the books.
But although I heard and saw these things,
because of doubt and low opinion of myself
and because of the diverse opinions of men,
I refused for a long time the call to write. 

And we also ask: 
How long should we withhold salvation?
How long should we hand out
the curse of human approval?

We cannot live in a world that is not our own,
in a world that is interpreted for us by others.
An interpreted world is not a home.
Part of the terror is to take back our own listening,
to use our own voices, to see our own light.

It took 833 years after her death
for a committee of men in inherited regalia,
at a resplendent table carved by the clandestine dreams
of lesser men
and no women at all,
to declare Hildegard
a Doctor of souls.

It is, I dare say,
too long to wait
to claim this always already sanctified world
as our home.
I dare say
today is the day of your voice,
today is the day of your blessedness,
today is the day that rises to meet you
with endless green promise.  

4 June 2016

Refrain

It has been the same refrain
with almost all my loves,
the same words whispered
in the tangle of twoness,
this strange formula of fatalistic devotion.
I don't think I told you
that you were in company.

"You will be the end of me."

The words address a stranger.
I search my reflection for anything
more dangerous than unshakable youth,
desire and tears equally ready,
my flesh more pulsing heart
than fortress.
No one there is peddling extinction.

To be sure, there are the wild thoughts
disordering the dark libraries of my mind.
Not so uncommon.
And besides, they demand ink,
not blood.

So who, exactly, will be the end of whom?

And what is that end anyway
except tremorous beginning,
asking all of the questions again,
the gentle flaying of coming clean
when you thought the game
was to layer compromise on compromise
and forge a life
from the religion of consequences?

Eliot said to hold fast to the end,
if you are fortunate enough to find it
still breathing.
The beginning is there,
and the end again--
home.

But it is not advice
easily taken,
or often.

23 May 2016

Doctrine

What you left me,
ultimately,
is the doctrine of irreplaceability.

It feels like the place
where your hair meets the skin
the skin of your neck,
rising with touch.
It sounds like the holy quiet
of night giving way to dawn.

In a dream, I place you,
an anachronism
in my grandfather's garden.
After decades of failed attempts,
I am suddenly, strangely
able to grow things.
I can watch the sprout of a pepper plant
and know how light and air
will preach it into bearing.
I can feel the delicate spines
on the skin of a ripening tomato
and see love and letting go
open a window
on the crowded earth
for it to arrive.
Our four hands share
the prophecy of dirt,
the late summer drought
yielding to fruit.

You have tethered me
to the setting sun,
its measured crossing
of the dark side of the earth.
And I go willingly,
unwillingly.

14 May 2016


Trinity

My brother is an artist,
though I am not sure he remembers.

I picture him drawing in charcoal years ago: 
strong, thick lines to delineate an image, 
which he then rubbed off, 
black fingers and muddled page, 
to create the contours 
of an actual, breathing body. 
It is a thing I will never understand, 
this movement of dust into flesh. 
And it is not what I do with words. 

I turn flesh into dust, 
and I rearrange the grains
until they speak some strange new word.  
He resurrected, 
I deconstructed. 
That was always our way. 

And now you, walking back,  
breathing your warmth into what was last
and will be. 
I am not sure which gesture it is.

What was it I imagined otherwise?
Likely some idea,
immaculate at its sharp edges. 

Creator's intent, 
Sustainer's history. 
And at the apex, 
this wound, not healable, 
and not meant to be. 
  

10 May 2016: PSR Palestine Immersion Chapel Reflection

After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James, and John the brother of James, and led them up to a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters--one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah." While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!" When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. "Get up," he said. "Don't be afraid." When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus. 

When it comes to the Transfiguration, I begin in a foreign place: the pine forests of Georgia in my childhood. Where, in a certain season, the cicadas abandon their skins by the hundreds on the bark of the trees. There are transfigured bugs somewhere. But all you see are the pearl-pale skeletons of bodyshapes clinging.

In love with all things fragile, I wanted to collect them. But each one I touched crumbled. Though I tried every delicate procedure, their no-longer-feet still held fast with unseeable insect tenacity and their ghostly bodies were nearly nothing, disintegrating with the slightest pinch. 

I want to say something about what it is that makes a place--however small--or a time--however brief--holy. But it takes more voices than I have. We could say something about permanence and impermanence, certainty and conjecture. The places and times that wound and heal us. The nowhere and everywhere, suspended time and fleeting time. Finding our way and losing it all at once. 

On Mount Tabor, there are two churches. You would think there was only the one: with mosaic tents for Moses and Elijah and a grand sanctuary for Jesus built on the triumph and treasure of the apostolic assembly. Its doors await the Rolls Royce, the cameras, the rose-bedecked bride. But there is another: ragged quarter walls and damp, dark earth. Perhaps the site is more ancient, more true. Perhaps not. But it is certainly more inviting for the prayers of the dispossessed--a place to imagine the promise of a restored body. Fresh soil calls out, asking to be dug up for a new order, an unvisited wholeness. 

The sunset falls from the crest of Tabor over fertile checkered farmlands claimed a hundred times over. If you squint, you can see the desperate effort to scrawl lines of imaginary safety. I am photographed taking a photograph, the sunset multiplied in the image, as if it could belong to more than one people. 

I did manage to extract a cicada shell once, as best I could tell with all of its microscopic borders intact. It is in a plexiglass box in a mildewed chest somewhere in one of a dozen storage sites in Georgia. No one will ever rock in silent prayer over it as the women do in seclusion at Abraham's tomb. And I do not pray to it today, but to the creatures I could hear but never see emerging into the woods, the ones who search the living earth and air for what is next.

8 May 2016: Berkeley

Fiddleheads

On that particular hillside,
the fog arrives over these three days
in five different bodies
like a shapeshifting god--
     fairy wisp,
     clan of snakes,
     liquid wind,
     lovers' arms,
     queen's full repose.
They tour the villages of private miseries.

In the high hills,
the fog mists over the darkened bedroom windows
of the dozen girls here
with bowed legs and sunken eyes
who dread portioned meals.
It curls around the contemporary facade
of a house full of pacing and blame-throwing,
where the phone registers
the pleas of the novice addict:
the stolen wallet, the blind eye, the never again.

In the low hills,
it brushes past the crumbling apartments--
one earthquake from surrender--
of the young lover
dieting on Ativan and vodka
and the woman
who lost her son, her sister, and her mind
all at once.

At the edge of the cloud,
between the water and the ridge,
is our house,
the children waiting at the window.

I try to imagine what can hold
this immense, provincial ache.
Something in the mist
sets my mind on fiddleheads,
how they turn in so perfectly to hold
their own fragility.
The head of the leaf, the extremities,
the skin and spores,
all one embrace
and shield.
In their season,
thousands of fiddleheads
dwell in the hills outside this window,
fortresses of tortuous waiting
and coming release.

4 May 2016

Credo-40

This is the day I will hold it all lightly,
for my own sake.
I will tell myself that your hands and eyes
spoke truth, what they knew of it,
and that love does not rain on dry ground.
I will not dwell on the alter-worlds
of erasure or return.
I will declare my heart both
entirely taken
and entirely my own.
I will trust that the world
just outside my skin
is not made of daggers and fire.
I will hold the image of you
arriving, and arriving again--
freely, with fresh anticipation--
the last night so like the first.
I will forgive my remembering,
though it draws you dangerously close,
with the soft persistence of your mouth
when words were at rest.

And I will believe the stories people tell--
not because they can be lived,
but because they are believed.

3 May 2016

Mothering

The thing about single mothering
is that you can't have a feeling
without the children, the animals,
the house itself
having it with you.
Your heart is not a sanctuary,
it is a compound.

I haven't had a solitary feeling
since my five year old son saw me cry for the first time
and decided to live in the wilderness
and survive off of the generosity
of hoarding squirrels,
until his sister called him in with a reminder
about fire ants
and his present lack of claws.

We grieve together, always--
such injustice.
They are certainly not learning
that the world is an inheritance
of meritocratic bliss.
I suppose that's the up side.
But they are taking the body blows of loss--
theirs and mine alike--
as if they were prepared
for the atrocities of love.

The alternative, of course,
is to make them objects of hope,
rather than its water bearers.
And when, precisely, then
would our souls meet?
That magic was simply
unwilling to wait.

2 May 2016

An Invocation

There are times
when we pray for release
from the prison of suffering--
the confused mind
trying in vain to complete its fractured history,
the anxious body
rehearsing its losses--
and what God grants, eventually
is emptiness.

A questionable grace.
They say that grief, for some,
comes as a sensation of swallowing sand.
But try, for today,
to imagine that unwelcome space
as holy desert:
where life is forged under duress;
where every drop of water
is a visible prism of mercy;
where strange creatures
adapt their bodies fiercely to hardship,
thick skins and heightened senses,
and stop in their slow progress to watch you,
looking far in as children do,
to seek the truth of your constitution--
fear or tenacity;
where sweat-drenched visions
and the voices of the cold desert night
bring ancient stories
that will echo in your risen heart.

This, too, is a place of flourishing,
and of visitation.


1 May 2016

Itinerary

I am nearly forty now,
and I am planning a trip.
But you know that.
Every mosaic wall will tell
the story of a moment we never got to live.
Every sparkle of sun on the Mediterranean
will ask where you are.
And I will have no answer.

You gave me,
among the gifts,
the rules of a new infidelity.
The beauty of resurrection day
ending in the survey of ruins
and the feel of pounding surf.
I should have known,
I should always have known.
That first night, I saw it:
the wreckage, the disorientation.
I dreamed of traveling this country
by elevator--
the certainty of destination
made improbable.
States, lifetimes ticking by
too fast to see or feel them.

I no longer love the sun,
or art,
or the sweet, quiet "hello"s
of the three year old next door,
trying gently to call me out of silence.

I will travel without knowing
where I am going.
That is the only way.
I will pray for the hope
of a world larger than me,
larger than you,
to swallow me.

Jonah. That blessed silence,
that slow dissolution.
If only there were no rescue,
no vomitous survival.
That would be a story
worth telling.

27 April 2016

House/Home

I am writing you a poem about marriage,
though I always said the topic
was not worthy of the form.
It hasn't been kind to me,
so forgive me,
with your hands and feet gripping the rungs
climbing in or out--
I can never tell the difference.

I should probably write a love poem
since I'm better at that,
and the world devours them.
But I am not in the marketing business,
and besides,
that is the story deferred.

Love is not the tie that binds.
It does more insidious work.
It searches out the knot between stomach and heart
that didn't know itself.
It fingers the spot gently,
retreats,
repeats,
until the whole system gives way.

But I said I was not going to write about love.
I am writing about surrender,
and its many opposites.

I confess I have been tendered.
My mind turns over all that means.
I have been bought
and sold.
I have been made edible.
Have been held,
have held.

This is not a poem about love--
yours, mine, or ours.
Don't read between the lines.

The houses we build with our hands and promises
consume us.
I'm not judging.
I want to be consumed, too.
By fire,
by the work of my unskilled hands,
by your mouth like the still surface of a lake
betraying its bottomlessness.

I knew what I was saying
on that sun-dappled day,
dolphins leaping
and the chorus of gathered minds
almost audibly stifling the collective "why?"
I knew what I was saying,
covered in beads the color of the sand
that stretched to forever outside the window.
I knew what I was saying.
But there was still a sledgehammer in the garage
that I swore was not on the registry.

He and I took off layer after thirty-year-old layer of wallpaper,
an encyclopedia of someone else's fresh starts.
We tore out yellowed carpet,
staples digging into my fingers,
to reveal the house's true past and future.
Wood floors and historically accurate paint
painstakingly chosen from indistinguishable color chips.
I, who had never sown, sewed curtains
for the only room I ever loved,
the one that let in so much light
that my newborn son squinted against it,
the one where we hosted children's birthday parties
with drunk, belligerent relatives.
The one where I hid,
but the lock on that door never worked anyway.

I keep trying to remember
what it was Maya Angelou wrote
about the memory of walls,
how our housed lives drip from them.
But it doesn't matter.

This is not a love poem.
Why do I have to keep saying that?
This is the poem where I declare that
I will never marry again.

I will write you a love poem another day,
when I can crack the window
and pretend that home
is not one of those words
that we say over and over again
until it is nonsensical.

I can only speak for myself.
My love will not be housed.
If it comes to that,
it will find a stretch of beach
and watch the waves throw themselves against the rocks,
surrendering a thousand lifetimes
to another's yielding.

24 April 2016: FCC Concord Guest Sermon, Acts 11:1-18

One of the things I have always loved most about church is the marking of time. It can sometimes seem heavy-handed. We make ritual time for happiness, for grief, for love, for sacrifice, for community, for newness. These of course don’t always correspond with our actual feelings, or our lived experience. Those beloved to us die on Easter Sunday or on Christmas Day. Babies are born on Good Friday. Those long stretches of what the church calls “Ordinary Time” are filled with very unordinary events and life changes. But we mark the time as community to begin to understand the full scope of life given to us by the Creator of Life, and to practice the disciplines of living as whole people—not one-note, one-story people, but people of many faces and many stories. 

It is always important to me to point out this time of year that it is still Easter. In the church, we celebrate the resurrected Jesus for many weeks, not just the one day. We allow the calendar to suspend on that Holy Week reality because it is so critical to our story about faith and about life. We are in “resurrection time,” which cedes to Pentecost time, and ultimately to “ordinary time” until we begin the cycle again. Each year, we find something different in the story. The novelist Zora Neale Hurston wrote, “There are years that ask questions, and years that answer.” I always reflect on that this time of year, as the cycles of the church are so present to my mind. I wonder, always—which year is this? And I don’t just mean that I am still writing 2015 on my checks out of habit. I mean, am I—this growing, changing human—in a moment when my life is uncertain, unknown, or am I in a moment when there is a force of clarity and direction driving me? God gives us both, and I find great wonder in that. That I get to live my life in a way that allows for that pause to question the fundamentals, and to listen for the guidance that God has placed in so many people and situations around me. 

This is why, though I will not speak much about the Acts text in detail, the Book of Acts as a whole is so meaningful at this time of year. The book recounts a time when the memory of Jesus—the living, dying, resurrected Jesus—is still profoundly present to the disciples. The call to create a church emerges from their love of him, their longing for his presence. The acts of remembrance—the table we share weekly here in the Disciples Church—were still acts of love for a beloved friend, not quite entirely gone, but also missing in ways that left so many questions in their mouths and hearts. While we don’t often like to admit it, we have different questions now. We may or may not feel close to Jesus. We may or may not understand why or what the church is. We may or may not be able to make sense of the different choices, lifestyles, and plans of even our most intimate acquaintances, much less those further afield. We are a more distant community, full of intentions to follow the teaching of Jesus and to love each other, but always lost in new and different ways, if only by virtue of the profound cultural and political influences that define the world outside and inside the church. We remember Jesus at a distance—over and over again to try to bring closeness, to try to understand what the story means, and what we mean in it. 

The unfortunate thing is that, too often, we as people and we as a church hold to certainties—any certainties we can muster—to tell us what we need to know about how to live and how to love God and each other. We create rules for ourselves that assure us we are on the right path. We repeat patterns hoping that they will yield some final truth eventually. But more often than not, they fail us, and we find ourselves still adrift, and worse yet, deadened a bit by the force we used to stay tethered. 

Speaking of marking time, this is also the last Sunday of the 20th anniversary of National Poetry Month. I do not know if you all have celebrated that particular milestone—I am aware that poetry speaks to some communities and not so much to others (though, as a poet and a lover of poetry, I have such a hard time understanding the latter). 

Since I am new here, and since I am coming to you today on the precipice of several major milestones, I thought I might share a little bit about my journey as a seminarian, as a pastor, and as a scholar. In the last few months of my Master of Divinity degree—the degree I need to complete my ordination in the Disciples—I was accepted to the doctoral program in religion and literature at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. As my friend Jakada likes to say, I hadn’t even finished the half marathon, and I was signing the papers for the full marathon. It is true the road is long. But for me, there is so much more work to do in my relationship with God and the words that God speaks to me through others. 

Seminary is nothing if not a sustained experiment in doubt. I imagine that some folks, from the outside, would see seminary as the shoring up, the defining and clarifying of religious truth. But I am here to testify that every step you go deeper into theological study—particularly theological study in community—the hazier the atmosphere gets. At best I think that what we achieve in seminary is summed up by the writer Ursula LeGuin: "When asked to be didactic in public [as we so often are as ministers], I try to limit myself to topics on which, without claiming expertise or wisdom, an effort to think honestly and feelingly might do some good, or matters on which I ought to stand up and be counted, lest silence collude with injustice." What we learn, in short, is that we must dwell in the sacred place between certainty and doubt that characterizes our deepest feelings and experiences. We must somehow make sense of that, day by day, week by week, season by season, in a way that nourishes the lives of others and gives the world some measure of the love and wholeness God intends.

It is for this reason that I am entering into further study, exploring the place of poetry in the multigenerational healing and response to the Holocaust. My work will focus on post-war poetry, emerging particularly from Israel and Palestine as the Israeli state lives out its stated claim to the Holy Land. I recently returned from travel to Israel and the occupied territories with a Disciples and UCC student delegation, and there is nothing I gained from that travel more than doubt. There are other ways to visit, ways where specific narratives of the rights of the Israeli state or of the Palestinian people take center stage, leaving the wings in darkness. But our travel was primarily at the border, at the site of the construction of a separation wall between Israeli claims to territory and existing Palestinian communities. We can only have questions there—well, questions, and a fierce hope for the recognition of basic human dignity currently denied. 

What poets do is travel this borderland and its questions without seeking final formulas. Poets help us to hold our questions, deeply and in detail, so that we might find a more Godly human love, one that acknowledges all that we can never know but responds and acts regardless. 

Our passage from Acts today is, as I mentioned earlier, about many things. There are important questions to engage about the nature of early Christianity, the relationship of our faith with Jewish tradition, and the theological foundations of our contemporary churches. But the passage is also a poem, a dialogue about doubt and certainty. Peter’s conversation with the voice from heaven is one that we can so often find ourselves having, and that poets document better than most of us. Of what can I be sure? What can I count on? How can I truly accept that it is all—all of the fear and the division and the hurt and the violation—working toward the good that God intends? Is it possible that we are all in fact children of a living, growing God who would not be bound by rules and certainties? 

When I first entered seminary, within a few weeks my Hebrew language professor had us reading simple passages from the work of the celebrated Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai. Among the first readings was this: 

From the place where we are right,  
flowers will never grow  
in the spring.
The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.

But doubts and loves  
dig up the world  
like a mole, a plow. 

As I have continued my seminary education, I have returned to this frequently, and in particular I have fixated on the parallel drawn between doubt and love. As an adolescent, I was led to believe that love is made up primarily of certainty—of commitment and discipline and destiny. But the deeper I find myself in relationship with God, the more I know that doubt is the essence of that relationship. It is what drives our conversations, our encounters. It is what turns up the earth of my heart so that something new might grow. It is what gives me a kind of unsettled peace, that if I keep asking questions, they will yield and yield again to more questions, all of which make me softer, kinder, more open to the work that God is doing in and through me. 

The theologian and pastoral care theorist Peggy Way writes: "I myself have come to believe that the more certain you are in your knowledge of God--coupled with your certainty about what God wants from other creatures--the more dangerous you are and the more you perpetuate violence in the world that, in my theology, begins with the creature's refusal to be creature, created and not God, not the Creator. The first duty of the creature is to confess not to be God." 

The origin of all doubt is the knowledge that we are not God. and it is a sacred origin. It is the knowledge that we are beloved enough to not be put in charge. It is our doubt that sets us free, as much as our faith. It is not a doubt that holds all things--evil and good alike--as equals. But it is a doubt that leaves us open to ways of being that are not our own. They are God's. Religions that are not our own--they are God's. Sexualities that are not our own--they are God's. Governments and hobbies and languages and fashion choices and bodily abilities and financial choices and food preferences that are not our own--they are God's. 

Doubt and love. These are among God's greatest gifts to our shared human life. Neither one is comfortable, or easy. As Amichai wrote, they turn up the earth, they shake our resolve, and they change us, day by day, in ways that we cannot imagine or command. May we accept that precious work, that simple and impossible work, of dwelling with our doubts and our loves, in the name of the God who created us for change and growth, above all. Amen. 

11 April 2016

Sift

I am in my grandmother's kitchen
my elbow on the yellow marbled countertop
pushing the heel of my hand
into my sulky chin,
my hips slowly spinning the high-top stool
to tap my knee on the cabinet door.
I know the sound annoys her,
but she doesn't stop me.

She is early in cake baking,
sifting.

"What's the point?" I ask.
"You put in flour,
flour comes out."

Her right hand on the ceramic-bulbed crank
is swift, certain.
Her left hand tapping the cylinder
is deliberate, persistent.
I notice they are two different rhythms,
syncopating,
her body's two minds working
indifferent to each other,
and in concert.

Metal on metal
completes the work of grinding stones,
whispering.

"What's the point?"

"Softness," she smiles, without looking at me.
"Lightness."

For a moment, I am in the backyard
in that patch of afternoon light
by the okra plants,
before and after
the touch of sun and air
turned from being
to being desperate refuge,
and from refuge
to promise.

Today I woke before dawn,
as she always did,
as I have always done,
to the sound of myself alone
in the low-light kitchen
to stovetop coffee
and the work of hands and heart
waiting in the still-dark rooms of the house.

The ache of other ways to rise--
your voice, your hands--
still holding.
But softer,
lighter.

25 Mar 2016: Seven Last Words #2 (Mills Grove Christian Church, Oakland CA)

We take this word of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 23:

The people stood watching and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.” The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” There was a written notice above him, which read: “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him, “Don’t you fear God, since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.

These seven last words are the final gestures of Jesus’ mortal ministry. And we read and reflect on them today not only because they take us down the lonely path of his death and resurrection, but also because they continue to teach us who Jesus was, and how God is urging us, through him, to be. As we tell and retell this story, we find scattered seeds of a way of being that does not cower at suffering and violence. It is a way of being in the utterly broken world that breathes life and possibility at every turn.

Jesus says:
I tell you the truth today, you will be with me in paradise.

Jesus also says:
I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.

Much has been made of the vagaries of translation in our reading of the life and words of Jesus. The beauty of inheriting scripture not in our native tongue is that, as we appropriate it, its truth opens up in many directions. The comma is essential to meaning the English language, though it is unapparent in Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew alike. With that single comma, we can place in Jesus’ mouth two very different truths: On this day, I am telling you the truth. You will (at some time) be with me in paradise. And, equally likely, equally true in English: I tell you truth. Today, on this day, you will be with me in paradise. One word tells us we await the fullness of God. The other tells us that it is with us, among us, already, before and at and after the point of death.

We step into worship today in the wake of Maundy Thursday, a day that celebrates the fellowship of Jesus and the disciples. On that day, we reenact the rituals of service, community, and companionship that Jesus modeled throughout his ministry. We mark them with the simple, earthy connections of meals and foot washing. I am reminded this particular Good Friday of one of the early gestures of Pope Francis’ service: washing the feet of the incarcerated and abandoned. It was, I would like to suggest, not a performance of simple humility, not primarily an ideological role reversal. It was instead a statement of an existing truth and an act of abiding hope, a living prayer to the spirit of life that remains no matter how distorted and fractured our realities become. It is a refusal of dead analogues. We are all the criminal, we are all the priest. And the world turns upside down in this simple gesture, not because power is given away, but because it so easily dissolves in its own meaninglessness with basic acts of kindness.

One reading of Jesus’ word in this moment so near his own death is that he is offering a kind of pardon, perhaps in response to the unnamed man’s recognition of Jesus’ closeness to God and his response of confession, accepting blame for his actions. A gesture of forgiveness would of course not be out of character for Jesus, and it is certainly possible that this one reason Jesus invokes the image of paradise. This reading takes Jesus’ statement about “today” as a foretelling of their shared death, and his promise that faith in the face of death will open up into a life beyond. But a prediction of death here would be superfluous; the whole scene is steeped in the fact of death, and it does not require a word from Jesus to proclaim it. It is as clear as the pronouncement of guilt written above each prisoner on the many crosses gathered in that place.

But Jesus’ teaching I think is deeper than this. He is pointing first and foremost to the brotherhood that exists among the imprisoned—both those who know themselves to be such and those who don’t. He is acknowledging the pain and loss that they all share, regardless of how the world has labeled their guilt or innocence. “Loss,” Judith Butler writes, “has made a tenuous ‘we’ of us all. And if we have lost, then it follows that we have had, that we have desired and been desired, and we have loved and been loved.”

Jesus was engaged, above all, in a ministry of imagination—making space for those most broken by the lie of the disposability of life to reimagine wholeness. The fact that the man, damned by the empire, has named his own life, called out his own failings, can then be seen in a new light: Jesus is honoring the truth of his life as a life of loss rather than a life of wrongdoing, and he is stating the truth of restoration that only love makes possible.

This is ultimately what we do today as we ritualize the contradictions of “Good” Friday with the bright light of Easter so near. A bit too much, I think, is made of the promise of afterlife in this scripture. Surely that is a part of the teaching, complicated by the ancient Mediterranean context where concepts of eternal reward and punishment were far more varied than we generally imagine.

But the greater part of Jesus’ word of comfort is the affirmation of suffering and a companion promise of unbreakable brotherhood. What he sees in the criminal is a willingness to accept life as it is, which is what leaves us open to the promises of intimacy. The theologian Dorothee Soelle, in her meditation on suffering, reflects on the words of Simone Weil: ‘Not to accept an event which happens in the world is to wish that the world did not exist.’ Soelle responds, “Suffering can bring us to the point of wishing that the world did not exist, of believing that non-being is better than being. It can make us despair and destroy our capacity for affirmation. We then cease loving God. …the affirmation of suffering is part of the great yes to life as a whole.” It is this “yes” that resounds in Jesus’ words always, even and perhaps especially here at the point of death. He sees that affirmation in his brother, and he speaks back to it, affirms its ground in the love of God.

These condemned men would become Jesus' last living community--a metonym, we might say, for the millions of men and women who at this moment are being consumed by the insatiable hunger of our system of mass incarceration. What Jesus offers his brother is not verbal atonement, but a rejection of hopelessness at the very edge of death. He does not offer forgiveness--which would require him to hold his own blamelessness over and above the other prisoners. What he offers is a statement of present fact. “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” 

The doors of paradise are open today. And though we may be barefoot and wounded, we step into that blessing together.

19 February 2016: Palestine Reflection 1

“As always, when I am ready to throw this promised land story away
because I can no longer deal with it, I hear something new….[But we] must
be extremely careful when we identify the promised land as our homeland.
It is even more dangerous to identify it with someone else’s land.”
Kwok Pui-Lan, Discovering the Bible in the Non-Biblical World

As a southern evangelical, I was raised on the notion of “promised land” as the fruits of a boundless effort to “claim the world for Christ.” While often invoked with the name “Israel” this understanding of promise was really a global colonial vision, one that imagined the purification and homogenization of the world through conversion perhaps but primarily through judgment and purging. It was the idea that there was no legitimate claim in otherness, and the complexity of history should be reduced to the singular march of Christian identity.
As a child and adolescent, I had no sense of the world outside of my immediate context. I never traveled more than 300 miles from my home. The still profoundly segregated black communities in that radius were deemed too dangerous to contemplate. The early influx of Central American migrant workers to the area was an underground phenomenon; I was easily oblivious to its dynamics. So I was able to imagine that the work I was asked to do to purify my soul in the image of Christ in the wake of my baptism was an appropriate metonym for the purification of the world. I did not imagine this as a violent process, and hardly imagined people as its objects at all. Whatever there was out there that was not of Christ was not exactly human anyway; there were shadowy creatures and forces that would certainly be banished by God’s light, leaving “us” free to experience the world without borders as the proper domain of our God.
I will turn 40 this year. While my life choices have been shaped in many ways disregarding this consumptive understanding of promise and inheritance, it was not until our travel to Palestine that I was able to begin a deliberate process of reconciling with this background narrative. I was only recently able to see the need to decolonize my inherited theology, at the same time as I choose to construct a theology from my lived experience of God, humanity, and the world.
Most of the power of this needed work hit me as we stood at the Western Wall. I was confronted in one gesture with the brutality of exclusion and indoctrination in the form of the IDF, the fierce defense of misogyny under the protection of tradition, the emotional landscape that enables a sense of entitlement and a march toward destiny, and the hubris of containing sacredness in a physical location, even while the place vibrates with the accumulated multireligious devotions of centuries. It occurred to me that even in this tiny place, which represents a discrete fault line of the struggle to fully claim a “homeland,” the notion of a boundless claim to truth and divine promise was intensely active. And I realized that my Christian identity carries with it that claim whether I believe I want it or not. It was the first time that I experienced myself as a Christian emblem rather than a Christian agent; that is, the first time I really understood that no matter how I navigate my own relationship with scripture, with Judaism, with Jesus, and with spiritual practice, there is work that my religious identity does in the world with my implicit consent through the Christianity I inherited and have yet to disclaim, if I even could.
Kwok Pui-Lan reminds us to be cautious about the simple equivalence of “promised land” and “homeland.” Her observation stems from extended consideration of the implications of the Exodus concept for communities othered by the biblical narrative. It is one thing, she proposes, to explore the concept of the promises of God for the dispossessed and traumatized, and another to make specific territorial claims—which we experience inevitably as sites of violence and conflict. I have found, in the weeks since our travel through Palestine, that my own understanding of divine promise requires a great deal more theological work. It is, ultimately, not distinguishable from the claim to territory and resources that emboldens the expansion of the Israeli state. It fails to make any sense of the complexity of the historical population of what we understand symbolically as the Holy Land.
One of the most terrifying prospects to me as a future minister is the realization that many theologically sound (or at least coherent and attractive) concepts can be easily commuted to use for purposes I would never intend—the concept of a singular promise of God to a given people chief among them. Our time in Palestine convinced me that the contextualization of theology, making it appropriate and effective in a given time and place, is only part of the work (though a part often inadequately addressed in contemporary Christian communities). Our theology of divine promise also requires continual trueing with the lived experience of all humanity, or else we invite the psychic and physical violence of exclusion by default.
            The notions of “homeland” and “promised land” in religious discourse share a common origin as contextual responses to experiences and myths of dispossession and victimization. The theological notion of deliverance depends upon the narrative of harm suffered by a people uniquely, as a decisive moment in the formation of identity and communal purpose. Nowhere is this more evident than in the parallel—signaled by many allied to the Palestinian cause and baffling to many sympathetic to the political position of Israel—between the territorial separation in Israel/Palestine and South African apartheid. The naming is resisted in many quarters as both alarmist and contextually inappropriate. But as we traveled, many of us found abundant parallels between the South African colonial entrenchment and the Israeli strategies of isolation and psycho-physical control. 
            I would propose that, from a metahistorical perspective, the fear of reaction and revenge in transitions of power is legitimate. But the belief in the inevitability of cycles of dominance and subordination is precisely what keeps those cycles active. What was significant about Nelson Mandela’s response to the moment of the dissolution of apartheid was the explicit commitment to abandon revenge and exclusive claim as an organizing principle of the post-apartheid political structure, despite the revolutionary will among the South African people and the legitimate calls for an end not only to the system of segregation but also to the colonial presence that made such a system possible to begin with. Mandela was able to occupy a place between the narratives, one that charted a path out of the weary story of conquest.
We could instead say that this place between nationalist and identity narratives is itself the “promised land,” the place where God reconciles nations and undoes the will to power. In order to do so, we have to deliberately separate the notion of “homeland” from our understanding of what God promises to and seeks to bring to being in human culture and beyond it. We have good reason to fear retribution in the wake of releasing power, but only if we concede that land and resources are really up for grabs, that there is no way to steward the abundance of creation in the service of all and that we must imagine humans as fundamentally cruel and self-serving.
These last several weeks, I have been humbled by the complexity—political, economic, theological, and psychological—of finding freedom from the anxieties and whiplash of claims to control. At the same time, I have been humbled by the pure desire for free movement, for love and open space, for the right to labor and harvest that are embodied in the Palestinian response to the construction of the Separation Wall. For a vast majority of the world’s population, homeland is borderland, traversing between sustainability and suffocation, acceptance and dehumanization, despair and hope. Our obsession with nation-states serves only temporary security, if that. As our guide so passionately argued during our tour of house demolitions and settlement construction, the irony of answering dispossession and brutality with dispossession and brutality seems entirely lost on the Israeli project, due largely to the narrative of state-building and legitimate warfare.
Our work as American citizens, as spiritual and religious voices, seems to be the articulation of “promise” over “home.” I assert this hesitantly. In so many of the artistic and activist expressions of Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation, there is the call to home, to the right of each human being to a site of safe harbor and cultural nurture. But equating territory with home is problematic at best from a spiritual perspective. The current state of Israel/Palestine demands that we see land and identity not exactly as accidents of birth (as K. Anthony Appiah would argue) but also not as theologically ordained.
The Palestinian American poet Naomi Shihab Nye, in her ode to Jerusalem, observes that “[e]ach carries a tender spot:/something our lives forgot to give us.” The steps to peace in a world broken by borders require not that we demand the final resolution of that forgetting, but that we work from where we are, and know that dispossession breeds dispossession unless we counter it with love, unless we see all lands as borderlands. It is this understanding of home that most compels me in the wake of our travel to Palestine. At the border, resilience and vision flourish. People remember what has been taken, mourn it, seek it in new ways that respond to the realities of cruelty. They paint images of windows and flight, of resistance and revolution. 
Restoration is a fantasy of an untainted past, and is never the reconciliation that our world desperately needs. None of us—neither the powerful nor the oppressed—can afford the fantasy. I am conscious that the American investment in the Israeli project from its profligate wealth deepens the illusion that we can undo histories of conquest with new histories of conquest. I am conscious that so much of the Palestinian cry for justice and freedom depends on us as American citizens, and I am terrified by the routinization of pro-Israeli politics that makes any effective solidarity with the daily suffering of Palestinians feel like a distant dream. And I am above all conscious that the theological motivations for the march of Israeli land-grabbing are smoke cover for much more human, much more cynical stories of national sovereignty bought, always it seems, at the cost of indigenous people. Nonetheless, undoing that theological justification is a critical part of pulling the veil off of the state-building project, and proposing a political reality that is at once spiritual—as an affirmation of human life and dignity—and practical—as a refusal of empty ideology that ultimately frees no one.