Sabbath Saved My Life

Originally posted as a guest blog for friend/author J. Dana Trent :

I’m about four years into a do-it-yourself home renovation. And it has almost killed me. I’ve watched a lot of YouTube videos on load-bearing walls, plumbing, and electrical outlets, and mostly fumbled through everything trying to literally avoid killing myself.

Rabbi A.J. Heschel  writes beautifully in his book Sabbath about building a cathedral of time (rather than space) to celebrate the sacred seventh day of our week. The way he articulates it is inspirational, in much the same way I imagined what my house would look like after all these projects – perfect in its completion, complete in its perfection. His profound simplicity belies the difficulty of practice, much like having YouTube access belied the skill and training needed to solder copper pipes.

Honestly, I just want to live in a house that no longer has tools lying around, sawdust in the air, or the fumes from fresh paint. I mean, I walk around this place and my eye is drawn to every single imperfection. I can point out every slip up with the paintbrush, every flaw in the drywall, every uneven surface in the whole home. All I want to do is get to the metaphorical end of the week with this project so that I can rest and enjoy the completed project. It stresses me out.

I’m struck by how tempting that line of thought is. “Finish your work before you relax,” I can still hear my mother yelling from the kitchen as I procrastinated on geometry homework 20 years ago. But what if our Sabbath practice is spent as an explicit denial of this mindset? We can take a moment and not think about the enormity of the tasks in front of us – solving world hunger, fixing the problems in our communities, or repairing the cracked plaster around the door. We can be reminded that God is God and we are not, much like I am reminded every day that I am not really a master carpenter.

I think the good rabbi would have had plenty of opportunities to point out the crap in his world that still needed God’s perfection. He barely escaped the Holocaust and lived through the front lines of the Civil Rights movement after taking refuge in the United States. The turbulent epoch he lived through is a microcosm of time – no era gets to practice Sabbath for the whole week.

When we participate in sabbath, we imagine life in the New Jerusalem. We get one out of seven days to practice spending eternity with our creator and with the beloved community in a way that not-just-symbolically says “It is finished.” When all things are made right and made new, we won’t have to live for the to-do list of another week. We won’t rely on exploitative systems that demand our constant input, and we won’t subject one another to those same systems.

Searching for sabbath cannot mean we simply minimize it to the rest after a project is completed. I see it as a specific reminder that we are still waiting for The Project to be completed. It isn’t about finishing our checklists for the week, and I certainly hope it isn’t about a day off work to be filled with grouting the new tile in the bathroom; it’s about the one big thing. The ONE BIG THING. When we recapture the imagination to celebrate sabbath, we get to practice our sanity, our world together, and our creator.

In the meantime, want to come over and help me hang drywall?

My Body in Space

 

Originally posted at Embodied Faith:

“What’s it like to have your body in space?” The only correlation of the question to reality was that we also happened to be sitting outside around the looking at stars, but I knew she was really asking something else. She wasn’t wondering about the effects of zero gravity, or the silence of screaming into a vacuum. “I didn’t say it at the time, but it wasn’t lost on me: watching you use your stature with that child lifeguard today was a delight,” referencing the transformation in body language she had seen when we were begging for a canoe-rental exception.

Then it struck me. She was asking something profound. I mean, I’ve lived with my body (in a variety of conditions) my whole life, but I didn’t have an answer because I had never really thought about it before. What does my body say about who I am, what does my body do for me and for others, and how is that different than anyone else?

I guess I’m tall enough to reach things from the top shelf. I’m probably strong enough to do most manual labor that could reasonably be expected of a person. I’m certainly white enough to not be murdered for a broken taillight, and male enough to not get many catcalls walking by a construction site. These alone are probably plenty of differentiation from the petite, female inquisitor, but I think the question was begging for more.

So here’s what I’ve got: I think my body is a gift and a responsibility. When our lives become radically re-centered on the other, our bodies carry us into action as an extension of that. I’m strong enough to carry the heavy stuff for my wife. I’m tall enough to put children on my shoulders and make them feel like superheroes. I’m big enough that I can block traffic, the wind and rain, or someone from getting punched. As I found out earlier, I’m also imposing enough to intimidate a lifeguard, and hopefully wise enough to know when not to do that.

But it comes with a responsibility too. How I carry my body in space means something. It says something about me, but perhaps more importantly it says something to everyone I interact with. Am I a threat? Am I imposing? How is my body language literally opening up space for the other to live and breathe and flourish? Where I place it shows who I’m concerned about, and what I do with it shows what I value much more than what I might say.

My body offers me a lot of privileges, to be sure, but the responsibility that comes with privilege is to be ready to lay it down for the sake of the other. I don’t always know how people will interpret my body, but I can influence what they experience from it. Will my fellow clergy see my energy? Will my family members see my willingness? Will the stranger on the street see me as safe? Will my politically panicked friends see me as a non-anxious presence? Will my brothers and sisters of color see me as someone who needs the microphone or someone who holds the microphone for them?

The question of others might be “what is it like?” They can see the attributes and advantages I have, and they can know their potential for action. But I wonder if they are really asking something else: Will you use your body to protect me or are you the one I need protection from?

I can block the wind and the rain from their assault, or I can turn and be the assault myself. I can take a punch for someone else, or I can deliver the same punch. I can lift people up on my shoulders, or I can hold things over their head. I can escalate and antagonize, or I can make peace and make space. I can be a rock that refuses them room to grow, or a rock that provides refuge in a storm.

The question is not about voyeurism into privilege, but rather a question of posture. How will I use my incarnated self? I think that’s a question for all of us. You have my answer.

Photo of the author (left) and his friend, Josiah Daniels (right), was taken during the Laquan McDonald protests in Chicago on Black Friday, November 27, 2015. Photo credit: E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune.

Reflection Questions:

1) In what ways do my various bodily features give me advantages in power or privilege?

2) Some studies have shown that non-verbal cues comprise 93% of what is communicated. What are some ways that our body says more than our mouth?

3) How do you weigh the privileges and responsibilities that come with your incarnate self?

For Further Exploration:

http://www.missioalliance.org/16-shots-importance-disruption/

https://ofcourseitsaboutyou.com/2014/11/30/decentering-whiteness-in-activism/

https://www.healthspiritbody.com/men-interrupting-women/

https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2016/12/03/hundreds-veterans-put-our-bodies-line-pipeline-protest/94910244/

https://www.amazon.com/Public-Theology-Global-Common-Good/dp/1626982023/

To My Son

Daks

To my son, on the day of your birth:

The most important thing you need to know is that people love you – some that you will know, and some without ever knowing you. Your Uncle Seth was so excited when he found out you were coming that he got online and immediately started shopping for baby clothes. Your aunt Addie started crying when we told her. Your aunts Stephanie and Christine both found out over the phone and across the Atlantic and have been dying to meet you ever since. Your grandparents have been praying for you since before your mom and I were even married. You were the size of a Lima bean and they were already in love with you.

And there are people that have loved you without ever having known you. Your ancestors have dreamed of the things you will grow up to be and do. And people who had never imagined you, loved you enough to set an example for you.

Your name, Daniel King Swihart, represents some of those people who have loved you. It represents our prayers for you, the way we aspire to raise you. But despite the chapter in Freakonomics you dad will tell you about someday, it remains your choice as to whom you will serve.

You stand in an impressive line of Daniels: “As God is my Judge”. Men who knew right from wrong and were willing to pass, as Rowan Williams calls it, the Polycarp Test. Polycarp was one of the first martyrs of the Christian faith, and (to spare you the details) was murdered because he chose faithfulness to God over the faithfulness of the Empire and the Emperor. When given the chance to renounce his faith, he made the decision to honor his creator and sustainer.

The fabled Daniel of the Old Testament, taken into exile in Babylon, was ever faithful to Yahweh in the face of constant temptations to the luxurious life of the king’s servants. For his defiant courage, he was routinely put in situations where he had to choose whom he would serve. He prayed everyday, despite an order to no longer pray in public. His friends were thrown in a fire and remained untouched. He was thrown in a den of hungry lions, only to remain safe in the arms of an angel sent to protect him.

Daniel Trocmè was likewise faithful, only less fortunate. Noted by his more famous cousin, pastor, and organizer of the non-violent resistance at Le Chambon, Andre Trocmè, as a “conscience without gaps,” he ran a refugee home for young children who were fleeing the Nazi death machine in Europe. Not a physically imposing man, his strength was found in his willingness to never stop doing the right thing, regardless of the consequences. He, of slight frame, was pulling a giant pot of stew up the hill for the children when the Gestapo raided his home. One of the boys under his moral tutelage had earlier rescued a German soldier – the very ones trying to eliminate them – from drowning, but it was not enough to curry favor with the feared secret police. As he and the house full of mostly Jewish orphans were loading the buses to the concentration camp, he was still more concerned about others than he was himself. Fearing the anguish of his parents, he asked that one of those who remained write them and “remind them how much he likes to travel.” He was later gassed and incinerated on April 4, 1944, in Maidanek in Poland. When Polycarp was burned at the stake, legend holds that the air filled with the smell of toast, and whether or not Daniel Trocmè himself was transubstantiated, his life has likewise fed many of us who remember his story as an act of worship. May his murderers remember the smell of toast from that evening.

Daniel Berrigan was a Jesuit priest before he became more famous for his peace activism. In an era when many lacked the moral imagination, he stood toe-to-toe with the machines of war and destruction. He reframed the Polycarp test in his own language, “If you are serious about Jesus, you had better start considering whether you’d look good on wood.” After spending time with those on the underbelly of society, he could no longer stay silent in the face of injustice. His fame (or infamy) grew when he and eight other clergy burned draft records outside of the local recruitment office with homemade napalm. While the pyre was raging, he apologized in jest for upsetting the orderlies, but refocused the conversation by juxtaposing that with the children he had seen burned at the hands of bombing attacks only months earlier. This action and his ensuing flight from prison landed him on the FBI’s most wanted list, the first priest to ever do so. The threat of this Magnificat-made-real makes the powerful do stupid things sometimes, but Daniel Berrigan wore his prison outfit as “the new vestments of the church in this age.” Through this apparently naïve hope, he was never without belief that all was tending, despite appearances, towards the resurrection. The same hope we all live in.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, was an icon that has stood for so many people in the last 60 years. He started out a brilliant minister, and soon realized that our heavenly allegiance demands participation in a new Kingdom. Dr. King was willing to follow the True King’s calling on his life, giving everything he was for the purposes of the other. He was tough-minded and tender-hearted, he sought “a faith that could transform bleak and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of joy,” and foretold of his own assassination by reminding us that we have been “transformed by a savior so divine that even death was not too great a sacrifice.”

Finally, King is meant to remind us all that we serve a different King, and have citizenship in a different Kingdom. Ours sows love where there is hatred, hope where there is despair, light where there is darkness, abundance where there is scarcity. We are here for the business of reconciliation. We are the people who lament with empathy, hunger and thirst for justice, and make ways for peace to reign in our lives and communities. TR Glover said that we are a people who “out-think, out-live, and out-die everyone else.”

I don’t know how long our lives will overlap, but I am so blessed that they do for at least this day. It may seem but a still-frame in this feature-length movie, but more than the analysis of a moment, I want you to know that long story. Your mom and I, your aunties and uncles, your grandparents, and a long list of amazing people have come before you. You don’t exist in a vacuum. The reason you can see so far is that you stand on their shoulders.

One of my favorite liturgists, Nobel Winner Bob Dylan, wrote a special poem just for your birth.

 

May God bless and keep you always

May your wishes all come true

May you always do for others

And let others do for you

May you build a ladder to the stars

And climb on every rung

May you stay forever young

. . . . . . .

May you grow up to be righteous

May you grow up to be true

May you always know the truth

And see the lights surrounding you

May you always be courageous

Stand upright and be strong

May you stay forever young

. . . . . . .

May your hands always be busy

May your feet always be swift

May you have a strong foundation

When the winds of changes shift

May your heart always be joyful

And may your song always be sung

May you stay forever young

 

We will love you forever,

Mom and Dad

Why I am Denouncing Water Supremacy: a Parable

I usually have a lot of free time in my schedule. After the morning feeding, I spend several hours swimming and floating. One of my favorite games is following the fingers tapping on the glass. That’s because I am a fish, and I live in an aquarium.

As the leader of all fish, I was asked by a reporter recently [who was reporting on the incredible violence done to humans and their property in Florida, Houston, and the Caribbean] to denounce Water, and its damaging effects on creatures that are air breathers. As the good centrist fish that I am, I was first quoted as saying that “both sides” are to blame when this kind of violence escalates. I mean, have you seen what cool mist humidifiers and ship propellers do to water?

But just last week the Chondrichthyes Congress voted to formally call on me to denounce the free rein that water was given to rain down during the reign of Harvey, Irma, and the inundation of their younger relatives.

That’s right. Me, a fish, has been ordered to denounce Water Supremacy.

trump fish

Now you see the problem I’m faced with. I don’t really know what Water Supremacy is. Without water, my entire electorate can’t breathe. I get all of my political support from these supposed Water Supremacists, and my entire political career has been structured around my need for water. If I don’t renounce it, I’m a bigoted “elementist”. If I do, I become a traitor to my own needs and lose the support of my base.

On the other hand, I could just say what they tell me to say, and then go off-teleprompter and totally obfuscate the message anyway.

See, I can say anything they want me to say, but at the end of the day, I will still be so surrounded by water that my statement will hold no weight. Sure, okay, “I officially denounce Water Supremacy,” and “Both air and earth also have the fundamental right to exist,” and “Loving water does not always end up leading to the Final Solution for other elements.” I mean, there are both dirt and water in this made-great-again tank of mine, and they both play valuable roles. The black and brown earth is really an amazing cleaning mechanism as it filters floating particles, and the air helps replenish the oxygen and other nutrients that I need to survive. In fact my whole existence is built on the backs of the labor of earth and air.

But what the Congress is demanding is for me to pretend that water is not the greatest of these three elements. Are they just kowtowing to their more earthy and airy constituents? Part of me believes that they don’t even know what they are denouncing, because if they did, they would agree with me! Why shouldn’t I want my water to be pure and unadulterated against the coming genocide threatened by the mixing of water, earth, and air found in these hurricanes?

Ultimately, this is about the survival of my species.

Do they want me to breathe carbonated mud?

For the Love of God, Bono, Please Stop Touring

Originally posted at Religion Dispatches:

I thought she was joking.

“I had to find someone who wouldn’t annoy me the whole time. Consider this your fair warning—this will be a spiritual experience for me.”

A friend called me a couple of weeks ago with an extra ticket to see U2 ’s Joshua Tree tour. I remembered liking some of their songs on the radio, and knowing that everything sounds better at a live concert, I happily accepted. Having not yet been lured into the cult of Bono’s personality, all I knew was the legend that preceded him—international poverty relief icon, (aging) Gen-X sex symbol, and all-around good guy.

As the openers left the stage, a scrolling montage of poetry slowly came into focus. While those around me were ordering another $12 beer and taking selfies with their new merchandise, the depth and radicality of this real-life “U2charist” struck me. Maybe this dude was the real deal. While waiting for the founder of the ONE anti-poverty campaign, the author of the corporate (RED) campaign against HIV/AIDS, and the role model for American evangelicals (not to mention multi-platinum rock star) to come to stage, my friend proclaimed, “I think Bono just reads poetry when he’s not recording,” barely giving the screen another glimpse.

“you made that mistake, scratched your initials in the paint
an unmarked crown victoria pulled up, full of white men
they grabbed your wrist & wouldn’t show you a badge
the manager clucked behind the counter, thick as a white hen
they told your friends to run home, but called the principal on you
& you learned Black sins cost much more than White ones.”

-excerpt from “Ghazal for White Hen Pantry” By Jamila Woods

In a city that is predominantly black, a stadium full of white people who paid more than a Benjamin for tickets is not going to be the nexus for authentic justice conversations. I work for a white, affluent, suburban, mega-church, so I’m used to that. But at that moment, before the music even started, I knew what my friend was referencing—I was about to get spiritual too.

“They knew
they were born to weep
and keep the morticians employed
as long as they pledge allegiance
to the flag that wants them destroyed
They saw their names listed
in the telephone directory of destruction
They were trained to turn
the other cheek by newspapers
that misspelled, mispronounced
and misunderstood their names
and celebrated when death came
and stole their final laundry ticket”

-excerpt from “Puerto Rican Obituary” by Pedro Pietri

Then the lights went out and the stage lit up, and 60,000 white people finally started paying attention.

My neighbors were two beers in when Bono shouted out to all of the women in his life, while reminding us that his-tory was just as much her-story. It was around this time that he made everyone feel welcome “no matter who you voted for.” (Mind you, Bono has famously banned [redacted] from his tour.)

Three beers in, “Pride (In the Name of Love)” was exploding from the guitars. Bono wailed “shots rang out in the Memphis sky” while a montage of Martin Luther King, Jr., flashed in the background, and the subtle reminder that white supremacy killed a preacher and a prophet has me feeling the Spirit.

Then 60,000 white people screamed at Bono’s pandering, “America! You are the Dream!” Meanwhile, I couldn’t stop wondering how many of them were updating their status to “MLK never blocked traffic!” while we marched for Laquan McDonald and Rekia Boyd.

Four beers in, and Bono is giving my now drunken neighbors credit for being AIDS activists, since we (presumably) paid our taxes to a government that has advocated for the subsidized drugs that have saved millions of Africans. I guess he isn’t an American, so I can’t be too hard on him for not understanding that the same government he is praising also ignored the very same problem when it was predominantly the LGBTQ community taking the brunt of that epidemic. Oh yeah, and [redacted] hasn’t paid income taxes in like 18 years. Is that the reason he wasn’t on the guest list?

It is easy to recognize his genius, transforming suburban pocket change into white ONE bracelets into millions in aid for the poorest. Somehow he convinced corporate dollars they would be cooler if they were colo(red). But St. Bono, you can do better. We need you to do better, because this tiny taste of do-gooding may actually be counter-productive.

No decent person would ever fight you that AIDS is a bad thing or that poverty should be eased. A crowd full of middle-aged women isn’t going to argue against their place in history being properly annotated. But spare me the pandering and corporate liberalism, that thin spiritual experience of feeling “connected” to a worthy cause.

This is the real problem: the shallow connections you facilitate and use to milk people out of some cash, also make them less likely to participate in the actual justice work that would eliminate poverty and injustice. Moral licensing allows us to justify not actually supporting breast cancer research because I already wore a pink sweatband at a softball game in October. I need not worry about indigenous coffee farmers being pushed off their land by corporate monsters because Starbucks offered fair trade coffee for the extra $.63 this morning. I changed my profile picture for a whole week, but that didn’t actually stop terrorism? For crying out loud, I poured a bucket of ice water over my head! You’re telling me I need to actually donate money to ALS research too?

In much the same way, I’m wondering if my evangelical friends’ love of U2 says something about the ways we are being shaped in the church too. All too often, the Sunday experience is very similar to my Bono encounter: read some liturgy, listen to a concert, hear a few words, and bam! All of a sudden, just like we are all now recognized as AIDS activists for having paid our taxes, we are all now devout Christians because we stumbled out of bed on Sunday morning. But listening to worship music does not a Christian make, and perhaps our shallow understanding of activism is mirrored when we refer to a U2 concert as a spiritual experience.

I pay my tithe, you mean I have to volunteer too? We hired a children’s pastor, why do I also need to talk about spiritual matters around the dinner table? We have a hospitality ministry, why do I need to be nice to people? Our mission and evangelism committee covers outreach, so surely I don’t need to love my [poor/minority/LGBTQ/etc.] neighbors.

The real work, both being a Christian and an activist, is hard. But I’ll make a deal with you, Bono: I won’t let us think that showing up on Sunday morning makes us a Christian without doing the hard work of reconciliation. You don’t let us think that purchasing our concert ticket is helping to dismantle patriarchy, racism, and economic structures of oppression—especially when you have a chance to preach to a whole stadium full of the very ones perpetuating these systems. If that were the kind of spiritual experience I wanted, I could just go back to church.

Million Little Fires

I wrote this essay following a ritual created by classmates at a writing workshop hosted by the Collegeville Institute, in the Minnesota wilderness. 

fire

A million things on my mind: Lingering vestiges of the anxiety of deadlines past and accomplishments already accomplished. Navigating complicated relationships. The power that other people’s words have on my self-perception. Song lyrics from a lifetime ago running through my head. The nervousness of not just the next ten minutes, but the ten minutes after that.

A million miles away: A pregnant wife at home struggling to deal with the dogs by herself. Feeling the trauma of the latest shooting on my block, and getting a call from prison where my foster son is now being detained. The perpetual anxiety of the news cycle, and the ad infinitum ridiculousness of the world around us.

Then the singing bowl sang. Slow steps. Meticulously pre-ordained by the masking tape marking our route. The periphery disappears. Mirrored by a partner I barely realized was there and arriving to the center of the labyrinth at the same time, our eyes briefly met as we bowed and blessed each other in silence.

Between the taped lines, everything disappeared except one thought; the one thing that I always come back to.

I’m not good enough.

Why would anyone want to read anything I wrote? Who am I to have an opinion on anything? Every blog post brings out the trolls from my past. “You’re a heretic,” “You are a disgrace,” “You can’t have an opinion on this because you aren’t black, you aren’t a woman, you’re not queer, you aren’t a parent, you aren’t ordained, you will never be good enough for me to spend my valuable time reading your lunatic rants.” Why should I even bother?

So that’s what I wrote, in an abridged version that fit on the tiny notecard obviously, because that’s what I want to leave here. I don’t want that anymore. It’s a part of me, but it’s a part that I’m desperate to rid myself of.

As it burned, I hoped for relief. I prayed for relief. How do I go forward from here? How many more times do I have to write that down and burn it?

But I get to burn it every time I need to. And I won’t always need a labyrinth or a divine bowl. I have a new family here, and I can look around the room (at least for the next few hours). That paper, with those thoughts, burns again on its own when I hear what Melanie writes about loving the good. When I hear the stories that a Canadian stoner shares about finding God in a heavy metal band. When I hear the profundity in the questions Tess is asking every time we have porch beers. When I share my story and find out how much I have in common with Susan and Lee Ann – the joys and the families and the pain and the burnout. These thoughts burn when I’m reminded of the quiet and witty persistence of Caroline, when I hear the wisdom that flows from Fudgie each time she opens her mouth, when Beth shares the divinity of Sabbath with us and Aunt Judy profoundly shows us concern for a lost (or losing) generation. That little notecard of insecurity burns intensely when Liz teaches us to love a little bit more than we’re ever comfortable with, because it is the journey that matters more than the destination. The thoughts turn to ash when I hear of Kristel’s persistence in following her calling, for much longer and against greater odds than I think I have the strength to.

This time and this place have changed me. Maybe from the ticks and mosquitos. Maybe because I’ve been revisiting angsty music from my forgotten past. Maybe from porch beers with my new family. Maybe from realizing that these things that I burned are bullshit. And maybe that was the whole point of it all.

Zechariah’s Thorn

His turn came around, This man named Zechariah

Along with all the other priests, waiting on the Messiah

They cast the lots, and the chosen one went inside of

The Holy of Holies, the fount of Jewish desire.

 

He lit up the incense and he froze in his place

When Gabriel appeared, the color rushed from his face.

The fear that had grabbed him, that altered his gaze

Was affixed on this messenger straight from the pearly gates

 

“Don’t be afraid,” much easier said than done

His muscles probably twitched, his reflex was to run.

I can only imagine how those words made him undone

Why shouldn’t I be afraid? I’m gonna have a son!

 

His name will be John, and he will be your joy

He’ll be filled up with the Spirit, even as a little boy

He’ll make straight the path, he’ll bring my people back

He’ll get the nations ready for the real McCoy

 

He had a lot of questions, as any of us would

My wife and I are barren, Do you think this even could

Happen to us in our old age? Do you think we even should?

­­­­­­­­­­­We’ve been praying for forever, we remember God is good.

 

But how can I be sure? Then Gabriel interrupted

He’ll walk in power like Elijah if you keep him uncorrupted

Raise him in the truth, don’t let him come up maladjusted

His walk will match his talk, his words so true they’ll be trusted

 

But Zechariah, why are you so untrusting?

Your words are so faithless, they need readjusting.

So disgusting, sounds dirty like cussing,

Don’t you know this plan of mine will usher in THA King?

 

But the thorn in his flesh, or in this case his voice

Reminded everyday that he couldn’t make a noise

For nine months he waited, then God delivered him a boy

Now with hindsight and history, we know to rejoice