Tuesday, October 31, 2023

October Sunflowers

As the first deep chill of winter starts seeping into the season, the sunflower patch in the front of my yard is dying.  Almost all of the brilliant yellow blooms have been trimmed away as they faded, their seeds either feeding the birds, falling to earth, or seedsaved and stored in a jar for next year's sunflowers.  The largest stalks rest drying amidst the ivy on the front of the house.  They'll become kindling for winter fires, or stakes for the garden in the spring.  

I have harvested all that I require.

A few wan stalks do still stand by the sidewalk, lingering where once there was a riot of canary petals, one last splash of bright summer against the darkening days.

This morning, as I clacked away on my laptop transcribing an old written text, I watched an older man slow as he approached the fading display.  He walks through the neighborhood most mornings, clad mostly in black, his beard neat, a backpack on his back.  Sometimes he'll stop, as if something is caught in his mind.  There's an intensity about him.   When he stopped, abruptly, he brought that same focus to the dozen remaining blossoms.  I stopped typing, and watched him more closely.

I saw his eyes dart from flower to flower, his head shifting birdlike with each change in his gaze.  Then he stopped.  All of his attention, on one badly wilted compound flowerhead.

There was a pause.

Then, just as abruptly as he'd stopped, his hands lashed out.  One grabbed the flower, the other the stalk, and with the flower clenched in a fist, he twisted and wrenched at it.  Sunflower stalks are sturdy things, but he was not to be denied.  It tore away in his hand.

He looked at it, for a moment, considering the wreck of petals.

Then he raised the flowerhead to his mouth, and took a bite.  

Sunflowers are technically edible, all of them, although my one attempt at roasting and eating a whole head was only a reminder that "technically edible" is true for a surprisingly large array of objects.  My heliovore passerby began to walk on, briskly, still chewing, but then stopped.  He turned, walked back to the patch, where he stood, staring into the middle distance as he continued to munch on both seeds and flower.

Having preached out of Leviticus this last Sunday, I was reminded of Torah's injunction not to harvest to the edge of your land, and to leave what grows there for the stranger and the hungry.

I hadn't thought that'd extend to flowers, but apparently it does.

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Our Dark Messiahs

This last week, I preached a sermon on messianic identity, and the charlatans, narcissists, and madmen who often claim to be God.  It was a scripture-grounded riff on a book I'd recently read about the life of Vernon Howell, who is far better known as David Koresh, the psychotic leader of the doomed Branch Davidian cult.

We human beings need meaning and purpose in life, and often mistake the overbright confidence of the huckster and the sociopath for said meaning and purpose.  I will, as is every pastors duty, make a regular point of reminding my little flock that this is a peril we all face, a trap that can close around every human person.

The first words to me from the first parishioner to leave the sanctuary were "You know, I kept waiting for you to say 'Donald Trump.'"  Which meant, of course, that they'd exactly gotten the point of the sermon.  That I don't bring politics directly into my preaching doesn't mean there aren't clear and immediate applications to our national life, and the conceptual through line between David Koresh and Donald Trump is alarmingly direct.

How, one might ask?  Isn't that a little hyperbolic?

Well, no.  No, it isn't.

I've wrestled mightily over the last few years with the connection between American Christianity and Trumpism, simply because it all seems so insane.  Trump is, in his life and in his values, precisely and exactly the opposite of Jesus. 

As evangelicals have wrapped themselves in rational contortions to justify their support for Trump, they've consistently referenced two flawed biblical figures.  The first, King David, who was both God's chosen and prone to being overthrown by beauty and the moonlight.  The second, Cyrus of Persia, who served God's purposes even though he wasn't part of the covenant people.

This is precisely and exactly the reason that the Branch Davidians lined up behind Vernon Howell, who changed his name to "David Koresh," with Koresh being another way of saying "Cyrus."  He was their "broken messiah."  Lord, was he broken.

"Look," evangelical Christians say.  "God can work through broken, morally compromised people.  Trump may be morally compromised, but who are we to say that he's not an agent of God's intent?"

I've written elsewhere against this line of reasoning, which misrepresents both David's deeply repentant relationship with God and the wise, gracious openness of Cyrus.  These were fundamentally moral leaders.

David Koresh was not.  Neither is Donald Trump.

There's a darker resonance, though, one that rose to mind as I prayed and meditated over my preaching.

When evangelical Christians say "Trump is like David," or "Trump is like Cyrus," they aren't just explaining away his immorality and obvious anti-Christian nature.  They're making a messianic claim about Trump.  They are implicitly claiming that Trump...like David, like Cyrus...is meschiach, the Hebrew word meaning "anointed," which Biblical Greek translates as "Christ."

It is to him that they now owe unwavering fealty, and it is he who defines truth.

This is a deeply dangerous assumption for the soul of the faith.

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Trump Antichrist

Trump is again standing for office, defiant and shameless, unrepentant and doubling down.  He remains a deep threat to our republic.  Another season of madness seems to be dawning on our nation.  

But as difficult as that is, the United States of America isn't my primary concern, nor is it my primary life commitment.  

The corruption of my faith is my concern.  A significant portion of American Christianity sees Trump as a legitimate...even God-ordained...defender of the Christian faith.  This is, to the eyes of my soul, insane.  Demonic, even.  

Christ cannot be served, ever, by a lie.  

Nor can Jesus be served by blind partisan hatred, and that was my personal challenge.

"Trump Derangement Syndrome," it's mockingly called by those who somehow can't see him for what he is, but it did indeed feel like that.  It was a disease of the self, one that ran as deep as the delusion that blinds his followers.  I was becoming what I hated.

That hatred also tormented my Christian brothers and sisters.  On more than one occasion, I have been approached by another Christian troubled by how deeply they found themselves hating Donald Trump.  These are the gentle souls, the souls who live for missions of compassion and kindness, the sort of folks that one would describe as Saints of the Church.  Generous, thoughtful, welcoming, prayerful, and radically focused on Christ's peace.

"David," one said, embarrassed and horrified at their own thoughts.  "I just want him dead.  I can't stop wanting him to die."

I felt that hatred in myself, and so I did what writers do when they need to process something.  I wrote a book.   

I'd had the idea for it back in 2019.  I was already tired of my own anger, stoked every single day with constant provocations both real and imagined.  I'd had a dream, vivid and lucid as certain dreams are, in which I visited Trump as he wandered alone and despairing in Hell.  In that dream, to my great surprise, I found myself moved with a deep compassion.  It meant something.  I wasn't sure what, but it needed more articulation than a poem of questionable quality.

The idea for this book came to me, but I couldn't bring myself to write it then.  I was exhausted by his media omnipresence, the endless reality-television drama-queen vomit of his presidency.  There were already so many books about Trump, a veritable cottage industry of Trump-adjacent mammonist profiteering.  

I also had, at that time, other writing that consumed my attention, novels about A.I. and a book of theology about the odd weather we've been having lately.  

But after the riot, and the struggle I encountered in other Christians, and the spreading, sprawling thicket of falsehoods that to this day cast the pall of a dark alternate reality over millions of Americans who remain in Trump's thrall, I found that I had to write it.  For myself, and my sanity.  

Well, for what passes for sanity with me, anyway.

TRUMP ANTICHRIST is written in Satan's voice, the personified voice of hatred, of cynicism, of falsehood, of power.  It is, when I described it to my agent and to the editors who were kind enough to look at it, a bit of theopolitical satire, written in the least trustworthy, most seductive voice I know.  

Those editors gave it a pass; some, because it's weird, but others...notably...because they were afraid.  Of frivolous lawsuits.  Of less-than-frivolous threats of violence from Trump supporters.   I don't blame them.  America is increasingly consumed by a peculiar and familiar madness, and the prospect of death threats from glazed-eye partisans isn't something one wants to bring on oneself.  

So I self-published it, because the odds of a weird, self-published book being read by more than a dozen souls are pretty close to zero.

It's a short, odd little book, one that serves several purposes.  

First, it is my own struggle to come to terms with how human beings who consider themselves Christian could follow a leader who is...in every single conceivable way...the diametric opposite of Jesus. There's a theological term for such a leader, and you know what it is.  That term is "Antichrist."  In the book, the voice of the fallen Divine Prosecutor makes that case, using both scripture and Nietzsche, because that's exactly what the devil would do.  He's not wrong, not technically.

That voice, though.  Let's talk about that voice.  The "narrator" of the book is chosen intentionally.

It's written in the same voice that whispers hatred and a hardened heart into my own soul.  The same voice that tells me that there is nothing more righteous, nothing more purely just, than hating my enemies.  

Second, and because that's the way the book is written, it's not the book you think it is.  Or even that I thought it was, when I began writing it.  

Sure, it skewers the desperate, obvious rationalizations that Christians use to justify supporting someone who incarnates everything they claim to reject.   But if you loathe Trump, and desire the destruction of those who follow him, and find yourself nodding along when Satan tells you exactly what you want to hear about them?  

What is that, precisely?   

It's the same evil.  When you toss the devil's coin, both heads and tails are evil.  The shadow cast by evil is still evil.  Blind partisan hatred dehumanizes and controls us, just as surely as it turns us to dehumanize our enemies.

You cannot fight evil with evil.  That doesn't mean you can't speak out when something monstrous rises.  That doesn't mean you accept lies as truth, encourage hucksters and profiteers and narcissists, or walk in silent lockstep with brutes and thugs.  You must resist these things.

But if you're crazy enough to consider yourself Christian, you are obligated to use other means.  To do that, you must break the spell that holds you.

You're welcome to give it a read if you need some help with that.

Thursday, October 19, 2023

Amos, Gaza, and Israel

I'm in the middle of leading a bible study at my little church, as pastors generally do.  It's one that I'd prepared over the course of the summer, as I mapped out a semester's worth of teaching on what are called the "Minor Prophets."

This week, we began our two weeks journeying with the prophet Amos, one of my favorite of the minor prophets.  Amos was a hick, a redneck, the kind of dude who made his living in fields and hillsides, tending flocks and crops.  He was from a tiny little village in the middle of Judean nowhere, a place called Tekoa, a few hours walk from the sleepy town of Bethlehem.

His calls for justice sang out against the brokenness of his time, as through him the Creator of the Universe challenged the human tendency to trample the poor, for wealth to coalesce around power, and for human beings to automatically assume that they're righteous.

The collection of his sayings in the Bible dates back to roughly 760 BCE, nearly two thousand eight hundred years ago, almost three whole millennia in the past.  During that time, entire empires have risen, thrived for a thousand years, and fallen.  The distance between our present moment and the writing of Amos is roughly the half the span of all human written history.  

Which is why, this week, Amos punched more immediately than I'd expected, and far harder than it had this summer when I first planned the class.

The canonical book of Amos begins with a sequence of diatribes against the nations, as the God of Israel challenges all of  the peoples of the region for their abuses of power.  It's a taut rhetorical technique, as the prophet's voice begins with condemnations of the enemies of the Hebrew people, and then...having tricked his listeners into nodding along at the attack on their hated neighbors...spirals into a direct challenge to the nation of Israel itself, which was the stronger and more successful of the two Jewish kingdoms.

So this week, as I went back to refresh myself for the discussion on Sunday, I read this:

Thus says the Lord:
For three transgressions of Gaza,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment,
because they carried into exile entire communities,
to hand them over to Edom.
So I will send a fire on the wall of Gaza,
and it shall devour its strongholds.
I will cut off the inhabitants from Ashdod
and the one who holds the scepter from Ashkelon;
I will turn my hand against Ekron,
and the remnant of the Philistines shall perish,
says the Lord God. (Amos 1:6-8)

And then, precisely one short chapter later, I read this:

Thus says the Lord:
For three transgressions of Israel,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment,
because they sell the righteous for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals—
they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth
and push the afflicted out of the way;
father and son go in to the same young woman,
so that my holy name is profaned;
they lay themselves down beside every altar
on garments taken in pledge;
and in the house of their God they drink
wine bought with fines they imposed.  (Amos 2:6-8)

Again, this text is nearly three thousand years old, one of the oldest of the prophetic witnesses.  Ten times the span of America's short life as a nation.  Before Islam.  Before Jesus.  Before Rome.  Before most of Western history.  Before the language I am writing in and you are reading in even existed.

Amos, speaking with God's voice, about Israel bearing down on the poor and needy.  About Gaza, carrying people away, and a fire tearing down its walls.  

Lord have mercy, we human beings have changed so little.  

War, Lies, and Our Collective Sin

War does dark things to truth.   

During the Spanish Civil War, for example, a people tore itself into bloody pieces, left and right, fascist and republican.  One of the more memorable figures from that particular episode of human horror was a leader of anarcho-syndicalist sub-movement of republicanism, Buenoventura Durruti.

Charismatic and ferocious, Durruti's personal magnetism helped focus the inchoate mess that always occurs when anarchists or libertarians attempt to do anything.  From a working class background, Durruti had been an agitator, an organizer, and an outlaw, with varying degrees of success.  During the war, he led a militia that fought ferociously against the fascists, but that was also just as opposed to socialists, social democrats and, well, whatever happened to get in the way.  

"We reject everything but victory," Durruti legendarily quipped.

He died in November of 1936 during a battle for Madrid, after being shot accidentally by one of his own men.  His dying words were to repeat over and over again an anarchist lament:  "Too many committees!"  

This may be apocryphal, but Lord, does it speak to my anarcho-Presbyterian heart.

After his death and the wildly chaotic funeral that followed, other leaders in the anarchist movement claimed that Durruti had been assassinated by a fascist sniper.  That charge was blatantly false, knowingly false, an utter fabrication.  But it sounded better to the anarchists, making his death a martyrdom rather than an embarrassment.

In retaliation for the "murder" of Durruti, Spanish anarchists then executed a group of fifty prisoners, an act of "revenge" for a crime that was never committed.

Fifty lives for a lie.

This is the way of war.  Of course it is.  It has always been the way of war.  If one group of people have set themselves about the task of collectively murdering another group of people, falsehood really isn't a great moral leap. 

When we forget this, and naively accept the justifications that hate selfishly spins out of its fevered imaginings, we become agents of the lie, vessels of falsehood, sinners ourselves.

Sunday, October 15, 2023

A Eulogy for Dad

My first and oldest memory of Dad is a shiny one, revisited over the years, rubbed bright with recollection. I was small, perhaps three, perhaps four, which is difficult to tell because my memories don't come with convenient datestamps. Not yet, anyway.

We were out on the back patio of our home on Riverside Drive in Nairobi, and it was a bright and perfect afternoon. The yard was beautiful, a long green sloping paradise that stretched down to a meandering pathway by the Nairobi river. We were playing tag, or catch-me-if-you-can. I would run as fast as my scrawny little boy stick-legs would carry me, and he would pretend to have trouble catching me. Then all of a sudden, I'd be swept up into the air, and tossed upwards, and caught again in strong and careful arms, and he would be laughing.

Then it was my turn, and I would chase him, and he would dance away on his young man's legs, a tennis player’s legs, always just out of reach, always just a step beyond me. As fast as I ran, I couldn't catch him, until I fell down dizzy into the Kenyan grass, and he'd sweep me up again.

There is a time in every child's life when a good father seems magical, heroic, mythical. Dad was just such a Dad, living a life brimming with stories, tales of adventure and excitement that felt pulled from a storybook. We would hear those stories, often at bedtime, as he said goodnight. Tales from his rough and tumble boyhood in postwar Queens. Tales from college, very very carefully edited. Stories from countless moments on stage. Stories of danger and excitement from his world travels, of disappearing into Ugandan prisons or lying flat on his belly in a Tehran hotel as revolutionary guards sprayed it with Kalashnikovs.

As a little boy, the one where Dad shot a crocodile that was menacing a group of kids swimming in an Ethiopian river was a favorite, particularly the part where it was still alive when they tried to pull it into the boat, and Dad impulsively flung himself upon it with a knife, only to realize the knife was a cheap knife they sold to tourists when it broke in his hands. That one was told and retold many an evening. It may or may not have been entirely accurate reportage.

Dad loved to tell those stories, and Lord have mercy, did he tell them often. "Dad, this is the third time in the last forty minutes you've told us that," we'd say. And he'd nod and say, "Well, I can't be sure you've heard it yet," and keep on going. His stories were filled with names, not simply of famous folk, but also of all of you. For example, there was a season when every narrative road seemed to lead to Stan Engebretson, to the point where I and the boys would repeat the name like a liturgical response. “Stan Engebretson,” we’d intone reverently.

Stan, on that hopefully far off day when St. Peter greets you at the Pearly Gates, I’m fairly certain that the first words he’ll say are, “Ah, yes, Mr. Engebretson. We’ve heard so very much about you.”

His telling and retelling was mnemonic, part of how he remembered, how he for so long seemed able to recall an uncanny amount of information about specific events in his life. Every sporting event, every interview or assignment, every performance, all of them came with dates and times and granular specifics about who was there, which would spin into a fractal narrative spiral into another story about that particular person.

Dad's memories were all about people, because it was people that mattered to him. The human beings he encountered were how he defined his life, and the more time you spent with him, the more you mattered. You were part of his story, and part of him. When you appeared in a retelling, it was like a song is committed to memory, or a soliloquy is prepared for performance.

People mattered to Dad. Family, even more so. We were all, he would tell me as a boy, his Preciouses, a sign of both the intensity of his love and the fact that Dad had clearly never read any Tolkien. He doted on mom, incurably romantic as he was, and the stories of their meeting and courtship were repeated and remembered again and again. When Dad became Granddaddy, he delighted in the lives and performances and music of his grandsons, and had an insatiable appetite for stories about their life, news from their world.

Dad’s life was all he could have asked of it. He was satisfied with it. “I’ve had a great life,” he’d say in those last months. “How many people get to live the kind of life I’ve gotten to live?” He felt no lack. 

 His life was enough. 

“That’s one egg,” I can hear him reply, as he did at breakfast so many mornings. “What?” “One egg is un oeuf,” he’d say, a French language joke that he told so many times it would have been disappointing if he hadn’t.

His story, as we understand it, is now complete. He lives whole in the memory of his Maker, just beyond us, seemingly so close but just out of reach, just a step away, dancing out of view, rising up on wings like eagles.

We love you, Dad.

Thursday, October 12, 2023

Of Nuance and Moral Horror

"This must be understood in context," we who are educated say.  "Well, actually, there are nuances that must be considered," we who are informed sagely intone.

There is a truth to these statements, particularly when we are considering long standing and intractable conflicts.  This I understand.  

And yet, on the other hand, there's the reality of the moral moment.  Not the abstracted macroanalytics of sociology, political science, or social anthropology.  Not the swirling shifting semiotics of deconstruction.  But a particular action in a particular moment.  A real thing with effects in the real world.

Amidst the horrors of weeping women and shroud-covered bodies that have filled our collective consciousness these last few days, one particular moment lingers.  I saw it once online, and then again on broadcast television, and yet it hangs with me.  I usually would provide a link or an image, but I will not here.  

It was a video, perhaps four seconds long, one recorded by a Hamas member for social media distribution.  Another masked member of Hamas is dragging a young woman to the vehicle that will take her to captivity.  He is armed with an automatic weapon.  She is bound, and from her clothing had clearly been one of the revelers at the festival where hundreds were killed.  The gunman drags her roughly by her arm, then her hair.  As he forces her headfirst into the vehicle, the viewer can see that between her legs, her close-fitting white pants are stained.  She may have been recently raped, and that may be the stain of her blood.  Or perhaps in raw terror she had defecated herself.  Or both.

It is a horror, one of so many.

Where do we find the nuance in such a moment?  What is the moral relevance of putting it into the sociopolitical context of the region? 

There is no moral relevance.

Those tools are ethically worthless in the face of horror. Every particular instantiation of moral horror is itself not nuanced.  It is simply horror, and horror has only itself as context.  Each moral moment stands on its own, and must be judged for what it is.

Context might suggest that one assert that the man with the gun cannot choose, that he is just a soulless manifestation of a broken system, and that he has no moral agency?  What of the man who records a bleeding, terrified young woman, intending to celebrate later, or to terrify others?  The man with power who drags the woman is a person, not a mindless automaton.  The man who records power brutalizing the helpless so the video can be celebrated or terrorize others is also a person.  

Nuance might suggest that this one terrified woman should be abstracted into a representation of a repressive regime, or of a sociopolitical dynamic between peoples.  Her immediate suffering, and the violation of her unique self-awareness?  Those are to be replaced with sterile, bloodless dialectical constructs.  Seeing her as fully human, as a soul, as a self?  It's almost unbearable.

Because it is harder to see the blind hate, the blood, the fear, to see the real horror we inflict on one another.

The deeper horror is precisely that they are persons.  The person is the fundamental and irreducible unit of our nature.  Not systems, not collectives, not corporations.  Not tribes or races or nations.  Persons.

Emphasizing overarching systems or context essentially assumes that these humans are not persons.  It allows the retreat into abstraction, and a looking away.  In its own way, it allows us to see them as something other than human. 

And it is from that assumption that so much horror is inflicted on the world.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

When Does It End?

"Inhuman," we cry, when we see human beings committing unspeakable atrocities.  "These aren't human beings," we growl.  "These are animals."  But what are we, we who claim to be human beings?

We homo sapiens sapiens are such paradoxical creatures.

We're self-aware, inarguably sentient, capable of such beauty and compassion.  We can envision realities and make them actual.  We find a way, frail and weak though we are.  We cross seas.  We make wings and fly.  We take to the heavens themselves.   We can cast our thoughts into symbol, holding thought and memory across centuries.  No other life does what we do, anywhere that we have ever encountered it.  We are a marvel, a thing of wonder.

We are also, at the same time, exceptionally horrible.

We have always been horrible.  For my whole life, the story of our world has been full of monsters, and those monsters have mostly been human beings.  For all of recorded history, that has been true.  Lions and tigers and bears?  Barely worthy a mention.  Great white sharks?  Amateurs.

We human beings butcher and we bomb, we rape and we torture, we seethe with hatred, we thirst for the suffering of others.  We spread across the land like a clattering cloud of mindless locusts, denuding it of life.

In our moments of compassion, we struggle mightily with that, with our perpetual cycle of violence and grasping.  And then something unsettles us, and we succumb again to the bright hot clarity of our hatred.

That has been evident, again, for every moment of my short life.  News is and has always been a parade of horrors.  It is nothing more than a continuance of our history.  Wars and slaughters, tragedy piled upon tragedy.  

We know we have to step away from it, to release the sword.  But the moment we go to set down the sword, it whispers to us.  "I will be used against you, and you will die."  

That's true, of course, in the way that every word of that archetypal Serpent was true.

So we keep our hate tight in our hands, and our suffering never ends.

Thursday, October 5, 2023

Of Seeds and the Falling Thereof

Every few years, the large oak that sits closest to our house decides that it is time to mast.  

Most seasons, there are acorns.  But some years, things are different.  The world, or so the old oak decides, really needs more oaks.  If it produces at a normal level, there's a chance another oak might be produced.  But there's also a chance that the normal quota of acorns will fall on poor ground, or that the squirrels and chipmunks will gorge themselves and leave nothing remaining.  So masting occurs.  It can come, some scientists believe, when environmental triggers tell the tree that it needs to hyperproduce.  

Is that trigger a good sign, of possible optimal conditions?  Or a sign that the world is more threatening, and that a desperate effort is needed?  We have no idea, as the mind of an oak is hidden from us.

Whatever the cause, this year the great old tree has rained down a hailstorm of acorns.  They bang and clatter against the roof, one after another, tumbling audibly down to the gutters, then pranging percussively off of the stone patio.  All day long they drop with startling loudness, an utterly randomized chinese acorn torture.

They are a living hyperbole, an embarrassment of seed.  They cover the patio flagstone, which I clear daily, only to find it covered again.  So many of them.  So very many.

All seed is like that.  I seedsave almost everything I grow now, and what seedsaving has taught me is that life is utterly profligate.  Life pours wantonly out into the world, spamming itself against the void.  One sunflower produces a fractal whorl of seed for hundreds of possible plants.  Each basil plant I let run produces enough tiny black seed to fill a garden.  A single bush bean plant, enough plump beans to populate half an acre.  

Because most of it fails.  Almost all of it fails.  Most is devoured, or falls on the sidewalk, or just doesn't make it.  Even the ones that sprout will succumb to illness, or be nibbled away by deer or bunnies or crawly critters.  It's a radiant cornucopia of failure, a groaning table of falling short.

"A farmer went out to sow his seed," Jesus once said, as he so often did, his teaching filled with tales of earth and life and growth.  As an anxious suburban American, that parable always troubled me.   Seed is scattered.  Most dies.  Some thrives wildly, sure, but the supermajority does not.  

And...we're that seed?  As he told it, it's such a harsh parable for most of us.  Sure, there's a mighty harvest, but only after so much waste, so many souls cast aside, so much failure.  We, precious unique individual persons, are falling on rocky soil, devoured by birds, scorched by the sun?  We and our children, nothing more than Divine spamming into likely oblivion?  Aren't we all worthy?  Aren't we all special?

Yet we clearly are not.  We are no more than acorns.  

So few of us find our way, with ill fortune, joyless choices and ill-considered paths.  We moderns feel that fear, and hover over our careers and our one point eight offspring, trying to be sure they thrive, carefully optimizing probabilities, tending to each moment with fear and trembling.  Because we know how fragile we are, and they are, and how easily all of the structures around us might prove shallow soil.  

We want to defy or deny this.  We want to manage it, to find workarounds, to apply our assumptions about the Wonder that is Us to creation.  But creation does not buy into our hype.  

This is too hard for most to understand, Jesus says.  It is.  It feels unjust, unfair, too hard, wildly unequal.

"I find this parable problematic from an equity perspective," one could say, clucking one's tongue at Jesus.

But that would place us cleanly into the "most won't understand this" category.  The parable of the sower isn't a socioeconomic statement.  It's an allegory of our engagement with our intended purpose, of our receptiveness to a call that transcends us, of our willingness to resist the lie of power and the chimera of wealth, of our being both good soil and seed.

Human beings are bad at finding good soil, and have always been bad at it.  We tumble thoughtless and aimless through life, and seem no more aware than the oak's innumerable failed progeny.  We can choose, of course, to act differently.  We can scare away the birds, and amend the soil, and plant ourselves with care.  But we do not.

It should trouble us, should knock against us, like seed on a rooftop.

Monday, October 2, 2023

All Are Welcome

It caught my eye as I entered the soft space of my little sanctuary this Sunday morning.

On a bitty table in our bitty vestibule, there's a small sign.  ALL ARE WELCOME HERE, it says, because they are.  Next to it, a guest book, where the rare soul who wanders into our humble church can leave their name and address.  If you show up, we will recognize you, because entering a small church is not all that different from wandering into someone's home.  It's hard stepping into a small room filled with strangers. 

We don't train a spotlight on you when COME TO JESUS starts flashing on the screen at the front of the sanctuary, and start chanting "One of Us!  One of Us!"  We're just glad to have you there, and are happy to get to know you.  People will greet you, and ask about you.  If you come back to the fellowship hour for coffee and snacks, we'll receive you as a welcome guest.  Some little churches can be exclusive, a circle of backs.   But when we say we're friendly, we mean it.  

Twelve years ago, on the Sunday before I was supposed to start at my church as the pastor, I showed up unannounced.  Just came in, took a seat, and shared in worship.  People who hadn't seen my face and didn't know who I was talked to me.  Were friendly.  Made me feel welcome. We're still that way.

But if I'm honest with myself, some guests?  Some are less welcome than others. 

Wedged behind the glass of our little welcome sign and obscuring the text, was one of them: A stinkbug, of the brown marmorated variety.

Stinkbugs are a plague in our neck of the woods, a recent invasive that has no natural predators in the Midatlantic.  They breed ferociously and vigorously, and can quickly become an infestation.  I visited a regular church attendee once, years ago, and her ramshackle compound in the woods outside of town was overrun with them.  Surfaces crawled and shifted, the walls alive and seething with tens of thousands of the drab blocky brown forms.  You can't stomp 'em or squish 'em, because, well, they stink.  The little devil was not welcome. 

I showed the critter and the sign to a church member, because it was such an amusing juxtaposition.  Then I took the little beastie outside to dump it into the grass.  It took a moment or three, as the bug clung fiercely to the sign with its little claws.  I tapped and shook the sign, and still it held on, until finally it tumbled into the waiting greenery.  

In the way of so many providential moments, it got me wondering about welcome.

Are all welcome?  I will often see well-meaning Jesus folk posting earnest tweets from the latest batch of Christian influencers, chastising churches for not welcoming everyone.  

How can we be truly welcoming, or so the trope goes, if we don't simply accept everyone?  All means all! Just be your best self!  Don't expect people to be something other than themselves!  Expecting people to conform to the standards of the church is just so judgmental, so stifling.  Why should the church define who you are?  You define who you are!  We're all individuals!  We're all different!

On the one hand, this is a vital corrective to our tendency to view the stranger with fear, or to approach someone who is different from your community norm in a cruel or judgmental way.  No one should ever feel rejected, or hated.  That's antithetical to the Gospel.  Neither should Christian communities set standards for themselves that mirror the biases of culture, only welcoming those who meet societal measures of acceptability.  If Jesus taught us anything, it's that the marginalized, the despised, and the outcast are people you sit with, you eat with, and treat with love.   He did it, and expects us to do the same.  Commands it, even.  Just as they are, as the old Gospel standard sings it.

On the other hand, while all are welcome to come and share in life together, the standards of the church for those who wish to actually join us aren't somehow inherently invalid.  "Church" can be code for "bad" for certain circles of disruptive churchy influencers, after all.

But what is "church" but a gathering of human beings who have collectively chosen to follow Jesus?  That goes far deeper than amorphous, subjective self-actualization.  

The teachings of the Gospel, taken at all seriously, do create expectations of us.  They establish norms.  They set standards.  There are attitudes of the soul that aren't optional if you're going to be part of a healthy Christian community, expectations that are necessary for the integrity of our calling to life together.

The Sermon on the Mount, the core teachings of Jesus?  There's some stuff in there that's pretty danged normative.  If you want to be part of the church, we expect you to take Jesus seriously.  We expect you to love your enemies.  We expect you to turn the other cheek.  We expect you to walk the extra mile.  We expect you to be humble, to set aside anxiety about wealth and material possessions, to reject Money as your master, to be unswayed by the siren song of power.

The Apostle Paul would have the church show love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Do y'all have a problem with those things?  Find them "oppressive?"  Some do.  Maybe you prefer instant gratification and snark, material success and doing whatever you like whenever you feel like it, gettin' what's yours, kicking butt and taking names.  If those are the consumer culture norms that float your boat, well, again, maybe Jesus isn't for you.  

If you want to be part of the church, your understanding of "your best self" must be set by those teachings that church has always understood...always, since the very beginning...as our foundation.  Sure, you can be wrasslin' with them.  You can be in the midst of that struggle.  You won't be perfect.  None of us are.

But if you openly define "your best self" by standards other than the core teachings of Jesus, if wealth and self, power and partisanship are your guidestars, I'm not sure you're ready.  

We'll still have coffee warm for you.  If you're hungry, we'll feed you.  We'll still be in conversation with you.  We'll still love you.  You'll be welcome for as long as you choose to come by.

Unless you're a brown marmorated stinkbug.  Then, not so much.