Liberty

When you ask people what “liberty” means, you are likely to get a range of answers. I found that out last week when I actually did ask some of my friends.

  • One sees it from a social and political perspective – it’s the freedoms of the press, assembly, the ability to criticize the government without fear of prosecution.  
  • Another says it is the ability to travel.
  • A professor I know talks about liberty as the ability to make choices free of external constraints and also about the way our societies arrange themselves to allow this freedom without constraints – so liberty is both personal and social. 
  • A few folks insist that liberty, true liberty, is being able to do whatever they want, whenever they want. No limits. 
  • Only two friends had the correct answer: Liberty is an insurance company with an emu mascot. 

What all these understandings share is a sense that liberty is freedom from limitations. Limitations of place, tradition, culture. The origins of this understanding of liberty come from the Enlightenment – that period in the late 17th and early 18th century during which great thinkers, scientists, writers, and political figures promoted an ideal of individual human dignity and equality. And this ideal of liberty is foundational to the American experiment – it is at the heart of our social agreements in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

While individual liberty has become a bedrock of our common life, the definition has changed over time. Once, liberty included the value of each person as well as the connections we have to one another. Our individual liberty was inextricably tied to our social liberty – our freedom as a community to be safe, secure, and to pursue common goals.

Yet now, for many, liberty has come to mean the right of each to be separate from and not beholden to anyone or anything. For many, true liberation is being untethered from obligations or restraints of any kind. This is not a universally held belief, but it has become more and more apparent in our common life that some think we have no true common life.

We see evidence of this strong individualism all around us, most recently in debates about masking and vaccine requirements, but also in conversations about public speech, dress codes, gun regulations, smoking and vaping in public spaces, noise restrictions, and even occasionally motorcycle helmet requirements.

However, one thing people on various sides of this conversation have in common when they talk about liberty is the sense that liberty is – in the best sense of the word – a political value. In this context “political” has to do with the way groups of people make decisions and share power and resources. It is how we live together. In most areas of our lives, the idea of liberty is very much about how we agree (or disagree) to live together.

With all this pubic attention on the idea of “liberty” and what it means, I was caught up short to see the word appear in a reading from the Letter of James for last Sunday’s lectionary. Oh sure, I remembered the familiar parts of this letter about being slow to anger and being doers of the word. But I had not paid much attention to what he describes as the “law of liberty.”

those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing.”

From our modern perspective, how odd it is to see those two words together, law and liberty. Some might think these terms are opposites. Or at the very least wonder what they could mean in the context of faith. What in the world could “liberty” have to do with what James is taking about here?

What does liberty have to do with God and with Jesus? What does it have to do with being a Christian?

It helps to know that James is writing to people who, like us, are facing hard times and he is encouraging them. He reminds them that God has planted a seed of goodness in them, and that seed can grow. He tells them to be good listeners, not to spout off in anger too quickly. He tells them to be doers of the word and not merely hearers.

And he tells them that the “law of liberty,” pure religion, is caring for the most vulnerable people in the community.

For James, “liberty” comes to us through God’s law and is related to our behavior in relation to other people. Liberty is listening well, speaking with good intentions, caring for widows and orphans. Liberty seems to include a set of obligations rather than freedom from them.

Now the wise people who lived in 1st century didn’t share our notions of individual freedoms. They, of course, lived long before the Enlightenment and the modern era. And in their time almost all people were very poor and had little or no political or social power. They all understood in a visceral way that they depended on one another. So the idea of individual freedom the way you and I think of it – well, it would have seemed utterly selfish and crazy, perhaps even fatal. No one could live like that! Not even an emperor.

And they had another insight as well. They understood that each person had a choice in their loyalties. Each person has the ability, the opportunity, to chose the realm of power in which they operated in the world. So, for instance James writes – 

“rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.”

In other words, we can live in the realm of sordidness and wickedness, or in the realm of the implanted word. But not both. We can live in the realm of sin or of life. But not both.

 That doesn’t mean the faithful won’t sin and the sinners won’t hear the word of God. What it means is that you will chose which of those realms claims your heart and soul. You can only orient your life in one direction or the other.

That is why, for James, how we behave is so important. It isn’t because what we do will earn us heaven or hell. No. It is because our behavior is evidence that we have let God’s word change us – or not. It is a sign that we have heard the word and have allowed it to grow in our lives to such an extent that it affects how we operate in the world.

What James is teaching us is that for Christians liberty is not freedom FROM cares, but freedom TO care. Not freedom FROM entanglements, but freedom FOR relationships. Not freedom FROM our neighbor, but freedom to love our neighbor.

For us, the law of liberty is the freedom to let God work through us. Liberty in this context might be political in the sense that it contributes to how we live together. But more importantly, liberty for us is theological. The way we live together is evidence of our loyalty to God. By orienting ourselves to God, we are liberated to participate in God’s love.

This is why, for James, the “law of liberty” is encouraging to people going through hard times. Because even as subjects of the Roman emperor his audience could be free to love God. Even in dire poverty, they could live for each other and not only for themselves. Because when you live in Christ, it is impossible to have an isolated, separate life. In Christ you are automatically connected not only to Christ but to all that Christ embraces.

For us today, this understanding of liberty poses challenges. First we have to acknowledge the tension between what our culture and our faith demand of us. Political and economic liberty has very different expectations of us than the liberty of love and justice. James reminds us – warns us – to be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. Because hearing the word without changing your behavior is self-indulgent. True faith lives in the community, not just inside your head or, worse, as a reflection in a mirror.

Second, we are challenged to embrace the “law of liberty” and allow it it form us, to transform us. God has planted the word in us. And this word grows! God working through us creates something new. It grows over time. Our personal relationship with God must be expressed and experienced through our belonging to God’s people. Being a good listener and being slow to anger are not just ways of showing respect to other people – they are ways of allowing yourself to be transformed into the kind of person who truly values and loves the other.

Caring for the poor is more than providing basic needs for people who are vulnerable, it is a way seeing yourself as their neighbor and recognizing what God loves about them.

As you go about your daily life, there will still be arguments about social and political liberty, what freedom means in relationship to the laws of the land and the people you have to live with. Yet you can choose the law of liberty. And if you choose to accept that law, your liberty will be experienced by doing things!

You can be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. 
You can care for the most vulnerable. 
You can be doers who act and you will be blessed in your doing.

James 1:17-27
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures. 
You must understand this my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. 
But be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing. 
If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

A miracle growing under your feet

May be an image of flower and nature

I am not a gardener. My mother is a gardener with a green thumb, but I do not have that gift. In fact, even plants that are allegedly hard to kill like succulents and cacti are not safe in my care

Nevertheless, there are some success stories of thriving plant life in my yard. For instance, I have a couple of beautiful, flourishing lantanas. Every winter, after their flowers and leaves have fallen off and their branches are dry, dead twigs, I cut them all the way to the ground. It’s the only direct interaction I have then them all year.

And every year, they come back. All the way back – branches, leaves, flowers – to the full height or higher than the year before. 

In my case, this can be considered a miracle. Because as I mentioned, plants tend to die in my care, or my neglect, or both. Yet these plants are thriving. There are people who are better at this than I am, and people who know the science behind how and why plants thrive or die in any given circumstance. They know what mysteries happen in the dark soil out of sight. 

Yet it strikes me that no matter how much any of us know or how skilled at gardening we are, there is still a mystery to the life cycles of flowers and trees, grass or moss, vines and ferns. Part of the mystery is that the key action happens out of our control – seeds sprout buried in the soil, the sun shines or doesn’t, rain falls or doesn’t. It is probably best this way, a reminder that there is a lot in life that is out of our control. 

Is it any wonder, then, why gardens and trees are so often used as images to help us understand God and our relationship with God? There’s a large part of it that is mysterious. That is not up to us. 

“The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground and would sleep and rise night and day and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how,” Jesus teaches in Mark. 

Sometimes we imagine the kingdom of God being far off in time and place. In the sky and in the future. But here, we are offered a kingdom that is earthy and growing under our feet right now. It has been planted, it is germinating while we sleep and rise night and day. 

Like the lantanas in my yard, we don’t need to know how this happens, only that it does. Even when we think all hope and life is lost, a miracle is sprouting. 

Ash Wednesday

Every year of my life, Lent has marked a time of giving up extras, being a bit more austere, and considering my mortality. This year is different. Most of us have been doing without extras for almost 12 months – including things we didn’t think were extras, like human touch. 

So what does it mean to enter Lent at a time of pandemic and winter storm? What does it mean to give something up when we’ve already given up so much, even heat and water? What does it mean to start considering our mortality when that thought has been simmering under all our daily tasks and interactions for so long?

It might be right this year to think of Lent from a different perspective. I am sure we all have plenty to be penitent about and we will – today and throughout the season – pray for the forgiveness of our sins. Yet, Lent is above all else a season of preparation. Preparation for Easter. We are entering a time of getting our hearts and minds and relationships ready to hear and accept the good news of Christ’s resurrection. There is always good news on the other side of sin and suffering. 

I invite you to observe Lent in any way that gets you to Easter! The ashes we typically use on this day to remind us of mortality are not a requirement of our faith. They are a tool. This Ash Wednesday, we have other elements right in front of us that point to that mortality and also toward the coming celebration of life and resurrection. 

Many of us are now looking at a landscape coated in snow and ice, which will melt and be replaced in time by new life. That is a great Lenten image of renewal and growth.

All of us have been isolated from one another for months, yet we hope for regathering to start again soon. That is a hopeful Lenten image of reconciliation and community. 

During this Lent, even with a pandemic and a winter storm, we will still be preparing for Easter and all it means to us as Christians. Like the first Christians, we can prepare for baptism or the renewal of our vows. Like Christians in every age, we can use this time to ready ourselves for reconciling and reconnecting with those who have been made distant from us, whether by choice or circumstance. 

In the darkest of times – and our Christian sisters and brothers around the world and across time have had many dark times – Christ is still a light for us. 

My hope for all of us is that this Lent, like all those that came before it, will be a time when each of us individually and all of us together can grow in faith, 
renew ourselves through penitence and study, 
reflect on God’s goodness, 
show generosity toward our sisters and brothers who are suffering…
…and through this prepare to greet once again a glorious Easter. 

Reluctant Prophet

Jonah might be a prophet for our time. A reluctant believer called to a task he resents, his story includes some of the tensions we – or at least I – see in the culture all around me, and sometimes in my own heart.

In brief the story of Jonah goes like this:
God tells Jonah to go preach to Nineveh, a great city that is the center of power in the
Assyrian Empire. God tells Jonah to cry out against their wickedness. But Jonah says “no.”
He flees and tries to escape God by sailing away. But you can’t escape God, who sends a
storm that threatens to overwhelm the ship Jonah is on. Everyone on board prays to their
own gods for safety and they come to believe, correctly, that someone on the ship has
incurred this storm by angering heaven. Jonah admits it’s him and tells them. “Toss me
overboard.” As soon as he hits the water the sea is calm. Experiencing all this, the Gentile
sailors on the ship turn to Jonah’s God. 

But Jonah is still having problems with his God, who sends a huge fish to swallow him.
Some people need to hit bottom before they turn away from their errors – and being in the
belly of a fish is certainly pretty low. While he is there, he has a change of heart and sings a
song of thanksgiving to God. On the third day, the fish vomits him up on the beach. 

God tells Jonah again. “Preach to Nineveh” and this time, Jonah goes. His message is short
and simple, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” He doesn’t even mention
God’s name. And yet the whole city is moved to repent – they even make their animals don
sack cloth and repent! Their hearts are changed and, watching them, God’s heart is
changed. God does not destroy the city. 

Jonah is not happy. It is not until this point that we find out why Jonah didn’t want to go to
the people of Nineveh: he didn’t want them to change. He didn’t want this city and these
people – these outsiders – to hear God’s call and repent. He tells God, “I know you are
merciful (indeed he’s experienced it first hand) and ready to relent from punishing!” Jonah
wanted the city to be destroyed – because it was foreign, because its people had been
sinful and cruel. The people of Nineveh worshiped other gods and were enemies of Jonah’s
people. He thought they didn’t deserve a chance. 

And yet, deep down he knew that the outcome he wanted was not in line with the God who
called and chased him. 

Reading this story, I have to wonder, what kind of prophet this is? He refuses to listen to God, tries to run away, and is resentful when things go God’s way. There are a lot of reluctant messengers in the Bible – Moses and Jeremiah to name two – but Jonah takes it to a whole new level. At the end of the story, he says he’d rather die than live with the consequences of God’s mercy on the people of Nineveh. Who thinks this way? And why would God call someone like that?

There’s a lot we can learn from this story, and some of the key lessons are about who God is. 

This story illustrates God’s mercy to those who have sinned greatly – including both Nineveh and Jonah. We see God’s persistence in calling Jonah and following him despite Jonah’s many attempts to run away or hide. God is revealed in this story to be responsive to humanity – in this story God changes God’s mind! We see the universality of God’s salvation extending beyond Jonah and his people to their enemies.  

The story also illustrates human nature. Our habit of assuming that our understanding of God is accurate and complete. Our tendency to put people into categories of US and THEM – with God always on the side of US. Our certainty that God’s judgments and preferences align exactly with our own.  

This story is a caution because Jonah is an exemplary believer… up until God actually calls on him. Jonah is committed to serving God right up to the moment he must extend his faith outside of his feelings and beliefs and into action. The idea that he might have to live out his faith was a deal breaker for Jonah. 

Why would God choose a prophet like this? Certainly, the city of Nineveh needed an intervention; they are described by their own king as evil and violent. And Jonah’s prophecy, once he actually starts talking, is amazingly effective. The city – all of it – repents immediately and they do it with no promises of forgiveness. If reluctant Jonah can get a result like that, just imagine how it would have gone with a more cooperative prophet! 

It is possible that confronting Nineveh was not the only purpose in this prophetic mission. After all, if telling the people of Nineveh how wicked they were and warning them of impending destruction was the only goal, then God surely could have picked a more expedient path than via ship and fish’s belly. But that is not what God did. 

God called Jonah. 
God called Jonah to preach to people he loathed, to people who offended him and his religion. 
God called Jonah to a mission that was worse than being tossed in the sea and living in a fish’s belly for three days. 
God called Jonah to a task that he carried out half-heartedly with no passion or joy. 

And I wonder if God might be calling you and me in the same way. Most of the time we experience a sense of God calling us through the things we are good at, the things we have a passion for. 
Music, writing, hospitality…public speaking, prayer, teaching…healing, organizing, even managing money. 

Yet it might also be true that God is calling you in a way you don’t expect, 
to use gifts you don’t have, 
to touch people you do not like. 
And even through this strange interaction to save you, as well. 

As we learn from this story, God is persistent. God is responsive and in relationship with us. God loves limitlessly and universally. 

One true thing about God’s mission is: you can join it, but you cannot define it. God’s mission will always go beyond your hopes and expectations. It might even be the case that, like Jonah, you will be called not according to your greatest gifts, but according to your greatest need. Because in the end, the one person in the story who was resisting the voice of God was the only one who believed in God and whom God called directly. It was Jonah—who in his settled, comfortable faith thought he had God all figured out—whom God called. 

It has become almost too common in recent years – and especially recent weeks—to talk about how divided our nation is, and our local communities as well. The divisions are not just political, they are along all sorts of fault lines – including faith. There are calls for both accountability and reunion. Twin longings for vindication and harmony. In this atmosphere, we are tempted to view others as Jonah saw the Ninevites – as enemies undeserving of mercy. As believers who are committed to prayer and a relationship with God, we think we know how God should deal with them. 

And yet, when God calls you, as we are all called in our baptism and as Jesus called his disciples on the shores of Galilee, when God calls you to address divisions and violence and cruelty it might be you God is aiming to save. 

It might be you that God chases when you try to escape. 
It might be you that would rather be tossed into the sea than meet with “those people.”
It might be you that resents the inclusion of people you still can’t see as deserving. 
It might be you whose idea of God is too small. 
I know it might be me. 

In the end, we don’t know what happened to Jonah. God admonished him, reminded him that it isn’t for any of us to resent God’s mercy. And the story ends there as an open question for us. 

If you were Jonah, what would you do?

Here’s some encouragement: No matter how you respond to the call, God’s mission will be accomplished! After all, even Jonah at his least cooperative moments caused the sailors to discover God and brought the Ninevites to repentance. There is not much you can do to stop God’s mission. 

So why respond at all? Maybe because God’s mission involves you in ways you don’t expect. It might be that when God calls you to address the brokenness in the world God is also calling you to mend the brokenness in yourself. That work is as uncomfortable as being in a fish’s belly, and humbling as being vomited up on the beach, and enraging as watching your adversaries forgiven. 

Yet it is necessary. Answering that call will help heal the world and help heal you. 

Roots

In a way, we’ve all been part of a personal and national discussion about roots over the past few months.* “Where are you from, in what soil are you planted?” In many cases, the discussion has taken a harsh turn, asking “are you native born or an invasive species?” As if people can be like weeds** that choke out fragile flowers or juniper trees*** that drink everyone else’s water. Sometimes I hear people brag about how deep their roots go or how far they spread across the landscape and I wonder at the comparison – do those human roots serve the same purpose as the roots of a tree?

Here in Central Texas, I get to see some truly inspiring roots. Beside a creek in Wimberley, the roots of cypress trees dip right into pools of water, wander along the bank, and cross the stream. They live an extravagant life, well nourished and rarely wanting, creating a tall canopy above. Closer to home in higher, drier soil, scrubby trees send roots through harsh, rocky terrain seeking their source of water far beneath the surface. 

More broadly, I’ve seen a particular species of tree grow differently depending on location. Live oaks in Houston are tall and broad with shallow roots because water is abundant and close to the surface – I’ve seen them topple in high winds, taking all their roots with them. Those same trees in Austin are shorter and skinny with roots that travel through layers of limestone to find water. Nothing uproots them. 

When we humans compare ourselves to trees, it is often with the idea that our roots give us special qualities, physical and intellectual traits that are passed on through generations of mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles. No matter how far apart our familial branches, we are connected to a root that anchors us in the soil of kinship. 

Roots don’t just anchor trees – or families – however. In a more important way, they are vessels for the water and nutrients that sustain the tree. Leaves. branches, trunk, roots, and all. And so if we take the root metaphor another step we might ask, if our family roots anchor us, how and with what do they feed us? What is the equivalent of water and minerals that flow through our generations to sustain us?

I know for my family, my roots, the water that feeds us has been our religious faith. There have been some toxins in the water – alcoholism, illness, estrangement – and those, too, affect the way our family tree has grown. Other families might be watered by ethics and philosophy, common struggle, or connection to the land. Their soil might be tainted with toxins of abuse, pride, violence, or oppression. 

There are some families whose roots carry water, easily; they are anchored near the source of the water and get a constant flow of nutrients. It sometimes happens in these parts of Texas and in some families that the stream dries up. Lack of rain deprives their roots of the sustenance that used to be so accessible. Or the water is tainted and becomes a poison – in which case the tree’s (or family’s) very structure becomes the vehicle for its demise. 

Other families look like they are struggling on the surface. And yet they survive through months and years of arid existence. Their roots work hard to seek sustenance, even when it is covered by layers of hard experience and a harsh environment. 

Like trees, we can’t really just uproot and be someone, something else. But we are not actually trees, and we can tend to the source of our nourishment, the life-giving substances that travel through our roots to feed us. We can also share our water, our sustenance with others. For humans, the creek never really runs dry, but sometimes it is prevented from flowing freely. 

No matter who the members of your family tree are, no matter how deep or broad your roots stretch, you are sustained by spiritual water that is not of your making or your make up. It’s good to know your roots, and also good to know that the roots of everyone else’s family tree serve the same noble purpose as yours – to nourish them. 

Ok, longer than that, but in a particular way recently.
** As the inimitable Becca Stevens reminds us, God doesn’t make weeds, only people do that. 
*** We call them cedars, but they aren’t. Perhaps another aspect of this root metaphor?

Tension

In a drop of water, millions of molecules hold together by, in part, pushing against each other. This phenomenon is called surface tension. Two things are happening in the water drop at once. 

Water molecules push and pull each other constantly. They hold together because they are all, well, water. Each and every, all of them. 

There is a greater attraction of water to water than water to air or leaf. And where water meets a different material the molecules at that meeting point pull closer to other water molecules than to the air above or the leaf below. They create a surface that pulls in and holds all the water together. 

When two drops of water meet, they join and form a larger drop – water holds to water. 

I noticed drops of water experiencing their tension after a summer rain recently. It got me thinking about all the things that are possible because of this tension. It creates puddles and lakes and oceans. It allows us to float. It is a factor in how plants and animals and soil interact with water to make life possible. 

So this tension is part of what makes life possible. 

It got me thinking about how humans talk about tension in a different way – as painful or objectionable or violent. 

What if we thought about it as the natural consequence of humans pushing and pulling each other constantly and something that can hold us together? 
What if we pulled in close those of us at the surfaces – on the edges and at the margins –  to form a strong, cohesive community? 
What if we welcomed and joined other groups of humans we encountered – just because we are all human? 
And what if our tension – our pushing and pulling – created the possibility of more life? 

Of course, we are not as simple as drops of water. We think and feel and categorize ourselves. 

Too often we treat other people and groups as if they are a completely different substance from us. How can non-sentient water be wiser than we? 

We experience tension as conflict, yet it can also be a creative force, the thing that helps ideas bloom. The thing that makes life possible. 

One of the ways that humans across many cultures and eras describe coming together is in our eating together. Breaking bread is a euphemism for peacemaking. Everything on the table of our peacemaking is possible because of tension. Surface tension, this concept described by physicists, makes possible the grain in the bread. It is the way we are able to pour and share and swallow a drink. We couldn’t even hold hands or say a prayer without that tension. 

There is something that can attract us to each other if we let it. We are all human, each and every, all of us. In my tradition, we say that all humans are created in the image of God. For all our pushing and pulling, there is this essence about us at a cellular level that makes us one, that makes life possible. That makes life. 

Between the earth and the sky

Five and a half months into pandemic-style living, I’m seeing a parade of new memes and advice essays about how to cope. First we helped each other adjust to the sudden change to staying at home and avoiding social contact. Then we engaged in the euphoria of possible pandemic projects – Cleaning baseboards! Making sourdough bread! Learning a new language! That phase didn’t last very long. 

A couple of months ago we sent each other reminders to be gentle with ourselves. This thing we are all going through is stressful and it’s okay to be tired and anxious and overwhelmed. You don’t have to clean your baseboards with a q-tip. (Very glad about that advice since I never started.)

Now, we’re having local and national conversations about how to do very familiar things in a totally different way. School. Elections. Even hurricane evacuations. So five and a half months in, there are some new messages and some recycled messages that help us remind each other to have compassion, to be careful with ourselves and with each other. 

Way back in March, I participated in a webinar called The Psychology of Pandemics. The panel included Steven Taylor, a clinical psychologist who presciently published a book by that title in October 2019. (Can you imagine?) There were a couple of other psychologists on the panel as well and they had some helpful insights. I recently looked over my notes and it was interesting to see how what I heard in March is looking today. 

The first (and at the time most surprising) message was that the psychological foot print of a pandemic is much bigger than the medical or economic effects. I think we are seeing this all around us. Everything from fear to denial, anxiety to anger, depression to resentment. There is stress when we maintain social distance and stress when we try to gather. It’s a no-win situation. 

One of the predicted psychological reactions has played out all spring and summer: pandemic-related racism. It is a common human characteristic to find someone to blame for hard times; it helps us feel in control of a difficult situation if we can think that it isn’t our fault or the scary things can’t happen to us. This tendency is perhaps one reason that that most of our religious and ethical traditions teach us NOT DO IT. But do it we have. People of Asian descent have been targets of increased fear and anger related to COVID-19. People who are experiencing the disease at greater rates – African Americans and Latinx communities, for example – are blamed for their own vulnerability. Essential workers are stigmatized because of their exposure. (This is on top of the racism that already exists and affects daily life – but that’s for another post.)

The panel for the webinar talked about two opposite reactions that we have seen played out in our neighborhoods and on our TVs. One reaction is monitoring; these folks tend to amplify the threat and look for certainty in ways to protect their health and safety. The other reaction is blunting; these folks tend to minimize threats and ignore emotional appeals to follow safety protocols. It is important to note that both of these reactions are attempts to control an uncontrollable situation. Most of us have a little of both in us; both are expected in a crisis situation like the one we are in. 

I am not qualified to give medical or public health advice, and besides there’s plenty out there if that’s what you want. What I can offer is the observation of a pastor who has felt the stress in my own life and walked (distantly!) with those who are feeling overwhelmed by the changes, pressures, and uncertainty this pandemic has wrought. 

Be patient with yourself and those you encounter

Fears for health and safety are stressful and they have been magnified for everyone for an extended period of time – and it isn’t over yet. Change – even positive change – is difficult in the best of times. Schooling your children from home while you are working, having to learn multiple new technology platforms, re-learning familiar tasks like grocery shopping or going to the doctor are stressful all on their own without the compounding factor of disease. 

Even the smallest annoyances or actions might be related to pandemic thinking. A recent list of behaviors related to pandemic and social isolation stress included “doesn’t return/answer messages.” Almost everyone I know who read it was both surprised and relieved to know it wasn’t just them. In the moment, it feels like negligence or laziness – it is, instead, a reaction to being overwhelmed. 

Be patient with yourself and those you encounter. 

Unless you know someone who lived through the 1918 pandemic you won’t know anyone who has been through this before. None of us have been through this before. We can learn from those who have similar experiences – those affected by the AIDS pandemic or the SARS outbreak can teach us about fear and isolation and victim-blaming. For the most part, though, the whole world is building this plane while we are flying it. The lack of knowledge is frightening and leads us to try to fill the void. If leaders in science and government can’t adequately calm our fears, we will look to theories that do. Even if they are false or outlandish or both. Humans hate uncertainty. And yet, we are in an uncertain situation. It’s a hell of a place to be. 

And remember that “those you encounter” now includes virtual encounters. What you “say” can be seen and felt miles away. It can be shared widely. You can send compassion far into the world, or you can send condescension. But it is hard to successfully do both. 

Be patient with yourself and those you encounter. 

Since March, I’ve talked to people who’s faith has been strengthened and those who feel like it is slipping away. Where is God in all this? Whichever camp you fall into, you are not alone. You are not unrealistic to feel closer to God, you are not inadequate to feel abandoned by God. Our spiritual ancestors felt all of these things throughout the centuries and we are feeling them now. 

Be patient with people who are struggling. Be patient with people whose hopefulness seems absurd to you. Struggles and optimism can remind us how much we need each other. Struggles ground us, optimism lifts us. Between the earth and the sky we are all in this messy world together. We are not meant to go it alone. There is a miracle in the ways we have found connection at a time we are physically apart. I believe God is in that connection, the threads holding us together – even when they seem to be fraying. 

Love and Justice in the Priestly Kingdom

They had journeyed from Rephidim, entered the wilderness of Sinai, and camped in the wilderness; Israel camped there in front of the mountain. Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.” So Moses came, summoned the elders of the people, and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. The people all answered as one: “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.” Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord.“You shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” Exodus 19:2-8

What does it mean to be God’s treasured possession? A priestly kingdom and a holy nation? We can take a few hints from the Exodus story, from our own history – and from current circumstances. 

Last week while I was on vacation – no work, no laptop, fun with my pandemic bubble of family – and I couldn’t stay away from the news. Reports of the protests around the country, the deepening and broadening conversations about racism and injustice were evident even as I avoided the news on TV and radio. Anger and anxiety seeped into personal conversations. 

In the middle of the week, one of my friends posted an exasperated plea on Facebook: 

I see a lot of well-meaning calls for love and unity, she said, but they are not helpful. When you call for love or unity right now, you are asking for a shortcut past discomfort. You are asking people to support your comfort instead of staying with them in their pain and through our common struggle. 

She had a point. I had also heard some people wishing for comfort at a time when the national conversation is anything but comfortable.  

It was the word LOVE that most caught my attention though. My friend wasn’t wrong, there are many ways to use that word, but in my faith tradition – Christianity – Love is not a way to avoid discomfort. I believe that Christianity has something to say about the current national uprising against police brutality and racial injustice – and what it has to say is based on our claims about Love, Justice, and God’s mission.  

The Exodus story – especially the passage above – bears this out. The people God had rescued from slavery were on the move. They camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai, where Moses ascended to receive a message from God to the people. 

This is an in-between time. The people had left slavery, but not yet entered into covenant with God. Their future was cloudy. They knew they needed change, they demanded and worked for change, but the new life had not arrived and there were still many dangers. They were literally and spiritually in the wilderness. 

These wilderness people were not yet a community in the fullest sense. They had a common experience, yet no real structures to hold them together. But they’d started! Just before the scene described above, Moses selected elders to hear grievances and resolve disputes. There was a lot of complaining and no real end-goal for their journey. 

In the not-so-distant past, we have a similar story of a wilderness community as part of our national heritage. Harriet Tubman was nicknamed Moses for her heroic efforts to free African American slaves in the American South. She was a woman of strong faith. Her sense of the equality of all people and her bravery in leading so many to freedom were grounded in her knowledge and personal experience of the love of God. 

That love was not comfortable. Look at this painting by Kadir Nelson that depicts Harriet Tubman on one of her journeys. 


Artwork by Kadir Nelson, from Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, by Carole Boston Weatherford

Her shoes are off and she is rubbing sore, bleeding feet. The work of justice was hard on her body and endangered her life. Like Moses of the Bible, she endured endless complaints from the people she helped about the hardship of their journey to freedom. Like the Israelites who left Egypt, freed slaves did not find post-slavery life to be easy.

Yet that work was a work of love that she understood to come directly from God. The painting depicts her looking upward, her guidance comes from God. She is in a wilderness. A time between oppression and the promised land. When times got hard, she remembered God’s presence and God’s saving acts – and trusted that God would be faithful to her and all those she led to freedom. 

The people at Sinai also needed the reminder of God’s presence and saving acts – God tells them through Moses:

You have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself…

This reminder of what God is for us and what God does for us is the foundation of our understanding of Love. 

In some languages and traditions, you can express different kinds of love with different words. In English, we have one word for all those kinds of love. You can love your breakfast taco and the weather. You can love your children and your spouse. You can love a poem or a painting. You can love your work and your house .You can even love a cause or a policy or a way of life.

As people of faith, who believe God is love, we need reminding of what that love is. In the language of our faith tradition, in the language of Scripture, Love is Justice. Speaking from the Christian tradition, Dr. Cornell West put it this way- Justice is what love looks like in public. 

The story of God’s mission- from Genesis through Revelation – bears this out. The Christian tradition tells us that love is not about waiting or comfort at all. In fact, NOT loving is explicitly linked to poverty, all kinds of oppression – and even to exile. Jesus was and is a living reminder of this truth – that God = Love = Justice. 

So it is important for us to remember ALWAYS that justice for us is not a social movement – although it can be that as well. Justice is the very mission of God. And we who claim to be Christians are missionaries of God’s justice-making through our baptism. 

In the Sinai wilderness, the people of Israel are still becoming a community, but they are already chosen by God. God already has a relationship with them. In that wilderness, after rescuing them from harsh oppression, God is inviting them to be God’s treasured possession, to be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. 

It is an invitation, not a command. The people choose to take that role. Just as we do in our baptism. And it is important that the invitation at Sinai is not to individuals. They (we)  are God’s treasured possession together. The priestly kingdom and the holy nation are one unit, a community.

So hear me when I say that the oppression that Moses guided the Israelites from, that Harriet Tubman led slaves from is not the oppression of individual people who suffered. The oppression we are witnessing in our own nation today is not someone else’s oppression. 

The oppression of the Israelites, of American slaves, of people in our own city and nation is the oppression of us all. And the work of ending that oppression belongs to all of us. Racism and injustice in any form is an oppression for everyone who claims to be part of the priestly kingdom. 

Overcoming injustice is work that happens in the wilderness. It is difficult and uncomfortable. And it is the work of Love, the work of Justice. The public face of Love. We cannot avoid this work and claim to be followers of Jesus – indeed, people who claim to be the Body of Christ. 

The invitation God extended to the Israelites at Sinai – to be a priestly kingdom – has been extended to us as well. Being a priestly kingdom and a holy nation has requirements – and one is that we are in it together. 

Accept that invitation! You will not be alone.

Based on my sermon preached for St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on June 14, 2020

Mystical advice

I’ve been meaning for a long time to read Evelyn Underhill, the early 20th century English mystic. Mostly, I was intrigued about there being mystics in the 20th and 21st centuries – as if this type of spirituality is restricted to more ancient times. Reading Howard Thurman in seminary cured me of that! And now Evelyn…

Although she wrote multiple books on mysticism and spirituality, I find her letters fascinating and practical. She addressed them to friends and acquaintances who sought her advice when they faced challenges in living out their faith. I tend to imagine mystics living otherworldly lives, detached from the rest of us. But Evelyn’s letters reveal that her spiritual life was pretty down-to-earth.

In April 1939, she wrote to a friend:
“Make up your mind from the first to ignore the ups and downs of the “spiritual climate.” There will be for you as for everyone sunny and cloudy days, long periods of dullness and fog, and sometimes complete darkness, to bear. Accept this with courage as part of the Christian life. Your conversion means giving yourself to God, not having nice religious feelings.”

She reminds this person that what offends you is “religious food and drink” to another.
“Beware of fastidiousness! You are highly sensitive to beauty, and whatever branch of the church you join, there will be plenty of things that offend your taste.”

In another letter, she described what we’d today call self-compassion:
“…don’t be ferocious with yourself because that is treating badly a precious (if imperfect) thing which God has made.”

As World War II was beginning and many were, as we are in our own day, distracted by fear and overwhelmed by uncertainty, she reminds us that “Christ did not come to save us from trouble but to show us how to bear trouble.”

It’s hard most of the time to see the mystical in the efforts it takes to get through the day. Work from home, school from home, masking for every venture out, planning for things that can’t be planned. When trapped in a cycle of very earthy worries, it’s hard to see the heavenly. Underhill reminds us that the heavenly is right here in the midst of the mundane – in fact, the mundane was made in love by the heavenly. As she wrote in a 1937 letter:
“Christianity does mean getting down to actual ordinary life as the medium of the Incarnation, doesn’t it, and our lessons that get sterner, not more elegant, as time goes on?”

From The Letters of Evelyn Underhill