A Bipolar Vacation

IF YOU ARE NOT ABLE TO HANDLE REAL TALK ABOUT MENTAL ILLNESS FROM SOMEONE WITH A MENTAL ILLNESS, THIS MAY NOT BE THE BLOG POST FOR YOU. 

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I have not taken a vacation that wasn’t study leave or during a time in which I was still working at Xavier or in the mix of doctoral work for over a year. My vacation began on Christmas Day; we have spent some very nice time with Mimi’s family, both her mother and father’s side, and we’re doing my side’s Christmas celebration tomorrow. I have a wedding on Saturday, but that’s been planned for months and the couple was willing to pay extra, so that was an easy decision. I offer this information to show that I have been trying all I can to step away from working.

I woke up this morning having a panic attack. Last time I had such an attack I didn’t wake up; in fact, I calmed myself down in my sleep and crowed about it when I was conscious. I saw it as a pretty major step forward in living with my condition. Alas, this morning, not asleep but not fully awake, I had another one. Am having another one. Not all panic attacks are the same. This is one that is not triggering the most extreme physical responses, but the sense of dread and anxiety is constant, vacillating from tolerable to sweet-Jesus-there-do-not-exist-enough-blankets-to-pull-over-my-head.

And now our wi-fi is down. This is the proving to be more of a metaphysical issue than it should be, but such is the life of a person with bipolar.

My suite of symptoms is calculatingly complicated. (It includes needing alliteration in my writing, or all will not be well. Seriously. I had to write that first sentence; I hate it, but it has to be there or…well, it just has to be there.) I’ll feel like there’s an itch inside of me I can’t scratch, and no matter how long I spend telling myself that everything is fine, everything most certainly is not fine in the nonconsensual reality in which I often live. Bipolar fucking sucks. What makes it even more maddening is that some of the more disturbing symptoms—a developing palsy; involuntary shudders my grandpa described as “someone walking over your grave”; tactile issues are advancing and are similar to those on the autism spectrum—could easily be from medication. Or it could be something else. Something much more daunting. The weight keeps piling on, and yet I find myself pretty much unable to exercise. I’m trying to work on that, but despite listening to Miss Jackson If You’re Nasty on repeat, I can’t exert control. Is it medication or is it bipolar? Welcome to my chicken and egg.

As of the writing, not the posting obviously, the wi-fi is down, which means that I cannot do the things I need to do in order…wait, the wi-fi is up. Be right back.

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Okay, I’m back and a bit better. I just had to pay some bills–not due for two more days–and make an appointment with a new doctor who specializes is helping manage mental illness-related medications; the appointment was already made with another doctor who is on leave, so I would have been contacted anyway to express a preference, but no. It had to be done now or the itch would just continue to burn and taunt. I also had to send an email apologizing for not emailing back weeks ago, yet this was a professional email that didn’t really require a response. I know this rationally. But the itch is demanding to be scratched. I’ve had to cancel personal plans I was very much looking forward to doing because I fear a more intense panic attack if I do not do what the urges demand.

I’m not addicted to work. I’m really not, but so often what needs to be done in order for me not to feel that I’m trying to cram my big ole body into a onesie made for Peter Dinklage (he may be small, but good God is he gorgeous and a great actor) is work-related. If I don’t just give in and do it, I will not be able to relax. Other things that would usually bring joy suddenly seem like ominous requirements for which I am woefully insufficient to complete. I have fretted for 36 hours over a routine phone call, but have no problem speaking in front of hundreds of people on very short notice.

Let’s take a break, shall we:

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I’d like a vacation from bipolar disorder, but that will not happen. So I try to walk the thin line between living with my condition and letting my condition live for me. Posts like this have caused me to be labeled as “erratic and irresponsible,” and frankly I don’t give a flying fuck. I can’t; until someone actually inhabits the mental space I inhabit, and is able to function at a fairly high level as most often do I, I can’t stop talking about my reality. It is part of the itch.

There is just as much art as there is science to living with a mental illness.

I feel another itch beginning to build, like a storm rolling in across a Kansas plain; it is at a fair distance. There’s still a piece to journey before it hits town, so I am going to step away from the computer and see if I can batten down the hatches and be a bit more in control of the response this time around.

Alas, I am still so very grateful for this time. My body is warm and my belly full, or at least it will be after I eat my lunch from Tom’s Market. I have access to potable water and do not live in a war zone; no one in my family has died recently. I am surrounded by love and care. What more can you ask for on a vacation?

Acceptable Refugees: A Christmas Eve Sermon

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Seventeenth century Puritans outlawed Christmas in their colonies. To them, it was an insult to Christ to have actors dressed in drag accompanying drunken revelers as they stumble up to a private residence, demanding food and drink for song; you know the line, “So bring us some figgy pudding, bring us some figgy pudding, bring us some figgy pudding, and bring it right here!” That’s what we’re talking about. Christmas was a bacchanal. It was a yearly trip to Vegas. Sounds fun until you’ve got a dozen hungry, drunken, mischievous carolers at your door, singing off-key while having no compunction against unleashing their anger upon your house. “We won’t go until we get some, we won’t go until we get some, we won’t go until we get some, so bring it right here!” The Puritans answered these traditions by firing the first shots in what will later be called by Fox News, the War on Christmas.

Can you imagine that happening today? A hefty fine being levied simply for saying “Merry Christmas”? Such was the case when this whole American experiment began, and it was started by some serious Christians.

Pretty much everything we think we know about Christmas is wrong. I’m not talking just about the Santa Claus lore; I mean the basic biblical elements of the story are widely misunderstood and misrepresented. To begin with, the Greek word that often is translated as “inn,” like a lodging house, more properly means “upper room.” Like the upper room that Jesus and the disciples will use the night before Jesus hands himself over to the authorities. In fact, that might be the play on words that Luke is looking for; there was no upper room when Jesus needed to be born, but he finds one when he needs to die. What’s more to this point, Luke uses the proper Greek word for “inn” at various instances in the gospel account, so why not here, if in fact there was no room at the inn?

Because Joseph and Mary are not looking for a lodging house. It makes absolutely no sense to think that the Holy Family would have started a 70-mile journey while Mary is in the third trimester of her pregnancy. It is odd to think that Joseph would return to his familial home, Bethlehem, and not be welcomed in by someone who was kin. We can argue that the scandal of the pregnancy is a reason, but we just don’t know. It is more likely that Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem after Mary left Elizabeth and Zechariah’s house, where she stayed for three months after singing the Magnificat. So push out of your mind the image of doors slamming in their faces as they make their way from place to place. The notion that they are actively rejected by others is not supported by the text itself.

Over the years, we’ve created a different situation in our popular lore. We cling to it as well. I have learned to be careful where and when I speak about these issues; this form of popular Christianity that is based on extra-biblical traditions is often taken as gospel.

The Gospel it is not.

Most likely, what Luke is describing was a common situation. Archeologists confirm that the average house at this time was two levels: general family activities occurred in the lower room; sleeping quarters and more private space were in the upper room. At night, animals would be brought in to the lower room to protect them from the elements and banditry. What appears to be happening in our story is that none of the families have upper rooms they can provide for the birth, so Mary simply utilizes a lower room, replete with animals.

This is still a great tale, but it is not the one that we have created in the West. What I submit for your consideration tonight is that we have altered the details to make the Holy Family more acceptable. More palatable to our prejudices and discomforts. Let’s start with the basic fact that the Holy Family is not White. Anyone who tries to argue that the historical Jesus of Nazareth was White is not seriously trying to understand the story, so we need not spend any time on that; but can we talk about virgin birth? And I don’t mean analyzing it from a mytho-poetic perspective, tracing how it connects to other virgin myths of the ancient world. No. Can we talk about how a virgin birth is still a birth? With a placenta, blood, screaming, pain, and all the other human elements involved in transitioning from womb to world. It occurs with the same degree of chaos and confusion, the same degree of danger, the same degree of uncertainty for mother and child, as every other birth. There is a universal fact: Every time a woman’s water breaks, there’s a chance she might not have long to live.

The price of birth is death, something we Christians claim as central to our faith. Why do we forget about it when Jesus is born?

I submit for your consideration that we have emerged with a Christmas story that is far removed from what Luke wants us to see. I’m not even arguing for fact, here. I know that Jesus wasn’t born on December 25. I imagine you know that as well; and we know that the truth of Christmas is not contingent upon verifying the facts of Jesus’ birth. Christmas is one of many human rituals that tries to focus on the truth of hope during a physically dark period. I don’t have any problems confessing that we are dealing with myth here.

Christmas is not about fact, it is about truth. It is time we understand that again.

But we can’t because we’ve sanitized the Holy Family. We’ve created a story in which innkeepers are the sinners; these untold and unnecessary characters fill our minds as we imagine that we most certainly would have found them a room. We’ve wiped anything possibly objectionable from the Holy Family. Even in the mixed-up, truthfully questionable version of the story, we have made it so that Mary and Joseph have not a care in the world. We skip over the fact that pregnant virgins and culturally shamed men do not go about the world unaccosted. They are targets. There are people who see them as a threat. As dangerous. When we see nativity scenes in churches, the Holy Family look more like us in the United States than they do the people in Syria today who can’t find a room, be it upper or lower. We have romanticized the story of Jesus’ birth to such an extent, a vast majority of us who confess to be Christians don’t see that there are untold numbers of holy families scanning the horizon all around the world, looking for any room, high, low, or betwixt.

But it seems that these real world examples are not acceptable refugees.

I imagine this is not the feel-good Christmas Eve sermon some might have hoped for, and believe me I prayed on this for days. You’re a captive audience, and for some this might be the one of only two times a year you come to church. In the preaching game, this is the show; the big leagues. The Christmas Eve sermon. The time to help people feel good, to make them want to come back next Sunday. And I want to do that, I really do, because I take my faith seriously and I truly believe that God is the answer to most questions. Tonight is the night to celebrate that. But I can’t deliver that sermon. Normally I preach about spiritual gifts, tell a cheesy bible joke, and we get back to singing. I just couldn’t do it this year. This year I feel like some things that I didn’t know needed to be said need to be said.

Jesus is not white. God is not male. Mary probably curses from pain, and Joseph is looking over his shoulder because if the wrong person learns the right details, he’s dead. The lower room stinks, it is crowded, things are tense, and come sunrise the virgin is not longer pregnant, and that brings a whole new crop of problems for them.

My esteemed ancestor, Rev. Frederick Denison Maurice, a founder of Christian Socialism, taught that Christianity is not a game, and that sometimes the pulpit needs to be made of fire.

Christmas is about being surrounded by fear, confusion, unmet expectations, and still seeing the light. Christmas is about God saying, Okay, keep your upper room; I get it. We all have needs. But for the love of me, open up that lower room. Why would you keep it locked when there is a need you can meet? Christmas is about knowing that the messiness of life is never enough to stop God from doing God’s work; but that requires us taking care of one another. We must stop making the Holy Family into acceptable refugees by changing their race, changing their reality, changing their circumstances. Let us see their exhaustion; let us smell the unpleasant mixture of odors after Jesus pops out into the world; let us see the women wearing head coverings, the men with long beards; let us hear the Aramaic that today will get one kicked off an airplane if spoken too loudly, but is the stuff of lullabies. Let us understand that the baby we welcome into the world, the one people like me call Lord and Savior, that this baby later says, “Whatever you have done to the least of these you have also done unto me.” Let us see that the people of Aleppo are looking for a Bethlehem, and there are two types of people: those who open up a room, and those who don’t.

“So bring us the Holy Family, so bring us the Holy Family, so bring us the Holy Family and bring them right here.” Amen.

Dumpster Fire Heating and Light

Warning: Pastor Pottymouth is at it again

Across the vast expanse of the horizon, darkness does not differentiate itself between earth and sky. Ominous thunder foregoes the courtesy of lighting strikes, which at least would provide a moment’s opportunity to acclimate ourselves. The only heat and light comes from this dumpster fire we’ve called 2016 for the past twelve months. It lighted itself on the first day, and then burned with a brightness and intensity that drove most of us to nausea. A majority of the time, it has been difficult to name things we like about the dumpster fire; for months we’ve been plotting its end, vowing to hold on with fingernails and knuckles while legs and feet kick and search to find purchase. Never have so many people wanted to hear Europe sing that song which need not be named but is now burrowing like a worm into your brain like something out of V. We’re good. We want out. This shitshow has got to stop. The light is growing dim and there’s a chill in the air. 

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In the church, we turned the page the first Sunday of Advent. Goodbye Year C and hello Year A. (Coincidentally, that’s the name of my Pink Floyd and Radiohead tribute band.) But as we move closer to being able to turn the page on this year that has, in no uncertain terms, been a steaming pile of guano from alpha to omega on an international and local scale, I reflect on it’s shitiness. I officiated and attended more funerals, performed more pastoral care, encountered more fear and fought against my own pessimism more than I ever have in my life.

So it is strange that I am afraid to let the year go. I feel like it is going to be the year that historians reference when they are explaining…well, whatever it is that will soon begin revealing itself, most likely through more intense, targeted suffering and injustice. Activists I deeply respect, like Shaun King and George Tekai, are encouraging activists to take the next two weeks to be with family and to make memories. For while we might not die tomorrow, it seems pretty fucking obvious that come January some serious shit is going to start going down. I am frightened, less for myself and much more for the most vulnerable among us. Absolutely horrific things happen every single day, from unjustified killings resulting in no indictments of those responsible, to people being screamed at in the name of Trump because they are not White, Christian, or adequately American. And we are surrounded by intentionally ignorant people who now have so-called intellectuals like Newt Gingrich giving credence to the spleen-produced vitriol and hatred that is countermanded by provable facts. We may have begun 2016 singing along with Bob that it isn’t dark yet, but a handful of sleeps away from 2017 we’re all like:

Now before you click away while thinking, Goddamn, Aaron, I’m depressed enough without reading this bullshit, give me a second. While this is not an optimistic post, it is not entirely pessimistic either. I am not meeting the new year with pluck and a sunny disposition, I am meeting it with determination and resolve. Frankly, I don’t think I could have been ready 12 months ago.

That might sound melodramatic, and perhaps it is. I have a penchant for the theatrical and romantic. But I turned 40 in 2016.* With that came a continued commitment to no longer drinking alcohol. March 15 will mark a year, but that anniversary is less about alcohol sobriety than it is about having given myself permission to stop lighting myself on fire so that others can feel warm. I successfully laid down some burdens I had been carrying for years and I have not looked back. I’ve lost some friends over it; some people have left the church because they find me objectionable, for whatever reasons. And while I do not have a callous attitude, at all, toward other people who have felt hurt or damaged by me, I no longer internalize those criticize to the point that I allow them to be written upon my body. I no longer carry other people’s baggage while I try to portage my way across the expanse. I dunno how, honestly, or why it worked this time and not others. I think it was seeing, really seeing, how important love is and how threatened certain others seem to feel by someone who loves as radically and honestly as do I. For better or worse, I’m me. I grew tired of apologizing for it.

I was in the chair yesterday with my amazing loctician, Rusty, who also happens to be a partner in the Beloved Community Project. The chair demands truth, and we respect that; in our flowing conversation, we both voiced that 2016 seems like a year that has been preparing certain people to know who they are and what they are called to do. That requires shedding what keeps a person from living fully into their call. I’ve written before that I can’t have Bonhoeffer and King as my Jesus-loving heroes, and not know what is required of me if the world continues to head in its current direction: I’m unfailingly committed to nonviolence and nonviolent resistance. I follow the Gospel, even when it is hard. Most especially when it is hard.

It’s not like I want for bad shit to happen. I have no desire to go to jail or to end up in some black box site because my commitment to Christ will not permit me to sit idly by in the face of injustice. I want to remain in The Shire, serve the congregation. continue teaching and learning, build up the BCPYS, and enjoy the company of my family and friends. But I can’t. I am blessed with a truly diverse group of friends, and people I love dearly are terrified. I read FB posts and receive messages almost every day by people I know who have been confronted, screamed at, threatened, targeted electronically, and a whole host of other things because they are…whatever these people “feel” is the truth, and then they act accordingly to seemingly little or no true consequences. Racists get to go back to work. And “liberal Hollywood” seems to be a continued safe haven for racists, sexists, homophobes, and other deplorables.

Sweet Jesus I almost forgot about The Deplorables. Right? Like, 2016 gave us a movement in which people proclaimed themselves proud to be deplorable. Hillary Clinton was very clear that she was talking about a segment of Trump’s supporters–like the White Supremacists who have not hidden their support or glee for over a year–yet people throughout the country gleefully wore T-shirts inviting Trump to grab their deplorable kitties, or some such nonsense. We are celebrating feelings of fear and anger, as long as they are White. Anything else requesting a space for expression is derided and ridiculed.**

It is dark af out here.

It’s time to develop our night vision and put on some extra layers–I apparently am doing this in fat, thank you so much bipolar meds–because it is dim and cold as we head into 2017. I have no doubt that we will soon light other fires, more hospitable and welcoming fires, but we may find that others light ones too and explicitly ban us from using its glow and warmth. It is up to us how we will stoke and tend our own fire. I find that love burns the best, as it relies on renewable resources. Let’s keep the fire in our hearts and in our heads, and take care of one another.

*I have written a lot on this subject; see the collection gathered under “On Turning Forty.” **I just couldn’t link any of the articles; they are deplorable, in the true sense of the word

 

Reinvent Advent: Mother Mary of Aleppo

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Read Luke 1:26-56

My friend and PC (USA) colleague Rev. Shannon Meacham wrote an essay about Mary, Mother of God that I think should be required reading each year before pastors—especially male pastors—craft services and sermons around the Magnificat. Preaching on the Narrative Lectionary calendar, I am a week off from my Revised Common Lectionary peers in considering this vital element of the Advent and Christmas story. So last week I saw play out online a very interesting conversation on how we talk about Mary from the pulpit; another female colleague in the UCC wrote to those about to preach, asking them to think about the little girls sitting in the pews who see their pastors as connected intimately with God. Think about what you will say, the colleague intoned, because it will stick. Amidst all this were regular Facebook posts from the myriad women I know who are participating in the upcoming march in D.C. I’ve been reading, hearing from, and thinking about women this week. I’ve been thinking about Mary.

It is hard to believe; we will gather together in a week to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Like the old spiritual intones, Soon and very soon, we are going to see the King.

But not before we see the Queen Mother.

Let’s try to banish from our minds the image of placid, docile Mary in her light blue robes and white headscarf. See her as Luke presents her. See her as the one who bats not a single eyelash at seeing the angel Gabriel, but rather is perplexed by being called a “favored one” and wonders what sort of strange greeting she just received. See her as the one who hears the prophecy of pregnancy from Gabriel and then argues for bodily autonomy. Hold up, she says. Slow your roll. I’m gonna need to know how this baby is going to get up inside of me since I’m a virgin. Gabriel describes the process—causing some exegetes to query whether or not this is rape—and Mary responds with a resounding, “Here am I.”

I want to make sure that you see it. Really see it. How Luke paints it. Mary. Alone. Fazed not one iota about the presence of an angel, but making damn sure she knows what is being proposed for her body. Gabriel clarifies, and Mary assents. No more questions. No doubts. Just three words.

“Here am I.” How Abraham responds to the angel in Genesis 22:11. “Here am I.” How Moses answers God’s call in Exodus 3:4. “Here am I.” How Samuel responds when called by the Lord in 1 Samuel 3:4. “Here am I.” How Isaiah answers the call in Isaiah 6:8 “Here am I.”  How Ananias will respond to God’s appearance to him in Damascus as reported in Acts 9:10. “Here am I.”

There should be no queries by us about Mary’s strength. About her role in our sacred story. For too long we have been told to see Mary as submissive. To see her as one pleased with simply being a vessel, of having her importance be defined by that which comes out of her body. But even that she doesn’t get full credit for because it is God’s role in the act that is regarded as really important. At least, that seems to be how the story most often is taught. Mary is one step removed, even in the most intimate moments of her life. Mary stays out of the fray. Or at least that’s how we tell it. Mary has Joseph to protect her; Mary gets visits from astrologers and shepherds. The presence of so many men around her in the story has allowed us to turn her into a chaste incubator who spends her entire life either cradling the suckling Son or embracing the suffering one. Nativity crèche or Pieta.

Rev. Meacham writes in her essay, “For the love of all that is Holy, literally. Can we stop pressuring each other into pretending that Mary wasn’t scared, can we stop pretending that she didn’t know for one second the risks her son would go through? She knew the world better than anyone, and despite all the bullshit she had been put through not only did she know, she said yes!”

I agree with Shannon completely. But I have to confess that my agreement is in a roundabout way. I’m a man who has no children. I have spent most of my life regarded as fairly important by the dominant culture; I’m White, male, Christian, educated, married to a woman. My sense of justice and injustice has been tempered by the fact that I have experienced very little personal injustice in my life; my engagement with it has most often been as an advocate or agitator. So it can take me a minute before I see something that persons who experience it of course have seen long before.

Take the popular song, “Mary, Did You Know?” Personally, I have never been a fan but I sure do know a whole lot of people who love that song and post just about every version possible on their Facebook pages. For those who don’t know, here’s a taste of the lyrics:

Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you

But it took until I read the piece by Shannon for me to really think about what has happened to Mary in our popular imagination. We forget the facts around her situation. She is betrothed, not married when she got pregnant. Gabriel visits her cousin’s husband as part of planning for the baby now in her, Mary’s, belly; she is not allowed to name the baby what she wants; and her elderly cousin, who herself is a scandal for being pregnant at such an advanced age, is treating Mary like she’s royalty. Plus, Elizabeth makes it clear that Jesus is King so, yeah. Mary knows. She’s good. And we should really stop talking about her like she’s a human petri dish.

Discussions of gender and God always get messy. But our answer cannot be to simply ignore the problems. We cannot act like we have not spent thousands of years presenting God as male, and then respond as though it is an affront when those who are not male—more specifically, not male in the narrow way maleness too often is defined—push back against how non-males are presented in scripture. Or, to get real, how these individuals are interpreted and then projected on to others of their gender. The two Marys, right? Virgin or whore. That’s what we get. But there’s so much more in scripture. Let’s see Mary the way Luke presents her; let’s not sanitize the birth process. Once again, Shannon’s words are better than mine: “There was sweat, there was blood, there were tears and screams and cow dung. Silent Night my ass. But that doesn’t appeal to us this time of year. In order to truly appreciate the story she wouldn’t have broken a sweat, laid down, popped the perfectly clean baby out and immediately made tea for her guests. This is what brings us close to God, she pondered these things in her heart, and iced her whoha.”

In the fourth Sunday of Advent we celebrate love, and we do so because God chose a girl barely a woman or a woman still a girl, take your pick, and presented her a proposition. You’ve been selected. Do you consent? And she does. She puts herself into the way of cultural and religious harm in order to say “Here am I,” just like the prophets before her. If we are going to see Christ as the Logos, then we should see Mary as the vocal chords that deliver the Word. But let us not silence in her that which makes her a woman. Many of us attest to Jesus being fully human and fully divine; let us not just do this so that we can have evidence of original sin, let us see it as God’s plan. Jesus’ humanness comes from his mother. The human love that he learns comes from Mary. Let us not rob them of that; this is one of the most potent and sometimes punishing love there is, the love of a mother and a child.

Let us not think that there aren’t still millions of Mother Marys out there, right now. Mother Mary of Aleppo is making appearances daily on our televisions. Roman occupation was brutal, and the subjugation of non-Romans was total and complete. Her life mattered to God, but not to the State. Her child was not precious in the eyes of Caesar, who would see only a boy who would become a man. Men who have suffered injustice as boys are dangerous. There is no valuing of life around Jesus except that which comes from his mother. And, of course, from God. It takes men such little time to destroy what God and women labor to make.

Mary gives us our last word before we light the Christ Candle Saturday night. She is singing a song only she’s qualified to sing; Mary knows what is going to be required of her. Mary understands, in ways that none of us ever can, the totality of what is unfolding and what will unfold. She chose it. So instead of asking, “Mary, Did You Know?” let us say, “Thank You Mary, For Telling Me.” Amen.

At Least Once a Day, Allow Yourself to Make Fart Noises in a Meeting. Or Something.

Caveat: Let me admit from the outset that I know this is privilege talking. I absolutely get it, and I know that it is easy for me to say “I get it” and then to ask people to do some things that they just might not be able to do because their existences don’t operate like that; I fully understand that reality and if you fall into this category I hope that there comes some set of circumstances in which what I am calling for–or something like it–can happen. 

So we’ve got a dude about to occupy the Oval Office who thinks he’s too smart for daily briefings. Like a toddler who wants Mom to wake him up right before the ball drops on New Year’s Eve, he asks for updates “if anything changes.” His spokeswoman says that intelligence should not interfere with politics when queried about the 17 US intelligence agencies reporting that Russia interfered with November’s election. The proposed cabinet and extended Administration looks like a meeting of super-villains who make Dr. Evil look like a Machiavellian genius. We have seen 1984‘s doublespeak go from a wild charged lobbed from the fringes to being at the center of politics, so much so that there are serious discussions about whether we are in a “post-truth” era, as though facts need our assent to be facts. GLBTQ+ persons are frightened. People of color are frightened. Women are frightened. Muslims are frightened. Immigrants both legal and otherwise are frightened.

Not all, of course, and those who are not are used as examples for why the masses are “overreacting” or “are not giving the PEOTUS a chance.” To that I say, “I once took a pill that I didn’t know what it was and that experience was pretty much all I needed to never take an unknown pill again. I am not taking this election’s pill. I’m not. Because I know what it is even if you tell me I don’t. Bad pill make Aaron feel bad.”

Plus we got all the shit going on in our actual lives, right?

And it is too much. Already around me I see tired, drawn eyes. I see people feeling jumpy. I see schedules filled with vigils and meetings and actions. I get lots of phone calls and messages about people wanting me to speak here or to join a cause there, and I want to but I still have this dissertation to write, these classes to teach, this church to serve, this nonprofit to launch. And y’all got lists, too. But we’re getting tired, aren’t we?

My exhaustion is nothing compared to that of others I know; that’s about all I want to say about that, because I’m tired of the comparisons except to say that I ain’t tellin’ you anything you don’t already know and weren’t already knowing. Some people I know just don’t get to take a moment to just lay their burden down. They are isolated; they are surrounded by people who don’t get it, or who aren’t willing to make an effort to get it enough that at least some of the burden can be laid down. That’s why those of us who are able should really try to reach out to those who are the most vulnerable and make ourselves available for laughter.

I mean it. Each day tell a joke. Make a fart noise in the middle of a meeting. Get into a strange elevator and say, “I bet you’re wondering why I have called you all here today.” Pay attention to see if someone gets the same cup of coffee each day, and maybe buy it for them. Send a silly card. Invite people to your car during lunch hour so you can go for a quick drive and do some karaoke. I dunno, it’s your moment, go wild. But let yourself be silly. Be like Harry and Hermione and dance even as Voldemort is getting closer to killing you.

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Because if we don’t we’re not going to make it. If we allow joy to be a casualty, then what are we really fighting for? And I know that sounds simplistic and like a pollyanna. Maybe it is, but I don’t think so. As Winston Churchill said in the midst of the London Blitz, “We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.”

Let’s give each other joy, a little bit each day until we no longer have to ration it out.

Reinvent Advent: When God Gets Specific, I Gets Nervous

Press play and the read Isaiah 61:1-11. To read previous entries in this series click here and here

When God gets specific, I gets nervous.

At least, I get nervous when people living in the very same world I inhabit claim that God operates through hurricanes or floods or fires, punishing for sin people who have absolutely nothing to do with the sin being charged. Like, preachers proclaiming God’s abhorrence for homosexuality using 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina as evidence of God’s resulting wrath. I heard something similar about feminists, too. I won’t say who said it but y’all have the Google machine.

God supposedly unleashes devastation that incurs widespread suffering on thousands of people because of a gay pride parade in a mid-sized, Midwestern city. When these sort of preachers start talking about this outrageous stuff, I feel myriad emotions: anger, sadness, righteous indignation, superiority. I’m upset that they are presenting such a distorted and untheological vision of the God whom I serve. I feel sadness for the people in the path of the storm who are devout, and go to God wondering why God had to punish them for the sin of others. I feel righteous indignation because I know the Bible is used incorrectly to support this reckless theology, and I know that I can decimate in a conversation anyone who spews such drivel to congregants and believers. I feel superior because I don’t do that; I’m closer to God than that; I’m a better Christian than that.

It is that easy to become a Pharisee.

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Now, we need to check this word Pharisee because for too long it has been used as code for Jew. And I don’t mean a person who practices Judaism or identifies as Jewish. I mean that mythical Jew of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion; the Jew who has horns or asks for a pound of flesh; the Jew featured in the sort of odious and dangerous claptrap that has haunted and harassed the Jewish people for millennia. That has become the vision of the Pharisee. But that is not who Jesus meant when he decried the Pharisees. He saw devout brothers in God who were reacting out of fear and for survival; the brief, violent period of the Hasmonean Dynasty had provided a couple generations’ worth of relative freedom before Rome came in and implemented one of the most brutal occupations in ancient history. The Pharisees were trying to survive and to help the people who had been alienated by the Temple and the priests. Pharisees believed that the Law would protect them. Along comes Jesus who appears to flout the Law completely, and they feel angry. Saddened. Righteously indignant. Superior.

Pharisees were good, well-meaning people who simply couldn’t imagine the sort of God Jesus was presenting. They misunderstood Jesus as much as we misunderstand them.

It’s just a glass case filled with emotion, ain’t it?

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I give these two examples to situate what we have in today’s passage from Isaiah 61, a text written during the time of the Babylonian Captivity, probably around the time our friend Cyrus the Persian, whom we spoke about a few weeks ago, was assisting to return from Babylonian captivity to Israel those few who wanted to return. It was the best of times it was the worst of times.

In today’s passage we have an example of God getting specific. And I think it is important to talk about how we feel about it.

Isaiah’s audience is people who have been through it. You know what I mean by through it? Like getting from a diagnosis to remission through it? House foreclosed upon through it. Job lost at middle age and pension bankruptcy kind of through it. And so had their parents. And grandparents. There is not a family around that has not been through it. And they have been told that they deserve their struggles because of the sins of those who came before them. People they never even met. Because of things they never did. I can feel the emotions rising up, can you?

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Isaiah’s message, then, of hope and change, fell upon eager ears. Frankly, it is also a good PR move for God because people get tired of waiting for liberation and redemption. As they should, especially if they are being punished for something that happened in the recesses of memory, the veracity of which is even questionable itself.

What was that sin again? What did they do wrong and what am I supposed to do about it?

“God has anointed me,” Isaiah says, “to bring good news to the oppressed. To bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoner. A Jubilee Year, I do declare.”

God is getting specific.

References to the poor as a group occur only three times in Isaiah and only once in the book of Amos; they appear over half a dozen times in the Psalms, but as a group they have a rather small amount of prophecy directed at them. The brokenhearted appear only twice, in Isaiah and in Psalms 34:19. The captives are mentioned the most often, in the Psalter, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Obadiah. But only here are all of these grouped together.*

Well, that is until Jesus struts into the synagogue, unrolls the scroll, reads the passage, and declares it fulfilled in the presence of all in attendance. All of the Pharisees in the room must have felt like I do when I hear the prophecies linking gays or feminists to natural disasters. Obviously, the content is different, but can you feel the emotions rising up?

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When God gets specific, I think it is good that we look first at the things that we don’t like before we do the things that make us feel better. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that God is in the business of healing and comfort, and that’s ultimately what this passage is about, and what we should be looking toward as joyous on the Third Sunday of Advent. But let us not put the wish before the lighting of the birthday candles.

The infinitive translated as “to bind” plays a double role in today’s passage: it means both to bind as one binds up a wound, and it means to unbind, in the sense of “unbinding blindness” that allows a person to see. Sometimes, as is the case here, a legal or political context applies and it is something closer to: “opening one’s eyes.” In other words, the prophecy is, I am going to allow you to see the reality of things so that you can act. I will always be with you, but there are expectations once you get woke, as the kids say.

In Biblespeak, this passage is filled with prophetic prolepses, or flash-forwards; signs abound to let us know that God’s work in Isaiah—and later in Jesus—is unusual. Also telling is the reference to the Jubilee Year, a practice that every 7×7+1 (50th) year is declared a jubilee by God. Slaves are emancipated. Debts are forgiven. Fields lay fallow. Everyone gets to hit a reset button, both personally and collectively. However, scholars are in nearly unanimous agreement that when both Isaiah and later Jesus proclaimed these jubilee years, they were not regularly scheduled programming. Both Isaiah and Jesus claim the authority to declare something that does not fit with the hierarchy’s understanding of how jubilee works.

Because with Jubilee years come excitement. Revelations. There will be dramatic exchanges: flowers, oil, and fresh garments for ashes, mourning, and sackcloth. The transformation is not just physical; it is also spiritual: those who return will be agents of righteousness. That means the Jubilee Year comes with responsibilities. Too often we forget that; look at what Isaiah is saying. “God is going to lead y’all back to the land and the Temple, and you will once again be a royal priesthood. Others will work the land, but for you there will be great rewards.” We like rewards. That’s why we learn to love Christmas as kids. A time when wishes can come true by just simply asking for something. We’re told it will happen if we are good, so we try real hard for a rather short period of time to be good, and then on Christmas morning we are rewarded! Wow, we think. Is this all it takes?

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Kinda sounds like how we treat God sometimes, huh? I swear I’ll be a better Christian if you just get me out of this. Or let that happen. I won’t do this or that again if you just take away this pain. I swear, I’ll be good.”

However, some of the people I know who love Christmas the most are ones who grew up in poverty or near poverty. I’ve heard stories of the unimagined for present ending up under the tree because mom worked extra shifts at the restaurant. The presents are great, but the memories that really last are those that feature us realizing how sacrificial love can change our lives. Rewards for some often mean great sacrifice by others.

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That’s important to remember in Advent. And it is important for us to pay attention to the pressures of those around us. Not everyone can work those extra shifts to earn money for that special present. With that can come shame or a sense for the parent that they have failed. (That’s why I am so appreciative of the Mission Committee and congregation of FPCYS for the Help a Family ministry.) Christ models for us the power of sacrificial and redemptive love. A love that has nothing to do with material things representing it. A love that comes to you and there is nothing you can do to deny it; no matter how much you feel unworthy or how stridently you fight against it, this love is not going anywhere. It is a love that can shock people. Like Pharisees. Like me. Like the preachers who cannot imagine that God could ever love gays or feminists. May this be a season in which we allow ourselves to be unbound. To see the radical, surprising, sometimes upsetting reality of God’s love.

But let us also understand the responsibilities we have once we have seen it. We know that we are to preach, heal, and proclaim just like Isaiah. Just like Jesus. And I don’t mean standing on the street corner with a placard, yelling at people; I mean that preaching St. Francis told us about: “Preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.” The joy of today is that God’s love cannot be stopped; the price? Each of us, myself absolutely included, never forgetting that God loves those whom we dislike with a passion just as much as God loves us.

When God gets specific, I gets nervous.

*The vast majority of the scholarly claims made herein were inspired by the outstanding commentary offered by Dr. Stephen B. Reed on workingpreacher.org

 

 

Pastors Are Screwed: Holding a Pulpit in Trump’s America

 

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Pastors always get feedback on sermons. Most, like myself, welcome the feedback, especially when it is negative. If there is something that I am doing that might be pushing a person away from the community, I want to know about it. Most of the feedback is general–“Great word, Pastor!” or “Lovely service”–and often contradictory–“Went a little long on the sermon this week, Pastor,” followed by “Oh, I wish you had said more about…”

The one that haunts me, as I have heard it from the time of my seminary internship, is: “You were too political in the sermon, Pastor.”

I have gone through many different stages of receiving this criticism. Defensiveness was the go-to: seeking to defend or explain myself, and often angry that I had to do so. Following closely behind was hurt feelings, first my own but then quickly the fact that my words had caused hurt to someone else. After the first time it happened when the senior pastor was away on leave and a member ended up no longer attending the church (at least when I was preaching), I vowed to “never be political again.”

I imagine the preachers in the audience are chuckling right now. Yeah, no. The Gospel is political. If you’re afraid of politics you are afraid of the gospel, and we can’t have preachers that are afraid of the gospel. Because then we start taking the comfortable way out; the easy road; we become a fair weather friend, and the gospel calls for disciples not diplomats. There are some things that we just cannot compromise on. And it ain’t gay marriage, abortion, or gun rights: it is oppression, injustice, and the dangers of Mammon.

Every time I read an article or click on a news website, I see something else happening in our country and I think, this is a gospel issue.

Then the inevitable question: How the hell do I preach truth to power without running off the congregation?

It is important to have clear lines. I will never (again; see above about that first instance of trouble) say the name of a sitting or serving political figure from the pulpit; when it has been necessary to state a position on guns I have adhered to the decisions made by the congregation before I arrived, the official positions of the denomination which I serve, and what I believe the gospel says about armed violence. I admit that a particular interpretation of scripture guides me–and I understand others can read the same scriptures in very different ways–but I am not some political ideologue. Pastors cannot be expected to exist as neutral observers of life, only there to give a comforting word on Sunday and baptize, marry, and bury as needed. When we are doing it right, we have an intimate relationship with the scriptures we preach each week, seek out the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and call upon our vast, if hurried educations to preach something to the congregation that helps them see God in their lives, to feeling the divine quickening within them and energizing them to face another week in an uncertain world.

We can’t preach the heavy, political, call-to-arms sermon every Sunday. At least, I can’t; I know that I will lose the congregation, and that has major repercussions, the most important to me being that people would not feel safe or affirmed in a sacred space. But I also know that I can preach the hard word as long as I am willing to hear the concerns, and that we’ll to speak to one another honestly. I can say from experience that this is difficult, but I also think that it strengthens relationships. It gives the opportunity to see if we really mean that we want to be a society in which we can co-exist with differences, and that co-existence does not mean that one side shuts up so the other side feels better. We can’t preach barnburners all the time because people do come to church burdened by the world, both the micro and the macro, and worship should be a time in which one feels the weight lifted from them, not added to; there is a lot of heavy, crazy, mind-boggling shit going on and I’ll admit that I am wondering if the Constitution is actually a thing anymore. Part of me wants to preach on that tomorrow. But I’m not going to. Why? Because I believe God has given me another word. And that the congregation deserves an uplifting word on Gaudete Sunday.

However, we Christians need to have some talks. Laity and clergy. We need to talk to one another about what we’re gonna do to survive and support one another in the coming days. I’m feeling pretty good about where I’m at, but that’s because there have been a lot of difficult conversations and some are still awaiting. I think the congregation also knows that I am guided by the gospel pretty consistently. Aaron the person would love to take 20 minutes tomorrow and hold forth about what’s going on in the country, but Pastor Aaron knows that is wholly inappropriate. God has a word for us from Isaiah 61, and that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to go to the text together and see what God will wrought.

But congregations cannot expect their pastors to be feel good every week, especially if the preacher is pointing out how the gospel applies to a contemporary situation. Sometimes being in a religious community means that the person charged with spiritual care and education has to point out some unpleasantness. It will make pew sitters uncomfortable. Often it does us as well. I don’t know any of my prophetic preaching friends who say, “Oh, I’m so excited to preach a word that is going to make everyone uncomfortable and will guarantee that the next three days are filled with talks about the sermon!” We do it because we believe that Christ has spoken clearly on how we are to follow him in the world.

Pastors are going to be overwhelmed with events each week that seem to be spoken to directly by the lectionary text; congregants are going to be exhausted from a week in the same world, and will come to worship for some peace and comfort. Those two will have to co-exist, and frankly I think this is how the Church is going to prove if it really is what it claims to be. If we are guided by the Gospel, always understanding that Jesus’ fundamental requirement is that we love one another, not conditionally or with an expiration date, we should be able to work through honest disagreements about how to interpret concepts such as grace, mercy, or even justice.

This last one is hard. Equivocating on standards of justice is why a good many marginalized persons do not trust majority culture allies. We can discuss justice as though it is only the nuances that must be worked out, whereas other members of the population literally cannot remember the last time a police officer was convicted and sentenced for murdering a citizen of their color. Or gender identity. Or…too many blanks to fill in. Primarily white churches need to be certain they don’t prioritize “making everyone feel welcome here” if doing so directly places in danger persons from oppressed populations who are sitting in the pews regularly. Hell, even if doing so could harm a potential visitor, those ideas and realities need to be exposed. That’s hard. That’s hard to hear and that’s hard to do. And some of us pastors who do this work could find ourselves being accused of creating a litmus test for who is allowed in; those kinds of charges are very difficult to answer, as there is a fine line between following the gospel and being exclusionary.

But if we accept racism, homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny, or any of the other odiums that are popping up like so many whackamoles, we have equivocated on the gospel. If we stop using terms like white supremacy or white privilege; if we say, “Blue Lives Matter” is attempting to achieve the same things as “Black Lives Matter,” or a whole host of other examples we will find ourselves in a situation in which the gospel cannot work because it is not being preached. It is not being practiced. It is not being honored.

After my spiritual revelation but before my official conversion, a non-denominational pastor and a Jesuit priest, in a class on Modern Catholic Social Teaching, asked me: “Why aren’t you a Christian?” I answered: “Because it is too hard.”

Sometimes you want to go home from church but your mom is still talking. Sometimes what you want to do is not what God needs you to do. My prayer is that congregations and pastors discover this together, and in so doing we can help affect some real transformation in this country. And I’ll keep my pulpit out of politics as long as politics doesn’t pull in my pulpit.

Have gospel, will travel.