Monday, January 17, 2011

New Blog Address

After many happy years with blogger I decided to move my blog over to Wordpress. I hope you will all come with me!

What we mean by love

Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." … So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?  - Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Today we honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a holiday, and I am lucky that many of my friends have spent the day sharing quotes and reflecting on King’s legacy of firm love in the service of justice. I am partial to the quote above, and thought of it when I woke up this morning. I can’t think of a better challenge than to be an extremist for love.

Never satisfied by soundbyte answers, I asked myself this morning "what does love mean?" What does it mean to be an extremist for love? Most people think of themselves as loving, most people think that they are doing the right thing. History fixates on the obviously horrific practitioners of hate, but most people are not that sort of extremist. And yet we, motivated by love, reach wildly different conclusions about how to act justly.

I just started learning a song cycle by Lori Laitman that I will be singing in a recital in April. The last song of the cycle has captivated me – it feels like it was written for my voice, and the poem, like all the poetry in the cycle, regularly moves me to tears (this complicates my learning process, to say the least). The poem, Pioneer Child’s Doll, begins: Here, child, is what we mean by love. 

The poet, Judith Sornberger, described her inspiration in an interview. She saw pioneer child’s doll in a Nebraska museum: The head of the doll was actually an old, beat-up bedpost. You know, the knob at the top of a bedpost. How hard up would you have to be able to love a doll with that kind of head?

Here, child, is what we mean by love:
a block head doll of coarse-grained wood,
eyes two knife-pricks, mouth a crooked stab.

As we are given to love land
that few would covet, where no tree
dares stand up to the sky,

So shall you love her whose grain sack skirt
covers not petticoats, but sticks
whose curls must be imagined in the wood.

And as we break the stubborn sod
of our backs to know what we
can be on this earth,

So by the sweat of your palm
on her brow will you bring
to her flat face a sheen.

We know that love can transform, and we know that we are in need of transformation. About 6 times a day I pray Ignatius’ prayer for generosity: “Lord, teach me to be generous…”. I pray to be loving, to be kind, to be patient, to be fortified and transformed, to be better. And these are the prayers I think of as selfless. Could I sacrifice my prayers and my love to transform others instead?

Could love be the willingness to look at an ugly doll and see something lovely? Could it be the determination to be devoted to that which others would throw away? Could it be beholding the beauty in others? We lament that the world needs transformation, but are the true acts of heroism to see the world and behold in it the possibility of goodness? Isn’t that why we still envision Dr. King’s dream?

Maybe it’s more self-centeredness to imagine that the world hinges on how I see it, that if I look on it with love it will meet my expectations. I’m not sure I know how to pray for anyone other than myself.  A self-emptying prayer that turns me inside out could be the loving extreme to which Dr. King exhorts me.  Perhaps I am called to an outward facing love that wills the other into grace.

Love, grace, God, prayer – these things are the types of wonderful mysteries that we could talk about for eternity and never explain or exhaust.  Dr. King set big, lofty goals that stretch us and our world. For me, it’s goal enough to try each day to discover more of what we mean by love.

The day will come when, after harnessing space, the winds, the tides, gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And, on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire. – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Mary the Apostle

Does anyone really exist, or are people only who we make them into?

Yesterday a bunch of folks in my quirky Twitter world were tweeting away about St Mary of Magdala, the apostle to the Apostles. A lot of people in my circles are set on exonerating Mary, and with good reason. She picked up a bad reputation throughout the middle ages. I was fascinated to discover that a rise in a presentation of a penitent Magdelene occurred during the Catholic Reformation, when the whole Church was repenting and looking for a model of contrition.  In retrospect, learning that was probably the turning point toward a favorable view of Church history and a frustration with retroactive indignance: no matter how we’ve messed up, there is always a reason why.

And boy, did we mess it up with Mary of Magdala. For better or worse she is part of our collective consciousness as a loose woman, a characterization which is found nowhere in Scripture. Better writers than I have documented the conflation of various biblical women into Mary. If we look at the evidence, we see that she was a dear disciple and a leader among the Apostles, but even those of us who struggle to proclaim this are evangelizing the in the shadow of myth, aware that what we are trying to do is fundamentally an un-doing.

Yesterday I was also privy to conversations about another Mary, and her sister, Martha, both stars of one of the few Bible stories that features two women.  Unfortunately it also features sibling rivalry and the chastisement of a hard-working woman, something hard-working women everywhere have been trying to explain away ever since.

I couldn’t help thinking, in the midst of both of these discussions, “how much does any of this matter?” If we get these women figured out, does it really change anything? They lived 2000 years ago and have long since gone to a place where their reputations cannot harm them. Reimagining them doesn’t change them – but it does change us.

We rely on our sacred narratives for permission on how to behave.  If Mary and Martha is a story of passivity vs. activity, we know who wins. And for women, that’s what we’re stuck with, because so few of our sacred stories have female characters. I wonder if men pore over the characterizations of Peter, Thomas, or other Apostles, go searching for the “stories about men” the way some women scramble to find in “stories about women” evidence that God loves us, and that we matter too.  I doubt it – all history is “stories about men”. Why would they imagine themselves Matthew or Zaccheus when they could be Paul? They could be Jesus.

This is not to disparage the exegetical or imaginative skills of the wonderful men I know who look to the Bible for guidance.  They are lucky to have so many models, and in truth I often share their models – loving Zaccheus as inspiration to short people everywhere, and Peter as a model of loud-mouthed-bozo-makes-good. We should take inspiration where we get it. But I won’t pretend that women and men are on a level interpretive playing field.

The woman at the well tells me it’s ok to question and to challenge. Phew. The woman with the alabaster jar tells me I can be lavish in my giving. Good to know. The woman with the hemorrhage (are we noticing a theme of namelessness here?) tells me I can take initiative. That's a relief, since I probably would have anyway.  When I look over my academic history I realize most of my Scripture study has been focused on these women.  I have spent countless hours picking apart these stories, searching for historical context and literary types, and anything else that would help me understand these few, mostly nameless female characters.

So who is Mary of Magdala, and why does it matter? The historical Mary is long gone, lost forever to the mythologies that make figures a reflection of our age.  Can our age allow her to be what the simplest evidence points to: a faithful follower of Jesus who stayed with him until the end, and a proclaimer of the Gospel? 

Every year we read or sing the Easter Sequence, in a translation packed with facile rhymes. And every year when we get to the line “Speak, Mary, declaring what you saw, wayfaring” I literally thank God. Tucked away in that tiny couplet, in which the Church talks back to the Scripture that week by week talks to us, is permission to proclaim what we see.  Sometimes that sliver of guidance is all we get, and it’s up to us to figure out the rest of what it means, for us and for history.

St. Mary of Magdala by Eileen Cantlin Verbus. Copyright FutureChurch. For more information about St. Mary of Magdala celebrations, go to

Thursday, January 13, 2011


My suspicion is that I am unbearable to shop with. I have no problem traipsing all over a store, stopping to look at any bright thing, touching everything soft, smelling every candle. I imagine each item in my life - shoes on my feet, vases in my kitchen, linens on my bed. And then I walk out without buying a thing. Part of the reason is my miserly nature, but I also am skeptical that owning whatever I'd looked at could compare to my imagination.

Last summer I heard a series of lectures by John Bell, who snarkily referred to the imagination as "the bogus gift of the Holy Spirit". The magic of what happens inside our heads is intangible, so we don't value it, or talk about its power. My beloved Augustine declared "to reach the goal is nothing else but the will to go" - but unless we have imagined our goal we can't begin the journey.

The great story of the conversion of Ignatius is that he read the lives of the saints, and when he imagined himself doing great things like they did, rather than the "great" things he read in his chivalric novels, he was filled with a satisfaction that didn't abate. And so his imagination propelled him into heroic action because he listened to it and made it reality. 

I was captivated by the line in President Obama's speech last night about expanding our moral imagination. I'm not going to parse every line of the speech or imply that he was making a sweeping statement about the role of imagination in our moral development. I will simply say I was happy to hear the use of our imaginations stated as a worthy aspiration. What is empathy if not the imagining of the inner life of another?

Beyond empathy, our imaginations shape our moral life. I try every day to be better than I was the day before, because I can imagine a life in which I am better than I am. The relentless pursuit of improvement to which we are called can be exhausting.  We are guided in that pursuit by a vision that is ours alone, purportedly trapped in our imaginations yet freer than our habits.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Stuffed with grace

What part of speech is "religious"?

If you answered “adjective” you’re right, except, of course, when religious is a noun. Now remember: a religious is religious, but you can be religious without being a religious.

Teaching is difficult for countless reasons, but one very time-consuming part of what I teach is that I am constantly clarifying what we mean by words that over centuries have acquired mind-boggling pluralities of meaning. Take Church: I am going to Church, that building on the corner is my Church, she’s part of my Church, I teach Church history. The more ordinary the word, the more meanings it has. Fathers of the Church, desert fathers, our Father, bless me Father for I have sinned, I have to ask my father. 

Eucharist is a meal, a sacrifice, a gathering, a thanksgiving. And don’t even get me started on water, the simplest of symbols used in Christian worship. Water gives us life, water kills us, water cleans us, water gets us wet. It’s confusing and comforting – the simplest things in our lives are exploding with meaning.

I was talking to a colleague recently about the time my apartment was burgled, and because we both work in theology I pretty quickly turned the conversation to how a concept of sacramentality helped me deal with the loss of objects. Things are important to us. Things, like people, can be stuffed with grace.  I didn’t have to feel guilty mourning the loss of things because my sacramental faith allows me to recognize their meaning.

That’s what was on my mind recently when, with a wise and thoughtful group of people, the conversation turned to detachment. I get why detachment is attractive, and brilliant people have promoted it as a path to contentment, but I’m going to take a pass.

Give me attachment , a passionate devotion to things, relationships, people, and life. I’ll take the pain when it comes – I’ve known grief, and it has shown me not the foolishness of my attachments but of the blazing heat of my love.  Grace allows the ordinary to be transformed into the extraordinary, and gives us permission to love the thing because we love the grace.

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
        It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
        It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
        And all is seared with trade; Bleared, smeared with toil;
        And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
        There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
        Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
        World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings. 
                                    - God's Grandeur, Gerard Manley Hopkins

Saturday, January 8, 2011

They'll know we are Christians by our love.

Something awful happened today.

The shooting of Congresswoman Giffords is a specific, personal tragedy, and I don't want to distract from it's specificity by making her a symbol. Yet we can't deny the country was shocked into awareness today, and many of us are thinking about the consequences of mean-spiritedness.

I think a lot about mean-spiritedness in my own religious context. Sometimes I wonder if anyone can be quite as mean as Catholics can be. So many of my fellow Catholics have bought the current politicial us-vs-them mentality hook, line and sinker. They are embattled, in the fortress, sole and indispensible defenders of the Body of Christ. If they do not keep the unworthy from the community, no one will!  I don't have the heart for that sort of combat, and I have the historical perspective to know it's not up to me to decide who is in and who is out.

That's where my head was when I got to mass this afternoon. The first thing I did with the organist was run the psalm - "The Lord will bless his people with peace". It was almost laughable in light of the heartwrenching afternoon. The Lord will bless us with peace - will we have it?

The first reading announced a favored one of God who "shall bring forth justice to the nations, not crying out, not shouting, not making his voice heard in the street." How often do we who cry out think we are being prophetic when we are really just being loud? The 'soldiers in the army of Christ' who profess a Church militant, who want to root out those who are unworthy of the faith - they may be as misguided as those who expected a zealous and violent Messiah.

God confounds us, and rather than drawing the boundaries we would like upon the Chosen People, God opens wide the doors and does what we least expect.

Fast-forward to the second reading. "In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him." Remember, this is Peter talking - not exactly one for welcoming the stranger and opening wide the doors. If a primary theme of Acts is the demarcation of boundaries, its ultimate conclusion is that the net Christ cast was much wider than initially imagined. However you want to put it: "All God's critters got a place in the choir" or "Here comes everybody", the message is clear. Those who fear God and act justly are acceptable.

And then the familiar Gospel reading, with it's beautiful climax: "he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, saying, 'This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.'" That's what I expected to blog about when I woke up this morning, how we need to listen to the voices that tell us we are pleasing, and listen for God's voice among them. After I was shocked by violence today, the Scripture did its marvelous work of meeting me where I am. The voice did not whisper to only a few. God's voice thundered to all.

I give a lot of thought to ecclesiology, enough to know that no religion exists without some sort of boundaries. How much damage do we do when we draw the lines too violently, when we presume the worst of people and don't act with charity?

As we prepared our altar to participate in Christ's sacrifice and the Church's feast, we sang "They'll know we are Christians by our love". Love is not pompous, nor rude, nor self-interested. I have to work as hard as anyone to live the love that Paul describes in 1 Cor 13. I know there are people who claim to be acting out of "tough love" when they harangue Christians who don't meet their expectations. Sorry folks, but I have to call shenanigans on that. I know what charity looks like, and vitriolic criticism it ain't.

It's not good for any of us to live in a constant state of defensiveness, ready to throw a punch at anyone who endangers our Church (or our country, or our paradigm, or...). I for one am ready to relax, to let my guard down against a Them who may not even exist, and trust that God can take care of us, of the Church, and even of God's self.

In all things, charity

In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity. - Attributed to St Augustine.

Something awful happened today.

A politician was shot and people made it political and then they were criticized for being political. We heard she died and were horrified, we heard the reports were wrong and were relieved, then were sad again as the death toll rose to include a child, then relieved again to hear that the shooter was likely not motivated by politics but by mental illness - as if the lunacy of the violent one could undo the reality that was present long before this event: we live in a world that is horribly broken, and it is our own brokenness that makes it so.

I am partisan and constantly wavering between being proud and ashamed of the fact. When I am in a good mood I truly believe that most people want what's best for all people, and we just disagree on how to achieve it. I tend to side with one political party, but I try with all my might to look for the best intentions in the agendas of those with whom I disagree politically. Believe me, this suspension of contentiousness goes against all of my natural inclinations.

It is hard for me, but I do my best, which leaves me frustrated with those who won't at least try to be charitable in their discourse. Politicians get elected by fearmongering and mudslinging, playing to the worst parts of our nature. Our society and our government become about a Them - sometimes nameless, sometimes those who voted the "wrong" way, or "activist" judges, or "Kenyan" presidents - anyone who is out to get us. We should hate Them, defend ourselves from Them, target Them, maybe even destroy Them.

Coming under fire today (pun intended) was Sarah Palin. I try not to comment much on Sarah Palin, for a number of reasons. First, I honestly don't know where my general distaste for the far right ends and a legitimate critique of her begins. Also, I am sensitive to how rare her aggressiveness is in a female public figure, and I don't want to come down hard on someone with whom I disagree when she is demonstrating a brashness that I adopt myself. It was reading some excerpts from her recent book that convinced me of a mean-spiritedness in her public persona that is offensive and unhelpful.

We use politics as an excuse to be mean-spirited, and that us-vs-them lack of charity bleeds into our other interactions as well. That mindset in Christian circles will be the subject of another post. And while I don't expect politics to follow the same rules as faith, it would be nice if the ubiquitous lip-service paid to Christianity manifested in something other than a further widening of the imagined chasm between us and them.