This is one of the most powerful personal reflections I’ve read in a long time. Have your tissue ready.
My mother died the day she turned 55.
This Sunday will be my first Mother’s Day without her, but nearly a year after she died, I still find it impossible to be heartbroken over her passing. As I wrote in her obituary, she suffered from both mental and physical illness for much of her life. However, despite her struggles, she selflessly loved and supported those who meant the most to her. In so many ways, she loved those who society deemed outcast and unloveable, and through her relentless love of others, her relationship with God was readily apparent. While I miss her dearly, it would be selfish of me to wish that she were still alive and suffering rather than at peace.
I suppose that my mother is the single biggest reason that I have devoted much of my career to studying poverty. My mother was what some folks call white trash, and by extension, that made me white trash growing up too. Truth is, she never stood much of a chance of climbing out of the poverty in which she became mired the minute she was born. Her father was an alcoholic and her mother was (and still is) about as wicked a human as I have ever met. Mom and her sister mostly raised themselves, so it’s no wonder they got married and left their abusive home first chance they got. At 16, Mom married an alcoholic who beat her most every day until the night he came home drunk and she rolled him up in the bedsheets and beat the hell out of him with a baseball bat. Not long after, she got pregnant. Her firstborn child died before he was a week old. She named him Dustin David, and his loss laid heavy on her heart for the rest of her life. It was just one piece of a lifetime of heartbreaking burden that took a toll on her mental health.
Not long after Dusty died, she met my father and my conception hastened the bells of Mom’s second wedding. My father is a good man, but they divorced by the time I was out of diapers. After my father, she married a total of five more times, twice to the same man. She had the biggest heart of anyone I have ever known, but picking men was not among her gifts. She told me more than once that she didn’t think she deserved a good man. I was never able to convince her that she deserved a partner who treated her well.
Good thoughts on the necessary weirdness of the Christian faith by Father Jonathan Mitchican:
This past Epiphany, I blessed chalk during the Mass. It was the first time our parish had engaged in this particular practice. Each person who attended was given a piece of chalk to take home with them, along with a set of instructions for scrawling the formula for a blessing over the doors of their homes: “20+C+M+B+17.” It was a strange thing to do. People in the neighborhood would later stare at our doors and wonder. It made no sense to the world. Many people thought it was weird.To that I say, good. It is good that Christians are weird. The weirder we can be, the better.We in the West live in a culture in which Christianity is increasingly alien. Despite the fact that much of our cultural understanding of things like human rights and social responsibility is still loosely based on a Judeo-Christian ethic, our societies in America and Europe have become increasingly secular and hostile to Christian faith. Our culture’s priests today are celebrities and scientists (and the celebrity scientist is the most prized figure of all — witness the recent controversy over Bill Nye’s new show). Our houses of worship are football stadiums. Our creeds are sound-bite versions of political platforms delivered over social media and cable news.
David Bentley Hart lowers the boom in this wide-ranging podcast interview. From a discussion of the way an understanding of salvation that consists in being saved from God rather than from sin and death makes God into a capricious and wicked idol, the reasons Process Theology is philosophically incoherent (basically it makes God into a god or demiurge rather than the ground of all being in perfect plenitude). Also discussed are the reasons the idea of inherited guilt is based on a mis-translation of Romans 5, the fact that it is fundamentalists and not the hellenistic influenced Christian (and Jewish) intellectual tradition who are thinking like pagans, and worshipping a Zeus-like figure. Great stuff. As always, Hart is erudite and to the point. Enjoy.
[Edit: I thought I’d include this great quote. Hart and his interviewer and discussing their struggles with illness, and how this is reflected in a sensitivity and moral outrage in the suffering in the world, Hart says:
“…I think there is a real problem that we have to deal with in the way that most of us have become accustomed to thinking about God. We preach the gospel of the love of God in Christ as a solution to the gospel of the wrath of God in the Father, for instance. It is, at the end of the day, the way it’s construed, the way it’s spoken, the way it’s preached, fundamentally contradictory. And I don’t blame those who reject it. I think that if the choice is between say, a principled atheism and many forms of Christian belief, that the atheism is closer to a true picture of the Christian God because at least it’s a belief in a reality that doesn’t include the petty despot who predestines some to eternal perdition. But the other thing is just a critical and scholarly concern too… that’s sort of a trivial thing, but I just translated the New Testament for Yale… in translating the New Testament I became somewhat indignant actually at the history of translation that one’s fighting against. In part I mean just the traditional translations which with the best will in the world followed theological orthodoxy in their time and place. And many people who are considered authorities on what, say, Paul taught, learned some Greek in seminary and they learned to translate certain words according to the dogmatic tradition which has determined a lot of translations for 500 years, and more than that actually, even the translations into Latin in earlier centuries. But then there are the modern translations like the New International Version which go out of their way to impose readings on the texts that clearly aren’t there in the Greek in order to make them conform say to certain Evangelical understanding… The New International Version for instance imposes readings that are clearly false.”]
I’m seeing a lot about the case of Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, the case about to go before the SCOTUS. The background of the case regards grants given to non-profit tax-exempt schools to improve the safety of their playgrounds. Trinity Lutheran School applied and, I read, their application ranked 5 out of the thirty-something received, with 14 grants available. They were rejected because Missouri, like 38 other states, has a Blaine amendment in its constitution that forbids the direct funding of religious institutions. These amendments are a relic of an attempt to add such an amendment to the US constitution. Part (though not all) of the motivation for these amendments was anti-Catholic and anti-Immigrant sentiment at a time when public schools across the country were basically Protestant parochial schools and often centers of “Americanization.”
The case is interesting for a number of reasons, and touches on several issues I’ve been reflecting on for some time.
First the main issues that people are writing about:
I think these questions are worth asking. The list of Amicus Curiae over at the SCOTUS blog is very interesting. Most of the briefs seem to have been filed in favor of Trinity Lutheran, but it is interesting that some of the religious ones where not. Reading the briefs on both sides is informative.
I’ve always had some ambivalent feelings about religious organizations taking tax money. I was nervous about President George W. Bush’s office of Faith Based Initiatives because of the reality that accepting money always gives a person or organization a real or percieved degree of control. As one of my friends used to put it “you take the man’s money, you play by the man’s rules.” I’ve heard enough about the mixed bag having a church on the national register of historic places, for example, to say nothing of more contentious issues.
Which brings me to the underlying issue that I think is at play in our society: the proper role of Churches and other non-profits. Whenever issues like this come up on line (another hot button is the clergy housing allowance exclusion) there are always people who ask why churches shouldn’t be treated like businesses. The short answer is that churches are not businesses. Most churches are small. They were granted tax-exempt status not because they were religious, but for the same reason other non-profits were: they are intermediate institutions in society that are cooperative in nature and that, ostensibly at least, work for the common good. Because of this, our society determined that it would be wrong to burden voluntary associations made up of tax payers, whose missions and goals benefit society, with another layer of taxation.
The long and short of it is that, as a Christian, I would almost rather churches paid taxes, to rid ourselves of as much of any sense of beholden-ness to the state as we can. On the other hand, as a citizen, I actually do think these intermediate/mediating institutions are extremely important, especially in a society which is polarizing along too many lines to count (geography, generationally, racially, and certain economically).
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
My latest post on Covenant concerns the Right to Die movement. It was split into two parts:
“I don’t think that there are many folks around arguing in favor of the over-medicalized approach to death as a good thing. We need better ways to die, but euthanasia will not provide them.”
“Part of recognizing the gifted nature of our lives entails recognizing the limits of our own control. This is not an argument for oppression or control by others, but rather a call for a recognition of actual and legitimate limits. While it’s true that we have been expanding the horizons of those limits with our technology for millennia, some elements of those limits are not to be thrown off, else we risk losing the very definition of our humanity.”
A while ago, I heard a powerful lecture on the Prophet Jeremiah by Professor Ellen Davis. In it, she said something that is also found in her book Biblical Prophecy: Perspective for Christian Theology, Discipleship, and Ministry. She writes: “The prophet speaks for God in language that is literally visceral: ‘My guts, my guts; I writhe!’ (Jer. 4:19); ‘My guts yearn for [Ephraim/Israel]” (31:20). Although the visceral character of Jeremiah’s words is (regrettably) obscured by most translations, this feature of his poetry is an important indicator of his distinctive place within the prophetic canon. For Jeremiah is a witness to horror who never looks away, and thus he may teach us something of what it is to speak and act on God’s behalf in the most grievous situations” (Davis, 144).
These words, particularly the portion in bold, rushed back to mind yesterday when I saw the photograph that has caused so much controversy, of the Syrian refugees who drowned while attempting to cross from Turkey to Greece and enter Europe. The picture that is ingrained in my mind, along with images of my little boys, is the picture of three year old Alan Kurdi who drowned with his older brother and mother, and washed up on the beach, leaving his grieving father with no desire to go on to Europe, but to instead return home, alone.
People have argued that these photos should not have been published. In certain respects, in magazines that are known for making their way without ethics, and only for financial gain, I can see why this would be controversial. But taken on its own merits, publication of these photos only brings home the reality of what is facing so many people fleeing from violence, war, and instability in their home countries. Politicians and analysts are right to say that the only long term solution is to encourage stability and peace in the homelands from which these folks are fleeing. But that is just that–a long term solution. In the mean time, we can’t look away from the tragedy of little Alan’s death, nor from the broader tragedy of which it is a particular example. Something must be done now to aid and welcome those who flee in fear of their lives. And so, the following poem came to me, and I thought I’d share it with you.
If you love me
do not look away
use your gifted eyes
to welcome the world
In beauty. In pain.
If you love me
do not hide your face
from need. from pain.
use your face to know
and be known
If you love me
do not close your lips
but use your mouth and
loose your tongue
to shape love loudly
If you love me
do not remain with folded hands
but apply your hands to work
the one who has fallen,
Pull the listing boat ashore
If you love me
do not walk away
but plant your feet and
to where you’re needed
If you love me
you will meet me
when you do these things
and loving your neighbor
you love me
Do not look away
If you love me
Episcopal Migration Ministries also conducted a webinar on the Syrian refugee crisis 8 months ago:
My latest post at Covenant, on secrets and judgement. Johnny Cash gets in there too:
In March, Michael Cover wrote about James Runcie’s Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death. I have not read the book, but I have watched the Masterpiece Mystery series based upon it, Grantchester.I enjoyed the series and appreciate a depiction of clergy dealing with personal issues that rise above buffoonery.
One issue the show brought into stark relief for me, is the tension that builds between Sidney’s desire to investigate and seek the truth — and to share that truth with his detective friend — and the expectation of pastoral discretion. How often can Sidney betray the confidences of his flock before he is no longer trusted by any of them?
The juxtaposition of Sidney’s compulsion to investigate, and his use of his pastoral role to gather information, highlights a contrast I’ve noted between one of my past jobs and my vocation as a priest.
Before I went to seminary I spent four years working as a private investigator in my dad’s investigative agency. But while I was officially employed for four years, I had many more years of exposure, if not experience, as I started going with my dad to work cases — largely worker’s compensation cases in the early years — when I was around seven years old.
This formed me in the experience of knowing things about people that others do not, and in keeping that knowledge largely to myself. (Of course, until I was ordained, there was no absolute requirement of secrecy).
Since I have been engaged in pastoral ministry, and my dealings with the people of God have revealed that the secrets that sometimes come to light are incredibly convoluted, I have been reflecting on the difference between the role of an investigator and the role of a priest.
The featured image is The Allegory of Law and Grace by Lucas Cranach 1472-1553. It is licensed under Creative Commons.
Now that things are (hopefully) calming down in Ferguson, with the help of appropriately attired Highway patrol officers, I think it’s time to come up with a better term for the use of military grade equipment far beyond what is necessary by local police forces. “Militarization” implies that they have been given the sort of training one would need to use these tools responsibly. Given the *spirit* of the Posse Comitatus Act (which a number of friends assure me is dead, but anyway…) which technically applies only to federal troops, but really sought to avoid the deployment of military style forces against the American populace, it seems counter productive to have people in such gear attempting to police an area. This is a concern that cuts across political lines. But we need another name… Instead of “Militarization” how about “Evidence of government subsidies for weapons manufacturers via local police agencies” or something?