The Victory that Brings the World to Its Knees

*This homily was delivered at First Presbyterian Church of Santa Barbara, CA, on May 6, 2018.

Many Christians know that the good news of Easter is a message of Victory. We know that Jesus’ death and resurrection ushered in a new reality, a Victory of God that compels the rivers to clap their hands, the hills to ring out with joy, and us to sing a new song as was proclaimed in Psalm 98. While many Christians know this about Easter, fewer may know that the Church calendar allots a full fifty days to the season of Eastertide, and today we begin Week Six of the seven weeks we are supposed to have committed to some serious celebration.

Now, no matter how committed someone can be to partying, fifty days of celebration strikes me as a very long time. Long enough for us to have possibly polished off the 20-pound Easter ham and perhaps made a noticeable dent into the pile of Easter confectionery we managed to amass. Some of us may even have grown a bit restless and begun to ask, “Isn’t it time to get on with Pentecost?”

But fifty days it is, and fifty days is long enough for a healthy seed of self-doubt to grow and pose the question: Maybe there is something more to Easter that I have yet to grasp?” Sure, we may know in our hearts and minds that, yes, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a cosmic victory over sin and death. But, what exactly is this Victory that we are invited to participate in? And what is it about this Victory that should compel us, even demand of us to sing a new song for fifty days?

On the surface of things, Easter is psychologically easy to celebrate. For, unlike Lent, which often features the not-so-appealing practices of fasting and repentance, Easter gives us permission to blare our trumpet horns, fly our flags, and celebrate Victory—all of which may come naturally to us, especially as Americans, a people and a culture that has been fortunate enough to enjoy many wins—whether those victories be through Olympic gold medals, military operations, or runaway successes from Silicon Valley. Indeed, we live in a culture that champions the victorious all the time: we admire and strive to be like those who are the strongest, the fastest, the smartest, the richest, and most of all, those who enjoy the certainty of being right. And, is it not true that victory often also means enjoying the humiliation of our opponents, those who seem –in our eyes, at the time– to be less than who we are?

As Christians embedded and swimming in these American cultural waters, it is not surprising that we may feel inclined to similarly approach participating in the Victory of God by imagining ourselves as the Israelites looking over our shoulders to see the Egyptian chariots swallowed up by the Red Sea, or marching alongside Joshua, blowing horns and yelling for the walls of Jericho to fall.

Surely, if Easter is about celebrating Victory in the ways that we are used to imagining victory, Easter can quickly boil down to an excuse to enjoy the glow of associating with the winning side. And what more winning side can there be next to having sided with Jesus Christ, the Conqueror of Death? The Resurrected Messiah? The Savior of the World? For those of us who grew up watching cartoons in the 80’s, it’s surely tempting to imagine our victorious Jesus as He-Man, Master of the Universe – rippling with muscles, wielding a sword, blond hair flapping in the wind, as he straddles the planetary horizons, fighting against evil!

Unfortunately, by the time we roll into week six of Eastertide, if He-Man’s muscles and swords are functionally equivalent to where we end up in our imaginations about what God’s Victory looks like, then we are sorely mistaken and at risk of missing out on how absolutely startling the message of Easter actually is. This morning, I’d like to offer three brief meditations on the Easter Victory—each beginning with a verse drawn from the Lectionary reading for today.

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[F]or whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?  (I John 5: 4-5)

My 8-yr old son and I enjoy watching a show called, Planet Earth.¹ As a documentary about the animal kingdom, it is in one sense, a wonderfully soothing way to end the day before bedtime. The visual footage is gorgeous, the narrator’s erudite British-accent is calming, and the camera work is unbelievable. And yet, in another sense, Planet Earth is one of the most terrifying and gruesome shows to watch—as episode after episode, the often starving predator hunts and devours the prey. A prey that is often helpless, vulnerable. Sometimes only a few days old, and at other times, elderly and sick. As a result, my son and I have watched and talked about how lions hunt down giraffes, bobcats pounce on squirrels, snakes slither after baby lizards, and hawks feud over the fresh remains of a fox.

Any parent who is worth their salt knows that, in these unpleasant moments, we can hope to decrease the horror by talking to our children about the circle of life. But the gruesomeness of Death never quite loses its sting. My son and I, we grimace and avert our eyes when it is just too much. And still, we watch these shows and see it as part of Nature—we remind our children and we remind ourselves that: this is natural.

In more philosophical moments, or simply after a very bad day, it doesn’t take much for many of us, as adults, to read the predator -prey relationship into so many parts of our human history and our contemporary experience. We tell ourselves this is the way things are. The strong will always seek to amass and retain power. The meek will always get run over and exploited. So, if we want to make it in this world, if we want to be heard and be respected, if we want to stand our ground, we need to aggressively throw our elbows and box out when we are under the net of life. This is the ruthless dog-eat-dog world order that we resign ourselves to. This is the sad and broken world of sin and death that is part of the reality we are stuck with.….Or are we?

The other day, after watching another episode of Planet Earth, I settled down to tuck my son in and it occurred to me, for the very first time, that – actually, what it means to be an Easter people may be to proclaim and trust in a very different story, a very different reality. You see, every night, we have sung a family lullaby to our children. The words go like this: The wolf will live with the lamb. The leopard will lie down with the goat. The calf and the lion and the yearling together. And a little child will lead them.

These words were highlighted in one of our children’s storybook Bibles, and somehow struck our fancy as first-time parents so many years ago, but you may recognize them as the words from Isaiah 11 that describe the new Kingdom to come. These words describe a reality where the wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the goat, they defy the predator-prey relationship and live and lie together.

This is a quiet but powerful image of Victory that does not champion a bigger and stronger predator. Nor does it advance the prey as a wily underdog who surprises the predator with a sudden poisonous sting or blinding defense. Rather, Isaiah’s vision of Victory is rather astonishing! It is life together in mutual submission, so profoundly safe and secure, that a little child can lead the beasts in all their wildness and created glory.

This radical promise of God’s Victory transforms our world order so that we are no longer trapped within the framework of a zero-sum game between the predator and prey, between men and women, between peoples of different nations and cultures, between human beings, animals, and the earth. It is a Victory that undoes the zero-sum games that we have felt it necessary to play and whose scars have been—and continue to be—sewn into the contested fabric of our nation’s racial hierarchies, gender inequalities, and fears of the Other. Can it be that Easter is calling us to participate in a Victory that will entail a divine transformation that leads you and me into acts of mutual submission and into the beloved community?

With a glimpse of this possibility, our hearts might cry out, “Oh Lord, how can this be?” Indeed, to feel the deep longing behind this question is to begin to grasp how much the Victory of God makes our earthly versions of victory seem small and thin, and blasts the doors off of whatever world order we have imagined. The Victory of God is, as Eugene Peterson puts it in his interpretation of I John 5: “The conquering power that brings the world to its knees.”

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Jesus said….”If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love…..This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15: 10, 12)

Recently, I read about the famous Japanese tea master, Sen no Rikyu, who lived in Kyoto during the mid-16th century when Christianity bloomed for a brief time before the official state persecution began. Famous for his design of tea rooms, Rikyu is most noted for his creation of “nijiri-guchi,” a small square doorway through which guests entered into the tea house. This doorway is described as “so small that [it] forced everyone to bow and remove their swords in order to enter the tea room.” Makoto Fujimura, a Japanese-American artist of faith observes:

“Rikyu created a space dedicated to repose, communication and peace. Deep communication can only take place through a path of vulnerability. In other words, the only way to escape the violent cycle of the age of feudal struggles is to remove one’s sword; then, in safety, one can communicate truly.”²

Our worldly wisdom about the nature of victory presents to us He-Man, a warrior who conquers and grasps power on our behalf. But the tea master’s house signals through its architecture that a far deeper Victory is actually at work when the warrior sets down his sword, humbles himself enough to bow and enter the tea house in order to commune with his interlocutor. And when that warrior does in fact shed his sword and bow low, then something truly new is born. A deeper Victory begins to unfurl.

In the space of a tea house, the warrior is invited to yield. In the space of a tea house, the security of power is relinquished for the sake of the beloved community. In the space of a tea house, we can see how the design can seek to elicit a particular Victory—but, in order for that Victory to unfold and breath and come to fruition, it needs each of us to set down our sword and bow low.

Mutual submission between the wolf and the lamb. A tea house that literally disarms the warrior and requires that he bow low. These are snapshots of a Victory that our world does not know or understand. If we take some time to consider these images, we might come to see anew what John meant when he wrote that “the victory that conquers the world is our faith, the belief that Jesus is the Son of God.” Here, let us move past the thin notion of faith as merely a cognitive belief in the facticity of Jesus as Son of God, and work our way towards a lived understanding of faith that is closer to what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described as “having so surrendered our natures to God that His strength flows freely through us.”³  This kind of faith—to so surrender our natures to God —is the victory that brings the world to its knees. This kind of faith  reverses the antagonism found in the predator-prey dynamic and points towards a journey into the knowledge of an imaginative love, such that we are capable of laying our life down, in the same way that Jesus Christ loved us.

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In two weeks’ time, the Church will celebrate Pentecost, that inaugural outpouring of the Spirit of God who began to bring into lived experience the Victory that was won on Easter morning. What is so curious about the lectionary today–during week 6 of Eastertide, is that we are actually called to first remember the Gentile Pentecost.

That is, in Acts 10, Peter is preaching the Gospel, and “the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

What is so intriguing about this account is that something completely new happens. The Jewish people and Peter were working with one understanding, one framework, one narrative about how God would use His Chosen people to bring salvation to the world. They were not expecting that God would also just give the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles—and, yes, they were astounded!

But, what is so lovely about Peter’s imagination is that it is so fixed on God’s Love that he is not bound by the power of the former narrative. Rather, after wrestling with a heaven-sent vision, Peter is willing to begin a journey of learning to move past the prejudices and assumptions he was socialized and raised into as a leader—and become open to God’s Spirit being given to a group of people who were not only completely outside his Jewish account of how things were supposed to go, but even regarded as unclean. In this way, Peter’s faith is one in which he is learning anew how to surrender his nature to God so fully that God’s strength flows freely through him. Here, Peter is in Rikyu’s tea house, he has put down his sword, he has bowed low to enter in, and is being invited to consider the possibility of a newer and truer communion than he had ever previously imagined.

Are we willing to let the power structures and social orders that we’ve been accustomed to become destabilized, challenged, shaken by the movement of the Spirit in the family of God? Being an Easter people may mean becoming people who are open to being stretched beyond what we have already seen and figured out. Being an Easter people may mean being ready for God to move away from the script we have been writing in our heads, perhaps for several generations, maybe even hundreds of years, and having our very sense of identity and relationships re-ordered.

Is it possible that our living into the Easter Victory means being like Peter in Acts 10 and recognizing those places in our lives where we have become entangled in the complicated family history of our nation and our culture, so much so that we may have inherited the identity and mindset of warrior against others?

As such, could it be that the celebration of the Easter Victory will involve taking off our sword and bowing low? So low that we are willing to gain new sight, to see how we may have—knowingly or not—benefited from preying on others who have been historically rendered more weak than us? If so, we might have the chance to discover that the Victory that brings the world to its knees is in fact our faith: to so surrender our natures to God that His strength flows freely through us?

For, in taking off our swords and bowing low to our Lord and, in mutual submission—laying down our lives for each other, as Jesus commanded—could it be that we are being invited to join the surprising beloved community made up of the wolf, the lamb, the leopard, the goat, led by a small child? Could this be the Victory that Jesus is asking us to participate in when we say “yes” to His invitation to eat at his Table today?

Indeed, if any of this is possible, perhaps it is with manifest wisdom that the Church calendar cleared out 50 days for us in Easter to fully contemplate how God’s Victory may surpass and exceed what we can ever imagine. Fifty days to find a way to begin surrendering ourselves to the possibility of God’s Victory actually being True.

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¹ “Planet Earth” (not “Blue Planet” as referenced in the delivered homily) is the correct title.
² Quoted from Silence & Beauty,
2016.
³ Quoted from  Strength to Love, 1963.
(Images are edited photos taken at Caldwell Chapel of Louisville Seminary.)

 
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Post-Debris Flow Life and Holy Saturday: A Rumination

“It’s not if, it’s when it happens….”

That’s one of the things that Kate says.

Kate is a trauma specialist. In my eyes, she’s like special ops: she gets deployed to help bring sanity to those communities where insanity—whether natural or humanly instigated—has temporarily taken over. She’s the most unassuming action hero I’ve met. She goes running straight into those places where most anyone would want to flee: those places where adrenaline, chaos and confusion are having their way; those places where first responders are working around the clock to literally and figuratively stop the bleeding; those places where the thick cords of grief, fear, anger and disbelief are hard to untangle.

In January, our community became one of those places and Kate didn’t have to get on a plane to show up and get working.

In the same way that collective trauma has impacted other communities before us, it put us into a state of cold shock. We’d spent weeks in December grinding through a plume of yellow-green smoke and then eventually evacuated to flee the oncoming Thomas Fire. A steady drum beat of emergency notifications had prepared us for the potential for disaster, and so many of us returned to our homes with a tangible sense of how thousands of firefighters had averted us from sure destruction – but, there was nothing that quite prepared us for the breathtaking calamity that would visit so many in our community during the early hours of January 9th.

As the enormity of what had happened began to come into focus, so did Kate’s words.

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Early on, I had heard that there were boulders—boulders lying in the middle of the intersection where Hot Springs Rd and Olive Mill Rd meet. I’d seen pictures and video footage of the wrangled trees, mud-covered roads, and damaged cars. But, for the first month, we were told to stay away. In no uncertain terms, the city had locked it all down to keep people away from a part of town that had become a biohazard and to  engage in search and rescue efforts.

So, dutifully, we stayed away. Even as the search & rescue phase ended, we were asked to avoid those roadways where trucks, trucks, more trucks and even more trucks would be hauling away mud and rocks. For six weeks, I had not laid my own eyes on the corner where the very earliest news had reported that three houses had simply slid off their foundations and gone….where? At the time, I had no idea. At the time, I literally couldn’t comprehend what that report even meant because I had no clue what a “debris flow” even was until several weeks later.

In mid-February, I took a ride with two friends to a noonday service for Ash Wednesday at their church, All Saints by the Sea. Normally, I don’t ask for rides, but getting to their church meant driving through those intersections and roads that I had been dutifully avoiding. What’s more, All Saints had become the make-shift triage center on the night of the debris flow. With their lights turned on in the middle of the howling dark, the rector and her partner opened the church doors to traumatized survivors, first responders, neighbors rushing in with blankets and clothes. I imagined the plaster of mud everywhere on the pews, the altar, the noble red carpet running down the center aisle as the bewilderment of that morning stumbled in looking for relief. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect of those roads or the church quite frankly, and I was feeling a bit shy about traversing those seemingly hallowed grounds of disaster and grief.

The drive to church was relatively uneventful, but my friends took a detour on the return home so that I could see the intersection of Hot Springs and Olive Mill. What is there to say? The instinct to utter seemingly meaningless words like, “it’s unbelievable” were very strong and obliged, but there it is. Perhaps all I can say is what so many other witnesses of dreadful things have said: there is nothing that can prepare you for seeing something with your own eyes.

A week later, I found myself driving through that haunting intersection two more times. Each time, it is hard to describe the involuntary stirring I felt inside when I saw what is undoubtedly a scene of relative order compared to what impassable chaos it must have been on that fateful day: what used to be lush green with assorted foliage was now dried-out brown with piles and more piles of rocks, only a few feet away from bedraggled homes made two-tone by mudlines some at waist high, others reaching six to seven feet up the wall. As I drove, I tried to remember to breath. My imagination spun like an overstuffed Rolodex, fanning through the harrowing stories I have heard and read about narrow escapes and reflexive acts of sacrifice. The memories of families now separated by death re-infused my mind and neck muscles with a dull ache.

Collective trauma is a funny thing because, even though so much of it is experienced privately and in one’s own particular way, there is something striking about encountering other people in the community who are carrying that same ache in their neck and trying to remember to breath that same breath as they drive by. It evokes a mutual gentleness, a shared shyness that is at once assuring and comforting, but also troubling and fragile.

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My eyes flew open as I woke with a start because I heard it. I heard rain.

It was 5 o’clock in the morning on Tuesday. Two days before, the clouds of my heart had darkened as we received word that there was a storm front coming and that the city had drawn up new flood maps that indicated our neighborhood had been designated to lie within the yellow zone labelled “high risk” (whereas we weren’t considered at any risk before). While I supposed that I should be taking comfort in the fact that we aren’t in the red zone of “extreme risk,” that comfort seemed to have packed up and left town once it heard that evacuation orders might be in store.

The orders never came and the fullness of carpools, swim practices, and music lessons elbowed to the periphery of my mind whatever concerns I might have found a way to articulate. But when that first rain came and the adrenaline came coursing through my blood veins, I realized, “Oh, this is why I’ve been so agitated for the last few days.”

Since that first rain, it has rained at least four more times and we have been issued two mandatory evacuation orders that our family has—after some rounds of anxious deliberation—chosen to heed. It’s an odd thing to have come to fear the very rains that we’d grown used to longing for in these drought-filled years in southern California. It’s an odd thing to be chronically checking the weather in a luxury beach town known for its sunny skies and perfect temperatures. It’s an odd thing to stare at the half-bald mountain range which had been one half of our city’s pride and glory, and wonder if and when it might just crumble again and sweep everything in its path into the other half, the ocean. I had not realized how much confidence I had placed in the natural world, but what previous confidence I had now has faltered.

For those us who were not materially impacted by the Thomas Fire and the subsequent debris flow, I’m guessing that it will be hard to know exactly how these events have marked and wounded us on the inside. What I do know is that there are two evacuation bags that I couldn’t get myself to unpack when I returned from the Thomas fire evacuation, and that have remained unpacked and ready to go at the next evacuation. What I do know is that I’ve formalized our family’s evacuation packing list and that I’ve gotten over feeling silly for having my favorite slippers on the list. What I do know is that our children are getting pretty good at packing two days’ worth of clothes and cherished keepsakes, and I’m not sure if I should be happy about that fact. What I do know is that it is trying to explain to my East Coast parents–experienced veterans of countless winter snowstorms and icy roads—why we are again leaving our house because of a few inches of rain, and why we will probably keep leaving for the next couple years. And finally, what I do know is that it is trying not because of who my parents are, but because I find myself holding back tears each time I re-explain it to them and it becomes clear to me that I am still needing to explain it to myself.

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I really feel bad saying so, but I confess that the rhetorical assertions about our community’s strength and resilience fail to move me towards the hope I know they are intended to instill. Instead, to my perhaps overly-developed Gen X cynicism, they ring hollow and, in my lesser moments, even stoke an impulse to cuss. I hear them as feeble attempts to whistle in the dark when what I really want is a shoulder to cry on and a Sherpa guide who knows how to carry my burdens, teach me how to forage and live with what I’ve got, and show me the way through this uninhabitable land.

And anyone who has lived long enough knows this to be true: the hits just keep on coming. Cities are bombed to a rubble; daughters are kidnapped by terrorists for going to school; basic services fail to get restored in hurricane-ravaged islands; parents live in fear of being deported and taken away from their children; American schools are common sites of threats and mass shootings; and, with each new police shooting and subsequent court decision, justice for black men and women continues to elude.

In the end of the day, when it feels like we are confronted with a multi-headed opponent who has been cruelly commanded to “sweep the leg,” sentiment has a short shelf-life, anger is exhausting, and cheerfulness is tiresome. Apart from the practical solutions that need to get worked out, I think we just want someone to help get us through the fearful darkness and the waiting for the unknown.

So, as the Lenten season draws to a close and Christians around the world practice the rituals and remembrances of Holy Week, it occurs to me that the often ignored “Holy Saturday”–the day that marks the liminal space after Jesus’ death and before His resurrection–might actually be the key to understanding the whole point of the Christian faith.

Known as the day of darkness and waiting, Holy Saturday seems to capture the state of our human condition: the condition of being indelibly marked by a suffering that pulls the existential rug out from under our feet, and our subsequent longing for a Sherpa guide to carry our burdens, teach us how to live with what we’ve got, and show us the way through this uninhabitable land. Holy Saturday enters into that longing and silently offers us a shoulder to cry on. And slowly, tenderly, if we can get ourselves out of bed the next day to see the sun rise, we might discover our Sherpa guide ready and waiting to lead us on the journey.

 

 

The Epiphany of Martha and the Magi of Myrrh

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

For years, these words of Martha have calmly laid still on the page of my Bible. However, this year, as the Gospel reading for January 4th, two days before the Feast of Epiphany and five days before the debris flowed in Montecito, these words keep interrupting my thinking at inconvenient moments and get caught in my throat, dry and bitter.

And while I still do not understand what it means that Martha, legitimately grief-stricken and raw with anger, runs out to meet with Jesus and goes on with what reads like a wonkish exchange about the doctrine of resurrection, what amazes and confounds my imagination is how she—in the midst of personal tragedy and perhaps even fighting extreme disappointment in Jesus, the trusted family friend who is inexplicably late—ends the conversation with this declaration:

“Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

What is that, but an epiphany?

Despite being deeply bound by the societal constraints of being a woman in an ancient Middle-Eastern culture, and her own predispositions towards sensibility and propriety (unlike her free-spirit sister Mary), God saw fit to give Martha the opportunity to utter these radical, blow-the-roof-off words. Her heart must have been an open mansion, ready for her Lord. Through divine insight, she was able to find her way into realizing that Jesus was the guy all those prophets had talked about, the guy who was the hinge in history who would bring both justice and mercy….and yet…the same guy who came two days later than he had to be, and the same guy who could have healed her brother and prevented all of this distress as He had for so many others in their community. Why, Lord, why?!

It is true that the Gospel of John does not leave the reader in this uncomfortable tension for long because Jesus is revealed to have his heart broken with grief and goes on to resurrect Lazarus from the dead. However, because so often we are inclined to leap to these heartwarming resolutions, despite the fact that so much of our actual lives don’t seem to manifest in quite the same tidy ways, today I want to stay in this liminal space, this space of not knowing, this space between what has already happened and what comes next. Why? Because Martha did not know how things were going to turn out when she–perhaps through gritted teeth or in trembling surrender beyond what her entire being could conceive—confessed her faith in her Lord.

Indeed, who is this God that I call ‘Lord’? Yes, I trust in a God who weeps with me in my sorrows, and yes, I pursue a God who I believe can bring life into the places of death. But, I am learning first-hand that this God is also a God whose ways are hidden and whose  paths often appear incomplete. This God does not sanitize how things are, or promise a life that reads like Whig history, ever progressing with inevitable improvement. Instead, this God appears to be a God of transformation—where waiting in liminal spaces is not only part of the deal, but the very parameters that form us.

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Sometimes, my son asks me to tell him Bible stories “from my mouth” – that is, in the oral tradition. No reading. Just good ol’ fashion story-telling. I think he was hooked after I once told him my own crazy version of Elijah’s contest against the prophets of Baal—all kitted out with goofy sound effects. Sometimes, he asks for a specific story (e.g., “tell me the one about Mordecai and Haman…”) but usually, he invites me to pick one myself–with the caveat that he prefers stories from the Old Testament because there is more action, he says. So I flip through my mind’s Rolodex of Sunday School Bible stories and inevitably I conjure a tale about Joseph or Joshua, Moses or Daniel, and the whole thing starts to sound like Hebrews 11’s list of Israelite heroes.

There are stories of people that I have failed to tell my son, though, because I do not know enough about their lives. At the end of Hebrews 11, the author regales us with an action-packed summary of all those who “through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became might in war, put foreign armies to flight.” These are the stories that my son savors.

The author then shifts gears and reminds us that there were others too—perhaps, those we would prefer to forget: “Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured…others suffered mocking and flogging…they were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy…..Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised….”

These faithful people were brought down paths that were incomplete. Things didn’t always make sense. How do I tell my son these troubling stories?  And yet, how can I not tell him their stories? For they too are part of the cloud of witnesses that are supposed to bolster us to persevere. How can I not tell him when their stories are so much more like our own—incomplete, partial, often hidden from our usual sense-making?

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In the Christian church, the season of Epiphany is rooted in celebrating the visitation of the scholarly Magi to the Christ Child. These first pilgrims, wholly unchurched and whose science of the enchanted cosmos and study of ancient prophecies led them to trek after a brilliant star across the continents, arrived seeking and bearing gifts for the King. Not knowing much about these Magi, I love imagining these three fellows on the journey, comparing the gifts they have packed. This is how I see it:

Two of the magi are feeling pretty good about what they have chosen to bring– the first has gold to represent kingship, and the second has frankincense to represent holiness. Those gifts seem like solid home runs. The third magi, however….the third magi has packed myrrh, an ointment commonly used for embalming, thereby representing death. One magi whispers: Psst, Magi #3, this is not recommended gifting material by Miss Manners. The other remaining magi rolls his eyes, “Good job, Magi #3. Way to go, man. You are a serious party pooper.”

I can’t help but wonder who the Magi of Myrrh was and what he understood. It’s easy to comprehend taking a pilgrimage to seek out the Chosen One who is supposed to unlock the mysteries of the universe. It’s another thing to doggedly pursue the chance to lay eyes on a prophesied King who, your career’s worth of studying shows, is going to need help with a respectable burial, and then have the guts to bring a present that reminds everyone about that unpleasant reality.

Magi of Myrrh, how much did you know, and how much did you not know? What was it like to travel all those miles and months, carrying your jar of myrrh, burdened with some profound sense that the Sacred One was going to die an untimely death? Did you feel like crying at inconvenient times as I do when I think about those who have been taken in an untimely way? What did your fellow magi think of you when they saw your gift? Did they know that death was foretold as well? Or did they just think you were a nut?

Magi of Myrrh, I know this is probably not how things work in JK Rowling’s world, but will you be my patronus? Help me to have courage to dwell in that liminal space of not knowing how things are going to turn out and  still show up for the arduous journey. In whatever limited understanding I may have, help me to utter as Martha did: “You are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”  Help me not be afraid of the often unbearable tension between the promises of God and life’s sorrows and losses. Help me carry my jar to the King too.

Photo #2 credit: Bochum1805, De tre vise männen (the three magi, kings from the east) (license)

 

 

The Silence of Epiphany: An Unexpected Lesson in Geology

Debris.

Having spent my childhood being carted hither and yon on the highways of NJ, I thought I knew what debris was: dirty plastic bags and forgotten dead branches lying on the side of the road, gravel and pebbles irresponsibly flying out of poorly secured dump trucks, piles of dried leaves crowding the entrance of sewer drains.

So, in the early hours of January 9th, when the local emergency text alerts warned of “debris flow” resulting from the newly scorched mountainsides to our neighborhood’s north and east, I imagined rapid streams of shrubbery, leaves, branches, and rocks cascading down and flooding narrow windy streets, and maybe dumping a couple feet of mud on someone’s property.

I had no clue that when geologists use the word “debris” they are talking about boulders. And that “debris flow” means lots of boulders essentially mud-boarding (as opposed to snow- or surf-boarding) down the mountain. No, let’s be more accurate here: actually, geologists say that the boulders “float like corks on the top of a flow” made up of water and fine sediment. (Great. That’s just great.) And then, gravity carries the flow down where it wants to go, and picks up everything natural and man-made in its path—houses, cars, trees, power lines…people— with such monumental force that it can only be caught and held tight in the arms of the sea.

I had no clue that six days before the flash flood, the local paper ran a story explaining that, after the Thomas Fire, county workers were trying to clear debris basins with the knowledge that local flooding and mudslides had followed fires in 1964, 1969, and 1971. And now, the Emergency Management director had already noticed that, “we’re starting to see gravity rock fall,” and that “one rock could close a road.”

I had no clue that a paper presented in 2001 by UCSB geologists began with “The next ‘big one’ in Santa Barbara may not be an earthquake but a boulder-carrying flood” and that significant parts of the city actually sit on top of old deposits from debris flows which “most likely occur every few thousand years.” Geologist Edward Keller had said, “If such an event were to occur again today, many homes and buildings…would be destroyed and the loss of life would be catastrophic.”

Right. So….

How do you wrap your mind around the fact that you just possibly experienced a once-in-a-few-thousand-year geological phenomenon? An occurrence that clearly exceeded what the city and its people were psychically prepared for (after being spent from the Thomas Fires), and where a lot of rocks that each “could close a road” did just that and much more, along with entirely cutting off access for two entire weeks on California’s major thoroughfare – Highway 101 –and transforming into an breathtaking vision reminiscent of a Louisiana bayou? And this is all without even beginning to account for the thousands of displaced persons—many of whom had to be rescued from their homes by the National Guard by helicopter or military vehicles, hundreds of damaged or destroyed houses, and the unspeakable horror that visited over a dozen families as their loved ones were taken from them and lost that night.

What can we utter, but silence?

***

And then, if you dared to keep pushing the logic of our damaged earth forward, to tremblingly realize that another mountain tsunami could actually happen again? That is, not in a few thousand years, but rather when the next major storm hits.

OK. (Bartender, another glass of silence, please.) I think I might need to just bracket that thought for now.

***

A local blog post began, “Montecito is now a quarry with houses in it.” For a neighborhood known for its lush green lawns and paradisiac views even in the deepest of droughts, this is a devastating observation. And now that the roads are mostly cleared and residents are being allowed back to their homes, our community is staring at a considerable Goliath. Apparently, 2 million cubic yards of mud and rock landed where it shouldn’t have. The local paper soberly reports that 90% of that debris load remains on private property. And, currently, since the County and the Army Corps of Engineers’ cleanup efforts do not include private property, there is no existing plan for how to remove this debris.

Oh.

When I am out and about in the unaffected parts of town these days, I see with new eyes the large rocks and boulders on the sides of roads, in parks, on trails, next to houses. I can’t help but ask the geological question: what story could that boulder tell of how it ended up there?

As human beings, we like to think of ourselves as many things. Homo sapiens. Homo ludens. For scholars—especially social theorists and philosophers –the list goes on. For those who live in Montecito, it looks like we are about to become very acquainted with the rock-moving part of our species: Homo movens petram.

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A prayer was offered by the Jesuits for the people of Japan following the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011. In some small but real way, it seems we, who bear witness to what has happened in Montecito, are in fellowship with their suffering. Perhaps then, this prayer belongs to us too:

Most merciful and compassionate God,
Giver of Life and Love,
hear our prayers
and let our cries come unto you.
We weep with your people
We hear the cries of orphaned children and laments of bereaved parents
We feel the desperation of those searching for loved ones
We behold the silence of vanished villages.
We see the devastation.
We are overwhelmed by the enormity of it all.
Our hearts are hushed, our minds are numb.
Let not our hands be stopped, our voices dumb.
God of the universe,
Open our hearts to feel your compassion
Galvanize in us the act of continued giving
Bond us to our sisters and brothers in need
Comfort and heal the injured, the bereaved, the lost
Strengthen the aid workers and medical personnel
Bolster the resolve of governments and those with power to help
Open through this tragedy pathways to partnerships and peace
In Your Name of mercy and healing and compassion we pray.

Fourth Sunday: Johnny, Mary, and a Wreath

Every year it’s been the same. By the Fourth Sunday of Advent, a homemade wreath stands on our dinner table, festooned with candles. But, rather than looking grand and stately, expressing a sense of the royalty it is meant to represent, it has begun to look a bit ragged and dried out. (Not unlike this year’s notorious Christmas tree in Rome, affectionately dubbed “Spelacchio “ aka “The Mangy One.”) Indeed, the stalks of rosemary that typically compose our wreath become desiccated, and the candles are a sorry rag-tag crew standing at uneven heights. Everything about our wreath by Fourth Sunday looks tired.

The exhausted state of our wreath usually has felt a bit of an embarrassment, and I often run out to the garden and snip a fresh batch of rosemary to assemble Wreath 2.0. But this year, as I think about our poor ol’ wreath, unlit and unceremoniously left behind when we evacuated in a panic two weeks ago, I actually find it to be less of an embarrassment, and more of a comfort to ponder the possibility that the people through whom God chooses to live and bring His Revelation to this wretched and suffering world…those people may be far more kindred in spirit to our tired Fourth Sunday wreath than the First Sunday iteration in all its pertness and promise.

*****

Every once in a while, I read a book that I am completely smitten by. The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine is one of those books. A new and recent find in the children’s section of public libraries, it is a book rooted in scraps of an unfinished story by Mark Twain, that is gently but assuredly brought to new life by Philip and Erin Stead (respective author and illustrator of the Caldecott Award-winning A Sick Day for Amos McGee, itself a gem!). The result is a poignant, outlandish, and at times wickedly humorous tale about a boy named Johnny whose life’s main feature is misfortune (he makes Charlie Brown seem like Richie Rich) and whose one friend in all the world is a mangy old chicken called ‘Pestilence and Famine.’ When all appears to be more lost and limp than usual, Johnny meets an old woman who begs for alms and to whom he confesses that he has nothing to give, but offers up his one-and-only friend. This purest act of kindness is received and exchanged for a promise of fulfillment that ends up reaching far beyond Johnny’s, and even the reader’s, imagination. What is most intriguing is that the rare tenderness of this tale is actually searing to the conscience. It is a laser beam that cuts through the crass and pathetic struggles for power we daily witness in our world and reveals all in the light of what is true. For the magic of the story is not in the actual miracle that the old woman interjects to turn things around, but rather in the realization of the remarkable expanse that is found in Johnny’s heart.

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Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

This Collect, or collective prayer, for the Fourth Sunday in Advent elicits an aspirational image of architecture that raises a couple hard questions: How do we become people whose Interior is a mansion prepared for Jesus Christ? What if our Interior right now feels closer to being a one-room apartment with a galley kitchen rather than the 12-bedroom Mediterranean villa with infinity pool that is Johnny’s?

*****

In the Gospel reading for the final Sunday of Advent, St. Luke recounts a dialogue between the most-prestigious-of-God’s-messengers Gabriel and the until-now-nobody Mary. It is a dialogue whose outcome is as unlikely as the redeemed fate of Johnny:

“…The Lord is with you.”

But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered….

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God….”

“How can this be…?”

“…Nothing will be impossible with God.”

“Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Again, the real magic in this exchange is not in the unexpected chosenness of Mary (though that alone provides plenty to meditate on), but rather the fact that, when Gabriel shows up, he finds in Mary a person who is already mansion-ready on the inside.

*****

On this last day of Advent, I think of the people of Puerto Rico who remain hungry and without electricity.  I think of their loved ones and so many of their young people who relocated to the mainland, whose hearts ache for their island and their families left behind. I think of the countless refugees who have fled their homes and cities, and remain stuck in detention centers with no control over what will happen next. I think of local Hispanic families and communities whose lives feel strangled by the fear and threat of deportation. I think of my Ventura County neighbors who have lost their homes to the same fire that came within hundreds of yards of consuming mine.

I imagine their circumstances–as much as my limited experience can extend me, and I nervously ponder how nearly the Thomas Fires came to forcing my family and me to taking a small sip from their cup of suffering. (Though, even during our evacuation, having the privileges of family and resources to lean into–and having multiple days to prepare and anticipate the fires– always meant that we were being buffered from a level of forlorn existence that is the reality for so many.)

And while, in the months to come, I will surely be working out what lessons and carols I am to learn and sing from our experience of the Thomas Fire, I have begun to wonder this: Who is it that God chooses to draw near to? Who are the people who have found favor with God? Who are the people whose Interior is already on the sure road to becoming a mansion prepared for the coming of their Lord?

It seems that they are not necessarily who we, or much of the world, tend to think of, or who are noted as such. Quite frankly, they probably are persons who are not even on our radars. Not on anyone‘s radar. Perhaps they are among those we have forgotten– in Puerto Rico, in detention centers, in shelters. Perhaps they are Mary called to live into the Impossible. Perhaps they are Johnny whose only friend is Pestilence and Famine.

For those of us buffered from drinking of the cup, do we dare to enter their stories so that our lives might become intertwined, and maybe gradually, there might be a chance of a mansion being found in us, prepared for our Lord?

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Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

NOTE TO READERS:

Thanks for walking through Advent 2017 with me.

A lot of unexpected business this Advent.

All evacuations in Santa Barbara County were lifted this past Wednesday. Thanks be to God.

Third Sunday: The Coming of the Thomas Fire

*This blog post was largely composed between the evacuation days of December 12-15, 2017. It is being posted on the morning of December 16 as the fires tumble over protective ridges and threatens to bear down on our neighborhood. This post is dedicated to the firefighters on the line, the residents of SB County who have not left (or can not leave), and the Las Barrancas neighborhood diaspora. We watch and we wait; our eyes look to the Lord our God, until he shows us his mercy.

***

a garland instead of ashes

Garlands are quite pleasant to imagine. A hand-made ring of white wild flowers circling a young child’s head as they meander through the meadow. A crown of luscious blooms riding majestically above a bride or groom’s temples. Garlands, oh garlands! They are contented sighs in the lovely form of petals.

But, Exhibit A this week contains not garlands, but ashes.

Ashes from the smoky grip of the Thomas Fire that lays waste not only the chaparral plants and drought-dried landscape, but also the storied views and fresh air of the South Coast horizon. Ashes that dust the driveway like rancid powdered sugar. Ashes that drop out of the mustard-yellow sky like snowflakes distorted by evil serum. Ashes that cling to the wings of backyard birds. Ashes that swirl into our car and tumble into the trunk as we try to escape– at first, for a brief respite after being stuck in our house for three days; then once again, when we dash out to the public library to pick up N95 masks; and, yet once more, as we load up the car with boxes and bags packed in a state of measured panic after a restless night of evacuation notices that keep rolling closer. The imminent threat of flames fueled in turns by the wind and my fears are reified by the accelerating rate of the county’s text alerts. And, as I try to force myself to eat a bowl of cereal on Sunday morning, what I feel in the pit of my stomach is what I know I must fight: a growing pile of ashes.

***

the oil of gladness instead of mourning

I had imagined it, but I confess that I half did not believe that we would actually do it. We drove away. We left closets and dressers full of clothes, shelves of beloved books and memories, pantries full of food and a garage filled with belongings from floor to ceiling. “All stocked for what and for when?” I wondered as I sat in the car checking over my mental lists. “Perhaps for nothing and for never,” I thought, as we drove away with two cars, three suitcases, two boxes, each of us with a backpack in tow.

Evacuation is a beastly mental game for us planner-types. Unlike illness or death–both of whose ultimate impact comes upon our lives like a brutal but direct knife stab to the gut–evacuation of this sort is the exact opposite of a clean break. In one moment, I need to pep talk myself into being prepared for the worst–where I lose every material thing that I don’t now have in the trunk of my car. But in the very next moment, I need to be just as prepared for the best–that my house and neighborhood will come through intact, and that I will shoulder the odd obligation to return to some semblance of normal.

Is this why Lot’s wife turned around to cast one last gaze at her home? Was her monkey mind darting from vine to vine like mine? Do I have the willpower to keep my gaze on what lies ahead–to trust in the God who promises to bring me to safe open places–and not wonder about what we left behind? Oh that I might be saved from my propensity for arriving at an untimely & (un?)savory end and to be doused by an oil jug of gladness…

***

the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit

It’s not every day that going to the hotel pool is a God thing. Two firefighters sat relaxing in the whirlpool and shooting the breeze with my husband. They chatted casually about the strategies for fighting the Thomas Fire. They explained how they work 24-hour shifts on the fire line. One of them lived less than two miles away from the hotel, but hadn’t been home for two weeks. They chuckled over getting Christmas shopping done in time. When they packed up to leave, I shyly thanked them for doing the work that they do. With a mildly sheepish smile on their faces, they politely said, “You’re welcome,” as if their grandmothers had told them that was the proper thing to do.

There was something about being in the presence of these two firefighters who had seen with their own eyes the fire that I fear, breathed in the acrid smoke that smells like death, and heard with their own ears the marching orders that were being executed to save my community. Their presence seemed sacramental at the moment: ordinary guys who were visible signs of invisible grace, God’s living and loving presence in our lives. And here they were–relaxing by the pool. I honestly don’t know why, but it lifted my spirit to see them and to know that they were resting. Their rest and their smiles bolstered me inside; it felt possible to turn in my faint spirit for a mantle of praise. I felt able to stretch out my arms and receive my daily portion of manna–a healing image of what it is that falls from the sky.

***

We watch and we wait; our eyes look to the Lord our God, until he shows us his mercy.

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn….to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. (Isaiah 61:1-3 )

 

 

Second Sunday: Under the Duress of Fire

With so much bad news in the airwaves these days, we all long for good news. Yet, not only has my expectation for good news diminished as I’ve grown older, but so has my standard for what constitutes “good news” at all.  With the season of Advent upon us, I’ve been wondering: what turn of events, or proclamation of a new reality, would constitute “good news” or “good tidings” as the Scriptures say? And what can I realistically hope for?

Get you up to the high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’  (Isaiah 40:9)

Having been nurtured and protected within secure boundaries of wealth and health, when I have read about Jesus proclaiming “the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness,” I feel glad for those who need the healing, but do not tend to take in the good news as being for me. I do not see myself being jostled in that crowd that Jesus, “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” as St. Matthew put it.

But, having this year to be still and to reflect, I see that I am actually of a people who–despite our enjoyment of career successes and relative affluence–are “harassed and helpless” on a daily basis. We wake up tired, rush ourselves and our loved ones out the door to work and school, and then rush ourselves back home to eat, work more, and then collapse in bed. We do this day in, day out, against the backdrop of first-world moral burdens: expectations to consume ethically, reduce our carbon footprint, stay fit, tend to the needs of our local, national, and global neighbor–all of this and more. And this is without even taking into account the internal vexing we negotiate when confronted with the historically entrenched morass that is our daily national experience of increasingly contested moral demands, intractable reflexes of physical and psychological violence, and hardened systems of injustice. Indeed, “harassed and helpless,” we try to perform “normal” when we are in public, and, in private, we abdicate our responsibilities for a few hours, indulging in the creature comforts of our lifestyle choices, the fruits of our long investments in education, career, or family.

The only difference I see now between myself and the crowd that Jesus loved on, is that the crowd knew that they were in need and were ready for some loving. Me, my vision is shrouded by a defensive wall of blindness.

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. (Mark 1: 4-5)

ThomasFire2017

Knowing that our neighbors of Ventura and Carpinteria are under evacuation and at the mercy of yet-uncontrolled wildfires, seeing images of glowing night fire engulfing roads that we have become acquainted with and bearing down the hills of Highway 101 towards the ocean, feeling that low-grade anxiety as I drift off to sleep and my mind wonders if the winds will bring the fires over our hills…the collective force of it all has a sobering effect on the soul. To know that you simply can’t pick up your house and all of your life’s possessions and protect it from being consumed by flames, you begin to see all of your belongings–all your self-sufficiency–in a peculiar light, like the odd sky and pink sun produced by the smoke-filled air.

I find that the anxiety that this wildfire is producing in me a curious form of judgment, a measure of how tethered I am to the things I have collected and set my personal sense of achievement and security in. To know that it can all go up in flames, to know that we may need to simply drive away from it, leaving it to meet sure destruction– what would it be like to experience a certain degree of freedom when confronted with that reality? To trust that, even when that happens, we are being ushered towards the arms of God? What is it to taste such a freedom? Is that taste the stuff of ‘good news’?

Could it be that the redemption of such a disaster, to be painfully endured on the level of the personal, may also be scalable upward to the societal level where our collective indifference to inequalities and violence–within our racialized, gendered, and class-based interactions–have led to a shared reality that is the equivalent of a fire-ravaged landscape? Could it possibly be?

If the promise of redemption is actually true, then there is some seriously good news to take in here, folks. But, the question quickly becomes: How do we bridge the gap between the promise and our present reality? Where do we begin?

See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him….He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep. (Isaiah 40:10, 11)