Launch Party on St Paddy’s

Posted: March 18, 2019 in Uncategorized

A huge crowd descended on the General Store in Rocheport, Missouri on St Paddy’s Day for the book launch of Neither Here nor There: The Many Voices of Liminality (now on Amazon). Irish music, libations, food and fun shaped the gathering – as did the presentation of the book, which has now entered the world!


The slaughter of worshipers in their houses of worship is nothing unique to New Zealand. The United States sets the pace on that peculiar atrocity. In the Middle East it is a favorite tactic among Muslims to inflict pain by bombing or shooting up their rival’s mosque. For sociopaths, there must be some perverse sport in shooting down people as they pray. Especially if you have branded their religion as false, a menace, or a blight on the planet.

This morning our pastor provided a brilliant analogy. When the shooter in Christchurch, New Zealand, crashed into the Mosque and slaughtered its worshipers it was like a hurricane hitting shore. Its peculiar evil hit with particular and immediate effect. But it didn’t start that way. No, long before the hurricane breached land it had been forming out over the ocean as a storm system. The system is what made the hurricane what it was.

The system that formed over the chaos of the deep was a deadly combination of just the right elements – heat, moisture, wind, ocean currents, colliding fronts. And for New Zealand as well as for anywhere else, the system that first formed over the ocean included white supremacy, fear, hatred of the other, an ideology that includes the idea that others have less value, and powerful influences that travel like viruses. That storm system brewed and developed long before striking land.  But when it did it came with terrible force.

What we face today are the powers and principalities of this world, forces that consolidate and show themselves with a very particular hatred and violence. When they do, we must be willing to bind up the wounds of all those afflicted. But beyond repairing the damage we all must speak to, address, and drain the storm systems of their accumulating power.  That is the prophetic task. Which means that there is much, much more to do than simply gazing passively toward the horizon and saying, “I think we’re in for another big one.”

You’re Next

Posted: March 17, 2019 in Uncategorized

I once had a work colleague who took extreme relish in disparaging my predecessor. He showed no little contempt in the way he regarded him. At the time I was tempted to think, “Well, that was that guy, but I’m different. He’ll like and respect me.” No, such was not the case. I got the same treatment as he undermined everything I was doing.

What is the case is that the people who discount and defame the ones who preceded you will do the same thing to you. And then to the person who comes after you. It’s a pattern. They are the problem.

I remember during graduate school serving as an intern in a large church not too far from the seminary. A small little man – let’s call him Bob – told stories of how his father destroyed the minister during his time. Bob laughed as he told it. And then Bob went about trying to do the same to my supervisor, a well-respected and long-serving person who Bob would not be qualified to untie the thong of his sandals. It’s even generational.

So think twice: When you hear language and watch behavior that tears down the people who came before you, know that there is probably more at work than meets the eye. Don’t get paranoid, but don’t be vain or proud, imagining that such things cannot happen to you. What you can do is never, never hop on the criticism bandwagon to tear down the one who preceded you. Don’t do it.

Because you’re next.

Einstein's FieldThough Albert Einstein was certainly not religious in any traditional or doctrinaire way, not subscribing to notions of God from classical theism, he nevertheless had a vivid appreciation for the great mystery at the heart of all things. Whether one believes in “God” has to do with the kind of God being described. If God is described in one way I may have no choice but to be an atheist. But if described in another way I may have already believed for the longest time.

One evening in Berlin as Einstein and his wife attended a dinner party one of the guests stated that a belief in God was impossible. To that Einstein replied

“Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in fact, religious.”

(Charles Kessler, ed., The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler, NY: Grove Press, 2002, p. 322)

ash-wednesday-6For forty years in a row I have observed the Christian day of Ash Wednesday. I created a black paste made from the burned palms from the previous Holy Week and olive oil and smeared it on hundreds of foreheads and hands in the sign of the cross. I received and wore them myself. We recited words from the Psalms that encouraged repentance and assured forgiveness. The bells of mortality were sounded as well as the chimes of brokenness, sin and separation. Ash Wednesday is unvarnished truth-telling. Even practicing Christians avoid it like the plague. If you want to build a crowd don’t expect to do it on Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of Lent. Unless you are a Catholic and Ash Wednesday is one of your “days of obligation” expect a few, not many.

I have personally treasured Ash Wednesday and promoted it wherever I happened to be serving. But this year – not needing to promote anything or participate in anything I don’t choose – I’m passing. I’m opting out not because I don’t think it is a helpful Christian observance any more, not because I am giving up it up for Lent. In fact, I may very well resume the practice next year. But today I am staying home for other reasons.

First, it’s good to not do something that is presented as necessary for living the Christian life. This is not just rebellion, shaking a clenched fist at the system. No, it is a reminder: The validity of your life, your faith, your destiny does not ride on rituals. So don’t do them ever so often just to make sure you haven’t formed some false reliance. Even though I don’t receive the ashes today God and I will move along swimmingly. I will meditate on my mortality, repent and make amends and turn around in the direction I should be going at other times, just not this day. Ash Wednesday was created for humanity, not humanity for Ash Wednesday.

Second, not participating in the Christian high holy days once in a while also reminds us that their scheduling is arbitrary. In the main I actually think there is something valuable to dramatizing the Christian tradition in a narrative, a sequence, seasons layered one upon another to tell a grand story. At the same time we have to remember that the church year has also been chopped up into seasons primarily to set Christian observances over the pagan ones that preceded them. So Christmas upstages the winter solstice and Easter the spring equinox. And that’s just a sample of holy days designed to cover up pagan ones. The list is long. The whole church year is a contrivance. Not a bad one, but a contrivance none the less. Sometimes it is important to welcome the coming of spring and nature’s rebirth after winter without overlaying it with a season like Lent that is all about introspection and marching to Jerusalem and the cross. You can march to Jerusalem some other time.

If it were up to me I would redesign the whole thing. But twenty centuries of tradition always wins that debate – even if the church is in a long, spiraling decline. By all means, let’s keep doing the traditions and practicing the rituals in the same ways even if they no longer work!

If I had the chief’s conch shell and had the authority to sound a new beginning it might look something like this:

We don’t have public worship every Sunday. Instead, people attend weekly home meals, speak of their lives, talk about God. Make it multi-generational. Always share the Lord’s table whenever we gather. In fact, the actual meal is the Lord’s Table and everyone is invited to participate. We all engage in service that heals the world around us. Some of that we do on our own and some of that we do together.

We baptize one another when the time is right – not just at certain times of the year – but whenever people feel the call, no matter what age they are. Mentors and loving friends lead people in practicing the Christian life.

We plan four “festival” celebrations a year, conveniently oriented to the seasons, if indeed the place in which you live has seasons. Abandon the common lectionary and choose our own texts and themes that match. Employ every resource and artistic medium available:

  • In the Winter keep the “Festival of Incarnation” where it is, Christmas, a season of light in the darkness. Incarnation works well here. If you want to lead up to it with a season of anticipation like Advent, go ahead. But do that in home groups with the lighting of the Advent candles at each gathering. In fact, make that the substance of your home gatherings.
  • In the Spring have a “Festival of Creation.” Talk about the unfolding Christian life. Tell all the parables of Jesus. Talk about spiritual formation. The relationship to the natural world. Assume spiritual disciplines. Make a growth plan. Talk about original grace, the goodness of creation. The mind/body/spirit unity and connection to every created being.
  • In the Summer have a “Festival of Resurrection.” Host a Holy Week retreat/pilgrimage and tell the story of Jesus’ prophetic actions, his critique of the religious and political system of his day, his suffering, trial, farewell and martyr’s sacrifice of love. Walk the people of God through the tomb on the way to a life in which God’s love always triumphs. Build a campfire, smear the soot on foreheads and remind ourselves that everything dies. And everything lives.
  • In the Fall have a “Festival of Harvest” in which we focus on the fruit of the Christian life – mission, service, compassion, social action, prophetic presence. An in-gathering of the spirit. Gather the generations of the church together and celebrate maturation and realization. Let it be a homecoming. Give thanks.

That’s it. Keep it simple. Host four common festival gatherings a year, everyone together. Live most of shared Christian life on a week-to-week basis around tables in homes. Celebrate the mission that is happening in the world individually and collectively. Discard all the secondary things. Design a community of faith for the 21st century not the 19th century. Embrace the freedom. Breathe the oxygen.

So, no ashes for me this year. I will pray for those for whom this will be deeply moving. But I will be meditating on melting snow and the way hardened hearts melt as well. I will contemplate the invisible new birth that is slumbering just under that white, taunt surface, poised and waiting to launch hope into a world sorely in need of it.

When a person attends a documentary film festival with the breadth of True/False it is 1) impossible to catch all the films, and 2) hard to rank them. They are hard to rank because they all deal with different subjects and contain very different backgrounds. But some do stand out. One did for me this year.

Island of Hungry Ghosts is the portrait of Christmas Island – off the coast of Australia – and the interweaving liminalities inside its coastline. The island itself has only recently been inhabited by humans, for only a century or so. Its very location lends itself to liminal status. But what happens there makes it even more so and director Gabrielle Brady will not let us miss it.

The migration of the red crabs is a phenomenon which is embraced and recognized by the whole island. Humans watch and even assist the great passage  of the crabs from land to sea and the laying of eggs. As the crabs continue their cyclical trek other things are happening. They bring a luster of timelessness to unfolding and cyclical creation. They have been here before us and will most likely be here after us.

The Chinese continue to assist the ghosts of their ancestors who never received a proper burial. The spirits are lost, caught in-between, souls that never received a proper send off. Many of the past immigrants came alone, leaving family behind, and became more or less indentured slaves, an involuntary permanent liminality from which they could not pass. Today their descendants strive to assist them on their way with prayers, rituals and chants.

Therapist Poh Lin Lee moved to the island to assist in providing counsel to the traumatized. Her clients are international immigrants to Australia who have been separated from their families and moved from one “dark” detention to center to another, Christmas island being one of them. She struggles to provide help as she watches the trauma inflicted by a cruel detention tear her clients down faster than she can help them heal. And eventually she comes to the conclusion that she can no longer be complicit in a system that does this to people and uses social workers and therapists to create the illusion that they are humane when they are not.

Crabs, unsettled spirits, and detainees. In transit. Stuck. Longing to be set free. Waiting to depart and arrive, to be connected – to the sea, to the place of the ancestors, to family and home wherever home can be. And we move with them in one way or another, if not through our own parallel experiences, then in the recesses of the heart, the place where we are most honest and lucid, the most conscious part of us where we know, deep down, that nothing is forever, everything changes, and the island hosts the fleeting and the forever at the same time.

The Whale Caller

Posted: February 22, 2019 in Uncategorized
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Whale Caller CoverI was recently reading an anthology of liminality in literature from South Africa (Beyond the Threshold: Explorations of Liminality in Literature) and one of the authors lifted up the novella by Zakes Mda entitled The Whale Caller. Mda now splits his time between Johannesburg, South Africa, and Athens, Ohio where he is a professor of creative writing at Ohio University.

The Whale Caller positions its characters and plot at the edge of every conceivable boundary. The main character, who only goes by The Whale Caller, is in love with a great Southern whale, Sharisha, and he dances and plays his kelp horn for her at the tip of the peninsula. In addition, The Whale Caller has a woman friend who is the town drunk, Saluni, and they maintain an on-again, off-again relationship of misfits on the edge of passion and madness. One of their problems is the great jealousy of Saluni toward the whale of her mate’s affection.

The story takes place at the boundary of the land and the sea, a space between human and sea creatures. It also takes place at a cultural threshold as The Whale Caller and Saluni are both positioned in the margins of their society. And the wisdom of the Whale Caller often surpasses the consumerism of so-called successful society, challenging our assumptions about what is and is not the good life.

Elegant in its simplicity, The Whale Caller creates clarity through the very edges it inhabits. And for those who are curious about whales, music and their orgasms, this book is for you. Except perhaps for the ending. Which I shan’t spoil.