The Spirit of Detroit and Christian Hope

Photo by the author

Statue informally known as the “Spirit of Detroit,” by Marshall Fredericks. The sculpture sits outside the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center at Woodward and Jefferson Aves. Photo by the author.

The Detroit city motto has become better known in recent years, thanks to the proliferation of books—about the city’s history, and, yes, about the ruins, by authors who live in the Metro Area and love the city—and of merchandise such as bookbags, t-shirts, postcards, and other items you might find at City Bird, the Detroit Merchantile Company, Pure Detroit, various Eastern Market vendors, pop-ups, or other local boutiques. Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus—We hope for better things; it will rise from the ashes. These words were penned by Father Gabriel Richard, a Catholic priest and a major figure in Detroit and Michigan history, after fire destroyed the city in 1805.

What does it mean to “hope for better things”? Is it the same kind of hope as when children hope for a snow day, or when you hope your favorite team will win the game?

I think the fact that it was written by a priest in the context of city-wide disaster suggests that Fr. Richard was thinking more along the lines of Christian hope, which I would define as the confidence we have in virtue of our trust in God, whom we know to be trustworthy. That’s a very different kind of hope.

Which is well and good and quite encouraging, really, for Christians, and perhaps for other religious theists. But in today’s pluralistic context, even in a predominately Christian city like Detroit, I think it’s important to find where a similar kind of hope is accessible to all.

Confidence from trusting in that which is trustworthy—where can we find that today? Not in City Hall, not in Kevyn Orr or Gov. Rick Snyder, not in Dan Gilbert or the Ilich family; not in the economy, certainly not in the strength of the U.S. Dollar. Not even in the ideal of democracy, which is so clearly broken. I would suggest we find that secular version of confident hope in the people of Detroit: in its people of good will, whose civic identity and spirit, I think, is characterized by strength, loyalty, pride, and resilience. “Detroit hustles harder,” as they say.

The religious meaning of hope is, I think, primary; but it’s important even for those of us who consciously place our trust in God to also discriminate among those objectives vying for our hope in the world around us. We’re fooling ourselves if we think we place our trust in God, and also place it in an earthly savior, such as a corporate benefactor or a politician. We’re fooling ourselves if we think we “seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness” but also chase after economic security before all else. But for people of faith, hoping in God is always done in community, as community. Jews, Christians, and Muslims are people of covenant. We believe God calls peoples into covenant with Godself, and so we simply cannot fully trust in God without each other. To trust in the human spirit—in this case, the spirit of Detroit—requires civic engagement, concern for one’s neighbor, and holding virtues like charity, commitment, and forgiveness above the shiny distraction of money. It requires creativity, sharing, peacemaking, and hard work—but not just the individualistic hard work of earning one’s own living. It is entirely congruent, I think, with trust in God, because God’s dwelling is among the people. (If you don’t believe me, go read James Cone or Jim Perkinson, or any of the Liberation Theologians.) If we are to trust in one another, though, we must work, as a people, to be trustworthy—to be worthy of this confident hope. Thankfully, we bear this task together.What kind of city do we want to build? What Detroit do we want to be?

Official city seal. Photo by the author.

Official city seal, also at city hall (visible on the upper left in the image above). Photo by the author.

The LORD brings the will of the nations to naught;
he thwarts the designs of the peoples.

But the LORD’S will stands fast for ever,
and the designs of his heart from age to age.

Happy is the nation whose God is the LORD!
happy the people he has chosen to be his own!

The LORD looks down from heaven,
and beholds all the people in the world.

From where he sits enthroned he turns his gaze
on all who dwell on the earth.

He fashions all the hearts of them
and understands all their works.

There is no king that can be saved by a mighty army;
a strong man is not delivered by his great strength.

The horse is a vain hope for deliverance;
for all its strength it cannot save.

Behold, the eye of the LORD is upon those who fear him,
on those who wait upon his love,

To pluck their lives from death,
and to feed them in time of famine.

Our soul waits for the LORD;
he is our help and our shield.

Indeed, our heart rejoices in him,
for in his holy Name we put our trust.

Let your loving-kindness, O LORD, be upon us,
as we have put our trust in you.

(Psalm 33:10-22, BCP)

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Christmas and Martyrdom: St. Stephen’s Day

Happy second day of Christmas! And happy St. Stephen’s Day.

Icon of St. Stephen.

Icon of St. Stephen.

St. Stephen was the first Christian martyr. He was also a deacon, one of seven chosen and ordained by the twelve Apostles to serve those in need. He also preached and “worked wonders,” which made him some very powerful enemies. Accused of blasphemy, he was stoned to death. You can read his full story in Acts chapters 6-7. Today, the Church commemorates him, and, in particular, his violent end.

It’s the day after Christmas, the second of the twelve days of Christmas. We’ve just welcomed the Christ child, marveled at the mystery of God becoming human. Most of us have domestic messes to clean up—dishes, gift wrap, laundry, and so forth—and are tired but happy, full of good food, with thoughts of Mary and Joseph, angels, shepherds, and magi. Suddenly, we’re confronted with the memory of violent death: not of the babies slaughtered by Herod (that’s the day after tomorrow), but of the martyrdom of a Christian who preached Christ crucified and resurrected, and who saw, just before he died, a vision of Jesus seated at God’s right hand. That’s quite a leap in the story! It seems a strange juxtaposition.

But it’s actually what Christmas is about. Mary’s “Magnificat” had predicted that the birth of her son would turn the world upside down. The world, however, doesn’t turn upside down without a fight.

God appearing among us, in our flesh, participating in our birth and in our death, is an invitation for us to be reborn into Christ and to participate in his death. Thankfully, most of us won’t be required to face martyrdom; but we are invited to die to our selves and to our own ambitions because we are called to something better. When St. Stephen had his vision of Christ enthroned, he was seeing the end result of the Incarnation: human nature, and with it, all creation, taken into the very heart of the Triune God. In the baby Jesus, the Word of God became human. He has never stopped being human. What he is—what St. Stephen saw—is God’s design for us all: to dwell intimately with God in perfect union, not dissolved into an impersonal oneness or reabsorbed into our source, but joined to our maker in the most beautiful unity-in-diversity.

That was, in fact, the goal all along. In the Incarnation, we see that God created the cosmos in order to dwell in it and to unite it to Godself in love. The Incarnation was no “Plan B” resulting from human sin. It was God’s intention all along, the very purpose of creation. Knowing that frees us from our own little lives that end with our individual, self-shattering deaths. That freedom allowed St. Stephen not only to accept death, but to forgive those who participated in his murder in any way (among them, the future St. Paul, who guarded the coats of those doing the actual stoning).

Holy Stephen, pray for us, that we may share your vision of Christ exalted, and so gain the freedom to die to our small selves and receive with you the life of the one whose birth we continue to celebrate these twelve days of Christmas.

A brief Advent reflection

Advent’s just begun.

Ordinary Time closed with a celebration of Christ the King; now we’re waiting for that King to be born…while at the same time, looking for him to “come again in glory.” Even while Christmas preparations must be done, we hold those celebrations at bay during this strange season of remembering the eschaton and anticipating Christ’s birth 2,000-some years ago, all while continuing to meet his Real Presence in the Sacrament at every Mass we attend. Advent is “timey-wimey,” as the Doctor might put it:

Well, in the Church, we usually use the phrase, “already and not yet,” but it’s a similar idea.

The entire Church year, in fact, is like this—not just Advent. When we walk the Way of the Cross with Christ during Holy Week, we’re also busy preparing for Easter celebrations, while celebrating the Eucharist before, on, and after Maundy Thursday. We know that Christ was born, lived, died, rose again, ascended into heaven, and sent the Holy Spirit to his Church, but we mark the days of our year in ways that combine memory, anticipation, presence, longing, and participation in ways that allow us to find, afresh, our own place in the story, year after year. We sound the depths of the traditions, which have accrued and continue to grow through the centuries, and find that they echo back our own longing, fear, joy, pain, faith, doubt—whatever we might be experiencing right now. We have the opportunity to put our lives as they are this year in conversation with that story which is both historic and eternal, the story of the One who was, and is, and will be.

Blessed Advent. May the mysteries we ponder with Mary resonate in our lives throughout the coming year.

Annunciatory Angel, Fra Angelico, c. 1450-1455. Detroit Institute of Arts.

Annunciatory Angel, Fra Angelico, c. 1450-1455. Detroit Institute of Arts.

PS: I’d be remiss not to mention that today, Detroit’s application for bankruptcy protection was approved by a judge. I ask for your prayers for the city and its residents, as well as the surrounding region, and for wisdom and a spirit of servanthood in the leaders who will be hashing out a plan going forward. For more information:

USA Today’s report, which gives a general overview of today’s news on the subject.

Huffington Post’s report centering on the fate of the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collections.

The Nation’s report, which considers the really bad precedent(s) that could come out of this.

Christ the King

In 1925, Pope Pius XI introduced the feast of Christ the King, which was meant as a reminder, amid the encroachments of secularization, that Christ is our Sovereign, reigning over all peoples in all places and all times—indeed, over all creation.

Such a small vision, really.

True, it’s a step beyond the old nationalistic thinking—prevalent in antiquity (according to the biblical record, at least)—that pits one people’s god against another people’s god to see which god wins. The winning god, of course, is determined through the spilling of human blood.

But with several millennia of monotheism under our belt, we know better than to think there are different gods backing different peoples and prodding them into war. We’re a little better than that. A little. The confession that Christ is King ought to help us see our unity under the one and only Lord, but instead, we want to test which of us the one Lord really favors. We want to use Christ the King to conquer our enemies and to put others in their place. If Christ is King the way human kings are king, then he might be swayed by our deference, our flattery, our lip-service, or even our genuine loyalty and obedience. As God, he’s the biggest, baddest king of them all, so we know we’re on the winning side, if we tactfully side with him:

Such a tiny, tiny vision.

Many today are uncomfortable with the language of saying that Christ is “King” or Jesus is “Lord,” and with good reason. Those words represent the kind of earthly power that Christians are being called to relinquish. Calling Jesus “King” or “Lord” can easily be misused to re-shape Christ into the image of Caesar. It has historically been used to justify social hierarchies in which the rich dominated the poor, men dominated women, clerics dominated the laity, and whites dominated people of color. These dominations and others, as we know, are still going on.

But the Gospel writers intended a much more revolutionary meaning when they said, “Jesus is Lord”—even more than the simple fact that if Jesus is Lord, Caesar isn’t. John, in particular, spelled out the insane Christian claim that the Cross of Christ is his throne, that true power is seen in self-emptying. Jesus wasn’t going to take over Caesar’s office, but rather to reveal that office’s inadequacy—irrelevancy, even. This is one of those radical reversals we find throughout Scripture. What on earth would Jesus even do with Caesar’s supposed power? It would be like a surgical nurse handing a neurosurgeon an AK-47. Or a fish.

To assert that Christ is King, or that Jesus is Lord, is to say that Kingship looks like Christ, not the other way around. Lordship looks like Jesus: it is cruciform. It takes the form of a servant. True power lays down its life and welcomes vulnerability. In the video clip above, the character of Jesus in the film, Jesus Christ Superstar, tells the crowd of his followers (in the Twitter sense—fans, really) that they don’t know what power is; that true power comes through death. Or, as the Book of Common Prayer words it, Christ has “made the way of the Cross to be the way of life.”

This is liberating news for the downtrodden and marginalized, but it is terrible news for those who hold worldly power—something most of us enjoy to some degree, if we live in the developed world. Christ’s Kingship should, for most of us (think the “99%”) be both comforting and unsettling: comforting, because we know that the powers of this world, which too often subjugate us, cannot claim ultimate victory; but unsettling, because in order to be fit for the reign of Christ, we will need to unlearn many habits. Habits that we like very much.

Habits like acquiring cheap consumer goods, the production of which most likely polluted the earth and quite possibly enslaved some worker somewhere (maybe even a child). Habits like demanding our own rights but neglecting the rights of others, or holding on to privileges we obtained through no real fault of our own. Habits like putting ourselves, or our own families, ahead of others and their families. Habits like judging others, and justifying ourselves. In other words, pretty much every habit we inherited from our pre-human ancestry. Even our good habits aren’t good enough, or they’re wrong-headed, motivated by self-interest. Christ’s self-emptying might make him seem harmless, especially when we look at a crucifix and see him nailed down where he can’t do any harm, head bowed in submission to the Father. But that self-emptying is the radical reversal of the self-interest that seems to have been one of evolution’s primary engines. Christ the King threatens to unravel everything we know and trust.

The good news, though, is that Christ is King: no other power will ultimately stand against him, not even the powers that bind us in our bad habits and keep us from reaching our full human potential. Because Christ is King, we are liberated from ourselves and toward each other. Our King has conquered death, by showing us that the path through death is the way to life—so that the fears and struggles for survival that shaped us as a species and as individuals ultimately hold no true power.

In the Gospel lection this year, one of the two “thieves” (read: political troublemakers, threats to worldly “power”) who is crucified with Jesus recognizes the truth we celebrate this last Sunday before Advent. He asks Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” What a strange thing for one dying man to ask another! Especially when their deaths, according to Rome, would expose them as frauds, whose aspirations to power had been thwarted by the great power of Rome that ruled the whole world!

Yeah, no. Rome had it entirely wrong.

Worldly power rewards those who worship it and punishes those who work against it. If we imagine that Jesus is aspiring to the kind of power we humans, cousins to bonobos and chimpanzees, find alluring—the power, e.g., that destroys its enemies, rewards its cronies, and makes a name for itself—then we’re trying to shoehorn Christ the King into the worthless role of Caesar. Even worse, when we aspire to that kind of power, we are swearing our allegiance to Caesar, not Christ.

And that is such a myopic vision.

Good thing Christ is King, and we aren’t.

 

Meeting Jesus on the Street (Costs More than Taking the Bus)

Tonight, I walked home from the train station—just under a mile, in the dark—to save $2.10 on bus fare. I’m counting pennies, sorta. I’m admittedly rather lousy with money, and, according to my math, my earnings over the next year won’t…quite…cover my expenses, which are pared down as much as they can be. So I feel the need to hang onto any money I can…except that on another level, I don’t really feel it. This is the time of year I earn the most. I feel like I have the amount I actually have in the bank, not like I have to squirrel away whatever I can for when it’s needed in a few months.

So I walked home in the dark to save $2.10 bus fare, because I discovered (while doing the aforementioned math) that I spend a lot more on transit than I’d realized – more than the $85 in pre-tax transit dollars I purchase each month.

But on that walk, just under a mile, I wound up giving away all $9 I had left on me to three different beggars.

Oops.

Except, not oops. These were beautiful people made in God’s image who asked me for help. How could I say no? Sure, spread out over the course of a year, I don’t have enough to be giving money away. But right now I do, and right now, that woman was standing in front of me, wrapped in a blanket, asking for help. Or that man, hauling off something he said he would be selling tomorrow (it looked like just a wooden crate to me)—he wanted a burrito. He was the first, and I regretted giving him only $2 when I saw the real gratitude in his eyes. He sped off with his crate before I could change my mind. He was in a really good mood, I could tell.

See, the thing is, I take it seriously when I hear Jesus, in the Gospels, saying things like, “Do not refuse anyone who begs from you,” or “What you have done for the least of these, you did for me.”

Except I don’t, really, do I? If I took those sayings completely to heart, I’d be on the street begging myself, having given away the resources I do have. It might be just me, but it seems like the line between “Yes, I can afford this,” and “No, I can’t afford this” is pretty arbitrary sometimes. When I set out walking tonight, instead of springing for bus fare, I honestly felt it was a matter of what I could not afford. How, then, did I have $9 in my pocket, and how was I able to hand it to strangers on the street? Will I ever miss that $9? Would I have missed the $2.10?

I really don’t have an answer to such questions. I’m not sure I want answers. Sometimes I think struggling with these questions keeps us more honest. It would be easy to fabricate answers that would satisfy me one way or the other – most likely to allow me to say “No” to the stranger while maintaining a clean conscience. What is a comfortable answer worth, anyway? $9? $2.10? Enough to make rent in a lean month?

Knowing my penchant for saying “Yes” to the stranger who begs, I guess I should’ve known that spending the bus fare was actually the more fiscally “responsible” thing to do.

But I also get quite an emotional and spiritual lift from these encounters, that I think goes beyond just the happiness you get when you give. I’ve been struggling with depression quite a bit lately, which is part of the reason this blog has been pretty quiet. But I’ve had some very graced encounters during this time.

One was with a woman named Mac. I was walking from work to the train station—in a very depressed mood—and noticed her from half a block away. She was busy sorting through cardboard in a recycling bin, as if looking for just the right piece for such and such purpose. I felt drawn to her, so I slowed my steps until we could make eye contact. I smiled and said hi, she smiled and said hi, and at some point she asked for some money.

I had a $10 bill on me, so I gave it to her. Immediately, she started into an explanation that she was only going to spend it on food and shelter, nothing else. I told her it was none of my business what she spent it on. We proceeded to have a lovely conversation, during which she thanked me several times, told me her name, complimented my haircut (!), and at one point, kissed my hand. But we did have a real conversation about stuff (including where she goes for free haircuts), and that was what I needed: a genuine interaction with another human being. As we parted, she gave me her blessing, which I commented later that night had to be worth at least a thousand blessings from a bishop or priest. “The Lord hears the cry of the poor,” the Psalmist assures us. If that’s the case, then her blessing carries an awful lot of weight. In return—as if an exchange of precious gifts—I continue to hold her in my prayers.

A couple weeks ago or three, I was feeling so down, that as I left work and walked to the train station, I couldn’t stop crying. (This actually happens more than I’d like to admit.) In typical San Francisco fashion, or—let’s give the natives the benefit of the doubt—perhaps in typical tourist fashion,  my fellow pedestrians only ever looked through or past me, even if I managed to give them a smile or nod. There were two exceptions. One beggar tried to engage me in his cheerful sales pitch, as if he didn’t notice I was crying. I have to confess, I said no that time. Maybe that was unfair, but it had nothing to do with him, really. I needed to keep moving in order to not completely lose it in public. But I did notice that he was putting on an act that had nothing to do with the person he was speaking to. Despite the fact that he was clearly addressing me, he too looked right through or past me. I don’t hold it against him, though. He’s got a tough gig.

But then as I reached the station, there was this other man—the same man who’s been out there begging or selling the Street Sheet for all eight years I’ve been out here, but whose name I don’t know. I don’t remember if we’ve ever formally introduced ourselves; I’m not good with names, so I might have forgotten. Anyway, a couple years ago, I had a small surplus of money (more than I needed), so I gave a lot of it to him. Every time I saw him, I gave him a $5, $10, or $20—whatever I had on me. We’d have brief conversations, enough so that I know he lives in an SRO and is out begging to cover his rent and some food, and that he’s been hospitalized a few times (sometimes that’s what he tells me after he’s been missing for a while).

But this night, the night where I couldn’t stop crying, he noticed. A look of genuine concern came over his face, and he asked, “Are you alright?” He didn’t ask me for money. He just asked if I was alright, God bless him. I only managed to say, “I will be,” and walk on into the station. But his response to me meant so much, and carried me through that night. When I saw him again a week or two later, I told him how much it had meant to me, that he had seen me, and expressed concern. He needed to know that. I felt like I’d been rude just walking on like I did, so I had to be sure to tell him. We then had a conversation about stuff, as you do—about my struggling with depression lately, about his trying to move to Oakland to get away from some of the problems in “the City.” He mentioned some people who were getting violent, and he was afraid of getting beaten up. I didn’t fully understand what he was trying to say about that, but I heard the same thing from another guy last night.

The man I came across last night looked terrible. He had small scabs all over his face and neck, and his hands were black with dirt. I made eye contact and smiled, as I do with everyone I pass in the street, and he asked me for money. I gave him some. He asked then if I could, perhaps, also buy him some food. He acknowledged that it was a strange thing to ask, and offered to give back the money I’d just given him if that was an issue, and asked if I was on my way to eat dinner. “No, I’m headed to Oakland,” I said. So he asked if he could walk with me a block or two. I said yes, and we continued in conversation. I realized then that he didn’t want me to just buy him food—he wanted some companionship.

So we chatted about all kinds of things for a couple of blocks, and then stood and chatted some more. At one point, he asked my name; I told him, and asked him his, but he didn’t tell me. He said he’d shake my hand, except he had “bugs”—I’m guessing fleas or lice or something. It was considerate of him to want to protect me from catching anything. And it explained all those little scabs, probably. But he too mentioned wanting to get away from people who were violent and causing trouble. I noticed he had a bruise on one side of his face. I didn’t ask questions, I just listened. He skipped around from topic to topic, and sometimes I couldn’t figure out how he got from point A to point B, but overall, I enjoyed our conversation. I think he did too.

This is, of course, not an exhaustive list of all the encounters of this sort that I’ve had. It’s just some recent ones. I could go on quite a bit, with stories from San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Detroit, Ann Arbor… I’ve had a few mildly bad encounters, such as a very early experience in Ann Arbor, in college, when I was chased by a guy until I found a shop to duck into, or another man on State Street who, when I didn’t buy incense sticks from him, yelled very grumpy things at me. I’ve also had amusing encounters. There’s the fact that twice—once in Detroit, and once in San Francisco—I’ve had panhandlers ask me why I’m so pigeon-toed! Or the fact that I’m often called “Sir” by women in particular. But I’ve also been mugged at gunpoint, and, frankly, sometimes I’ve given a beggar cash in gratitude that they’re not demanding it from me! And isn’t this what it’s all about, the gifts we freely give each other? God’s economy is a gift economy, where everything given is received in gratitude, and everyone is gift, giftee, and giver. “Freely you have received; freely give”—that’s another thing Jesus says in the Gospel.

But we’re stuck, for now, in an economy of human devising: consumer capitalism. We’re supposed to be stingy with our cash, except when purchasing gifts, perhaps. We’re supposed to want to possess things. But not everyone can participate. The rules of the game have to exclude some in order for others to get rich. I see far too many people out begging in what is supposed to be a “land of opportunity,” and far too many people refusing to share their little bit of the American Dream. The common rhetoric tends to accuse the poor of all sorts of things, from laziness to fraud to addiction, as if we would all spend our days begging if we could, but no, “we” have compunctions. The truth is that poverty is criminalized in this country, in so many ways. These folks I meet are working hard to get by in a society that is very hostile toward them.

So I give. It’s not much. It’s nowhere what they need. They’ll continue struggling, and making do, and so will I, except I have it a lot easier, however little I may have. They are poor; I’m working class. To me, it’s about solidarity, and trying, failing, and trying again to live according to the economy of the Kingdom of God which is “already and not yet” here among us.

Among us. Not inside each of us individuals, much less possessed by us, but among us, in the synapses that connect us. If we’re ever to live fully into God’s reign, we’ve got to stick together. But it costs so much.

Wrestling with angels

Eugène Delacroix, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel

Eugène Delacroix,  Jacob Wrestling with the Angel

This past Sunday (October 20), many of us who use the Revised Common Lectionary heard the wonderful story of Jacob wrestling with the “angel”:

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. (Genesis 32.22-31, NRSV)

It’s a great story, with many possible readings. For example, I learned today that one rather ancient Rabbinic interpretation is that Jacob was wrestling with himself—his own inner demons, you might say, or his own past, or his hopes for the future. Do listen to the homily at that link; I won’t rehearse the whole thing here. But it’s intriguing to re-read the text with that interpretation in mind. “Why is it that you ask my name?” asks the mysterious man. We might imagine him continuing, “Don’t you recognize me? I’m your very self!” And it could be a therapeutic, spiritual exercise to reflect on what it might mean to not only wrestle with, but to bless oneself, and to receive that blessing.

But I’m going to go in another direction—one no more nor less valid, I think. We’re fortunate to have the ancient stories in Scripture precisely because they are so rich with meaning. Not only is there no one “right” meaning, there’s no one “right” way to approach the text. So actually, I’m going to go in two related directions. Let me get the shorter of the two out of the way first.

Some years ago, while working on my master of arts in theology, I had the wonderful opportunity to take a course called Gender, Sexuality, and the Bible. As you can imagine, one of the “angels” we wrestled with was the traditional response to Scripture readings in Church: “The Word of the Lord.” For many, even among those who love the Scriptures, calling the Bible “the Word of God” or “The Word of the Lord” is problematic, because, well, frankly, so much in Scripture is problematic. That’s another thing I don’t really need to rehearse here, I should think. But we discussed whether there might be ways to reconcile that appellation with our discomfort with so much contained in the Bible. I suggested this passage as an image: perhaps “the Word of the Lord” is that inheritance—birthright, you might say—we continue to wrestle with both while it wounds us and until it blesses us. And, as so much in life is rather messy, it may be hard to parse out what is the wound and what is the blessing. Either way, we emerge with a new name.

My second reading of this text is not unlike the first. Jacob is told that he has “striven with God and with humans, and [has] prevailed.” And he himself stammers that he has seen God face to face—and lived to tell about it. So, what if we suppose that it’s God Jacob is wrestling with here? Why would God injure a man God is about to bless? Why would Jacob be left with that injury, left to walk off with a (likely permanent) limp?

Some years ago, in fact, I heard a preacher ask the question, Why Jacob’s hip? Personally, I actually get that. Our bodies are not incidental to our identities. Jacob’s body has changed along with his name, his identity. But why his hip? It’s precisely the limp: it’s a new gait to go with the new name. Jacob—er, Israel—can no longer walk through his life the same way, figuratively or literally. Alejandro García-Rivera named that kind of experience “a wounded innocence.” Innocence, García-Rivera writes, is not an ignorance we lose, not a pristine perfection that can only be marred, but rather a virtue we gain. Given the world we live in, we usually, if not always, gain it through struggle. Even Jesus, risen from the dead and seated at God’s right hand, still bears the scars of his awful death. And in the Resurrection, perhaps Israel ( Jacob) will still have his limp.

For the Christian, “the Word of God” is not, properly speaking, the Bible. It’s Jesus, God made flesh, the primary revelation of God to us humans. Through transitive logic, we could liken Jacob’s rough night at Peniel to our own encounter with Christ. That Christ offers us his blessing is something we easily accept. But Jesus also told his disciples, rather frequently, that life would not be easy for them—that sometimes they would suffer because of their discipleship. But he also challenged others around him (“challenged” is putting it mildly, if you ask the moneychangers in the Temple, e.g.) to give up their privilege, to “take up [their] cross” and follow him. He said horribly inconvenient things, like “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18.25, NRSV).

What I am getting at, rather clumsily, I admit, is that once you meet Jesus, you wind up with a blessing and a limp. The rich young man who was told by Jesus to sell all he had and give it to the poor—he walked away sadly, but presumably, with an unchanged gait. Had he resolved to do as Jesus said, he would have been set free, but into a curious kind of freedom: any life-changing encounter with God in Christ will leave you unable to walk in the world in the way you did before.

It might mean a life of self-giving sacrifice. It might mean the renunciation of privilege—economic, racial, sex, whatever. I believe it should mean you can no longer acquiesce to the way things are, to the power and money and the “logic” of the market that (seemingly) make the world go round, or the various –isms that offer comfortable certainties, often at the expense of others. It probably means wrestling with yourself, like Jacob/Israel did. It will definitely mean no longer living for yourself, but rather being broken open to God, to all humans, and in fact to all creatures.

So, let us go limping. That awful, dull ache or sharp pain can be transformed: it’s a reminder of our new identity in Christ. A sort of stigmata, really. Own it or wrestle with it until it gives you insight, a new way of seeing, of being in the world.

On what road are you currently limping along?

Buildings and Bodies

Since I don’t seem to have the time right now to sort through and edit, in order to share, my Detroit photos, I thought I’d at least stop in and post something. This is a bit of a flashback—I published it as a facebook note on May 24, 2011.

I’m not normally one to argue with a bishop (although a facebook note is hardly arguing), but the sermon we heard on Sunday for the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the completion of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul’s building has gotten me thinking, and talking, quite a bit. That’s good—that’s what a sermon should do. And I don’t totally disagree with what the Bishop said, I just want to nuance it a bit, or maybe just deepen part of it with further reflections. At any rate, his sermon is the occasion for me writing some thoughts I’ve been having anyway here in this note.

Bishop Wendell Gibbs (Diocese of Michigan) remarked in his sermon that buildings are a curse: they require so much effort and so many resources for upkeep, and they can lock us into certain styles of worship (in the case of a church) rather than allowing flexibility and adaptation. Bishop Gibbs’ primary concern in this regard is mission, and he’s absolutely right that there is a danger both of becoming complacent inside a lovely building during worship hours rather than going out into the streets and into the world and being the Church there; and of draining our resources on the building’s upkeep so that not enough is left for growth and ministry. And that was his primary focus: the “living stones” that should not merely be contained inside stone buildings. It wasn’t a sermon about architecture.

However, when he said that “buildings are a curse,” after chuckling knowingly a bit, I instantly thought, “so are bodies!” I don’t know about you, but my body requires a lot of upkeep, especially the older I get. I have to devote a lot of time to sleeping, eating, grooming, working for a living, and so forth; I have to spend a lot of money on food, clothing, shelter, transportation, and health care—and despite all of this expenditure, my body still disappoints me constantly! It’s quite a bit bigger than I would like; it’s not terribly flexible; it burdens me with health issues from eczema to bipolar disorder. It limits me to whiteness, femaleness, a certain height, and having to be in only one place at a time. It is weighted down by gravity and worn out by use and by the elements.

And yet my body is precisely my means of being in the world. Without my body and all of its draining requirements, I can’t interact with others, enjoy tastes and smells and sights and sounds, or even know anything at all, since all of our knowledge is mediated by our senses.

Buildings, in fact, are very much like the human body. Buildings and bodies enjoy a certain connaturality. Buildings are built precisely to house human bodies and activities. Because of this, much of what we can say about buildings can also be said about our bodies, and vice-versa.

Our buildings are how we as communities exist in the world. We build grandiose civic buildings not (primarily) to display wealth and privilege but to use wealth in the service of facilitating and celebrating the civic project—our common life. We build homes as dwelling places and decorate them to celebrate family (however configured) and to situate us in a neighborhood, as well as to accommodate all the provisions we need. We build houses of worship to not only serve as a meeting place for like-minded people, but to celebrate and exemplify our common faith, our love of God, God’s love for us, and the community God has made of us.

Furthermore, houses of worship serve sacramentally as visible and tangible reminders of the “cloud of witnesses” St. Paul talks about—all the saints, known to us and unknown, who have gone before. In a church, for example, windows and fixtures have been given by members in the past (who have or had lots of money, and whose names are usually inscribed on the gifts), but these fixtures have been used and cared for by those who have gone before us as well as those currently in our midst, and we will pass them all on to others. You can touch the back or end of a pew and know that others have done the same over the years, and that many dedicated individuals—sextons, vergers, clerks of the works, Altar Guild volunteers, or whoever—have lovingly cleaned, polished, restored, and protected them. These objects witness to our bonds given in baptism, nourished in the Eucharist, and deepened by common worship and life.

They do drain our resources, but they can also serve as signs of the risen Christ in our midst, since without him, none of these things, these material objects, would have been put together and used as they have been. And his Incarnation, which comes with death attached (as our own incarnations do) and his Resurrection have hallowed all created matter so that materiality has been taken into the very Godhead. “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon with our hands concerns the Word of life,” writes St. John in his first epistle, “for the life was made visible; we have seen it and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was made visible to us… [NAB].” God who is beyond all space and time, who revealed Godself as the God of Israel, could not be contained in a physical dwelling; but in Jesus God ate and slept, suffered death, sloughed off dead skin and excreted waste, and was limited in every way all human beings are. This was his way of being in the world. It is the “scandal of particularity,” from which neither we nor our buildings are exempt.

Our buildings are our means of being in our communities, and they help to form us in the faith. Even—or perhaps especially—when we bruise ourselves against the walls trying to make the building fit whatever we want to do in it (as liturgies change, e.g.), our buildings also remind us of our own particularity, with all the limitations and mortality our creatureliness entails. Like us, buildings adapt to new situations with mixed success. Like us, our buildings show their years, and, if we have the spiritual senses to perceive it, they get better with age. Wear comes from use, and years of prayer deepen the sacredness the church building already had upon its dedication, just as the years that show in our bodies’ wrinkles and scars have deepened the christliness we received in our baptism.

Burden, yes. Curse, yes. Blessing—yes, yes, yes!