Saturday, August 11, 2007

A Few Words About Kingdom Building

I work for the union ’cause she’s so good to me;
And I’m bound to come out on top,
That’s where I should be.
I will hear ev’ry word the boss may say,
For he’s the one who hands me down my pay.
Looks like this time I’m gonna get to stay,
I’m a union man, now, all the way.

The Band, “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)”

In the name of Christ, I vowed to do anything for the Justice at Smithfield campaign this summer. Whatever the leaders of United Food and Commercial Workers wanted to be done, I would work my utmost to make it so. If the union believed that sending a few small interfaith community delegations to supermarkets every week would bring Smithfield Packing to the table, then I would support the union. And if the union opted for a more ferocious (but peaceful) public demonstration, then I would be there to support the union in that course, too. Naturally, I was prepared for a slugfest (figuratively speaking!) in Boston.

Imagine my surprise, then, when it turned out that victory in Boston came with relative ease, and imagine my astonishment when the union recently decided to lower the scale and volume of its public actions in the run-up to the Smithfield shareholders’ meeting in Virginia.

How to deal with this, when we expected to take the kingdom by force? For me it comes down to this. Knowing ahead of time that these plans weren’t really up to us but to the union, and having signed up to support its organizing efforts by bringing in faith groups, and not knowing any better how things “ought to be done,” what else could I do but to support the union organizers? It’s not that I put my ultimate faith and trust in them as I would in God, but since I allied with them in this righteous cause and godly struggle, what I could do was act gracefully and offer to them all my creative powers within the often frustrating constraints that bound me.

I was sorry to learn that my co-worker in Nashville, Jason Sikma, was not going to be able to give hell to Paula Deen, the TV celebrity chef and family-friendly face of Smithfield Foods, when she visited on her tour. It would have been a great scene, I know. Sometimes I wish that Smithfield was doing some flagrantly filthy-rich business up here in Boston so that we could have more delegations and stir up talk and trouble. But in Massachusetts the ends did not require stupendous means. Besides, the objectives were modest and incremental: get the pork off the shelf, make the company come to its senses, and give the union the leverage it needs to win recognition so that the workers can operate in a less unequal power infrastructure. And if it was destined that all this could happen with a whimper instead of a bang ... well, sometimes God doesn’t pass by in the heavy wind or the earthquake or the fire, but in the tiny whispering sound.

I heartily agree with my co-worker in Chicago, Nathan Brink, that Smithfield is not ultimately in control. Neither is the union, of course, and certainly we interns are not! That’s a good thing. We ask God for God’s kingdom to come, and I constantly remind myself that no earthly institutions can create it or thwart its coming. And though I can create an environment fit for meeting God and God’s reign breaking into our world, I cannot build that kingdom myself—it would be blasphemy and idolatry to say that I can bring about God’s reign! But I can witness to it, I can testify to it, and I can tell others to get ready for it, because like it or not, it’s coming. It’s still coming!

Corn in the fields.
Listen to the rice when the wind blows 'cross the water,
King Harvest has surely come.

May the Lord’s peace and justice and mercy be ours and for the Smithfield workers in Tar Heel, N.C., and for their friends and enemies.

Friday, August 3, 2007

To the New Seminarians

This is a love letter to the seminarians entering Boston University School of Theology in September.

What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces. Then why did you go out? To see a prophet?

I don’t know God. I do know I believe in God, and I believe it is possible to know and love God.

I don’t know you. I do believe I ought to know you, and I know it is possible to know and love you.

I believe that somehow knowing and loving God is related to knowing and loving you. That, to be terribly brief, is what makes me Christian.

To know and love God and you better, I chose to study theology; I believe it is something I was destined to do.

That is what brought me to Boston University School of Theology. What did I expect to see when I got here? Knowers of God and knowers of people; lovers of God and lovers of people. Theophiles and philanthropes. People of conviction and people of compassion.

Thanks be to God, I have found them here. Here, we have a name for those who know and love God and all people with a fiery yet gentle spirit: we call them prophets.

And this place has been a special place, such a place that it has been called School of the Prophets. I did not know our school carried that title before I arrived.

This place has been, for a time, the sanctuary of persons who saw their visions of God, humanity, and all that is holy come into focus. This place has not been a refuge from the world—its students and teachers set their faces like flint toward that world.

I knew Martin Luther King Jr. finished his studies here, and I knew his greatness. Before I arrived I knew King as a preacher and a political figure. Then I came here, and they told me King was a prophet, a Christian prophet.

And there have been many more like him here. They came here; they became here. You will learn who they were. God willing, you will become what they were.

I did not fully realize when I came here that I had gone out to see the prophets. The discovery has changed me.

What do you go out to see? Why do you go out?

I wonder what you will see in your fellow seminarians if you come here. Some of them may be reeds swayed in the wind. In this time or that place, that may not be a bad thing—that wind may be the Holy Spirit! Some of them may be dressed in fine clothing or appear to be greatly concerned about such things as fine clothing. That may perk your sense of delight or disdain, according to the way you practice discipleship. Prepare to be surprised by whom you come to befriend. Depend on being shocked to discover who actually manifests the gift of prophecy to you. Be ready to acknowledge the gifts that have been given to some despite your determination never to share a pew with them, and be ready to concede when your best friends simply don’t have the charisms you fervently hoped would become obvious to a benighted world.

I wonder what you will see in your professors. In and out of the classroom and chapel, I wonder how you will look at your professors, the ones you will come to love and hate. Yes, hate. But even hate may be a better thing than cheap like and dislike if you have good cause to despise what they say and do. Nevertheless, as much as you are able, love your professors and pray for them, too … at least promise me you will pray for them as often as you gossip about them.

I wonder what you will see in Marsh Chapel. I wonder if you will ever set foot in Marsh Chapel when not compelled to do so.

Boston is not a desert, but you may feel deserted here at times. I wonder what you will see in Boston. I do not mean all its cultural attractions, though I do not for one moment undervalue them. Do see the sights, smell the smells, taste the tastes, hear the sounds, feel the sensations. When you have begun to enrich yourself—may you never be done—I wonder what you will see when you look past the oasis. A rich, shining city on a hill, a place to play, a place to pray, a place to stay? Will you feel at home or homeless? Will you see the homeless? The ill? The imprisoned? The addicted? Will you find the people of the Beatitudes, or people with snobby attitudes? Will you be a tourist, an observer passing through, or a pilgrim? Or something else and more, if you let the city and its people so shape you?

I wonder what you will see when you behold the School of Theology as a community—its gifts and flaws, its joys and sorrows, its sanctity and its sinfulness. Yes, living in this community is sometimes uncomfortable, even painful. However, one must distinguish between a healthy discomfort and unhealthy threats, between growth-filled pain and death-dealing hate. We must welcome the former things and do everything in our power to destroy the latter things. How do we recognize the difference between these? And how do we recognize difference itself? Maybe, in the final analysis, knowing and loving God and people will depend on how we reckon with difference.

I wonder also if you will see the School of the Prophets. Some say we are no longer the School of the Prophets. Without prophecy, there is no community; or, as the King James Version of Proverbs poetically puts it, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” But there is also a tension between prophecy and community that destabilizes as it constructs. We’ll never be a prophetic people of God if we never risk troubling the safety and security of our worldview or that of others. Unfortunately, one person’s prophet is another person’s persecutor, and the difficulty lies in distinguishing false perception from reality. We need to learn how to discern the Spirit together. I wonder if you will be a part of that discernment at the School of Theology.

Have you come for Jesus Christ? Well, I wonder if you will see the image of Christ in this community of faith(s), or merely a crisis. What does it mean to be in Christ, and how do other identities of race, gender, orientation, and vocation, to name a few, relate to one’s being in Christ? In my experience here, none of us define what it means to be in Christ the same way, nor can we assume that everyone subordinates other facets of their identity to their identity in Christ. In fact, we cannot even take it as a given that being in Christ is the paramount identifying mark for every student and faculty member of the School of Theology. In my experience, though you would earnestly seek the face of Christ Jesus in each member of this body, this community of pastors and scholars, you will not find it unless your image of God is expanded. And that can be a wonderful thing.

This place is neither pure seminary—breeding ground for pastors—nor pure school of theology—an academy of philosopher-theologians. Our university faces the city, but a river runs by it, and it is the river we face when we pray in chapel. Our school plants one foot in the church and one foot in the classroom. Athens meets Jerusalem. Learning and virtue and piety collide. Love and truth meet, although sometimes it’s for binding arbitration; justice and peace kiss, but sometimes it’s because they have to kiss and make up. “In all of this lies the passion” (John Caputo).

And in all of this there lies prophecy. Maybe even the reign of God.

What will you go out to Boston University School of Theology to see?

Can't We All Just Belong?

The following is a sermon I prepared and delivered for my introductory preaching course, taught by the Rev. Dr. Dale Andrews at Boston University School of Theology.

Note: This sermon was delivered on May 1, 2007. Let me caution you here: This sermon has serious structural and theological difficulties, not to mention rhetorical flaws from a pastoral perspective, that I have been unable to work out, so I present this sermon as it was preached, warts and all the rest of its unsightly blemishes. (I have deleted one and a half sentences, but that is all.) Perhaps the kind reader will offer some constructive feedback.

A reading from the Gospel According to John, Chapter 10.

Jesus said, 27 “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand. 30 The Father and I are one.”

These are beautiful words from a beautiful Gospel. But these words are also bittersweet. The community that created this Gospel was at odds with almost everyone—with the Jewish authorities, with the wider world, and even with fellow Christ-believers. Nobody really understood the glory of Jesus Christ except the community of the Beloved Disciple, its members claimed. They were the true sheep; they alone heard Jesus’ voice. Brothers and sisters, when I look at our divided School of Theology community, I see the sad drama of the Johannine community playing itself out again. Students, angry and fearful about the direction of the changing Church, are ready to expel fellow students from their midst over wrong doctrine or wrong practice. Worse, students have fallen victim to violent rhetoric and have been threatened by violent actions from their peers. It grieves me that so many people are hurt, and each new fracture of the body troubles me. We are neither one nor whole.

We must understand why all this is happening. In light of our struggle to be one body in Christ, and in light of this beautiful passage from the Gospel, I will answer two urgent questions. First, what does it mean for God and Jesus to be one? Second, who hears the voice of Jesus, who calls himself the Good Shepherd?

On the first question, let us arrive at a basic point of agreement. Jesus says in verse 30 that he and God are one. He says this in the Temple at Hanukkah in response to the Jewish authorities’ demand to know whether or not he is the Messiah. His stunning answer reveals that he is more than a Messiah, more than the political liberator of Israel. He claims a unique relationship with God as the bearer of divine power and the embodiment of the divine will. It is in this sense that Jesus is called the Son of God. Jesus justifies this unparalleled unity by pointing to what he does for his disciples—he gives them eternal life so that they will never perish. This discourse in the Temple follows the discourse of the Good Shepherd, and the evangelist has Jesus employ the language of that metaphor again in this richly theological text. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, the noble guardian of the sheep, the hero who lays down his life so that others may have life. Jesus knows his sheep; he speaks to them the words of life, and they respond to his voice. Jesus models God’s justice through his loyalty to the sheep and models God’s love through his obedience to God. He can do this because the God of Israel is the source of Jesus’ words and actions. It is this God who gives the sheep to Jesus the Good Shepherd, and no one can take them away from Jesus because no one can take them away from God. The words and works of Jesus are nothing less than the words and works of God.

What does this mean? It’s a funny coincidence, but tomorrow is the feast day of St. Athanasius, who sparred with Arius and wound up victorious in the Trinitarian controversies of the 4th century. They fought furiously over the meaning of today’s text, and I can hear Arius shouting, “You see? Jesus says ‘My Father is greater than all!’ ” and old Athanasius roaring, “Don’t you see? Jesus says ‘The Father and I are one!’ ” Now I’m not particularly interested in their argument about persons and essences, and the fact is neither was the evangelist nor his community. John is telling a story, not defining a doctrine. This Gospel is firstly revealing the relationship between God and Jesus. John is teaching us that when Jesus performs mighty works and speaks with authority, we experience the reality of God. This Gospel secondly reveals our relationship to God in Jesus. When we do the works of God and speak the Word of God in Christ’s name, we experience the reality of God and Jesus as one, and we share in that unity.

The believers in the community of the Beloved Disciple did not quarrel about whether the unity between God and Jesus was a metaphysical unity of natures or essences or strictly a moral unity. They experienced this power of this unity firsthand—they were grasped by it, and that’s all that mattered. This leads to my second point, which sits between my two questions. Because Jesus’ words and works are the words and works of God, we can follow Jesus Christ. But even the ability to follow Jesus Christ is itself the work of God. We follow Jesus because we are led to believe in him by the inspiration of God. We did not attain faith through our own efforts! Faith is hearing the voice of the shepherd who speaks first—and then responding. Faith is not asking Jesus if he is the Messiah and then deciding whether or not to go along with him, as the religious authorities did when they confronted him in the Temple at Hanukkah. We do not get to anoint Jesus the shepherd! In fact, we don’t get to make ourselves the sheep. Even Jesus did not make us the sheep. Today’s Scripture is saying that God made Jesus the shepherd, God made us the sheep, and God made both for each other.

So God made us to follow Jesus, and God makes it possible for us to follow Jesus. Let me draw out this theme just a little further. I propose that God made us to believe first and to know second. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said of the prophetic office, “The principle to be kept in mind is to know what we see rather than to see what we know.” We follow Jesus in faith. We believe, and then we know what we see. The authorities in the Temple wanted to know first who Jesus was, but they had no interest in believing in him, much less following him. Jesus susses out their true intent—they are looking for a reason to indict him—and so he tells them they do not belong to his sheep. He does not say they do not know him—he claims they do!—but that they do not believe him. On the other hand, the sheep in this text recognize that the works Jesus has performed are a testimony to God. Like Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, the religious authorities in John have known, but they do not believe. Meanwhile, the sheep believe, therefore they know.

I will now be so bold as to put my finger on the problems facing the School of Theology. We face two crises—an identity crisis and a community crisis, and the first leads into the second. First, the identity crisis. Are we merely a school of theology, discoursing well on God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit and the Church but knowing nothing, or are we more—are we also a seminary, professing our faith in these? Writing in his blog for The New York Times, Stanley Fish said, “True religious knowledge is not something one delivers in precepts but something one performs at every moment, because its lesson and one’s being are indistinguishable.” Is Jesus Christ is being carried away from the altar table to the dissecting table? God forbid it! Let our knowledge of Jesus Christ guide us beyond a mere academic exercise, and let us follow all the way. If we seek the meaning of the Scripture, let us do so in faith. “The Father and I are one” is more than a Trinitarian statement. It is much more than a Christological statement. It is an existential declaration of faith in God, and God’s ways become our ways. God’s way of being becomes our way of being. The Father and I are one. The Mother and I are one. The Holy One of Israel and I are one. We live by our knowledge, and we do not merely study this stuff as disinterested students of the liberal arts. It does shape our world perspective! Ours is a vision to be lived! That is what is at stake, and we must at some point step out on faith! Forgive my radical presumption, but remember what brought you here: your love of God and your desire as a Christian minister to belong in word and deed to God. Verse 27 says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” As important as it is for us to know, we must remember that we are believers first. We can follow Jesus Christ the Son of God because through Christ, in Christ, with Christ, God has known us, making us the faithful sheep of the shepherd. When we follow, we become one with Jesus Christ as Jesus Christ is one with the God of Israel.

I believe I have answered the second question. Who hears the voice of Jesus? Everyone that God has known as Jesus’ sheep. And here is my third point. God has elected us to be sheep, and while we may opt out, that does not change God’s decision for us. Nor does it nullify God’s power to determine who belongs to God in Christ. Now, if it is true that only God gives us to Jesus Christ and enables us to hear Jesus’ voice and believe in Jesus’ works, then who are we to determine who belongs to Christ and the Church that witnesses to the reign of God that Jesus proclaimed? I admire the community of the Beloved Disciple for living deeply into its knowledge of Jesus Christ, but I think it failed to heed the implications of the Good News. Its members had an antagonistic relationship with not only non-believers, but also fellow believers who did not confess the Christ or practice Christ-faith as they did. They broke off communion with many other communities of Christ.

Like the Johannine community, I think we misunderstand our place in the economy of salvation. At the School of Theology, this is where our identity crisis becomes a community crisis. Hear me out. There is a consensus gathering among dissatisfied seminarians that our collective classroom experience is too shallow. It is too academic, I hear—too much “seeing what we know,” not enough “knowing what we see.” We are still asking Jesus to tell us plainly whether he is the Messiah. Our courses are chock full of detached analyses of the truth claims of our kindred Christian traditions, killing the spirit of religion. Seminarians want to be transformed by what they know, not deadened by it. They want to be the School of the Prophets again. Many students are rising to the challenge to rouse our community from its stupor. And this is a good thing. However, some students have taken this mission to an extreme. Like ministering angels, they have come to defend Jesus Christ from blasphemous, belittling, or trivializing assaults. It’s funny, isn’t it, the sheep presuming they must protect the shepherd? Even save the shepherd?

They have also come to purify the Church on the one hand, or reconstitute it on the other. I worry whenever Christ-followers arrogate to themselves the privilege that belongs to God alone—deciding who hears Jesus’ voice and who belongs to the flock. This is not to say that Christ-followers may not call their brothers and sisters to account for their sin, for doing so is part of their prophetic office. However, many of us step beyond our responsibilities. It is one thing to call your brothers and sisters to repentance, but it is another to assert by word and deed that your brothers and sisters are not sheep. It is one thing to say that your brothers and sisters have heard the voice of the shepherd but don’t listen very well; it is another to assert by word and deed that they are deaf to the shepherd’s voice. The first is charity; the second is cruelty. Listen to the Gospel: “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand.” Yet I fear that is precisely what many of us are attempting to do, under the pretense of “making a stand” for the Church or by redefining the Church so as to push out those who are not ready to embrace their superior vision.

Are we willing to believe in a God so great and so mysterious as to grant that God speaks to our fellow brothers and sisters even when they wrongly impugn our faith and practice? And are we humble in the knowledge that God still speaks to us even when we wrongly impugn our brothers’ and sisters’ faith and practice? Can’t we all just belong? The Johannine community was unwilling to believe this, and so, apparently, are many of us in the School of Theology community. This is unfortunate. Have not all of us heard the Word of God and seen the works of the Lord and believed?

It is not for us to separate the so-called goats from the sheep, nor is it for us to usher the stray sheep back into the pen. I am surprised that some of our most enthusiastic brothers and sisters from the theological left and the right would not trust God enough to let Christ take ownership of all the so-called wayward souls in our midst. The Church does not need any more Holden Caulfields; it needs more leaders like John Mott, Pope John XXIII, and Bernice Powell Jackson. It needs models of koinonia like the Taize Community and the Community of Sant’Egidio.

Christ belongs to God, and we who believe belong to Christ. Only God knows who truly belongs to Christ. It is not for us to decide. Rather than play shepherd, let us be the sheep. Amen.

Last Letter From Boylston Street

Still backtracking ... see Boylston Street Letter #9.

The week of April 23-27, 2007

“After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue.”

These are the white-robed saints who have survived fierce persecutions, and they stand before the throne of God giving thanks to the source of their salvation. In John’s vision the elder says, “For this reason they stand before God’s throne and worship him day and night in his temple. The one who sits on the throne will shelter them.”

The one who sits on the throne will shelter them. Shelter them.

Do I need to go on? Do we not remember what else God promises these white-robed saints? “They will not hunger or thirst anymore, nor will the sun or any heat strike them. For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:16-17).

I have not read enough liberation theology to know whether Revelation is used as a programmatic text by its leading theorists. I suspect these rich, deeply thick passages would be congenial to their work. I say this by way of apology for what I write next. Forgive me if the following strikes you as an egregious lapse of good exegetical sense.

I have seen the great multitude John has seen, the people from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They are the homeless. They are not yet holding palm branches, for they have no reason to celebrate. There has been no final victory. There is no joy. They are not yet wearing the white robes, for their rags have not yet been washed white in the blood of the Lamb. Their rags are washed in their own blood, stained in their own sweat and bathed in their own tears.

They are on the move, the men and women of this multitude. They move through dirty streets over broken glass and under breaking skies and always lost in broken dreams. They wait in long, lonely lines for their daily bread—breakfast, lunch, and dinner; a chance to bathe, a chance to place a call, and a bed at night if they’re lucky and not late. They move through metal detectors and security checks; they move through clinics, counseling offices, and cafeterias; they move through prison cells and halfway homes. They are moving in between dusk and dawn; they are moving in the storm, never in the calm between. They are always moving, but they are never arriving. How far away is God’s throne?

They are not crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation comes from our God.” They are crying out, “How long, O Lord?”

When I see the multitude streaming to the hospitality desk, sometimes I want to leave my post and follow. I want to find out if it is really true that the poor are the privileged channel of God’s grace, as Jon Sobrino says. Where do these men and women come from, and where do they go? And what does God and grace mean to them, anyway?

Nine months at St. Francis House and I’m still puzzled by the poor. I fear the temptations of privilege, but I fear more the spirits, benevolent and malign, that grace and afflict poverty.

Poverty is dull and boring. It is rude and violent. It is not patient, it is not kind, it is not pleasing, it is not comfortable, it thwarts all interests, it aggravates all injuries, it hovers over wrongdoing, and it mourns with the silenced truth. It refuses all things, doubts all things, despairs of all things, surrenders to all things.

Poverty always fails.

And yet … and yet …

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

I have met many wise and gentle souls at the shelter. Their good cheer despite the numbing routine of the day center continues to surprise me. Their simplicity and strength of faith, as shown to me in the Bible study, gives me cause to rejoice quietly. Their piety is unaffected and never simplistic. Grace, amazing or otherwise, must be with them, because with them I have learned the fears of poverty, but I have also had other fears lessened. Without the least exhibitionism, they have shown me what hunger and thirst look like, and they have prayed with me for their relief. And I have prayed with them for God’s mercy and justice, and above all that God’s ways become our ways.

God willing, St. Francis House has done some small part of the works of mercy and justice. I do not know where my pilgrim journey goes from here, but I hope to walk with Jesus and the Twelve and Paul and all the disciples, who tell me:

Remember the poor.
Remember the poor.
Remember the poor.
And when you do,
Remember faith, hope, and charity.
Remember that many have not chosen to be poor, but you can choose to serve among the poor.

Finally, if the kingdom of heaven is like a magnificent house with many rooms, I expect the homeless men and women to occupy the rooms “nearest” to God. If there is such a thing as a beatific vision, anything that accords with the vision of John, may the homeless be at the head of the multitude that stands in glory before the throne of God. And if this is God’s will for blessed, broken, and beloved humanity, let God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven! Amen.

Boylston Street Letter #12

Still backtracking ... see Boylston Street Letter #9.

The week of April 9-13, 2007

What do the resurrection stories mean to the homeless? To you? To me? What do they do to us?

On Friday at my Bible study group discussed the resurrection appearances in John 20:19-31 and drew upon related texts in Chapters 20 and 21. At one juncture we were exploring the differences between the appearance to Mary Magdalene and the appearance to Thomas. Jesus tells Mary, “Do not hold on to me,” which to me does not exclude a physical holding or clinging to the body of Jesus, though this interpretation has gone out of fashion (the Latin “Noli me tangere” has a strong “hold” on me). On the other hand, Jesus says to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Why does Jesus invite Thomas to do what he forbids Mary to do, encountering his risen body? Does Jesus want us to touch the wounds or not? Questions, I had a few….

Do you remember the guest I previously dubbed the “Scripture savant”? The one who tends to monopolize the discussion when he comes to Bible study? Well, he was there Friday, and he had more than a few ideas he wanted to share. Thomas exclaims “My Lord and my God!” but, as our guest noted, there is no evidence that he actually takes up Jesus’ invitation. Seeking to harmonize these appearance stories, he commented that Jesus really didn’t want us to touch the wounds, and he invited Thomas to touch the wounds knowing that Thomas wouldn’t really do it. And then he added that Jesus knew touching those wounds would traumatize Thomas too much. Wow!

I replied that Jesus Christ really does want us to touch the wounds. Perhaps at the appearance to Mary Magdalene, because Christ had not yet ascended to the Father and given the Spirit, it was not yet time to touch the wounds. But by the time of the appearance to Thomas, Jesus had already breathed on the disciples and told them to receive the Holy Spirit, and so he could challenge Thomas to touch the wounds. I said that maybe Jesus’ challenge to Thomas is a challenge to all of us—it is traumatizing to have a real encounter with the broken, wounded body of Christ, but we are asked to “touch” it, anyway. Still, why would Jesus have us “put our finger here” and “reach out our hand” when that’s so risky, so dangerous? Isn’t God violated? Aren’t we violated? Is trauma an inevitable symptom of the divine-human encounter? Do we receive the Spirit before we touch the wounds, as we touch the wounds, after we touch the wounds? This hour of Bible study stirred lots of questions, few answers, and no certainties.

I shared these reflections with Professor Rambo, who has made trauma theory her specialty as she develops a pneumatology around the Johannine gospel and the experience of Holy Saturday. She wrote: “Perhaps in touching the wounds, Thomas is reoriented to his own woundedness. Perhaps in seeing the wounds, we are confronted with our own humanity (in all of its complexities) and, in turn, to see the woundedness of life and see the promise of life/love emerging from practices of witnessing to woundedness….

“It has always been interesting to me that the scars of the cross remain. It is a mark of our woundedness, but it is not an open wound. It does not threaten; instead, it reminds. What about thinking of the wounds as both a reminder of the death and the promise of life emerging from it … when Thomas touches, perhaps he is witnessing to the first movement of the Holy Spirit, in the touching of wounded flesh….”

She also cited a Johannine commentary by Hans Urs von Balthasar in which he asks us to enter the wound of Christ, to touch his heart, by which we “touch the pulse of God’s purpose for creation—to love.” Christ invites us to touch the wounds of his body so that we may love! I am reminded now of something else the Scripture savant said. To touch the body of Christ is an overpowering experience—even the briefest brush with it could be devastating. But in this contact with the divine wounds we are restored, not destroyed; empowered to believe, not to doubt; freed to live, not doomed to die.

I am counting on the resurrection power these days in ways I never did before. By it I seek forgiveness and wholeness; through it I expect to see the world transformed now, and not only in the future. I hope for greater things, and ardently I wish for others to be grasped by the promises of new life in the Spirit of God. I don’t think it is an accident that this turn in my faith and thought has come about while at the shelter, where I have come to know some very expectant men and women.

Boylston Street Letter #11

Still backtracking ... see Boylston Street Letter #9.

The week of April 2-6, 2007

I witnessed the dying of a religious symbol here on Holy Thursday.

The ritual of foot-washing, which has its origins in the account of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper (John 13:1-20), has been performed here for many years, I am told. All who work in the shelter are invited to participate, and all the guests are welcome. This year I was invited to give the reading from Paul recounting of the institution of the Eucharist (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). Karen LaFrazia, the executive director of St. Francis House, would wash the feet. I was looking forward to a beautiful re-presentation of Jesus’ consecration of servant leadership, as fine a sacramental ritual as the Church possesses.

Only the guests weren’t buying into it.

It took some coaxing from Karen and staff to bring several guests into the large classroom of the day center for the prayer and ritual. As I understand it, some guests balked at joining the foot-washing service because the shelter already provides foot care daily in the clinic, including soakings, massages, and pedicures, as well as the provision of clean socks. What more could this religious service do? Ironically, as staff approached the hospitality desk to make another announcement about the foot-washing over the public address, one of the foot care volunteers got to the microphone first to advertise the podiatric services in the clinic! Once we had several guests assembled with staff, we began our service, proceeding quickly to the foot-washing. Several staff persons and volunteers removed their shoes and socks. However, I noticed that none of the guests removed their footwear. Karen had finished making her rounds with her pitcher of warm water and plastic basin, and none of the guests had participated in the washing. Then, at last, one guest changed his mind. B.K., whom I know to be Catholic and must be in his late fifties or early sixties, moved from the back row to the front. He sat down to my immediate left and said, “Okay, I’m doing this on behalf of all of the guests here in St. Francis House.” Then Karen washed his feet lovingly, even gratefully. And B.K. thanked her with words of blessing. The service was over.

I have many theories as to why the guests did not choose to participate in this ritual. First, there is the matter of the redundancy with the foot care in the clinic. Our guests would be absolutely right to judge the “real” ministry to be occurring daily in the clinic, and I would not fault them for viewing the Holy Thursday service as a pale shadow of the former, a thing staged more for the benefit of the staff, seeking to assure itself how benevolent it is. Second, these are homeless people who have very little to their name except their dignity and pride. I can imagine that, in their position, to take off your shoes and present your feet for washing would be humiliating instead of empowering. Even to suggest gently to our guests that they remove their shoes can be construed as an affront to their dignity. Third, I don’t know how many guests are familiar with the origins and meaning of the ritual, but I surmise that even if they did, the guests could not believe that Karen was truly humbling herself by washing their feet. After all, Jesus was a genuine servant leader who surrendered his authority and his equality with God to be on an equal level with his disciples, if not lesser. On the other hand, when the foot-washing ritual was over, Karen would still be the executive director of the largest daytime shelter in New England, and the homeless would still be homeless.

What can you do when a symbol, a sign-act, loses its meaning? Well, I think you need to smash the symbol to pieces and reconstruct the symbol in a different way. Maybe the symbol of foot-washing never had any significance for our guests in the first place. We have ways of finding out what the symbol “does” to them. Robert Neville would interrogate the broken symbols like this: 1) how do we interpret the symbols being used; 2) what are the practical consequences of using these symbols; and 3) what is the state of the soul of the one affected by the symbol? I think the preceding reflections have addressed the first two questions; as to the third, I remain lost in contemplation. Sometimes I wonder if I will ever “know” the soul of the homeless. Touching the sacred with them is a delicate undertaking. I pray that, in the five weeks I have left at the shelter, I may gently share in our guests’ stories and traditions and all the things that give their life meaning. Perhaps we may discover a common, holy ground and remove our shoes together.

Boylston Street Letter #10

Still backtracking ... see Boylston Street Letter #9.

The week of March 26-30, 2007

More than ever, I regret that I don’t know how to speak Spanish.

On Monday we held a Lenten morning prayer in the day center using the lectionary readings for the feast of the Annunciation. Like a service of morning prayer we conducted during Advent, this service was open to our Spanish-speaking guests. A Capuchin Franciscan brother who does counseling and intake with the guests and is fluent in Spanish assisted me in the preparations. Now, let me confess that our prayer was not planned quite as we had advertised it. We announced that the prayer was going to be bilingual, but in reality the prayer was in English with one reading, the Gospel of Luke, in Spanish. You see, in December we prepared the opening and closing hymn in English and Spanish as well as every reading from Scripture. We were looking forward to an enthusiastic response from our Spanish-speaking guests, but in the end none came. Therefore, this time around we hedged our bets: we invited all to come to our prayer whatever their native language, but we expected to have an Anglo audience and planned accordingly.

Well, on this Monday we had one English-speaking guest and five Spanish-speaking guests. They were attracted to the large classroom where we were worshipping because we were offering coffee and breakfast pastries. The only trouble was, they did not seem much interested in participating in our prayer, despite my Capuchin partner’s communication of our purpose to them. The atmosphere became uncomfortable for me as our guests looked at us in bewilderment. Why were we handing them songsheets written in English, when we knew they couldn’t read a single word of the lyrics? And why did we go on singing words they could not hear?

All our Bibles were in English, and I had only one copy of the Spanish text of Luke’s Gospel for the Franciscan friar to read. Feeling desperation, in haste I asked the Capuchin to translate the verses I would be reading from Isaiah as we proceeded. This he did heroically, but the effect was not very prayerful, and our Spanish guests grew only more disengaged. Murmuring, two of them carried on some bit of merriment between them, laughing among themselves, sharing what I worried was a kind of malicious delight in our linguistic difficulties. We tried to recite one of the psalms responsorially, but this was a spectacular failure. By this time our sole English-speaking guest had become restless, telling me he couldn’t understand what we were saying with the Bible—that it wasn’t the way his preacher had taught him to understand it. In the meantime, a couple of guests had walked in for some coffee, oblivious to the prayer going on. Their insensitivity offended our English-speaking guest, and he rebuked them. At this point I lost my cool, and I sternly warned everybody to attend to the purpose of this gathering, which was to hear the Word of God and be still before God’s presence.

Everybody got the message, regardless of their native tongue, and we continued with the Gospel of Luke in Spanish, then English. We paused for silence, then we attempted some prayers and petitions. This did not work well, and the fellow who said he couldn’t understand how we were reading the Bible made a protest and left before we concluded. (Meanwhile, the other two guests who had come in for the coffee, both English speakers, stayed on.) The snickering continued among a couple of the Spanish speakers, and we ended with an awkward Our Father in Spanish. During that prayer I moved my lips, but no words came out.

I felt so foolish after the service was over. I’ve been working at the shelter for over seven months; I should have known better than to prepare a prayer expecting a certain kind of turnout. I forgot one of the axioms of pastoral ministry to the homeless: you don’t prepare, you get ready.

See what happens when you make plans? I don’t need to read the story of the Tower of Babel to be convinced that God delights in undermining our unitary designs. But what makes this incident different from the Babel story is that our tongues were already confused before we met, and we never intended to do the same work. Even the English speaker was speaking a different language from the Capuchin Franciscan and me. We acted like Pentecost had never happened. But we are living on the other side of Pentecost, and we have the gift of the Spirit to help us interpret tongues—to translate, not transliterate. We can do better. And if I can’t learn Spanish, at least I can speak Christian.

Boylston Street Letter #9

One in an occasional series of reflections on homelessness and my duties as a pastoral intern at St. Francis House, a daytime shelter on 39 Boylston St. in Boston ( Apologies for the long-delayed backtracking.

The week of March 19-23, 2007

I have little to report, but much to ask. Please keep Mallory in your prayers. Her life is in danger, so soon after her day of glory.

She graduated from our Moving Ahead Program on March 16, certainly one of the proudest, most hopeful moments in her life. I could not be present to cheer for her because I was demonstrating in Washington, DC. If only I could have been there and here in Boston. I thought of her, and I thought about how good it would be to resume our Friday afternoon tutorials, moving from mathematics to reading comprehension and writing skills. She could continue striving for her GED and continue rebuilding her life. Our routine, one of many healthy routines she had adopted, would go on as before.

But life is not working out that way, because Mallory has become homeless. Not figuratively in the way I have described homelessness before, but literally. Recently she was booted from the recovery residence she was living in because she allegedly failed a urine test three times. (Mallory vigorously denies she could have failed the tests and has claimed it was discrimination because she is a transgender person.) She is practically penniless, and despite her job skills training through our program she is having difficulty finding employment. Finding work and low-income shelter is complicated because of her CORI status and the short length of time she has maintained sobriety.

Speaking to me and to the MAP admissions director, she confessed that if she does not succeed in finding a place to live and work to do in Boston, she will have no choice but to return to Springfield, where, she said, she would very likely meet her demise among bad company.

As dire a scenario this is, I thought to myself, our shelter’s life skills program really works, because there’s no way Mallory would have realized before that her way of life in Springfield was leading her to an untimely death. She has discovered a community in Boston that is nurturing her into new being, and she knows she can rely on a network of support broad enough to meet all her needs and deep enough to sustain her through many crises. In her mind, to return to Springfield is become entangled in a web of disease and dysfunction, to places that deform the better habits of the mind and heart. Mallory knows where temptation lies; she believes she has been delivered from a host of evils, and she does not want to be rendered into their clutches again.

But time and circumstances are conspiring against her wish to stay in Boston. She is shuttling around the city meeting with housing, employment, and CORI counselors and other social services specialists to work an eleventh-hour miracle. Understandably, she has no time now to continue tutorials with me. She regrets it, but she said her life is really in a mess.

I told her that I cannot help her much now, but I will do the best for her I can—I will pray. You can do that, too, so pray with me for Mallory.

Catching Up

It's been far too long since I last posted. I will do some backtracking before beginning in earnest to chronicle the present, if I ever summon the discipline to do that.