When Someone is Covered in Shit

While sitting outside talking to Anne, I see Cindy look at me from across the porch and know she's going to come over and ask for something. Her floral dress hangs down to the ground with a brownish smear, a stain, and she quickly gathers the fabric forward to hide it.

"Do you have any extra pants?"

There are no extra pants but I tell her I'll go and look. I do this sometimes when I don't want the first thing I say to someone to be, "No."

"What size are you honey?" Anne interrupts.

Cindy tells Anne her size and Anne goes into her bag and pulls out rumpled pair of pants, saying, "These are too big for me." She also pulls out a t-shirt and hands it over to Cindy.

Cindy thanks Anne and shuffles toward the door. It's obvious she's also made a mess of the back of her dress and her shoes and her socks. Inside, the bathroom is blessedly in a rare unoccupied state.

By the time Cindy retrieves what she needs out of her pack, the bathroom is occupied again. Cindy looks through the little tub of donated hotel soaps and shampoos we set out for showers. One night someone walked in off the street, picked a thick bar of soap out of the tub and took a bite out of it like it was a cookie.

I can smell Cindy now. I ask Cindy if she's going to be able to clean herself up. I tell her she's number twelve on the shower list and we usually only get through ten showers on a shift. I don't stop to listen to her. The words are tumbling out of me.

I say, "I want you to be able to take a shower now. Is that okay with you?"

She says yes. I simultaneously feel like a Very Good Person and want to get her into the shower room and be finished with her.

She chokes a little and starts crying as I turn away. "I'm so embarrassed. I'm sorry to be a bother and make a mess. I'm so embarrassed."

I'm finally listening to her now. I see her, for the first time, as a child. I encounter her now as a person, not a problem.

Cindy emerges from the shower room after her allotted time and takes a seat at a table. The next person on the list calls me over and says, "Uh, can you guys clean that up?"

Poop is smeared on the floor, on the radiator, on the toilet.

As the mop bucket fills, Shani, a regular volunteer, pops her head in and asks if wiping up the mess with paper towels first might be best. That's what I was thinking too.

"Okay, hand me some gloves and I'll get started," she says.

The mop bucket is full now and Shani is crouched down wiping up poop and putting dirty paper towels in a bag. This is a radical act of love for Network, for Cindy, and ultimately for Christ, which Shani undertakes like it's nothing.

Our humanity lives closer to meekness than to strength. Vulnerability and mercy make us transparent to ourselves and present to our neighbor, while security and confidence conceal. We are children, all of us, reaching out and up, only asking to be embraced by love.

I Am Not a Progressive Christian

Nadia Bolz-Weber (NBW), Lutheran Pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints here in Denver, CO was a guest on Fresh Air about a month ago. As a friend pointed out after seeing her speak recently, the theological tradition out of which she forms her ministry is nothing particularly revolutionary. Mainline American Protestant Christianity has preached a flavor of her message since the late 1950s. Her genius is how she says what she says, and that she takes this tradition seriously enough to preach it to people the church has overlooked for decades.

Terry Gross assumes in her line of questioning that NBW must be coming out of a younger theological tradition which has been variously dubbed “Progressive” or “liberal” Christianity. Gross hints at this when she asks,

TG: Are you more concerned about people’s actions than their beliefs.

NBW: I’m not even really concerned about their actions, no.

TG: That wasn’t the answer I was expecting.

Gross wasn’t expecting this, because she assumes NBW, as a tattooed, female, swearing pastor preaching to a largely LGBTQ congregation, must also therefore preach about being “radical” and changing the world. But NBW responds:

I don’t monitor people’s behavior, let’s put it that way. So much of Christianity has become about like sort of monitoring behavior and so far it has failed to work as a strategy for making people better… On some level Christianity became about monitoring people’s behavior… like a sin management program. And that almost always fails and often backfires.

To anyone paying attention to American culture, language about sin management systems will bring to mind conservative Christian moralism, especially as it relates to control over what people choose to do with their genitals. NBW speaks to this. But hidden here is also the flip side of the same coin: Progressive Christianity.

Much of Progressive Christianity has defined itself in narrow terms largely interested in the behavior of it's participants. In order to be a "Jesus Follower," and not a mere "religious Christian" (see my posts on the Rohr meme going around 1 and 2) adherents must, for instance: buy local, buy organic, vote Democrat, support full LGBT inclusion, and buy into a community supported agriculture co-op. Personally I'm not against any of these. Indeed, I support them. But I do not support them as prerequisites for full inclusion in the body of Christ.

The Body of Christ—the Church universal and eternal—is a rocketship propelled by the fire of the Holy Spirit. While it may hold a few people inside it, saints and giants of the faith, the fire that springs forth from it is all-consuming, gathering all people, conservative and progressive, all creation, organic and inorganic toward it as it streaks toward heaven. It claims everything for itself, it is irresistible and uncontrollable. As NBW puts it:

My job is to point to Christ and preach the gospel and to remind people that they are absolutely loved and that their identity is based in something other than the categories of late stage capitalism, for instance. That they are named and claimed by god and that this is an identity is more foundational than any of the others and that their completely forgiven and all of their mess ups are not more powerful than gods mercy and God’s ability to redeem us and bring good out of bad… I think when people hear this over and over they become free.

The job of a pastor, of our individual churches, is to appear before everyone and point to the rocketship and stand in awe and exclaim with joy, "Look!"

Christianity Beyond Memes

I’ve been thinking about this post of mine recently. Mostly because that Richard Rohr meme continues to show up in my social feed.

It occurs to me that both “options,” or ways of doing and being Church offered by this meme, potentially leave out a group of people for whom Jesus would seek to show care and concern. Here I'm thinking of people who experience severe developmental delays and disabilities. Usually these folks need a high level of care from those around them whether they be parents, family members, or specially-trained healthcare workers.

Such people usually exist on the margins of the Church. Our churches do a poor job including anyone in worship, service, liturgy, missions, and outreach who does not conform to the narrow parameters of body and ability that most of us exist within. This is a failure of underlying ecclesiologies (theology about the Church) which demand “belonging and believing” on one hand or “following the way of Jesus” on the other.

The Way

“Following the way of Jesus” is especially problematic in its privileged assumptions. It flirts with the notion that one must first attain knowledge about how to live, and then have the ability to live within the narrow constraints of that knowledge. It is a kind of gnosticism: one has special knowledge that leads to salvation. It should be obvious how limiting this is for people with cognitive disabilities.

Belonging and Believing

“Belonging and believing” has problems of its own. Believing is an especially fraught requirement for those whose with impaired cognitive abilities. What does it take to “believe” a certain set of precepts? What does it mean to live those precepts out?

However, "Belonging” offers a wider frame. With very few restrictions, one may belong to the body of Christ. This is a community that makes an universal offer to all: come and reside with us, with Christ. This kind of community can and does encompass an incredibly wide variety of ways of being human. In this case, those who confess Jesus Christ as Lord comprise the body of Christ alongside those who may not have the capacity to overtly confess as such. As saints, they share a common belonging within the metaphysical ship we call Church.

Individualism

Which brings me to my final point about the popular meme that is the occasion for these two posts: it falls into the post-Enlightenment, American Protestant trap of foregrounding completely the work, knowledge, faith, and being of the individual person. Even the side it seeks to negate (“belonging and believing”) falls almost completely on the action of the individual.

What of Christ’s being? That is what ecclesiology really is: applied Christology. In becoming part of the Church, or by seeking to follow Jesus, the focus really ought to be on joining Christ’s being, Christ’s life, Christ’s teaching, Christ’s work, Christ’s crucifixion, death, resurrection, and Christ’s faith. It is the work of God in Christ and the enlivening power of the Holy Spirit that hold all things together—even stupid memes.

Quiet Please, Christ Child Sleeping

Christmas celebrations are often full of sound. It would be good for us to make room for silence, to hear the voice of Love. – Pope Francis, via Twitter

The pope has a point on this one. When I read this quote a few days ago, I immediately started thinking about the sounds of the season, about how much we let Christmas and the holidays in general be dominated by sound. It makes sense really; so many, especially those of us raised in Christian tradition, are moved by the carols, spoken prayers, and scripture we’ve come to associate only with this one special time of year. So what I’m about to say isn’t that any of this is bad. Sound is fine; actually, it’s an amazing part of being a human with functioning hearing. But it isn’t what’s holy about Christmas, at least not to me.

I realize that there’s a lot of stuff, like, biblical stuff, that someone could point to and say, “That part of the coming of Christ is all about sound, and it seems pretty holy to me.” And I’m not going to argue with you. There are angels who scare a bunch of shepherds with what must have been an astounding, though nonsensical, announcement. There’s the annunciation that kicked it all off. There’s even a squalling baby who’s pretty integral to the plot. But for me, there are two critical pieces to the coming of Christ – Christ coming in the first place, and how we react to that arrival. The distinction is important, because I see that first part as the one which contains all the elements of sound, of language and praise and pronouncement. But the second part, where we are confronted with holiness incarnate and must experience it in relationship, is a silent moment draped in awe and the fullness of being.

It isn’t quiet where I’m writing this; it’s a bustling coffee shop, the week after Christmas, people rejoining to recount their holiday trips, stopping in before continuing to shop and spend gift cards, employees falling back into the groove after an all-too-short break. But I’ve made an effort to find my peace, my joy in Christmas, in the quiet spaces. And for those of us who celebrate the mystery that is Emmanuel, God with us, we are still in the season. Epiphany approaches, and in it we have maybe the strongest example of the contemplative act that is seeking to rest in the presence of the Christ. The wise men seek the Christ, not to speak to a newborn or sing to wake him, but to stand in awe in the full yet silent light of God.

The path of the wise men toward their star isn’t one which requires language, hosannas, or even explanation. It is an intentional walk to meet the face of God, to look into the mysterious Love that is a child born to bring grace. Their walk to the manger is a prayer all its own, and we can mimic the act and its meaning. We can seek the Christ in our own silent meditation, in a walking prayer, in the contemplative moments silence affords. I think it’s what Thomas Merton meant when he prayed, “My God, I pray better to You by breathing. I pray better to You by walking than talking.” The holiness of Christmas is standing silently beside a baby, marveling at the love and creativity wrapped up in its being, and knowing all is well. Merry Epiphany.