The Beatitudes are Like Yogurt

[This is adapted from a sermon I preached Jan. 29]

There is an awful lot that needs to be said about Donald Trump, but I don’t want to begin there. I want to approach American politics via Jesus. And yogurt. So I begin with the Beatitudes. Many Christians think of the Beatitudes as “the New Testament Ten Commandments,” but I prefer to think of them more like “yogurt.” The Ten Commandments are, as it happens, commands. What the Beatitudes and yogurt have in common is that they are both not commands.

The Beatitudes aren’t telling us to do something. They are telling us what is true. Look at the verb construction: “blessed” isn’t a verb here, it’s an adjective. And the verbs in this section are all future tense. Jesus isn’t inventing commands, he’s using a rhetorical frame that goes back to the 6th and 8th century prophets, even back to the Psalms, who use this phrasing, “Blessed are those who walk in the way of the LORD,” to indicate a desired lifestyle, or the presence of God.

But Jesus resists conventional blessing formulas. He takes the traditional formula and twists it, as if staring at one of those eye-manipulating books, blurring and adapting your eyes, until it reveals the picture underneath.

This is a locative speech. It locates us in God’s reality. Jesus is making his first major public speech. A first, major speech isn’t when you tell people what to do. It’s when you tell them what reality is. What reality they are living in, if they want to live in your vision. Jesus’ is outlining the nature of reality, and in doing so, he is telling people: the Roman reality is not the only reality. The highly stratified, polytheist, corruption-based power brokering of Roman elites is not the only way of being.

In first century Judea, all their lives, the people grew up absorbing something entirely different from what Jesus offers. Blessed are the wealthy, says Rome. Blessed are the soldiers who defend the empire and abuse the peasants.

Jesus is describing a reality, but he’s also building a reality. He sets out the vision for his ministry—prepare for the year of blessing the poor!, he declares. Prepare for the year of mercy to the sick and ailing! Prepare for the year of nonviolent, creative resistance to Caesar and the Herodian-Jewish institution that has abandoned the word of God for loyalty to the empire.

Jesus is not making if-then statements. It’s not “if x, then y.” It’s “those who are x will be y.” It’s a present and a future tense observation. Whoever is poor will be blessed. But it’s also descriptive: if you’re looking for the blessed places, go to the poor in spirit. If you’re looking for blessed places, go to those who mourn. Jesus is telling us where blessing exists.

That’s what makes the beatitudes so hard to follow. It’s not about what to do; it’s about where to go, what to look for, where to position yourself to experience faith. The beatitudes are the anchor for everything else Jesus says and does.

Later, Jesus will offer commands. He will say things like “Pray like this.” “Heal like this.” “Eat like this.” But first, he explains what the reality is.

This is why the beatitudes are like yogurt. The beatitudes—the whole Scripture—is a process of fermentation. Scripture doesn’t change our lives all at once. It sits and sits inside of us, incubating, until a moment arrives and we summon up a text and exclaim, “Ah! I understand what I am called to do.”

The Scripture is the yogurt, we are the milk, warmed in the presence of Jesus (I know it’s tacky; I spent a lot of time making yogurt this week). Here, Jesus creates the conditions of transformation. And we sit in the presence of transformation until we are transformed.

But the transformation isn’t always that simple. Yogurt only takes a few hours. Sometimes, our lives are more like kombucha, or wine, or whiskey. We sit on the shelf for years and years before we are transformed. Faith is not an instant thing. Faith is a slow, fermenting transformation.

As we watch the world shift after Trump’s inauguration, as we watch Christians suddenly redefining themselves as activists, we should remember that our activism was not created ex nihilo. It came from somewhere, from a long-fermented, tangy process. This has been inside of us for a long time; this is not a break, it is a continuity. What we do comes from who we already are. We can’t do anything that we didn’t already value.

This week, I went back through the beatitudes, looking at each one, each noun, its connotations in the Greek, the alliteration of phrases, the assonant syllables and the play on words. I dove into the connotations, tried to listen. This is what I heard:

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to teach them, saying:

Blessed are the empaths
for they will find kinship among the kin of God.
Blessed are those who have reasons to cry,
for they will have reasons to rest.
Blessed are those who are mild with their pride,
for the earth will bloom at their touch.
Blessed are those who emptied themselves out pursuing justice,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the compassionate,
for they will feel compassion.
Blessed are those with immaculate backbones,
for God will reveal himself to them.
Blessed are the blacksmiths of peace,
for their hands have the same callouses as the hands of their father God.
Blessed are those who are insulted for their integrity,
for their kinship is among the kin of God.

Blessed are you when your name is in their teeth
and they ruin you with rumors,
promising post-truths because they fear God’s truth.
Cheer up and uplift yourself,
for you will be repaired in heaven.
For in the same way they harassed the holy dissenters
and the social poets who came before you.

 

Advent is Not for the Hopeful, it is for the Tenacious

This post is an excerpt from a sermon I preached Dec. 4. Find the full text here.

This Advent, I’ve heard many Christians saying how excited they are for the season of hope and comfort. After the stress of the election and the beating 2016 has given us, they ask to avoid the dark things and focus on the hope.

When I hear this, I wonder if these Christians are really want comfort or if they want stability. If they are asking to hear peace, peace when there is no peace. I wonder if these Christians are searching not for hope, but for the opiate of the masses. When spoken by the privileged, pleas of hope can sound like pleas for ignorant bliss. Let’s speak of hope, they say, because we have the luxury of choosing when we have to confront oppression.

When the people asking for hope live in middle- and upper-class comfort, it sounds like they are asking for permission to bury their heads in the sand.

I’m tired of the church asking for hope. As a single woman taking an inventory of the harassment I’ve experienced and estimating how much it will grow, I’m not interested in hope for 2017. I’m interested in risk. Solidarity. Deliberate, communal social action Jesus led the disciples into again and again, confronting Jewish and Roman systems of oppression.

The Peaceable Kingdom of Isaiah is a gorgeous image, the wolf lying with the lamb and the goat and the leopard and the child leading them. But it’s also a troubling one. As I reflected on the text, I realized I could not avoid telling a troubling truth: by all accounts, you will have to be vegetarian in the kingdom of God. If the bear is not allowed to eat the cow, if the lion is eating straw—best believe there will be no hamburgers in heaven.

This is the key distinction about Advent hope: Jesus did not come to offer hope that you can eat bacon regardless of your cholesterol; Jesus came to offer hope that vegetarian food is not that bad.

Isaiah 11 is not as tame or comfortable as we’ve made it the Christian church. A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse—and “he will not judge by what he sees with his eyes or decide by what he hears with his ears, but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.”

This is a very polite way of saying wealth redistribution. In the Hebrew text, this word righteousness, tzedeqah, has a deeply nuanced meaning. One Rabbi calls it “distributive justice,” in opposition to the word mishpat, which is retributive justice, or justice to correct individual action. Tzedeqah and mishpat go hand-in-hand. It is blind justice accompanied by justice who is peaking, correcting the failings of blind justice. It is social justice.

The shoot of Jesse doesn’t judge by what he sees—he doesn’t separate out the “deserving poor” from the “undeserving poor.” He across the board develops a sense of justice that has a distinct bias for the poor.

Make no mistake, Isaiah is the prophet who said, in chapter 1:

I hate your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts,
They have become a burden to Me;
I am weary of bearing them.

So when you spread out your hands in prayer,
I will hide My eyes from you;
Yes, even though you multiply prayers,
I will not listen.
Your hands are covered with blood.

Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean;
Remove the evil of your deeds from My sight.
Cease to do evil,

Learn to do good;
Seek justice,
Reprove the ruthless,
Defend the orphan,
Plead for the widow.”

Everything in Isaiah (and the prophets generally) prioritizes the disenfranchised. Everything is correcting social injustice, we say this in the subversive Magnificat: “to the hungry he gives food, turns the rich away empty.” “He uplifts the lowly and scatters the proud-hearted.”

This is, on the one hand, hopeful. But it also means we will be asked to give deeply. And not just asked to give, compelled to give. Our lives will be shaken to the core.

One pastor I spoke with this week put it this way: “God could have just destroyed the wolf and the lion and the snake. But God chose to reintegrate them with the vulnerable creatures.”

Isaiah prophesied in Judah under the reign of several kings. He grew up watching the current superpower, the Assyrian Empire, conquer all the states surrounding Judah. He counseled King Ahaz about how to respond to Assyrian aggression, and in all cases, Isaiah counseled a domestic social policy that preserved the rights and livelihood of the poor. Isaiah’s hope centered on a political policy of responding to the disenfranchised. And, as the book goes on and the kings cut social services and minimize the poor, Isaiah’s laments become more profound. He sees the destruction of the kingdom, the disintegration of the whole social fabric. Paradoxically, Isaiah argues, no international power can destroy the country if their domestic policy is sound. With a claim like that, surely, Isaiah would be a recipient of Donald Trump’s hateful and impulsive tweets.

Jesus’ birth does not bring an easy hope.

The first thing the Savior of the World does is threaten his parents so severely that they leave in the night without a word to their relatives. Joseph and Mary wake in the night and flee to Egypt, leaving their house and property in Nazareth and slipping for several years from the working poor into deep poverty. They become refugees.

The hope of Jesus invites those insulated from oppression–however thinly–to take risks.

If you are looking for comfort this Advent, I’m sure you can find a room at the inn. But if you are looking for Jesus, you’ll have to get out of that fancy hotel room and walk to the parking lot and have a metaphorical cigarette with the homeless family in the ally. That’s where Jesus is.

The hope that Jesus brings is less comfort than resilience. Less complacency than persistence. The hope Jesus brings is tenacity and love and grit.

Hope is itinerant poverty in a tent community in Nazareth.

Hope is that we, Christians and kingdom builders, have more imagination and art and song and resilience than King Herod who clings to the status quo.

Hope is that our emotional intelligence far outstrips that of the politicians who legislate us.

Hope is in downsizing.

There’s nothing glossy in our Advent hope. It is gritty. Hope is remaining committed to lament, for the next four years, every time Donald Trump gets on Twitter or, even more, proposes absurd and unconstitutional legislation. Hope is repeated calls to elected officials even when we know they will not listen. Hope is faithful, nonviolent rebellion.

Hope is participation in a community of resistance. Hope is the depth of our resistance.

martin-niemoller-quote-2

Shawn Mendes, Mercy, and Emotional Labor

I keep a shortlist of words that are used only in church: grace, atonement, sanctification, mercy. My conviction is that they won’t make any sense, theologically, to the average Christian until these words find a place in the day-to-day of our secular lives.

Shawn Mendes’ “Mercy” caught my hopeful attention, his soulful repetition of the word becoming almost prayerful. Which would be great, if Mendes was actually having a conversation with God about the girl in question, a la Beyonce on “Sorry“: “I pray to the Lord you reveal what his truth is.” Beyonce (along with Warsan Shire’s poetry) uses the divine, like a close friend, as a dialogue partner to orient her to her next move in her relationship.

Mendes uses distorted-divine language to deify his love and assign her total power over his body, relinquishing his claim to autonomy and responsibility for his own moral compass. We’ve never seen that one before, have we, Hozier?

In about three listens, I moved from hopeful about “Mercy” to skin-crawlingly creeped out. Of course this song comes from the same imagination who sings, “I know I can treat you better than he can/and any girl like you deserves a gentleman.” I think what I deserve is a little less patronizing tone and a little more trust in my own decision-making capacity. The theological importance of mercy comes from its relationship to power. Mercy can only be bestowed by the powerful. Mercy means receiving a moment of breathing room from someone who has the power to crush you entirely. Mercy means benevolence.

You’ve got a hold on me/Don’t even know your power,” the song begins. Mendes is caught up by a sultry temptress, perhaps even a self-confident feminist, and is completely helpless to control his emotions. In the music video, he literally drowns inside his car, begging the mysterious woman to come open the doors for him. Apparently no one mentioned that the driver’s side door doesn’t have a child safety lock.

shawn-mendes-mercy

Sad Shawn Mendes needs an emotionally intelligent girl to save him from his emotions.

“Mercy” is an extension of the senstive-misogyny conversation. The men who are so in touch with their feelings that they call on empowered women to adapt to their needs. Samhita Mukhopadhyay categorizes them as man-boys: “They are ‘nice guys’ who have been wronged by life and women [who lock them in cars and turn on a hose?]. But upon closer examination we see that these don’t give alternative models of masculinity per se. They do not display nicer, more compassionate, or less sexist behavior toward women; all women are cast as moms or babes, obstacles to overcome or objects of sexual desire.”

Sexuality–intimate relationships–is full of power dynamics. That’s not a bad thing, unless you fail to recognize the power dynamics. The problem with Mercy is Mendes’ assertion that this mysterious woman is  responsible for his emotional state and in fact, has power over his ability to feel love (not to mention, basic functioning). Only the woman, it seems, can unlock him from his own emotions.

Emotions are scary and big, yes. Emotions are uncontrollable. I remind myself, sometimes eight times a day, that I can’t control how I feel about a situation. But I can control how I feel about my feelings. Only you are responsible for how you feel about your feelings.

Only Shawn Mendes is responsible for how Shawn Mendes feels about this woman. Although he places the power at her feet, it is in reality a power play, as if to say “If you care about me at all, you will love me because if you feel anywhere close to neutral I will die.” The only compassionate response, Mendes implies, is to date him. Mercy means you stoop to my emotionally stunted needs. It’s the emotional blackmail of a half-formed adolescent mind.

Fortunately, we can take solace that Shawn Mendes is a half-formed adolescent mind, a 17-year-old international pop star. Less fortunately, “Mercy” peaked at 21 on the Billboard charts (to date) and this message is diving deep into the psyche of teenage girls.

I’ve dated, once or twice, men who play the mercy card. It’s exhilarating, for about five days, to have your body’s power so deeply affirmed. To know that a smile, a word, even a simple action like taking a bite of ice cream, can change someone else’s behavior. And then it is exhausting, to be constantly blamed for someone else’s arousal and activity. To be held responsible for their behavior. To bear in each of your choices the weight of two consciences because this man loves (or wants?) you so desperately that he is unable to wield any control over his own decisions. That’s not cute. That’s emotionally abusive.

It’s a skill to recognize this distorted power pattern in intimate relationships. And it’s not limited to boys; girls can certainly play this game with their male love interests, and it can play out in same-sex or gender-fluid relationships. But girls are especially vulnerable. They are socialized to be in touch with their own emotions and to put others’ emotional needs before their own. Girls are acutely aware of when they’ve made someone else feel bad. Many adolescent girls get stuck in relationships because they are afraid leaving their boyfriend will make him feel bad.

shawn-mendes

…here comes more thinly veiled misogyny!

It will. And it is a difficult lesson to learn that you are not responsible to control or mitigate your partner’s bad feeling, especially if you are not in a covenant commitment to that person, especially if their bad feeling is only relieved when you take on the burned of feeling bad.

Shawn Mendes is a boy who has learned to name his emotions, but hasn’t learned that he is responsible for them. If we teach our boys emotional intelligence, they will learn that asking for mercy is only a shallow way to avoid self-reflection. If we teach our boys, they will learn that they are resilient enough to overcome any crush, no matter how much it feels like drowning. That it is far more important to learn how to sit with your own emotions than to rely on girls to do perform emotional labor for you.

And that is a lesson that will benefit boys and girls alike.

What’s the Difference between a Safety Pin and a Bonnet?

The safety pins came and went quicker than the ice bucket challenge, and were laughed off the internet stage with vitriol usually reserved for, well… Donald Trump. On Sunday morning, I saw several safety pins at church. On Sunday afternoon, my newsfeed was filled with enthusiastic condemnation of the same.

Most of my queer, trans, nonwhite friends have been vocal and insultingly bitter about safety pins. They’ve also been witty and angry. I know their response was too aggressive for the mainstream moderate (at times, abrasive to me), but I can’t help but admire them. They’re my friends, after all, I feel where their pain comes from. I admire their focused anger, all their anger, how can I fault anyone for their anger at the triumph of sociopathy, racism, et. al, you know the list by now? Let us have our anger, in social networks and in the streets, in safe and democratic and uncomfortable ways. Perhaps the source of their anger, in part, is years of being told to “be less angry” by the same people who voted for Trump.

The mainstream moderate, the armchair activist, the good-intending white suburbanite, has taken a beating in the discourse of 2016’s activism. That’s true. My best–if unsympathetic–response is: those rhetorical beatings are teachable (learnable) moments. Be resilient enough to absorb critique. Take it personally, but know it’s not personal. It’s systemic, and untangling yourself from the system is going to hurt. Take it resiliently. My friends’ anger is directed at the emptiness of the gesture–yes, you’ll wear a safety pin to church, but you’ll still drive from the suburbs into Chicago because you’re afraid to risk the diversity and inconvenience of the train. What my friends are saying, under their anger, is, “My body is at risk–and you think a safety pin is the same as a yellow star?”

As I understand it, the purpose of the safety pin is to mark yourself as safe space. But it’s odd to watch Anabaptist friends and acquaintances reach for their safety pins when we have such a long and rich history of other ways to mark ourselves. It’s only the past two generations who grew up matching the department store models. Dresses, beards, plain colors, buttons even after zippers had come into style–Mennonites have a rich legacy of choosing difference. A safety pin pails in comparison.

head-covering-6-high-resNot growing up in a rigid rural Mennonite community, I have a fondness for the headcovering (which, until c. 2013, I thought could interchangeably be called the “doily”). I like the way they stand out, like a hijab, marking an allegiance to some different sort of thing, a choice, a self-selecting into some Great Otherness. The doilies are endearing, subtly resisting the patriotism of sports caps, as if ready at any moment to pour a cup of tea with a stranger. One year in seminary, I considered wearing one for Lent, but was quickly talked down by those in my church who recalled the strict patriarchy of the doily (as well as the logistical challenge of trying to online-order a doily from an Amish outlet).

headcoverings-2

Many of the wise old church women I admire in my congregation now are the same women who grew up refusing to put on the bishop-mandated doilies. As they shed their restrictive clothing, men took off their hats and suspenders, shave their distinctive mustache-less beards. I admire the motivations behind the men and women who chose to leave behind traditional Mennonite dress as they shaped Mennonite Church USA. At the same time, I worry that in shrugging off the headcoverings and beards, they shook off a giant safety pin and said, “Here we are, America. Assimilate us.”

Traditionally, the Mennonites adopted the beard-without-mustache style was a pacifist marker to distinguish themselves from the mustached soldiers of European armies. The beard was a visible sign of the commitment to nonviolence. During the Civil War, plain clothes marked Quakers and Mennonites as likely abolitionist sympathizers, sometimes even stops on the Underground Railroad. In World War I and II, the Mennonite dress marked young conscientious objectors, sometimes making them targets of violence for their unpatriotic anti-war stance. No wonder the allure of assimilation was so hard to resist in the post-war 1950s.

I wonder if we didn’t lose some great Anabaptist conviction when we hung up our black hats and bonnets, when men began to style their beards any way they liked. In some small way, our traditional dress is the camel hair and leather belts that signaled John the Baptist’s prophetic message. I wonder if trading in our simple-chic style wasn’t the beginning of trading in our pacifist beliefs, if we would’ve lost the bonnet even without the feminist movement because we like to be the quiet in the land, but not uncomfortably quiet. Today, only half of Mennonites in MC USA identify as conscientious objectors (that number may have risen since we parted ways with Lancaster and other conferences, but probably by a negligible margin).

mennonite-beard

What I hope for the safety pin wearers is that they go bigger and more Anabaptist. Find other ways of plain clothes, creative-nonviolent expression. What does it mean to mark yourself as safe space in the way that the cross marked Christ? I would love to see the Mennonite beard come back into theological style in Mennonite Church USA. Perhaps a flurry of peace dove tattoos on the wrist or upper arm. A sword beaten into a plowshare. Build up a wardrobe of all-fair-trade clothing and wear it during Lent. Or go a la Shane Claiborne and make your own clothing. Try a large cross necklace (historically, not always a gesture of solidarity or compassion), or even a necklace inscribed with Micah 6:8. I’m not endorsing an all-out return to setting doilies on your head–unless that’s a meaningful step for your faith and feminism. But I would love to have a dialogue circle between Muslim and Mennonite women about possibilities for re-appropriating headcoverings.

This is in our theological bones. Why turn to secular gestures when we have such a rich religious, pacifist legacy of fashion nonconformity? We are made for more than safety pins.

What Changed on Tuesday was my Body

“We have to work harder,” I exhaled, clinging to my friend as I prepared to leave her apartment Tuesday night, the electoral count at 209-238. “Our friends are going to need us.”

“I know,” she said, “I know.”

I have a theological rationalization, a coping strategy, whatever you call it, and at most moments during daylight with friends I can insist we’ll get through four years of Trump with our uteruses in tact. That many people felt this way in 2008, and political reconciliation, and rational optimism. But it’s dishonest to say that’s what occupied my mind. I spent the day home sick (a metaphor of almost Ezekiel proportions), responding and sending a stream of texts to friends in different cities, as if checking their safety after an earthquake or flood. As I moved and tried to move on through Wednesday, I quietly made a list: not policy changes, although there were those, too. The changes my own body would make to compensate for what I know now about the country I live in. The most personal changes. Continue reading

Lady Gaga Might be the Closest We Get to Uniting Rural and Urban America

Among the celebrities with whom I share an irrational sense of intimacy–Russell Wilson, Jonathan Toews, Chance the Rapper, Macklemore (we all have our flaws, okay?)–Lady Gaga comes closest to being a frenemy. She’s like a high school acquaintance who, you find out a decade later, is now dating your high school male BFF (with apologies for the heteronormative analogy). So I was surprised as anyone to find myself fawning over the release of “Joanne” this weekend.

In 2008, my 20-year-old self (always a lyricist at heart) was horrified at Gaga’s single, “Just Dance.” New to the dizziness of alcohol and straight-laced by nature, the thought of losing my phone and keys seemed dire enough to scare me sober from any level of drunkenness. I was astounded by the thought of a woman who could not see straight and still accepted another drink, believing she would get home safe at the end of the night. Continue reading

Cooking Alone

What I like about eggs is making them. A single egg, cracked over a hot skillet, a minute thirty on the first side, a minute on the flip. What I dislike about eggs is eating them. They’re uninspired. Still plain, in spite of my efforts, dressing it with kale, tomatoes, and garlic from my own garden. But simple. And unlike my homey carb-seeking impulse for muffins or zucchini bread for breakfast, I can eat it one setting. I plan my muffin baking around potlucks–or commit to eating four a day in order to finish them. Such suffering is life.

As I approached the one year anniversary of my Simply Seasoned Challenge–to finish the remaining three-quarters of the book’s recipes in three years–I indulged my compulsive perfectionist and counted what percent of the book I’d completed. It should have been roundly 50%. I’ve since deliberately forgotten the exact number, but it was crawling toward 46%. That left me about an extra 14 recipes to fit into the coming year, in addition to this year’s 50 recipes.

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Have you tried to eat a whole recipe of Oven Fries by yourself? I have. (Fail)

Why the failure? Skimming through the unmade summer recipes, I searched for where I’d gone wrong, quickly discovering the obvious: I was single. I’d kept a steady pace through the fall while I dated and dropped off in the spring when my relationship had–telling myself, at the time, that it was because the rhubarb and carrot thinnings came up so slowly (which is equally true). Cooking for and with someone gave me incentive. Cooking alone gave me a strong urge for a second glass of wine. Continue reading