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American Conservative Evangelicalism: Woe To You, You Blind Guides…

Disclaimer: Before I say anything, I need to be clear that nothing here reflects my work as a pastor in the United Methodist Church and specifically Aldersgate United Methodist Church where I am currently appointed. This is a reflection on my own experience and my own personal opinion. It is my story. Also, I want to be clear that as I condemn Conservative Evangelical Christianity, I also recognize that there are a great many evangelical Christians who are good, honest, faithful people, who are grappling with these issues as I am. But some hard words need to be said, and they need to be said, because I believe that there are Evangelicals out there gripped in the same snares that trapped me many years ago who need to know that their inner stirrings are not wrong. Also, there may be some crude language here in which some might offense. I chose these words carefully, and these are times when I believe bold language is warranted. If it offends you, I challenge you not to be as offended by these words as the content they describe. With all that in mind…

OBJ_T_014…I’m angry. Like really angry. When I was a senior in high school, I found Jesus. It was a true kind of spiritual awakening. Something real happened in me that I cannot deny, and it dramatically altered the trajectory of my life. I felt a kind of wholeness for which my soul longed.

The only context I knew, however, in which to live out this new found faith was the conservative evangelical world of the early 90s. Things were different then. There was no social media where religious ideas were wantonly traded, and in order to find out anything about a church or religious community you physically had to go there. The front door of a church was its literal front door, not a website or social media feed. Because of this, religious communities were far more insular and isolated. And, so, not growing up in the church, all I knew was what had been exposed to me, which was Conservative Evangelical Christianity.

When I went to college at the University of Minnesota someone from the church in which I was involved got me connected to the conservative evangelical organization Campus Crusade for Christ (known today as “Cru”, I believe). I was a new and passionate Christian, deeply desiring to grow in my faith. I got hooked into their weekly gathering, a men’s Bible study, and I was given a mentor (or “discipler” as I recall we called it).

When it boiled down to it, everything was about being a good Christian- a true, solid, Bible-believing, faithful, unashamed Christian. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In a very real way I still strive for that today. But there was one problem. Well, actually there were lots of problems, but there was one big problem in particular: Pretty much all we ever talked about was sex and sexuality. The mark of one’s faith became mostly about the degree to which one was “pure”. Did you masturbate this week? Did you make out with your girlfriend last weekend? Did you have impure thoughts about that classmate this morning? Did you masturbate this week? Might your roommate be gay? If so, can you find a new one? Have you watched any R-rated movies with nudity recently? Did you masturbate this week? On and on it went. Everything was about “purity”.

As I grew in my involvement in this world, I realized it wasn’t just this organization that had this obsession. Circles of Evangelical Christianity across the nation had a similar obsession. Women were forced to be overly aware of how they dressed, so as not to “tempt” the men. Men were forced to be overly obsessed with their thoughts, so as to “take our thoughts captive”. The world was one giant cesspool of sexuality out to hijack our souls if we weren’t careful. The devil lurked around the corner at every party, at every club downtown, at every movie, in every empty dorm room, and in the back seat of every car, and sex was his game. Be alert, be shrewd- or be corrupted.

I didn’t realize it then but this created a high amount of intense anxiety in me.

First, I grew up in a home and context where acceptance of broad sexual identities and gender orientations were the norm. As I came to Evangelical Christianity, it was made clear to me that the Bible “clearly condemned” this, but I didn’t understand why, and there were a lot of other parts of the Bible I was interested in too… like those four books about Jesus, for example. I struggled with accepting, embracing, and even later becoming an ambassador of sorts for LGBTQ exclusion. I had a deep wrestling with this, about which I could not talk to anyone because this was the litmus test of one’s faith. I was literally told, “if you want to know if someone actually believes the Bible or not, just ask them for their opinions on homosexuality. If they think it’s okay, they don’t believe the Bible”. This wrestling began in me in 1990, and I wasn’t truly free from it until 2012. That’s 22 years (half of my life and the vast majority of my Christianity) of secretly wondering if I really was a Christian or not.

Second, I struggled with the idea that as “the man”, I was called to be the spiritual head of my relationship with my girlfriend. She actually seemed to have a deeper and more pure faith than me, especially since I was usually the one subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) sending signals that I wanted to make out. Did I really have to be the “spiritual head”? What does that even mean? Can’t we just make out from time to time, go to movies, hang with friends, and one day get married? “No, Paul, you must lead her in purity, and in order to do so you must be pure. If you cannot, you may need to consider breaking up.” Not only was my faith in question, but so too was the love of my life. I was tormented.

Third, growing up in a progressive home, politically I was brought up on hard DFL values. But all of this obsession with sex and sexuality in the Conservative Evangelical Christian context was connected to the GOP, the party of “family values”. The family- that is, one man and one woman, with 2.5 straight kids, going to church every Sunday family- was the foundation of any healthy community. If we mess with that, we mess the very fabric of our culture. Because of this, part of this “purity” factor was voting Republican, something I had never done. To vote otherwise spoke to a compromised faith.

As allegations of affairs and sexual harassment involving President Clinton came to the fore, the pressure to support Republican candidates intensified. Among the words used to describe President Clinton were “disgusting”, “filthy”, an “abomination to family values”, and even “evil”. We recognized that ss Christians we were called to love, but it was actually ok to hate Bill Clinton. And this was all before the news regarding Monica Lewinsky broke. Once that report was published (and let’s be honest, what Bill Clinton did is one of the, if not the, greatest abuses of power and sexual harassment we have ever seen), the deal was sealed: Any God-fearing, Bible-believing Christian could not vote for a democrat because it was the party of sexual deviancy and therefore the party that would bring God’s judgement on America.

When I say this bred anxiety in me, I don’t say it lightly. The combination of the obsession with my sex life and thought patterns, coupled with a pressure to vote a certain way because of this sexual moral ethic, left me worried every day of my life about whether I was saved or not- whether I was a true Christian or not. I loved Jesus (and still do), but the fact that I voted for Bill Clinton twice (as well as other democrats in other races, like Paul Wellstone), coupled with my inability to resist even wanting to make out with my girlfriend (and soon to be wife), tripled with my quiet belief that gay people might actually be able to have healthy relationships, families and sexual ethics left me quietly isolated and afraid that my “impurities” defiled not only my body, but my mind, heart, soul and subsequently my faith as well. In short, I was tormented.

Yes, Bill Clinton was gross. I couldn’t deny that, and, quite honestly, I still don’t. And Conservative Evangelical Christianity stood in solidarity with Republican politicians who were the party of “family values” and “purity”. And because of this, they were the party of Christianity (so I was taught). Sexual purity in all its forms- including standing against sexual harassment at the highest levels- was the calling card of the Republican party.

Here’s what I’ve discovered over the last decade, but particularly in the last 18 months: It’s all bullshit. It’s total and utter bullshit, steeped in lies and deception at the lowest levels. There are many beautiful and wonderful Conservative Evangelicals out there, who are authentically trying to find there way through this world just as I am, but as a whole, the overwhelming support for Donald Trump, and now Roy Moore, by the Conservative Evangelical Church exposes what we’ve always known to be true, but didn’t have the smoking gun point to: It’s all bullshit, and they are frauds.

The Conservative Evangelical Church does not care about “purity” and “family values”. I’m not sure exactly what it is that they do care about, but it seems to be money and patriarchy more than anything else, and the overwhelming support for Trump and Moore by evangelicals exposes it. As I’m writing this, Senator Al Franken is resigning his seat in the Senate because of sexual harassment allegations. And he should (I said it on day one of the allegations against him). But how can those who voted for Donald J. Trump, whose allegations are far worse and more wide spread than Franken’s, condemn the “disgusting” behavior of Al Franken and call him unfit for office without condemning the president they voted for as well?

Do you know how they can do this? Because they don’t care about sexual purity or ethics. They care about money, sex, power, and by that I mean, they care about having full access to all the money, sex, and power they can get their hands on. I said at the beginning of this diatribe that I’m angry, and I am. And many of you current and former Conservative Evangelicals should be too. We’ve been duped.

All that obsession and anxiety around “sexual purity” was for naught. After all I endured in this indoctrination in my twenties, I now have to tolerate the “Pussy-Grabber-In-Chief”? And I have to allow a man who is essentially a pedophile into the halls of the senate? And all the while Al Franken isn’t for for office? So I’m angry.

I’m not angry because I need a political win for the left. When it comes down to it, my hope really isn’t any political party or system. I’m angry because your rhetoric still abounds today and is likely instilling in people the same kind of anxiety and inner torture I experienced so long ago. That’s why I’m angry.

I’m angry because I (and I’m sure countless others) listened to and embraced this bullshit rhetoric for years (for over a decade in my case), with ramifications on my relationships and mental health that I’m still working through today. You, Conservative Evangelical Christianity, are a fraud. When Franklin Graham (False Prophet In Chief, these days) tweeted “Never in my lifetime have we had a @POTUS willing to take such a strong outspoken stand for the Christian faith like @realDonaldTrump…”, I was Gobsmacked. This president embodies nothing of the values into which you indoctrinated me and you know it. But what he does do is a great job of propping up your power and patriarchy, so you’re all in.

You can rationalize it away all you want, but that’s exactly what you told me not to do 20 years ago when I was wondering about multiple matters involving sex and sexuality: “Your rationalizing, Paul.” There’s no way out of this for you, Conservative Evangelicalism, except to condemn President Trump (and demand his resignation) and Judge Moore just as you did President Clinton 20 years ago and are doing today with Al Franken. You can’t have it both ways. I won’t let you. You took too much from me for too long. You won’t sell a cake to a gay couple in the name of “purity” and “sanctity”, but you’ll sell your soul to the Pussy-Grabber-In-Chief. It’s time the Church itself called you out.

Conservative Evangelical leaders, woe to you, you blind guides.

I Am A Roman Centurion

There is a lot of reason to wonder about the degree to which the western world is in the midst of a reformation these days. From the advent of new technology that has rocked the world to the subsequent various reimaginings of the faith, these are indeed interesting times. As a former cmacro-ground-warm-hd-1080P-wallpaperonservative evangelical, one of the beauties of these times is a serious and growing new expression of Christianity coming from former conservative evangelicals like myself.

Many of us have to come to see the many dire, dangerous, and deadly failings of our former religious identity, but within that we also have experiences from our past which are undeniably real- experiences not only connected to some kind of other being, but one expressly connected to the character of Jesus Christ, which has been, and continues to be, at the center of our religious experience and identity. By this I mean not merely the person of Jesus as described in the canonical gospels, but also (as a friend of mine once said) the more conceptual idea of “the jesus” that exists in religious expressions and humans throughout time and space.

All of that is to say that as we hang on to those very real experiences of “the jesus” in our lives, many of us also often come to startling crises of faith as we reimagine the wafer thin religious alignment of our pasts. I stumbled on one of those today. If you’re looking for a great ongoing conversation around these matters, check out The Liturgist Podcast. It’s beautiful. Today I was listening to one of their recent live recordings titled “God our Mother”.

Now let me clear: The idea of the sacred feminine is not new to me. I’ve been on a journey with this for about seven years now, and it was one of my exit points from conservative evangelicalism. But as I listened, Science Mike posed a question based off of some things Christina Cleveland had just outlined that troubled my soul and spirit in all the right and good ways: He asked, specifically for folk like him and I- that is, straight, white guys- “…how do we relate to a faith created by the marginalized when we are citizens of Rome and often its centurions?”

I’ve believed for over a decade about the ways in which America and the American Church are new Rome more so than a new Israel. And in that I viewed myself as one of the countercultural ragamuffin renegades standing in distinction from, if not resistance to, that power. But when Science Mike asked that question, I came to see that not only am I not what I thought I was, but that I was indeed nearly its opposite. I am not a resister to the oppressive Roman religious power, I am guardian of it. I am a centurion.

This is all very a much a mixed bag, but there is a way in which (or perhaps better stated many ways in which), as a straight, married, white, cis-gender, male, pastor I am a centurion of Rome, guarding its systems of power, expanding its imperial reach in society, and benefiting from its patriarchy. Though I may often preach equality, my language, practice, and polity often reflect a distinctly white, euro, male structure, even if not entirely obvious to me.

The question I sit in and wrestle with today is what now? Do I have the courage to lay down my privilege and let the “Black Madonna” repaint my faith? Am I willing to step into the words of Jesus and really let the last be first and the first be last by let new expressions, new metaphors, and new structures reshape my religious identity? Am I willing to let maleness and whiteness and straightness head to the back of the line? Am I ok with being corrected, rebuked, and minimized as I do so? Am I willing to be liberated from the comfortable shackles of 500 years of self-imposed patriarchal protestantism? If I’m honest: I don’t know.

Beneath the hard angled, stiff bricked and cemented structure in which I lead worship every Sunday lay a buried messy earth, silenced in over half a century of foundation. What secrets does she have? What liturgies of liberation abide in her? What songs of salvation have I muted that have not only marginalized those who don’t look nor identify as I do, but have also chained me in the comfortable shackles of power?

I am a Roman Centurion in need of liberation.

Why I “Stand” With Kaepernick #takeaknee

200It was about a year ago when Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the National Anthem and all hell broke loose. Here we are a year later, Kaepernick doesn’t have a job, and this is still a hot issue. I’ve been thinking about it a lot over the last year. I’ve been trying to assess what it’s all about and why it matters so much, and I’ve been trying to see both sides in the process.

I get why people are deeply offended by him taking a knee. There is something to be said for taking that moment at a sports gathering to remember things that matter more, not the least of which is showing some respect to the country in which we live and which really is a great place to live. I understand that the raising of the flag and the singing of the anthem means even more to those who’ve served in our military and particularly for those who’ve fought and are fighting in our wars. And I get that it’s hard for people for whom that means so much to watch others take a knee during it, effectively sitting out.

But with all that in mind, and having really listened to those points, I’m at a point where I’m with Kap. Everything we’re talking about when it comes to the National Anthem is symbolic. It is something that represents something else that’s real. The blood, sweat, tears and lives given in fighting in our military are real- very real- but the flag is a symbol. The song is a symbol. And I love symbols. As a pastor symbols play a massive role in much of what I do. And what I’ve said about religious symbols also applies to any symbol, and that is that while they are beautiful, they are also dangerous. When our relationship with the symbol becomes more important than human sitting (in Kap’s case literally kneeling) next to me, the symbol has begun to play too significant of a role in our life.

I believe the flag and the anthem have begun to play too significant of a role in our collective lives here in America. And what Kap did was expose it. Kap didn’t take a knee to disrespect soldiers. He took a knee because something in him said, “I just can’t stand up and give myself to a flag that has enslaved and murdered black bodies since its inception”. You see, what people of color have experienced in this country over the last few centuries is real. And though there have been many noble, good and great people who have fought for our freedom, what we white people need to start hearing and getting is that this freedom is one that people of color have (generally speaking) simply not experienced as we have.

The history on this is long, convoluted, and buried, but it’s there. Yet we’ve heard the voices of black America crying out for centuries, and in the last four years that voice has begun to cry out again in a particular way. Every time it cries, white American largely dismisses it. We pat black America on the back and say, “oh it’s ok, honey, it’s not as bad as you think”. No, friends, it’s not as good as we think. As we dismiss the cries for black lives, we not only dismiss the content, but we also critique the form, which effectively silences the cries. No matter how it is that black America cries out for justice, we tell them that their means are wrong, so therefore we don’t have to listen.

When I think about Kaepernick’s protest, I think it may just be perfect: First of all, why would we expect him to stand and honor a flag that, though it has given him some huge blessings in the success he’s had in the NFL, it has systematically marginalized his race? Furthermore why would we expect him to stand and honor a flag and sing a song to that flag whose 3rd verse reads “No refuge could save the hireling and slave/ From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave/ And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave/ O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave”? The land of the free has slaves?

So Kap decided, “I can’t do it”. He was being honest to what is going on inside of him. To stand and sing would be a charade. I’ll be honest: There have been times in my not so distant pass where my soul has been troubled with enough doubt and sorrow that I could not stand and sing “Amazing Grace”. It would be dishonest. But as a pastor sometimes I need to do that, just as a soldier stands and sings no matter how she/he/they may feel. As far as I know, Colin Kaepernick is not a soldier. So he took a knee.

On top of all that, he did it discreetly. Certainly he knew the cameras would find him (you can only be so discreet on an NFL sideline), but he quietly took a knee on the sideline, and did not make a show of it himself. The media made it a show. And, yes, he probably knew that would happen and is part of the reason he did it, but still, he quietly knelt and chose not to sing. Not only that, he didn’t tell anyone else they shouldn’t sing. he prevented no one other than himself from honoring America, and he simply made a personal choice consistent with his thoughts, feelings, and experience.

In these ways, it’s a nearly perfect form of nonviolent protest: personal, authentic, legal, powerful, and clear.

And he’s gotten black-balled for it. Colin Kaepernick can’t find a job, primarily because he’s not that great of a football player, but also certainly because of his protest. Teams don’t want the distraction. That is a natural consequence of his actions in 2017 America. If he were at a Tom Brady level, he’d have a job. It would be worth the distraction. But what’s also true is if he hadn’t been true to himself and simply stood and sang, he’d also have a job. He’s good enough in a quarterback hungry league to have a job somewhere. (I, for one, would love to see him in purple and gold backing up Sam Bradford. After all, with our offensive line, we need a QB who can run.) But Kap doesn’t have a job. And he doesn’t because he called out America’s racism in a clear and powerful way.

It’s quite amazing. You can rape women, beat your kid, bet on dog fights, and incur numerous DUIs in the NFL and still have a job making millions. But you take a knee during the anthem, and you’re out. The symbol has become valued above and beyond the way we’re treating humans (and dogs). Our relationship to the symbol is out of whack, and Colin Kaepernick called it out.

He called out the god under whom America is one nation: and that god is the stars and stripes. The god we worship is the flag and the way we worship it is by singing The Star Spangled Banner. And Colin Kaepernick gets the credit for exposing our idolatry. It is exposed as idolatry not because we stand and sing, but because of how we respond to those who choose not to.

We have a nasty disgusting sin of enslavement and genocide in our nation’s system, and we need to get honest about it. Don’t deflect it. Don’t deny it. Start really letting in the cries of the oppressed in our midst. It’s there. I get why so many boo him, and if that’s you, you absolutely have the right to do that. I’m just asking you to really examine why you boo. And I’m sorry but I can’t stomach the “men and women gave their lives to protect our freedom” rhetoric. Imbedded in that statement is the notion that every military action this nation has taken has been one to defend our freedom. We’re fools if we think that’s true.

More often than not these days, what so many women and men have died defending is western imperialism. And that is not a critique of those who have fought and died in those actions, it is a critique of the women and men who sent them there to do it. It is a critique of those at the top who exploit soldiers’ loyalty and send them off to protect national interests in the veneer of “freedom”. This is not always the case, but it is enough that we cannot give military operations a free pass. Those soldiers need to be respected and remembered and taken care of, but not necessarily the causes for which they were forced and sent to fight.

All of that is to say, I stand (or rather kneel) with Colin Kaepernick. I hear the cries, I see the pain, and I don’t want to be party to it anymore. I have a ton yet to learn, and a lot of courage to muster to fight for equality in more than symbolic ways, but for now, when I enter that NFL stadium on Thursday, though Kap won’t be there, he should be, and so I will kneel for him. I’ll sit this one out for you, Kap. And if you ever don my beloved purple and gold, I’ll sit one out with you.

Let It Break

Collapsed potThere’s a lot I don’t know. When I was in my 30s I didn’t think there was a lot I didn’t know, but as I’ve moved into my 40s I’ve become acutely aware of just how much I don’t know. But at the same time, I have been distracted lately but something that seems clear to me, and something we simply must come to grips with:

The United Methodist Church is not united (alert the media). The more we say that, the more we let that in, the better at this point. There are some really well intended, smart, wise, sacrificial people working really hard to find a way forward for us to avoid a schism, but the reality is that one already exists. And as much as I have liked to blame this division on the challenges of the cultural differences that exist in a global denomination, I think I’m beginning to see that this schism isn’t merely global. It’s local, it’s national, it’s not defined by geographical boundaries. On one side we have a movement seeking inclusion and equality with the LGBTQ+ community, and on the other side we have a movement trying to preserve our Book of Discipline’s exclusionary stance on such matters. As for me, I will continue to do what I can to battle for inclusion, but at the same time, I think we also need to come to grips with the idea that a split may actually be what’s best for us. The rift within the body may be too great. But more so, why are we so afraid of splitting?

A split is not failure. Splits have been the story of Christianity from the beginning. Prophets have been working for and calling for reform since the beginning. From a Christian perspective, reform began with a radical movement working for increased justice in a system that needed it. As with Luther and Wesley, Jesus had no plans on “splitting” from Judaism, and nor did he or his disciples ever do that. They loved their faith, but they also wanted to see some reform within it. Eventually the reform they sought led to a whole new kind of faith expression. The same was true of Luther and the same was true of Wesley.  But what ended up happening? Splits. It’s seems to be the natural course of things. So why are we so afraid of it? Denominational splits are only failure to the degree that The Reformation was a failure.

That is not to say that we should seek out splits or be quick to split. Part of what has made past movements so powerful is their leaders’ commitment to seek reform before split. There is no virtue in quickly grabbing our ball going home. But at some point you have to come to grips with the reality that it is time to go home. We can no longer play nice anymore, and the best thing for both of us is to split. I am reminded of a roommate situation my sophomore year in college. An old high school friend and I decided to room together. At first it was fun, but then it started not going so well. We got to a point where for the sake of the friendship I moved out. We’re still friends today. At some point you have to stop denying that something’s not working.

When the South Central Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church brought the election of Bishop Oliveto to the Judicial Council as an invalid election because she is a professing Lesbian, rather than waiting for the Commission on the Way Forward to do its work, the degree of our division was exposed. It’s time to split. But why are we so resistant to it? Since when is the Church afraid of broken things? We are in the business of broken things. A broken body is our M.O. It is out of broken things that God brings new and beautiful life. So I say, beloved, let it break.

Yes, there are massive administrative complications, not the least of which are property and pension. And I don’t want to minimize these, as they have very real and felt consequences. The challenges in an institution this large cannot be dismissed nor denied, but at the same time, how can we preach the Gospels and at the same time let institutional complexities drive us? When we worry about who will retain assets in a split, I cannot help but hear Jesus saying “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). And when we fight to stay in a destructive relationship for the sake of pension, I cannot help but hear Jesus telling a rich young man that if he wants to follow him he should sell and everything he has, give it to the poor and then come follow him, to which the text tells us “When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions” (Mark 10:22). If the complications of property and pension keep us from leaving our comforts and systems to follow Jesus, then when these texts come up in our lectionaries we owe to it to our congregations to say “this doesn’t apply to us.”

All of this is to say I think it’s time we got honest about a split. A denominational split, whether it’s into two things or splintered into many, is not failure. It may in fact be the way of God through space and time. The Biblical narrative is rich with stories of the organizing structures of God’s people coming to places of fracture, and more often than not, beautiful things come out of it. And of course the ultimate example is the literal breaking of the body of Christ. The very body of Jesus was broken- split- and why? For us: “This is my body broken for you…” It seemed like failure at the time. It seemed like it was all over. But on the third day something so glorious and beautiful rose from the brokenness that Jesus’ followers didn’t even recognize it.

Might it be so too with the United Methodist Church? Breaking may seem like failure, but perhaps it is only to the degree that the cross was a failure. What if we simply name the divide that is already here, and just let it break? There will be a hard, hard, “three days” to follow it, but I believe that on that “third day”, something will rise out of it that is so beautiful and glorious that I might not even recognize it… but I sure do want to be a part of it. Yes, Jesus prayed “that they may all be one”, but he did so on the precipice of breaking his body. Is it possible that we might be more “one” in breaking than in trying to stay together? So I say, let’s let it break.

This is not to say that God planned this (or any other) division. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about God in my life, it’s that God works with the clay at hand. And sometimes the clay becomes so brittle that it needs some water, and then needs to be picked up, thumped on the wheel, and then reshaped- sometimes into separate pieces. I wonder if all too often we apply Biblical metaphors to our personal formation and not enough to our communal formation. God may be saying that it’s to time to form something new here, but, unlike clay, we are a living organism with agency. We need to let God reshape us. It’s hard, yes, and there will need to be some grieving, but there is also incredible opportunity. This may be it for the United Methodist Church as we know it, but it’s not the end of God, God’s people, and God’s good Earth.

So let’s let it break. Let’s stop trying to hide in the safety of the wombs of our systems, and let’s move toward the new life to which God may just be leading us.

Re-Imagining Maundy Thursday

towel-and-basin-2When you don’t grow up in something, you tend to be more curious about whatever that something may be. Call it a blessing or a curse, but that’s how I am about church stuff. I didn’t grow up in church, which means that there is little that the church does that to me is unquestionably necessary, and because of that I’m constantly asking why, and I’m particularly prone to do so with what we call things (I love words). From a language standpoint there may be no stranger day in the Christian calendar than Maundy Thursday. Some churches ignore this strange word all together and simple call it “Holy Thursday”. Some churches ignore the whole day! But even if we’re not asking why is it called ‘Maundy’, we still should at least ask what this Thursday before Easter is all about.

First let’s get this out of the way: It’s not “Maunday Thursday”. It’s not like Jesus snuck in an 8th day of the week, although I don’t think Jesus would argue with singing “eight days a week I love you” to us. It’s Maundy Thursday, which is a strange word begging the question “what in the world does maundy mean”?

Before we dig into that, let’s look at what it has come to mean functionally for the Christian church. It’s become the descriptor of the Thursday before Easter, and it recalls the scene in John 13 where Jesus washes his disciples feet. This is where it gets confusing. You see, if you read the Gospels closely you’ll find that in John, the disciples gather prior to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, but what doesn’t happen is what we call the “Institution of the Lord’s Supper” (without getting mired in the details, the chronology gets messy). Isn’t it kind of amazing that the most central activity of the Christian Church through history (on par with baptism) does not happen in one of the Gospels? That aside, this gathering gets placed on “the night before the festival of the Passover”, so traditionally we think of it as what we now call Thursday. So we have this gathering on the Thursday before Easter and central to it is often Holy Communion (because that shows up in Matthew, Mark and Luke just prior to Jesus’ arrest), but in John we get the most awkward of all Christian practices: The foot washing.

In the midst of the meal, Jesus gets up and washes his disciples’ feet. This is a profound act of humility and service, and when he is done he says, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14, NRSV). Later in the scene Jesus says what is known as the “new commandment”, which is, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34–35 NRSV).

Here’s where it all comes together. There are some big words (at least as I understand it- Jewish friends, please correct me if I’m off base here) when it comes to 1st Century Jewish people, which Jesus and his disciples were, by the way . Two of those words are “covenant” and “commandment”. Keep in mind that neither of these are meant to eradicated in Jesus, but are meant to be fulfilled and extended him, which is why the Christian Bible contains the “Old Testament”- or “Old Covenant”- as part of its sacred story. In Luke, Jesus mentions a “new covenant” (this is huge, but a whole other post). In John Jesus mentions a new commandment. There are the 10 commandments. Then there is the “greatest commandment” in the Gospels. And here, in the final hours of Jesus’ life he gives a “new commandment”. The Latin word for “commandment” ismandatum (see where this is going?). This scene in John 13 is (in our modern day western way of tracking days), in this sense, “Mandatum Thursday” or “Maundy Thursday”.

The heart of the day by virtue of its name is the new commandment to love one another as Jesus loved us. The example that Jesus had just given to his disciples about what that love looks like was in washing their feet. It was in humbling himself in service to the other. I think one could take the back half of that new commandment and rephrase it to say, “by this everyone will know that you’re disciples: the degree to which you pick up the basin and the towel in love for one another.”

There is nothing wrong or bad about having another worship service during Holy Week on Thursday. There really isn’t. It can be a beautiful and powerful service, and though these Maundy Thursday services are too often viewed in relation to Holy Week how the NIT is to March Madness in college basketball, you should go if your community has one. You really should. It’s part of the Holy Week journey.

But I also wonder if there’s something we’re missing about this “Mandate” Thursday, about “Commandment Thursday”. I wonder if it’s a day when we shouldn’t “go to church” as much as be the church. I wonder if it’s a day when we maybe also shouldn’t go to work or school. After all this is the new commandment. That’s heavy stuff. Maybe this should be the day when the church, as it is spread across the globe, should grab the basin and towel and head out into the world in service to it. Maybe it should be the day that we remind ourselves of some of Jesus’ last words to us, and indeed his last commandment to us, and in this sense a reminder of what we’re all about. What if the church was all over the dirt of the earth, not ceremonially washing feet, but metaphorically doing so in service to the communities in which we live and which we are called to love?

In Matthew Jesus’ last words to us are what is known as the Great Commission, and the church often sees these words as our “marching orders” (so to speak). Those words are, in short, to “Go and make disciples…”. But in John Jesus tells us how “everyone will know that you are my disciples.” It’s not by gathering in a sanctuary or worship center and singing songs, hearing a sermon, and engaging in some kind of ceremony or ritual. It’s not by how much Bible we know, how often we go to church, and how many activities we engage in. No, everyone will know we are Jesus’ disciples by how much we love one another as exemplified by the degree to which we lay ourselves down in service to one another and the world- that is by the degree to which we are a people of the basin and the towel.

Have a blessed Maundy Thursday, everyone.

Time.

I wrote this back in 2009. As the world continues to rush around us on its axis, I keep coming back to it. I need to listen to it more than I need to publish it:

We’ve all heard it said that time is money. Well if this is so, then why is that we when we’re doing nothing we say we’re wasting time? If I’m doing nothing with money, if I’m not using it, we would say I’m saving it. So why isn’t it that way with time? When we’re doing nothing with our time we say we’re wasting it. Nooooo. That’s not right. That’s saving time. That’s taking time by the horns and saying “you’re mine”.

Have you ever thought about how much time you waste by doing? No one has an excess of time, you know. It’s not like some people are given more than others. We’re all given 24 hours in a day, and 60 minutes in an hour. No one can change that. So how can we say that some have more time? It’s your time, you know. Just like a financial adviser would tell you that you need to get control of your finances so that they don’t control you, I say get control of your time so that it doesn’t get control of you.

Stop spending it. Save some. Put some in the bank and do nothing with it. It’s okay, you can do it. God even commanded it. Seriously, check it out. So take some time and do nothing with it. If some one says, “hey, what are you doing?”, you can say “nothing”.

1616364974_2ab35d9c541“Nothing, really? Well than come on over and help me do….”

“No, no, I’m sorry. You don’t understand. I’m doing nothing. That’s what I’m doing.”

“So you’re just wasting time?”

“Nope. Saving it.”

So save some time today. Do nothing. Quit spending more than you have, because one day hard times will hit. The Time Market will crash and you’ll wish you had some saved up.

Have a Wonder-Full 2017

It’s been a helluva year. 2016 is one that will certainly go down in US History books for obvious reasons, but even if you remove the election, it was still one helluva year. Every now and then at the end of a year I do a little “looking back” (or as the wise sage Yogi Berra once said, “looking back in retrospect”), and just in case something happens, I usually wait until the year is completely over to do so. Here we are, five days still left in 2016, but I’m feeling compelled to reflect. Maybe because it’s been such a year, that I just can’t stomach another thing in these five days. So here I go:  But where do I start? Not sure where to start, I went back into my Twitter feed to the beginning of 2016 to see what might’ve been stirring in me and in the world at that time. That’s one of the things I love about Twitter… that question it asks: “What’s happening?”

Well, I was launching a sermon series and daily blog on the Gospel of Luke a year ago, so most of my first tweets of 2016 were about that and the fact that the Vikings managed to win the NFC North. What a difference a year makes. But one of my tweets connecting to my blog on the Gospel of Luke looks, in retrospect, to be somewhat prophetic:

I have been saying to my congregation since the Republican and Democratic conventions that I do not recall a time in my life when this nation seemed as anxious as it does right now. There is a tension in our nation right now that is so thick that you can almost feel it in the air we breathe. On January 4, 2016 I had no idea just how anxiety-inducing this year would be. I don’t need to replay it all for us, but let me just scratch the surface on a few things that struck me in particular.

The Election: It is the #1 story of the year, without question. All along Donald Trump was making noise, and if you could look back on conversations with my friends you will hear me saying, “everybody calm down… after the New Year, when there are actual primaries, America will wake up and Trump will disappear in no time.” I could not have been more wrong. I shoulda listened to my friend Joe, a bonafide prophet, who kept saying, “I don’t know, we need to be careful.” In the end, this election bred deep anxiety on both sides of the political aisle. The left was (and is more so now) terrified of Trump (and there are reasons to be so), and the right was terrified of Hillary (decades of loathing doesn’t just go away). The tension is thick.

13010614_10208942482101403_1588018010296067225_nPrince: We had already lost Bowie and Snape and George Martin, as well as some others, but for me, this one hit hard. I didn’t see it coming, but Prince’s death hit me like a tidal wave. And in some ways, you got this sense when he died that something was up with 2016. It was only April, and you just knew that it wouldn’t be the end. Muhammed Ali, Gene Wilder, and Leonard Cohen, were just a few others that struck me after Prince died, and then, just yesterday, George Michael. I don’t know what the Grammies are gonna do with their memorial segment. It could take up the whole show. Sometimes it snows in April. :\

Jacob Wetterling: This is how huge this year was. Locally this was a huge story, and I almost forgot about it. His disappearance gripped the state of Minnesota and was for decades considered our state’s greatest mystery. That mystery came to an end in September as Jacob’s abductor and killer finally came clean (as clean as a “deal” can be), confessed, and revealed the location of Jacob’s remains. My only solace in it was that at least Jacob’s torture was only for a night. I had longed feared that he had endured, or even was enduring, decades of torture. That weekend, it seemed the entire state shone brightly with porch lights of hope for all missing and abducted persons. This was a pic I tweeted of my neighborhood that night. Not a great pic, but a powerful image.

 

The Cubs: This team just can’t buy a break. One of the greatest stories in sports took place this year, as after 108 years of choking, the Cubs finally won it all. And, yet, even when they win, they lose: The win itself was unforgettable, but it also came in one of the best game 7s ever (as a lifelong Twins fan and attendee of the 1991 game 7 I refuse to give this year’s the top spot alone!), and a week later it was gone- lost in one the most gripping presidential elections in US history. Everybody, in a year that was loaded with so much anxiety, let us not forget the joy of the lovable losers finally winning it all! Go, Cubs, Go. Hey Chicago, what d’you say? It’s been a crappy year. So, Chicago, don’t feel guilty about boldly and joyfully flying that W.

 

Standing Rock: I don’t know what it is, but something clicked in me when violence broke out int eh DAPL standoff on late October. Shortly thereafter there was a call for clergy to come, and I knew Just had to go. This important story also got lost in the election, but if you ask me it was one of the most significant stories of the year. I am still frustrated with President Obama’s silence. I wrote a few pieces on the situation there. Here’s one. And I’m sure some dumb pic of Trump or Hillary will win it, but if you ask me, this is the pic of the year:

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And in the context of the image above, this is a close second:

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Alton Sterling, Philando Castille, Dallas, and Black Lives Matter: The movement and struggle for black lives continued in 2016, and without getting into the depths of it, I think it’s safe to say that anxieties are high in this nation when it comes to race. Many of us thought Martin Luther King’s dream was realized in January of 2008 when we inaugurated a black president, but 2016 was another reminder that racism is so deeply embedded in the fabric of this nation that not even a black president could neither cure it nor realize its end. I’ve struggled with the movement for black lives, not quite getting exactly where I land on it and what my voice in it is. I transferred seminaries from Luther Sem in St. Paul to the Iliff School of Theology in Denver this fall and I took advantage of a class offered at Iliff called “Black Lives Matter”. It was the hardest class I’ve every taken in my life both academically and emotionally. I learned a ton, but I think the most important lesson I learned was this: Fellow white folk: We need to shut up and listen. Really listen. Just. Listen.

I could go on. From meaningful celebrity deaths, to an anxiety plunging election, to broken sports curses  getting lost to centuries long plights for black, brown and red lives, 2016 was a heavy, heavy year. When I look back on the words I wrote on January 4, 2016, I realize that more often than not, I did not do well in turning to wonder when overwhelmed. I turned to anxiety, to fear, to judgement, to slander, to rage, to despair, and at times to hate. I don’t know that 2017 will be any less anxious for us. We are a divided people. A great socio-political chasm exists between us, and our best hope is- perhaps- not to continue to dig our heels in, but somehow to find a way to bridge it. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t speak- or even shout- hard truths. But it does mean that we should be careful about how we do so. And by we, I mean “we” but maybe mostly “I”.

A good friend of mine does this thing where instead of a New Years Resolution, she picks a New Years theme. One year it was “Look Up”. I’ve adopted this practice, and because I’m a slow learner, I’ve basically had the same theme for the last three years: “Spot the Beauty.” This year, I’m going to heed my own words from January 4, 2016 and head into 2017 with a new theme: “Turn to Wonder.”  With that, I close this quasi-year-in-review with an excerpt from my January 4th, 2016 blog post from “A Look a Luke”:

I love that picture of Mary. She’s a 12-14 year old girl, and she is thinking deeply about what’s happening. In what was probably a confusing  time, she turns to wonder. This has been a hard journey. It’s been long, and it’s been hard, and it’s going to continue to be hard. She was, I’m sure, terrified, uncertain and confused. She had to be wondering what God was doing in all of this. And in her confusion, she turns to wonder. There have been confusing times in my life- times where I have no clue what’s happening, no clue where God is in it, and no clue what might be in store. In those times, I usually turn to fear, anxiety, and even frustration. I pray that I may take a clue here from Mary: When I’m uncertain, afraid, and confused, while there may be fear, can I muster up the strength to turn to wonder? Can I muster up the courage to get outside of myself, step outside into the air, and to look up and into the stars to see just how massive the universe is and how within it, God holds me? Do I trust God enough to turn to wonder? And in so doing to trade anxiety for peace?

Beloved, have a happy, beautiful, peaceful, and indeed wonder-full 2017.

O Little Town of Robbinsdale

In 2004 a beautiful insanity entered our home. Here’s something I wrote a in 2009 about that day. Happy birthday, girls!

It was a cold, dark December night and it was time. Two girls who had been fighting to enter the world for over a month were coming. Ready or not, they were coming. A rattled mother and father gathered up their things, their 19-month old son and headed out on their journey. You could feel the bitter cold fighting its way through the windows. The sky was pure black. Homes and businesses lay deep in a “night before Christmas Eve” slumber. All the while this family was wide awake, hurried, excited and fearful, speeding through the streets of Maple Grove, Plymouth, Crystal and on into Robbinsdale. Not a soul seemed to be stirring but for this five in a humble minivan.

It didn’t take long. Within an hour of leaving home, two girls lay silently in North Memorial hospital cribs while the community slumbered before its Christmas festivities. And there we lay, a new born family of five in a hospital. The slightly premature beauties found their home in the NICU. A strange, but mysteriously beautiful place to spend Christmas Eve. While the world dons its gay apparel, carves its roast beast, and decks its halls, many care for the world’s smallest just trying to make it. Something distinctly Kingdom took place there. Something distinctly Christmas took place there in an NICU in Robbinsdale, MN. No fanfare, no hoopla, little to no gay apparel, roast beasts or decked halls. Just babies born in ways no one expected nor hoped; babies born with less than average chances, but with teams of people willing to fight with everything they have to give them life. That’s Christmas, that’s God in the flesh; people giving everything they have to give those with less than average chances a chance to make it in this scary but beautiful world. Yes, indeed it was, distinctly Christmas. The most strangely wonderful Christmas of my life.

Happy birthday, beloved.

13 years of A&N.001
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My Letter to U of MN President Kaler

13615416_10209580625294584_3377453851685514708_nI doubt it will even get read, and I tried to keep short, but I just couldn’t. I’m always calling upon my congregation to do what they can to shine light into a dark world, so this is just my meager effort in doing that. Regardless, it helped my soul to send it.  Here’s my letter to University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler:

Hello President Kaler and Staff,
I am writing to you today as a concerned alumnus and lifelong Gopher sports fan (I wanted to include Athletic Director Mark Coyle as well, but I could not find his contact information). Every now and then something flips a switch in a person and you realize you have to do something about it. That happened to me this weekend when the news broke that the football team had called a boycott in light of feeling that due process had been given in the sexual assault case from earlier this year. As I watched those players address the media feeling they had been wronged, a switch flipped in me around sexual violence on campus. I know this is an issue on campuses across the country and I know it’s an issue about which the University of Minnesota cares deeply and on which it has been working hard to quell. I loved my years at the U, and as someone who spent 15 years working with teenagers in churches and is now the pastor of a church in town, my heart swells with pride when on “Grad Sundays” one of my students announces that s/he is going to be a Gopher. They always get a “ski-u-mah” from their pastor.
My heart broke for my alma mater this weekend as I watched these football players citing themselves as the victim. There’s a lot I don’t know when it comes to policies, procedures, due process, etc., but here’s what I do know: All too often we men- especially young men- have no idea how our words, actions, and mere presence impact women. The number of women I know of who have been sexually assaulted on campuses is shocking to me. Men are assaulting women on campuses across the nation without even knowing it sometimes. Furthermore the “machismo” culture in men’s sports makes matter worse. There is probably nothing to say here that you don’t already know, but this it a serious issue and I don’t know that it’s getting any better.
When coach Claeys said on Twitter that he had “never been more proud of our kids”, it hit me how much of this issue starts with him. I’ve been a Gopher sports fan my whole life (I grew up in Minneapolis), and I’ve been hearing about sexual assault by Gopher athletes my whole life. While Coach Claeys has back tracked on his tweet (a little), I think his tweet reveals that he is utterly clueless when it comes to the nature and psychology of sexual violence, yet he has more influence on these young man than anyone. Because of this, I am calling for the immediate dismissal of coach Claeys. We need someone leading these young men who will teach them about more than football. The Gopher Football team is a group of men that could probably have more positive impact on matters of sexual violence on campus than any other group. Other young men will listen to them and they will be heard. We need someone leading them who does not need to be taught about the nature and psychology of sexual violence.
Furthermore, I am also calling for a rigorous, intentional and practical curriculum for men’s sports teams, starting with the football team, to be educated on matters regarding sexual violence in such a way that they not merely learn about it but become the campus leaders in matters of sexual violence. Sexual assault is not a women’s issues. It’s a men’s issue. What if the University of Minnesota became the school where its athletes are known as leaders and advocates on these matters, not the perpetrators? What if instead of being known as people who wonder how far they can go without getting into trouble, they became known as advocates for the health and safety of women on campus? How amazing would that be? We have an opportunity before us to revolutionize men’s athletics, but it’s going to take work. It can’t be mere lip service.
I am a man of little influence when it comes to the University of Minnesota. I cannot afford to support it financially nor can even even afford to attend many athletic events. From a financial standpoint, you will not miss me at all. But I love my alma mater, and I don’t want to stop supporting its athletic teams that I love. But until I see Coach Claeys dismissed and I see some serious plans in place to make our male athletes leaders on campus on these matters, I will not be rooting for the Gopher football team. In next week’s Holiday Bowl, I will cheer for the Washington State Cougars, and until I see those changes, I will be finding another football team in the Big Ten to support, and will be using the limited influence I have to encourage others to do the same. I am just one small voice of many, but I hope you will hear me. I am very concerned about the young women I send off to college campuses across the country, and I would love to send them to my beloved alma mater with a little more confidence. No matter our win/loss record, Big 10 standing, or bowl game presence, being a leader on the issue of sexual violence would make Gopher Football a winner in this alum’s eyes.
Thank you for your time. Ski-U-Mah
pastor paul baudhuin, Aldersgate United Methodist Church

What I Didn’t Preach: Sacred Land, Prayer, Daniel & a Black Snake

img_7454-3It’s one of those texts and one of those Sundays: There’s too much in the text and there’s too much in the world. So every now and then you get these kind of intersections where you have to discern what sermon to preach. You only get one, and making more than one into one makes a bad one. Today I preached about the “long night” of Advent. It’s a thing. But there was something else deep in my heart around this text that I chose not preach today, because, as I said, you only get one, and you have to trust the Spirit on which one to preach. So here’s what I didn’t preach today, but which is still aggressively trying to climb out of me:

Today we looked at Daniel 6, which is where Daniel gets thrown into the lions’ den for praying to his god. Here’s the scene: Israel is in exile. They have been conquered and sent into exile and are thoroughly in the grips of another regime. But, as can happen, some Israelites find favor with power and are called to serve the regime in prestigious ways. Daniel is one such fellow. The problem is, well, that pesky thing called humanity. His peers get jealous and threatened by his success. So they set a trap for the ever faithful Daniel. They convince King Darius to pass a law that prohibits the worship of anyone or anything but King Darius. We can only speculate as to why Darius passes this law. Perhaps flattery? It doesn’t matter.

So what happens? Well the obvious. Daniel’s peers go to him just at the time when we faces his holy, sacred land- the city of Jerusalem- to pray to God. They catch him, bring him to King Darius and demand that he be thrown into the lions’ den as the law dictates. Darius regrets this law and does not want to do it, but he must. So into the lions’ den Daniel goes. An angel tends to him there all night by shutting the mouths of the lions, Daniel is saved, and Darius passes a new law that all must worship Daniel’s god (why he didn’t do that before putting him in the lion’s den, I don’t know, but that’s not the point). It’s a happy ending (except for that small little detail of the entire nation of Israel still being oppressed and in exile).

What strikes me is this: Daniel’s response to oppression. He is a faithful Jew, living in oppression and says nothing in this whole story until after he is saved from the lions. The only time it’s even mentioned that he says anything at all is when he is in prayer. Daniel’s response to oppression, even in a seat of power, is prayer. It’s among the most famous stories in the Bible, and when we read it we credit Daniel as faithful and wise just as the text does.

Yet at the same time, today, right now, and for months, another people have responded to oppression in prayer. The people of Standing Rock represent just one tribe of many native peoples who had their land stolen and were led into a kind of exile- an exile on their own land. Someone arbitrarily decided where their land would end and where it would begin, and like Darius and his conspirators, they keep changing the rules to work in their favor. As a black snake plows forward through their holy and scared land to threaten their very source of life, the people of Standing Rock face increased oppression. We may not be comfortable with that word but that’s what it is. They live- and have lived for centuries- under the exiling oppressive arm of the United States of America. What has been their response?

They turn toward their holy land to pray. And, like Daniel, the king’s conspirators have them thrown into the modern day lions’ den of hand cuffs, dog kennels, pepper spray, water cannons, rubber bullets, tear gas, and who knows what else may come as they threaten to evict the Oceti Sakowin camp within the week. The “Biblical values” on which the United States were supposedly founded are not found coming from the king’s throne in Washington, but are found on the camps of Standing Rock.

But this time there appears to be no angel shutting the lions’ mouths. The hand of God seems to be absent, mute, and impotent. But what if the hand of God isn’t absent? I would argue that it’s not. But it is mute and impotent. Advent is the season in which we wait for God to come here and dwell with us. It is when we cry out in our desperate moments for God to meet us here in the flesh. And God did. God came in the flesh as a man called Jesus who is also called “Emmanuel”, which means “God with us”.

But where is this Jesus now? Where is this God in the flesh now? It’s a fair and necessary question. As the story goes, Jesus leads a radical revolution of turning the establishment on its head, is crucified for it- that is, has his body was broken for it- is buried, rises from the dead in wholeness, and then ascends to Heaven. And as this “God-in-the-flesh” ascends, he says, among other things, that we are the ones to go and be (in a sense) God in the flesh in the world. This is why we pray whenever we come to the Communion Table, “pour out your Spirit on these gifts of bread and wine that they may become the body and blood of Christ for us that we may be the Body of Christ for the world.

Beloved, the Church- by the power of the Spirit within us- is the hand of God in the world. We are the ones who are to fulfill the prophet Isaiah’s word that Christ took on as his mission in Luke 4 to, “bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18, Isaiah 61:1). We now are the Body of Christ for the world- that charge is ours.

The people of Standing Rock are Daniel in the lions’ den right now, and there is a raging lion manifested as a black snake waiting to devour them. It is our job to do what we can to show up and shut that snake’s mouth. The people of Standing Rock are embodying the faithful, while the Church has largely been mute and impotent, too distracted by what’s happening with the king’s castle and crown.

As we head into Advent, the stakes are high, and we need to remember that when it comes to oppressed people throughout the world, we are to stand up for them. It doesn’t always fit nicely into our shopping, cookie exchanges, and office parties, but it’s what our call is. If we want to put “Christ back into Christmas”, our task is not to say “merry Christmas” at the checkout counter at Target; our task is to embody Christ by standing in solidarity with those on the margins of society. Or in this case, those whose own margins society continually shrinks down until they have none. So, come, let’s stand together as the very presence of God in the world- as emmanuel- to do the hard work of shutting the mouth of the black snake.