Sometimes—only sometimes—I can see the flood coming.
The warming of our planet and the consequences of a great melt are obvious. I can see the manifold deluges of climate change approaching; I (should) know its first victims will likely be those among us who are already uniquely vulnerable. I step back from the shore and up from the sand. If nothing else, I build my own house on stilts, so I can stay safe and dry, so I can lift up others.
Anxiety wants to keep me at the edge of every flood. Anxiety believes I can hold it back, somehow, even if the waves are lapping at my chin. If I hold on a little longer, whispers a snarled configuration of genes and neurons and memories, I can stop it from coming. I can’t possibly get out of the water. All those people on the shore are depending on me. I don’t imagine for a moment that I could drown. I don’t recognize that all those people on the shore have already seen their individual powerlessness, that they are joining hands and raising up their houses.
Empire benefits from this feeling. When I can’t step back from any particular flood, whether climatological or emotional, I am primed to consume, to blame, to isolate—all responses ripe for exploitation by rapacious corporations, by amoral politicians.
Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.
—Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
It’s easy to forget that King began his public career as a preacher, given everything that came afterwards, and ironic to imagine that he preached from the same Bible that was used to justify slavery and segregation. King showed up how and why he did because of his faith, not despite it, and I think the quotation above offers a glimpse at King’s image of God, as, in the photo here, he both points towards the world beyond us and opens his hand to the world before us.
What is power, and what is love? Believing God to be limitless in both is an example of the cataphatic theology Micah mentioned in his sermon yesterday. It’s not enough, he said, to know either what God is (cataphatic theology) or what God isnot(apaphatic theology); these are in conversation with each other. Maybe the same can be said of all of us, that none of us is the grand sum of what we are or the differences of what we are not.
I stayed after the service for Mystery School, Judson’s loose riff on Bible study, in which we read the Parable of the Prodigal Son. What’s going to stay with me from that discussion is the notion of deserving, or lack thereof, in that text: the older son cannot deserve the celebration the father gave his younger son any more than the younger son can deserve to get his inheritance back. Neither can either son deserve more punishment than they’ve already given themselves. The father, presumably wiser than his sons, knows both of these things. It’s a parable about forgiveness, certainly, but also about a healthy questioning of our notions of deserving, which grace is always waiting to lovingly dismantle if we allow it.
King took that concept and crafted political and economic policy around it, one of so many reasons we continue to celebrate his legacy. And while we fight for the large-scale change he imagined, we can also do his work in small ways, on ourselves and among the people we see every day. I’m constantly challenged to reevaluate my notions of deservingness: who deserves help? Everyone. Who deserves the shame I bring on myself and the judgment I bring on others? No one. The wisest refuse black-and-white definitions of who has earned anything, as Jesus did, as he invited us to do in that parable and in so many other ways.
We are all reflected in the image of God. There are easy and toothless versions of what that means, like “colorblindness” and its relatives; there are more pernicious variations of blindness and ignorance that would leave each to their respective fates. We can do more by seeking the cataphatic and apaphatic images of God in each other, and by being both to the rest of the world.
If your New Year’s resolution involves posting more trivial updates online and you still don’t succeed, maybe you are the kind of person for whom New Year’s resolutions are just not a thing. My New Year’s resolution for the last three years has been to update my Goodreads regularly, and I’ve failed every year, even in 2018 when I attempted the 52 Week Reading Project (I ended up somewhere in the 40s, which is still pretty respectable).
So we’re 1-for-1 in church attendance in the liturgical season of Epiphany and in the calendar year 2020. Over the past few months, my attendance at formal (ha!) church services has been more scattershot than it’s been since before 2010 (my Decade in Review, had I written one, would have prominently featured my eventually successful search for a church home in New York City). Most regular readers of my church blogs will know this already, but in case you didn’t, I’m expecting the arrival of our first little one in May, and I’ve struggled mightily with the pregnancy symptoms that have helped me to get better acquainted than ever with my bed and my couch. And even when I was at church, much of the time I once spent writing was spent sleeping or dealing with brain fog or headaches that don’t make close and extended proximity to screens all that comfortable, so blogging fell to the wayside for the better part of the past few months. But I’m hoping, as the worst of the symptoms (very gradually) subside, to return to a fairly regular blogging schedule and figure out how to keep making this writing thing work in a way that will be sustainable when the little one arrives.
So. Epiphany. We remember one trio fleeing (the Holy Family) and another heading home (the Wise Men). Appropriate, since the news, in this young year, constantly asks me to choose between fleeing for another country or simply barricading myself and my small family in our apartment for approximately always. (I enjoyed, and by “enjoyed” I mean I did not enjoy, the Twitter discourse around Christmas regarding whether or not the Holy Family were “refugees.” Technically, at the moment of Jesus’s birth, maybe not, but by the time they fled into Egypt during/after the massacre of the Holy Innocents? I mean, yes, obviously. Seems like a pretty open-and-shut case of a matter of life and death to me!) It should be blindingly obvious to us, as Christians, at this time of year especially, that war, poverty, and the destruction of the natural world are great evils, and yet the election and news cycles invite us to debate these points, as if our tradition doesn’t repeatedly and explicitly condemn all of the above, as if the worship of empire didn’t bring about the death of the Holy Innocents and, eventually, of Jesus Christ himself. As James Taylor wrote in “Home By Another Way,” “A king who would slaughter the innocents/Will never cut a deal for you.” What is this other way?
Empire, as a concept, is built on lies. (I’ll pause for a moment to let us all contemplate the delicious irony of the Empire State, where so many of us call home.) You can think of any number of lies that exist solely to prop up hegemony, colonialism, the rampant abuses of late-stage capitalism. Poor people are poor because they don’t work hard. Conversely, Work hard enough and you, too, can become rich. Closely related: Some people don’t deserve [x] because [y], never mind the fact that a great many people who seem to be holding on to [x] just fine cannot point to anything, or at least not anything truly supererogatory, that would mark them as deserving.
But one of the most pernicious, insidious lies of empire is the lie of Never Enough. It’s one of the most foundational and therefore the most difficult to uproot. And maybe the only lie harder to uproot from our empire thinking than Never Enough Money is Never Enough Time. Because, as the thinking goes, you can always make more money, but you can’t make more time.
Giving to church has changed in some ways since I was confirmed in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 1997. Judson accepts gifts in the time-honored forms of cash and checks, of course, but plenty of people donate via Venmo, and we break up our yearly pledge into monthly credit card payments. So I rarely find myself digging in my wallet for cash to stuff an envelope the way I did when I was a teenager. But I gave, obviously in paltry amounts, from a young age, as the daughter of a church treasurer who reminded me that churches were not exempt from the demands of Pennsylvania Power and Light or the elevator repair service. Unsexy though that may sound, it’s still a stewardship narrative, and as the year leans towards an end, there’s no shortage of them around our church and many others.
Autumn isn’t typically the time of year to be thinking about planting seeds. It’s the time of harvest, the time of storing up and shoring up. But in the wake of the Climate March and Strike, we found ourselves today wondering what seeds we can plant, among ourselves and others, to inspire change and movement around the coming chaos, disaster, and mass death that unchecked climate change will surely bring.
And so I found myself wondering if things might have been different if the environmental movement had had a different message all along. When I was growing up, and maybe even as recently as a few years ago, I received the message of the environmental movement as a message about the Earth: protect the Earth, keep it clean. I dutifully recycled and took public transit and ate no, or at least less, meat. But Greta Thunberg and her young allies in climate activism put it bluntly: The future for young people looks fragile, even bleak, indeed, and even more fragile and bleak for the young people of the developing world. The Earth will survive us if necessary. But we will not survive an Earth that is rapidly warming, flooding, storming, and burning, much of it aggravated (even if all of not directly caused) by human activity. Climate change deniers may scoff at the idea of protecting the spotted owl from extinction until they realize, likely too late, how the spotted owl (or any other vulnerable species) is also a canary in a coal mine.