Yoga and Barth

I want to tell you something about yoga, a gimpy knee, Karl Barth and a darn amazing yoga instructor.
 
For over a year, I’ve had recurring knee issues that have interrupted my running. A dozen or so years ago, I had trouble with my right knee, and for some reason that I can only attribute to middle age, the whole flame-up went for a full-blown 2nd round. My physical therapist has me doing knee stabilization exercises out the wazzoo. You should see me balancing and squatting on the Bosu Ball. I started as a wobbler, looked like a one-man demon-possessed seesaw; but now I can mostly keep it steady. Not graceful, mind you, but steady. I’ve got a nifty velcro-it-on icepack I use 2-3 times a day. I’ve got turmeric pills for inflammation and an organic blue-hot cream to ease the pain. I even hook up a stretchy strap to the kitchen table for a whole other round of therapy. It’s something else.
 
The thing I have working in my favor, though, far above the exercises and ice and all the homeopathic remedies is a yoga instructor named Miska Collier. She’s truly fantastic. Is there anything about me that says “Yoga”? Nope. And though Miska swears by it, I still say that the hot stuff where they heat the room to within a few degrees of Hades is absolutely insane…but she and I will just have to let our marital vows hold us and agree to disagree.
 
However, among the other forms of yoga she teaches, Miska teaches Yin Yoga. It’s a slow yoga that, as I’m told, helps your connective tissue and your joints, not to mention flexibility. Well, you know what I need help with? Bingo – connective tissue, joints and flexibility (as well as a writing shed, but I don’t think yoga has an answer for me there). Yin also has a contemplative, restful vibe. In other words, it helps people like me whose mind revs at breakneck RPMs to chill the heck out.
 
On our sabbaths, then (Fridays), Miska’s been doing Yin Yoga with me. And for newbies like me (people who are not easily given to twisting their body into the shape of a pretzel), you need blocks so you can rest your arms and ease into the posture. We didn’t have blocks at the house, so you know what she grabbed? My five volumes of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. There I was, literally resting on Barth as I was doing my yoga. In case you haven’t read Barth, the most distinguished Protestant theologian of the last century, I’ll just say that I’m certain his bushy eyebrows would have gone haywire as he uttered a string of “Neins!!” Perhaps you don’t get the humor here. That’s fine. I think it’s a hoot.
 
What I’m learning is that my body has definitely run headlong into the rickety mid-range of life. I’ve also learned how to balance like a champ on the Bosu Ball. And I’ve learned that yoga, even for guys like me, can be remarkably restorative for body, soul and mind. The knees are getting stronger. I’ll be out on the trail again before you know it.

Prayers of Repentance on August 12th

Daniel Tafjord

On August 12th, 2018, churches of varying ethnicities worshiped together in Charlottesville, remembering the violence a year previous and lamenting the evil those days made painfully obvious. I participated in Prayers of Repentance. The prayers broke me, yet grace was on full display. I pray these prayers might be so, deep in our heart. And I pray that this reckoning might transform us to do, as John the Baptist preached, “works worthy of repentance.” By God’s mercy.

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Repentance is how those of us who follow Jesus respond when we become aware of wrong we’ve done, wrong done on our behalf or evil in our collective experience. To repent is to tell the truth and then to seek to change, by God’s mercy. Whenever we are awakened by the Holy Spirit to the depths of either our personal or our national sin, then we discover repentance as God’s gift to us. Repentance is how we cling to God’s grace as we renounce evil. When we repent, we courageously name the wrong, and we rely on divine mercy to make us faithful to change our ways and to enable us to participate with God in mending what is broken. We must repent because there is no healing without repentance. We cannot deal with a wound if we never acknowledge the wound exists. And friends, a wound exists. This weekend gives evidence of the wound. But this is an old wound; it has festered since our country’s founding.

Remember the words Jesus preached: Repent, for the Kingdom of God has come near. The Kingdom of God is a kingdom of justice and holiness and healing and restoration, the Kingdom of radical welcome – and when the Kingdom of God comes near, repentance is one necessary response. We believe that in Jesus the Kingdom of God has come near, and so we repent. We repent for the sin in our own hearts where that is appropriate. And today it is my place to specifically repent on behalf of the majority white church. We repent because of the sins of our history, our churches, our city and our nation.

Pray with me

“Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love,
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.” Psalm 52:1-2
Forgive us, Lord, By your Mercy

Almighty God, we repent because we have failed in your most basic commandments: we have failed to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and mind; and we have failed to love our neighbor as ourselves. *
Forgive us, Lord, By your Mercy

 We repent for the wealth secured on the backs of slave labor. We repent for land stolen from indigenous peoples. We repent for Jamestown, the first landing spot where our forefathers brought slaves to America. We repent of the forced slave labor used to build Monticello and the University and much of our city. We repent of lynchings and Jim Crow and the destruction of Vinegar Hill and mass incarceration and the ongoing evil of White Supremacy. We repent for how economic power, social power, educational power and legal power has often been used against our sisters and brothers of color. *
Forgive us, Lord. By your Mercy

And Lord, with heavy hearts we repent for every time your church has been unfaithful to you, every time we have propagated these evils rather than pronounced your judgment over them, every time we have gone silent when we should have named injustice, every time we have failed to act in defense of the oppressed. We have sinned against you and against our sisters and brothers. *
Forgive us, Lord. By your Mercy

We repent because we have bowed our knees to false gods and ideologies. We have abandoned the way of your Cross, where we are called to lay down our life for you and for the sake of love. Instead, we have coddled, and benefited from, systems of power that deny our brotherhood and sisterhood with all people you love and created, all people who bear the holiness and brilliance of your image. God, we have aligned ourselves with political powers that betray our witness as followers of Jesus. We have not stood beside our friends, beside communities of color, when evil pressed upon them. We have bowed to the false god of fear, the false god of power, the false god of superiority, the false god of safety and the false god of apathy. *
Forgive us, Lord. By your Mercy

We repent for how the Church, we who profess Jesus as Lord and we who announce the arrival of the Kingdom of God, we who are called to live as witnesses to your Resurrection and New Creation – we have often denied our faith and denied our Lord by living no different from the false kingdoms of this world. We in the white church have often held the resources and maneuvered the power. We have acted as though our voice and our theological distinctives and our preferences are the final word. We have not listened with open ears and open hearts. We have dismissed our brothers and sisters of color when we should have asked them to lead us. And God help us, we have not believed our sisters and brothers when they have told us what is happening, when they have expressed their pain, when they have reached out their hands in friendship. We have failed your name, Jesus, and we have betrayed the Family of God. And we repent with sorrow and humility. *
Forgive us, Lord. By your Mercy

A Mess of a Church

Adam Morse

When I heard how a big shot Christian had bilked mission money in Venezuela to line his own pockets, I didn’t so much as blink. Years earlier during college, a summer mission landed me with him for a week. I’d only been in his room at the Hyatt a few minutes before I realized I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. He enjoyed expensive food and wore gold rings the size of silver dollars like small pets on his meaty fingers. He liked to treat himself to $10 manicures at his favorite Caracas nail parlor. I remember one afternoon him insisting we had to go see “a guy.” We walked into a jewelry shop, where he and the owner leaned on opposite sides of a glass case and whispered and argued and leaned in closer as they haggled over something that I think had to do with precious metals up in the mountains. It was all hush-hush. I had no idea what was going on, but it was shady x 100.

I’m not the smartest fellow, but I was pretty certain this wasn’t God’s work. Unfortunately I’ve seen shady over and again since then, and yes, often by the very people who quote their Scripture and say their prayers. You don’t have to be around long to find out that lots of Christians act like devils. Sometimes it’s embarrassing to be a Christian. Worse, being a Christian will inevitably leave you scarred. Joining this community of salvation means being thrown in the lot with the very hellions, like us, who actually need redemption.

Since I’m breathing and have two ears, I know the Church has created a wake of wounded people. I have wounds of my own. We only need to read the Bible a few pages to realize our Book doesn’t give us a sugar-coated story of people who, once deciding to follow the Holy, embark on a constant arc of righteousness. Our faithful kin murder and swindle and ravage. And we continue the story.  We can be the meanest, the greediest, the most obnoxious. I know more than a few Christians who are generous and selfless and love with abandon, but we all know there’s a malignant side to our story too.

I offer no excuse for this vileness, only sorrow. Abusers must be named and wrongs brought to light and oppressive or destructive ideas dismantled. My knees knock when I hear Peter’s words that judgment must begin with the family of God. I believe evil done in God’s name is the worst form of wickedness.

And yet, despite all our hypocrisy and lunacy, I believe in the Church more than I ever have. The Church is not a place where good people get better but a place where awful people see the truth and find hope, if we’ll have it, to be new. The Church is a visible community offering tangible grace in the world not because the people who inhabit her are so winsome or moral but rather because God, in Jesus, takes ugly things and makes them beautiful. The story of Jesus is, if nothing else, the story of mercy to the very ones who least deserve it. So of course, the mercy starts with us. God knows we need it.

The Church is necessary, a scarred beauty, because Jesus inhabits this mess of a people. Jesus does not stay aloof from the ruin, but puts both feet smack in the mucky center. Jesus harrows even hell. And then God uses the smoldering, scattered pieces – think of it – as the fragments for restoration. Jesus makes a bunch of people I’d typically avoid to be his presence in the world. If you wanted grace to be the theme of your story, how else would you do it?

And so we do not navigate around the mess or try to remove ourselves from the trouble, the ambiguity. We don’t spin our mental wheels pining after some idyllic pure church. We suffer with it. Like Jesus.

Flannery O’Connor says it well:

I think the Church is the only thing that is going to make a terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the church as for it….

 

The Way We Treat Jesus

So when those friends of Jesus who had actually lived as friends of Jesus stood before God, they were welcomed into the Kingdom with raucous greeting. They were even taken aback a little by all the exuberance when Jesus threw his arms wide and beamed like he’d just seen his favorite uncle. “Thank you, dear friends, for feeding me and clothing me and welcoming me.”

Those friends, though glad to hear such effusive praise, were more than a little perplexed. “Uhh…thank you, Jesus. We always hoped we were living faithful to your Way, but..ummm…remind us again when exactly we fed you and clothed you and welcomed you?”

“Oh, yes,” Jesus answered, “it’s easy to not know you’re dealing with me in the world, isn’t it…since I’m always there, always present, always showing up in the middle of the life you’re already living and in the people you see every day.”

The friends glanced at one another, hoping someone knew what the heaven Jesus was talking about.Mercifully, Jesus continued. “Well, when I was your hungry neighbor, you filled my belly. When I was shivering without a coat, you handed me a winter parka. And when I stood, trembling and lonely as an immigrant in your country, you greeted me like a friend.”

{a retelling of Matthew 25}

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Immigration is a complicated issue. However, not as complicated as we’re making it. I can not imagine any scenario where this story goes in such a way that our country’s current practice of separating immigrant and refugee children from their mothers and fathers finds Jesus saying to us: “Thank you, friends, for how you treated me.”

Politicos may approach these questions with sterile calculus, but as followers of Jesus, we think and act in an entirely different way. We care for and befriend those at the margins, we come alongside the most vulnerable (children) because Jesus says in so doing, we are caring for and befriending him.

Unbidden Kindness

Joseph Barrientos

Do you, like me, have those moments that give you a soul-deep sigh, that lighten your heart, that keep you willing to bet your last dollar that the whole thing is for real and God is actually with us? These wisps of wonder aren’t nearly as often as I’d like, but often enough to return me to the center, to notice the light cracking through, to keep watching for the magic.

These flashes are rarely earth-bending, but ordinary graces. It’s spending most of the day reading letters and journals from a dear old soul who, in ordinary language and plain cadence, makes me know I’m not entirely insane, that mercy is abundant and most of the BS we know is BS actually is BS. It’s feeling that jolt of joy when our youngest walks through the door, me breaking out in applause, because he’s kicked middle school to the curb and I’m so proud of who he is. It’s hearing our oldest in his room, even in the late, late hours, belting out his tunes as he vigorously hits the licks on his guitar–realizing this is my favorite music and it won’t last forever. It’s watching Miska from the window as she tends to her garden, stunned yet again by the beauty, elegance and mystery of this woman who owns my heart. It’s a goofy gif text from a friend, or a note that says “wish you were here so we could throw steaks on the grill.” It’s a subtle pleasure, remembering every hour or so that tonight the family’s heading to Plaza Azteca to celebrate the end of the school year with tableside guac, fajitas and tacos. And laughter.

Don’t get me wrong: there’s plenty of sorrow, fear, trouble. But these graces, these plain, scattered mercies, are enough of a good word to lift the heavy heart and coax me on.

It’s something like Walker Percy’s lines: “It’s a question of being so pitiful that God takes pity on us, looks down and says, ‘He’s done for. Let’s give him a few good words.’”

These few good words prove enough to buoy us, to rouse us to our life. Though they are unexpected and unbidden — always out of our control — we live by these ordinary moments of divine kindness.

Sundays

image by Jørgen Håland

Sundays are for worship and napping. And taking a little tour of our herb garden where Miska guides me (again, because I always forget the particulars) through the holy basil, the mullein, the daffodils, the lavender, the oregano. She shakes the poppy plants, and we grin at the sound of rattling seeds, nature’s maracas. She coaxes me to touch the velvety carpet of the roman camomile, a bed fit for a queen.

Juno, our black mouser, flops over at Miska’s feet, insisting Miska scratch him while he purrs, swatting at Miska if she stops before Juno deems appropriate. Miska does as Juno demands; then she reaches her fingers into the rich soil, a gesture of wonder and delight and prayer.

Watching her, I envision the Great Creator, at the beginning of human time – and still now – reaching hands down into the soil of this world and taking great, great joy in all the beauty. Our worship with the gathered community, with the liturgy and the Scriptures and the Eucharist, centers us, and having done its work, it sends us, dispersed into our scattered, holy places. And in a hundred ordinary corners, the worship and the liturgy continues. For us, it carries us into gardens and naps and later into an evening with friends. We must worship, and we must indulge in God’s good earth, and we must rest. This is a feast. These are our liturgies. It is all of a whole: one life, one God, one grand and beautiful day.

O’Connor: Walking Backwards in Holy Week

illustration by Greg Ruth

Yesterday, Palm Sunday, was Flannery O’Connor’s birthday. She would have been 93, and I would have taken great joy watching this iconoclast toss firecrackers into our modern sensibilities. Strange, isn’t it, to think O’Conner could have lived into the era of Twitter if lupus hadn’t cut her low at 39. Did you know that O’Conner’s first claim to fame was when she was six? A British newsreel company traveled to her family farm in Millsville, Georgia, to capture young Flannery’s (she went by Mary then) feat: she taught a chicken to walk backwards. “I was just there to assist the chicken,” she would explain later, “but it was the high point in my life. Everything since has been anticlimax.”

Hyperbole, of course, but O’Conner did, in so many ways, walk backwards into her world. She was a farm girl, spending much of her energies raising both barnyard poultry and exotic fowl (with particular interest in peacocks). She was Southern, which made her an oddity among the literary elite. She was Catholic, which made her an oddity among the Southern aristocracy. Yet she was a person of her place, a person of her people. She wrote the world in which she lived. When criticized for her stories’ dark underbelly, O’Connor was unmoved. “The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism… when I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.”

Isn’t it strange that Christian faith has so often been used as a means to deny our bleakest realities? Isn’t it strange that some of our weakest art, our most naive fiction, our blandest passions, arrive with the label ‘Christian’ plastered upon their fragile façade? How can God heal what we will not acknowledge? How can Christ’s passion strike into the crucible of our lives if we do not own the fact that there is a powerful darkness? If we do not tell the truth of how we flail and rage but appear entirely helpless to enact any remedy? With our Christian edicts and our glib announcements, perhaps we’ve got hold of the wrong horror.

We need art that carries us into our full experience, that won’t let us go until we do justice with the bare facts of our lives. We need stories that grapple with all of our humanness, narrating both the havoc and the luster. We need to be reminded that Easter announces our true hope: ruin is not the end. There is joy. There is life. But they come through, not around, the valley of the shadow of death.

We’ve taken our first steps into Holy Week, and is there any stranger, any more backwards way,  to heal, to bring peace, to renew the world, than to willingly endure ridicule and torture, to embrace death? Is not Jesus’ march to the Cross a long walk backwards?

Preposterous Blessings

During Lent, our church has been slowly pondering and praying through Jesus’ strange blessings, these outrageous words Jesus offers as his first salvo in that preeminent Sermon on the Mount. Blessed are you who have bone-dry bank accounts. Blessed are you who are heavy with tears. Blessed are you who have no cards left to play. Blessed are you who ache for goodness and justice in a world torn asunder. And the insanity goes on and on.

The life Jesus announces really does turn everything topsy-turvy. Jesus passes blessings (well-being) on exactly the opposite of those we consider blessed. The Beatitudes pronounce the shocking reality that the precise people we assume at the bottom of the pile are actually at the center of God’s abundance. These blessings are what God does, what Jesus makes possible in ways that were impossible before.

And while these blessings do not unravel a litmus test for “what it takes to get God’s blessing” (for example, no one’s suggesting we should go out looking for persecution), it’s subversively true that we need not fear these places of deprivation or vulnerability because when we’re most at risk, we have confidence that God is with us in that risky place. So when calamity visits us (persecution) or when we courageously obey Jesus (by being merciful, for instance, to those who we think deserve no mercy at all), we don’t need to fear.

Can you imagine what our world would be like if we didn’t fear losing our money or speaking out against wrong or extending mercy to those we assume should be cast aside? What if we didn’t have to be tough and were free to be gentle and straightforward and yes, pure in heart. Isn’t it strange that to many of us pure in heart is a description we’d use only for the naive or soft or hopefully out of touch, never for people we truly admire, the people who actually know how to get stuff done in the world. It’s a quaint idea but dangerous to think and live this way, we say. Maybe being pure in heart is dangerous, but it’s also blessed.

With God, we can let the danger come. We are free. We are blessed.

I Do Believe I’m Religious

I’m spiritual, but not religious. In popular vernacular, I’ve understood this to mean that to be spiritual is to have subjective, internal feelings and notions of the divine, but to be religious is to be committed to a particular concrete practice, a community, a tradition. It’s an immensely popular idea, almost a dogmatic tradition unto itself. And I get it. At its best, the descriptor acts as a principled resistance to cold dogmas, heartless practices, brittle words that wound rather than heal in a complicated, harsh world. Fair enough; we need some resistance here. We need dissenters to keep us honest because God knows religion gets just as destructive and deranged as anything we humans get involved with. It’s why the Scriptures have the prophets.

But in the end, the line just won’t do for me. Initially, it has a nice ring to it; but the notion ultimately leaves me hollow. Like those massive conifers we saw in the Scottish Highlands–magnificent, towering and gutted to the core. Devoured from the inside, there was nothing left to hold them strong, nothing to hold them in their beauty. They’d fall, with great heaves, and rot into the wet sod.

In the end, it’s not vague notions of faith that keep me steady and rouse my hope. It’s Jesus, the one who was murdered on a heavy Roman cross and who rose again out of one particular tomb. It’s Jesus’ very particular and very difficult (if not insane) words about loving enemies and laying down my life, alongside instructions to care for the poor and the stranger and widows (what the Good Book calls ‘true religion’), that arrest me. I’m to resist the allure of power. I’m to turn away from greed. I’m to pursue love of neighbor and submission to God’s people. This Jesus makes demands upon me. Jesus asks me whether or not I will follow. I can obey, or I can disobey–but either way, it’s something solid, something that stands in my way, something that offers to hold me fast, if I’ll have it. It’s very particular.

Abstract ideals don’t have the grit I know is required to save me. Rather, it is Jesus’ body broken in the bread, Jesus’ blood spilt in the wine. It is my actual neighbor actually sitting next to me (someone I may not like, if I just get to choose), as we eat and drink together. It is the songs we sing and the Scriptures we hear. It is our commitment to living in this actual world (not the idea of a world). To say I’m spiritual but not religious would be, for me, like saying I believe in community but don’t want a friend or I love the wild but would never actually set foot in a forest. I need the real stuff.

Jesus, the harshest critic of distorted religion in history, didn’t set up general spiritual concepts. Jesus got dunked in water, gave us bread and wine around a Table – and then said, “Keep doing all this. Together. In my name.”

In a creative roundabout that showed no disrespect to St. Paul’s original line, T.S. Eliot once wrote an essay resisting popular notions that dismissed Christian doctrine and practice as primitive and unenlightened. “The spirit killeth, but the letter giveth life,” Eliot wrote. Eliot insisted that our vague ideas about religion (the spirit of the day) inevitably degrade into false, if not self-serving, caricatures. But the particular, the actual details, the demands even – that’s where the fire burns.

Advent Everywhere

I had a meeting in New York City last week, and Miska joined me. When we were boarding the train in Penn Station for the trip home, several solo travelers in front of us asked the agent to direct them to the Quiet Car. It’s a nice idea, this “Quiet Car.” One imagines a cabin enveloped in hush calm, a meditative space, perhaps with the soothing scent of Spiced Orange and Huckleberry (it’s the holidays), maybe a few candles, the tranquility only interrupted by the rare announcements of upcoming stops offered from the hushed voice of James Earl Jones. Maybe in the far back compartment you’d find a silent yoga class.

However, I’ve been in the aforementioned “Quiet Car,” and it bears no resemblance to this nirvana solitude one hopes to discover. In my limited experience, half the people want to close their shades and pull their eye mask down and forget the world for a few hours; then half the people don’t give a flying fig about signage indicating quiet – they missed the day in preschool where they learned about the “inside voice” and demonstrate with their boisterous (and very long) cell calls, with their karaoke as the music blares from their headphones, their raucous games with friends to pass the time. Once I watched with growing unease as these two factions, over a heated and tense hour, nearly began WWIII right there in poor Amtrak’s “Quiet Car.”

So Miska and I never even considered that danger-laden zone and instead plopped ourselves right in amongst the rest of our fellow travelers, all of us willing to tamp down our expectations and just enjoy the ride.

And wouldn’t you know a fellow, a sixty-something New Yorker who I’m guessing worked in building maintenance, dialed up his daughter who was picking him up in Philly. He sat 4 feet from me and chatted the entire ride. He told his daughter how he shoveled snow the previous night and then skipped evening TV and went straight to a hot shower and bed, his muscles raging from a day on the job topped off by clearing the driveway and sidewalks at home. He asked how his grandkids were doing, worried as he was about their new school and whether they liked it and whether they had to buy new uniforms and if so if money was a problem. He asked where his daughter’s new school was and if she had to travel any extra distance to get there. He asked again about the grandkids, worried again that they might be unhappy or in need of anything. He asked about his daughter’s back pain and how her massage therapy was going and asked her if the massage therapist “put a towel over her butt” because the whole massage thing seemed like Martian-talk to him. Then (after asking about the grandkids one more time) the conductor announced the Philly stop, and he said, “Well, I guess I need to get off the phone. I’ll see you in probably ten minutes, and if I don’t hang up now, I won’t have anything to talk to you about when I get there.”

I’m certain that either way he’d have plenty of good questions to ask, plenty of love to give. See what we’d have missed if we packed into the Quiet Car? Grace comes to us in all kinds of places, unexpected places, boisterous and cluttered places. It’s a lot like Advent.