M is for the Marginalized (an alphabet for penitents).

While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples.  When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners. -Matthew 9:11-14

 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”-Matthew 11:19

Maybe Lent has been easy for you. You gave up something you shouldn’t imbibe too much anyway and after an initial struggle, you’ve starting to feel the freedom in new routines and habits.  But is that really the point? It is possible to keep our little rule and our little fast and fail to follow Jesus—going where he goes and loving who he loved.

Jesus’ critics called him a friend of tax collectors and sinners, indicating he had the wrong sort of friends. He loved the religious outsiders—those colluding in the Roman occupation and profiting from injustice,  and those who weren’t welcome in the temple because of their lifestyle. Jesus was a lover of the marginalized, the outsider.

He came from a tiny rural village, conducting much of his ministry in Galilee, far away from the seat of power and the religious establishment. He had friends in low places, and outside of a couple of Pharisee friends, he didn’t have strong relationships with the ‘right’ sort of people. The crowds that came to him were the poor, the disenfranchised, the revolutionaries, the tax collectors, and the sinners. These were those without hope in the socio-political world of the Roman Empire or the religious world of first-century Judaism.

What strikes me as odd, is how a season of Lent, which is all about following Jesus, has become such an insider affair. Ash Wednesday is for insiders. Religious outsiders don’t get it: “You got some grease on your head.” “Dude, wash your face!” Lenten fasting is a strange cultural artifact for the wider culture: “So what are the rules of Lent?” “You are giving up what? Why would you want to do a thing like that?” None of what we do seems to make sense from the outside, and yet the outsiders are with whom Jesus spent most of his time.

If our Lenten fasting helps us apprehend the truth about Jesus and his place in our lives, and if the season is about following him, then we need to be intentional about connecting with the margins. In our age, as in Jesus’s, this means the poor, the widowed and the orphaned. This means the neighbor who wouldn’t be caught dead in church (likely because of bad memories of the hypocrisy she found there). It means standing up for the forgotten and invisible people in the community such as the urban and rural poor,  naming injustice and being cognisant of privilege and power dynamics, and cultivating friendships with people who have nothing to contribute to our personal success. It means attending the wrong parties and hanging out with people with the wrong lifestyle.

Of course, Jesus did all this without falling into the temptation inherent in negative peer-pressure but he was denounced as a drunkard and a glutton. He was willing to risk ‘guilt by association’ to love those on the margins. You can’t follow Jesus—go where he goes and do what he does—without making some dangerous connections. If you aren’t friends with the marginalized, who are you following?


The Pilgrim in Pumps: a ★★★★★ book review

Angela Alaimo O’Donnell teaches English at Fordham University and is the associate director of Fordham’s Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. She has previously published seven poetry collections (in addition to publishing other books, articles, and essays). Her new collection of poems, Still Pilgrim showcases a steady faith and the journey of a woman through the seasons of life and liturgy.

still-pilgrimThe project was birthed after O’Donnell made a pilgrimage to Herman Melville’s grave, a few miles from her home in the New York. Melville had written of the passion of men going off to sea, but his grave plot in Woodlawn cemetery in the Brox was in only one of ‘New York’s five boroughs not surrounded by water” (69).  O’Donnell composed a poem, St. Melville, with these words, “Is this what you were called to still pilgrim,/to sleep beneath six small feet of earth?” (70). An old sailor interred in the earth, still but his work still lives on.

It is O’Donnell not Melville that dons the moniker Still Pilgrim in these poems (perhaps the poetic voice isn’t completely autobiographical, but I am willing to wager that she wears size nine shoes). All but one poem has “Still Pilgrim” in its title. Here is a random sampling: “The Still Pilgrim visits Ellis Island,” “The Still Pilgrim Tells a Fish Story,””The Still Pilgrim Honors Her Mother,” “The Still Pilgrim Sees a Healing, “The Still Pilgrim Hears a Diagnosis,” “The Still Pilgrim Describes How Heaven is.”

These poems are sonnets—metred with fourteen lines and a rhyme scheme—and are arranged fourteen poems in each of the four sections. The arrangement corresponds to the four seasons and is roughly shaped by the liturgical calendar. There are also prologue and epilogue poems, introducing and concluding this collection. The structure of tradition is juxtaposed against a contemporary life, the Still Pilgrim. More than once we hear the heal strike of her size nine pumps against the cobblestone of the pilgrim way. There are encounters between old and new and all the heartbreak and joy which comes through life’s journey. The tone is both serious and playful, at turns exuberant and sad.  O’Donnell writes in her afterward:

The poems in this book aim to tell a story, albeit by means of glimpses and gleanings rather than continous narrative. (This, after all, is more akin to hwo we experience and remember our lives. Continous narrative is a form of fiction.) The Still Pilgrim’s history consists of flashes of joy and visitations of sorrow, engagement with saints,and with artists (the Pilgrim’s personal patron saints), epiphanies sparked by words and songs and stories, revelations triggered by encounters with beauty and terror. The gentle reader who perseveres through these poems is no longer merely a reader—he or she is a partner in pilgrimage and a friend. (74).

I had not read O’Donnell’s work before and was caught off guard by these poems. The sustained character of the Still Pilgrim journeys through all life’s seasons, still a pilgrim from beginning to end.  This is the double entendre of “still.” It is more than stationary, but it also means continual persistence. Like Melville in his grave, lying still but whose work still lives on,  I hope to have much more encounters with the still pilgrim on the road ahead. I give this five stars. ★★★★★

Note: Many of these poems were previously published in various journals. Here is a link to five of these poems as they appeared in the Christian Century if you are curious what these poems are like: https://www.christiancentury.org/contributor/angela-odonnell

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of Still Pilgrim from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review

Hope for a Post-Hope and Change America: a book review

Reclaiming Hope by Michael Wear tells the story of faith in the Obama administration. Before he turned twenty-one in 2008, Wear was already a White House staffer, appointed by the president to the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships as one of the youngest WH staffers in the modern American political era. He had previously worked with Barak Obama’s election campaign and he would go on to direct faith outreach for Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign.

240_360_book-2109-coverGiven this bio, Wear is obviously sympathetic to Obama and his legacy; however what he offers here is both sympathetic and critical. He describes Obama (and his own efforts) to intersect with people of faith and address their concerns, and the places where he felt Obama had failed to build bridges to religious communities. His book is part memoir, part political analysis with some theological musings thrown in for good measure.

The first five chapters of Reclaiming Hope, are autobiography. Wear describes his improbable journey to the White House, meeting Obama and working on the campaigns and in the White House. Despite Obama’s Christianity and his respect for people of faith, faith was of secondary importance to the administration. Many of Wear’s colleagues were ignorant of faith concerns, and occasionally antagonistic to religious concerns. This biography section gives an insider look at a few places where Obama wrestled with religion in the public sphere (i.e. his distancing himself from his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, his meeting with evangelical leaders, his appointment of Rick Warren to pray at his inauguration, etc).

The next three chapters discuss in greater detail how the Obama administration addressed (or didn’t address) the concerns of people of faith. In chapter six, he discusses abortion. While Obama and the Democratic Party are officially pro-choice, the policies that Obama promoted during his administration were aimed at reducing the overall number of abortions. The number of abortions decreased, during his tenure they were at their lowest in years with a higher number of adoptions. Nevertheless, Obama’s abortion policies were not well received by those on the Religious Right, and weren’t adequately Pro-Choice for some on the left. Chapter seven examines the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act and the tone-deaf way the administration responded to Christian’s who felt their religious freedom was being infringed on.Chapter eight describes Obama’s evolution on same-sex marriage, which put him more and more at loggerheads with traditional, religious folk.

Chapter seven examines the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act and the tone-deaf way the administration responded to Christian’s who felt their religious freedom was being infringed on.Chapter eight describes Obama’s evolution on same-sex marriage, which put him more and more at loggerheads with traditional, religious folk.

In chapter ten, Wear describes the second inauguration. In contrast to the first inauguration, the evangelical pastor Obama had asked to pray (in this case Louie Giglio) was vehemently opposed because of a twenty-year-old sermon against homosexuality. In his first inauguration both Rick Warren, a conservative evangelical megachurch pastor, and the first openly gay Episcopal  bishop, Gene Robinson prayed—a testimony to Obama’s ‘big-tent,’ inclusive approach to religion. At his second inauguration, the lines between Right and Left had hardened.

Wear’s final two chapters wax theological on the meaning of hope, not in the political sloganeering sense, but in the Christian sense. Politicians offer a piecemeal  and little hope, but Christian hope is Jesus—our hope for today and evermore. Wear closes with thoughts on how Christian’s ought to engage the political landscape, bringing hope to realms of religious freedom and race relations.

I appreciate the insider perspective Wear brings to faith and politics in the Obama era. He reflects on the places where he feels like Obama was true to his vision, and the places where he dropped the ball.  Wear strikes a nice balance between narrative and analysis. I also appreciate the insight he brings as a person of faith from the left side aisle. If Christianity gets coopted by the Right, the Left is often ignorant of the Bible and Jesus. That brings a unique sense of challenges.

This is an interesting read for anyone interested in faith and politics (something we won’t get away from in the Trump era). The hope for America and the world is not this president or the last one. Or the next. It is Jesus, hope of the nations and change we can believe in. I give this book four stars.

Note: I received this book from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for my honest review.

L is for Litany (an alphabet for penitents)

lit·a·ny [ˈlitnē]

    1. a series of petitions for use in church services or processions, usually recited by the clergy and responded to in a recurring formula by the people.

    2. a tedious recital or repetitive series: “a litany of complaints” (Source- Oxford Living Dictionaries via Bing)

 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. (Ephesians 6:18)

‘Tis the season for a tedious recital of complaints. Like Advent, the season before Christmas, Lent is a preparatory season—a season of waiting. We are nearing the midpoint and dreaming of the comforts we cast aside for our lenten journies. We want chocolate, we want sweets, we need coffee and a nice cut of meat. We want to binge watch Netflix and drink red wine and post cat memes on our friend’s timelines. We complain, “How long O Lord?” as we look forward to Resurrection (or just a return to normal life).

But we don’t just complain about our own discomfort. As we have used this Lenten season to shake our souls out of complacency  and followed Jesus on the way of the cross, we are becoming sensitized to the suffering of the world: children with absent fathers, the single mom struggling to make ends meet, a global church being martyred for their belief, people of color enduring violence, discrimination and incarceration from unjust systems, the elderly neighbor living alone, our friends gripped by grief, those suffering pain of chronic illness, the anxious and depressed, and the hurting and the dying. We should have compassion at all times, but our Lenten practice allows us to stretch our empathy and see the world beyond the comforts we use to distract our souls.

Christian worship often includes litanies. Liturgical traditions (such as Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, or the Orthodoxy) incorporate itemized prayer lists into their Sunday liturgies, often with congregational responses: Lord have mercy. Have mercy on us. Spare us, Good Lord. O Lord, deliver us. We beseech you O Lord.  Less “high church” churches, still have a place for a pastoral prayer, or ‘prayers of the people,’ which do in essence what these formal litanies do.

The line items of a litany get us to pray specifically about the needs around us in our struggle against the world, the flesh, and the devil. We pray for deliverance from personal sin and systemic evil. We pray for the poor, oppressed and marginalized, and for the success and wisdom of national leaders, we pray for the healing for the infirmed and the global church. We pray those who are serving Christ and that the world would long to know Him. We name every area of contemporary life in hopes of seeing God’s Kingdom break more fully into this present age.

I thought of posting a litany here, but there are tons of Lenten litanies online. For example, check out Christine Sine’s Morning Litany for Lent.  I will close this post by just saying don’t waste your seasonal discomfort and newfound empathy on personal complaints. Find some way to systematically pray for the needs of the world, preferably with a worshipping community. Keep on praying in the Spirit at all times with all kinds of prayers and requests. Certainly litanies can become dead rote, but with our hearts sensitized to the suffering of the world, it is a way to share both in the pain of others and in the Spirit’s life. Communal intercession reminds us that the Spiritual journey is not just a private affair. Always keep praying for all the Lord’s people. 


The Poetry of Communion: a ★★★★★ book review

I love a good poem. Poetry has the power to sacramentalize daily life. It lifts the mundane out of its ordinary frame and allows us to see reality with brand new eyes. Nature reveals the hand of God, human beings are transfigured before us. We are free to re-engage our reality with our sense of wonder restored.

communion-of-saintsThis is some of what I felt in reading Susan Miller’s collection of poems,  Communion of SaintsMiller teaches creative writing at Rutgers University, is a two-time winner of the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg prize for poetry, and her poetry has appeared in several journals (Image, Iowa review, Commonweal, Sewanee Theological review). The poems in this collection reflect on Saintsin the capital “S” Catholic sense, notable figures, friends, and her own daily life. These are brought into communion, Miller often depicting episodes of daily life (of herself or friends) and the deep resonance between them and the lives of the Saints. [I know that poetic voice and the poet are often different, but Miller’s own notes indicate that she and the poetic voice are one and the same].

Mark Doty’s forward describes this as a process of triangulation (xii). Behind Miller’s friend Angela, a consecrated virgin living in the world, we find the visage of St. Agnes—Patron Saint of Virgins (pp. 7, 113).  The Franciscan mystic, St. Bonaventure stands behind Gregory Orr (Miller’s teacher at the University of Virgina) in her poem A Portrait of Greg as St. Bonaventure (pp 64, 118). And there are many other examples of the communion of saints in these poems: Portrait of Chayo as St, Jude Thaddeus, Portrait of Charles as St. Francis, Portrait of Josh as St. Pascual Baylon, Portrait of Father Santo as St. Anthony of Padua, etc. 

Miller also has pilgrimage poems, poetry about her readings of  Gerard Manley Hopkins, Flannery O’Connor, Nina Simone, and Gwendolyn Brooks, and serious engagement with the Christian tradition. The title poem in this collection, the Communion of Saints, reflects while her purpose, “Communion of Saints refers to the concept of Communion of Saints— that all Catholics are called to be saints whether the church beatifies us or not. The communion of saints makes us all contemporaries, no matter what century was ours on earth” (120). The poem itself links the martyrdom of the Holy Innocents (from the Lukan nativity narrative) with NICU ward at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital.

I read these poems as a lowly protestant, but one who believes as strongly in the communion of Saints as Miller does. On a technical level, these poems are quite good. I found myself tracing meter and appreciating her evocative use of language. The poem that stands at the head of this collection is her Manual for the Would-Be Saint (previously published in Image Journal):

The first principle: Do no harm.
The second: The air calls us home.
Third, we must fill the bowls of others
before we drain our own wells dry.
The fourth is the dark night; the fifth
a subtle scent of smoke and pine.
The sixth is awareness of our duties,
the burnt offering of our own pride.
Seventh, we learn to pray without ceasing.
Eighth, we learn to sense while praying.
The ninth takes time: it is to discover
what inside the seed makes the seed increase.
The tenth brings sorrow, the eleventh light.
The twelfth we reflect on the Apostles,
their flame-lit faces turned toward us or away.
The thirteenth, we practice forgiving Judas.
The fourteenth, we love Judas as ourselves.
The fifteenth is a day of feasting; the sixteenth
is a day of ash. Seventeenth, we watch and wait.
Eighteenth, we enter the stranger’s city
at the mercy of the stranger’s hand.
Nineteenth, love flees the body,
and the spirit leaves its husk. And suddenly
the numbers do not matter: nothing that is matter
matters anymore: all is burned, all is born,
all is carried away in the wind. (xvii)

I give this collection five stars and commend it for the way that Miller brings the Saints to lives in her (and our) daily experience. ★★★★★

Note: I received a copy of this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review

A Renegade Monk and Protestantism’s First Lady: a book review

The tales of Martin Luther defacing a door and denouncing the Catholic Church’s captivity to Babylon are well known. The whole Protestant movement owes its origin to the way this cantankerous monk was gripped by the idea of saving grace. The story that many Christians don’t know, or know in far less detail, is that of his marriage to Katharina von Bora.

9781493406098In Katharina & MartinMichelle DeRusha unfolds the love story between the renegade Monk and Protestantism’s first lady. DeRusha previously authored 50 Women Every Christian Should Know.  Here she hones in on the story of a marriage. Meticulously researched, she describes the story of Martin and Katharina’s love—the events leading up to their marriage, the reaction of friends and critics, their shared life and the circumstances of their deaths. DeRusha includes cultural background of the late Medieval ideas of marriage.

Katharina was an aristocratic nun who fled the cloistered life in the midst of the sixteenth century, Protestant awakening. Luther tried in vain to marry her off, but she was not happy with her would-be suitor. Eventually, he married her, himself, albeit partly for practical and political reasons (he had already written on the sacredness of married life and against celibacy). Luther’s primary reason for marrying was wanting to be obedient to what he felt was God’s call.

Luther was not attracted to Katharina at first and there was no spark of romance. Many of Luther’s friends (including his close friend Philip Melancthon) did not approve and actively opposed their union. Yet Luther grew to love his wife and value their partnership. Katharina discussed theology with Luther, managed the household and the family finances. Luther’s would come to speak of his wife with real affection and respect (even if still self-aggrandizing), “Kate, you have a god-fearing man who loves you. You are an empress; realize it and thank God for it” (207). The two of them weathered crises together, including the grief of losing children.

This is popular level history at its best—a compelling read with enough footnotes for the reader to verify the substance. DeRusha relies on good research, referencing documentary evidence and scholarly research rather than opining on Luther and Katharina’s inner thoughts. I enjoyed this book and am happy to have it on my church history shelf. As unique as their relationship was, DeRusha places Martin and Katharina within the late Medieval context.  Martin Luther was neither an arch-Complementarian or Katharina a proto-Egalitarian. Their marriage was countercultural in lots of ways (i.e. Katharina was intelligent, industrious and independent women, but in other ways traditional and deferring to her husband). I give this book four stars and recommend it to anyone interested in church history, the Reformation era, or the history of Christian women.

Note: I received this book from Baker Books in exchange for my honest review

K is for Kenosis (an alphabet for penitents)

Kenosis is a word used to describe Jesus Christ’s self-emptying—his denouncement of His divine nature in choosing to born human and suffer the shameful death of the cross. Philippians 2: 5-11 describes the kenotic shape of Jesus’ earthly ministry, culminating in His glorification:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

Jesus laid aside divine knowledge (Matt 24:36), limitless power, and His divine rights, in order to enter fully into the pain of our humanity and effect our salvation.

If we are to follow Jesus, the same kenotic shape characterizes our own spiritual lives. As Paul says, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. . .”. We too are called to lay down rights and privilege. But what does this kenosis look like for us? How do we do it?

Fasting, Lenten fasts our otherwise, is one form of self-emptying. By forgoing the food that sustains us, we become more aware of our relative comfort the rest of the time. We also become more cognizant of suffering as we experience, in a small, controlled ways,  the pain of deprivation.

800px-neudenau-gangolf-kruzifixBut fasting isn’t the only kenotic practice we are invited to by following Jesus. If we are serious about putting on the mind of Christ, we also have to lay down our privileges. For me, this means taking stock of what privileges I am afforded as an educated, white, Protestant, cis-gender male and seeking ways to lay down my privilege and sense of entitlement. As a white male, I could choose to ignore racial discrimination and sexism without the threat of personal recourse.¹  I have never been threatened or bullied for my sexual orientation or gender identity. I don’t have to worry about which bathroom to use (I’m a man, the world is my urinal). My education affords me opportunities other people don’t have.

I was born with rights and privileges, but the kenotic nature of following Jesus means that I look for ways to lay aside these rights and privileges in order to enter more fully into the pain of those around me. My kenotic journey began a dozen years ago when my wife and I went to urban Atlanta to love the poor with Mission Year. We were your typical, paternalistic white, do-gooders that didn’t understand the dynamics of systemic racism and privilege but by rubbing shoulders with friends and neighbors (and good mentors), we learned a few things. I’ve continued my kenosis through seminary and post-seminary. Except for a brief tenure as pastor, I have been in jobs where I’ve felt underemployed and had to wrestle with my internal superiority complex and sense of entitlement. Currently, I wrestle with the nature of privilege while raising a family. I want my kids to have every opportunity and to succeed in life, but really I want my kids to follow Jesus. Worldly success or a taking-up-your-cross-kenosis  has a different telos. 

What does kenosis mean to you? How has it shaped your Spiritual Life?

  1. I often hear the claim of reverse racism or reverse sexism. I don’t think either of those are things, because racism and sexism are both bound up with power dynamics in culture. However, by framing racism and sexism as a spiritual issue in discussing kenosis, I am inviting self-reflection on what privileges each of has (from our race, gender, family of origin, socioeconomic status, eductation level, etc.). The claim of ‘reverse’ anything is a smoke screen designed to help us avoid the hard work of self-examination.