May it please the court...

"You sit up there, and you see the whole gamut of human nature. Even if the case being argued involves only a little fellow and $50, it involves justice. That's what is important."
Chief Justice Earl Warren

"We are not won by arguments that we can analyze, but by tone and temper; by the manner, which is the man himself."
Associate Justice Louis Brandeis


"Now, gentlemen, in this country our courts are the great levelers. In our courts, all men are created equal. I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and of our jury system. That’s no ideal to me. That is a living, working reality!"

Atticus Finch (Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird)



Dignity. 



I sat in the back, anxious. A young man entered from the side, wearing an orange jumpsuit and shackles. He was followed by his attorney. The courtroom was huge and seemed to have swallowed us all in a single gulp. The bailiff stood and looked at no one in particular but at each of us, just the same. "All rise." None hesitated. Chief Judge Claire Eagan, district judge for the United States District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma, entered quietly. Unassumingly, even. She had a kind face, but serious. The kind of face that the moment required.

The young man in chains stared at the table. He didn't seem to be angry. No proverbial chip on his shoulder. Just dejected. Embarrassed. He was ashamed of what he'd done, and he was there to change his plea from "not guilty" to "guilty," evidently as part of a plea bargain. He was owning up to his actions, but he wasn't proud of them. The time came for Judge Eagan to address the man. "Man" doesn't seem like the right word, but it is. He was 21, maybe 22. And he was healthy and muscular underneath the oversized jumpsuit. But he didn't carry himself like a man. He stood in front of the high bench, shoulders slumped, chin buttoned to his chest, like a child whose tears were teetering on the edge of his eyelids, lips tight to keep them from opening in a wail, fists clenched in an apparently Herculean effort to exert a modicum of control over something in the moment. He was barely holding himself together. These minutes would be among the most uncomfortable of the young man's life, and Judge Eagan's position in that room - both physically, raised above him on the bench, and figuratively, empowered to determine his immediate fate - posed a very real threat to him.

She saw all of this. And she had a decision to make. She could take advantage of the moment, and add to his shame, further chastising him for his offenses, humiliating him for his crimes, pushing his tears over the edge. Some would argue he deserved it. Perhaps they would be right. But he would get what he deserved in the fulfillment of his sentence, and Judge Eagan didn't seem to think part of that sentence ought to include her ridicule. She chose, instead, to recognize his remorse and distress, and to sympathize. From the back of the room, where I sat watching the ordeal unfold, it sounded like she choked back her own tears while reading the counts against him, which included charges related to drugs and firearms. After finishing her reading of the charges and attending to a few other requisite formalities, she looked up, met his eyes, and said something to let him know that he was not just another criminal, not one more item to check off of her day's to-do list, and not someone for whom she hadn't the slightest concern. "At some point, you're going to have to decide how long you want to live and how you want to live." And it was obvious that she - as a human being and as a judge - desired the best for him.

I witnessed this scene a few months ago, and it's been replaying in my mind ever since. I entered into that courtroom with a superficial intimidation of the physical space itself, but her demeanor replaced that intimidation with a reverence for the law's ability either to break a man's spirit or to recognize his inherent dignity, regardless of what he may have done. If I am to practice law with a sense of “fear and trembling,” which seems only appropriate, I would much rather it grow out of this latter mindfulness of the law’s ennobling power than the former sense of terror due to a courtroom’s illusory menace.
As a law student, I get to hear others speak often about their attitudes regarding the law and the legal system. I'm surprised at how many of my fellow aspiring lawyers appear to feel entitled to practice law and seem annoyed that they have to prove themselves in various ways, often through grades, ethics, attitude, and affect. At times, they speak as if they are not entering into a noble vocation but a common - if not disreputable - racket. Unfortunately, the sheer number of lawyer jokes would seem to confirm their inclinations.

But when I witness scenes such as the one I just described or when I hear an honorable attorney say something as simple as "May it please the court," I'm reminded that I'm doing much more than just seeking a credential. I'm certainly not asking anyone to give me the right to practice law. I'm instead requesting a great privilege. That is, I'm asking our judicial system to grant me the honor of asserting another's rights. It is incumbent upon me, then, to show appropriate deference and demeanor, not necessarily to individual legal professionals within the system who themselves may or may not be worthy of the privilege they've received, but to the offices and roles ascribed to those individuals within our system of justice. When a judge is addressed as Your Honor, it is not because the woman in the robe is worthy of the address as a matter of course - though, one would hope she is - but it is because she is a symbol of the power of our laws and judicial processes to crush and to lift up, to break and to heal, to bind and to liberate.

I hope as a law student that my aspirations and manner meet the task ahead of me. I hope, further, as an attorney that my conduct is equal to the responsibility that will be imposed upon me by justice, by history, and not least of all by every individual whose rights I will represent.

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On the little things: morning routine

Little is more settling than creating and re-discovering routines, especially when moving into a new home. Here are a few favorite markers of my comfortable morning habits. Forgive the poor picture quality. One of these days I'll actually invest in a decent camera.

What means "morning" to you?

Bodum Kenya French Press
Simple Felted Wool Slippers
The Divine Hours fixed hour prayer by Phyllis Tickle
Moleskine ruled journal
Zebra F-301 ballpoint pen

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On meeting your neighbors

One of the simplest ways to build a sense of belonging is to get to know your neighbors. There's something grounding about being able to say hello by name to the kids across the street, the couple next door, or the little lady who likes to sit on her porch and knit on cooler evenings. But few people take the time to get to know the names of the plants and critters on their blocks. It's incredibly simple, takes little effort, and is every bit as rewarding as knowing the name of the guy who is perpetually restoring that old car two doors down. Knowing the names of the denizens of our neighborhoods has been part of our story for millennia, and learning to distinguish the cheer of a Cardinal from the cheer-up of a Robin, and the leaves of an Oak from those of a Maple helps us to feel connected to our place and the rest of its many members.

If you've not yet been introduced to your floral and faunal neighbors, here are a few basic first steps:

  1. Start simple. Learn common birds and trees in your area before trying to recognize every mammal, insect, and flower. Depending on where you live, such a task could quickly become overwhelming. Since there are likely not a huge number or variety of trees in your neighborhood, and since they tend to stay put, you should be able to familiarize yourself with them fairly quickly. Same goes for songbirds; although, they are apt to be less static. Those of you who are blessed to live in the country, however, will likely have much more diverse neighbors than those of us in the city or the suburbs.
  2. Purchase two basic guide books. I recommend David Allen Sibley's Guide to Birds and Guide to Trees. They are beautifully illustrated and easy to navigate. Also, bookmark Cornell's online bird guide, All About Birds. It provides a staggering amount of information - images, range maps, life histories, videos, audio of songs, etc. A fantastic resource. 
  3. Keep the guides and a notebook next to an oft-visited window. Take time every day or week to make simple lists of the birds in your yards, the changing characteristics of your trees, etc. You'll begin to notice, usually within five or six weeks, how the seasons are unfolding all around you. You'll note the changing plumage of the Starlings from late-Spring to mid-Summer, mark the development and fall of fruit from the various trees, when and how they begin to change colors, and more easily recognize the difference between the temporary migratory visitors and those birds which live near you year round. 
  4. Take walks around your block for no other reason than to become familiar with your new neighbors. Or newly recognized, I should say. Chances are that you're the new kid on the block. At first you may want to take one or the other of your guide books with you on these walks. When you see a tree or bird that you don't automatically recognize, stop, listen, look. Don't rush to open up the book, but give them your attention for a few moments. Touch the tree and get a feel for its bark. Pick up a leaf and turn it over in your hands. Listen to the birds call and song, and notice some of its distinctive marks. Then turn to your guide to find its name.
It's difficult to describe how satisfying it is to call each of your neighbors by name, not to mention the place of honor it gives them in your life. All I can do is recommend it.

For those of you who already know your neighbors, do you have any favorite guides, go-to websites, or helpful hints?

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On the curation of a life: resolved

I began this summer trying to imagine what it might look like to be a curator of my life and not an onlooker only. I've come to the very simple realization that this will be impossible apart from the twin disciplines of reflection and resolution - to look at my life critically and to live it intentionally. It will require more than this, of course, but it must at least begin here. To that end, here are a few short-term resolutions, in no particular order, easily achievable (to some degree) this year.


Resolved:

  1. To shine my shoes.
    I mean this literally and figuratively. I believe that one of the marks of distinction between a boy and a man (and certainly no less between a girl and a woman) is that a man takes pride in and care of the things which are uniquely his. If I have determined to acquire something and dedicate it to a certain purpose, I must also take responsibility to keep it in appropriate kilter. That is, if I have bought a pair of dress shoes, I should keep them in condition to be worn proudly to church, on a date with my wife, or to dinner with the dean of the law school. If I have purchased a car, I should make sure the oil is changed, wash it regularly inside and out, and keep it in the condition to drive my wife, friends, or anyone who needs a lift without the need to apologize for the dirt on the outside or the mess on the inside. If I have borrowed a tool from a friend, I should care for it while it is in my possession, use it appropriately, and return it promptly in better condition than when it was given to me. In other words, I ought to be a trustworthy manager of all of my objects.

  2. To improve my handwriting.
    I have come to believe that a person's handwriting potentially says quite a bit about them. At the very least, it says whether they are patient and whether they are considerate of those who may need to read their writing. Until now, my handwriting has largely sent the signal that I am impatient and inconsiderate. Because I realize my penmanship is so poor, the only writing that I do - by hand, that is - is for my eyes only. This may not seem all that problematic at first, but it has had at least two material consequences. First, it has inhibited romance. I'm hesitant to give my wife a handwritten note or even to write anything inside of a card other than my signature (which is equally dreadful and will be adressed along with my penmanship). Second, it has limited all sorts of social correspondence. I'd love to be one who sends handwritten invitations, thank you notes, and letters, but I'm reluctant because of my poor penmanship. In both cases - romance and social graces - I often resort to either typed correspondence, which comes across as clinical no matter how playful, intimate, or emotional the language, or else doing nothing at all, which is certainly the most unfortunate choice.

  3. To improve my health.
    I have neither the time nor the energy to become the paragon of the male physique, but I could easily get back in the routine of simple daily exercise and eating well, and in the process lose 15-20 pounds. Though there have been seasons of my adult life when I've been in decent shape, for the most part I've not treated my body with the respect it deserves. And here I'm referring to more than just the need to rid myself of a few excess pounds. I need to cultivate habits that improve my overall health - physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual. This demands that I become aware of a few primitive needs and responsibilities, the satisfaction of which will naturally lead to a better quality of life. Among other things, these would include the need to be challenged, the responsibility to provide, and the mindfulness of the legacy that my choices are creating.

  4. To memorize the Man in the Arena passage from Theodore Roosevelt's "Citizenship in a Republic" speech given at the Sorbonne in Paris, on April 23, 1910.
    It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.
More to come.

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Writing a poem about winter

Writing a poem about winter
in the spring feels a tad out of place,
or perhaps "place" isn't the right word.
It's not that spring is the wrong "place" for
barren trees, snowdrifts, bows of holly,
or itchy, absurd Christmas sweaters.
Then again, I suppose that depends
on what you mean by "place," doesn't it?
And "spring" and "winter," for that matter.
In one sense, May is the wrong place for
February, but that seems far too
tortuous for a novice poet
to be overly concerned about.
Or any poet, for that matter.

Did Frost agonize nearly so much
when he first imagined Stopping by
Woods on a Snowy Evening, and
when did he write that one, anyway?
In my mind, he was on a horse who
appeared to balk at the notion of
resting so far from her warm stables,
"between the woods and frozen lake" on
"the darkest evening of the year."
But maybe he was in Mexico,
in July, drinking margaritas.
Maybe the "lovely, dark, and deep" woods
were clear remembrances of winter
promises still unkept through the spring.

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On the curation of a life





A curator is careful to look for and appreciate interdependencies, to collect artifacts that share significant relationships, and to care for them. A curator is a trustee of everything they see, hear, touch, smell, and taste. It is their vocation to bring together what has been separated in a kind of symbolic repentance, asking a fragment's forgiveness for humanity's failure to honor the inter-being of the world around us. Or the world within us, for that matter. The curator tends to life's myriad connections. The result is often an exhibition that enlightens the minds of all who interact with it, enabling persons to walk into the other spaces of their lives eager to notice what had always been overlooked.

For those of us who are trying our damnedest to be curators of our lives and not onlookers only - Lord, hear our prayer.

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All golden in March

There is the love which Consumes;
  which alters every object
  whether seen, heard, or felt
  into its Beloved;
  which transforms passions
such that each waking moment
  is all "her."

There is the love which Settles;
  which soothes anxious mind
  and calms restless heart
  and eases weary body
such that every shared moment
  is all "peace."

There is the love which Exhausts;
  which emboldens each tear
  dropping heavy on swollen cheek;
  which arouses each agony
  severing already thin ties between;
  which depletes the will's energy
  threatening to consume itself whole
such that every new fight
  is all "emptiness."

And there is the love which Remains;
  which in its inevitable course
  will consume, settle, and exhaust;
  which allowed to live
  will, hard fighting, pass through its own
  hot summer, tranquil fall, and barren winter;
  but as surely as daffodils arise all golden in March
  will unfold in its own robust spring
such that every new day
  is all "life" and that to the full.

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On fidelity: we believe

Ordination Questions
Question 1
Question 2

Question 3:
Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?


One of my favorite Christian scholars is Jaroslav Pelikan (died May 2006). He was a professor at Yale for decades, specializing in ecclesiastical history. He was a man intimately acquainted with the rich history of confessions and creeds within the Church, and he wrote an incredible five volume work entitled The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine. He spent most of his life as a Lutheran minister, but in the late 90s he and his wife joined the Orthodox Church in America. For him, belonging to a confessing tradition was essential as a signal that the present is never separate from the past, individual Christians are never separate from their congregations, and that congregations are never separate from the Church. The creeds and confessions of Christianity are part of the connective tissue of the Church throughout time and place. They keep the members of the Body joined together in ways that other communal practices cannot.


He was interviewed by Krista Tippett (of Speaking of Faith and On Being) in 2003, and he was open about his own doctrinal evolution, ambiguity, and pluralism. At one point, Tippett asked him "how a fixed creed can be reconciled with an honest, intellectual faith, which is surely not marked by static certainty." His answer was simple and considered:


My faith life, like that of every one else, fluctuates. There are ups and downs and hot spots and cold spots, and boredom and ennui and all the rest can be there. And so I'm not asked on a Sunday morning, "As of 9:20, what do you believe?" And then you sit down with a three-by-five index card saying, "Now let's see. What do I believe today?" No, that's not what they're asking me. They're asking me, "Are you a member of a community which now, for a millennium and a half, has said, 'We believe in one God'?"

His words clarify what many people fail to understand about confessing traditions. The liturgical purpose of the creeds is to demonstrate the characteristics of the community rather than to provide a weekly test for individual membership. My faith is a daily wrestling match between me, the Scriptures, the tradition, and ultimately with God. On any given Sunday, I may confidently affirm that which I denied only a week earlier and may very well deny a week later, but the Church remains assured and hopeful. There is a reason that the Nicene Creed says, "We believe..." rather than "I believe..." The creeds are not about me, but us.


The ordination question describes the confessions as "reliable" rather than as perfect or impeccable. This is important because it reveals that the Church also continues to examine its beliefs and practices. It is a human institution and as such is capable of error. The confessions present those doctrines which - taken literally or metaphorically - have stood the test of time as distinctive and affirmative, rather than exhaustive and exclusive, markers of the Christian tradition. They tell us what is unique about our community, and they provide faithful, credible, enduring guidance as we Christians serve to follow after Christ and serve one another.

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On fidelity: the finger is not the moon

Ordination Questions
Question 1
Question 2:
Do you accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God's word to you?



In one of my favorite episodes of The OfficeMichael and Dwight misinterpret the directions of a GPS system and drive a rental car into a lake simply because the GPS instructed them to turn. They could see the lake with their own eyes, but they turned anyway because they trusted the technology more than their own observations. Toward the end of the episode, Michael emphasizes the superiority of the human touch over and above technology this way: "Everybody likes new inventions, new technology. People will never be replaced by machines. In the end, life and business are about human connections, and computers are about trying to murder you in a lake. And to me the choice is easy."


The writers brilliantly illustrate a subtle shift taking place in the postmodern world; namely, our tendency to trust the map over the terrain. In other words, we have arrived at a point where we so privilege technological representations of knowledge that we accord them more authority than our own experiences. Here is a small example of what I'm talking about for those of us techno-savvy, iGadget-using, postmodern folk. When we want to know how warm or cold it is outside, how many of us check the internet instead of just opening the door and standing on the porch for a few seconds?


Philosophers and writers have written about the difference between map and terrain, often quite humorously, for centuries. Lewis Carroll, for instance, wrote in Sylvie and Bruno Concluded about the "paradox of the complete map"

"That’s another thing we’ve learned from your Nation,” said Mein Herr, “map-making. But we’ve carried it much further than you. What do you consider the largest map that would be really useful?"

“About six inches to the mile.”

“Only six inches!” exclaimed Mein Herr. “We very soon got to six yards to the mile. Then we tried a hundred yards to the mile. And then came the grandest idea of all! We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!”

“Have you used it much?” I enquired.

“It has never been spread out, yet,” said Mein Herr: “the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.”


And in Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, the title character writes his diary so precisely that it takes an entire year to relate the events of a single day. Both of these examples whimsically demonstrate the usefulness of representing lived experience or phenomena - such as a day or a landscape - using referential tools designed to capture such detail in an abridged form - such as a journal or a map. Text cannot replace experience, but it can helpfully cite it. A map cannot replace territory, but it prove a useful guide. A picture of the Rocky Mountains cannot replace the range, but it can be a beneficial reference or reminder.


So, noting the difference between map and territory are nothing new, but we are entering into an unprecedented moment in human history when the line between the virtual and the real is blurring. For many, there is no longer a distinction between the two. Our maps have become so "real" that we no longer need the territory they once referenced. We are content with representation.


Let me try to describe this using a different sort of example. There is a famous Buddhist story that goes this way:
The nun Wu Jincang asked the Sixth Patriach Huineng, "I have studied the Mahaparinirvana sutra for many years, yet there are many areas I do not quite understand. Please enlighten me." 

The patriach responded, "I am illiterate. Please read out the characters to me and perhaps I will be able to explain the meaning." 

Said the nun, "You cannot even recognize the characters. How are you able then to understand the meaning?" 

"Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right?"


The finger is not the moon. The map is not the terrain. Both point beyond themselves and reference something other than themselves. It is as foolish to stare at the finger of a man pointing to the moon as it is to follow GPS directions into a lake.
So what does this have to do with the ordination question? Listen to these words attributed to Jesus in John 5:39-40.

"You study the scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very scriptures which testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life."
Throughout John 5, Jesus is concerned with questions of authority and where people find legitimation. He is concerned that they often cannot distinguish between the finger and the moon. I, for one, spent much of my Christian life confusing the words for the Word. I studied the Bible for its own sake, often reducing it to an instructional manual or an ethical treatise. I quickly judged fellow Christians based on how well-versed they were on debates regarding Biblical infallibility or inerrancy. I distinguished between good and bad churches based on how many people came to worship holding their own copy of the Bible, as if this represented some sort of Christian mandate, oblivious to the fact that most Christians throughout history have been illiterate or without access to a copy of the scriptures even after the invention of the printing press. It is a modern luxury to be able to read, let alone to possess, our own "map" of Christian territory, but we are in danger of misusing the blessing, contenting ourselves with the representation.
The Bible is a record of the experiences of two ancient communities - the Hebrews before Jesus and the first century Christians after Jesus. Their experiences of God are often at odds with one another. Their descriptions of the natural world are sometimes confused, and understandably so. Both communities habitually interpret historical events through a theological lens that needs constant refocusing. But the authority of the Bible is not found in its scientific or historical accuracy, nor is it found in a divine, versus human, origin. Rather, the authority of the Bible is found in its unique testimony regarding the the Hebrew hope for a Messiah, the Gospel witness of the man from Nazareth, and the early Christian theology of the Christ. That is, the Bible is not a witness to itself but a testimony about Jesus.
The Bible is a finger pointing to the moon. It is a map, providing a guide to our experience of God, pointing out sources of fresh water, where to find bread for the journey, and potential dangers. But the map is not the terrain. This journey is all about the territory of the lived experience of communion with Christ and the Church.

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On fidelity: "and Caesar is not"

Ordination Questions
Question 1:
Do you trust in Jesus Christ your Savior, acknowledge him Lord of all and Head of the church, and through him believe in one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?

Perhaps the oldest creed in the Christian faith, "Jesus is Lord" is a politically subversive and culturally critical declaration. In that sense, the creed is as much about who is not lord as it is about who is lord. Citizens of the Roman Empire would often greet one another with the phrase "Caesar is Lord." The greeting affirmed their allegiance to Rome's imperial formula - piety leads to victory, and victory leads to peace.  Every good Roman was committed to this blueprint, believing that the Caesar, as a son of the gods, would bring peace on earth and goodwill to all humanity by means of the superior strength of Rome's military. Victory would expand the boundaries of Empire and peace would follow. All the world would be brought under Caesar's peaceful lordship. But what did peace mean within the imperial framework? Within Rome it meant that conquered nations accepted Roman taxation and a marginalized status. It meant that they recognized when they were beaten. It meant that they had given up any hope of winning back their freedom by military or economic means. It meant that Caesar was stronger and richer and smarter


When first century Christians adopted the creed "Jesus is Lord" and began using imperial phrases like "Son of God" and "Bringer of Peace" to describe Jesus rather than Caesar, it was obvious that they were critiquing Rome as much as they were extolling Jesus. By proclaiming "Jesus is Lord" they were also declaring "and Caesar is not." And just as affirming Caesar's lordship was also shorthand for swearing allegiance to the Roman Empire, affirming Jesus' lordship was also a sign of one's devotion to the Kingdom of the heavens which Jesus announced. Jesus was the anti-Caesar and the Kingdom of the heavens was the anti-Empire. If the Roman imperial formula was piety leads to victory leads to peace, then the formula of the Kingdom of the heavens was  mercy leads to justice leads to peace. And if the peace created under Roman Empire was about strength, wealth, and wisdom, then the peace created under the Kingdom of the heavens was about weakness, poverty, and foolishness.


To affirm Caesar as Lord meant also to affirm that the strongest will be master of all, but to affirm Jesus as Lord meant also to affirm that the servant of all would be greatest, that the last would be first, and that honor would be found in taking the lowest place. To affirm Caesar as Lord meant also to affirm that the strong would own the world, but to affirm Jesus as Lord meant also to affirm that the meek would inherit the earth. To affirm Caesar as Lord meant also to affirm that the racial, religious, economic, and gender stratification inherent within Empire, but to affirm Jesus as Lord meant also to affirm that "in Christ" or within the Kingdom of the heavens there is no male or female, Jew or Gentile, slave or master.


Roman Empire and the lordship of Caesar was obsessed with borders of all sorts, but the Kingdom of the heavens and the lordship of Jesus eliminates them. "Caesar is Lord" is about exclusion and persecution. "Jesus is Lord" is about embrace and freedom.


So what do I mean when I affirm that "Jesus is Lord"?
I mean that I commit to actively oppose any person or system which would try to achieve peace by means of superior military strength, economic advantage, or intellectual prowess.
I mean that I reject any person or system which would justify treating any person differently based on gender, sexuality, religion, birthplace, race, ethnicity, class, or status.
I mean that I believe salvation - personal and political transformation - to be found in the ways of the Kingdom of the heavens as revealed by Jesus rather than in the ways of Empire as revealed by Caesar and all those who have come after him trusting in strength, wealth, and wisdom.
I mean that I find the clearest revelation of the character of God in Jesus and his description of the Kingdom of the heavens.


What does this look like practically in 21st century America? Let me say this briefly in the hope that the point is made clearly enough. I pledge allegiance to the Kingdom of the heavens and the lordship of Jesus as I understand it. This means that as much as I love my country, I will not support America's efforts to create peace by means of military victories, nor will I endorse its claims that its superior wealth are signs of God's blessing, nor will I approve of any of its policies which create second-class citizens on the basis of Empire-created borders between people because of their genders, sexualities, religions, birthplaces, races, ethnicities, classes, or statuses.


In short, "Jesus is Lord" is a public declaration about an alternative vision of the way the world would be if Jesus were king and the kings of this world were not.

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On fidelity

I belong to a local Christian community called First Presbyterian Church. Two years ago that community extended their trust to me. They asked if I would consider being ordained as an elder, a church office made up of men and women who provide spiritual support and leadership within the community. I was honored to be asked, and I gratefully accepted. As a part of the ordination ceremony, we were asked to answer these nine questions in the affirmative:

  1. Do you trust in Jesus Christ your Savior, acknowledge him Lord of all and Head of the church, and through him believe in one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
  2. Do you accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God's word to you?
  3. Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?
  4. Will you fulfill your office in obedience to Jesus Christ, under the authority of Scripture, and continually guided by our confessions?
  5. Will you be governed by our Church's polity, and will you abide by its discipline? Will you be a friend among your colleagues in ministry, working with them, subject to the ordering of God's Word and Spirit?
  6. Will you in your own life seek to follow the Lord Jesus Christ, love your neighbors, and work for the reconciliation of the world?
  7. Do you promise to further the peace, unity, and purity of the Church?
  8. Will you seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?
  9. Will you be a faithful elder, watching over the people, providing for their worship, nurture and service? Will you share in government and discipline, serving in governing bodies of the church, and in your ministry will you try to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ?
I take these questions seriously. They represent my community's request that I remain faithful to everyone who has come before us, everyone who is among us now, and everyone who will come after us. They are not meant to stifle critical assessment of individual or community beliefs, to reduce curiosity, or to demand unquestioned agreement with doctrinal platitudes.

My next nine or so blog posts will be personal reflections and stories related to each of these questions. What does "Yes" mean in response to each? That depends, of course, on several different things - the diversity of Christian tradition, reason, experience, and interpretation of the Scriptures. I want to spend some time writing about these questions because I've had to fight hard to provide any answer to them, let alone a confident "Yes!" Writing about the process will be clarifying for me, and hopefully reading about it will be enjoyable and challenging for you. At the heart of each of these questions - whether or not you can see it right now - is a call to examine what every one of us believes our lives are about, what we amount to, and how we live in the world. For me, the theological language of Christianity is invaluable as I make those examinations. I will write clearly and unapologetically about this, but I aspire also to write in such a way that those outside of Christianity or any organized religion may feel deeply connected to the spirit of each of these questions.

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Hymn from Mars Hill

Acts 17:22-32

Are You the Who at the middle of
     my prayers? a She or He? They? sacred
     Androgyne? an omni-Person writ
     large against here and now forever?
Does "watch" or "listen" or "feel" suggest
     anything to You? Or are You the
     What at the root of all faith? a free
     It? Being Itself? an infinite
     Something in every finite something?
Do You change when we change, like the trees
     dancing at the invite of the Wind?
     resisting the chill weight of the Wind?
     pushing hard back to alter the Wind?
Are my sweats to assign Who-ness and
     What-ness useful? warranted? worthy?
Or do I speak of You better with
     awed silence? Is Not better than So?
     Is it enough to know that in You
     I live and move and have my being?
 

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On a blue affection, a red state, and a purple hope

I'm a liberal. A big, blue "progressive." The kind that makes Glenn Beck cry about the state of our country, showering great, salty tears down his chalk-dusted cheeks. I'm not a moderate Democrat. I'm an ideological Democrat, and I'm teeming with all sorts of characteristically liberal beliefs about LGBT rights, progressive education, environmental protection, separation of church and state, unions, universal healthcare, religious tolerance, waging peace, amnesty, fair trade, market regulations, corporate responsibility, evolution, the United Nations, and on, and on, and on. I make phone calls and pass out stickers for Democratic politicians. I put Democratic candidates' signs on easements. I show up early to vote. I see the world through indigo-colored glasses, and I don't take these issues lightly.

Aaaand... I live in Oklahoma, "the Reddest State in the Nation" following the 2008 elections. We almost repeated our performance in the midterm elections last week, but Wyoming somehow managed to eke out a more Republican record. Barely. What's more, I am a member of largely conservative families, both the family that raised me and the family that allowed me to marry their lovely Em and has put up with me since. I am surrounded by conservatives - religious, political, social, and fiscal - which is why the next statements deserve their own space for emphasis:

I love them so much I can hardly stand it. I love the state of Oklahoma, and I love my conservative families.

This often surprises people, for some reason. Several of my fellow blue friends, even those who are somehow bound to Oklahoma by family or heritage, talk often of how they cannot wait to "escape." I understand their frustrations, and they frequently manage to speak quite eloquently about them. They want to be where they feel their voices are heard and their votes count. They don't expect everyone to agree with them, but they would like to be a part of a public conversation that isn't so one-sided.

One of my good friends, a professor at the university who happens to be a lesbian, is doing gender research in a particularly conservative part of the state. Those whom she interviews have no idea of her orientation since she neither publicizes it nor fits certain stereotypes. She regularly endures chauvinistic affronts and various insulting slurs for homosexuals from people who don't know her but feel comfortable using such vocabulary because they are certain everyone around them - including her - will tolerate it. For the sake of her research she has decided not to respond to the language, but she experiences every hateful word as deeply painful. She doesn't suffer from the delusion that there is any state or city where she could evade all potential offenses. She knows that there are misogynists and obnoxious people everywhere, but she has experienced something particular here that confounds her - that such language is common and overt. When I hear her describe these episodes I can sympathize with her and others who do not feel at home here.

I won't expand on a recent experience of a dear friend of mine who is Arab, other than to say he's had an interesting week since Oklahoma voted Yes on SQ 755. He's not Muslim, but he has had to endure the hate speech of fellow Oklahomans who interpret the color of his skin as a symbol of the caricature they have created to represent the Islamic faith.

Even our  most recent gubernatorial debates, which should have been a celebration of the advancement of women in our state, momentarily devolved into clich├ęs about traditional women's roles when one of the candidates used her status as a "family" woman with a husband and children to distance herself from her opponent who has never been married nor had any children. Perhaps she didn't mean her remarks to be as belittling and accusatory as they were taken, but many Oklahomans who supported her candidacy seized the opportunity to rumor that her opponent was a lesbian and therefore unworthy of the position of governor. Many supporters who were unwilling to spread the lesbian fabrication were nonetheless prepared to gossip that she must be an impossible woman to love. Why else wouldn't she have a man in her life? This, too, was enough to justify the conclusion that she was unqualified for the job.


I share these recent anecdotes not because I believe they are indicative of all Oklahomans. If I thought that were the case, I would not remain here either. I share them simply to illustrate the very real frustrations of those who have had a difficult time adjusting to what has become a common discourse which is, like it or not, associated with so-called Republican, Christian, and Oklahoman perspectives. I share them to articulate the experiences of those who do not fit into the not-so-hidden privileged demographic of white, English-speaking, heterosexual, Christian, and male, all the while knowing full well that I am exactly the kind of person who is privileged in our society. My level of frustration cannot compare to theirs.


But I'm still here, and will be for a long time to come, because I know another Oklahoma. To be sure, I am quite familiar with the political and religious Oklahoma of their oft-justified fears and irritations. I voted for Jari Askins. I voted No on 755. I voted Yes on 744. I voted No on 751. Almost nothing I voted for last Tuesday went my way. Barring an improbable paradigm shift, future votes are also unlikely to make me very happy. However, the results of these questions and elections are not the only identifying marks of Oklahoma. The xenophobic, fundamentalist, and chauvinistic voices are not the only ones here. This wonderful state is also full of kind hearts, clear heads, and welcoming people who know how to disagree without alienating one another.


I mentioned my family earlier. While I disagree with them on many political matters, and a few religious ones, I have never experienced them as anything but careful with their motives and words, and ready for a thoughtful conversation about anything. This is not to say that we ever come to agreement or that we never unintentionally hurt one another's feelings. Conversations sometimes end with a comma rather than a period, and once in a while pauses for the sake of emotions, but this is indication that we are talking with each other rather than about each other. I have yet to hear anyone in my immediate family say a hateful word about someone with whom they disagree.


But beyond conversations, I love the Oklahoma that I've written about before here. It's the Oklahoma of my collected experiences. It's Good News Club in grandma's living room, shucking corn on grandad's tailgate, playing the piano in church, shooting baskets in the driveway, sharing a room with my generous brother, watching my sister become an artist, falling in love with my wife, listening to my dad quote his favorite poems, hearing my mom pray for her family, enjoying nieces and nephews, going back to college, strengthening my marriage. It's the Oklahoma of neighbors and hay stacks, Friday night football and county fairs, small towns and volunteer fire departments. I'm always surprised by the one or two glimpses of painted buntings each year, and I'm blown away by the November perse of Winged Elms. I'm a sucker for the gradual transition from Ozark foothills to tallgrass prairie. I love those stretches of road that allow for a miles-long gaze in every direction, eyes moving over fields of corn and fresh cut alfalfa. I have to catch my breath every time I see a pasture full of buffalo. This is my home.


My hopes for Oklahoma have little to do with coming to a political agreement. (Though, if it were to become blue, or at least a little purple, relatively soon I wouldn't mind.) Rather, my hopes are that everyone would experience the same welcome, neighborliness, beauty and simplicity that I have been given all of my life. It doesn't seem impossible to imagine an Oklahoma where my Arab friends, as well as my friends who are actually Muslim, feel perfectly at ease. Nor is it difficult to imagine an Oklahoma where prejudiced epithets of any sort are not tolerated in public or behind closed doors. This isn't about apocalyptic visions of lions and lambs laying down or beating our swords into plowshares. This is something much less complicated. This is about an Oklahoma that is already alive and well but seems to be hidden from view at times.


I'm here for the long haul. This is my place. I hope we will be hospitable to any and all who cast their lot with us, regardless of our differences.

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On re-forming

I'm a member of a church that locates itself within the Reformed tradition. We belong to a lineage of protesters and activists. The early Protest-ants in Europe spoke forcefully against what they understood to be abuses of the Roman Catholic Church. Powerful religio-political interests were abusing their medieval authority in order to fill the coffers of kings and bishops alike by "selling" forgiveness in the form of indulgences, which were Pope-approved remissions of the due punishment in purgatory that remained even after receiving absolution. One could purchase an indulgence for one's self, a loved one, or even someone already deceased and in purgatory. Needless to say, in a time of such uncritical acceptance of the Church's teaching and unquestioned loyalty to the Church's prerogative, the sale of indulgences was an easy way to rob the masses. It was primarily in response to the sale of indulgences that Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Wittenburg Church. He was attempting to reform the practices of Catholicism, but was instead excommunicated from the Church he so loved. Other magisterial reformers like Philipp Melanchthon, John Calvin, John Knox, John Wycliffe, and Ulrich Zwingli, as well as those who belonged to the radical reformation like Sebastian Franck, Menno Simons, and John of Leiden sought to re-form or re-imagine the Church in response to issues related to worship, matters of church and state relations, doctrine, and various abuses of power. These men, along with many women like Katharina von Bora (a nun who married Martin Luther), Elisabeth Cruciger, Elisabether von Brandenburg, Walpurga Bugenhagen, and countless nameless others, actively opposed the religious abuses of their day.

(It is important to note here that the Protestant Reformation certainly had its own troubles and abuses of power. Michael Servetus, for instance, was a participant in the Reformation but after developing a non-trinitarian Christology was burned at the stake in Geneva by order of a Protestant governing council and in cooperation with John Calvin. Indeed, the Reformation, like all historical religious movements, was a reflection of the flaws of the human heart as much as it was an attempt to rise to that same heart's highest ideals.)

What is unfortunate is that many denominations are content to describe themselves as Reformed in the past tense, as if all of the re-creative work has been done and nothing is left to re-form. It is common for churches, as well as individual Christians, to define their present identity exclusively in terms of past experiences. The many churches whose ancestors risked their lives in challenging the status quo often become perpetuators of the same, defending socio-religious constructions of "normal" for the sake of superficial forms of solidarity, respect of custom, or even commitment to a particular accepted interpretation of creed or scripture. Within this context, they may promote a willingness to change certain fashions - accepting state-of-the-art technology, adapting to new musical tastes or preferences, or updating religious jargon to include changes in modern vocabulary and usage. But these general shifts with the times are hardly tributes to an activist religious tradition which seeks to read theological texts subversively, to engage culture critically, to speak truth to privileged interests, and to give voice to those marginalized by imprudent devotion to established practices.

A church that is Reforming, rather than Reformed, will not only define itself by what it is against (Protest-ant) but will also actively dedicate itself to what it is for. The Church for far too long has been known only as an antagonistic organization rather than as a fiercely reconciling and redeeming organism. Have you ever seen the way a tree will grow around barbed-wire? It overcomes the barrier, incorporates the danger, transcends and includes the restraint and makes the barbs its own. This is what a Reforming religion does. It continues to grow, to expand, to mature beyond any obstacle. Rather than remaining static, or retreating to a safer, more familiar state, it continually transforms (re-forms) itself and everything it contacts. What if the Church became know for - in deed as well as in word - the promotion of human rights, just economic standards, equitable treatment of marginalized people, peace, scientific discovery, a moral standard that begins and ends with the Golden Rule, and a theological standard which reflects the essence of the same?

Neither Reformed churches who retreat into ritualism nor those churches who proudly abandon tradition as if it were the plague succeed in honoring our shared story and the Gospel of the Kingdom. A Re-forming Church will humbly embrace its own history and traditions and will also critically advance into the future with passion and enthusiasm, always seeking first the ways in which the Kingdom of God is re-creating earthly empires, including the empires of Religion.

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On hard-fought blessings

Jacob is one of those early Biblical characters, one of the Patriarchs (a loaded term, I know), with whom I rarely identify. So many of his words, choices, motivations, and attitudes seem hollow and insincere. But this morning I find myself right in the middle of one of his most storied frustrations, identifying with the hunger that animated two of the most well-known incidents in his life (Genesis 27Genesis 32:22-31). Jacob, more than anything else, yearned to be blessed. He was so blinded by this craving that he deceived for a blessing, and believed that a blessing had to be wrestled away from anyone who may grant it. It is with this that I identify - the frustration that a blessing seems difficult to come by.

Jacob was willing to trick his father and betray his brother to receive it. He wrestled with an angel, some theologians say a theophany, boxing with Heaven to receive it. Why must it be that in order to receive goodness from those whom we love we must hide who we really are from them? Why must it be that we stumble through the world, occasionally colliding with the sacred, the eternal, the heavenly, and feel as though we must struggle with it to receive a benediction? Why must it be so hard to sense that Life, God, and neighbor are on our side for being nothing more or less than our authentic selves, instead of who we pretend to be or how well we put up a fight?

I cannot change the conditions I must meet for others to bless me, but I can change my conditions for them. I can become mindful of the moments when others let down their guards, revealing a vulnerable spirit, and I can bless them in that instant. I can take note of those seasons when people around me are too weak to contend for anyone's approval, and I can bless them in that instant. Whether or not others may require me to become someone else or to do battle in order to receive their approval, I do not have to create more Jacobs but can instead become someone who shares my blessing generously, liberally, enthusiastically with those who have no mask to wear and no more strength to fight (Matthew 5:3-10).

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