Saturday, April 18, 2015

Some days, you have to pretend
to be alive. It will feel like a lie,
until you remember that every pretense
inevitably implies a pretender;
a subject, if you will. And you will
eventually recognize this stranger
to be yourself. Then you can simply
go on being alive for the rest
of the day. Night will come, and sleep
may cause you to forget again.
Try to remember in the morning
that some days, you have to pretend.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Even on days like this, when noon
shines an apathetic twilight,
there are some illusory escapes.
The usual noise of traffic is drowned
in the tires' sudden spashing. Waves
lap at the curb, and I could almost
feel myself upon some peaceful shore,
then not, then there again, a slightly
slower rhythm than the thunder-
punctuated rain. Preserve
me from such hopes as those that fly
from this bleak box.

                                     The leaves, long dry,
are drenched. Too late. They won't grow green
again. There is no return,
except perhaps the long way through
decay, and then beyond the winter,
moment piled on moment, end
on end. O, for courage to attend
to the damp gray road that leads to home.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Let them eat cake!

On behalf of all cake-buyers everywhere, I would like to start out by affirming that a baker/decorator should have carte blanche to refuse a commission for any reason whatsoever.

If the requested design or message doesn't make sense to you, for the customer's sake, you probably shouldn't make the cake. If it's a challenging design that's beyond your skill, for the customer's sake, just say no. And if the person ordering the cake disgusts you so much that you don't think you can resist the temptation to spit on the frosting, you've got some serious soul work to attend to, but in the mean time, for the sake of the customer, it might be a good idea to let somebody else make the cake.

There are also all sorts of religious reasons why someone might to refuse to make a cake. Orthodox bakeries should have the prerogative to sell only vegan cakes during lent, or even to shut down altogether between Ash Wednesday and Easter. If someone asked me to make an excessively vitriolic or murderously gruesome cake, I would have to tell them very politely that my religion prohibits that sort of thing.

Cakes are art (at least, they ought to be) and I think it's a terrible idea to try to force art from anyone. Anti-discrimination laws are incredibly important when it comes to housing, retail, and basic food-service, but anything involving custom design is impossible to effectively regulate.

But silly and dangerous as it is to try to force people to make cakes against their will, it's equally absurd to shame Christians for doing business with sinners.

It's okay to make cake for remarrying divorcees.

It's okay to make cake for cohabitating couples.

It's okay to make cake for couples who are openly intending to use artificial birth control.

And it's okay to deliver pizza to frat parties. (If you happen to witness any violence, be sure to intervene appropriately. You could totally save a life, or prevent a rape.)

As St. Paul says, "You would have to leave this world to get away from everyone who is immoral or greedy or who cheats or worships idols." In our complex society, it is impossible to avoid complicity with sin. I benefit from slavery every day. I wouldn't be able to write this blog post if it weren't for the child slaves who are coerced into grueling and dangerous mine work. And if I ever manage to make enough money to actually pay taxes on it, the odds are pretty high that those tax dollars are going to help fund some pretty appalling injustices.

Thanks be to God, Jesus directly addressed this sort of dilemma, and as always, his answer is both peaceful and bracing.

When the Pharisees inquired about taxes, it was a seriously thorny question. Roman taxes paid for roads, aqueducts, and the preservation of the Pax Romana, but they also funded gladiatorial contests, pagan temples, the slaughter of every male infant in Judea, and ultimately, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Those are that taxes that Jesus is talking about when he says to give unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and give unto God what is God's.

Jesus says to go ahead and pay your taxes. Don't fret about your unavoidable complicity, but always remember that you belong to God, and are made in his image. Do whatever it is that God gives you to do in furtherance of his kingdom, and trust him with the rest.

The Pharisees called for the sort of moral perfection that avoided all potentially contaminating contact with sin, even if meant leaving somebody in a ditch. Jesus calls us to reach beyond that, and aspire to the moral perfection that belongs to God himself, who sends rain on the just and the unjust.

This is serious. If your righteousness doesn't exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.

If we're going to follow Jesus, then love trumps keeping our hands clean, and he calls us to imitate the presumably befuddled and synchretistic Samaritan rather than the faithful but hopelessly uncharitable priest and Levite.

None of this means that we should ignore sin. Jesus was quite outspoken in his denunciations, and when he ate with sinners, it was always to call them to repentance. But he really did eat with sinners, prioritizing love over his own purity.

Love calls sin for what it is, and that's why I'm writing this. If you're living in bondage to the idea that God demands that we avoid doing good for sinners at all costs, I would be remiss not to tell you how gravely dangerous I think that is.

But I will gladly make you the very nicest cake that I can. For your sake and mine, though, let's just stick to a simple sheet cake with buttercream frosting. And sprinkles.

Friday, April 10, 2015

When first we practice...

Spin, spin, spin,
With your eyes clenched tight.
You will probably pin
The tail on the nose. That's alright.

Innocence is bliss.
It's justice if it's blind.
Spin, so when you miss
No guilt will cloud your mind.

Spin, spin, spin,
And weave your shimmering strand.
Do whatever you must to win,
But make sure that you don't understand.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Thy kingdom come, rising up from clay
damp with heaven's waters. Here on earth
may streams of life pour down upon the just
and the unjust both. May our purity surpass
all petty human perfections and aspire,
Father, to that perfection which is yours.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Judgment, splinters, and restoration



Not too long ago, there was a meme going around about "how liberals read the Bible."  Various versions were in circulation, but all of them showed an open Bible, which had been so heavily highlighted with a sharpie that the only words legible were "judge not."

It's a clever meme, and up to a certain point, it has a point. Obviously, Jesus said a whole lot of things besides "judge not." If you're going to follow Jesus, it's not enough to simply refrain from judging people. You also have to refrain from murder and name-calling and envy and sexual immorality, and if you manage to catch the guy who stole your coat, you have to offer him the shirt off your back.

But... you also have to "judge not."

You really, really, do.

The sharpie-highlighter meme seems to imply that the injunction to "judge not" only exists as a sort of blackout poetry, where the meaning is largely unrelated to the intentions of the original text.

But if you peel back the layers of sharpie, the context doesn't mitigate this command one jot or tiddle. It's part of a discourse on the importance of loving sinners, and "judge not" is pretty accurate summary phrase for the entire passage.

If you think that it's hard to reconcile this whole not-judging thing with the intense ethical demands laid out in Scripture, you're in good company. Jesus insisted that his teachings were a fulfillment of the law, and didn't water it down at all, but he never did manage to convince the top Torah scholars. I'm convinced that Jesus is right, but I have to admit that it can be really hard to see what he's getting at. Like the magic eye pictures that amazed us in junior high, sometimes it jumps out at me in breathtaking 3-D, and sometimes I'm stuck staring blankly at a hopelessly incoherent jumble.

But at the times when I can see it and the times when I can't, it's still there. All of it. Jesus calls us to walk the hard, narrow road of holiness, and he doesn't even allow us the sweet consolations of judgmental self-righteousness.

I get why the scribes and pharisees might not have been able to see what Jesus was saying, and even if they did see it, I get why they might have killed him for it anyway. Jesus' teachings are hard words. They're the words of eternal life, and I don't know who else to go to, but they are very hard words indeed. Everyone should count the cost before deciding to pick up a cross and follow.

Of course, theories abound about how Jesus' teachings are not really as hard as they seem. I've often heard it said that because Jesus follows the not-judging discourse with the illustration of the log and the speck, he didn't really mean that we aren't supposed to judge, but merely that we're supposed to deal with our own sin first.

The problem with this theory is that I've never had much success in removing splinters by yelling at them. I'm getting pretty good at dealing with splinters, mostly because I've had a lot of experience with them. Who knew that all those childhood cactus encounters would come in so handy? Still, it's a delicate task, requiring understanding and precision. When my kids come to me with splinters, I try to figure out how the splinter got there in the first place, so that I can guide the offending fragment out through the same path. Sometimes a salt paste will help the swollen flesh recede, and sometimes I put a dab of glue over the splinter, so I that I can peel it away when the glue dries. Every splinter is a little bit different, but for all of them, if you're harsh and impatient, you're apt to drive it in deeper. Worse, you might break off the visible portion, leaving the rest of it buried and inaccessible.

So while it's true that once you've removed the plank from your own eye, you're supposed to help other people with their splinters, you simply can't accomplish that by judging them. Condemnation is just as ineffective against splinters as it is against sin. We are not seeing clearly if we think that having been saved by grace we can go on to save others through our condemnation and judgment.

The lesson of the woman caught in adultery is not that good behavior will earn us the privilege of throwing stones, and the lesson of the log and the speck is not that we should start judging as soon as we become unaware of our own sin.

Thanks be to God, Jesus empathizes with all our temptations, and even though he's amply qualified to cast the first stone, instead he chooses to drive our accusers away so that we can go and sin no more.

We should do likewise.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Shall I wear the ashes of my zeal?
The branches that I wave become a cross,
and in a week of week of weeks grow dry as tinder,
consumed until the flames die out at last,
and all my striving turns again to dust.