Toni Morrison, Theologian

Toni Morrison’s name at birth was Chloe Ardelia Wofford. “Toni” became her name when she joined the Catholic Church at age 12 and took her baptismal saint’s name from Anthony of Padua. (Morrison was her married name, the one she tried too late to avoid using on her first novel. That fact and many others below are from this interview with Terry Gross.)

St. Anthony is that popular guy whom people ask to intercede for them to find lost things. Far more importantly, in his life he was known for powerful preaching of the Gospel, and for his devotion (as a Franciscan, no surprise) to the sick and the poor. In 1946 he was declared a Doctor of the Church. How appropriate a saint for this author who continually wrote of lost things (and people) found, the sick, the poor, the despised, the abandoned, the crushed, the excluded, all brought into the light of a Love bright enough to expose every hidden thing.

For all that, however, it was maddening when Morrison died and several Catholic authors and bloggers claimed her as Catholic. Yes, she was formed by the Roman Catholic Church, but for Catholics (especially male and white Catholics) to claim her in that way was so wrong, not just for plenty of normal reasons that religions and ideologies shouldn’t claim people who don’t claim them. (Specifically, in the case of Morrison and others, sharing publicly that you like some things Pope Francis has said does not mean you embrace the Roman Catholic Church.) This was even more deeply wrong because it so went against her own voluminous work and its deepest themes.

And now, having lambasted others for claiming Morrison for their church, I will argue that she is a deeply theological writer. I do not just mean “spiritual” in some nebulous way, nor “religious.” She is indeed a writer of works both spiritual and religious, but more specifically she is a theological writer. She writes about God, about how God relates to people, about how people relate to people, she does it well, and she does it in ways that have the power to form other people’s lives and understanding of God and humankind. That’s a theologian.

After Morrison’s death I began reading one of her novels I had missed: Paradise, published in 1997. The following is just one passage which theologians, professional and amateur, would do well to reckon with. The characters Misner and Pulliam are two pastors, representing two factions threatening to split what was once a seemingly idyllic town. The setting is the beginning of a wedding, with bride and groom standing there at the front of the congregation as this scene unfolds:

Suitable language came to mind but, not trusting himself to deliver it without revealing his deep personal hurt, Misner walked away from the pulpit, to the rear wall of the church. There he stretched, reaching up until he was able to unhook the cross that hung there. He carried it then, past the empty choir stall, past the organ where Kate sat, the chair where Pulliam was, on to the podium and held it before him for all to see–if only they would. See what was certainly the first sign any human anywhere had made: the vertical line; the horizontal one. Even as children, they drew it with their fingers in snow, sand or mud; they laid it down as sticks in dirt; arranged it from bones on frozen tundra and broad savannas; as pebbles on riverbanks; scratched it on cave walls and outcroppings from Nome to South Africa. Algonquin and Laplanders, Zulu and Druids–all had a finger memory of this original mark. The circle was not first, nor was the parallel or the triangle. It was this mark, this, that lay underneath every other. This mark, rendered in the placement of facial features. This mark of a standing human figure poised to embrace. Remove it, as Pulliam had done, and Christianity was like any and every religion in the world: a population of supplicants begging respite from begrudging authority; harried believers ducking fate or dodging evil; the weak negotiating a doomed trek through the wilderness; the sighted ripped of light and thrown into the perpetual dark of choicelessness. Without this sign, the believer’s life was confined to praising God and taking the hits. The praise was credit; the hits were interest due on a debt that could never be paid. Or, as Pulliam put it, no one knew when he had “graduated.” But with it, in the religion in which this sign was paramount and foundational, well, life was a whole other matter.

See? The execution of this one solitary black man propped up on these two intersecting lines to which he was attached in a parody of human embrace, fasted to two big sticks that were so convenient, so recognizable, so embedded in consciousness as consciousness, being both ordinary and sublime. See? His woolly head alternately rising on his neck and falling toward his chest, the glow of his midnight skin dimmed by dust, streaked by gall, fouled by spit and urine, gone pewter in the hot, dry wind and, finally, as the sun dimmed in shame, as his flesh matched the odd lessening of afternoon light as though it were evening, always sudden in that climate, swallowing him and the other death row felons, and the silhouette of this original sign merged with a false night sky. See how this official murder out of hundreds marked the difference; moved the relationship between God and man from CEO to supplicant to one on one? The cross he held was abstract; the absent body was real, but both combined to pull humans from backstage to the spotlight, from muttering in the wings to the principal role in the story of their lives. This execution made it possible–freely, not in fear–one’s self and one another. Which what love was: unmotivated respect. All of which testified not to a peevish Lord who was His own love but to one who enabled human love. Not for His own glory–never. God loved the way humans loved one another; loved the way humans loved themselves; loved the genius of the cross who managed to do both and die knowing it.

But Richard Misner could not speak calmly of these things. So he stood there and let the minutes tick by as he held the crossed oak in his hands, urging it to say what he could not: that not only is God interested in you; He is you.

Would they see? Would they?

It’s impossible to name all the talents that made Morrison one of the best, but to me her greatest talent is the way that when she creates a character, she enters that character and sees through their vision, their perspective. Lesser writers warp their characters when they get inside their skin, stretching them out to match the author’s own shape. With Morrison, for all that readers have been taught that writers’ perspectives and their characters’ perspectives are not the same thing, her skill baits the trap for us to think that we now understand what Morrison herself believed, in this case, about the cross. We don’t.

Hopefully, however, we have been forced to question and possibly re-form once again what we ourselves do know. This is what the best theologians have the power to do.

Bonus: My pet (i.e., unsubstantiated) theory is that as Morrison wrote the above passage, she couldn’t resist a dig at a particularly virulent bestseller then topping the charts: Laurie Beth Jones’ Jesus, CEO.

Engle Institute for Preaching: First Unpacking

Last week I didn’t write here because I was attending the Engle Institute for Preaching at Princeton Theological Seminary. Through this year, the continuing ed event was always aimed at preachers in their first 2-10 years of preaching ministry. That ten year mark has always been squishy (with preachers still made welcome at 11 or 13 years too), but next year they are having a second track for people in their 11th through 25th years of ministry. I don’t know what that will look like, and I don’t think they do yet either.

In any case, if you preach and want to be a better preacher, they’ve got that Princeton money, so it was only $175 for a week, including room and board. You should definitely apply. The best way to get in is to apply early, and the best way to know registration is open is to subscribe to PTS’ Continuing Education E-Newsletter.

On a personal note, it was certainly the most fully “mainline” Protestant space I’ve been in since seminary, and it was the first time I had been around so much Reformed theology in my life. (A new Episcopalian friend and some Lutherans there agreed.)

In the course of the week, all 65 of us Engle Fellows attended a five-day plenary session (audio available here; video available here). This year the Engle Institute brought in Roger Nam, Professor of Biblical Studies and Dean of Portland Seminary, who challenged us to preach Ezra/Nehemiah in our churches. His own lens (which I will now not be able to read Ezra/Nehemiah without) as a second-generation Korean-American who learned Korean as an adult in order to live and minister in South Korea, is that of repatriation. How do those returning to Jerusalem relate to this place that is a home to which they’ve never been? How do those who stayed in the land relate to the returned people? And what in the world are we supposed to do with the “holy” (or is it most unholy?) breakup of marriages and families we find in Nehemiah 13? (Less practical but incredibly interesting: Did you know there was a Jewish settlement, complete with its own Temple, on an island in the Nile in the 5th c. BCE?)

After the plenary session, on Monday through Thursday I attended Preaching and the Theopoetics of Public Discourse, taught by Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm. (Yes, I’ve been trying to tell you I’m a preaching nerd.) This was the description for the course:

From ‘A City upon a Hill’ to ‘The Drum Major Instinct,’ American preachers have given voice to poetry and prose that have stirred our imaginations and empowered the church’s ministries of compassion and justice. This workshop will immerse participants in the theopoetics of preaching: the creative process of engaging metaphors, sounds, and the rhythms of Scripture and poetry to inspire our souls and empower sermon listeners.

(Click here to see all the other course offerings.)

We read favorite poems to one another, we watched some fabulous sermons and questioned some less fabulous ones, and we came away not totally knowing what “theopoetics” means, but still informed by it. One practical nugget (a Yale thang?): writing a sermon in sense lines as verse, rather than as blocks of prose, in order to free up creativity and communication of meaning.

Some links: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “The Drum Major Instinct,” Robert F. Kennedy on the night MLK was assassinated; Mitch Landrieu (warning of the possibility of violence months before Charlottesville) on the removal of Confederate monuments; Otis Moss III and Otis Moss, Jr. share a Father’s Day sermon on “Prophetic Grief” right after the Mother Emanuel shooting.

If you’re wondering if politics came up in our conversations: yes. I came away so thankful that my congregations are far from politically homogeneous.

Monday and Tuesday afternoon, I went to Carolyn B. Helsel‘s Stories of Recognition:

Preachers include stories in nearly every sermon, knowing the power of stories to expand listeners’ understanding of faith and ability to empathize with others. In today’s society, when many people remain in their own echo chambers of news media that affirm their own views of the world, how can preachers employ stories to help us see the humanity in our brothers and sisters across the aisle? This two-day afternoon workshop will engage practices of storytelling that help listeners recognize the commonalities between themselves and persons they view as very different from themselves, as well as to see how our experiences may be more different from one another than we might imagine due to identity markers such as race, gender, age, and physical ability. Resources for such stories will be available, and preachers will practice storytelling.

We literally told stories to one another, talked about how the stories we tell about ourselves shape us, and then talked about how the stories we tell about ourselves are not the only stories we could be telling of the same lives. That is, telling different stories about ourselves can be transformational. (For the Big Instance, if the Gospel is true, then we are part of God’s story. What difference might that make?) Practically, we also shared our favorite TV shows, movies, and book recommendations for stories we enjoy.

My final workshop pick was for Wednesday and Thursday afternoons, How to Turn the Ear into an Eye: Preaching as an Oral-Aural Event with Jared Alcántara:

This workshop empowers participants to “preach for the ear” instead of “preach for the eye” through helping them to conceive of the sermon as an oral-aural event rather than a written artifact. It teaches the rules of orality in preaching, discusses practices to avoid when preparing sermons, and invites participants to learn from one another through the practice of preaching for the ear.

Unfortunately, while we did get to watch some great preaching, and we actually learned and used some tools, I wanted something deeper about how communication works, how people hear and learn and respond and are transformed by hearing spoken words. (I only realize now while I seem to negatively review the class: those techniques and tools are ones that I will be using for a looong time after I might have forgotten some theory shared across four hours of class time.)

Princeton was great (although the beds were uncomfortable to sleep in and the wealth of the downtown area was uncomfortable to walk through), the workshops were great, the worship was great, but the people I got to meet were definitely the best part. If I had to boil down what I received from the week as a whole, it was the encouragement to just be absolutely who I am, whoever that might be. There is plenty of learning to do, plenty of technique to sharpen, but the core of who I am as preacher is actually something God made.

Yes, believe it or not, God made me to preach ridiculously long lectio continua sermon series in imitation of how the Church Fathers (and the Reformers in imitation of the Fathers) did it, to read poetry and theology devotionally, to listen to novels alongside leadership books on the way to pastoral care visits, and…to blog while I’m on the clock.

Love in the Ruins

This week the Illinois Great Rivers Conference of the United Methodist Church has its Annual Conference. I’m not alone in already having disrupted sleep, messed up digestion, and anxiety gathering across my shoulders as we near the gathering.

Our first and thorniest business is to elect delegates to the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, our denomination’s global gathering, which will be in Minneapolis from May 5-May 15, 2020. General Conference 2020 is so important because it will likely host the first concrete steps to dismantle the United Methodist Church as an institution. While there are an increasing number of people trying to frame yet another schism of Christ’s one Body as “mitosis,” there are several reasons why we cannot call it that. Reason one: this schism will end some local churches’ ministries due to splits within those local bodies. Reason two: this schism will kill some individual believers’ faith. Reason three: this schism will make the church less able to do works of mercy in the world. Reason four: by this schism we continue to witness to the world that the Church is no different than the world. (We do not love others as ourselves. We do not love across difference. We do not love our enemies. Christ has made no difference for us, so why would anyone want to join us in Christ’s way?)

Finally, mitosis is a term that denies our agency and responsibility. We are not automatically following genetic instructions inside a cell. We are human beings looking at one another and saying we have no need of one another, then deciding to walk apart from one another. The United Methodist Church is pursuing a divorce, and as we elect delegates this week we are deciding who will represent us in our divorce proceedings. Of course it’s causing us anxiety and grief (which may include, yes, anger).

In recent American Christian history, when churches have divorced, some have spent a lot of time and money in court. The Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori was decisively responsible for her denomination’s spending tens of millions of dollars in holding onto property. There are reasons to hope that the United Methodist Church will not follow the same path. But again, this makes it clear that this is not mitosis for the whole body’s growth. This is a divorce, and it contains the disputes that accompany a divorce. It contains massive conflict.

Even in 2016 (the most recent regular General Conference, which set the stage for the 2019 special General Conference), although it was clear that competing visions of Christian sexual ethics were going to be central, there was also a sense that the United Methodist Church was bigger than that division, that because of the context of our larger relationship to one another, our love for one another, there might be some hope for reconciliation within the body. In the 2015 Annual Conference, when we (well not me, since I wasn’t eligible to vote that time around) voted, we could and did send a group of delegates which we knew disagreed on human sexual ethics, and we did so with a clear conscience. Yes, there were progressives unhappily represented by conservatives and vice versa, but as a whole, we generally felt accurately represented in our United Methodist democracy.

This time around, however, battle lines seem to be drawn more clearly. The Traditional Plan is official United Methodist teaching. UMC Next officially rejects that teaching. In my Annual Conference, there is at least one major conservative group and one major progressive group trying to make sure they control who goes to General Conference 2020. That’s not what chromosomes do. That’s what people trying to gain the most favorable terms of a divorce for themselves do. That’s what people trying to win do.

We should consider, then, what our Christian faith says about divorce and then what our Christian faith says about winning.

Jesus’ teaching in Mark is that divorce is always a sin, and not only a sin but a sin which births other sins. But the United Methodist Church joins a long tradition (the other Gospels, the epistles, the teaching of the Orthodox Church) of setting Jesus’ teaching in Mark inside the context of Jesus’ whole ministry and teaching. When I recently preached on that teaching in Mark, for instance, I urged my folks to look at how Jesus actually treats the divorced people he meets (most obviously, the woman in John who has been divorced four or five times). With compassion and love, Jesus turns us broken people into those who proclaim our Healer.

Thus The Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church 2016 can offer this nuanced approach to marriage and divorce:

God’s plan is for lifelong, faithful marriage. The church must be on the forefront of premarital, marital, and post marital counseling in order to create and preserve healthy relationships. However, when a married couple is estranged beyond reconciliation, even after thoughtful consideration and counsel, divorce is a regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness. We grieve over the devastating emotional, spiritual, and economic consequences of divorce for all involved, understanding that women and especially children are disproportionately impacted by such burdens…It is recommended that methods of mediation be used to minimize the adversarial nature and fault-finding that are often part of our current judicial processes, encouraging reconciliation wherever possible.

Although divorce publicly declares that a marriage no longer exists, other covenantal relationships resulting from the marriage remain, such as the nurture and support of children and extended family ties. We urge respectful negotiations in deciding the custody of minor children and support the consideration of either or both parents for this responsibility in that custody not be reduced to financial support, control, or manipulation and retaliation. The welfare of each child is the most important consideration…

Divorce does not preclude a new marriage. We encourage an intentional commitment of the Church and society to minister compassionately to those in the process of divorce, as well as members of divorced and remarried families, in a community of faith where God’s grace is shared by all.

¶161.II.D.


Back in 1968, we United Methodists lacked some premarital counseling, even as we entered into covenant in good faith. In the decades since, we could have used some marital counseling for the ways we chose to relate to one another throughout the regular frustrations that come in every marriage. (Of John Gottman’s “four horsemen” which he claims from his research are the most accurate predictors of divorce, at least Contempt, Criticism, and Stonewalling were recently acted out on General Conference microphones, and Defensiveness has since joined the other three for regular rides across United Methodist blogs and social media.) But I am most struck by the Book of Resolutions‘ claim that there is also such a thing as “post marital counseling.” There is no such thing as post-mitosis counseling, because everything is just fine and both new cells are just fine and natural and even good. But if this is a divorce and we recognize it as a divorce, then we can choose to enter the divorce process grieving together that we could not figure out a way to reconcile. In this way we can end one way of relating with a blessing rather than a curse. We can choose the spirit (or Spirit) with which we approach the divorce process. Because of the Spirit this is possible even if you are mad, sad, and hurt as Hell by all that has come before.

Continuing with the Book of Resolutions‘ understanding, if we recognize what we are choosing to do as divorce, then we can be intentional in moderating its effects on the vulnerable people and groups and even institutions and agencies who will be affected by our decisions. As others have already pointed out, there are ways in which we can choose to support some of our important works of mercy, education, and more, even after the divorce is final. But we have to be intentional about that work. More damage is all that will be done if we do this swiftly, haphazardly, or if we assume things will just work themselves out.

This finally brings us to that theme of “winning.” What does our Christian faith have to say about our will to win? Jesus says the last will be first and the first will be last. Paul says that certain kinds of conflict we enter into with one another as Christians are losses for all involved. Luther helped clarify the vast gulf between the Way of the Cross and the Way of Glory. Trying to “win” at Annual Conference in order to “win” at General Conference is a game everyone loses.

So how do we seek the one and the ways of the one who took a cross as his throne?
1) We tell the truth. (This is a divorce. It isn’t mitosis.)
2) We grieve together with God. (We are breaking up because we are broken.)
3) We invest as much love in our divorce proceedings as possible.

This week, when we choose delegates, we are not choosing champions to battle and win for us (because we only have one champion, and He won by losing everything). We are choosing people we sense have been gifted and called by God for a particular kind of peacemaking, dreaming, and yes, loving our enemies.

Please pray, and as you turn to the Scriptures as part of your discernment, I’d encourage you to look not just for single Bible verses or laws or principles or precepts, but ask God to bring to mind particular saints of the Scriptures, people who show us how to grieve and to hope and to dream and to plan rebuilding even while the house is still on fire. Here are a few places to start: Abraham, Moses, Rahab, David, Esther, Ruth and Naomi, Ezra and Nehemiah, Mary.

Books on Parade, May Edition

James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
This 1963 collection is two long essays packaged together, and it is the perfect introduction to Baldwin. It is also entirely deserving of the word “fire” in its title. I didn’t realize how much Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (also a must-read) was indebted to Baldwin’s first essay, “My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation.” The second essay, “Down At The Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind,” is a must-read for anyone interested in American religion.

James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son
This 1955 collection was Baldwin’s first non-fiction book, and it contains ten essays. Even excellent essay collections like this one are a little uneven, although I think I would have been absolutely blown away if I hadn’t just read The Fire Next Time, which is indeed better.

Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
If you read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, you need to read this one. Desmond is a trained sociologist who lived first in a trailer park and then in rooming houses in Milwaukee (far from coincidentally also the setting of Jason DeParle’s American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare) in order to give this first-hand ethnography of the struggle of renters and property owners in contemporary urban America. Evicted won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The book’s constructive work continues at The Eviction Lab.

Adam Hamilton, Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture
I reviewed this book mostly negatively here. I forgot to mention in that review that Hamilton presents an incredibly problematic doctrine of inspiration as well.

Christopher Hitchens, And Yet…: Essays
I love the way Hitchens writes, even when I don’t agree with him, and I always learn something from him, even if what he teaches me is sometimes wrong. This is a posthumous collection of his work, and as a Hitchens fan, I’m glad I read it. This month I also learned that my mental image of Hitchens is actually Roger Allam (not to be confused with Timothy Spall). Finally, if you wonder why I like Hitchens, read Hitch-22 instead of this one.

T. Geronimo Johnson, Welcome to Braggsville
If you’ve ever watched Spike Lee’s Bamboozled or read Paul Beatty’s The Sellout (1.99 if you buy it today!) while being a white male in the US, you might know the experience of finishing a work and finding that what’s left of your eyebrows is mostly ash. Highly, highly recommended satire, and it would make a great movie too.

Sarah Perry, Melmoth
I adored Perry’s Essex Serpent, a novel about a serpent that either does or does not exist in 19th century Essex, and the vicar and the female amateur naturalist who chase it. Melmoth has the similar recreation of the feeling of 19th century Gothic literature, but it lacks the substance of that earlier book. Still, if you’ve read and reread all the other classics set on English heaths and moors and now want something fresh, this is for you.

Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow
The Society of Jesus outfits an asteroid and makes first contact with two societies on an alien world before any sovereign nation can manage the trip, with horrific personal consequences for the whole crew, and especially Father Emilio Sandoz. This is an incredible work of science fiction, philosophy, theology, and literature. Although I did think the ending could have been stronger, I look forward to reading its sequel.

Andy Stanley, The Principle of the Path: How to Get from Where You Are to Where You Are Going
This is a decent little advice book, and you might gift it to a graduate in your life this season. I found myself wishing it were more Christian–explicitly oriented to love of God and neighbor–rather than good advice that happens to follow the contours of some Scriptures.

Matthew Vines, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships
After reading Dale Martin’s Sex and the Single Savior (my review/engagement here), I told a friend that it was going to be difficult to give a fair hearing to Vines’ Scripture-based approach to support same-sex Christian marriage, because Martin had so thoroughly torched so many interpretive and exegetical avenues. Vines, however, makes the strongest case that I’ve seen using a basically conservative hermeneutic, one which Christian conservatives should consider it their duty to reckon with, even if they ultimately come away unconvinced. (Ironically, Vines cites Martin while working at cross-purposes to him.) (Sidenote: Yes, it is odd to have read this at the beginning of the month which ended in turmoil for Vine’s organization, The Reformation Project.)

Final Note: The highest category of books for me are those I read and immediately know I’ll need to revisit. Absolutely top prize goes to The Fire Next Time, but I do think I need to at least re-skim God and the Gay Christian. I’ll also recommend Evicted widely.

From Single Issue to Seamless Garment

I thought I knew what terrible and low and shallow was until I was on social media in the week after The Alabama Human Life Protection Act was signed into law. To step directly in this cow pie, both sides have been putting up terrible and hateful and (again, yes) shallow bursts of characters and images, often with undocumented claims made by unverified sources, almost never intending to engage their opponents, let alone persuade them.

For those like me, who are pro-life but who eschew the professionalized mainstream pro-life movement, the main reason to avoid that movement is that it has deliberately narrowed what “pro-life” means to the human gestation period. In a sense, the decision to narrow has been strategic. For instance, advocates for research and development of treatments for pancreatic cancer would indeed get nowhere if they tried to get people to donate to the Cancer Is Bad Foundation. It’s too broad. You must narrow to be effective in your cause.  With pro-life causes, however, it’s different, because the ultimate goal is not to be against something, but to be for something. And for what? Life. Pro-life in the sense that it has been reduced by the mainstream anti-abortion movement–pro-life from conception to birth–in fact makes no sense as a concept to stand alone, because it fails to paint a large enough picture of the meaning of life. Being against abortion must be tied to a larger, cohesive vision of what human life is for, and what worth the individual human life has. For Christians at least this means an understanding of the value of a human life which can never be diminished by anything that human being does or anything that a human being has done to it, because we believe that humans are created in the image of God.

Thankfully for those of us who are persuaded at least that pro-life must mean something beyond birth, Catholic thinkers have been working on the question for a long time. Supposedly it was Eileen Egan (friend and biographer to Mother Teresa, marcher with MLK, correspondent with Thomas Merton, co-worker with Dorothy Day and Jim Douglass, and so much more) who first referred to the Christian understanding of the value of life as a “seamless garment.” This is a reference to the garments of Christ. When Jesus was stripped naked to be crucified, the Gospels say that his garments were gambled for as a whole cloth rather than ripped into pieces. Likewise, because God’s valuing of human life is irreducible, one pro-life issue cannot be separated from another without destroying the whole. Egan’s vision–known since then as either “the seamless garment” or the “consistent life ethic”–was deepened by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, whose thought is now being extended by Cardinal Blase Cupich, and is easy to read within some of Pope Francis’ words.

But for many of my readers, that’s a lot of thinkers and leaders and activists who aren’t very familiar. What’s it all mean? It means that truly choosing life means choosing life in every sphere in which human life is trying to flourish. Yes, widespread abortion is, of course, a threat to human life. But so is the death penalty. So is poverty. So are many of our gun laws (and lack of them). So are our nuclear arsenals, endless wars, military budgets, military presence around the world, military equipment and tactics among local law enforcement, concealed carry in our church buildings, armed teachers in our schools, for-profit prisons, mandatory minimum sentencing, lack of access to healthcare (including women’s health care, and–sorry Catholics–contraception), euthanasia, human germline modification, our valuing economic growth as the sole measure of our corporate well-being, our trade policies, our immigration policies, our drug wars, our treatment of the environment, our relationships with other nations, our relationships across human difference (race, class, gender, sex, religion, and far more) within our own neighborhoods.

The seamless garment approach is flexible enough to still recognize that in terms of numbers and impact, some threats are harming or taking more lives than others. It also recognizes that because all these “issues” deal with human flourishing, they are interconnected too deeply to be separated.

That’s a lot, and to name so many things together might indeed muddle the issue. In this blog post I seemingly tried to lose pro-choice readers at the beginning and pro-life political conservatives by the end. But my hope is not that you agree with me or Dorothy Day or President Eisenhower. Rather, I hope that you are convinced that if any human life is worthy of defense, first you must define why life matters with a big enough picture to share with others, then you must train that lens to see where one life is being valued more than another life, and then you need to see that to encourage life, to be pro-life, you must encourage a life a whole lot better than getting it to birth. Finally, you must also realize that although formal politics–laws and the courts–can do some of this work, it is not their job to form one human conscience or a whole society to recognize and value life in all its forms. That’s our job, in relationship with one another.

Bartimaeus

I am not Bartimaeus.
I am not the son of Timaeus.

When Jesus summons I do not leap up,
I do not leave everything behind,
I do not fly straight to Jesus,
Forgetting that I am blind.

I sit, I consider, I weigh the call,
Weigh it again,
Ponder my options,
Measure my abilities,
Guess my future.

When I stand, I creak, I groan,
Pins, needles, fire,
Spine having forgotten vertical.

I leave nothing behind.
I pack and repack:
Clothes and extra clothes, food, money, keys,
toothbrush, guitar, dishwasher, HOA dues,
401(k), Netflix subscription.

And now my toes stretch, grab earth, pull me
Forward into the dark,
Utmost concern to never stub,
Never stumble, never bruise,
Arms waving high and low,
Scanning for obstacles.
I take stops to rest,
I reverse, then move ahead again,
It takes years.

When I arrive I find
the Son of David has not moved on.
He’s still stopped in the road,
blocking traffic, waiting for me.

He asks me:
“What do you want me to do for you?”

A Vow Too Far (for Now)?

I’ve begun reading Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, edited and with commentary by Brian Kolodiechjuk, M.C. This was the book that shocked many (but not all) at Mother Teresa’s death with its revelation that she had suffered from spiritual darkness and aridity for most of her ministry. But the book starts earlier than that, using her correspondence with her priest/confessor/spiritual director and her archbishop to tell the story of how she was formed and called to the streets of Calcutta.

The first piece of this calling, a “calling within a calling” was a private vow (meaning that she was already a professed nun, and then took a vow beyond her religious vows) she made in April 1942: “I made a vow to God, binding under [pain of] mortal sin, to give to God anything that He may ask, ‘Not to refuse Him anything.’” (p. 28, Kindle edition)

Just to share what this meant to Teresa, I’ll share a longer quote Kolodiechjuk supplies from her “Explanation of the Original Constitutions of the Missionaries of Charity” (p. 29, Kindle edition):

“Why must we give ourselves fully to God? Because God has given Himself to us. If God who owes nothing to us is ready to impart to us no less than Himself, shall we answer with just a fraction of ourselves? To give ourselves fully to God is a means of receiving God Himself. I for God and God for me.”

“Not to refuse God anything.” In theory, that is what being a disciple means. That is, there’s no disciple but the one who refuses Jesus nothing. The followers of Jesus we find in the Gospels and in history show us, however, that we all follow Jesus with daily varying levels of commitment and hourly varying mixtures of faithfulness and unfaithfulness in our deepest places. Sanctification can in this light be defined as our synergistic movement in the Spirit toward becoming those who refuse God nothing, just as the incarnate Son refused the Father nothing.

But I’m afraid.

There’s a common enough joke among Christians that you have to be careful about offering God all, or God might call you to the exact places where you most don’t want to go. In reality, the joke masks anxiety not about places or life conditions, but something at the bedrock: Is God to be trusted? Is God good? If God is actually trustworthy and good and loves me, then truly it wouldn’t matter where I go or what happens to me. But if I doubt those basics, it’s going to be very difficult to refuse God nothing.

We joke because we don’t want to admit that we are all that rescue dog brought home from the shelter who, at the offer of a kind touch, cowers, shakes, and pees himself. We all need a whole lot of healing and patience from a caregiver till we learn to trust. For some of us, we need a whole lot of healing before we even learn not to bite. Our hope is this: God chooses to bring us home knowing all that sometimes difficult road with us, having committed to not toss us back to the streets. Why? Not because God pities us, but because God delights in us. God is that friend you have who always has a new rescue dog, cat, squirrel, pigeon they found and are trying to home.

For now, maybe the question for me from Saint Teresa isn’t, “Will I vow to refuse God nothing?” but “Will I notice what goes on in my rescued heart (and body too) when God draws near?” Am I anxious? Am I afraid? Do I jump back? Or am I comforted? Do I more and more often jump up into God’s lap in affection and trust? After all, trust is just another word for faith. And from our dog’s-eye-view, affection is another word for love.