Category Archives: Marginal Notes

Why I Teach


I teach for selfish reasons. Maybe all teachers do, but I speak only for myself. These reasons are uncomplicated: to share the joy of what I have learned that I love; to have a chance to express and pass on my ideas about what I have learned that I love; and to keep learning about what I love, stimulated by the people who are learning to love it also, in part because of me.

I don’t have a ‘philosophy of education’: I have things I love and a joy in them that I hope is communicative. And because I love what I teach, I want other people to see what is so great about it too, so that they can feel the joy that abides in important things and that can shape a life with a surplus of meaning. So teaching becomes for me a form of testimony, a kind of patterned awe in the presence of wonderful things. I try to take people on tours of the wonderful, and if all we do in its presence is drop our jaws and say, ‘Ah…’,  I’m content.

I don’t hesitate to share what I think about what I love either—how and why I came to think it, and what I have discarded along the way. Sometimes I tell students flat out that I am right in my opinion about something (and they are not, or not yet quite as right as I am). I want them to know that some ways of thinking about things are better others. I believe that if students want to think for themselves, which is one goal of all education, they have to do that on the basis of something other than untested gut feelings or wishful thinking. They have to build a foundation, and that ‘thinking for oneself’ without such grounding is, for the most part, unreliable, not very valuable, and probably not going to lead them to anything true.

In other words, I want students to take someone else’s wisdom for a serious test drive. I want them to rent with an option to buy; to suspend suspicion and develop a bias toward faith in the considered opinions of others; to respect the authority of authorities instead of keeping up the fiction that all ideas have equal value and that all opinions count the same. In the classroom. I have, gratefully, learned more than I can say from students over the years, and I hope always to be open to their teaching of me; but I don’t understand myself primarily as a ‘co-teacher’ or ‘co-learner.”  There is nothing egalitarian about my classes.

My way is old-fashioned, I’m told. I see that it is. But I think it is also a way to treat things that matter seriously. I feel like I made a pact with important things once upon a time, and I should keep it. Besides, I don’t think there’s a teacher alive who doesn’t want to have students on a similar page: when we’re being honest about it, I think we all hope to form disciples. Not ‘clones’, although if the original is worthy, a few copies would not do the world any harm. And definitely not ‘groupies.’ No good and much harm come from personality cults. Why some teachers do not actively discourage them is beyond me. No, we don’t want groupies or clones, we want disciples. And I think if we are doing a good job, we will have them—people who end up with deeper lives because they have found a new love, the one we showed them, and been changed by its attendant joy. They may, almost surely will, end up thinking thoughts different from ours, but they learned to love good things sitting figuratively at our feet.

Teaching is the impetus I need to keep learning. As some of the people I am teaching begin to grasp the importance of what’s on offer, they want more, and I have to help them find it. Because I am a little lazy, it is a great gift to me to be urged on like this by the nascent joy of others. I also try to be open to their discovery of things I don’t know yet about all the things I love, although not merely open: in addition to gladness in new ideas or new approaches, I also have to model a critical eye, a sifting skill, so that treasures can be authenticated before they go into the treasure house. This function also keeps me on my toes, learning.

I teach for selfish reasons. But not for that is it ‘all about me.’ It is about the subject matter, it is about the love, it is about the joy that grounds and changes everything. Not all students are interested in this sort of thing; not all are capable of it; but I still try hard to give these things away anyway, and hope for the best.



Minefield in the Manger: Dissing ‘the Jews’ in Advent and Christmas

Advent and Christmas are the seasons many Christians love best, yet they are shot through with an almost intractable challenge—and no, I’m not talking about the pressures of consumerism and secularism during the run-up to Christmas. In a way, that’s the least of the church’s problems in these seasons. I’m talking about our age-old reliance on a simplistic, often erroneous, and even disdainful view of ‘the Jews’ to make the seasons bright.

The problem is acute during Lent and Holy Week too. It always has been (it was the season of pogroms in the Middle Ages); but these days we are more sensitive to the issue of anti-Judaism in that solemn season, most of us having rejected by now the old libel that ‘the Jews’ killed Jesus, and many of us having started to speak more precisely about of the meaning of Jesus’ death so that we don’t claim the triumph of church over synagogue and the replacing of the ‘old covenant’ with ‘the new.’

But Advent, being a gentler and more subtle season, is also a sneakier one when it comes to this nasty business. Our Christian sentimentality is loathe to police our biblical texts, prayers, and hymns, and more reluctant to rework our assumptions about what is happening theologically in Advent and Christmas in order to redress the ancient wrongs of Christian triumphalism and supersessionism.

We may be aware of the issue in Advent and Christmas, but only in general terms, and we might therefore miss the telling details that add up to the ‘contempt’ we say we want to avoid so as not to add anything more, however small, to the historically violent mess we’ve already made of our relations with Jews.

And so we still rely, for example, on a few culled verses from the prophets, mostly Isaiah, to support our case for Jesus as the foretold messiah. For Christian purposes, of course, there is nothing wrong with this kind of fulfillment theology (fulfilling is not the same as superseding). It’s okay for us to read the Hebrew scriptures through a christological lens, as long as it’s not the only lens we ever bring to them, and as long as we fully appreciate that those texts remain the Testament of an ongoing tradition not our own, and that therefore they are not ours alone to interpret–i. e., we can’t monopolize their meanings. But there is plenty wrong when we then proceed subtly (and not so subtly) to blame ‘the Jews’ for not agreeing with us that those texts point clearly to ‘the’ Messiah, while we ignore a zillion others that do not point to Jesus as the one God chooses to redeem Israel, but to someone or something else.

We sing without a second thought about this (Christian) Messiah who comes to ransom ‘captive Israel,’ leaving the impression that without him, ‘Israel’ will be left to its captivity and perhaps be lost—as if God were not faithful forever, as if God has changed allegiances, switching to Christians and forgetting ‘the Jews.’

We proclaim that the Christ Child ‘came to his own, but they knew him not,’ and congratulate ourselves on having the perspicacity to see what ‘they’ could or would not, being a stubborn people; or because they are always looking for the wrong kind of Messiah in all the wrong places, being also an obtuse people.

We contrast Christ’s coming as a shivering child, hidden, humble, and poor, with the supposedly militaristic and monarchical messianic aspirations of ‘the Jews of Jesus’ time.’ We preach that they expected someone powerful in worldly terms, but God had a surprise up the divine sleeve. They got it wrong, but we out-Israeled Israel and got it right.

We say and sing and pray these things without once pausing to ask whether this contrast is actually true, or whether perhaps it is a libel against Jesus’ first century co-religionists, whose views of the Messiah and the messianic age were in fact rich and varied and often mutually contradictory and cannot be reduced to a few verses from prophets we find sympathetic to our cause.

We preach about the Gentiles coming into God’s embrace in the symbolic personages of the wise men from the East; and we give thanks that, in the person of our Messiah, God has overcome the supposed particularism and clannishness of ‘the Jews’ to open the gift of salvation to all. We particularly relish this idea in the progressive church, for we are exceedingly partial to inclusion and ‘extravagant welcome,’ and thus also much inclined to read Christian history as God’s rebuke of Israel’s supposed narrowness and exclusivity in favor of  Christianity’s ‘universality’ and openness—another assumption we must somehow bring ourselves at least to question, even if the answer ruins our neat paradigms.

We also speak of God’s wondrous breakthrough into human history in the person of Jesus of Nazareth as if this were the first time God had ever made God’s person and presence known in human affairs, effectively reducing Israel’s long history of down and dirty dealings with God to insignificance, at most a pale preamble to Jesus’ appearance in the womb of Mary. We sing of the birth of Love among us, as if that love were a new thing, unheard of before the manger and stable, replacing ‘the God of the Old Testament’ who is so angry and mean.

I could go on. I won’t, because the question already rises—so if what I’m saying is in any way valid, what are we supposed to do, junk all our Advent songs and Christmas carols, our  songs, liturgies, and texts?

All of them, no, but some of them, yes–and why not?  Is it better to hold on to them and perpetuate the problem? Or is it a worthy aspiration to heal the season that intends to heal us? Why couldn’t we call upon Christian artists and liturgists and singers and poets and theologians to take this challenge seriously and reconstruct Advent and Christmas along different and more fruitful lines, maybe working with Jews to do it—wouldn’t that be something?

But first Christians need to get real about the problem, confess it as such, and resolve to do better. This means taking our Jewish critics seriously, setting ourselves a program of assiduous study, and working patiently, day by day, year by year, to overcome our nostalgic reluctance, review our assumptions, and skillfully revise our  liturgical ways and means to more fully reflect the wondrous particularity of our Christian hope without falling into contempt, triumphalism, or bearing false witness against our Jewish neighbors.

What’s In It For Me?


I always get impatient during my local public radio station’s on-air fund drives. I turn on to hear “Fresh Air” or “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” and all I get is breathless program hosts oozing about how great the station is, how lucky I am to have it, and how crucial it is to support it—in any amount, nothing’s too small. I know they have to do it, but it drives me wild when they do.

Now, here comes another unedifying confession— I’m what’s known as a free-rider. It’s been a very long while since I “picked up that phone to make a pledge.” I listen all the time, but contribute nothing. I should be embarrassed. I am.

But as I drove to a meeting the other day and was listening to ‘BUR go on and on about money, I wasn’t thinking about how embarrassed I should be. I was thinking, “This is really irritating”—right up, that is, until the moment when one of the announcers said that for a donation of just a few dollars per month, they would thank me with a hefty gift certificate to a restaurant that just happens to be my favorite tapas place in the Boston area.

I pulled over, fished out my phone, and dialed 800-909-whatever that number is. Seriously. Right then and there on the shoulder of Route 128. And I doubled the amount they were suggesting, because I could, and because I wanted to, and because I’d also get a limited edition mug along with the restaurant gift certificate.

I suppose I should now also feel embarrassed that it was not some noble appeal to my better angels that finally moved me to give, but the simple prospect of a desirable reward. And yet I don’t feel embarrassed at all. In fact, upon whimsical reflection, I feel rather biblical about it!

After all, even God was not above luring people into the divine plan by holding out promises of reward. And some of the greatest figures of our tradition were not above jumping at them . They pulled right over and fished out their phones.

Abraham gave more than a few dollars a month—he gave up everything— to obtain God’s thank-you gifts: a land of his own, offspring as numerous as the stars, and the rights to divine protection.

Paul left everything behind so that he could obtain a prize, a crown, the glory of a race well run—and the surpassing gift of knowing Christ.

And after that rich young man in the gospels refused Jesus’ invitation to sell off his wealth and follow, it dawns on Peter that the disciples had done what that rich man would not. “We have left everything. So what’s in it for us?

We tend to find it an embarrassing question. Unworthy of a disciple. But Jesus doesn’t bat an eye. He lays it out for Peter and the others–you’re going to get houses and lands and family and friends and….

No, I don’t find it embarrassing that Peter asked. I find it amazing that the rich young man didn’t, and that mostly we don’t either. I guess we’ve been schooled to think only about the size of the surrender we need to make to follow Jesus, not what we might be passing up by not giving in.  Maybe we should ask more often.

Like a lot of church people I was brought up to believe that I should never ask, “What’s in it for me?” You do good because good is what you’re supposed to do, and virtue will be its own reward. I think instead that it might be a great exercise to ponder the rewards of our surrender. To try to imagine what is coming our way. To rejoice in God’s thank-you gifts and yearn to attain them. To pinch ourselves and shout the spiritual equivalent of, “A generous gift certificate to all that luscious food, and all you want, dear God, is a few dollars a month? I can do that! I can do that!”

It isn’t wrong to be moved by reward. Even people who claim they want nothing in return for their love and service to others always get something out of it, regardless (don’t we say things like—‘Oh, it was nothing—really, I got a lot more than I gave…’?). So why not just step up, be transparent, and want it? Like Paul, why not reach for it? Like Peter, why not expect it? Like Abraham, why not get up and go into the unknown, spurred on into the night of unknowing by the sights and sounds of all the wonders that are in it for you?

Direct Address

Sometimes the pastoral prayers we ministers offer in church sound more like essays about the sorry state of the world, or commercials for the great things our church is up to, or great long laundry lists of needs, or sneaky sideways sermons disguised as prayers. It’s not often that they sound as if we’re engaged in authentic direct address, that we’re actually talking to God. We just talk away, inserting God’s name into these disquisitions every five or six sentences to remind ourselves and the congregation that all the stuff we’re saying is a prayer, or maybe to justify it as one.

It’s no wonder that people in the pews have a hard time when it’s their turn to pray aloud. Most of the time, people who are invited to offer prayers during the set-aside time in Sunday services don’t even start out by addressing God, but say indirect things like, “A prayer for my friend, Jim, who’s being operated on today,” or “ A thanksgiving for my niece who made the swim team last week,” or “That there might be peace in the world.” Hardly anyone says, “Thank you, dear God, for the great joy my niece feels after making the team,” or “Gracious God, I’m worried about my friend, Jim. Please be with him,” or “God of Love, make us stop warring and learn to make peace.” It’s hard enough to talk in public, let alone really pray in front of everyone; harder still if you don’t have the proverbial role model to give you a sense of what prayer could be like, if only.

Of course, there are, or I hope there are, many exceptions to my observation—pastors and worship leaders and basic regular people in the pews who have a talent for praying deeply and openly to a God they love and trust, who enter the mystery of prayer with a kind of anticipatory awe; and who don’t really care all that much if their prayer—even the prayer they may have written out ahead of time—is syntactically all put together or even all that intelligible or lovely or meaningful or earnest, just as long as it is really prayer, really a conversation with the Holy about the deepest things the people have on their hearts; a prayer that the whole assembly will, of course, overhear, but one that they don’t necessarily have to grasp fully with their brains in order to know that prayer is happening, that God is the addressee and the interlocutor, that the conversation is real, and that it matters.

A great mystic of our day, South African Bishop Desmond Tutu, was once asked to offer prayer at the start of a big anti-apartheid event. And so he raised his hands and prayed. Then he did a little dance and prayed some more. When he was done, he grinned and sat back down. Afterwards, a woman in the receiving line said to him, a little annoyed, “I didn’t understand a word you said!” Tutu shot back, “Of course not, ma’am. I wasn’t talking to you.”


Happy Sin [Luke 15:7]


I tell you truly, there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to repent.

Jesus says that God is much happier when we sin and repent than when we don’t. So maybe it’s good that the lamb went astray. If it hadn’t, neither the shepherd nor God would have known the unique delight Jesus speaks of.

Since repenting makes heaven so all-fired happy, maybe we should sin a lot more. Then, when we’re done, we could say, “Oops, sorry!”, electrifying Paradise with that special thrill.

Well, we could do that, but it’s probably not what Jesus had in mind. And yet he seems to say that there are worse things we could do than sin, worse things we could be than bad. We could strive to be better people—the sort of better people who believe they are better than other people. We could go out of our way to avoid icky sinners, putting cold, contemptuous miles between us and them.

To sin, go astray, do harm, fall flat on our willful faces—none of that’s good exactly, but at least it’s real. At least it doesn’t separate or distinguish us from anybody else. At least it makes for human solidarity. And any kind of solidarity is better than distance, exclusion, and contempt.

Besides, if we didn’t sin, God would just stay home and read the paper all day instead of lighting out into the canyons and brambles of life to find us by the whimpers of our lost and shivering hearts. It’s wrong to say that sin repels God. Sin is a God Magnet. Wherever there’s a sinner with a sin, God is there.

So yes, by all means, we should be sad and sorry for our sins. But we should be grateful and glad for our sins, too. Think where we’d be without them.

Prayer                                                                                             Searching Shepherd, it’s weirdly paradoxical and maybe even a little wrong to thank you for my sins, but I do. Without them, I’m lost. With them, I’m found. Praise to you forever. Amen.

My Trees


I live in next door to a state university in an old industrial city where green space is at a premium. A little over a week ago, a crew from the university’s buildings and grounds department planted seven young trees around a new parking lot that happens to be right outside my windows.

Even as they were going into the ground, I felt an almost irrational concern for those saplings. I worried that the B&G guys had not planted the little root balls deep enough. I fretted that they were piling the mulch too high around such slim trunks. I wondered if they’d watered them enough during the first three days when the sun was blazing hot.

Now I find myself looking out the window and checking their progress every time I get up to get a snack or retrieve the mail or find a new book or start supper, as if my looking will prevent them from shriveling up and dying from moment to moment, or help them grow twenty feet from mid-morning to noon.

I hope I’m not turning into a nosy neighbor who peers through the drapes, keeping a prurient eye on everybody’s comings and goings. I’m not sure it makes much sense, my proprietary concern for seven saplings around an asphalt lot; but these are my trees.

I wish I felt this way about everything that lives.

My Baptism(s)

There’s a family story about my birth that, like a lot of family stories told and re-told over the years, is probably only tenuously true, but it’s a good story all the same. This is how it goes:

My parents had decided that if they had a girl, they would name her Janice. This was a merciful way of naming a child for my grandmother without actually saddling the child with my grandmother’s name, which was Janetta. But my mother’s labor was long and my head and shoulders were big, and her pain was great, and at a particularly difficult moment, she—who had never been particularly devoted to the Mother of Jesus—was heard to scream, “Get me out of this and I’ll name her Mary!”

But there’s another story about my birth that I cherish more than this one. It seems that when I finally did come out, I came out yellow. I must not have looked very strong, because one of the nurses, who was Irish and Catholic and devout, took me quietly to the far side of the room, dipped two fingers in some water, traced a cross on my brow and baptized me in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

Now, in the Catholic theology of 1947, this was known as a provisional baptism—an emergency baptism in case of death. Had I expired in the delivery room that morning, what that nurse did to me would have been a real live valid sacrament, and I would thereby have been spared an eternity in Limbo—a state of being in which the unbaptized soul of an infant enjoys all the natural happiness one could possibly enjoy, but where God is not present, and never will be.

But I didn’t die. I pinked up! And so I was baptized officially a month later with an honest-to-God-priest and a big baptismal font. My provisional baptism had indeed been provisional. It didn’t ‘count’ in the end, and so it became simply an amusing story about the way I came out yellow, but not a story about the day I became a Christian. That happened, according to my baptismal certificate, on January 21, the Feast of St Agnes, when my family brought me to St Mark’s on Dot Ave in the Ashmont section of Dorchester.

The church I belong to these days does not teach that baptism is necessary for salvation. In this community of faith, we don’t baptize babies because we believe they need to be baptized. Baptism for us is the cool forgiving river through which we are swept into the church. It’s a sign that we belong to the family of faith. It’s the way we pledge allegiance to the new polity we call the kingdom of God. It’s the act by which we are called to follow Jesus, and it’s the moment when we are given a ministry to carry out with him in the name of God’s compassion.

It isn’t a cleansing of original sin, but a promise that if we do sin, we will not be left in our sin; there will never be a moment in all our lives when we will be bereft of the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord—for God’s is a love that is incapable of holding our sins against us. No, we do not baptize in order to snatch people from the jaws of hell. We baptize in order to bury them deep in the heart of Christ’s life.

God knew me and loved me from the day I was formed in my mother’s womb, as psalm 139 so beautifully sings. Some scriptures say that God knew us even before we were formed in the womb. The point is that there was no place on the day I came yellow into the world, nor is there any place now that I’ve gone completely gray, that is devoid of God’s presence. Catholics have finally come around on this conviction too. You never hear talk about Limbo any more. That nurse need not have worried about my being cut off from God on the day I came weakly into the world. I was never in danger, mortal or immortal.

I do not, of course, remember my baptism, either one of them. But I like to imagine the day I was baptized because it is a source of comfort and courage and hope for me to know that, once upon a time (well, twice upon a time), the God who is always kind and merciful was merciful and kind to me in a very specific way, by enrolling me in the company of the faithful, making me a member of the body, a daughter of the church.

But a strange thing happens when I imagine my baptism. In my mind’s eye I never see the sanctuary of St Mark’s on Dot Ave. I always see a delivery room at the Boston Lying-In. I always hear a capped nurse murmur the trinitarian formula. I feel her fingers trace a watery cross on my head. I see me, pathetic, in her arms, a new creation in Christ. And I have to tell you that I always well up with affection for her. As far as I’m concerned, her baptism of my jaundiced little soul was anything but provisional. If I am indeed a Christian by baptism today, I believe that it was at that moment in that place and by her hand that baptism “took.” 

I don’t believe what she believed about baptism. But it doesn’t matter. What moves me so much, and the reason I prefer her baptism to the priets’s, is that on the day she baptized me she was worried sick about what would happen to me. She didn’t want me to get lost. Baptizing me was her way of making sure that the little creature she held in her hands who was created by God for God and destined for the divine vision, would in fact see God. What she intended for me was the fullness of temporal life in the church should I live, and the fullness of eternal life in God should I die.

I was in no danger. Baptism was not required. Even if I had been in danger, it still would not have been required. But that is not to say that it did nothing for me. Her baptizing of me has given me a way of thinking about the church into which the sacrament ushers us. She has become in my mind a prototype of the church at its best, the assembly of graceful people who care about what happens to you, today and tomorrow and forever. People who would move heaven and earth to help you get free of every danger, mortal and immortal. People who do everything in their power to set you safely on the Way, keep you there, and not let you get lost.

The church is about a lot of things, but if it isn’t at least about this kind of concern, we may have missed the point.

Like A Tree Beside the Water


—Photo by Dan Burkholder

In the beginning, God planted a garden and at its heart God set the Tree of Life. From that moment on, we have been tree people. We cannot tell the story of God’s love without speaking of trunks and roots, vines and branches, leaves and fruit. The oaks of Mamre, the root of Jesse, the burning bush, the olive, the mulberry, the willow, the cedar of Lebanon, and the fig—as we learn their names in the stories of our tradition, we come also to know the God whose mere presence, the psalmist says, causes all the trees to stand up and applaud.

And so it’s not surprising that when God drew even closer to us in Jesus, his story also unfolded tree by tree. We remember that Zacchaeus became his disciple while draped in the branches of a sycamore. Nathaniel went after him too, after Jesus summoned him out from under the shady fig. We still tell each other the story of the mustard seed that grew into a great tree whose branches hosted all the birds of the air—no matter who they were, or where they found themselves on the journey of life.

A tree that is not producing anything, Jesus said, need not be cut down, but commended to the care of the arborist for another year—a mercy (we suspect) that was probably extended the year after that as well, and the year after that one too. Other unproductive trees were not so lucky, but they made his point about the urgency of responding actively to the gospel. Jesus was hanged on a tree. They buried him in a garden full of trees. And in the end, when God re-creates all things, a tree will straddle the River of Life and produce fruit in every season, and its leaves will be for the healing of the nations.

Sometimes we imagine the church as a club you join. Or we think of it as an organization that has business to do. Or as a center of advocacy and the promoter of causes. Our attention tends to focus on membership, activity, programs, and numbers. But the Bible tells us a different story about who we are.

The church is not a club, nor an organization concerned with bottom lines and the size and success of the franchise, nor a social service agency or political action group. The church is a people set apart, a priesthood, a new kind of family, God’s adopted daughters and sons, citizens in a new commonwealth, an assembly, a holy gathering for God’s praise and purposes. And it is, the Bible says in many places, a tree—a cedar, an evergreen, an oak of God’s own planting.

Not only does God gather us under trees for shade and protection; not only do God’s trees welcome us, their fruits nourish us, and their leaves heal us; not only are trees parables of God’s patient mercy and faithfulness, as well as of God’s urgency and impatience; not only are they places of epiphany, encounter, and decision; not only does our life with God and with each other unfold tree by storied tree, we ourselves are a tree planted by God and in God, who is the living stream that feeds us.

When our roots drink deeply from that stream, we are a tree whose leaves do not wither and whose fruit never fails, a tree capable of welcoming, shading, feeding, and healing, planted at the heart of the garden of this world to offer life.

When the church welcome new members, then, it’s not like signing people up on the dotted line. It’s more like grafting new branches into the trunk of a tree. God makes new life circulate to everyone through such new branches. And by God’s grace it means that there will be even more room for many more birds of every kind to flock, to feed, and to rest.

When the church meets, it’s not primarily to cast votes, fill committees, and discuss budgets, but to marvel at and give thanks for all the ways God provides for our health and wholeness, watering, pruning, and dressing us, so that we might thrive, so that we might be a blessing, so that we might give ourselves away.

And when the church worships, it is not to talk a lot to God and to each other and to come away with insights to improve our lives, but to join the praise of trees and all creatures, who by being alive, or by just being, please the Maker.

In a world where great forests are clear-cut for profit, where ancient olives are bulldozed and torn up by the roots from a land called holy, and where young human saplings are cut down by bullets on city streets, never to reach full stature; in the face of all the life-destroying things that human beings may do on this earth, God stubbornly plants and cultivates trees. God does not give up cultivating life—like the life that is in us, life for the sake of other life, life for the sake of the world.

Would anything be different about its way of being and doing if a congregation knew it was a tree?


He Passed

This is primarily for my Christian colleagues, but anyone else who may have ideas to contribute, please do!

Do you use the term ‘passed’ as a euphemism for death? I’m hearing it often these days. (Maybe it’s been around forever and I’m just now catching up.) If you say ‘she passed’ instead of ‘she died’, I wonder why you prefer the euphemism and what it suggests to you that the straightforward term does not?

Euphemisms for death are a dime a dozen, of course. We have used them from time immemorial, often in an effort to sweeten the sour reality of death. But not always. Euphemisms can supply the fact of death with specific religious content.

For example, our ancestors in the Christian faith spoke of “falling asleep” to describe the death of those who died before Christ’s expected return. It made emotional sense to speak that way when you thought that his return—and with it, the bodily resurrection of all the dead—was imminent. The person who had died would stay dead for only a little while; it was as if she were sleeping through an ordinary night and would open her eyes and rise again in the morning.

Although few of us hold to the hope of an imminent return these days, this euphemism may still be useful and ‘true’ in that it speaks to a specific Christian hope—the resurrection of the dead. Other common expressions for death and dying may do that too, but their connections to the Tradition seem to me more tenuous.

I almost always prefer to speak plainly about death, forgoing substitute expressions that seem to me to be indirect. For some reason, I especially dislike the expression ‘he passed,’ which is the shortened form of ‘passed away.’ The longer form had the virtue of indicating that a person is gone, passed away.  The shorter ‘passed’ leaves you hanging with unanswered questions. Passed to what, through what, over what, into what?

I have wondered if this expression is trying to be Pauline, as when the Apostle says that by our baptisms, we have “passed from death to life. ” But Paul was speaking of a mystic death—the Christian’s sacramental participation in Christ’s death and resurrection—not our actual deaths, although the term works for our actual deaths by pious extension (which is why in some traditions, a white cloth symbolizing baptism is draped over a dead person’s casket or urn). Although there may be some tenuous connection here, I suspect the term ‘passed’ is more likely to have gained currency not from a biblical starting point, but simply from the human tendency to condense things.

What I resist about ‘passed’ is that it makes death sound like a simple transition from one ‘shore’ to another, or one life to another; or as the lifting of some sort of veil or curtain through which one serenely steps into another realm or dimension of existence. The hard fact of death is made to appear sort of gentle, even harmless—there’s nothing to be afraid of or resist. This may work okay for quiet deaths (up to a point, that is, for a death is a death, and all deaths are brutal in some way); but it seems especially inadequate for miserable deaths, of which there are many.

The imprecision of this expression is said to be more comforting to mourners than the hard cold edges of the words ‘dead’ and ‘died.’ I have heard pastors say that those frank expressions are too unbuffered for the family to hear, too shocking for those who are so freshly numb with grief. Maybe. And yet it seems to me that those who are suffering the sting of a loved one’s death hardly need to be shielded from a reality they know all too well is a painful and final one. I always thought that it helped more to name things candidly in a kind and thoughtful way, rather than to call them something else in the hope of avoiding more pain. But I could be very wrong about this.

The expression ‘passed’ is indeed sufficiently vague as to allow us to fill in the blank with all sorts of different ideas about what happened when the person died, and about what happens next, if anything. It also allows us to supply no ideas or affirmations at all if we want to remain comfortably agnostic about the whole business. It sounds sort of “Celtic”—the thin veil, etc.—and anything Celtic these days seems better than other things to many Christians, since we have come to believe (thanks to the ‘Celtic spirituality’ industry) that those Christians were more enlightened, earth-centered, body-centered and lyrical than other Christians were, and are.

The vagueness of ‘passed’ mirrors the fuzzy state of modern Christian theological reflection about death and about what happens after death, as well as the aversion some pastors feel to naming and proclaiming a distinctive biblical message about ‘last things.’ In the past, theologians felt more confident in speaking of particular and general judgments and resurrection of the dead at the Parousia. These days we more often say ‘No one knows’; and we are right—no one knows. No one has even known; but millions who did not know nonetheless believed certain things. Not to take those beliefs seriously into consideration is to write off our ancestors (and many of our contemporaries) as benighted and unsophisticated. This is something the arrogant modern does too often, to our detriment, I think.

We also say that what really matter is living, and living well, in loving service to others and in persevering militancy in causes of justice. Speculation about the form and function of the afterlife, if it exists at all, is fruitless. It diverts us from the more pressing issues of the here and now. Yet many people experiencing the death of loved ones, even social justice activists, continue to ask questions about last things. They want to know, Where is she? Will I see her again? What did she ‘pass’ into? And most people, at least when they are wide awake in the wee hours, have deep questions about themselves and what will happen to them when they die as well. Do we have a way of talking to them about these questions that does not fall back on banal generalities that lack specific Christian content?

I have talked with pastors who think ‘last things’ conversations only reveal how egocentric and self-preoccupied we human beings are—the only sentient beings that refuse to accept the natural order of things, the only ones who have to invent an afterlife to calm our anxieties about ceasing to exist. Of course, we may be the only ones capable of such refusal, and one wonders what might happen if cats and snakes had the capacity to be aware of death in the same way we are aware. (I, for one, am glad they do not appear to worry about such things—my cat is anxious enough as it is just wondering where his next meal is coming from.)

Some pastors offer a reassurance that loved ones are safe in God’s hands and that they will be too; or they assure the surviving mourners that the loved one lives on in heart-held memory; but they sidestep the question of personal existence after death and eventual reunion. A few pastors I know have confided that they have stopped believing in ‘heaven,’ or any other notions of an afterlife, but they avoid saying so among their people, for fear of disappointing them. Others tell me that some of their people have stopped believing in ‘heaven’ too, but don’t admit it for fear of disappointing their pastors! ‘Passed’ seems to them a good expression in this circumstance; it commits you to nothing you don’t believe in anymore, but has a nice spiritual ring to it all the same.

At the same time, I am noticing the increasing popularity of All Saints Day celebrations in progressive Protestant churches. People seem to love the idea that we are, as Hebrews says, surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. They fairly shout all the umpteen verses of ‘For All the Saints,’ with its triumphant affirmations about the victors’ crowns of gold and a yet more glorious day. It seems odd that people who love the celebration of the Witness Cloud should be so diffident about speaking of the actual death required to be admitted to it, and about the character of the cloud itself.

I’m not quite sure what to make of all this, given that for millennia the promise of eternal life (whether in a heaven, or on a restored earth, or in a new creation, or in some other form we cannot imagine) figured as the greatest hope and consolation of the Christian life. What do you think? When you have to talk about these things, what do you say?

Just wondering.

[Unattributed image taken from

July 26 — Anne, Mother of Mary, Grandmother of Jesus

Today is the Commemoration of Anne, the mother of Mary and grandmother of Jesus. That Mary had a mother and Jesus had a grandmother there can be no doubt—we all have them—but the New Testament authors do not name Anne (or her husband, Joachim) or give us a single detail about her in the stories of Jesus’ conception, birth, and upbringing.

That there was an  Anne is what some call ‘a venerable tradition’ and others disdain as a pious lie, depending on the extent to which one honors and enjoys the religious imaginations of the ancestors and is not reflexively dismissive of stories. You know where I come down on this one.

Anne (along with Joachim) first appears in the Protoevangelium of James, c. 150 [?], a much-loved book in the ancient Eastern Church (in the West, not so much), and later in other non-canonical writings. Some people say that her story—an older woman conceiving later in life, bearing a famous child—was modeled after the story of Hannah (Anne), the mother of Samuel. Whatever the origins and literary models of her story, she soon became a fan favorite.

Devotion to Anne can be documented in the East from the mid-6th century; but if by that time the Byzantine emperor Justinian is busy constructing a great church in her honor, we can be sure that it had been gaining steam for a good while before that. In the West, there is no extant representation of Anne until the 8th century (a nice fresco in Rome), and not much fervent devotion until the 13th; but it took off after her story was included in a popular collection of saints lives (The Golden Legend, Jacobus de Voraigne), and Anne swiftly became one of the most beloved saints of the Latin Church.

The medieval imagination provided Mary’s parents with parents too—Stollanus and Emerentia; and with many marriage stories, including one in which Anne is married and widowed a three times, giving birth in successive unions to Anne (by Joachim); to Mary (by a fellow named Cleophas), who becomes the wife of Alphaeus and mother of the apostles James the Lesser, Simon and Judas, and of Joseph, called the Just; and Maria Salomae (by  Salomas) who became the wife of Zebedaeus and mother of the apostles John and James the Greater. The way her story was developing, she might eventually have ended up grandmothering the entire corps of apostles, and the further 72 as well. 

Muslims also venerate Anne (Hannah), the grandmother of the much-venerated prophet, Isa, whom we know as Jesus. The Qur’an does not name her (only her father and husband get names—Faqud and Imram, respectively), but subsequent teachers tell a poignant  story about her conception of Maryam (Mary): Hannah has trouble conceiving and is about to give up when she sees a mother bird feeding hatchlings. The maternal desire grows strong again and she and her husband try one more time. You know the result.

The Qur’an recounts that before conceiving, Hannah had promised Allah that, like the Biblical Hannah, she would dedicate her son to him (she was sure it would be a boy). She is surprised when a girl appears, and maybe a little afraid to present the little Maryam to God, but in mystical insight she decides that the baby girl is a true gift of God. The Qur’an is at pains to show that Allah is extremely pleased with the birth of this girl child and has great plans for her.

After she dies, Anne endured the fate of many great saints in the medieval church, traveling more in death than she ever had in life. Her relics are said to have been taken to Constantinople in 710. They remained there, in Hagia Sophia, until 1331, when the city was conquered and her relics were taken to Europe for safekeeping—and dispersal. Or if you like you can follow the tradition that Lazarus, Jesus’ moldy friend, took her body to France and buried her there. In Douai, you can venerate her foot (not sure if it is her left or right). Her head resided in Mainz in Germany for a while, before it was stolen by pious thieves from Duren in the Rhineland. I could go on, but these are unedifying details, so no more of this.

One of the lovely traditions of iconography associated with Anne is called the Metterza (Italy), Anna selbdritt (Germany) or Anna te Drieen (Low Countries). Taken together, these terms describe depictions of ‘the three generations’—Anne, Mary and Jesus; or as one author put it, these are images in which “Granny makes three.” {See such a depiction by Albrecht Düerer, below.) 

Another important iconographic tradition shows Anne teaching Mary to read. Anne was a good teacher, it seems, and Mary learned well. She was still reading as a young woman: in a great deal of iconography of the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel enters to find Mary with a book (probably scripture) open on her lap. The Word arrives as words are pondered.

Now, if you are a Protestant and not much inclined to saints, you have good reason to like this one, for it could be said that St. Anne made the Reformation possible. When, caught in the midst of a terrible lightning storm, a terrified young Martin Luther cried out to heaven to be spared, promising to become a monk if he lived, it was to St. Anne that he prayed. Apparently, she heard him. Luther credited his safety to her intercession. He kept his vow and entered the Augustinian friary at Erfut on July 17, 1505.  The rest is history.