Oh Captain, My Captain.


A big reason I became an English major and a writer was because of this scene.

I was terrible at sports. I couldn’t play an instrument. My math didn’t add up. My father wanted me to be an engineer or doctor, but I was a below average student. I didn’t know how to do much of anything else but play with words.

But when I saw this scene, I knew that was enough.

“No matter what anyone tells you, words and ideas can change the world… Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits, and necessary to sustain life. But poetry…”

Later in seminary, while good professors tried to teach me to dissect and exegete the text of Scripture like the scales of J. Evans Pritchard, I held onto this scene to remember that Scripture is poetry… that I am part of its Great Story, and I am contributing a verse.

Robin Williams stood in front of people, told good stories, made us laugh, and faced his demons. He was like a true pastor that way.

Genie, you’re free. Thank you the verse you helped write in my life.

May you sleep in peace tonight.

bffs

“Why COEXIST Isn’t Enough ” Signs of Peace Part 2: Love

coexist

I don’t know how we got so lucky, but in May of 2005, my little brother and I ended up on the front row of the b-stage for a U2 show at Madison Square Garden. Mid-way through the show the band ripped through a trilogy of anti-war songs: Love and Peace or Else, Sunday Bloody Sunday and Bullet the Blue Sky.

Just two feet in front of me, Bono knelt down and put on a headband with the word COEXIST handwritten across the front. The “C” was the crescent moon of Islam, the X was made from the Star of David, and the T was from the Cross of Christ.

Then he started riffing, “Jesus, Jew, Mohammed… it’s true. All sons of Abraham.” He pulled the blindfold down over his eyes and knelt down like prisoner of war about to be executed.

I was sold.

I was a Christian seminary student, the son of a Muslim and engaged to a woman whose father was a Jew… all during the worst parts of the Iraq war. Whatever political, cultural and theological differences were causing war, the idea of peaceful coexistence immediately resonated.

I had multiple t-shrits made with the logo on the front. On the back of one was printed Jesus Loves Arabs. On another, just for grins, I printed Who’s Your Baghdaddy?

I wore them to class, to church, around town. I wanted to make people ask what my shirt was all about. I wanted to tell people that the enemies of America were not always the enemies of God; that for all the horror stories, sensationalized images, stereotypes and bad theology… the majority of people in all three religions wanted the same thing: shelter, food and a future. Our work needed to be for peaceful coexistence, not war.

***

Almost ten years later, I realize COEXIST won’t cut it. To coexist is only to tolerate… to simply put up with someone or something you don’t like or agree with for the sake of an absence of conflict.

That is not the peace we’re looking for.

Why can’t coexistence and an absence of conflict be enough?

Consider this story:

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus and his disciples are on their way to Jerusalem, and he wants to go through Samaria. But Jews didn’t travel through Samaria, they went around it. Why? Because Jews and Samaritans did not like each other. Not even close. It was pure racial and religious hatred.

Even though they had a common ancestor in Jacob, and they both had the Torah, the Samaritans had a different theology, a different temple of worship, and had gotten in the way of the Jews when they returned from exile and tried to rebuild their temple.

Jews saw Samaritans as foreigners, inferior half-breeds, unclean, less than human… the enemy.

In this story, the Samaritans don’t want to receive Jesus. So the disciples, in a moment of pure holy war ideology, ask Jesus if they should call down a shock and awe fire from heaven to burn the Samaritans up.

Onward Christian soldiers.

Instead, Jesus rebukes them for wanting to destroy lives when he came to save them.

Then, just one chapter later, Jesus is asked THE question: What does takes to inherit eternal life? 

Answer?

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and strength.

Love your neighbor as yourself. 

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says all the law and prophets – the scriptures, the 10 commandments, EVERYTHING – hangs on loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself.

So of course, the next big question is Who is my neighbor? What does this love look like? And Jesus targets the very people the disciples wanted to light up.

We call it the Parable of the Good Samaritan: A Jewish man is traveling from Jerusalem, and he gets mugged by bandits. While he’s lying bloody and beaten on the side of the road, a priest comes along, and later a Levite. Both walk on the other side of the road to avoid the man. Then a Samaritan comes along, puts him on his donkey, takes him to an inn and pays to have him sheltered, fed and fixed up.

“Which of those three would you say was the neighbor?” Jesus asks.

Put another way, “Who do you love?”

Answer? The hated Samaritan.

The Jews had learned to coexist with the Samaritans: That’s your land. This is mine. Let’s just agree to disagree and go about our business.

But Jesus circumvented settling for coexistence.

***

Now try on the story for the 21st Century: A Christian in mugged in New York City. A pastor walks by and ignores him. So does a worship leader. Then a Muslim picks him up, puts him in his cab, and pays for his hotel and hospital bills.

So, who do you love?

To see the other as a human made in the image of God is an important first step, and to work towards coexistence is an honorable (and necessary) goal, but it still isn’t enough. To simply coexist doesn’t deal with root wounds of the conflict, it simply lives with it. The why you don’t want to be in relationship with someone gets pushed under the rug.

In other words, coexistence is not love. And Christ circumvents our idea of just coexisting, calling us to love our neighbor as we love ourself.

So why is love the harder goal to aim for? What gets in the way? I think Thomas Cahill gets to the heart of the matter: “The problem of all unresolved conflict is the same: Each side makes the same one-sided claim, “Only my wounds matter.” *

***

While I was throwing it in peoples faces with those t-shrits, trying to get people to COEXIST, I had forgotten the line Bono sang as he put on the headband: Where is the love?

Whatever your wounds are, we could just agree to disagree and live without conflict. But all of the law and prophets boil down this: love the one you hate as your love yourself.

Your wounds do matter.

But why?

Hint: “Because Jesus said so” isn’t enough.

To be continued.

Until then… Shalom… Salaam… Peace be with you.

(P.S. Try telling the story of the “Good Muslim” in your church and let me know how it goes.)

* from Thomas Cahill’s introduction to the LIFE magazine special “Holy Lands: One Place Three Faiths.”  Copyright 2002, Time Magazine.

 

 

“Don’t Study Hebrew. Study Arabic!” Signs of Peace Part 1: Humanity

english - arabic dictionary

The dictionary my father brought with him from Iraq to America.

The only time my father, who is a Muslim, ever complained about me going to seminary and studying to be a pastor was when it came to language.

My father always blamed his sons for never taking the initiative to learn Arabic while we were growing up. Never mind the fact that he failed to even speak it around us. The only Arabic I ever heard were the cuss words he used when he got upset, and the unique sounds of Ulm Kalthum, the legend of Arab music, drifting loudly from his office tape recorder.

So it got a little uncomfortable the summer I began the most grueling requirement of my pastoral studies – Biblical languages – and my father called to ask what class I was taking.

“Hebrew,” I told him.

“Hebrew?” he responded, “Don’t study Hebrew. Study Arabic!”

“But I have to study Hebrew.”

“Why?”

“Because, the Old Testament was written in Hebrew.”

After a long pause he ended the argument with, “Well… they’ve translated it into English. Study Arabic.”

I have to give my father credit for trying.  He has never once criticized me for being a Christian. In fact, he has been very supportive of my being a pastor.  Faith has never divided our family.

However, faith has caused some tension in other relationships, specifically in church. Like the (more than one) time I got the email forward from someone in my church that went something like this:

A Cowboy, an Indian and an Arab were sitting around a table. The Cowboy was kicked back in his chair with his hat pulled down over his eyes. The Indian looked at the Arab and said, “My people used to be very great in number, but now they are very few in number. This is so very sad.” Then the Arab said, “My people used to be small in number, but now we are very great in number. Why do you think this is?” Then the Cowboy sat up, tilted his hat back, looked at them both and said, “That’s because we ain’t played Cowboys and Arabs yet.”  

It shocked me the first time. Not so much anymore. So many times in the last fifteen years, between current events and bad theology, I’ve heard pastors, professors and other Christians say things like, “I never thought to pray for Muslims as human beings.”

***

In that first semester of Biblical Hebrew, one of the first words I learned was common between the two Semitic languages of Hebrew and Arabic: ADAM (phonetically pronounced ah-dahm). It’s where the Torah and the Quran get the name in the Adam & Eve story. But first it means humanity, and it’s the word used in the first chapter of the Genesis story which tells us, “God created humanity in his image.”

ADAM is the language of our creation.  And as the Genesis story continues, God looked at what he had created, blessed it, and called it very good.

***

I never thought to pray for them as human beings.

I get it… there are people and groups who, in the name of religion, do some really unholy things. A lot are in the Middle East or come from there. But if I’m called to be a peacemaker, looking at all humanity as the very visual representation of God might be a better place for me to start as a follower of Christ.

One of my favorite stories about this comes from Passover and the Talmud. At one point in the Passover meal, ten drops of wine are dropped on a white plate to remember the ten plagues the Egyptians suffered. The Talmud says that during the Exodus, as the Egyptians were drowning, the angels started to sing for joy. But God reprimanded them and said, “The works of my hands are drowning in the sea, and you’re singing songs?”

***

The great thing about Christ in Scripture is that he treated everyone – whether it was the pharisee, the tax collector, the prostitute, the Samaritan or even Judas – as a human being. As Rich Mullins sang: The whores all seem to love him/ And the drunks propose a toast/ And they say “Surely God is with us.”

And why not? He died for all of them… but he also created all of them. But I’m getting ahead in the series.

Until then, the question remains: What are we praying for when we pray for peace?

Let’s start with ADAM.  It doesn’t matter if you live in Boston or Baghdad, Dallas or Damascus, Guatemala City or Gaza City… seeing even our enemies as human beings must come first.

But that isn’t enough.

To be continued.

Until then… ShalomSalaamPeace be with you.

“A Jew, a Christian and a Muslim Walk Into A Prayer Meeting…” Signs of Peace: Intro

peace fountain

The Peace Prayer Fountain in Fayetteville, Arkansas. The bronze sculpture by Hank Kaminsky declares “May Peace Prevail on Earth” in over 100 languages.


A few years ago I was invited to a fundraising dinner for Temple Shalom, the first Jewish congregation in Northwest Arkansas. It was held at a local Methodist church. The speakers included a Christian minister, a Rabbi, and a Muslim. This was a big deal. The congregation had been around since 1981, but construction of the Temple had run into a little difficulty, and so a Palestinian contractor in Northwest Arkansas stepped in and offered to build the Temple free of charge. This was now a story of understanding and peace, and it made national news.

After the silent auction, the dinner, and the presentations, we were given an special opportunity to donate by purchasing a chair for the sanctuary, and so I gave for one. I thought it would be great to have “Rev. Omar Al-Rikabi” stamped on the back of a synagogue chair.

Since I bought a chair, I decided to go to the dedication the next year. Being named “Temple Shalom,” this Reformed Jewish community invited leaders from the area of different faiths to offer prayers for peace in their own traditions as a way to bless the new house of worship.

The sanctuary was packed, and so I squeezed in the back, between a Jew in his rainbow kippah and an Arab in his red and white kafia. This was going to be an adventure.

A member of the synagogue welcomed us, and noted it had taken Moses and the Hebrew people forty years to possess their new homeland in the Exodus story, but the Jews of Temple Shalom did it in twenty-eight.

We sang a song about Jacob and the lovely dwelling place of Israel, and another adapted from Psalm 122 for the peace of Jerusalem, for Israel… and also for Ishmael. I thought this was good form, seeing as one of his descendants had helped build this place.

Then the litanies began.

First up were to ministers from the Universalist Unitarian Fellowship. They read a poem about peace on earth.

Next was a professor from the University who also served as the faculty advisor for one of the Islamic student associations on campus. He sang some passages from the Quran in Arabic, then gave a brief homily on the Prophet Muhammed and passages in the Quran about peace.

Third up was a member of a local Native American tribe. With a big, light-hearted smile, he began by mentioning the earlier comment about the Arkansas Jews getting their land in only twenty-eight years, and then reminded us that the land had once belonged to his people. The congregation chuckled, and he went on to tell us about the great spirit wind that brings us peace. “All land is holy land,” he said, “and all people are relatives.” Then he played an enchanting song on a Native American flute. Everyone cheered.

Now came the Episcopal priest. As the applause for the Native American flute faded, the priest, maybe from nervousness for having to follow that, laughed and said, “Well, I come from a tradition that is not as exciting as these others.”

Huh?

To me it sounded almost like he was apologizing for Christianity, and he said a few words about peace and said a quick prayer.

As the service went on, a Hindu monk offered traditional prayers for peace in his native language, followed by a Tibetan monk, who did the same in his.

Then we heard from another Christian minister. The reverend stood up, and declared how happy she was to be a part of such a historic event, with so many people of so many faith traditions here to help our local Jewish community dedicate their temple as a place of peace. Then she landed it with, “My faith was informed by a Jewish carpenter. And in the words of the Carpenter, “blessed are the peacemakers.”

Christianity was informed by a Jewish carpenter? Really? That’s it? 

Why couldn’t she say Jesus? Now that I think about it, the priest kind of skirted around saying too much about Jesus as well. But why? The Jewish man spoke of Moses and read from the Psalms. The Muslim spoke of Mohammed and read from the Quran.

I felt my team had waved off. No Jesus. No New Testament.

***

I wrestled with this for several days. In a dedication centered around peace, why wouldn’t the Christians definitively talk about Jesus, the Messiah we call the Prince of Peace?

I came to the conclusion that a minister who would speak so directly about Jesus would probably not be invited to speak at such an interfaith event, or else might not accept the invitation. It’s often one extreme or the other: One end preaches a “you’re either with me or against me” kind of Jesus who needs you to convert first before we can talk about something like peace. The other preaches a “we don’t want to offend” kind of Jesus who really is nothing more than a benevolent big brother we should try to emulate. And those stuck in the middle struggle to want to get involved.

It all seems to boil down to exclusive at the expense of welcoming vs. inclusive at the expense of orthodoxy.

So which is it? I say both extremes miss the point, and the middle gets lost in ineffectiveness.

But this is important stuff, maybe the most important.

***

As a pastor, I struggle walking that mine field of remaining orthodox in my Christian theology while welcoming the prayers for peace from different traditions… and then leading prayers from the pulpit on Sunday morning (especially while trying to avoid the political potholes out there).

What were the prayers like in your church this Sunday? Were there prayers for peace? Specifically, were there prayers for peace in the Middle East? If so, what did they look like?

Once again we hear the all-too familiar refrain of “crisis in the Middle East.”  Civil war in Syria. Islamic war in Iraq. Political oppression in Egypt. The brutal human toll of war between Israel and Gaza… and all the children in the middle of it.

The Middle East may seem far away, but what goes on there has a direct connection to our faith and our future: Christianity is a Middle Eastern religion, and our country invests a lot of money and lives in the Middle East. Peace in the Middle East is in our best interests as a faith and a nation.

Over the last couple of weeks, in different settings, I’ve asked two questions: Did your pastor pray for peace in the Middle East in church on Sunday? and What do you pray for when you pray for peace? Most of the answers boil down to one idea: the absence of conflict.

But I don’t need the Gospel story to want security and the absence of conflict. As St. Matthew would say, “Even the pagans want that.”

If God became human in Christ to be with us, and Christ said, “I leave you with my peace,” then what did he really leave us? What do we mean when we say, “Peace be with you?”

What are we praying for when we pray for peace?

And what should our prayers lead us to do and be, since the Jewish Carpenter (who did more than just inform our faith) said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

This week I’ll post part of a series looking at what we pray for when we pray for peace and why, called Signs of Peace.

So until tomorrow, ShalomSalaamPeace be with you.

To be continued…

 

Firstborn Fireworks Food: Grilled Bacon & Cheese Peppers

fireworks food

It’s grilling season.

It’s 4th of July weekend.

Friends. Food. Bombs bursting in air.

So here’s my take on the the bacon wrapped, cheese stuffed, grilled jalepeño scene.

Anyone can make a “popper.” These are the rocket’s red glare.

You’ll need a block of cream cheese, a package of bacon, some garlic, green onion, and some seasonings (see below)… and of course, 8-12 peppers. Not everyone likes hot, but thanks to the folks who know how to grow just about anything, you can also cook a “fireworks-free” version using sweet mini peppers: same size, more colors, and no heat… but all the flavor.

bacon pepper ingridents

Let the cream cheese sit out so it can soften while you prep the peppers. If you can, wear gloves. It keeps the hot pepper oils off your fingers and makes it okay to be a mess when stuffing the cheese.

Cut the peppers in half length-wise, and using a small spoon clean out the seeds.

cleaned jalepenos

Fine-chop the green onion and garlic, and mix into the cream cheese with the seasonings.

cream cheese mix

Then, stuff the peppers (this is where the gloves are easier than using a spoon).

stuffing jalepenos

Cut the strips of bacon in half and wrap a piece around each pepper. Some folks like to use a toothpick, but if you set the pepper in the middle of the bacon and just wrap both sides, it’s much easier and faster (the way freedom was meant to be).

bacon wrapped

For the Grill:

Set your grill for indirect cooking. Charcoal gives the best flavor, and I use the PK Grill (and they don’t pay me to say that). I find it helpful to use a grill basket or grilling tray. Set them up on the opposite side of the coals or flame, open the vents, shut the lid and let them cook for 20-25 minutes (more or less depending on how hot your fire is and how well done you like ‘em).

To finish them off and crisp up the bacon,  slide them over the coals for a couple of minutes, then turn them over for a couple more minutes.

For the Oven:

If you don’t have a grill, it’s raining, or you’re making these in February for the Super Bowl, the oven works.

Set the oven to 350, put the peppers on a foil-lined baking sheet and cook for 25-30 minutes. If the bacon still needs to crisp up, you can switch you oven to “broil” for a couple of minutes. But don’t walk away and forget it (unless you have a fire extinguisher close by).

Make these your own. Throw in different seasonings. Add 1-2 teaspoons chopped cilantro. Sprinkle shredded cheddar, mozzarella or even grated parmesan over the top when they’re done (sometimes I use a mix of all three of in place of cream cheese). Maybe make a sweet raspberry dipping sauce and/or sprinkle the tops with powdered sugar. Or you could add a small, seasoned, uncooked shrimp or piece of bbq chicken to each pepper before stuffing with cheese.

Feel free to try mixing it up, because the fireworks are all about the freedom. Just don’t forget the bacon. Because bacon, like freedom, makes everything better.

IMG_3058

FIRSTBORN BACON & CHEESE PEPPERS

12-15 jalepeño and/or sweet mini peppers
1 8oz package cream cheese
1 package bacon
3-4 cloves garlic (finely chopped)
1-2 green onion (finely chopped)

Seasonings
Approximately 1 heaping teaspoon each of:
paprika
cumin
black pepper
garlic powder (if you don’t have fresh chopped)
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt (you get more salt from the bacon)

Leave the cheese out to soften while you prep the peppers.

Cut each pepper in half lengthwise and remove the seeds.

Mix the cheese, onion, garlic and seasonings in a bowl, and then stuff into each pepper half.

Cut strips of bacon in half, set a pepper in the middle of each one, then wrap both sides around the pepper.

Grill: Indirect heat for 25 minutes (or until done). If the bacon needs to be crispier, turn peppers over onto direct heat for 1-2 minutes.

Oven: Preheat to 350. Place peppers on foil-lined baking sheet and cook for 25-30 minutes. If bacon needs to be crispier, set oven to “broil” for 1-2 minutes.

Serve immediately. The best way to re-heat leftovers is to microwave for about 30 seconds to heat inside, then finish off in toaster oven.

My Review of “Noah”

Noah

With the flood of reviews and religious controversy raining down on the internets, I figured it was finally time this weekend to check out “Noah.” As a Sunday School grad, I’m familiar with the felt-board telling of the Biblical story, and as a seminary grad I’m some-what educated on the story’s theological implications. But I was still blown away by what can happen when an epic story gets into the hands of a classic storyteller.

I didn’t expect to find the whole thing on YouTube, but after taking the almost eight minutes to soak it in, trust me when I say Bill Cosby knows how to engage the Biblical text.

Where most interpretations of the Genesis story focus on the sin of the world, God’s anger and wrath, or the extravaganza that was the earth flooding, Cosby goes where the Bible doesn’t: the personal relationship between God and Noah.

*WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS*

Cosby opens the story with Noah as a carpenter (foreshadowing to Jesus?) minding his own business, when God shows up and tells him to build an ark.

After some initial confusion over who is actually talking to him and what exactly and ark is, Noah gets to work. Once construction begins, Cosby works his magic in parting the waters between the human and the divine.

We see the conflict between Noah and his neighbors, as he can’t tell them what he’s doing or why:

“What is this?”

“It’s an ark?”

“Uh-huh. You wanna get it out of my driveway? I gotta get to work! What’s this thing for, anyway?”

“I can’t tell you.”

“Well can’t you give me a little hint?”

“You want a hint?”

“Yes please.”

“How long can you tread water?”

As construction continues and the storm approaches, Cosby chooses to focus on the nuance that is God’s nature: Why would he want to wipe out the whole world, but make sure two of every creature are saved, no matter how much they suck: “Two mosquitos… male or female.”

Cosby masterfully uses poetic license with the Biblical text: When God tells Noah he’s got two male hippos, Noah beseeches God to just change one to female. I don’t want to give anything away, but the scene really touches on the mystery of “God’s ways.”

But Cosby saves the best for last. Here he gives us a Noah who’s anxiety and frustration are rising above sea level. Neighbors and friends mock him, a pregnant elephant’s water breaks, and when Noah complains that the poop is piling up below deck, one can’t help but wonder if Cosby isn’t creating a metaphor for the spiritual life: Just as life’s floods pile up and we reach the breaking point, suddenly God keeps his word and it’s just him and us.

What truly separates Cosby’s “Noah” from the other entertainment options swirling around us is his use of special effects.

In that there are none.

Cosby employs an old-school technique of storytelling we almost never see anymore: the use of our own imagination. By doing nothing more than talking, Cosby invites us to use the CGI of our minds, which comes in handy if one would rather see Tom Hanks or Stephen Colbert instead of Russell Crow as the lead.

Finally, and most important to me as a father of small kids, is the “safe” factor of Cosby’s work. While not ignoring that death and destruction will happen, this one is as safe as the kiddy pool.

So if you’ve got a few minutes at work or between classes, I encourage you to take the time to swim in Bill Cosby’s “Noah.” You’ll never see the ol’ Sunday School story the same way again.

First Communion

first communionMy father is Muslim by birth, but his real religion is education. “They can take everything you own, but they can’t take your education,” he often told me. So when I got to high school, my father turned to another religion to shepherd my education: the Jesuits.

I once heard a line that went something like, “If two Jesuits came into a town, the first one would open a high school by breakfast and the second would open a college by lunch.” These men in black were academic drill instructors, and this terrible student was doomed. But it started well.

 ***

At freshman orientation they close with mass. I have no idea what is happening. Everyone suddenly stands up. Everyone sits down. Again. And again. How do they know when to do that? Suddenly everyone calls out, “And also with you.” What is happening?

Then comes Holy Communion. This is Christ’s body broken. This is Christ’s blood poured out. This little Methodist knows this part. As everyone starts filing down the isle to receive the elements, I line right up.

I don’t know non-Catholics aren’t supposed to take Communion. And I’m pretty sure they are aware this little Muslim-named Methodist hasn’t taken first communion. But I walk up to the priest holding those little wafers and open my hands. He looks me in the eye, pauses… and then places one in my hand.

“The body of Christ.”

I eat it, and move over to the cup. Now I’m fully confused. In my church, we put grape juice into little plastic shot glasses. Single serve. But here, everyone is taking turns drinking out of the “Big Gulp” of pottery-style wine glasses.

Another priest looks me in the eye, pauses… and then gives me the cup.

“The blood of Christ.”

I’m expecting Welch’s.

I choke and cough and almost spit it out.

So that’s wine.

 ***

While I would keep taking the sacraments at every mass for the rest of the school year, I had no idea what I was doing or what they were really offering. They knew who I was, but they kept serving the body and blood of Christ to me.

I was failing Latin, English and Algebra. I wasn’t going to last beyond this one year. But the priests never stopped trying. And one in particular, Father Phillips, befriended me. His office was next to my locker, and he knew I was struggling, alone, and had no friends. He would invite me into his office and we would talk about anything, like the difference between Catholics and Methodists (seems I’m a 3rd string Catholic), C.S. Lewis (he taught the Great Divorce to his seniors and I had read the Chronicles of Narnia) and Petra (the Christian rock band… we actually talked about them. Or at least he listened to me talk about them).

In one of our last conversations before I failed out and returned to public school, I asked for his blessing. Finals were next week, and I knew I was on the way out. So did he.

“Father, may I have your blessing before next week.”

“Of course.”

I got on my knees. We both made the sign of the cross. He placed his hands on my head.

“In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit… I pray for my friend Omar as he prepares for finals, and as he prepares for what is next in life. Guide him. Teach him. Mold him. Into the image of Christ. Amen.”

 ***

I once asked Father Phillips to explain the Pope to me. I don’t remember what he said, but when he was done I asked if there had ever been a Jesuit Pope.

He laughed hard, and after catching his breath said, “Son… there will never be a Jesuit Pope.”

***

When Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergolio was named Pope, a lot of news was about him being the first Jesuit Pope. Then he picked a name never used by a Pope, a name after the saint synonymous with care for the poor and humility: Francis.

Then he hopped in an old car to go pay his hotel bill.

He chose to live in the hotel instead of the papal mansion apartment. He abandoned the flashy, expensive accouterments worn by his predecessors. He ditched the fancy cars and started riding around in a Ford Focus.

And the reason he gave was clear: All the money saved needs to go to the poor. He did the same when he was a Cardinal, like taking public transportation, giving up the cardinal’s mansion to live in a small apartment, flying coach instead of first class.

My favorite moment came on Good Friday. Tradition calls for the Pope to wash the feet of 12 priests to symbolize the Jesus washing disciples’ feet the night before his crucifixion. But Pope Francis broke the rules by washing and kissing the feet of 12 prisoners. One was a Muslim female.

Let that sink in: Muslim. Female. Prisoner.

His explanation? Francis said it mean he was at their service.

So it was no surprise to me when he did something I have not seen advertised by any mega church in America: he called for a public day of prayer for peace in Syria.

Peace. Poverty. Embrace…. as his first year played out, I joined the chorus of Protestants who shouted with joy, “I’m not even Catholic, but I love this Pope!”

***

I grew up in a church culture where “we” were Christian, but “they” were Catholic. One was not thought to be the other.

As I have watched and been inspired by Pope Francis over this past year, I’ve come to realize, more than ever before, how foolish such a concept is. As Shane Claiborne said, the most remarkable thing about the Pope is that what he’s doing shouldn’t be remarkable.

He should not be such a big deal.

As a Christian and a pastor, I find it remarkable that someone of the Pope’s stature takes no stock, time or status in where he lives, how he dresses, or who he serves.

I live in a pastoral and church culture that seems to always be involved in capital campaigns to build bigger church concert halls, the next big published fad, celebrity preachers and musicians, and the constant quest to “be relevant.” There are rules and measurements for “success” in ordination and ministry in my world.

And I often find myself caught up in all of it. Then this Pope comes along and breaks all those rules.

In one year, Pope Francis showed me what a lifetime of being a Christian, getting a seminary education, and twenty years “in ministry” could not: how to live like Christ.

The Apostle Paul wrote, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.”

Pope Francis keeps breaking the rules to be like and to offer Christ. I’m not surprised. Almost thirty years ago his Jesuit brothers broke the rules to offer Christ to me.

That I could imitate him, so that I may imitate Christ.

That’s bread and wine.

Every Day is Fat Tuesday

The first signs of the season of Lent begin with candies of Easter.

The first signs of Lent begin with candies of Easter.

These next forty days are going to be tricky. In the past, I’ve struggled with the temptation to turn Lent into “New Year’s Resolutions – Take Two.” Whatever vice I need to fix, healthy change I need to make, or bad habit I want to break, my best at the start of the new year lasts about two weeks. Now I’ve got a second, obvious chance to try harder… and make it “spiritual” as a bonus.

But before the fasting begins, today is Fat Tuesday. Mardi Gras. The day before the season of Lent starts, when tradition says we get one last hurrah at all the sugar, caffeine, beer and red meat before we “give something up” for Lent.

People are formed by the stories and practices of their holy days, holidays and seasons. For me, almost every day is Fat Tuesday.

***

Let’s look at the story of my calendar, starting in a strange place: September.

School has just started back, football season is kicking off, and the Halloween costumes and candy are on the store shelves.

And so the increased eating begins, weeks before the little ones come knocking on the door.

Then, on the first day of November, the Christmas candy and decorations invade everything. For the next couple of weeks I’ll keep eating Halloween candy, but those seasonal mint M&Ms are already beckoning.

Of course, I’ll take that 3rd Thursday in November to eat my weight in turkey, sides and pies. A few days later, just as the leftovers are finally drying up, the Christmas parties, baked goods, chocolate covered cherries and candy gift bags will begin to flow.

The eating continues long after the big present day, culminating with a New Year’s Eve party and all it’s excess.

By now, much of my diet has consisted of candy, cookies and rich banquet foods for three solid months. And on that first January morning I’m going to change everything. Time to be a better person. Lose some weight. Live better.

But then the first sabotage: My birthday is in January. Cake. Fancy dinner. I’ll re-start after.

But then it’s the Super Bowl: the Sunday that has become just as big as Christmas Day (and the two are very similar: like Christmas, we spend months building up to it, then use it as an excuse to throw a party and stuff our faces, all while the consumerism overshadows the real reason for the day, and in the end no one talks about the actual event, just the music, food and commercials).

By now the Valentines candy is on the shelves, and the girls are bringing home “gift bags” full of chocolate and candy (what happened to simple little cards?). And of course, there are the Russell Stover hearts beating for my affection from the shelf as I stand in the checkout line.

And just when I think there’s a break… even though the day after Valentine’s the Cadbury Cream Eggs show up next to the register… it’s all a setup.

Like Sirens, they call from outside the door to Walmart. They call and I cannot resist. Soon I am crashing into the rocks of Thin Mints, Samaos and Tag-A-Longs.

Throw in an obligatory St. Patricks Day over-consumption of green beer and all the Easter candy, and whatever goals I set in January are dead in the spring, even as the flowers are coming to life.

Memorial Day kicks off the “cook-out” season, with the Fourth of July being the biggest blast of them all.

And so, by late summer, just as the tomatoes and cucumbers we planted in the back yard in the hopes of “eating healthy and homegrown” are fully ripening, the cycle is ready to start again: Back to school, and back to the Halloween candy on the shelves.

***

I’m not surprised I’m forty pounds overweight.

Nothing about the rhythm of my life includes fasting. It’s all feasting, all the time. The regular meals I eat are over the top, even beyond the “holiday” food. Being a pastor seems to include a lot of unhealthy, often fast-food, meals with others.

And then, in the midst of my regular gluttonizing, comes Lent. I’m encouraged to “give something up” to either show my devotion to Christ, share in his suffering, or re-connect to God. I might give up soda, or candy or Facebook… but even if I’m successful in abstaining the whole season (haven’t been yet) I’m guaranteed to pick them back up again in forty days, or replace them with something else to consume.

And that’s the key word: consume. To eat, drink or ingest.

How can I make fasting for forty days “work” when I spend the other 325 in abject gluttony? If this is a season of repentance, what is my belly telling me I should be forgiven for?

So I’m going to mix up a new recipe for this year. I’ll still fast in some way, but I’m going to focus on something different and counter-intuitive to Lent: Eating.

For the next forty days I’m going to focus on a theology of eating. Not just a theology of food, but of the holiness and sin of food’s consumption in my life.

I invite you to pull up a chair and join me at the table. I’m not entirely sure where this will go, but I pray it will be bread for the journey to come.

What has been your struggle with Lent? Leave your story in the comments.

 

How Do I Love Thee?

Last night my five-year-old daughter and I went on a “Valentines Daddy/Daughter Date” sponsored by a local church. When I got home from work, she was already dressed and ready to go in her pretty purple dress.

“Daddy! Are you here to pick me up for our date?” she screamed as I walked in the door from work.

I put on a tie and we left. The whole drive to the restaurant she kept saying, “This is so great! It’s just me and you, Daddy. Not Mommy. Not little sister.” This was our time.

We arrived and joined a hundred or more other fathers and daughters in a big banquet room. They served us a semi-fancy dinner, but my daughter made a meal of lemonade in a “grown-ups” glass, two Hershey’s Kisses, two dinner rolls, strawberry cake, and a peppermint (hey… Mommy isn’t here and it’s her night).

She was in the middle of telling our waitress she was five years old and her name was Elsa (thank-you, Frozen) when they announced it was time for the big dance. She jumped from her chair, and as she ran through of the mob moving through the restaurant bar into the dance hall, she told everyone she could, “We’re going DANCING!”

This was a real-deal dance, with lights, mirror balls, and a DJ blaring dance music.

Uh-oh.

She. Hates. Loud. Noises.

I started to spin her around, only to find out she was bawling. She was scared. She wanted to leave.

We went back out to the quite bar, and she sat in my lap and sobbed for a couple of minutes. And just when I thought the night was done, she saw a little empty stage where  bands could set up to play the bar. She hopped down, walked up onto the stage, and announced, “Daddy, we can have our own dance out here.”

So for the next few minutes, Daddy and Daughter danced round and round to the gentle restaurant background music and the sound of people having drinks.

After our dance (and my explanation that she couldn’t sit in “the big chairs over there” until she was twenty-one) we headed home, and she ran in to tell Mommy about our great date.

***

I’m very sensitive to moments like these. At five, my daughter is the same age of my first permanent memories. I’m anxious about what memories she will cherish and which ones will haunt her. And I am becoming more aware that each of my actions is writing a reputation of my love for her into her life’s story… one that will help form her identity for decades to come.

Saying, “I love you” to her, her sister and her mother is easy. They are beautiful, and I feel a genuine affection for them I have never felt towards anyone else.

And I would give up my life for any of them in a heartbeat. I have no doubt in my mind and heart that my love would die to protect them. This love is also easy.

It’s the real work of love that is hard: The one that lives between romance and willingness to die. This is the love of the mundane.

***

If Jesus is perfect love, we can do no worse than to be like him.

Soon, the season of Lent will be upon us, and the message of “Jesus loves you so much he died for you” will be front and center. But I often forget that before his crucifixion, Jesus loved us in a lot of other ways.

Jesus loved so much he gave up his heavenly throne to become a pooping baby for us.

Jesus loved so much he took a job as a blue-collar craftsman for us.

Jesus loved so much he fasted for forty days for us.

Jesus loved so much he allowed himself to be made fun of by his family and friends for us.

Jesus loved so much he walked miles and miles for days and days around Galilee for us.

Before he did the spectacular to show us his love, he mostly did the mundane.

So as I begin to write the memories of our marriage and family onto my girls’ memories, I am learning the power of mundane love.

I love my girls by the way I choose to spend my time when I get home from work.

I love my girls by what I choose to eat and drink, so I can be healthy enough to walk them down the aisle someday.

I love my girls by how I choose to budget and spend my money.

I love my girls by how I choose to treat their mother, especially when we fight.

I love my girls in the times I say “no” to more candy, tv shows, or not brushing their teeth.

I love my girls by paying the bills, cleaning the toilets and turning off the computer.

These are the great, boring acts of laying down my life in love. This the magnificent and mundane romance of wedding vows. This is the love-life the cards and candy and the rom-coms won’t tell you about.

But it’s the love I want my girls to know and remember when that day comes they first taste romance, and they’re ready to go on a date with someone who isn’t daddy.

how i love thee