A reflection on birthdays (on the occasion of my 39th)

LaVeyan Satanists tell us that our birthday is one of the most important holidays of the year because the person of ultimate importance is the one you see when you look in the mirror. Jehovah’s Witnesses tell us that celebrating your birthday will displease god, because they claim it’s ultimately pagan, connected to astrology, and (positively?) “the day of death is better than the day of birth” (quoting Ecclesiastes 7:1). This spectrum of interpretations is completely understandable as I find myself both loving and loathing birthdays.

I have found that after 30, birthdays are a mix of celebration and ongoing existential crisis. Every muscle pull and popping joint reminds you that your time is limited. Gravity is taking its toll! But now your mind is not as clouded as it was by the thrill and angst of adolescence (which lasts, at least for American males, until about age 27 now). You can see more in the rear view mirror which makes the journey a little easier. You’ve got a little more, what they call “wisdom”. But the future is less “open,” and knowing that you’re (or supposedly should be) settling on a career, a place to live, etc., feels like a first retirement.

This is 39, the last year of my thirties. Overall, I find myself balancing the pride of certain accomplishments this decade with the melancholy of recognizing the costs of certain ambitions. More importantly, this decade has taught me that even if you’re the captain of your own ship, the sea we’re on is vast. Any success—financial, emotional, physical—can’t be divorced from choices you’ve made but also couldn’t have happened without a whole lot of luck, chance encounters, and moments when the multiverse was favorable to your consciousness so that you experienced one of the better of infinite outcomes. And this principle is true of the failures as well. You can steer but you can’t control the weather. Thankfully, in spite of very real storm, my waters have been relatively smooth.

Next year’s 40, one of Hollywood’s favorite decades (“40 Year Old Virgin”; “This is 40”). For now, I enjoy the end of my 30s, and take comfort in being loved, relatively healthy, and materially comfortable. Also, Happy Birthday Barack Obama; Meghan, Duchess of Sussex; Billy Bob Thornton; and Jeff Gordon.


Reflections on Holy Week

Christianity is my home tradition, so this week is an important one. I’ve written short reflections on social media that I’ll share in bulk here.

Palm Sunday

When for Christians our King rides in on a humble donkey and chooses to use his temporary fame to call out the injustices of his own religion exhibiting how real power works on the behalf of others even if it’s costly.

Mural by Domingo de Ramos, José Inoa

Maundy Thursday

Always appreciate He Qi’s art. Here’s his Maundy Thursday piece with Jesus washing Peter’s feet.

Good Friday

Jesus’ death can be one of the most confusing parts of the Gospel, especially when it’s presented dogmatically through the lens of a single atonement theory. Some of the ideas that have helped me rethink the meaning of Good Friday so that it’s richer and more textured include:

– Some of what I’ve heard about David M. Moffitt’s work on resurrection in the Epistle to the Hebrews, which emphasizes the resurrected Jesus’ role as a human who has experienced death and who mediates for us as a priest in the divine presence

– Chris Haw’s proposal that we can look at the crucifixion not primarily as an offering from humans to a wrathful, violent god that needs to be satisfied but from a god seeking reconciliation with a wrathful, violent humanity who didn’t know what to do with Jesus other than kill him and people like him

– James Cone’s “The Cross and the Lynching Tree” which repositions the crucifixion as an example of what majority violence and empire does to the oppressed and marginalized—by comparing crucifixions and the lynching of Black Americans—showing god as being on the side of the latter

– Run the Jewel’s “a few words for the firing squad”which has these lines that I can’t help but hear through Cone’s theology, which make me think of Good Friday every time I hear them from Killer Mike: “This is for the do-gooders that the no-gooders used and then abused/For the truth tellers tied to the whippin’ post, left beaten, battered, bruised/For the ones whose body hung from a tree like a piece of strange fruit”

Holy Saturday

There’s no day on the ecclesial calendar more inviting to those of us with skeptical dispositions. Even the most confident apologists are asked to pause and reflect on the possibility that the crucifixion was the last word. On this day, St. Peter had no more confidence than St. Thomas. Death wins again. And the disappointment of the disciples on the road to Emmaus become the disappointment of all Christians, at least for one day: “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”

Icon: The Harrowing of Hell

Passover, Holi, and Palm Sunday

Chag sameach to all those who have started celebrating Passover. And happy Holi to all those who will be celebrating the “festival of colors”. May we always overcome the tyranny of our Pharoahs and recognize the beauty found in the days when our good overcomes our evil.

And for those in my tradition, it’s Palm Sunday, when we’re shown that true power isn’t what we’d imagined or what we’ve been taught.

Ramadan Mubarak

Ramadan Mubarak to all those observing.

For those interested in how the pandemic will impact Muslims during this time, CNN has this article: ‘How coronavirus has changed Ramadan for Muslims’.

And Al Jazeera has this this article: ‘How will the coronavirus pandemic change Ramadan for Muslims?’

It appears that the biggest changes will be in the lack of communal gatherings (prayer; meals like the Iftar) and what’s offered to those in need because of communal gatherings won’t be happening.

Easter 2020

In Luke’s Gospel the two disciples who traveled to Emmaus didn’t recognize Jesus until they saw him through the breaking of the bread. For many Christians, this is how Jesus is seen and heard every week. This pandemic has taken away that experience away from them. Instead, we’re left with something closer to Mark’s open-ended account of the Resurrection. We’re trembling with fear. We don’t understand what’s happening. We haven’t experienced closure.

The Evangelist Matthew reminds us in this time that Jesus’ final words include the promise that he’ll be with us always, even to the end of the age. The Evangelist John reminds us that like Mary Magdalene, the Apostle to the Apostles, we can hear the Resurrected One’s voice if we listen as we’re addressed by name.

In our sacred Scriptures we have four similar but unique interpretations of the Resurrection. This year it’s important to remember that; it’s important to remember that we don’t experience the risen Lord the same; it’s important that even our individual experiences of Easter can change.

This Easter isn’t ruined. It’s different. It’ll add new texture to your understanding of the event and it’s meaning. Next year we’ll break bread again. But this year we experience fear and trembling, we hope for the the divine presence, and we listen for the Voice

Good Friday 2020

I hope everyone is staying safe today. If you’re wanting some semblance of Good Friday liturgy, I know many Churches will be doing services online, and there’s even our (TMI Episcopal) chapel service recording. (I’m Judas. Also, we practiced social distancing and all the participants are residents on campus. We gathered at All Saints Chapel on our campus to do this.)

There’s a lot that can be said on this solemn day. Instead, I want to share a Facebook post and a couple of articles that stood out to me.

This 2018 Facebook post from my friend Joshua Paul Smith was a reminder of the upside-down nature of ‘Good’ Friday:

Also, I found Rev. Laura Everett’s article ‘After a Holy Week disrupted by death, an honest Easter’ to be a timely reflection on what Good Friday means in light of this pandemic. Also quite insightful is Prof. Rev. Stephen B. Chapman’s ‘This year Easter will feel more like Passover’.

Maundy Thursday 2020

We hear this narrative yearly, at least. We hear it alluded to more often than that: ‘On the night that he was betrayed…’ But we hear it from different perspectives. This is the first time I’ve heard it during a pandemic. What does this do to my hearing of this story?

It emphasizes our agnosticism toward the future. Most of us didn’t know we’d be in this situation on April 9th, 2020. While there were a few people who could make decision that could’ve impacted the trajectory of this pandemic (see ‘South Korea’) most of us aren’t those people. We can respond only to the world as it unfolds before us.

This experience highlights the disciples place in the Maundy Thursday tradition. Jesus seems to have expected something. Each Evangelist gives Jesus more or less of an understanding of his fate. But in the Gospels, his disciples seems uniformly unaware. Tragedy is coming. They don’t know it. They can do nothing to stop it.

This night the disciples will be shown their inability to control things. This night most of us recognize this helplessness in ourselves. We’d like to be the masters of our destinies but we’re not. Personally, this Maundy Thursday preaches that message as loud and as clear as it ever could.

But there’s one thing we can control. Jesus commands us to do so. We’re told to love one another and he loves us. In our powerlessness, we can do something powerful; we’re commanded to do something powerful: love one another. We see this in the work of our medical professionals but they’re not alone. We can all contribute in some way for we can all love in some way.

Maundy Thursday icon of Jesus washing the feet of St. Peter

Why doesn’t the Jewish New Year start on Passover?

This morning I was reading Exodus 12.1-14 when something dawned on me for the first time. In Exodus 12.2, as instructions are being given to Moses and Aaron regarding the first Passover/Pesach, it’s stated, ‘This month shall mark for you the beginning of months (רֹ֣אשׁ חֳדָשִׁ֑ים); it shall be the first month of the year for you.’ This seems to be instructing Israel to celebrate the New Year at Pesach but the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, doesn’t coincide with Pesach.

I googled ‘Why isn’t Passover on Rosh Hashanah?’ and the first result, an article written by Michele Alperin for ‘My Jewish Learning’ is helpful: ‘How Rosh Hashanah Became New Year’s Day’. I won’t repeat what the article says. If you’re interested, feel free to read Alperin’s thoughts directly. On the other hand, if you know of another article worth reading, feel free to leave it in the comments.

Palm Sunday 2020

This morning I googled icons of Jesus’ triumphal entry. The one posted above, by the Ukrainian artist Oleksandr Antonyuk, stood out to me not just because of it’s unique visually—the proportions of Jesus’ head and the shape donkey’s body stand out the most—but because it’s lonely. Palm Sunday 2020 will be a lonely one. We won’t be gathered together. We’ll be at home, maybe with family, maybe live-streaming a service, but not together as we’re accustom.

There’s something odd yet fitting about celebrating Palm Sunday during a pandemic. I’ve often told my students that the Gospels are probably easier to embrace for those who see the world through the lens of disorder and brokenness. If life’s going well for you it’s hard to resonate with the desperation of narratives that climax with execution by crucifixion.

But then a pandemic breaks us. Even the most comfortable are uncomfortable. And those who already were suffering, sadly, are even more vulnerable to the harshness of our world. It’s one of those rare moments where we’re all sharing in some form of struggle even if it’s not being felt evenly. But it’s being felt and that opens us up to stories we’ve heard already but needed to hear in a new way.

Palm Sunday does exalt Jesus as King but it also highlights the reality of shattered expectations. Jesus isn’t that kind of King. Jesus will not experience that kind of enthronement. The paradox of the Gospels is that Jesus is the kind of King who rides a humble donkey, whose enthronement is a Roman cross, who in the Johannine tradition has a Kingdom that’s not from this earth. His disciples don’t understand this. His adoring crowds don’t know this. In just a few days their worldview will be shattered.

Many may be asking ‘why?’ this pandemic is happening just as Jesus and his disciples will ask (in a few days, liturgically) how Palm Sunday could morph into ‘Good’ Friday. As regards the pandemic, we can talk about humanity’s responsibility another time because in this situation there’s a lot of it. But for a moment I want to think about divine responsibility as relates to expectations. One reason I enjoy teaching the Book of Job, and why it’s the last part of the Hebrew Bible I cover when I do, is because it undermines all the theodicy of Books like Proverbs and Deuteronomy. It’s (IMO) an absurdist response to the idea we could comprehend the divine mind even if the divine plan was explained to us. I don’t like this for theological reasons, per se (I’m not linking with many Fundamentalists who rebuke us for questioning God), but for literary, human reasons: I don’t think we can understand our suffering and our world in ways that satisfy us when we’re experiencing that suffering. All we can understand is we had expectations about how the world should work, or God should act, and those expectations were wrong.

Like Job, we feel alone when this happens. We feel like we’re the only one being targeted by God. Did Jesus feel this during the Holy Week we’re about to remember? It seems like he did. He asks, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ He asks this less than a week after he rides into Jerusalem as the King, as the Messiah.

But Job isn’t alone. He represents all of us, even if in the extreme. And Jesus wasn’t alone, he represents all of us, even if in the extreme. And now, during this pandemic, we’re not alone. We may feel alone, or at least lonely, but this is a microcosm of the human condition. Our expectations are high, they’re broken, and we’re left wondering why things are the way they are. This pandemic has magnified this reality. And all we can do is let it color this particular Palm Sunday for us so that we read these stories afresh.

Holy Week exists, liturgically, to be experienced. Usually, this is sacramental in nature. Now, it’s in the midst of a world shattering pandemic. We have no choice but to go through this Palm Sunday alone, like Job, and like Jesus, and allow it to speak to us about our expectations. But I don’t say this is to encourage reflecting on Palm Sunday isolating from the rest of Holy Week. For today, yes, let it sink into your soul a bit. But this isn’t the last day. We have six more to go.