Sabbatical Notes, Week 6: Fantasy Bias

Note: This week’s essay is a sample of what I’m working on during my sabbatical – a series of pieces in which I am interrogating my own past and looking for the societal underpinnings of my unconscious biases, especially in the realm of racism and white supremacy.


I have always loved fantasy and science fiction. Star Trek: The Next Generation is still, and probably always will be, my favorite TV show. As a young child, I watched Return of the Jedi until I wore out the VHS. In sixth grade I cut my long-form fantasy teeth on the Redwall series by Brian Jacques and The Hobbit. It took me three tries to get through The Lord of the Rings, but I finally did it in ninth grade, and then I read it every year for a decade. My senior year of high school, I read 35 Star Wars novels. Frank Herbert’s Dune blew my mind somewhere in there, but I can’t remember exactly when.

So it’s no secret I am a proud member of many fandoms: LOTR, Star Trek, Star Wars, Harry Potter, the MCU, the whole Whedonverse (especially Buffy and Firefly). Engagement with some of these creative properties has shaped me from childhood. I learned the meaning of true friendship from Frodo and Sam. I learned the value of leadership with integrity from Captain Jean-Luc Picard. (And I learned the best way to sit down in a chair from Commander Riker.)

Continue reading “Sabbatical Notes, Week 6: Fantasy Bias”

The Inciting Incident

Sermon for Sunday, May 1, 2016 || Easter 6C || John 5:1-9

theincitingincidentAt the beginning of The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins leads a comfortable, if unexciting life in his home at Bag End in the town of Hobbiton in the idyllic land called the Shire. Bilbo had never left the Shire, nor had any but a few hobbits, whom the rest of hobbit society thought a bit addled in the head. Bilbo contented himself with a leisurely life of eating, walking about town, relaxing with a good pipe, and eating some more.

Even if you’ve never read The Hobbit, you know it’s an adventure story, so obviously something needs to happen to Bilbo, something known in the study of literature as “the inciting incident.” JR.R. Tolkien has a whole world to show Bilbo, a world that starts at his doorstep and leads to a solitary mountain where Bilbo bandies words with a terrifying dragon.

Well, such an inciting incident happens when Bilbo hears a knock on his round front door. The wizard Gandalf has come to invite Bilbo on an adventure with a dozen dwarves. Their tale of the dragon seizing and laying waste to their homeland sends Bilbo’s imagination soaring off to distant places. But when dinner is over and the dwarves have finished their hauntingly beautiful song, Bilbo’s good sense reasserts itself. He thanks them for their offer but politely declines. Tolkien has presented his protagonist with the perfect inciting incident, but for the moment, Bilbo doesn’t bite.

The next day Bilbo begins going about his day as usual, but something has changed within him. He has awoken to the wider world beyond his door, and suddenly he realizes he simply cannot miss this chance. He dashes out of his house in such a rush that he leaves his pocket-handkerchief. He catches up with the dwarves and the adventure sweeps him away. The inciting incident has happened, and Bilbo’s life is forever changed.

Every story, both fiction and nonfiction, has an inciting incident. Sometimes the character has no choice in the matter; events conspire in such a way to make the path inevitable. Sometimes, as in The Hobbit, the character does have a choice as to whether he or she wants to remain in the relative security of the normal or risk the adventure of the unknown. Harry Potter chooses to step with Hagrid into the wizarding world. Katniss Everdeen chooses to take her sister’s place in the Hunger Games. Like Bilbo and Harry and Katniss, you and I have a choice. An inciting incident presents itself to us this morning. We can choose to stay home. Or we can dash off without our pocket-handkerchiefs.

This inciting incident comes in the form of Jesus walking up to you and me and asking us the same question he asks the man by the pool of Beth-zatha: “Do you want to be made well?” It seems like a question with such an obvious answer, doesn’t it? “Do you want to be made well?” Yes! is the answer you’d expect, right? But that’s not what the man says. Rather, he gives a resigned speech about why he’s never made it into the legendary healing waters of the pool. It’s been 38 years, and by now, he seems resigned to his lot in life as the one who never makes it to the water on time.

In response to the man’s resignation, Jesus skips the preliminaries and goes straight for the command: “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” Perhaps the man thinks Jesus is having a bit of fun at his expense. But the tone is all wrong. This was an invitation, not a joke. The inciting incident is here, and the man has a choice. He can stay put and not realized he has been given the gift of healing. Or he can get up: he can make the choice that will change his life for the better. And still, the choice is not as obvious as we might first think. Change for the better is still change. And change is scary, no matter if it’s for good or for ill.

The man by the pool chooses to engage his inciting incident. He chooses to stand up. When he does, he realizes Jesus healed him, and his life takes a sharp turn from the paralytic monotony of the last 38 years. In light of this, my questions for you this morning are these: when have you responded to an inciting incident in your life? How did your life change when you took the risk to venture into the unknown? How was God present to you as you walked from security into uncertainty? As you ponder how you’ve responded to inciting incidents in the past, pray with this one final question from Jesus himself: “Do you want to be made well?”

Perhaps you’re in a toxic work environment, and the personalities you work with have made you dread stepping through the doors of the office. Your physical and emotional health have both declined precipitously because of the stress your workday puts on you, but you need a paycheck. When you hear Jesus say, “Do you want to be made well,” you realize the choice before you boils down to how much your own health is worth to you.

Perhaps your family has a history of diabetes, and you’ve started noticing lately that you get pretty sluggish when you eat sugar. It makes you feel awful, but you crave it just the same. When you hear Jesus say, “Do you want to be made well,” you realize the choice before you pits immediate gratification against long-term health.

Perhaps a close friend has confided in you a concern that you drink more than you should. At first, you ignore the concern, then you get defensive about it, then angry, and suddenly you start to wonder why you’re upset. It’s because you really do have a problem, you realize. And that’s when you hear Jesus say, “Do you want to be made well?”

Jesus’ question exposes the fact that we all have choices to make that will lead to better health. The status quo may be comfortable, if unexciting, but in the end it leaves us paralyzed by the pool. Jesus’ question is a new inciting incident in each of our lives. Each of us can make a choice to lead a life that promotes wellness, for ourselves and those around us.

For me personally, the inciting incident began when I went to the CREDO conference a few weeks ago. I was introduced to a concept called “margin.” Margin is the space in our lives between the loads we carry and the limit to our carrying capacity. I realized I spend too much of my life with my load and my limit being equal, which means collapse is a real possibility whenever my load increases. At the conference, I heard Jesus ask me his inciting question. My response was “Yes!” followed by the obvious question: “But how?” A simple answer came to me: “You are not alone.”

We’re all in this together, and Christ is here, both calling us to greater health and giving us the gifts to achieve the changes we need to make in our lives. In whatever way Jesus calls you to a life of better wellness, know that you are not alone. You have us to support you when you respond to that inciting incident; when you dash off without your pocket-handkerchief; when you hear Jesus ask, “Do you want to be made well,” and you answer, “Yes!”

A Still More Excellent Way

Sermon for Sunday, January 31, 2016 || Epiphany 4C || 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

AStillMoreExcellentWayWe’ve all heard those words from the Apostle Paul a hundred times. “Love is patient. Love is kind.” I read them at my sister’s wedding. Perhaps you had them read at your own. Statistically speaking, if you go to a wedding there’s a better than average chance you’ll hear First Corinthians 13. Now, it is true beautiful chapter can stand apart as an ancient ode to love. But when we sequester these verses to the marital service alone, we miss how Paul uses them in the greater context of his letter. We miss how love is the corrective for the issues facing the church in Corinth. We miss what love is for. So let’s put these famous words back in context, and with a little help from Harry Potter, we’ll remember a thing or two about love.

First, I’m glad we get to read these words outside the wedding. Of course, with the snow last week, not many of us got to hear Paul’s words leading up to this chapter. So here’s a quick recap: the Corinthians are having a problem welcoming all people into their community. Apparently they have been sorting people out into greater and lesser classes depending on their material wealth, social circumstance, and (this is the one that gets Paul really worked up) their spiritual giftedness. “We need all types of people and all sorts of gifts to make the Body of Christ function,” he argues. “We are all part of the one Body and don’t you ever dare say someone else doesn’t belong because that person doesn’t share your particular set of gifts or your elevated social status.”

Paul punctuates his point by asking a series of rhetorical questions at the end of Chapter 12. “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts.”

And next we have the verse that links the two chapters beautifully, which the framers of our reading schedule left out. “But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way. If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” The still more excellent way is the way of love. Love is the antidote for the Corinthian disease, the symptoms of which include “welcoming only those who are like me” and “judging others solely by how they might be of use.” The first symptom limits our welcome to the least diverse group possible and siloes us off from any point of view that might expand our own. The second symptom discounts the value of persons who contribute to the community in ways that are not readily apparent. As the medicine for this Corinthian disease, Paul prescribes love.

But Paul isn’t sure the Corinthians have any idea what love is, so he instructs them. The still more excellent way begins with a recognition that love is the motivator of all God’s gifts. If I have all the spiritual gifts listed in the surrounding chapters – speaking in tongues, prophesying, understanding mysteries, possessing mountain-moving faith – but do not act in love, then it’s all worthless. Without love, I do everything for myself alone. I seek pleasure at the expense of others. I self-aggrandize. Eventually, I die deserted and embittered. But with love motivating action, our gifts do not enrich ourselves alone. With love, our gifts enrich everyone we encounter. Love is the powerful weaving force that stitches our actions into the tapestry of God’s story. Acting without love, we unravel the tapestry; we pull ourselves out until our individual threads are just wafting in the wind. A single piece of thread doesn’t tell a story until it’s woven together with other threads. The desire to be woven together is better known as love.

With this desire expressed, Paul moves on to what love does. Our translation messes this up. It should not read, “Love is patient; love is kind.” The original language involves much more action: “Love shows patience; love shows kindness.” The old song goes, “They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love. Yes, they will know we are Christians by our love.” But how will this nameless “they” know our love? There is only one way, and it springs from the only piece of advice an aspiring writer ever really needs: Three little words: “Show, don’t tell.”

If we have to tell people, “No, seriously, we are a loving community,” you can bet dollars to donuts that we aren’t. But if love is the desire to woven together, then we show love when we start weaving: you learn someone’s name and remember it. You ask, “Want to have coffee on Tuesday?” You look past the red doors of this place and notice the threads of God’s movement running in all directions, towards all people. And you begin to realize that this church is not bounded by these walls and doors; this church is unbounded because the Body of Christ goes forth from this place to show love in every place. You bear witness to the love of Jesus in your homes, in your businesses, the ball field, the gym, the grocery store, the street corner, the Internet. (Especially the Internet! Please show the love of Jesus online. The digital world is in dire need of the healing power of love. Just look at YouTube comment sections.)

I know it may sound tired or quaint to be preaching about love. Indeed, when Albus Dumbledore tells Harry Potter that Harry’s greatest gift is love, Harry just rolls his eyes. He would much rather be gifted with more talent or better intellect or greater weapons to contend with the dark wizard Voldemort. But no. In the end, Harry is stripped of all the trappings of talent and privilege and pride. He has only the love for and of his friends and family – both living and dead – to give him the courage to face his foe. To die. And then to live. (Sounds like another story I’ve heard somewhere.)

For Harry (and for Jesus) love is the true motivator. Not pride or glory. Not fame or fortune. Love: the desire to be woven together. For an orphan like Harry, this desire first manifests in finding a loving home with the Weasleys. And it last appears when he sacrifices himself to save everyone he loves. To quote Jesus, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). Jesus and Harry and, say, the heroic soldier who dives on a grenade literally laid down their lives. Perhaps we might be called to this someday, but it will only happen once. In the meantime, we can show great love by laying down our threads on the loom of God’s tapestry, side by side with each other and everyone else whom God loves.

The still more excellent way is the way of love, this weaving power that heals and reconciles creation. True love will never be tired. True love will never be quaint. True love will never end. Because God’s tapestry has no borders, only edges for more thread to be woven in.

Art: Screenshot from the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 2), when Harry meets Dumbledore at Kings Cross Station after being killed by Voldemort.

In Your Very Skin (January 11, 2013)

…Opening To…

Just like a deer that craves streams of water,
my whole being craves you, God.
My whole being thirsts for God, for the living God. (Psalm 42:1-2a)

…Listening In…

“Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign… to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin.” (Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone)

…Filling Up…

We have come to the final day of our first Harry Potter week on devo180. And no week about the first book would be complete without a discussion of the sentences above. Read from the perspective of a follower of Jesus, Dumbledore’s words about love drip with the power of the resurrection. In a sense, we know that resurrection is real because the love we have for those who have died doesn’t go away. True love is never one-sided. So when our love lingers for a deceased loved one, then we can be sure the love of that person lingers as well. How could it possibly if the person is dead?

All love is held in trust by God. Whether we acknowledge it or not, all love passes through God because all love is of God. Our deceased loved ones are even closer to God’s presence than we are because of the power of the resurrection. And therefore, their love for us still matters in our lives.

Dumbledore doesn’t speak in such theological terms, but J.K. Rowling, it seems to me, illustrates this understanding of love through the image of Lily Potter’s loving, self-sacrificial protection of Harry. Her love for him lingers in his very skin. Voldemort doesn’t understand this (what C.S. Lewis might have called a part of the deeper magic from before the dawn of time). Voldemort is obsessed with cheating death, so he never seeks to understand that there is a power beyond death that one can only access once one has passed through death’s gate.

Harry’s mother’s love does not evaporate when she dies. Instead, it “leaves its own mark.” It’s an invisible mark, though Harry seems to think Dumbledore means Harry’s scar. This mark resonates for me with the scene in the Gospel when the resurrected Jesus invites Thomas to touch the marks that Jesus’ own self-sacrificial love has made. Lily’s love illustrates Christ’s. Later in the series, Harry will follow the same path. But that love lingers in our very skin. And this is how we know resurrection is real.

…Praying For…

Dear God, you are love, and I am only able to love because you desire me to have the capacity. Help me to love others with the unselfish love of your Son, Jesus Christ, in whose name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, glad to know that, even though I am a muggle, you still weave your magic through my life.

Destroying the Stone (January 10, 2013)

…Opening To…

Just like a deer that craves streams of water,
my whole being craves you, God.
My whole being thirsts for God, for the living God. (Psalm 42:1-2a)

…Listening In…

“You know, the Stone was really not such a wonderful thing. As much money and life as you could want! The two things most human beings would choose above all – the trouble is, humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things that are worst for them.” (Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone)

…Filling Up…

Albus Dumbledore sure has the measure of the human race. Near the end of the first Harry Potter book, Dumbledore and Harry are talking about the Sorcerer’s Stone. Nicholas Flamel, the owner of the Stone, and Dumbledore decided to destroy it rather than risk it being stolen and used for malevolent purposes.

This was the best decision they could make considering the lengths Voldemort goes to get the Stone. I assume Dumbledore wished that he had made such a decision long before – destroy the Stone, rather than hide it. But Dumbledore knows better than most that “humans…have a knack of choosing precisely those things that are worst for them.”

He’s right, of course. But why do we make life-negating choices when we could make life-affirming ones? What is it about our makeup that propels us down the paths to destruction? As followers of Jesus Christ, we strive to walk behind the One who is on the right path precisely because we know that if we weren’t following so closely, we’d go astray – like sheep without a shepherd.

The choice we have to continue making, then, over the course of our entire lives, is a simple one. (A simple choice, but with great consequences.) That simple choice is between following Christ and not following Christ. We have to make that choice every day because every day we are tempted to make an easier choice, which is to follow where are own footsteps lead. This is an enticing option because it’s a path of lesser resistance and it will seem exciting for a time.

But it is not the path of life. Dumbledore has the measure of us, all right. But by reaffirming every day our commitment to following Christ, we can practice choosing the things that are best for us. And with God’s help, perhaps we will, over time, counteract that fundamental human failing.

…Praying For…

Dear God, your Son is ever walking one step before me. Help me to see his footprints ahead of me in my life, so that I may always choose to follow him. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, glad to know that, even though I am a muggle, you still weave your magic through my life.

Through the Trapdoor (January 9, 2013)

…Opening To…

Just like a deer that craves streams of water,
my whole being craves you, God.
My whole being thirsts for God, for the living God. (Psalm 42:1-2a)

…Listening In…

“We’ve had Sprout’s, that was Devil’s Snare; Flitwick must’ve put charms on the keys; McGonagall transfigured the chessmen to make them alive; that leaves Quirrell’s spell, and Snape’s…” (Hermione Granger, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone)

…Filling Up…

The climax of the first Harry Potter book finds the three heroes – Harry, Ron, and Hermione – past Fluffy, the three-headed guard dog, and down the trapdoor. To reach the Sorcerer’s Stone, they must defeat the barriers put up by the Hogwarts teachers. Several of the teachers have lent their expertise to protecting the stone, so each barrier tests a different strength of each of the heroes. What’s wonderful about this series of challenges is the fact that any one of the heroes would not have been able to make it to the stone alone.

Hermione remembers that Devil’s Snare likes dim and damp places, but she forgets that she can conjure fire from her wand until Ron reminds her. In the key room, Harry’s prowess as a Quidditch seeker comes in handy as he tracks down the right flying key. Ron is the only one who is good at chess, so he plays and wins the living chess match. Hermione’s logical mind solves the riddle of the seven bottles. And Harry bravely stands up to Quirrell and Voldemort at the end of the line.

Harry, Ron, and Hermione use the special gifts each has to get past the barriers. One alone would not have made it but together they succeed. They are better together. While Harry always seems to end up alone at the end of each book, he would never have gotten there without his two best friends.

I am positive J.K. Rowling constructed the challenges at the end of Sorceror’s Stone to highlight the giftedness of each of her heroes and their strength as a team. So my questions are these: what groups, families, communities, and teams do you belong to? What special gifts do you bring to them? How do others in those groups make up for your deficiencies? Where do you see God in your own giftedness and in the giftedness of those around you?

…Praying For…

Dear God, you are the giver of all good gifts. Help me to recognize the gifts of those around me, so that I may discern how my own gifts fit in with those of the people I am blessed to be with. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, glad to know that, even though I am a muggle, you still weave your magic through my life.

Standing up to our Friends (January 8, 2013)

…Opening To…

Just like a deer that craves streams of water,
my whole being craves you, God.
My whole being thirsts for God, for the living God. (Psalm 42:1-2a)

…Listening In…

“There are all kinds of courage,” said Dumbledore, smiling. “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends. I therefore award ten points to Mr. Neville Longbottom.” (Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone)

…Filling Up…

Day two of our first Harry Potter week on devo180 has come. As the story reaches its climax, Harry, Ron, and Hermione resolve to sneak out of Gryffindor tower to try to stop Professor Snape (Quirrell, really, but they don’t know that yet) from obtaining the Sorcerer’s Stone. They wait in the common room until everyone has gone to bed, and then they move toward the door. But Neville Longbottom (a pitiable character, at least in this first book) gets in their way. He tells them he doesn’t think they should be going out and breaking any more school rules. He stands up to his friends because he thinks he is in the right. And he shows quite a bit of courage doing it.

But Harry, Ron, and Hermione think they are in the right, as well. They need to break a few rules in order to stop Voldemort from returning. What we have here is a classic problem in the field of “ethics.” Sometimes our decisions involve choices between right and wrong. Presumably, these are fairly easy choices to make: you make the right one because the wrong one is, well, wrong. It would be like saying 2 + 2 = 5. (The black and white nature of right/wrong choices doesn’t stop people from choosing the wrong option, of course, but that’s another matter.)

More often than not, however, our choices are not between right and wrong but between right and right. In our example from Harry Potter, both Neville and our heroic trio are in the right: Neville wants them to obey the rules, and they want to stop Voldemort. So which would you choose? I imagine we would all say, “Stop Voldemort.”

But that doesn’t make Neville’s alternative any less valid. (In books 5 and 7, by the way, Neville is the poster child for breaking rules in order to fight Voldemort.) His example in the first book reminds us that our decisions often have more than one right answer. These choices are so much harder to make than the ones with a right and a wrong answer. So my questions for you are these: when is the last time you can remember deciding something that had more than one right answer? What guided your decision-making?

…Praying For…

Dear God, you are the source of all truth in my life. Help me, whenever I am confronted with a decision, to choose the option that most aligns with your desires for me. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, glad to know that, even though I am a muggle, you still weave your magic through my life.

The Mirror of Erised (January 7, 2013)

…Opening To…

Just like a deer that craves streams of water,
my whole being craves you, God.
My whole being thirsts for God, for the living God. (Psalm 42:1-2a)

…Listening In…

“It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that.” (Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone)

…Filling Up…

We begin the year 2013 of devotiONEighty with the first of seven Harry Potter weeks. I don’t know when the other six will be, but we’ll have one from time to time. This week, we will focus on the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (more properly known as the Philosopher’s Stone in its native Britain). We’ll look at quotations and themes and see how this excellent work of modern fiction can help us as we seek to follow Jesus Christ.

I assume my readership has read the Harry Potter books because most people have. If you haven’t, consider this week of devos a call to pick up the series. You won’t be sorry.

About two-thirds of the way through the first book, Harry discovers the Mirror of Erised. As “Erised” is a reflection of the word “Desire,” you won’t be surprised to know the mirror shows the viewer his or her deepest yearning. In it Harry sees his parents, who were killed when we was a baby. Harry goes back again and again and just stares into the mirror, longing to be with those whom he had lost.

Professor Dumbledore finds him and tells him the mirror will be moved to a new home. And then the headmaster speaks the line above: “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.” Dreams are wonderful things, of course. Dreams propel us to think of our lives in the big, wonderful way that God sees them, unbounded by what we think is possible. But Dumbledore has seen the other side of dreams. He has known people who have “wasted away before [the mirror], entranced by what they have seen.” These dreamers sunk into their dreams and forgot to live, as Dumbledore says.

How often do we forget to live? What keeps us from living the kind of lives that God desires us to live? What gets in the way? These are questions that the Mirror of Erised brings up. Another is this: what do you think you would see in the mirror? Is it the kind of dream that you think God yearns for you as much as you yearn for it?

…Praying For…

Dear God, your desires for me make up the deepest layer of my call as a human being. Help me to tune myself to your desires so I may always remember to dream your dreams and never forget to live. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, glad to know that, even though I am a muggle, you still weave your magic through my life.