Shaking Out the Wicked Like Bedbugs

“Have you commanded the morning, and made the dawn know its place, that it may take hold of the bedskirts of the earth, so the wicked are shaken out of it?” Job 38:12-13.

What an obscure analogy! God the Master commands God’s housekeeper Dawn to shake the wicked like bedbugs out of the sheets. In context, God is talking about the control of chaos (“Who shut up the sea with doors when it came bursting forth?”). The barring of the sea sounds like a grand victory in the cosmos, but then comes this remarkably routine analogy of… housekeeping.

Every morning, Dawn comes in to shake out the covers and send the bedbugs scattering. There is no exterminator, no diatomaceous earth to sprinkle on the baseboards, and so the bedbugs are there to stay. They can’t be done away with entirely; they can only be managed. The chaos can only be controlled with a daily effort.

Shaking out the wicked becomes as routine as washing the dishes, sweeping the floors. Doing it once doesn’t solve the problem; it’s housekeeping, those mundane and routine activities that we have to do every day. You might ask, What’s the point? Why make the bed when it just gets messy again? Why sweep the floor when more dirt will be tracked in? The answer, of course, is obvious – we can’t eliminate the chaos, but we can control the chaos.

What an appropriate analogy in the ever-present struggle for human rights. We take care of one issue, only for another to crop up, like a cruel game of whack-a-mole. Slavery is abolished, and here comes Jim Crow. Once Jim Crow is gone, the prison industrial complex takes over. A dictator is overthrown, and another arises in their place. Wickedness is always among us in its various, insidious forms, and it’s so easy to feel overwhelmed every morning when you wake up and the bedbugs are back.

But chaos and wickedness can’t just be done away with in one fell swoop. Cosmic housekeeping is patience and perseverance. It’s waking up every morning and showing up to write, to vote, to preach, to march, to love. It’s putting on your apron and going to turn on the lights, dust the dark corners, shake out the sheets. It’s looking to your fellow housekeepers with an encouraging smile and knowing that the powers are not ultimate after all; they are only bedbugs. And they will be back tomorrow, but even if just for today, we can shake them out.

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(His name was Malchus.)

At last night’s Good Friday service, one phrase from the reading stood out to me: a small, parenthetical statement giving the name of a slave.

(His name was Malchus.)

Unusual, to give the name of a slave. It’s an odd bit of the story in John 18, when the soldiers and the chief priests arrest Jesus in the garden. Peter, brave and loyal and impulsive as always, whips out a sword and cuts off the ear of the high priest’s slave. (His name was Malchus.) Except Jesus sees this action as neither brave nor loyal, and sternly rebukes Peter for the violence, ordering him to sheath his sword.

In the other Gospel accounts, Jesus heals the ear of the man – his last healing miracle before his death – and yet the man’s name is never mentioned. The Gospel of John flips the script: there is no mention of Jesus healing his ear, and yet the scribe takes the time to record the name of this victim of violence. (His name was Malchus.)

The pen was dipped into the inkwell. It was poised above the page. It descended to where its tip kissed the parchment, and in Greek block letters it inscribed the name that would be copied, copied again, handwritten in hundreds of manuscripts as the tradition was passed down. (His name was Malchus.) The addition of his name was no accident or afterthought.

In fact, to the Johannine community, the name of this slave (his name was Malchus) was somehow more important than the account of his healing. He was more than “collateral damage” from striking out at the enemy. He was more than “the slave Jesus healed.” He was more than a character in someone else’s story; he had a story of his own. He was Malchus.

Two weeks ago, a young father was shot in the back six times. Perhaps he was seen as a threat, like Malchus. The shots in his back would suggest otherwise. (His name was Stephon Clark.)

Today is Holy Saturday, the last day of Lent. At the very beginning of this season of Lent – on Ash Wednesday – seventeen people were shot and killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school. “Collateral damage” of the Second Amendment, some might say. (Their names were Alyssa Alhadeff, Scott Beigel, Martin Duque, Nicholas Dworet, Aaron Feis, Jaime Guttenburg, Chris Hixon, Luke Hoyer, Cara Loughran, Gina Montalto, Joaquin Oliver, Alaina Petty, Meadow Pollack, Helena Ramsay, Alex Schachter, Carmen Schentrup, and Peter Wang.)

To remember the names of victims of violence has become a form of protest in our society. They become hashtags for victims of police brutality, joining the others in an ever-growing litany of names that we refuse to forget. They are etched into the stone surrounding the reflecting pools at the 9/11 Memorial. The #SayHerName movement is a cry against the invisibility that threatens to cloak the victims who can no longer speak for themselves. And even if, by some miracle, the violence in this world can be healed, the miracle will not erase the need to remember the names.

Naming the victims of violence is not more important than healing. But if any healing is ever to take place, it must begin with the humanization that comes from speaking names.

Tomorrow is the day on which we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus, himself a victim of violence. We will profess our belief that healing is possible, that death is not the end of the story. But we still live in a broken world where loved ones are torn from us by violence. And even as we entrust them to Christ, even as we work and pray and lobby for an end to violence, we remember their names.

 

A Seat at the Table: A Maundy Thursday Meditation

This liturgical season, I feel that I don’t belong at the table of the Last Supper. I feel like I’m peeking around the door into the Upper Room, debating whether to go in. Hoping I can slip in unnoticed. Knowing that it’s been a while.

Wondering if they’ll look at me strangely and ask why I’m bothering to show up now.

This Maundy Thursday night, I am all too aware that this Lenten season has slipped away from me. Sure, I “gave something up” for Lent, but I wasn’t intentional or prayerful about it. I mostly whined about it and tried to substitute other comforts. My church tradition does not follow the church calendar, and so I forget to live in its rhythms. I sing on the praise team, so I’m obligated to sing “hallelujah” and songs of resurrection in a season of repentance and mourning. I realized on Sunday night, with a pang of sorrow and regret, that it was Palm Sunday, and I had totally forgotten.

And now it’s Maundy Thursday. My friend just asked me if I was going to a service. I’m not. I don’t know why; I guess I just didn’t think about it. My husband is going out of town Friday and Saturday to lead a church event, so if I go to a Good Friday service or an Easter vigil, I’ll be alone, at a church I’ve never been to, surrounded by a community I’m not a part of. To be honest, I don’t know if I can muster up the courage.

But it’s Maundy Thursday, so I’m standing just outside, seeing the light from the Upper Room and hearing the sound of laughter and chatter. But not everyone is laughing. As I peer inside, I see Christ – looking troubled. Sad. Although he is surrounded by his friends, I get the feeling that I’m not the only one who feels alone tonight.

Still I hang back. The table looks full – I’m not sure there’s a spot for me. After all, I haven’t exactly made a reservation. I haven’t helped with the preparations. I’m just a late, last-minute, lonely beggar lurking outside.

But then Christ looks at me, sees me in the shadows. Locking his eyes with mine, he gets up from his seat, removes his outer garment, and wraps a towel around his waist. And stooping to pick up a basin, he gestures to me, inviting me. “Come in,” he offers, smiling. “Sit here next to John and Peter. I won’t be needing this seat.”

I enter the room hesitantly at Christ’s invitation. At his gesture, I take my place at the table. And it doesn’t take long to realize that perhaps none of us really belongs here. Some of us have tempers. We belong to different political parties. Some of us are doubters. Some deniers. Several are arguing over who is the greatest. Some of us are confused. Some are fearful. Some are faithless. None of the other disciples have really understood the meaning of this Holy Week either. What a broken group we are.

But as Christ passes the bread to each and shares the wine with all, he tells us that he too will be broken. And yet, despite all our human frailties and failures – the depth of our doubts and sorrows, the feelings of unworthiness, even the mundanity of being unable to stay awake to pray, there is still a place for us at this table.

Even when we come late.

Ashes and Roses: Reordering Loves on a Lenten Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day will be an unusual one for many people this year. Chocolate and wine and candlelit dinners will give way to ashes on foreheads in the shape of a cross. Feasting will become fasting, and celebration will be replaced by repentance. Because this year, Valentine’s Day coincides with Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. The first day of Christians’ 40-day journey toward Easter.

Instead of giddily celebrating being alive and in love, JP and I will rise early to go to church and receive our ashes together, to be reminded, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” To remember that in life or death, feasting or fasting, celebration or mourning, we belong to God.

So when these two days – Valentine’s Day, and Ash Wednesday – are superimposed onto one another, what meaning do they give each other? How do both change through the lens of the other? How does love speak to fasting, and fasting to love?

In my mind, they overlap in the idea of reordering loves. 

Fasting is never for fasting’s sake, and it is not merely the removal of a love (be it coffee, social media, spending, hot showers, or whatever other comfort one chooses to forego), but the replacement of that love with a Love that is higher, deeper, richer. When we name our false loves and wean ourselves from our dependency on them, our loves are reordered. We orient ourselves toward selflessness instead of selfishness, humility instead of pride, God instead of idols. And when all of the false loves fall away, we see our rightly ordered loves very clearly:

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

Love your neighbor as yourself.

It’s human nature that our loves become disordered. The law of entropy in the human heart, if you will. Some days it’s so easy to think that our needs are more important than those of others. It seems so logical that the silliest things like which movie to watch, or the spouse using up the hot water, are worth fighting about. It seems so necessary to insist on being right, even at the expense of Christian unity in the church. But that’s usually an indication that our loves have gotten all tangled up and disordered again.

The rhythms of the Christian calendar, and the recurrence of Lent every year, is a gentle reminder that repentance isn’t a single life-changing moment but a daily conscious decision to keep turning from our false desires to the One who can properly reorder our loves.

At first blush, it seems like ashes and roses don’t go together. That Valentine’s Day and Lent can’t mix. But the whole Christian story, from the humble manger to the “beauty” of the cross, is about the interconnectedness of life and death, love and pain, the ugly and the beautiful.

And so maybe, just maybe, ashes on foreheads and bread and water communicate a deeper love than roses and wine. They communicate the grit and commitment it takes to love God, to love our spouse, to love the world. They communicate that love is worth fasting for, worth repenting for. Worth dying to ourselves for.

And so, with this Lenten Valentine’s Day approaching in less than a month, ask yourself: How have my loves become disordered? What might I be called to sacrifice, to repent of? And, most importantly, how can I reorder my loves to serve God and the world?

The Beigeified Youth Room

In an episode of Breaking Bad, Walt and Skyler are invited to a birthday party hosted by old friends from grad school who have socioeconomically outclassed them. Nervous about what to wear, they ransack their closets for their nicest attire – a navy suit and a bright blue satiny party dress. But when they arrive at the party, they find themselves in a sea of neutral tones – whites, tans, grays, and taupes. Looking around in embarrassment, Skyler observes: “Jesus, it seems we missed the beige memo.”

This moment perfectly sums up the trend of beigeification that has taken over the white American upper-middle class. And the beige trend isn’t limited to fashion; it’s reflected in architecture, in decorating trends, and even in social media platforms. Shades of neutrals have replaced jewel tones and flashy prints. Brightly-colored flowers in homes have given way to brown wheat bundles and white cotton stalks, art replaced by wrought iron or empty windows with white trim. The dorm room trend of splashes of color and pictures of friends has been replaced by white quilts, beige rugs, and white twinkle lights. Your home increases in value when you paint over your bright blue walls with a shade called “silver mist” or “winter’s day.”

To the average American, beigeification is boring and a little pretentious. To those of us groomed to aspire to shades of beige through too many hours on Pinterest (guilty), it seems simple. Clean. Sophisticated. In her book on teens and social media, digital ethnographer danah boyd talks about the mass exodus from Myspace to Facebook and how it relates to beigeification:

Those who relished MySpace gushed about their ability to ‘pimp out’ their profiles with ‘glitter,’ whereas Facebook users viewed the resultant profiles as ‘gaudy,’ ‘tacky,’ and ‘cluttered.’ Facebook fans relished the site’s aesthetic minimalism, while MySpace devotees described Facebook profiles as ‘boring,’ ‘lame,’ ‘sterile,’ and ‘elitist.’ Catalina, a white fifteen-year-old from Austin, told me that Facebook is better because ‘Facebook just seems more clean to me.’ What Catalina saw as cleanliness, Indian-Pakistani seventeen-year-old Anindita from Los Angeles labeled ‘simple.’ She recognized the value of simplicity, but she preferred the ‘bling’ of MySpace because it allowed her to express herself. (boyd, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014], 168-169)

Whether one sees it as sophisticated or lame – which are value judgments – factually, beigeification is about erasure. Erasure of color, of personality, of culture. It began in the 2000s when everyone was buying real estate. Everything was made neutral so that potential buyers had a blank slate to imagine their own style fitting into the home. And slowly, strangely, the blank slate itself became the style. (See Kate Wagner, “How Beige Took Over American Homes,” https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/how-beige-took-over-american-homes.)

But erasure does not celebrate personality, value culture, or honor diversity. And because it has become the style of upper-middle-class white Americans who love Pinterest, it can feel stuffy and unwelcoming to the Walts and Skylers whose nicest clothes are considered tacky and gaudy.

How does all this relate to youth ministry?

 Confession time. Yours truly – Pinterest lover, pumpkin spice latte drinker, blank window hoarder, and one who sees light gray kitchen cabinets and thinks “ooh, pretty!” – quite recently thought, “Hey, we should paint over this terrible 2000’s bright blue and make this a coffee shop atmosphere!” You know, reclaimed wood, hand-lettering, some inoffensive shade of shale blue or sage green so light it’s practically gray as well. Oh, and twinkle lights, of course. But then a few things happened that changed my mind.

First, my sister, a fashion professor, told me about the phenomenon of beigeification and its social implications. We had a long discussion about how beautiful color is, and how strange it is that we white upper-middle-class people don’t like it. Following in the footsteps of our ancestors who scrubbed away the uniqueness of culture for the pursuit of “whiteness,” even if subconsciously or unintentionally, we’re all about erasure and conformity. So I began playing with bold color combinations, using the colors of autumn as an excuse. Green skirt, yellow cardigan, red shoes. Suddenly in my academic corner of the world, I stood out among the sea of neutrals. I got so many compliments. My favorite taupe skirt and white silk blouse lay forgotten in the corner of my closet.

Second, I’ve been discussing with my professors the dynamic of being a white youth minister to a diverse youth group. How do I look beyond my own cultural conditioning to teach in an inclusive way and meet the needs of all of my students, and not just the ones who are most like me?

Finally, at the National Conference for Youth Ministry this year, youth minister Adam Mearse was talking about the implicit messages that our teens receive from our youth room décor. “When your teens are tired of looking at you and listening to you, their eyes wander and their thoughts wander,” he reminded us. “What do they see on the walls of your youth room? What are they learning from it?” He was talking about sexuality, actually, but I began thinking about the implicit messages and theological implications of youth group space.

While church architecture and stained glass windows are often very impressive (and colorful!), the stained glass isn’t merely for show but for education. For those who didn’t speak Latin and couldn’t understand the Mass, the stained glass told them the stories of Jesus and the Old Testament heroes and the saints of the church. When their eyes wandered, they found something with theological richness and depth.

What is the theology of your youth group space? Perhaps your messy bulletin board with its pictures of smiling teens is a reflection of the body of Christ and those who make up your group. Perhaps the map on your wall reminds your teens of the world God loves. Maybe you have a meaningful logo on your wall, or the Bible verse that guides your mission statement. Maybe your ceiling tiles are painted by your graduating seniors, whose faith has shaped the community. When their eyes wander, what do they see? Do they see a space that reflects the love of God for everyone?

On a “practical steps” level, I’ve begun thinking that maybe a youth room redesign could begin by asking everyone in your youth group to text you a picture of their own bedroom, instead of assuming that your own style or current youth room trends reflect the personality of your group. What color is it? Are the walls covered with pictures? Posters? Quotes? How do they personalize their space? And stemming from that, what might make them feel at home when they’re at church?

And so, before we (I) rush to paint our youth room “silver mist” and replace pictures of our teens with hand-lettered inspirational quotes from Etsy, picture your youth group. Picture your congregation. Picture your community – the people to whom you hope to reach out. Who are the Walts and Skylers in your group? Who might visit from your community and feel uneasy and vaguely unwelcome in the space that you really hoped would be peaceful and relaxing? Whom might we be unintentionally excluding when we scrub away diversity and paint it beige?