Monthly Archives: October 2018

When Prudence Dictates Silence, but Faithfulness Requires Speech

TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
Psalm 90:12-17
Hebrews 4:12-16
Mark 10:17-31

Prayer of the Day: Almighty and ever-living God, increase in us your gift of faith, that, forsaking what lies behind and reaching out to what lies ahead, we may follow the way of your commandments and receive the crown of everlasting joy, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

For I know how many are your transgressions,
and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and push aside the needy in the gate.
Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time;
for it is an evil time. Amos 5:12-13

Unless you have spent the last two weeks on another planet, you know what has been taking place in the United States Senate. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford come forward to testify before the Senate, indeed, before the whole world, about the intimate details of the most horrific and traumatizing event in her life: a sexual assault by Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh. For the most part, the Senators, even those who supported the nominee, treated her with courtesy and respect. They all agreed that her testimony was highly credible. Then the Senate went on to confirm Kavanaugh’s nomination and he was sworn in as an associate justice of our nation’s highest court. This, too, after his delivering an angry, vindictive and paranoid rant about conspiracies against him. The whole travesty was a replay of the confirmation hearing for Justice Clarence Thomas almost three decades ago during which his accuser, Anita Hill, received the same dismissive treatment. Then, as now, the fraternity of old men stood with their male nominee. The voice of a woman claiming sexual assault, however credible, cannot trump the presumptively valid denial of a man.

It is more than a little disheartening that, notwithstanding the many advances women have made for themselves in government, education and the workplace, the same male hierarchical structures and the dismissive mentality among powerful men persists.  Over a century ago, Elizabeth Barrett Browning published her novel/poem, Aurora Leigh. In that book, Browning follows the fortunes of her title character, an aspiring female poet. In one passage that has a sadly contemporary ring to it, Aurora’s suitor, Romney Leigh, summarizes his attitude toward her and women writers in general:

Therefore, this same world
Uncomprehended by you must remain
Uninfluenced by you. Women as you are,
Mere women, personal and passionate,
You give us doting mothers, and chaste wives.
Sublime Madonnas, and enduring saints!
We get no Christ from you,—and verily
We shall not get a poet, in my mind.

Given the persistence of aggression against women by men and our society’s practice of silencing their cries for justice, I can’t help but suspect that Dr. Ford sometimes wishes she had just remained silent. This is “an evil time” and the “prudent” thing is simply to keep your mouth shut.

Anyone familiar with the prophet Amos must know that his words to that effect in the above cited passage can only be understood as deeply sarcastic. Amos was anything but silent about the injustice surrounding him. He, too, was a vulnerable individual, being an immigrant to the Northern Kingdom of Israel from the Southern Kingdom of Judah. When you are considered an outsider, you have to know that meddling in the politics and religion of your host nation will not make friends for you. Keeping quiet about such things is the way of prudence. But for Amos, faithfulness took precedence over prudence. He spoke such words as the land of Israel was “not able to bear.” Amos 7:10. Like Dr. Ford and so many women seeking justice, Amos was silenced. He was forbidden to prophesy any longer at the national temple in Bethel and summarily deported. Seeing this, we might well conclude that Amos’ big mouth only got him into trouble and that he would have done better taking his own advice to remain silent.

Nevertheless, although Amos’ words seem not to have had much impact in his own time, they remain with us today. They helped the broken and exiled people of Israel make sense of the terrible things that were happening to them and gave them hope for a better day. The words of Amos inspired Dr. Martin Luther King and many other leaders in the civil rights movement. As the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Hebrews 4:12. And as the prophet Isaiah assures us:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. Isaiah 55:11-12.

Therefore, in this evil time when it seems as though speaking out can only get us into trouble, we must nevertheless speak. Speak even when you are being shouted down; speak even when you are being ignored; speak even when it is disruptive; speak even when it seems as though your words accomplish nothing; speak even when your voice is shaking and your mouth is dry; speak even when your voice is tired, cracked and worn. Speak the word that is truth and let the chips fall wherever they may. Any one of us can be silenced, but the word of truth can never be erased.

Here is a poem by Langston Hughes that urges us not to succumb to the darkness or acquiesce to evil in silence. It represents, I believe, the spirit of prophesy inspired by visions of the gentle reign of God that moves us to speak throwing caution to the wind.

As I Grow Older

It was a long time ago.
I have almost forgotten my dream.
But it was there then,
In front of me,
Bright like a sun–
My dream.
And then the wall rose,
Rose slowly,
Slowly,
Between me and my dream.
Rose until it touched the sky–
The wall.
Shadow.
I am black.
I lie down in the shadow.
No longer the light of my dream before me,
Above me.
Only the thick wall.
Only the shadow.
My hands!
My dark hands!
Break through the wall!
Find my dream!
Help me to shatter this darkness,
To smash this night,
To break this shadow
Into a thousand lights of sun,
Into a thousand whirling dreams
Of sun!

Source: Selected Poems of Langston Hughes (c. 1926 by Alfred A. Knopf, pub. by Random House, LLC, 1990). Langston Hughes was an important African American voice in the “Harlem Renaissance” of the 1920s. Though well-educated and widely traveled, Hughes’ poetry never strayed far from his roots in the African American community. Early in his career, Hughes’ work was criticized by some African American intellectuals for portraying what they viewed as an unflattering representation of back life. In a response to these critics, Hughes replied, “I didn’t know the upper class Negroes well enough to write much about them. I knew only the people I had grown up with, and they weren’t people whose shoes were always shined, who had been to Harvard, or who had heard of Bach. But they seemed to me good people, too.”  Today Langston Hughes is recognized globally as a towering literary figure of the 20th Century. You can read more about Hughes and discover more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website (from which the above quote is taken).

Profiles in Courage and Cowardice: An Open Letter to Senators Heitkamp and Collins

See the source imageSee the source imageThe Honorable Heidi Heitkamp
SH-516 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington DC 20510

The Honorable Susan Collins
413 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

Dear Senators Heitkamp and Collins:

Let me first say to you, Senator Heitkamp, as the father of two wonderful women and the grandfather of a little girl too young to have learned that the adjudication of her rights has just been placed into the hands of a sexual predator, thanks! You have had the courage to speak up for vulnerable women in a very frightening time. I know whereof I speak. On the night of the 2016 election, two male Babson College students drove through Wellesley College in a pickup waving a Trump flag and uttering racist and sexist epitaphs at all who happened to be on the campus of that all women’s college. I first heard of this, not from any media outlet, but from my eldest daughter, an alumnus of that fine institution, who was present that night for an election watch party. The message was clear. The man who brags of grabbing women by the privates is in control. Girls beware. From here on out, it’s a man’s country.

Today the Senate (principally its GOP members) affirmed the sentiments of these young men by confirming Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court and letting our women and girls know that, if they are sexually abused, best keep quiet. You won’t be believed. You will not be heard. This is a country of men, by men and for men. On this dark day, your courageous voice and vote constituted a clear and decisive witness and reminder that our country is better than all of this. I know that you are paying a heavy political price for the stand you have taken. I wish that I could give you my vote, but as a resident of Massachusetts, I obviously cannot do that. All I have to offer is my sincere gratitude and prayers for your ongoing work. I have no doubt that your public service and your contributions to our country will remain and continue, regardless of election results.

That you were willing to put the well being of the women and girls I love ahead of your own political self interest speaks volumes about your character. I wish there were more persons like yourself in politics who place principle over polls, conscience over convenience and country over party. Thank you for demonstrating to my daughters, my granddaughter and the many women I care for that they have a voice and that they matter. Thank you for standing up for the hundreds of victims of abuse whose lives have touched mine throughout my years of ministry. You are a true hero.

Now, Senator Collins, I turn to you. How poorly your capitulation compares with the courage demonstrated by your colleague! How very poorly you compare with Dr. Blasey Ford who, in the face of outrageous abuse, including death threats to her and her family, came forward to testify before the entire nation about the most intimate and humiliating details of a most horrific trauma. Dr. Ford put her life on the line for her country. Senator Heitkamp put the rights of women and the safety of our girls ahead of her political career. You scampered into the shadow of Donald Trump to save your political hide. Your high sounding rhetoric about protecting women’s reproductive rights and overcoming partisan divisiveness over the years has won you a reputation for wisdom, understanding and moderation. But today you voted to put on the Supreme Court a man who, according to the sworn testimony of Dr. Ford that even your Republican colleagues deemed credible, committed a violent act of sexual assault. That tells us who you really are and puts the lie to your professed concern about sexual assault and sympathy for the “Me too” movement.

Almost as revolting as your vote in the face of Dr. Ford’s sworn testimony was the lame explanation you gave for it. I don’t think for one minute that you really believe the “presumption of innocence” governing criminal proceedings has any application to what is, after all, a job interview. I certainly would not hire Judge Kavanaugh to babysit my children after hearing what Dr. Ford had to say and I doubt that any other parent would either. Yet you seem to think we can overlook these serous allegations of sexual assault and put this man on the Supreme Court out of “fairness.” I was honestly embarrassed for you and I think you were also more than a little embarrassed yourself. I suspect your real target audience was a president and his supporters who think men are the real victims and that “the girls are doing just fine.” How sad that a woman of your accomplishments and intelligence would stoop to groveling before a man who thinks it’s funny to ridicule a woman trying to piece together what happened to her in the wake of a sexual assault. Yet, like the rest of your Republican colleagues, when push comes to shove, you play to the base. Whatever it takes to get re-elected is fair play.

Furthermore, even if we accept your rejection of Dr. Ford’s testimony as a “false memory,” even if we accept the outlandish assertions of some of your Republican colleagues that the other two women reporting sexual assaults by Brett Kavanaugh were only doing so to “get attention,” and even if we were able to listen with a straight face to Judge Kavanaugh’s highly improbable excuses for his explicit and obscene yearbook messages, you and all the rest of the country heard Brett Kavanaugh rave incoherently about conspiracies against him by the Democrats and the Clintons. You cannot convince me that you didn’t see at least clear and convincing evidence of an emotionally unstable and dangerously unhinged mind clearly lacking the temperament for any judicial post, let alone the highest court in the land. But, when the Donald calls, neither judicial character nor the safety of women and girls must be allowed to “Trump” the party line. I must say, you had me fooled. I truly expected better of you and so did the millions of American women you betrayed.

I am convinced that history will not look kindly upon you. You will be remembered, if at all, as a handmaiden to the most corrupt, vile and incompetent president this country has ever seen. You will take your place along with the now embarrassed supporters of George Wallace, Lester Maddox and Strom Thurman, champions of ideologies no less hateful than the systemic hierarchical oppression of women, a system that facilitates the victimization of women like Dr. Ford and summarily silences them. Because I believe in the true greatness of our nation’s core values, I am confident that the Trump regime, its supporters and those, like yourself, who submitted to it for their own political advantage will find their way into the dust bin of history.

But history will not be your harshest critic. You see, Senator Collins, I know that you are not an evil person. You are simply a person who never found the courage to be good. I believe that you possess a conscience. For that reason, you will forever be re-playing over and over again in your head like a broken record the reasons you gave for supporting Brett Kavanaugh, trying in vain to convince your skeptical conscience that they are all legitimate, that you were right all along, that you cannot be blamed for the consequences of your complicity in what you must know even now to be a travesty. You will wake up every morning in the skin of a coward and know that there is nothing you can do anymore to shed it. Every time you look into the mirror you will be confronted with a traitor. For that reason, Senator Collins, I pity you. I will pray for you also. I will pray that you someday find the courage to confront the truth about yourself and what you have done. I will pray that you someday find the path to redemption for the remainder of your life and know some measure of peace.

Most sincerely yours,

Rev. Peter A. Olsen (retired)

Does the Church Really Need Jesus?

TWENTIETH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Genesis 2:18-24
Psalm 8
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
Mark 10:2-16

Prayer of the Day: Sovereign God, you have created us to live in loving community with one another. Form us for life that is faithful and steadfast, and teach us to trust like little children, that we may reflect the image of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son…” Hebrews 1:1-2.

Of all words spoken by God, wherever or however, the final authoritative word is Jesus, the Word made flesh as John’s gospel puts it. Christian faith is therefore not principally the acceptance of doctrinal propositions. It is, in its essence, trust in a person, namely, Jesus. The church, according to professor Stanley Hauerwas, is that community of people whose way of life makes no sense apart from the conviction that Jesus is Lord. Turning the other cheek to aggression is an irrational response in a world where the peace is kept by armed police officers, militarized borders and weapons of mass destruction. Lending without hope of a return on your money is a recipe for bankruptcy. Selling your possessions to provide aid to the needy can only result in becoming needy. The Sermon on the Mount could hardly form the basis for a neighborhood home association, much less a nation state. That is because it was not designed for mass consumption. The Sermon, as well as Jesus’ other teachings, are meant to govern a people who believe that, with the resurrection of the crucified messiah, all the old assumptions about power, glory, security, wealth and poverty go out the window. Disciples of Jesus live in and for the reign of God which, though not yet fully revealed, is more real to them than the political, social and economic powers and principalities that demand their allegiance. Therefore, as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews will point out in Chapter 11, faith in Jesus results in a life that is altogether unintelligible to the rest of the world.

It is somewhat troubling that, in our culture, the church is often all too intelligible quite apart from Jesus. In the mind of the general public, the church is seen as a public service organization doing good in within its community. It is viewed as a teacher of morality. Pastors and priests are the last resort for people in crisis who can’t afford professional counseling. The church is often expected to address social and societal issues. Of course, the church also provides fellowship and community. Don’t misunderstand me here. I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with the church doing any of these things. But the truth is, there isn’t one of them that other organizations are not also doing-and often better than we are. So why join a church? Why not volunteer with Habitat for Humanity or get involved with Amnesty International? Why not join a biking group or a bridge club for community? What can you find in the church that somebody else isn’t offering? The church is, for the most part, neither odd nor even very interesting!

It isn’t that we aren’t trying. We have consorted with think tanks, hired consultants and authorized studies to figure out what we need to do to be more appealing.  But perhaps that is altogether the wrong approach. When discussions about spiritual renewal begin with questions about how to attract millennials, what needs exist in the community to be addressed or how to make our liturgy more “user friendly,” I begin to wonder whether we are trying to draw people in to save ourselves rather than bringing the good news of salvation to the world. I wonder whether we are looking at the needs in our community to find problems to solve, thereby justifying our existence, rather than responding to the pain in our community because the love of Christ compels us. I wonder whether we are being driven by an institutional survival instinct rather than the Spirit of Jesus. Are seeking to save our lives at the cost of our souls? Or are we spending them confident that God will return them to us?

I recently attended a meeting of clergy within my denomination in which our leadership introduced a program designed to “revitalize congregations.” The program lasted a good hour and a half. There were the usual participatory exercises, small group discussions and Q&A. At the conclusion, I came to the realization that, throughout this entire parade of Powerpoint slides, talking points, graphs and charts, not once was the name of Jesus so much as mentioned. I don’t know whether that was intentional or inadvertent. Nor am I sure which would be the more disturbing. How, I wondered, is it possible to revitalize a church without Jesus? Moreover, even if this program were to succeed, would we want a church, however successful, that is revitalized by something other than Jesus? If God speaks finally, fully and authoritatively through Jesus the Son, shouldn’t that Son be central to any effort we make to grow in our faith and mission?

Without Jesus, there is no reason for the church to exist. Indeed, if we have reached the point where Jesus is not relevant for us, if he is so inconsequential that we neglect to include him in discussions about mission and ministry, then I think we owe it to the world to shut our doors, liquidate our assets for donation to worthy causes and tell our congregants to go out and do something useful with their Sunday mornings. Forgive me if I am being a bit flippant here, but I can’t help feeling somewhat appalled at any meeting of church leaders in which Jesus is mentioned only in opening devotions, and all the more so when that meeting is about spiritual renewal!

I believe we need to confront our spiritual anemia head on. Maybe the way to renewal is acknowledging that our connection to Jesus is frayed and that we have, to a large degree, lost our direction. Like the church in Ephesus, we have “abandoned the love [we] had at first” Revelation 2:4 . I would like to suggest a modest proposal: Suspend all revitalization, outreach, “transformational ministry,” “missional” events for the next year and dedicate these times for communion with Jesus in prayer, worship and reflection on the scriptures. Let our time be spent learning to pray together, trust one another and build collegial friendships. Let us engage in those spiritual practices through which the mind of Christ is formed in us. Let us learn to listen again to that Word of God that is Jesus. I have a feeling that if we do that, the revitalization part will take care of itself.

Here is a poem by Christina Rossetti I previously shared this last April in connection with my Easter reflections. I share it again because it expresses a prayer that perhaps should be on the lips of us all.

A Better Resurrection

 I have no wit, no words, no tears;
My heart within me like a stone
Is numb’d too much for hopes or fears;
Look right, look left, I dwell alone;
I lift mine eyes, but dimm’d with grief
No everlasting hills I see;
My life is in the falling leaf:
O Jesus, quicken me.

My life is like a faded leaf,
My harvest dwindled to a husk:
Truly my life is void and brief
And tedious in the barren dusk;
My life is like a frozen thing,
No bud nor greenness can I see:
Yet rise it shall—the sap of Spring;
O Jesus, rise in me.

My life is like a broken bowl,
A broken bowl that cannot hold
One drop of water for my soul
Or cordial in the searching cold;
Cast in the fire the perish’d thing;
Melt and remould it, till it be
A royal cup for Him, my King:
O Jesus, drink of me.

Source: This poem is in the public domain. Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) was the daughter of an Italian poet and exile who emigrated to England in 1884. There he established himself as a scholar and teacher of Dante’s works at Kings College. He married an English woman in 1826 and they had four children together, one of which was Christina. Christina Rossetti’s childhood appears to have been happy, characterized by affectionate parental care and the creative inspiration from her older siblings. A devout Christian, her many poems, short stories and devotional works are rich in biblical imagery. You can find out more about Christina Rossetti and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.