Monthly Archives: February 2019

Meeting the Jesus you Thought you Knew


Exodus 34:29-35
Psalm 99
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Luke 9:28-43

Prayer of the Day: Holy God, mighty and immortal, you are beyond our knowing, yet we see your glory in the face of Jesus Christ. Transform us into the likeness of your Son, who renewed our humanity so that we may share in his divinity, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

All four gospels have Jesus acclaimed as God’s beloved Son by the unmediated voice of God. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, from which this Sunday’s lesson comes, that declaration is made on the Mountain of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-43). In John’s gospel, it comes as Jesus is entering Jerusalem with his disciples following the raising of Lazarus. John 12:27-36. There can no longer be any question in the minds of the disciples about who Jesus is. But, like us, the disciples are struggling to make sense of what it means for Jesus to be God’s Son and what it means for them to follow him.

I think that about sums up my own poor life of discipleship. I did not have the misfortune of growing up in a faith community where God was painted as an angry judge, where the devil was lying in wait for me behind every TV show and every hit song or where every stray thought constituted a sin against the Holy Spirit-for which there is no forgiveness. I grew up in a Lutheran tradition that emphasized grace over all of these things. Thus, in my early years, I had the notion that being baptized set me apart for certain privileges. I got to go to heaven when I died. I could get forgiveness for anything I might do wrong. Using the name of Jesus in prayer unlocked God’s inner office and somehow got my petitions closer to the top of the divine inbox.

In my teens, Jesus was transfigured for me. As I became more deeply involved with discipleship through participation in my church’s youth activities, I discovered that faith is relational, not transactional. That is to say, I learned that it is less about accepting a set of doctrinal propositions and more about trusting in a person, namely, Jesus.  God was no longer a distant abstraction for me, but a loving Father with a “plan” for my life. This new dimension of understanding deepened my appreciation for worship, Christian community and the importance of public witness. A flame had been lit in my heart. I wanted desperately to grow in my faith and discipleship. Still, my understanding of Jesus remained very “me” centered. The piety practiced by me and my peers was heavily weighted toward knowing Jesus as our “personal savior” and cultivating the inner life for its own sake. Additionally, we were captive to a limited moral universe that emphasized personal ethics over responsibility for the welfare of the larger community. We were particularly preoccupied with sexual sins and the “impure thoughts” that led us in that direction. I suppose this was in no small part due to the fact that we were, after all, adolescents boiling over with hormones and in the throes of discovering our sexuality. Sadly, our faith, as then constituted, was inadequate as far as giving us much direction beyond “thou shalt not.”

As I entered college, I experienced yet another of Jesus’ transfigurations. I became aware that Jesus’ love extended to the whole person and that salvation was for the world. I discovered that sin was not merely a personal matter, but a systemic one manifested in the persistence of poverty, injustice, racism and sexism. I came to understand that following Jesus is not consistent with neutrality on these matters. I learned that discipleship must necessarily have a public dimension. I was introduced to our church’s efforts to combat hunger, poverty and racial injustice. I was also confronted for the first time with gay and lesbian believers who opened my eyes to what my church was doing to these children of God through its moral teachings and practices of rejection and exclusion. Seeing Jesus in them transfigured him for me once more. I was thereby compelled to re-think much of what I had been taught.

I am not through seeing Jesus transfigured. These days I struggle with what it means for a son of white privilege to hear the call of Jesus to discipleship and respond. In trying to find my place in Jesus’ mission to bring good news in a world of racism, patriarchy and economic inequality, I often find myself just as blind, clueless and tone deaf as Jesus’ disciples were as they consistently failed to listen to, understand and obey him. Just when I think I have Jesus figured out, I discover that I don’t. He is always showing himself to be deeper, more complex, more compassionate and more generous than I have the capacity to imagine.

It is fitting, I think, that our Lenten pilgrimage is prefaced by the story of Jesus’ transfiguration. This Sunday, we will hear the voice of God declare of Jesus, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.” In the following weeks, we will strive to do just that. On the Mount of Transfiguration, we learn who Jesus is. But it is only in following him down into the plane that we will discover what that really means and what it means for us to be united with him.  As we make this journey once again through the forty days of Lent, the phrase from Luther’s Small Catechism, “What does this mean?” should be ringing in our ears.  It is important that we enter into this season each year with the expectation that Jesus will again be transfigured before us, that we will see him once more in a different light and that we will greet the Easter sunrise with a deeper, fuller and more mature faith in him and a clearer understanding of the new life into which he calls us.

Jesus, it seems, will always be a mystery however much we may love him, however zealously we try to follow him, however near to us he is. Like the daughter in James Lenfestey’s poem, he will always remain “a mystery in a story.”


A daughter is not a passing cloud, but permanent,
holding earth and sky together with her shadow.
She sleeps upstairs like mystery in a story,
blowing leaves down the stairs, then cold air, then warm.
We who at sixty should know everything, know nothing.
We become dull and disoriented by uncertain weather.
We kneel, palms together, before this blossoming altar.

Source: A Cartload of Scrolls, (pub. by Holy Cow! Press, c. by James P. Lenfestey 2007). James P. Lenfestey is an American author and poet, a former college English instructor and editorial writer for the Star Tribune. He has produced multiple collections of essays and poems and has edited a number of anthologies. He is chair of the Literary Witnesses poetry series, teaches at the Mackinac Island Poetry Festival and lives in Minneapolis with his wife. You can find out more about James L. Lenfestey at the Poetry Foundation website.

The Hard Work of Vanquishing Enemies


Genesis 45:3-11, 15
Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40
1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50
Luke 6:27-38

Prayer of the Day: O Lord Jesus, make us instruments of your peace, that where there is hatred, we may sow love, where there is injury, pardon, and where there is despair, hope. Grant, O divine master, that we may seek to console, to understand, and to love in your name, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“But I say to you that listen: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Luke 6:27-31.

This is undoubtedly among the sayings most Christians of every persuasion secretly wish Jesus had never uttered. If you define love as broadly as possible, you can perhaps fudge love for enemies by characterizing what appears to be loveless behavior as “tough love.” But Jesus is not content to leave this open to interpretation. “If anyone strikes you on the cheek,” he says, “offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.” Anyone daring to suggest that Jesus might actually mean to be taken literally here can expect to be showered with “what abouts.” What about the thug who sticks a gun in the face of your dear old granny? What about Hitler? What about the abused wife? Should I stand by passively as my grandma is murdered? Should the Jews have walked obediently into the gas chambers? Should a wife cheerfully submit to being beaten?

There are some serious concerns lurking under these objections. But their phrasing betrays a host of unexamined assumptions. First, these questions all assume an easy distinction among human beings, namely, a distinction between “good” and “evil.” So much of the violence woven into our American culture is based on our belief that all of life is a titanic battle between what is indisputably good and what is irredeemably evil. American entertainment reinforces this belief with any number of cop shows, westerns, courtroom dramas in which good people are victimized by crazed criminals and saved ultimately by men with guns employing violence to subdue them. Seldom are we given any insight into the motives, experiences and views of the criminals, terrorists and thugs gunned down for the cause of good. Neither do we see much about how the routine employment of violence dehumanizes the gun wielding heroes. Good and evil remain hermetically sealed and separated one from the other. Small wonder, then, that we find our politics, religion and everything else so thoroughly polarized.

As everyone who has ever done real police work or served in combat knows, this isn’t reality. Often it is not evident until the smoke clears who the “good” and “bad” actors were. A bullet can’t discern between the bank robber and a passerby who happens to be in the line of fire. When lethal force is used, there seldom are clear winners and losers. Even the so-called “bad” actor is likely a spouse, parent, sibling and friend whose death rips the fabric of a community. Long after formal hostilities between nations have ceased the scars of combat continue to plague devastated communities, grieving families and traumatized soldiers for generations to come. Abu Graib and My Lai remind us that the line between good and evil does not run neatly between our enemies and ourselves.

Let us be honest. When we assert that lethal force is sometimes a necessity, we are saying in the same breath that there are people whose lives are expendable. We are usurping the right to decide who lives and who dies. I am not convinced that we are capable of making decisions of this kind. For example, if I were a civil authority and learned that an angry mob was seeking to stone an innocent man, I might authorize the use of force necessary to disburse the mob. Certainly, it would be my preference that no one be killed. But in circumstances like this, there are likely to be hostile casualties and perhaps even some “collateral damage.” Let’s say the mission is a success. The stoning victim is rescued with only one hostile fatality. The dead man was not actually involved in the stoning himself, but he was facilitating it by watching the belongings of those doing the dirty deed and cheering them on. As those of you familiar with the Book of Acts know, I just prevented the martyrdom of Saint Stephen by killing Saint Paul. Our judgments about a person’s worth and rightful destiny are woefully short sighted. Just as we cannot know in an instant of time all that brought a person to the point where we have determined that s/he must die, so we cannot know all that will unfold in that life should it be spared. Good and evil, the separation of the wheat from the weeds, must await the end of the age. Only then and only to the final Judge will it become apparent what must be harvested and what must be burned.

Second, these “what about” scenarios all focus on the moment at which the use of force seems unavoidable-as though nothing happened before or after the moment of decision is thrust upon us. It is all so very reminiscent of the adulterous couple who cry remorsefully, “It was bigger than both of us.” At some point, that was probably true. It was not true, however, the first time they found themselves chatting in front of the water cooler for longer than they both knew was natural or appropriate. It was not true when they both found themselves working late on days when there really was no work that could not have kept until tomorrow. It was not even true when they arranged to be sent to the same professional conference in another city and…well, as I said: at some point it really did get out of hand. But it would not be fair or accurate to say that the affair was fated from the beginning. It could have been checked at a thousand points along the way.

In the same way, I think it is a little disingenuous to argue that bombing Germany was necessary to stop the Nazis when they could have been checked at the ballot box by the German people, restrained by a strong, united European/American diplomatic effort or thwarted altogether by a more just and evenhanded peace following the close of the First World War-which also could have been avoided at any number of points. So, too, I think it would be far more productive to focus on creating safe havens for women fearing domestic violence and programs to address pathological behaviors growing out of toxic masculinity among American men than to agonize over what to do when visited by the consequences of our gross neglect of these issues. While there might not be much you can do to keep deranged people from threatening granny, such persons would be a good deal less dangerous without guns in their hands and could therefore more likely be handled without resort to lethal force.

The truth is, the world is generally a peaceful place. The use of lethal force is neither inevitable nor is it as common as we are sometimes led to believe. On any given day, nations resolve their disputes without resort to military action; police officers go about their duties without taking their fire arms out of the holster; domestic abuse, school yard bullying and disputes between neighbors are dealt with peacefully by social workers, counselors and the courts. Resort to violence is the exception, not the rule. It represents not a necessary exercise of power to maintain peace, but a breakdown of peace resulting largely from the neglect of the social institutions that enable it.

That being said, we live in a world where the peace has broken down at many points. How, then, does a follower of Jesus live faithfully in a world where there exist angry people who are perhaps bent on harming us? How do we deal with enemies? By that I do not mean simply people who rub us the wrong way or don’t seem to like us. By enemy I mean what I believe Jesus means: people who might kill us if they could. First and foremost, Jesus commands his disciples to love them. By that he does not mean that we need to feel affection for them or that we should do whatever they wish or give them whatever they want. It does mean, however, that we treat them as we would wish to be treated. That is difficult because it means getting into their skin, trying to see the world as they see it and experiencing life as they do. It is scary, too, because seeing the world through the eyes of my enemy can open my own eyes to a lot about myself I would rather not confront. Yet once I understand my enemy’s animosity toward me and whatever responsibility I might carry for it, a breach is made in the wall between us. There now exists a way out of the vortex of retribution. My enemy is no longer the personification of evil, but a person like myself in need of redemption-a commodity for which we desperately need each other.

Sometimes love requires one to resist one’s enemies. Allowing abusive spouses or parents to continue their pathological behavior does not benefit them and it certainly has no salutary value for the victims! Nor should the church or the world turn a blind eye to genocide, ethnic cleansing or systemic injustice. But that is not to say that love requires the use of violence. There are many ways to resist[1] but, for us disciples of Jesus, violent coercion is not an arrow in our quiver. We know or should know that “all who take the sword perish by the sword.” Adopting the enemy’s methods only transforms us into the image of all that we hate in the enemy. As tempting as it is to rationalize that the ends justify the means, we know that the means are the only reliable way we have of shaping the ends.

Love is hard. Love is costly. Love doesn’t deliver results in any way we can measure. But, as the following poem by Wendell Berry illustrates, it’s the only way there is to vanquish an enemy.


If you are not to become a monster,
you must care what they think.
If you care what they think,

how will you not hate them,
and so become a monster
of the opposite kind? From where then

is love to come—love for your enemy
that is the way of liberty?
From forgiveness. Forgiven, they go

free of you, and you of them;
they are to you as sunlight
on a green branch. You must not

think of them again, except
as monsters like yourself,
pitiable because unforgiving.

Source: Indivisible: Poems for Social Justice (c. Wendell Berry, 1994; pub. by Norwood House Press, 2013). Wendell Berry (b. 1934) is a poet, novelist, farmer and environmental activist. He is an elected member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, a recipient of The National Humanities Medal and the Jefferson Lecturer for 2012. He is also a 2013 Fellow of The American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Berry was named the recipient of the 2013 Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award. On January 28, 2015, he became the first living writer to be inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame. You can read more about Wendell Berry and sample more of his works at the Poetry Foundation website.

[1] Walter Wink, professor of Biblical Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary, points out that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount represents not passive submission to evil, but a “third way” of actively opposing injustice and hostility. Evil is to be actively resisted, though not on its own terms. The community of Jesus’ disciples is to be a counter cultural community whose very existence and way of being represents a challenge to imperial oppression. Though some of Professor Wink’s interpretations of particular texts strike me as speculative and fanciful, on the whole, I think his analysis is on target. See Wink, Walter, The Powers that Be, (c. 1998 by Augsburg Press) pp. 98-111.

Of Prophecy and Broken Government


Jeremiah 17:5-10
Psalm 1
1 Corinthians 15:12-20
Luke 6:17-26

Prayer of the Day: Living God, in Christ you make all things new. Transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace, and in the renewal of our lives make known your glory, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals
and make mere flesh their strength…” Jeremiah 17:5-10.

Jeremiah had good reason to be skeptical about human leadership. The rulers of Judah, descendants of king David, had failed miserably to measure up to their great ancestor’s stature. According to the ancient covenant, kingship in Israel was not a privilege. The king, as God’s anointed one, was charged with judging the people with righteousness and the poor with justice. He was charged with defending the cause of the poor of the people, giving deliverance to the needy and crushing oppression. Psalm 72:12-14. But David’s royal descendants used their power to enrich themselves at the expense of their people, led the people into the worship of idols and pursued selfish and shortsighted foreign policies that brought Judah to the brink of extinction. This, says Jeremiah, is what comes of trusting human leadership.

I expect that the good people of Virginia are feeling much the same way.  Several of their leaders appear to have betrayed the public trust placed in them. First, an obscure news outlet unearthed a medical school yearbook page from 1984 for Virginia’s Governor, Ralph S. Northam, sporting a blatantly racist photo. Then, while the state was still reeling from this scandal, Lt. Governor Justin E. Fairfax was accused by two women of sexual assault. Next Attorney General Mark R. Herring admitted to having appeared in “blackface.” Finally, it was revealed that Thomas K. Norment, Jr., the majority leader in the Virginia Senate played a leading role in editing his college yearbook, which contains several photographs of students in blackface as well as racist slurs. There have been numerous calls from all quarters for the resignation of these individuals from their offices. It remains to be seen whether they will heed those calls.

Any such infractions on my part would have ended my ministerial career-and rightly so. Our faith communities place profound trust in us. When we abuse that trust, we inflict enormous injuries on both the individuals involved and the communities to which we minister. We are held to a higher standard of conduct and the consequences for our failing to live up to it are treated with greater severity. That might seem unfair, but life isn’t meant to be fair. “To whom much is given, much is required,” says Jesus. Luke 12:48. What goes for ministers also goes, in some measure, for elected leaders entrusted with making and enforcing the rule of law. We can hardly trust an individual who mocks and ridicules members of another race or ethnicity to ensure equal protection and justice for all. Nor can we trust people who abuse women and girls to protect their rights. Such conduct on the part of our elected leaders destroys irreparably our confidence in their ability to lead.

Jeremiah goes on to sound a cautionary note, however. “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse—who can understand it?” says the prophet. Jeremiah 17:9. However much we might rightfully expect from those we elevate to positions of leadership, we dare not forget that they are no less human than the rest of us. Their hearts are no different from our own. We ought to know that each of us has fault lines in our souls and character flaws that, under enough pressure and in the right circumstances, might well break. Never having run for public office myself, I can’t speak from personal experience. But it seems to me that the challenges of satisfying often conflicting demands of one’s constituents, obtaining financing for one’s campaign, employing the tactics necessary to win an election and navigating the process of governing in a system heavily controlled by powerful interest groups must inflict a severe strain on one’s moral compass. What I do know is that power is intoxicating. You don’t need to have much to make you more than a little tipsy. Being surrounded by people who look to you for help, support and comfort has a way of filling you with the kind of self-important narcissism that blinds you to the results of your selfish actions and their tragic consequences for others. Too many of my colleagues in ministry have drunk too heavily from that cup and lost their way. I know only too well how easily one moral compromise prepares the groundwork for the next and how one seemingly innocent and inconsequential lie steels your conscience for bigger lies to come. For that reason, I believe we need to temper our righteous anger at our fallen leaders with a degree of understanding and even compassion.

Perhaps the fault lies with us as much as with our leaders. We are not likely to elect a candidate who tells us hard truths we don’t want to hear. We don’t like being told that the problems facing us are complex and that solving them will require time and sacrifice. We long for leaders who give us soundbite answers and guarantee that they can “fix” things without requiring anything from us. We tend to vote for candidates promising to restore us to some golden age of yore or lead us into some utopian future. Winning an election practically requires a candidate to make promises that cannot be kept-that is, to lie. Should it surprise us, then, that we wind up with leaders who cannot be trusted? Are the lies we so desperately want to believe driving us to follow only those willing to indulge our falsehoods? Are we manufacturing for ourselves the leaders we deserve?

One final observation. The prophetic viewpoint is generally from the bottom up. That is to say, prophecy takes its stand among the victims of nationalist idolatry, whether they be the exploited and dispossessed Israelites employed as pawns by the Davidic rulers in their reckless and destructive game of geopolitical domination or the 16.2 million children in the United States struggling with hunger[1] as their government hands out billions to its corporate citizens. Prophecy, like the poem below, struggles to give voice to those who have no voice-like women and young girls sexually assaulted by powerful men and people of color subjected to systemic oppression and racist ridicule. Biblically speaking, the righteousness of a nation is judged by how well or poorly it cares for the most vulnerable under its jurisdiction. There can be no neutrality here. Prophecy is not intended to support the interests of the state or legitimize its every use of power. Prophecy exists to ensure that the cry of the poor against unjust regimes reaches the ears of God.

What the Old Homeless Man Had to Say About the Candidates’ Debate

Calling ‘em whores is an insult,
to the whores, I mean.
As far as I know,
Whoring never hurt anyone
But the whores themselves.
So if all those glad handing,
Back slapping sons of bitches
Ever did was hustle up a dollar
Or two for a pint of gin,
Maybe a snort of crack
Some place to flop for the night,
I might be more disposed to
Pity the lying sacks.
But those blood sucking
Bastards aren’t content
To lie, cheat and steal away
Just what they need to live on.
They gotta take it all.
Every last inch of land,
Every last crumb off the plate,
Every last spoon full of soup
Out of every stinking caldron.
They gotta fill the air with their stink,
Muck up the water so bad
We can’t drink it and then
Bottle up what clean water’s left
And sell it to us-
Just as though anyone could own water!
What the hell gives’ em the right,
I’d like to know?
They didn’t make the rivers and streams.
They don’t make the rain fall.
So how comes it that they got the right
To go collecting it, putting it in bottles
And selling it to us?
Democrats and Republicans,
Know what the difference is between em?
Democrats make big promises and don’t deliver
Republicans promise nothing and do!
Either way it goes, you wind up with nothing.
To hell with em! To hell with the lot of em!


[1] Dupere, Katie, 6 Startling Facts abut Hunger in the U.S.-and How You can Help,” Mashable, July 14, 2016.



Isaiah 6:1-13
Psalm 138
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Luke 5:1-11

Prayer of the Day: Most holy God, the earth is filled with your glory, and before you angels and saints stand in awe.  Enlarge our vision to see your power at work in the world, and by your grace make us heralds of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’ Isaiah 6:5.

“Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Luke 5:8

In our Northern European/American religious context, holiness is framed nearly exclusively in moral terms. To be holy, we are taught, is to adhere strictly to certain moral laws and precepts approved by God. Though holiness surely has a moral dimension, it encompasses far more than mere human behavior. Biblically speaking, holiness is the character of God. It is, in its essence, all that is true, beautiful and good.

Truth, it must be understood, is not to be equated with the modernist notion of that term. It does not consist exclusively of empirically demonstrated facts and rational deductions therefrom. To the contrary, as Soren Kierkegaard observed, “an objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness is the truth, the highest truth attainable for the individual.” Saint Augustine of Hippo asserts that “God is truth.” These seemingly contradictory assertions find reconciliation in the biblical claim that human beings were made in the image of God and in the miracle of the Incarnation wherein God becomes human. One cannot know oneself fully and completely apart from knowing the God in whose image one is made. Yet one can know God only as God reveals God’s self in the humanity of Jesus.  Truth is relational, not transactional. To know Jesus, then, is to know the deepest truth: that God the Father loves God the Son; that this love, the glue that holds the Trinity together, emanates from the Father and the Son to create, redeem and reconcile the whole cosmos; that we become and know our true selves as we are incorporated into that redemptive Trinitarian love.

Beauty, also, must not be confused with any humanly created and shaped aesthetic. To the contrary, beauty is what creates and shapes our humanity. Holy beauty is the kind one experiences standing on the ocean shore or staring into the evening sky and recognizing how frail one is, how inconsequential are the “great historical moments” that amount to less than a blink of the eye in the great expanse of cosmic history. Holy beauty is taking your new born son or daughter into your arms for the first time and realizing the profound responsibility you have assumed for this new life so frail yet so full of potential. It is a terrifying beauty that evokes the response: “what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” Psalm 8:4. Yet the God behind all of this raw and terrifying beauty is not only mindful of human beings, but

“looks far down
on the heavens and the earth[.]
He raises the poor from the dust,
and lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes,
with the princes of his people.
He gives the barren woman a home,
making her the joyous mother of children.” Psalm 113:6-9.

This God who “looks far down” is nowhere better observed than in God’s “coming down” to “become flesh” and to “dwell among us.” And this “coming down” is revealed most fully on the cross. There God’s compassion for God’s finite creatures is manifest in all of its infinite, passionate beauty. At the foot of the cross we learn that, whether we like it or not, our little lives matter a great deal.

That brings us to holy goodness. Again, God’s goodness is not to be measured by any human standards of morality. The gospels make clear that God’s goodness consists in that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” Matthew 5:45. God alone decides what is good and God defines goodness relationally, that is, in terms of mercy and compassion. In this respect, Jesus calls upon his disciples to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:48. Goodness, like truth and beauty, finally boils down to love. And love is not to be understood in the sense of personal affection or desire, but as the Triune love between Father and Son that breathes its creative, Pentecostal fire into the darkness thundering, “Let there be!” God, who is full and complete in God’s self, nevertheless makes room for the other to be. That is divine love, love that God would infuse into the whole cosmos so that all God’s creatures might find the courage and freedom to allow and assist one another to become all they are intended to be.

Encountering this holy God will scare the socks off anyone with a modicum of common sense. Being confronted with all of this blinding truth, splendorous beauty and pure goodness is a terrifying experience. One cannot help but recognize in the presence of holiness one’s own unholiness. It is terrifying to be stripped of the comfort afforded by all the lies I tell myself about myself. It is frightening to be confronted with the many ways in which I hurt the ones I love, the many opportunities for love I have squandered and the time I have wasted on envy, spite and self-pity. It is disheartening to discover in the presence of perfect beauty the pettiness, indifference and self-absorption that blinds me to such beauty most of the time. And, of course, it is deeply humbling to be compelled in the light of God’s loving kindness toward me to recognize and to own my meanness, cruelty, greed and bigotry-all the things that I so easily justify or overlook in myself while readily condemning them in the lives of others. I can well understand the fear and anguish expressed by the prophet Isaiah and the apostle Peter as they found themselves in the presence of God’s holiness.

Yet for all the terror and anxiety our encounter with holiness can induce, it is finally a life-giving force turning us from all that we have been toward all that we can be. Isaiah came away from his vision in the temple with lips cleansed and eager to speak God’s words to God’s people. Peter rose up from his supine posture before Jesus to follow his Lord in catching up the lost and forsaken of the world into the vast dragnet of God’s redemptive love. This Triune God we worship is not safe, tame or easy to live with. This God does not promise to make us rich, deliver us from suffering or bring us happiness and inner peace. But the God and Father of Jesus Christ does promise to make us holy-and that’s a damn sight better than any of those things.

Here is a poem by Luci Tapahonso presented to the graduates of the University of Arizona. It speaks eloquently of truth, beauty and goodness, the elements of holiness.

A Blessing

This morning we gather in gratitude for all aspects of sacredness:
the air, the warmth of fire, bodies of water, plants, the land,
and all animals and humankind.
We gather to honor our students who have achieved the extraordinary
accomplishment of earning doctoral or master’s degrees.
We gather to honor their parents, grandparents, children,
family members, and friends who have traveled with them
on their path to success. They have traveled far distances to be here
this morning: we honor their devotion.

May we remember that holiness exists in the ordinary elements of our lives.

We are grateful for a homeland that has always thrived
on a glorious array of people and their diverse cultures, histories,
and beliefs. We acknowledge the generosity of the Tohono O’odham
in granting this land on which we learn, teach, celebrate
accomplishments, and sometimes mourn losses.

May we always cherish our ancestors as we prepare for the days ahead.
May we remember that we exist because of their prayers and their faith.

We are blessed with distinct and melodious tongues.
Our languages are treasures of stories, songs, ceremonies, and memories.
May each of us remember to share our stories with one another,
because it is only through stories that we live full lives.

May the words we speak go forth as bright beads
of comfort, joy, humor, and inspiration.
We have faith that the graduates will inspire others
to explore and follow their interests.

Today we reflect a rainbow of creation:
Some of us came from the east, where bright crystals of creativity reside.
They are the white streaks of early morning light when all is born again.
We understand that, in Tucson, the Rincon Mountains are our inspiration
for beginning each day. The Rincons are everlasting and always present.

Those who came from the south embody the strength of the blue
mountains that encircle us. The Santa Ritas instill in us
the vigorous spirit of youthful learning.

Others came from the west; they are imbued with the quiet, yellow glow of dusk.
They help us achieve our goals. Here in the middle of the valley, the ts’aa’,
the basket of life, the Tucson Mountains teach us to value our families.

The ones from the north bring the deep, restorative powers of night’s darkness;
their presence renews us. The Santa Catalina Mountains teach us that,
though the past may be fraught with sorrow, it was strengthened
by the prayers of our forebearers.
We witnessed the recent fires the mountains suffered,
and in their recovery we see ourselves on our own journeys.
We understand that we are surrounded by mountains, dziił,
and thus that we are made of strength, dziił, nihí níhídziił.
We are strong ourselves. We are surrounded by mountains
that help us negotiate our daily lives.

May we always recognize the multitude of gifts that surround us.
May our homes, schools, and communities be filled with the wisdom
and optimism that reflect a generous spirit.

We are grateful for all blessings, seen and unseen.

May we fulfill the lives envisioned for us at our birth. May we realize
that our actions affect all people and the earth. May we live in the way
of beauty and help others in need. May we always remember that
we were created as people who believe in one another. We are grateful,
Holy Ones, for the graduates, as they will strengthen our future.

All is beautiful again.
Hózhǫ́ nááhasdłíí’.
Hózhǫ́ nááhasdłíí’.
Hózhǫ́ nááhasdłíí’.
Hózhǫ́ nááhasdłíí’.

Source: A Radiant Curve (c. 2008 by Luci Tapahonso, pub. by University of Arizona Press). Luci Tapahonso (b. 1953) is a Navajo poet and a lecturer in Native American Studies. She is also the author of three children’s books and six books of poetry. Tapahonso was born on the Navajo reservation in Shiprock, New Mexico and raised in the traditional ways of her tribe along with 11 siblings. English was not spoken in the family home. Consequently, Tapahonso learned it as a second language after her native Navajo. She attended the University of New Mexico with the goal of pursuing a career in journalism. She changed her major to creative writing in her sophomore year, however, and graduated with a degree in that discipline. Thereafter, she earned her masters and held teaching positions at the University of Mexico, University of Kansas and the University of Arizona where she is currently a professor of English Literature and Language. Tapahonso was chosen as the first poet laureate of the Navajo Nation. You can learn more about Luci Tapahonso and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

What it Means to be Pro-Life

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I am and always have been adamantly and unequivocally pro-life. I am convinced that terminating a pregnancy brings to an end the life of a unique human being. For that reason, every effort should be made to preserve, support and encourage the carrying of every pregnancy to full term. The miracle of the Incarnation is the very core of our Christian understanding of God. We believe that God was born of a homeless woman in a shed. We confess that God is weak, vulnerable and in need of care and protection. The vulnerability of God in the womb of Mary compels the belief that human life is sacred from the time of conception and deserving of our most lavish protection. For a lot of folks who march under the pro-life banner, being pro-life equates with picketing Planned Parenthood and supporting legislation limiting access to abortion. That, however, does not come close to being genuinely pro-life. Here is what it means to be pro-life.

The most effective way to prevent the termination of pregnancies is to prevent unwanted pregnancies. That requires sex education at the elementary school level. It also requires making gynecological care and access to birth control available to all people of childbearing age, including teens. The argument that availability of birth control and sex education will encourage more teens to become sexually active has not proven to be the case. In reality, neither sex education nor the availability of birth control increases the degree of teen sexual activity, but they do significantly reduce the instances of teen pregnancy. Over all, where women are given access to good gynecological care, including reproductive care and counseling, we find far fewer unintended and unwanted pregnancies; hence, fewer abortions. Support for family planning and sex education is a pro-life position.

Furthermore, the best way to protect the lives of the unborn is to care for their mothers. Food, nutrition counseling, and access to health services are provided to low-income women, infants, and children under the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, popularly known as WIC. This program is designed to ensure that women are able to obtain the nutrition necessary to remain healthy throughout their pregnancies and feed their children when they are born. Knowing that there are resources available for women to raise and care for their children creates a strong incentive to continue a pregnancy. Supporting the WIC program and other nutritional support programs for low income persons is therefore a pro-life position.

Health care is a critical factor in preserving the lives of the unborn. Having a child is an expensive proposition when, for whatever reason, one does not have health insurance coverage. This is particularly so for high risk pregnancies, complicated deliveries and post-natal problems. Too often, abortion appears to be the only alternative to bankruptcy or homelessness. Universal health insurance coverage ensures that no baby will ever be “too expensive.” Support for universal health care coverage is therefore a pro-life position.

Finally, there some circumstances under which a pregnancy should be ended. If you believe that a twelve year old girl, a victim of rape or incest, a woman to whom pregnancy and childbirth pose serious medical risks should be compelled by law to carry a pregnancy to term, then your moral compass is oriented to the north pole of a different planet than the earth I inhabit. I doubt we have enough moral common ground to continue this discussion further. But if, like me, you agree that there are circumstances were abortion is a responsible, if tragic, decision; then there is just one question left: Who decides when a pregnancy should be terminated?

Deciding whether to end a pregnancy is difficult and fraught with conflicting interests and priorities. The issues bearing on that decision are never clear and require wisdom, discernment and an intimate knowledge of the persons affected. I am firmly convinced that no one is in a better position to make such a decision than the persons closest to it and most directly affected by it. Women, not the state, not the courts or the medical establishment, are in the best position to determine what, under all of the circumstances, is best for their own well-being and that of their children. Consequently, enabling women to make these difficult decisions by providing access to affordable, medically safe surgical procedures, including abortion, is a pro-life position.

Now let’s boil down to its essentials the phony right wing pro-life position propagated by the likes of Ralph Reed, the founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, evangelist Franklin Graham, Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas and one of President Trump’s most vocal evangelical supporters, Frank Cannon, president of the American Principles Project and Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. For these men and their supporters, pro-life means one thing: government control of women’s bodies and reproductive systems. These same people who are so often screaming at the top of their lungs that the government has no business running health care, regulating fire arms or teaching sex education sing an altogether different tune when it comes to women’s health. When it comes to women’s most intimate and personal medical decisions, these so called pro-lifers are saying to women, “Come on, ladies. Don’t trouble your pretty little heads over your health and well-being. Government knows better than you do what you and your families need.” There is nothing biblical about that.

But what about all those pregnancies that continue to be terminated? Shouldn’t we be doing something to stop that? Yes, we should and we are and it’s working. Abortion rates have been declining substantially for the last decade. To be clear, this decline had nothing to do with loudmouth protesters marching around Planned Parenthood centers with idiotic signs, shouting abuse at women seeking all manner of medical services, most having nothing to do with abortion. It had nothing to do with any legislation restricting women’s access to abortion. In fact, this decrease in induced abortions occurred as a result of increasing availability of health care, contraception and sex education.[1]  Improvements in these areas are the only proven method of reducing the frequency of induced abortions. So I won’t hear any pious blather about those poor precious aborted babies out of the hypocritical, self-righteous little pie holes of anyone who is not out campaigning for universal health care, access to contraception and sex education. For all its heated rhetoric, the right wing faux pro-life movement has done nothing for babies, born or unborn.

In short, I trust women to do the right thing without government compulsion or the threats of moralistic, Bible banging bullies.  Yes, it is possible that some women will make poor choices-as do governments, courts and medical professionals. But, on the whole, mothers tend to make the best choices for themselves and their families-especially when given every conceivable opportunity to choose life, including early sex education, access to birth control, nutritional support, gynecological care and adequate health insurance coverage. Nothing can replace a mother’s intuition, wisdom and compassion. That is why God entrusted the life of his Only Begotten Son to the care of a woman. Entrusting the welfare and protection of the unborn to the care of their mothers is, therefore, the true biblical pro-life position.

[1] See “Abortion Worldwide 2017: Uneven Progress and Unequal Access,” produced by the  Guttmacher institute, 2018.