Monthly Archives: September 2019

Senator Mitch McConnell Receives Russia’s Highest Honor

Kierkegaard’s Ghost

(News that’s fake, but credible)

See the source imageThis week Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell was awarded a Hero of the Russian Federation medal, the highest honor bestowed on Russian citizens. Though the medal is usually awarded to Russians, a spokesperson for Russian President Vladimir Putin explained that “We have always regarded Mr. McConnell as one of us.” Mr. Putin himself presented the medal at a special ceremony in Moscow. “We could not have won the 2016 election without your loyal support,” Mr. Putin told a cheering Duma. “You have more than earned the honorary title, ‘Moscow Mitch.’” The Russian leader pointed out that Mr. McConnell’s resistance to the Obama administration’s request to launch bipartisan interference with his country’s generous assistance for America’s 2016 presidential election was instrumental in “giving us the best United States president Russia ever had.”

Upon his return to the U.S., Mr. McConnell was swarmed with reporters questioning the propriety of his acceptance of the medal. Mr. McConnell lashed out at what he termed “the McCarthyism of the left wing media.” Brushing off an inquisitive press and criticism from his colleagues in the Senate, the Senator replied, “This is what we’re up against with the hard left today in America. These people are lying, lying when they dismiss the work that I’ve done to secure our democracy for real Americans against that congressional “squad” of radical socialists who are only fake Americans. They’re lying when they insist I have personally blocked actions to protect American freedom. Those idiots don’t even know what freedom is! I know first hand what it is like to lose your freedoms. My state of Kentucky has been the victim of tyranny under liberals for decades. Since the 1960s, activist liberal judges have been imposing their perverse ideas of racial equality on our people, robbing real Americans of their drinking fountains, their lunch counters and parks. I’ll do whatever it takes to protect America from more injustice like that and support the president in making it great again, like it was before all this nonsense started. We joined with the Russians against the Nazis in World War II and we will join with them again against the Democrats.”

Many congressional leaders, including a few Republicans, pointed out that Mr. McConnell had not received authorization from the president or his national security staff before attending the presentation ceremony in Moscow. “Nonsense,” replied a spokesperson for Mr. McConnell. “Mitch would never have taken this trip without his president’s approval. Mr. Putin has been supportive of the Senator’s visit from the get go.”

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FAKE NEWS ALERT: The above article is satirical. The events it describes didn’t happen.  “There are people who will say that this whole account is a lie, but a thing isn’t necessarily a lie even if it didn’t necessarily happen.” John Steinbeck

Can Prayer Change God’s Mind?

See the source imageFOURTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Exodus 32:7-14
Psalm 51:1-10
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10

Prayer of the Day: O God, overflowing with mercy and compassion, you lead back to yourself all those who go astray. Preserve your people in your loving care, that we may reject whatever is contrary to you and may follow all things that sustain our life in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Pastor,” said the apprehensive voice on the other end of the line, “please pray for my Dad. He’s had a heart attack and he’s in the hospital.” This from a woman who had told me only a few days before how she believed that “God has a plan for everyone’s life. He decides when you are born and when you die.” That belief, she told me, brought her great comfort and confidence. “Nothing can happen that God has not already planned,” she told me. I wondered, then, why bother to pray? If everything in the life of this woman’s father has been foreordained, then there is no point in praying. If this was to be his time, he would die. If not, he would recover. No amount of prayer could possibly change anything.

Of course, I told my friend that I would both pray for and visit her father in the hospital. Now was not the time to start a discussion probing the theological fault lines in her faith. Still, I wondered how it was possible to hold these two seemingly contradictory beliefs in common: 1) God foreordains everything in a believer’s life; 2) God answers prayer.

Our lesson from Exodus fully supports the second proposition, namely, that God is influenced by prayer. Indeed, God’s mind can be changed by prayer. God seems to have been determined to make an end of Israel once and for all following their idolatrous worship of the golden calf. If the miracle of the Exodus could not inspire faith in God’s promises and demonstrate the futility of trusting idols like the gods of Egypt, what would? What more could God do to win the hearts of God’s people? What was left other than to scrap the whole project and start again from scratch? But then Moses lifts up the covenant God made with Abraham, Sarah and the other matriarchs and patriarchs. Moses appeals to God’s faithfulness, God’s compassion and the importance of God’s completing with Israel what was started so long ago. God then changes God’s mind and changes course. Moses’ prayer was efficacious.

But there is also scriptural support for the first proposition, namely, that God ordains the outcome of all things and that God’s will invariably prevails. Consider these verses from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah:

I am God, and there is no one like me,
declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, ‘My purpose shall stand,
and I will fulfil my intention’,
calling a bird of prey from the east,
the man for my purpose from a far country.
I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass;
I have planned, and I will do it. Isaiah 46:9-11.

Or these words from Psalm 139:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.

……………………………………………………………………..

In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed. Psalm 139: 1-4;16

So, too, Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians states that God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.” Ephesians 1:4. Thus, the paradox residing in my friend’s faith is actually rooted in the scriptures. How, then, do we make sense out of the seeming contradiction between the omnipotent sovereignty of God and the efficaciousness of prayer?

If there is any resolution, it lies in the Triune nature of God whose essence is love: love between the Father and the Son embodied by the Spirit. Genuine love is necessarily open to the influence of its object. It is hard to imagine how a parent can love a child without being shaped, influenced and, more than occasionally, made to change course by that child’s needs, requests and opinions. In one sense, you could say that God ceased to be almighty the moment God spoke the words, “Let there be.” For once these words were spoken, something else, something that was not God existed. In the words of one of our hymns, the Trinity “in love and hope made room within their dance” for another partner. “Come Join the Dance of Trinity,” by Richard Leach, Lutheran Worship, Hymn # 412. Like a child, the universe must have freedom, within certain protective parameters, to grow and develop into maturity. The creation is not the Creator’s still life painting. It is a complex, living, dynamic organism ever capable of mutating, for better or worse, into a new thing with different needs, unanticipated potential and a wealth of possibilities.

In what sense, then, can it be said (if at all) that God foreordains all things? Again, the answer must be grounded in God’s nature as Trinitarian love. As St. Paul reminds us, “love is patient…love believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” and “love never ends.” I Corinthians 13: 4; 7-8. We are accustomed to thinking of power as the ability to control outcomes by way of coercion. Powerful people are those who can “get things done” by means of persuasion, threats or, if necessary, brute force. But in Christ Jesus God manifests a qualitatively different kind of power-the power of infinite patience, the power of infinite perseverance, the power of infinite commitment to recovering all that has been lost and weaving it into the fabric of a new creation.

To be sure, God’s reign can be resisted, frustrated and, in the short run, defeated. But God is not deterred by setbacks and failure. God, who has all eternity to work with, takes whatever the world throws up and works with it. Taking into Godself our accomplishments, failures, acts of compassion, acts of pure meanness and, yes, our prayers, God performs the work of reconciling all things in Christ Jesus. God will continue so doing until our stubborn resistance is finally worn down by God’s never ending Trinitarian love. Our petitions of thanksgiving, intercession and lamentation are important parts of the stuff God makes use of in redeeming creation.

I think Martin Luther said it best in our Small Catechism: “The Kingdom of God comes without our prayer, but we pray that it may come among us.” God does not need our prayers or anything else from us to establish God’s reign. But God loves us too much to allow us to be passive observers. God invites us to be active participants in God’s gracious reign so that it becomes not a distant hope, but a present reality in the midst of a troubled world. Prayer takes us into the heart of God’s struggle to overcome the world’s hostility through Christ’s ministry of seeking the lost. While prayer cannot be used to manipulate God into giving us the results we want, it clearly influences God’s faithful and redemptive work in our lives and in our world.

Prayer has a transformative power, particularly when employed on behalf of the marginalized, the persecuted, the forgotten and the lost. Our gospel lesson comes from a chapter in Luke heavily focusing on the lost: lost coins, lost sheep, lost sons, lost sinners who many people feel aren’t worth looking for and righteous people too blind to realize they are lost. Below is a poem by Scott Cairns purporting to be God’s answer to our prayers. It points out how self-centered and how limited in scope our prayers often are. Yet it challenges us to deepen our prayer life and harmonize it with God’s own zeal for recovering “the lost.”

Possible Answers to Prayer

Your petitions—though they continue to bear
just the one signature—have been duly recorded.
Your anxieties—despite their constant,

relatively narrow scope and inadvertent
entertainment value—nonetheless serve
to bring your person vividly to mind.

Your repentance—all but obscured beneath
a burgeoning, yellow fog of frankly more
conspicuous resentment—is sufficient.

Your intermittent concern for the sick,
the suffering, the needy poor is sometimes
recognizable to me, if not to them.

Your angers, your zeal, your lipsmackingly
righteous indignation toward the many
whose habits and sympathies offend you—

these must burn away before you’ll apprehend
how near I am, with what fervor I adore
precisely these, the several who rouse your passions.

Source: Philokalia: New and Selected Poems. (c. 2002 by Scott Cairns, pub. by Zoo Press). Scott Cairns (b. 1954) is an American poet and essayist. He is the author of nine collections of poetry, one collection of translations of Christian mystics, one spiritual memoir, a book-length essay on suffering and was co-author of an anthology of poetry, fiction and nonfiction. Cairns has served on the faculties of Kansas State University, Westminster College, University of North Texas where he was editor of the American Literary Review and Old Dominion University. He was the founding director of Writing Workshops in Greece, an annual four week workshop on the island of Thasos. He is currently on the poetry faculty of Seattle Pacific University. You can find out more about Scott Cairns and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Actors, ICE Agents and Excommunication

See the source imageTHIRTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 1
Philemon 1-21
Luke 14:25-33

Prayer of the Day: Direct us, O Lord God, in all our doings with your continual help, that in all our works, begun, continued, and ended in you, we may glorify your holy name; and finally, by your mercy, bring  us to everlasting life, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:27.

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” Deuteronomy 30:19.

Imagine that a life-long member of a mainline protestant church, like my own Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCA), comes to worship on Sunday morning. The pastor meets him at the door with an ultimatum. “I understand that you continue to be employed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), is that true?”

“Yes, what of it,” the individual replies.

“Your employment and affiliation with an agency committing acts of violence against families, children and persons seeking asylum from persecution is contrary to your baptismal promise to renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God, the powers of this world that rebel against God and the ways of sin that draw you away from God. Accordingly, I must insist that you resign from your employment with ICE. Should you refuse to do so, we will have no choice but to bar you from the Lord’s Table until such time as you repent of your sin and demonstrate a willingness to renew your baptismal commitments.”

I cannot imagine such a thing happening in any of the churches I have been involved with. Excommunication has long since been cleansed from our ecclesiastical DNA. It was very much alive, however, in the church of the New Testament and throughout the third century. Please note that I am not holding this era of our ecclesiastical history up as a “golden age” when everything was done as it should be. The early church was hardly perfect, but it understood that it was called to an existence radically different from the surrounding culture. It understood that Jesus was offering it a better life than the dominant society could provide. The earliest post New Testament document we have, a baptismal training tract called the Didoche, has as it’s opening chapter, “The Two Ways.” “There are two ways,” says the author of the tract, “one of life and one of death; but there is a great difference between the two ways.” These words echo those of our Psalm and the admonition of Moses in our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures admonishing the people of Israel to “choose life.” The Didoche then spells out what a life of discipleship looks like, expounding on the “great” commandments to love God above all and one’s neighbor as oneself.

The church that produced this teaching document understood that the new life to which Jesus called it inevitably took the shape of the cross in a world dominated by greed, injustice and violence. Moral choices had to be made on a daily basis and those choices were a matter of life or death. They were often costly. Joseph H. Hellerman tells the story of a small congregation in Northern Africa during the third century facing just such a costly life or death decision. (Full article published in Called to Community, edited by Charles F. Moore and published by Plough Publishing House, c. 2016) pp. 26-30. A young actor expressed a desire to be baptized and join the church. Acting in the third century was not the craft of pure entertainment we know today. It was employed exclusively for the celebration of pagan festivals featuring plays depicting overt violence and explicit sexual immorality. Accordingly, the young man was required to renounce his profession and he did so. Subsequently, after his baptism, the young man started his own school to train actors for the very profession he had given up. When confronted by his pastor, he pointed out that he needed still to make a living to support himself and that, because he was no longer involved with the actual plays, he didn’t feel that he was violating his baptismal vow to follow Jesus.

At a loss for how to handle this unique situation, the pastor sought advice from his bishop, Cyprian of Carthage. Cyprian’s response was clear and uncompromising. Participation in pagan religious productions, whether as an actor or as an acting instructor, is inconsistent with the church’s faith and witness. The young acting instructor must again be called upon to abandon his profession. That might sound harsh and it is, though hardly more so than Jesus’ call to abandon even one’s blood relations and sacrifice all that one has for the sake of God’s reign. Still, the young actor was being called upon to abandon his only means of supporting himself. Continuing to follow Jesus would be a costly proposition.

But there is more to this story. Cyprian went on to say that the congregation should provide support and sustenance for the young man for as long as he needed it to make his transition to another trade. Furthermore, Cyprian offered the support of his own church in the event this responsibility proved too great for the little congregation. Thus, Cyprian was not a puritanical judge determined to cleanse the church of sinners. Rather, he was the caring pastor of a church community whose members were dedicated to helping one another turn from sin to the better life Jesus offers. This is a classic example of what Saint Paul calls “bearing one another’s burdens and so fulfill[ing] the law of Christ.” Galatians 6:2.

In my own Lutheran tradition, we tend to identify a person’s calling or vocation with his or her profession, trade or job. We call this the “priesthood of all believers.” After all, the work that we do in society for the sake of our neighbors is no less holy than the work of ministry within the church. That sounds good, and it works well enough when your employment meets your needs for sustenance, fits your temperament and contributes to the well-being of society. But more and more I am finding young people employed by companies demanding more time, more energy and more tangible results while offering less security and compensation. Through the cellphone and the internet, the office seems to be worming its way into evenings at home and family vacations demanding availability 24/7. Unskilled heads of families find it necessary to hold down two and sometimes three jobs to make ends meet leaving little time for family, church and community. Attorneys find that, so far from advancing the rule of law and justice, their hours are consumed with assisting insurers in denying the claims of sick and injured people. Doctors find their care of patients increasingly frustrated and compromised by the cost cutting measures and complex billing procedures of insurers and HMOs. Many folks I know have deeply ambivalent feelings about their jobs-such as a young woman who works for a manufacturer of automatic fire arms sold to civilians. Work that exploits, overreaches, enslaves and compromises is anything but holy. It is hard to view it as a calling to serve God. I think that many folks caught up in these dehumanizing roles would welcome an opportunity to free themselves from this way of death and embrace Jesus’ life-giving alternative. But that is a lot to expect from an individual.

Perhaps this is where the church comes in. Maybe we need to become once again a community that does more than call upon individuals to choose life and bear the consequences alone. We need to be the kind of community that helps people choose life by supporting them every step of the way-as did Cyprian. We are similar in this respect to a twelve step community of addicts trying to help one another achieve and maintain sobriety. We are all struggling to break away from ways of death that threaten to destroy us and embrace Jesus’ way that leads to life. So, for example, what if our churches found the courage to tell our members employed by ICE that their jobs are inconsistent with their baptismal vows-and offered to assist them in changing careers? Would that not be both a powerful witness to the world and a liberating act of pastoral care and discipline for our people?[1]

To be sure, Christians are not better people, but we are people who believe in a better way of being human. We are sinful people, but people who are nevertheless capable of making good, faithful and life-giving choices-especially when we support, strengthen and encourage one another. We are a people in which the Holy Spirit is at work forming the mind of Christ. When that happens, the Body follows suit.

Here is a poem by Blas Manuel De Luna that incarnates for me the urgency of the moment.

Bent to the Earth

They had hit Ruben
with the high beams, had blinded
him so that the van
he was driving, full of Mexicans
going to pick tomatoes,
would have to stop. Ruben spun

the van into an irrigation ditch,
spun the five-year-old me awake
to immigration officers,
their batons already out,
already looking for the soft spots on the body,
to my mother being handcuffed
and dragged to a van, to my father
trying to show them our green cards.

They let us go. But Alvaro
was going back.
So was his brother Fernando.
So was their sister Sonia. Their mother
did not escape,
and so was going back. Their father
was somewhere in the field,
and was free. There were no great truths

revealed to me then. No wisdom
given to me by anyone. I was a child
who had seen what a piece of polished wood
could do to a face, who had seen his father
about to lose the one he loved, who had lost
some friends who would never return,
who, later that morning, bent
to the earth and went to work.

Source:  Bent to the Earth, (c. 2006 by Blas Manuel De Luna, pub. by Carnegie Mellon University Press) Blas Manuel De Luna (b. 1969) grew up working alongside his parents and siblings in California’s agricultural fields in Madera, California. He holds a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from California State University-Fresno and has written prolifically in poetry and fiction. His writings frequently dwell on his and his family’s experience as immigrant laborers. You can find out more about Blas Manuel De Luna and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

[1] I understand that ultimatums like this run the risk of making us into self-righteous, legalistic hypocrites. I understand that the guilt for what is happening at our borders cannot all be placed upon the backs of people working for ICE. I also know that many would argue against excommunication on grounds that it is better for people of conscience to remain within ICE and so work to turn it from its destructive course. Of course, ICE does provide some necessary services for all the misery it is currently inflicting. Some will point out that there are many levels of complexity here that I am glossing over. There is much to be said for that argument. But I fear that those of us in the mainline churches often use nuance as a defense against having to take action. Is it appropriate to continue being “a community of moral deliberation” while the Nazis are marching millions into death camps? No, we have not yet reached that point, but how close do you want to get? How much further do we need to go before we simply can’t afford to keep on deliberating? How many more families need to be split up? How many more children must die on our border? How many more of our neighbors must be deported before we finally decide, enough is enough. When will the need to act decisively overcome our fear of acting imperfectly? I have the same pressing question my children had whenever we took a long road trip: Are we there yet?