Monthly Archives: December 2019

Signs-Nourishment for Ailing Souls

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THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
Isaiah 35:1-10
Luke 1:46b-55
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

Prayer of the Day: Stir up the wills of all who look to you, Lord God, and strengthen our faith in your coming, that, transformed by grace, we may walk in your way; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

John the Baptizer is in a bad place. Sitting in Herod’s dungeon with no prospect for release and, as we know, soon to lose his head, things are looking pretty dark. The coming of God’s servant to baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire failed to materialize as John had announced. The mountains of oppression remain as high as ever and the valleys of suffering too deep to plumb. John must be wondering whether the prophetic word he received and preached was not, after all, a delusion. Perhaps he had been mistaken about Jesus, whose ministry thus far has failed to dislodge corruption, oppression and violence in order to make way for God’s coming reign. Maybe he had been wrong about everything. Perhaps the way things are is the way they always will be and, in the words of a presidential chief of staff, we just have to “get over it.” Out of this dark place comes the question posed to Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Matthew 11:3.

Jesus does not answer John’s question. He gives John something better than an answer. He gives John a sign. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Matthew 11:4-5. These tidings didn’t break down the doors of Herod’s prison or put even a dent in the tyranny of Rome. But perhaps they were just enough good news to crack open the darkness of John’s despairing mood and ignite in his soul a tentative hope. Often, a sign is just enough to make all the difference.

Our psalmody is Mary’s jubilant song celebrating God’s victory over violence, tyranny and injustice. Note well that Mary is in a particularly vulnerable spot just now. Her people are living under military occupation. She finds herself pregnant and unmarried in a highly patriarchal culture. Mary’s circumstances provide a striking contrast to her bold declaration that the promised reign of God has broken in to set right the inequities and injustice under which she is living. Yet if we go back a few verses, I believe we will discover the “sign” that set in motion this lyrical hymn of victory.

We read that Mary, upon learning of her pregnancy, goes to visit Elizabeth who is herself pregnant with none other than John the Baptizer. No sooner does Mary arrive at Elizabeth’s doorstep than the baby in Elizabeth’s womb turns, evoking her well known declaration: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb lept for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”  Luke 1:42-45. Just as Jesus’ message brought light and hope to John in Herod’s dungeon, so John’s joyful in utero dance brought inspiration to the mother of our Lord for what we know as her Magnificat.

I have never been in circumstances as dire as those of John and Mary. But I’ve had days when it seemed like the church I was serving was coming apart at the seams; days when it seems like nobody in the church had the faintest idea what we are doing or why; days when petty personal disputes and inconsequential controversies sucked all the oxygen out of the congregation; and days when it seemed as though nothing I did made a damn bit of difference. It was on one of those days that I was passing through the hall of the nursery-kindergarten school my church operates. I heard the sound of several little voices singing a song entitled “Seek ye First the Kingdom of God,” a song I had taught the children in chapel just a few weeks ago. The singing swelled as the pre-kindergarten class came down the stairs. The teacher smiled at me and shrugged. “They just started singing. I have no idea how it got started.” All I could manage to say is, “Thanks everybody. You have no idea how much I needed that!”

Signs are not capable of creating or sustaining faith. Many people ended up rejecting Jesus in spite of having witnessed the signs he performed. Furthermore, Jesus makes clear on more than one occasion that signs are not an entitlement. e.g., Mark 8:11-12. We have no right to demand divine confirmation ensuring that we are on the right track every step of the way. Yet we can pray for eyes to see signs and ears to hear them when they do come our way.

God in God’s mercy often sends signs just when they are most needed. There is a remarkable episode from the The Two Towers, the second volume in J.R. Tolken’s Lord of the Rings, illustrating the point. Protagonist Frodo and his servant, Sam, have embarked upon an impossible mission in the dark land of Mordor. Against all odds, they must transverse a ruined landscape occupied by fierce enemies to destroy a ring whose powers threaten the very fabric of their world. Wearied and nearly broken by their journey, the two come upon the ruined statue of a once great king that has been broken and defiled by enemy forces. It looks at first blush like one more illustration of the enemy’s triumph. But then-a sign.

“Suddenly, caught by the level beams, Frodo saw the old king’s head: it was lying rolled away by the roadside. ‘Look, Sam!’ he cried, startled into speech. ‘Look! The king has got a crown again!’ The eyes were hollow and the carven beard was broken, but about the high stern forehead there was a coronal of silver and gold. A trailing plant with flowers like small white stars had bound itself across the brows as if in reverence for the fallen king, and in the crevices of his stony hair yellow stonecrop gleamed. ‘They cannot conquer forever!’ said Frodo. And then suddenly the brief glimpse was gone. The Sun dipped and vanished, and as if at the shuttering of a lamp, black night fell.” Tolken, J.R.R., The Two Towers, (HarperCollins e-books) p. 919.

The gospel does not tell us how John the Baptizer responded to Jesus’ message about his healing the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf and his raising the dead and preaching good news for the poor. But I would like to think that it brought a smile to John and caused him to remark to himself, “they can’t conquer forever!”

Here is a poem by Alan Brilliant illustrating the promise of signs and the loss incurred by ignoring them.

Searching for Signs

I am searching now for signs and wonders
Which, when younger, I might have had
For nothing, nothing at all, but which,
When older, I threw, despised, in the street-
Things of little value, spurned by the stupid.
What were these things? The works that
Embody and in their time transform
All poets destined for great singing
When, in their maturity, the pluck up the pearl
Lodged and nourished in the treasure of the heart.
But, for me, cursed with sloth
There will be no art
No enameled bird, no cup, no forge.
When, in my youth, I heard the clamor
Of the mob and was afraid, I turned and ran
And since that time am unmanned.
Oh, I did not betray a gift, an artifact
But only what was me and mine.
Instead of winding the golden thread
Up in a ball and following
Until the tall trees and blood-red fruit
Screamed Paradise I examined and searched
Pretending I needed more: “I need more time,”
I said. And, stooping, bowed the head
To look in mud and in that mod
Lies the pearl but it is long gone.

Source: Poetry, (1969). Alan Brilliant (b. 1936) is the founder of Unicorn Press in Santa Barbara, California for which he served as Director. He was married to Teo Savory, who both wrote for and assisted in the editing operations of Unicorn. Brilliant was a good friend and collaborator with Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and author of the spiritual autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain and the well known New Seeds of Contemplation.

A Letter from “America’s Mayor”

Kierkegaard’s Ghost

(News that’s fake, but credible)

See the source imageKierkegaard’s Ghost is proud to publish this editorial by our distinguished guest contributor, Rudy Giuliani, America’s Mayor and attorney for president Donald J. Trump.

Dear United States of America,

Let me dispense with the pleasantries and get right to the point. Donald Trump is your president today and will be after November 2020. Get used to it.

Please don’t bore me with your recitations of all of Donald Trump’s moral deficiencies, corruption and incompetence. I know all about that and so does his base. We don’t care. Let me be blunt: Donald Trump’s base is dumb as a bag of hammers. You heard Donald himself say his supporters were so hopelessly stupid that he could commit a murder in public and they would still love him. Anyone with two brain cells to rub together would have known then and there that they had just been insulted. Not these ever Trumpers! Donald Trump could torture a puppy to death in the Oval Office on national television and they would still adore him. So Trump’s critics can shout facts at his base all they want. He’ll just tell his followers that its fake news cooked up by the press and the deep state. They, for their part, will swallow it hook, line and sinker, turn around and dismiss the facts as lies. They believe what they want to believe which is always what Donald Trump tells them.

And here’s the thing. As goes the base, so goes the party. It’s no secret that even moral ciphers like Mitch McConnell are somewhat concerned about the outrages of our president. But they will back him no matter what comes out of the impeachment hearings. They will do that because the Trump base is the soul of their party. There is nothing left of the Republican party beyond adoration of Donald Trump and they know it. Crossing Trump is political suicide. Ask Jeff Flake. That’s why Mitch follows Donald into the rose garden nuzzling his pant legs like a stray cat looking for dinner. That’s why Trump can call Ted Cruz’s wife ugly and his father a murderer, yet still Ted comes whimpering to lick the boots of his president and plead for an endorsement. As the Good Book tells us, the sheep know the vice of their shepherd.

“The truth will prevail,” you say. Let’s have a little talk about truth, shall we? I have to confess that I love watching politicians and the press go into conniptions whenever Donald Trump says something that is obviously inaccurate. “How does he keep getting away with it?” they ask with exasperation that amuses me to no end. They just can’t get it into their elite brains that facts don’t matter. Truth is conveyed, not by facts, but by pictures. Pictures deeply ingrained in the hearts and minds of white Americans-and not just those within Trump’s base. Frightening, disturbing pictures. Pictures of taxes eating away at their hard earned savings to feed social programs for people too lazy to work. Pictures of lily white daughters seduced by the sons of black Americans, dark skinned immigrants and foreigners with unchristian faiths-or no faith at all. Pictures of a nation where faith, family, patriotism and the flag no longer matter. Call Donald Trump ignorant, incompetent and inarticulate. But he knows instinctively how to summon up these pictures and employ them to convince white Americans that the America they know and love is being taken away from them-and only he can take it back. You can make all the fact based rational arguments you want to the contrary, but it’s the pictures white Americans will take with them into the voting booth. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.

And one more thing. After 2020, it’s no holds barred. The press, the instigators of impeachment and disloyal members of this administration will-let’s just say “go through some things.” “What about the rule of law?” you ask. “What about the United States Constitution?” Let me tell you something about the almighty Constitution. It’s just a piece of paper. In fact, it’s so frail it can’t survive outside of a helium-filled case in a darkened room at a temperature of 70 degrees and constant humidity of 25 to 30 percent. Expose it to the open air and the light of day and it will fall apart like a cheap shirt. That’s your Constitution. And the rule of law? Law is only a matter of words. Truth, the only truth that matters, is in the pictures: blood, soil, race, nation.

You, America, are not the only people driven by these pictures Donald Trump so skillfully evokes. You saw what happened in Britain with Brexit. You see what is happening in Hungary, Italy, Brazil and Argentina. You see the populist tide rising in Germany, Scandinavia, the Netherlands and other places around the globe. This time there will be no alliance of democratic states to stop it. Trump is the future. Join that future or be crushed under it.

Sweet dreams America,

Your Beloved Mayor,

Rudy Giuliani

****************************************************************

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

Imagination-the Eye of Faith


Image result for the peaceable kingdom paintingSECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

Prayer of the Day: Stir up our hearts, Lord God, to prepare the way of your only Son. By his coming nurture our growth as people of repentance and peace; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.”  Isaiah 11:9.

In last week’s reading from Isaiah, the prophet assured us that the day will come when the nations of the world forsake war and turn their weapons into farm implements. If you thought that improbable, you must think utterly absurd this week’s oracle about predatory animals becoming vegetarians and living peacefully among those formerly their prey. Isaiah’s vision of such a peaceable world runs contrary to everything we know about the biosphere. Death is an essential feature of ecology. One generation dies to make room for the next. Healthy vegetation lives off the remains of animals and plants that have died and been absorbed into the soil. The population balance between herbivores and the plants they need to live is kept in check by carnivores. Take death out of the ecological equation and the biosphere implodes. A world without death and killing is unimaginable.

But that might well be the point. The problem is not the boldness of Isaiah’s vision, but the poverty of our imagination. The oracle diagnoses an inability on our part to imagine existence without violence and death. It has become axiomatic that death, along with taxes, is inevitable. That being the case, we make room for death in all of our thinking, planning and doing. Death is always the unacknowledged yet ever present elephant in the room guiding our financial planning, directing our politics and shaping the way we think about heath and medicine.

Violence, too, is accepted as part and parcel of what it means to live. Consider how thoroughly the language of warfare and violence has permeated our talk about every facet of life. Political movements are labeled “campaigns” with strategy meetings taking place in “war rooms.” When someone experiences illness, we say they are “battling” the disease and often say with admiration “he’s a fighter.” We “draw lines in the sand” when discussing issues critical to us and vow that we will “go to the trenches” defending our point of view. We speak of all our social problems in terms of warfare. Our government’s legislature has declared war on poverty, drugs, crime, illiteracy and a host of other abstract nouns, thereby illustrating the truth of the now well worn adage: when the only tool in your box is a hammer, all your problems start looking like nails. I sometimes wonder whether it would be possible for us to have a conversation about anything if all these battle metaphors were magically cleansed from our vocabularies. Or would having to choose new metaphors compel us to think differently, creatively and imaginatively about our world?

The prophet’s job is to kick our imagination into gear. That is important because faith is impossible without imagination. There are mysteries that only imagination can grasp. That is why Jesus always spoke of God’s reign in parables. It is why Paul, after speaking at length about the resurrection of the dead, finally dispenses with all analogies and says, “Listen, I will tell you a mystery!” I Corinthians 15:51. It is why John of Patmos resorts to the lurid images of apocalyptic literature to speak of Jesus’ final victory over the powers of death and of the new creation in which “death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” Revelation 21:4.

What we confess in our creeds to be true is bigger than what we are able to comprehend or even imagine. Yet if our imaginations can be stimulated to grasp even fragments of these mysteries, it becomes easier to imagine and visualize anew the things we can comprehend. The impossible becomes plausible. It becomes possible to imagine Israelis and Palestinians sharing the land and living side by side in peace; to imagine a world in which no one is food insecure or without access to medical care; to imagine an international forum in which disputes between countries are resolved without resort to warfare. Prophetic imagination is what “prepares the way of the Lord.” Matthew 3:3.

Here is a poem by Phillis Wheatly speaking to the power of imagination.

On Imagination

Thy various works, imperial queen, we see,
How bright their forms! how deck’d with pomp by thee!
Thy wond’rous acts in beauteous order stand,
And all attest how potent is thine hand.

From Helicon’s refulgent heights attend,
Ye sacred choir, and my attempts befriend:
To tell her glories with a faithful tongue,
Ye blooming graces, triumph in my song.

Now here, now there, the roving Fancy flies,
Till some lov’d object strikes her wand’ring eyes,
Whose silken fetters all the senses bind,
And soft captivity involves the mind.

Imagination! who can sing thy force?
Or who describe the swiftness of thy course?
Soaring through air to find the bright abode,
Th’ empyreal palace of the thund’ring God,
We on thy pinions can surpass the wind,
And leave the rolling universe behind:
From star to star the mental optics rove,
Measure the skies, and range the realms above.
There in one view we grasp the mighty whole,
Or with new worlds amaze th’ unbounded soul.

Though Winter frowns to Fancy’s raptur’d eyes
The fields may flourish, and gay scenes arise;
The frozen deeps may break their iron bands,
And bid their waters murmur o’er the sands.
Fair Flora may resume her fragrant reign,
And with her flow’ry riches deck the plain;
Sylvanus may diffuse his honours round,
And all the forest may with leaves be crown’d:
Show’rs may descend, and dews their gems disclose,
And nectar sparkle on the blooming rose.

Such is thy pow’r, nor are thine orders vain,
O thou the leader of the mental train:
In full perfection all thy works are wrought,
And thine the sceptre o’er the realms of thought.
Before thy throne the subject-passions bow,
Of subject-passions sov’reign ruler thou;
At thy command joy rushes on the heart,
And through the glowing veins the spirits dart.

Fancy might now her silken pinions try
To rise from earth, and sweep th’ expanse on high:
From Tithon’s bed now might Aurora rise,
Her cheeks all glowing with celestial dies,
While a pure stream of light o’erflows the skies.
The monarch of the day I might behold,
And all the mountains tipt with radiant gold,
But I reluctant leave the pleasing views,
Which Fancy dresses to delight the Muse;
Winter austere forbids me to aspire,
And northern tempests damp the rising fire;
They chill the tides of Fancy’s flowing sea,
Cease then, my song, cease the unequal lay.

Source: This poem is in the public domain. Phillis Wheatly (1753 – 1784) was the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry. Born in West Africa, she was sold into slavery at the age of seven and transported to North America. She was purchased by the Wheatly family of Boston, who taught her to read and write and encouraged her to write poetry when they saw her talent. The publication of her book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, brought her fame in England as well as in the American colonies. Her poems won praise from no less than George Washington as well as other prominent colonial figures.  Wheatly was emancipated shortly after the publication of her book. She married in about 1778 and had two children, both of which died in infancy.  Her husband was imprisoned for debt in 1784 at which time Wheatly fell into poverty and died from chronic illness. You can read more about Phillis Wheatly and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.