Monthly Archives: May 2021

Ascended Lord, Sent Church and a Yard Sign

SEVENTH SUNDAY OF EASTER

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

Psalm 1

1 John 5:9-13

John 17:6-19

Prayer of the Day: Gracious and glorious God, you have chosen us as your own, and by the powerful name of Christ you protect us from evil. By your Spirit transform us and your beloved world, that we may find our joy in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.” John 17:18-19.

When I was in full time parish ministry, I always celebrated Ascension Day on the nearest Sunday to the day on which it fell. Liturgical purists among my colleagues objected, informing me that Ascension is not a “movable” feast and ought to be celebrated on the precise day it falls, Sunday or no. I always replied that, in a perfect world where no one works, goes to school or has qualms about driving at night, I might follow the appropriate practice. But the world does not operate with the precision of the liturgical calendar. Because I feel that Jesus’ ascension to the right hand of the Father is critical to the gospel narrative, I don’t believe I can either skip it or relegate it to a weekday service almost no one will attend. So, I told my liturgical purist friends that I would celebrate Ascension on the nearest Sunday and they, for their part, could sue me. If you are of the same mind, I invite you to revisit my post for the Sunday of June 1, 2014.  

Even if you are not inclined to abandon the lectionary order, I still believe that it is possible to speak of the Ascension and urge any preacher to do so. At first blush, that might seem an impossible task. So far from focusing on Jesus’ ascension to the right hand of the Father, Sunday’s gospel has Jesus praying for the disciples he is about to send out into the world. Thus, whereas the Ascension story leaves us gazing into the heavens, our gospel turns the focus on the church’s being sent into the world. But appearances are deceiving. Recall that in the account from the Book of Acts, the angels chide the disciples for staring up into the clouds after the ascended Lord. Acts 1:11.That is because the right hand of God is not somewhere “away beyond the blue,” but wherever God is active-which is everywhere there is. The little band of disciples sent out into the world is the right hand of God at work.

I believe it is just here that Luke’s unique gospel perspective is important. Theologically, logically and chronologically different as it is from the narrative of John the Evangelist, Luke lifts up for us another important dimension that complements and fills out John’s witness.  It is not quite enough to say only that Jesus’ presence continues with his disciples through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Luke would have us know that Jesus’ ascension to the right hand of the Father extends his presence to every corner of the universe. Whatever God does, God does in and through Jesus whether that is evident or not. The Word of God that became incarnate in Jesus remains incarnate. The Word that is Jesus is the same word by which Saint Paul tells us “all things hold together.” Colossians 1:17. God is not all in all-not yet. But we can say with assurance that there is in each historical occurrence, each human relationship, each reaction among subatomic particles a “God factor” struggling toward that end.

It is for this reason that science, the search for understanding of our planet, its place in the universe, the complex ecosystems that make up our world and the millions of creatures whose lives they support is so very important. It is for this reason Black lives, that have mattered too little historically in our nation, matter so very much at this moment in time. It is for this reason that families cannot be ripped apart, the last door to sanctuary closed or life saving food, water and shelter denied to anyone on the basis of which side of an arbitrary line drawn on a map they happen to be. It is for this reason that love, being the very glue that binds the Trinity, is not merely a human emotion among others, but the creative and redemptive power that drives the universe. It is for this reason that the full humanity of women, whose bodies bore the incarnate Lord, cannot be enslaved under patriarchal hierarchies. It is for this reason that kindness really is everything. Because the one who poured out his life in love is the hand through which God is at work in the world, the affirmations on the above yard sign are not merely matters of human opinion. They are, whether the sign maker recognized it or not, matters of divine truth.

Here is a poem by William Blake that I have shared previously. I do so again because it illustrates, I believe, the incarnate, ascended and transcendent Word that is God’s right hand.

The Divine Image

To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
All pray in their distress;
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.

For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is God, our father dear,
And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is Man, his child and care.

For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.

Then every man, of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine,
Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.

And all must love the human form,
In heathen, Turk, or Jew;
Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.

Source: This poem is in the public domain. William Blake (1757-1827) was an English poet, painter and printmaker. Though unrecognized during his lifetime, Blake eventually came to be considered an important figure in poetry of the Romantic Age. He was born in Soho, London and attended school only long enough to learn reading and writing. Blake considered himself a committed Christian, though he did not identify with the Church of England in which he was baptized and had little use for organized religion. The Bible was an early and profound influence on Blake. It remained a source of inspiration throughout his life. Blake met and married Catherine Boucher in 1782. She was five years his junior and lacked formal education. Blake taught his young wife to read and write, however, and she assisted him in his artistic endeavors throughout the rest of his career. You can learn more about William Blake and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Bevis and Butthead Do America First

Kierkegaard’s Ghost

(News that’s fake, but credible)

Bevis and Butthead, MTV’s animated pair from the 1990s, are embarking on what they hope will be their comeback tour titled, Bevis and Butthead do America First. The tour, sponsored by U.S. Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Goetz and the  Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), is intended to generate enthusiasm and support for the policies and agenda of the former (some say current) president, Donald J. Trump. “It’s like, you know, the deep state, Big Tech, the ‘fake news media,’ socialists, Antifa, and RINOs are taking us down,” said Mr. Bevis in an interview with our Ghost reporter. “Right,” added Mr. Butthead. Our country’s election’s been stolen. You know, like dead people voting, man. That zombie stuff, it’s not just movies and TV.” The America First tour will hold rallies throughout the United States promoting-well-America first. “Like, no brainer,” said Bevis. “America has the most atom bombs and the most guns.” Butthead agreed, pointing out that America leads the industrial world in gun violence. “But the good guys with the guns always win,” he said. “Just watch any cop show.” “And yet,” added Butthead, “we have Jews with satellites and laser guns starting forest fires, a dead guy in the jungle rigging the vote and the Chinese spraying viruses at us. But nobody is doing anything about it. Go figure.”

Republicans across the board have endorsed the America First tour. “Who better than Bevis and Butthead to make the case for the American people that Donald Trump should be the undisputed leader of the Republican Party,” said Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. “These two guys are the embodiment of Republican values.” Senator Ted Cruz of Texas agreed. “Bevis and Butthead represent the best of all the Republican Party can be,” he said. “I think they have a tremendous future in the party.” When asked whether they were entertaining a potential run for office, both members of the America First duo declined to comment. But several attendees at their kickoff event were enthusiastic about the idea. “These guys would be great for the America,” remarked one participant sporting a MAGA hat. “What we need in the Republican Party today is fewer Liz Cheneys. It takes a Butthead to push our true agenda.”

Bevis and Butthead, however, have an objective behind their planned chain of appearances that is more personal than political. “We wanna score,” said Bevis. “Like, that’s why all our rallies are at middle schools. That’s were the cute ones are.” Our Ghost reporter pointed out that both actors are now well into their forties and that sexual advances toward middle school girls on their part would be a felony. “We’re animated characters,” Butthead responded. “Just like Trump, we never grow up. We’re as self absorbed, cruel, immature and ignorant as the day Mike Judge created us. So in a way, we’re still middle schoolers too.” “And we’re celebs,” Bevis added. “So, you know, its Ok if we kiss ’em, grab ’em by the [expletive deleted], whatever. So, like, it’s all cool.”

Stay tuned for further coverage of America First with Bevis and Butthead.

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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

Love is a Violin

SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER

Acts 10:44-48

Psalm 98

1 John 5:1-6

John 15:9-17

Prayer of the Day: O God, you have prepared for those who love you joys beyond understanding. Pour into our hearts such love for you that, loving you above all things, we may obtain your promises, which exceed all we can desire; through Jesus Christ, your Son and our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” John 15:12.

How does that work? How can you command someone to love? To be sure, you can command me to eat my spinach. But you can’t make me like it. Nothing illustrates the point better than my tortured relationship with the violin, an ill starred union that began in my fifth grade year. My teacher determined that my less than stellar handwriting was the result of a lack in manual dexterity. She suggested I take up an instrument that would require use of my hands and fingers. My parents encouraged me to choose the violin. I am not sure whether that was because we already had a violin that belonged to my brother and they were not keen on buying or renting another musical instrument, or whether they thought the finger action required to play it would best address my dexterity problems. Whatever the case may have been, I had no strong feelings either way. Thus, I readily acceded to my parents’ wishes, and so it was my career as a violinist began.

I entered into my studies with enthusiasm and determination. That lasted about a week. It soon became clear to me that learning to play the violin was going to be a long and tedious process. I had to learn to read music. There were scales to be memorized and tedious exercises to be repeated over and over again. I wanted out, but my parents were not the sort to look kindly upon quitting. So I persevered for the next two years, attending elementary orchestra practice where I occupied the last chair in the string section. When I reached middle school, I had a decision to make. The school required two years of music education. I could sing in the choir and ditch the violin. Or I could join the orchestra and continue playing that cursed instrument. I chose the orchestra. I was too self conscious to sing and so the choir was not an option. Although sitting in the last chair of the violin section was humiliating, it was at least a humiliation to which I had become accustomed. So I played violin in the orchestra (sort of) for the next two years, showing up to class and doing as little in the way of practice as I could get away with.

When I departed middle school for high school, I left the violin behind forever. I haven’t touched the violin again and never dreamed I would regret the parting. It was not until my mid fifties when I found myself married and living in a suburban neighborhood with three children of my own that I began to revisit my experience with the violin. It was Kira who brought back some of the old memories. Kira was a little girl that lived in the adjoining yard in back of ours. She sometimes played with my own children and she took up the violin at about the same point I did. Unlike me, Kira’s dedication stuck. She graduated quickly from irritating scales and simple tunes to more advanced compositions. By the time she reached middle school, she was making delightful music. Separated as our houses were by thick forsythia bushes, I seldom if ever saw Kira, but I used to sit out on our patio and listen to her practice on warm spring evenings when the windows were open and her sweet music drifted across the yard with the breeze. As I listened, I became aware of a sadness, a sense of regret. For the first time in my life, I understood what I had thrown away in my youth.

I doubt that all the practice in the world would have enabled me to play like Kira. But I might have become sufficiently proficient to play in community orchestras, church groups and at family gatherings. There is something magical about good music, something that draws us together and brings out the best in us. I see that now and I wish I had the skill to make myself a part of that magic. More importantly, I covet the sheer joy of making music for no particular reason and for no audience but myself. At the age of thirteen, I could not see beyond the tedium of practice imposed by the violin and how it stood between me and numerous other entertainments so enticing to kids my age. Now I understand the joys that awaited me and that I might have known-if only I had traveled further down the road.  

I think that learning to love is a lot like learning to play the violin. It doesn’t come naturally, not even for talented people like Kira. Learning to listen instead of talking all the time takes discipline. Learning to recognize the telltale signs of joy, pain and longing in the tone of a friend’s voice, facial expressions and choice of words requires years of careful attention. Understanding the needs of a faith community requires the hard work of building friendships with its members, participating in its worship, ministry and mission. Learning to love the world instead of hating and fearing it requires regular and disciplined prayer for all its creatures, the environments that sustain them and the human family in all of its divisions and brokenness. Learning to love one’s enemies calls for acquiring the skill of placing oneself in the enemy’s skin and seeing the world through the enemy’s eyes. The love Jesus commands of us is not a feeling, but a habit of the heart shaping the way we encounter all the people in our lives from family to strangers. It is a skill perfected by practice, practice, practice.

As I said, I paid a price for my lack of effort and diligence with the violin. How much greater, though, the price for never learning to love! That price is well articulated by the great Russian author, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. In his monumental work, The Brothers Karamazov, there is a scene where the sainted Father Zossima, elder of the local monastery, addresses the monks under his leadership for the last time from his death bed:

“Fathers and teachers, I ponder, ‘What is hell?’ I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love. Once in infinite existence, immeasurable in time and space, a spiritual creature was given on his coming to earth, the power of saying, ‘I am and I love.’ Once, only once, there was given him a moment of active living love and for that was earthly life given him, and with it times and seasons. And that happy creature rejected the priceless gift, prized it and loved it not, scorned it and remained callous. Such a one, having left the earth, sees Abraham’s bosom and talks with Abraham as we are told in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, and beholds heaven and can go up to the Lord. But that is just his torment, to rise up to the Lord without ever having loved, to be brought close to those who have loved when he has despised their love. For he sees clearly and says to himself, ‘Now I have understanding and though I now thirst to love, there will be nothing great, no sacrifice in my love, for my earthly life is over, and Abraham will not come even with a drop of living water (that is the gift of earthly, active life) to cool the fiery thirst of spiritual love which burns in me now, though I despised it on earth; there is no more life for me and will be no more time! Even though I would gladly give my life for others, it can never be, for that life is passed which can be sacrificed for love, and now there is a gulf fixed between that life and this existence.’” Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, The Brothers Karamazov (Trans. by Constance Garnett, c. 1950 by Random House, Inc., New York, NY) p. 387.

The greatest tragedy is not death. The greatest tragedy is that people die without ever having lived. The worst thing that can happen is that you will hear the music of love only when it is too late to learn it, play it and dance to it. “Abide in my love,” says Jesus. John 15:9. Love is what life is for and life without it is wasted.

Here is a poem about learning to love-at the beginner’s level.

I Lay Down My Life

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” John 15:13.

I have never laid down my life.

Not all of it anyway.

Just bits and pieces.

The hospital visit I made

The day I planned to go fishing,

The neighbor’s kid’s

school band concert I attended

On a beautiful Sunday afternoon

When I would rather

Have been doing

Just about anything else,

All the times I said,

“Well, that’s an interesting point”

When I felt like saying

“You’re full of crap,”

All the rude check out people

Bank tellers, receptionists,

At whom I smiled

And wished a good day,

All the Sundays I went to church,

Albeit mostly for the wrong reasons,

And in spite of the fact

I was sorely tempted

To stay home with my coffee,

Bagel and the New York Times,

All the times I’ve contributed

Money to good causes,

Though nothing truly sacrificial

And more to salve my

Privileged conscience

Than in zeal for justice,

All the birthday, anniversary,

Sympathy cards I’ve sent

To show that I cared,

Though probably less

Than the words expressed-

If you add all that up,

It doesn’t come close to a life.

Still, these fragments

I lay down,

Short of the whole

And of mixed quality,

Daring to hope that someday

They’ll look something

Like love.

Source: Anonymous

Open Letter to Senator Mich McConnell on Civics and History

The Hon. Mitch McConnell

United States Senate

317 Russell Senate Office Building

Washington DC 20510

Dear Senator McConnell:

I read with amusement your letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona expressing your newly discovered “grave concern with American History and Civics Education.” Better late than never I suppose. But we could have used some of that concern back in December and January when Donald Trump was undermining our civil democratic electoral process with what you damn well knew was a blatant lie about the election being stolen from him. Instead of standing up to defend the very civic exercise that gave you your job, you refused to acknowledge the will of the American people expressed in what even Donald Trump’s most loyal toady, former Attorney General Bill Barr, admitted was a free, fair and legitimate election. Not until you found yourself cowering somewhere in the bowels of the Capital Building wetting your trousers as Trump’s mob screamed for your blood did it finally occur to you that perhaps respecting constitutional requirements might not be such a bad idea after all.

While your hypocrisy alone disqualifies you from self-righteously pontificating about the importance of civic education, your purported outrage over “activist indoctrination” and your call for “a rigorous understanding of … American history” is even more laughable. The above photograph, wherein you stand proudly under the banner of treason and white supremacy, the very banner that the Trump mob carried into the halls of our Capital building, belies your purported patriotism. It also demonstrates why you are in no position to tell anyone what constitutes “a balanced assessment of our imperfect but exceptional nation.” Indeed, you are part of the reason we desperately need to “reorient” our teaching of American history and civics. When an elected official cannot tell the difference between treason and patriotism, the flag of the American republic and the flag of those who tried to destroy it, that reflects poorly on the historical understanding and civic intelligence of the people who put him into office.

One can reasonably argue with the analysis put forth by some of the contributors to the New York Times’ “1619 Project.” What you cannot argue away are the facts it discloses, none of which were taught in mine or my children’s primary education classes. To wit,

  • The United States Constitution, so far from guaranteeing the Declaration’s bold assertion that “all men are created equal,” counted black Americans as “three fifths of a person,” and that only for purposes determining representation of the states in Congress.
  • Ten of the first twelve presidents of the United States were slaveholders.
  • The routine separation of enslaved black families, wives from husbands and children from parents, for sale and re-sale.
  • The routine and quite legal use of beating, starvation and torture to discipline and control Black slaves.
  • The occurrence of the Tulsa race massacre of June 1921 in which mobs of white residents, many of them deputized and given weapons by city officials, attacked Black residents and businesses of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma on the ground and from private aircraft and destroyed more than 35 square blocks of the district—at that time the wealthiest Black community in the United States- leaving 36 dead and hundreds hospitalized with injuries.
  • Lynching was not an isolated occurrence, but happened routinely and claimed the lives of at least 3,446 African Americans between 1882 and 1968.    
  • In 1932 the U.S. Public Health Service knowingly withheld life saving antibiotics to Black victims of syphilis in order to study the advanced effects of the disease.
  • Until 1967, interracial marriage between Black and white persons was illegal in nearly half of the states of the U.S. and punishable by imprisonment.
  • The historic (and still existent) practice of “redlining” and systemic discrimination in housing against persons of color which, incidentally, your former president practiced with regularity and was prosecuted during his years as a real estate baron.

Once again, you might quarrel with some aspects of the Times’ analysis, but the facts are what they are and your railing about “revisionism” and “propaganda” cannot erase them. Nor can the American story be told in a “balanced” way without them. I find the following paragraph from your letter particularly telling:

“Families did not ask for this divisive nonsense. Voters did not vote for it. Americans never decided our children should be taught that our country is inherently evil. If your Administration had proposed actual legislation instead of trying to do this quietly through the Federal Register, that legislation would not pass Congress.”

Since when, Sir, is historical truth determined by legislative action, majority vote or the will of the masses? Do you really think it is the job of teachers, professors and scholars to tell people what they want to hear and already think they know? Is history nothing more than talk therapy for building up national self esteem? I think you know better than that-just as you knew better than to placate the propagators of the “stolen election” lie. But you have demonstrated to all of us throughout your career, Mr. McConnell, that truth, candor and integrity mean nothing to you. You will fly any flag, sing any anthem, placate any foreign dictator or domestic extremist and tell any lie you think will serve your political ambitions. Thus, your plea for “balanced” and “rigorous” education in civics and history strikes me as more than a tad hollow.

For all of the above reasons, your letter deserves to be dismissed out of hand and tossed into the dustbin of history (the real one) along with the rants of George Wallace, Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms. It has no more merit than its author does integrity.

Very Truly Yours,

Rev. Peter A. Olsen (Retired)