Monthly Archives: March 2022

Good News: It Doesn’t Have to be This Way


Isaiah 43:16-21

Psalm 126

Philippians 3:4b-14

John 12:1-8

Prayer of the Day: Creator God, you prepare a new way in the wilderness, and your grace waters our desert. Open our hearts to be transformed by the new thing you are doing, that our lives may proclaim the extravagance of your love given to all through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Do not remember the former things,
   or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
   now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Isaiah 43:18-19.

“Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:13-14.

So much of our living is done out of the past. Geopolitics is driven by ancient historical blood feuds dating back to the middle ages and before. We struggle in this country with the heritage of inequality, injustice, systemic racism and ethnic cleansing rooted in our founding and built into our government, educational institutions and workplaces. The wounds of our tortured past continue to fester and erupt into violence. This last week we have witnessed the worsening of a conflict born of Russian imperialism and western nationalism, a shameful show of raw racism on the floor of the United States Senate and a flood of new legislation aimed at dehumanizing gay, lesbian and transgender folk. Now, as we stand once again on the brink of what could erupt into yet another world war, I have to wonder whether the human race ever makes any progress on any front. It seems as though we are caught in a retributive vortex of prejudice, resentment and violence that has no end. If, as is often said, the arc of the universe bends toward justice, it is a long arc indeed and the bend is often impossible to discern. These days I find that my prayers often echo that of Abbot Dom Zerchi, a protagonist in Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s novel, Canticle for Leibowitz:    

“Listen, are we helpless? Are we doomed to do it again and again and again? Have we no choice but to play the Phoenix, in an unending sequence of rise and fall? Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Carthage, Rome, the Empires of Charlemagne and the Turk. Ground to dust and plowed with salt. Spain, France, Britain, America– burned into the oblivion of the centuries. And again and again and again. Are we doomed to it, Lord, chained to the pendulum of our own mad clockwork, helpless to halt its swing?”[1]

The Prophet Isaiah’s answer to Dom Zerchi’s (and my) lament is a resounding “no.” “I am about to do a new thing,” says the Lord, “Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” The Lord goes on to say through the mouth of the prophet, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.” That is a big ask. As painful as the past might be, it is hard to let go of it. “Remember the Alamo” “Remember Pearl Harbor,” “Remember 9/11.” “I’ll never forget what she did to me.” “I can’t just erase his hurtful words.” As much as it hurts us, there is something about past wrongs that clings to us. There is something perversely comforting in nursing them, rehearsing them and wallowing in self pity over the pain they cause. It takes courage we too often lack to reach past centuries of personal and cultural animosity to forge new and better relationships. Repentance is hard work. It is not for the faint of heart.

It is harder still to believe that the future holds anything really new. Ours is a cynical age, an age that looks with suspicion and outright contempt upon any claim of newness and hope. Perhaps that is why Jesus’ remark in our gospel lesson to the effect that “You always have the poor with you” has been so tragically misconstrued. John 12:8. Jesus tells us that there always will be those in our midst who are vulnerable and unable to care for themselves. He does not say that these people must invariably live in poverty and misery. We are not to understand that poverty is inevitable and so fighting to eradicate it is a waste of time. To the contrary, as anyone familiar with the Torah (as Jesus clearly was) would understand, care for the poor is the corporate responsibility of any just and righteous society. See Leviticus 19:9-10; Deuteronomy 15:7-8. There is no rational reason why anyone should be without food, shelter, medical care, dignity and respect. The earth is capable of providing for everyone’s need (though not everyone’s greed); forgiveness and reconciliation, individually and globally, are real; life, not death, has the final word. The gospel truth shining through the call of Abraham and Sarah to found a nation of blessing; the liberation of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt and the resurrection of Jesus is simply this: It doesn’t have to be this way.

Lenten practices, to be sure, are not a “new thing.” Our disciplines of prayer, fasting, alms and liturgy reach back to the time of the matriarchs and patriarchs. Yet they are designed to focus our gaze on the future, on the God whose reign breaks into our present age, turning our expectations upside down, revolutionizing our perspectives and rearranging our priorities. The startling truth is that the power of evil hit a dead end at the cross. There violence, cruelty and death did its worst. But it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough to crack the Son’s unwavering trust in the Father. It wasn’t enough to extinguish the Father’s love for the world God made. It wasn’t enough to erase the image of God in humanity. Jesus’ resurrection released a new thing into the world, a God factor challenging the reign of the past over the future. The old assumptions, beliefs and expectations still are not enough to extinguish God’s new thing. Do you still not perceive it? 

Perceiving “newness” is recovering the capacity to be surprised. It is to recognize the possibility of breaking with the past, believing in a tomorrow that is not merely the product of yesterday. For a world imprisoned in and driven by its past, there are no surprises. What will be is nothing more than a continuation of what is. This lack of surprise, says poet Conrad Aiken, amounts to death. Our Lenten practices are designed to prepare us for the surpise of Easter Sunday.

When You Are Not Surprised

When you are not surprised, not surprised,

nor leap in imagination from sunlight into shadow   

or from shadow into sunlight   

suiting the color of fright or delight   

to the bewildering circumstance   

when you are no longer surprised   

by the quiet or fury of daybreak   

the stormy uprush of the sun’s rage   

over the edges of torn trees

torrents of living and dying flung

upward and outward inward and downward to space

or else

peace peace peace peace

the wood-thrush speaking his holy holy

far hidden in the forest of the mind   

while slowly

the limbs of light unwind

and the world’s surface dreams again of night

as the center dreams of light   

when you are not surprised

by breath and breath and breath

the first unconscious morning breath

the tap of the bird’s beak on the pane

and do not cry out come again   

blest blest that you are come again   

o light o sound o voice of bird o light   

and memory too o memory blest   

and curst with the debts of yesterday   

that would not stay, or stay

by death and death and death

when you are not surprised

death of the bee in the daffodil

death of color in the child’s cheek

on the young mother’s breast

death of sense of touch of sight

death of delight

and the inward death the inward turning night

when the heart hardens itself with hate and indifference   

for hated self and beloved not-self

when you are not surprised

by wheel’s turn or turn of season

the winged and orbed chariot tilt of time   

the halcyon pause, the blue caesura of spring   

and solar rhyme

woven into the divinely remembered nest   

by the dark-eyed love in the oriole’s breast   

and the tides of space that ring the heart

while still, while still, the wave of the invisible world   

breaks into consciousness in the mind of god

then welcome death and be by death benignly welcomed   

and join again in the ceaseless know-nothing   

from which you awoke to the first surprise.

Source: Collected Poems (Random House Inc., 1970). Conrad Potter Aiken (1889 –1973) was an American writer and poet honored with a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. He was United States Poet Laureate from 1950 to 1952. His published works include poetry, short stories, novels, literary criticism, a play and an autobiography. Aiken had a troubled childhood. His father murdered his mother and then committed suicide when he was only eleven years old. After his parents’ deaths, Aiken was raised by his great aunt and uncle in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He attending Middlesex School and then Harvard University. At Harvard, he edited the Harvard Advocate along with the renowned poet, T. S. Eliot. The two became lifelong friends. Aiken was thrice married and fathered three children. After spending time in England and Cambridge Massachusetts, Aiken finally settled in Brewster, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. There he ran a summer program for writers and painters named after his antique farmhouse, “Forty-One Doors” Despite having lived for many years abroad and receiving recognition as a Southern writer, Aiken always considered himself an American New Englander. You can read more about Conrad Aiken and sample more of his work at the Poetry Foundation website.

[1] Miller, Walter M., Jr., Canticle for Leibowitz, (c. 1959, pub. by HarperCollins). Set in a Catholic monastery in the desert of the southwestern United States after a devastating nuclear war, the book spans thousands of years as civilization rebuilds itself. The monks of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz preserve the surviving remnants of humanity’s scientific knowledge until the world is again ready for it.

Another Point of View


Joshua 5:9-12

Psalm 32

2 Corinthians 5:16-21

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Prayer of the Day: God of compassion, you welcome the wayward, and you embrace us all with your mercy. By our baptism clothe us with garments of your grace, and feed us at the table of your love, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation…” II Corinthians 5:16-18.

From a human point of view, I am a spouse, parent and grandparent. My identity is grounded in two families, one rooted in Montana and the other in Minnesota. Prior to that, my roots extend across the Atlantic to southern Germany and Norway, though that part of the story is all but lost to memory. From a human point of view, I am the product of a blue collar family and my home town of Bremerton’s public education system. Beyond that, I am, from a human point of view, a United States citizen formed by a national mythology defining who I am and what my duties are. Who I am is the sum total of these and other formative associations, social contracts and blood relations.

But no more, says Saint Paul. When anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation in light of which we regard no one any longer from a human point of view. This has radical implications as it relativizes all other defining claims and loyalties. “Who are my mother and my brothers?” asked Jesus rhetorically. “Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister and mother.” Mark 3:34-35. Our commonwealth is in heaven, Paul reminds us. Philippians 3:20. We have no lasting city to which we owe ultimate allegiance. Our loyalty is to the “city which is to come.” Hebrews 13:14. No loyalty or moral claim comes before allegiance to the gentle reign of God. Not family values; not civic duty; not duty to one’s country. In Christ, my primary identity is determined by my membership in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church that transcends and supersedes all family, tribal, cultural, national and organizational boundaries.

This new reality that comes about through being in Christ necessarily changes the way I view all others. No longer is it possible for me to create an “us” and “them” dichotomy. “The love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one man died for all; therefore all have died.” II Corinthians 5:14. It is no longer possible for me to see another person as anything other than one for whom Christ died, as one of the many persons created in God’s image and destined to be joined to that “multitude which no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the Lamb…” Revelation 7:9. To be in Christ is to be an ambassador for God’s reign entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation, the task of building bridges across hostile borders, entering upon private property, violating the etiquette of class distinction, disregarding the racial stratification of white supremacy and all other humanly devised lines of demarcation between “us” and “them.”

That brings me to the heartbreaking plight of Ukraine. Let me begin by acknowledging that, no matter what argument might be made for any possible legitimate Russian national interest vis a vis Ukraine, nothing can or ever will justify the savage invasion and ruthless carnage unleashed by Vladimir Putin against the Ukrainian people. When one sees the baby strollers lined up in Lviv’s Rynok Square, row after row, one each for the 109 children across Ukraine known to have died under the brutal Russian siege, it is impossible for anyone with an ounce of feeling not to be outraged. That outrage and sympathy for the Ukrainian people has led to so many of us wearing the national Ukrainian colors and even flying the Ukrainian flag. An otherwise hopelessly divided congress has come together in a rare showing of bipartisan support for the Ukrainian military and NATO. While it is tempting to applaud such unity and solidarity, I am not convinced that disciples of Jesus should. The stark reality is that the crisis in Ukraine has evolved into a global “us” against “them” show down that cannot be resolved militarily. Here the idiocy of the NRA mantra that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” is clearly exposed. Where the “good guy” and the “bad guy” are both armed with weapons of mass destruction, victory is meaningless.

At this point, more than ever, we need Paul’s reminder that “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Ephesians 6:12. The devil, of course, would like nothing more than for us to believe the contrary, namely, that our struggle is against enemies of flesh and blood; that there is a flesh and blood “them” that “we” need to defeat. The devil wins evey war, no matter who prevails on the battlefield. The devil’s logic always seems to dominate in circumstances like these, convincing “us” that peace can only be achieved by defeating and, if necessary, destroying “them.” As one political pundit put it this morning on ABC’s This Week, “this [war between Russia and Ukraine] is a contest between good and evil. Everybody is going to have to decide on which side they stand.”

The pundit is partially correct. This is a struggle between good and evil. But the line between the two does not run neatly between Russia on the one side with Ukraine and NATO on the other. We ought to know by now that the line between good and evil runs right through the middle of every human heart. Lest we forget, the NATO countries that are now welcoming Ukrainian refugees were just a few years ago meeting Syrian refugees from Russia’s ruthless bombings of Aleppo  with barbed wire and bayonets. Before we become too critical of Russia’s crack down on dissent within its borders, we ought to recall the spectacle of federal officers teargassing and bludgeoning peaceful protesters in front of the White House to make way for the former president’s photo op. And before we condemn President Putin for his autocratic ways, we should reflect on how close our country came to similar tyranny when the former president incited a violent mob to attack the Capital in order to prevent his duly elected successor from taking office. I am not suggesting a moral equivalency here. As I said before, the Russian government’s invasion of Ukraine is an inexcusable act of savagery about which the rest of the world ought to be concerned. But we need to recognize that the ugly and demonic engines of white supremacy, nationalism, populism, authoritarianism and anti-intellectualism driving Russian aggression are also very much a part of our own national politics and that of our NATO allies. Americans are as much in bondage to these “principalities and powers” as is Russia-and all the other flesh and blood peoples we like to demonize. For more on that, see Resisting Exclusion: Global Theological Responses to Populism, published by the Lutheran World Federation. If we think by defeating Russia we will overcome the evil inhabiting both our cultures, we are deceiving ourselves.

If being alive to a new creation means anything, it means thinking about and addressing age old problems in new ways. It means thinking less like Americans (and Ukrainians, Russians, NATO members) and more like people whose loyalties have been reoriented by incorporation into God’s gentle, just and inclusive reign of peace. There is no better time than the season of Lent to think about what it means to be an ambassador for God’s inbreaking reign. What does it mean to be conducting a ministry of reconciliation in a world on the brink of war? Are we, as disciples of Jesus, just as prepared to put our lives on the line for reconciliation as soldiers are prepared to put their lives on the line to fight wars? What would it look like for disciples of Jesus to enter into the midst of the conflict “presenting [their] bodies as a living sacrifice”? Romans 12:1. Have we become so thoroughly indoctrinated into national militaristic mythologies and so servile to the interests of the state that we have lost the capacity to imagine, much less believe in the reality of a new creation?

Perhaps, as the poet suggests, new creation, like peacecan’t be imagined before it is made.” Maybe the seeds of new creation are buried in small groups like Russians for Peace, a community of Russian speaking people living internationally who do not support militaristic and destructive actions of the government of the Russian Federation. Maybe a new creation begins with the church looking first at its own complicity with nationalism and calling out this sin as, for example, the recent statement by the Orthodox Christian Studies Center. Maybe new creation begins with more and more parents and grandparents like me in all nations speaking to our leaders in language even warmongers can understand: You can have our children to fight your wars when you pry them from our cold, dead fingers. Maybe the new creation is right in front of us and the only thing keeping us from seeing it is our own paralyzing fear that keeps us hanging on for dear life to the false assumptions upon which the current world order is based and ossified beliefs in the old idols of nation, tribe, blood and soil.

Here is the poem by Denise Levertov to which I alluded above.

Making Peace

A voice from the dark called out,

             ‘The poets must give us

imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar

imagination of disaster. Peace, not only

the absence of war.’

                                   But peace, like a poem,

is not there ahead of itself,

can’t be imagined before it is made,

can’t be known except

in the words of its making,

grammar of justice,

syntax of mutual aid.

                                       A feeling towards it,

dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have

until we begin to utter its metaphors,

learning them as we speak.

                                              A line of peace might appear

if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,

revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,

questioned our needs, allowed

long pauses . . .

                        A cadence of peace might balance its weight

on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,

an energy field more intense than war,

might pulse then,

stanza by stanza into the world,

each act of living

one of its words, each word

a vibration of light—facets

of the forming crystal.

Source: Breathing the Water (New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1987) Denise Levertov (1923–1997) never received a formal education. Nevertheless, she created a highly regarded body of poetry that earned her recognition as one of America’s most respected poets. Her father, Paul Philip Levertov, was a Russian Jew who converted to Christianity and subsequently moved to England where he became an Anglican minister.  Levertov grew up in a household surrounded by books and people talking about them in many languages. During World War II, Levertov pursued nurse’s training and spent three years as a civilian nurse at several hospitals in London. Levertov came to the United States in 1948, after marrying American writer Mitchell Goodman. During the 1960s Levertov became a staunch critic of the Vietnam war, a topic addressed in many of her poems of that era. Levertov died of lymphoma at the age of seventy-four. You can read more about Denise Levertov and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.  

Quenching a Holy Thirst


Isaiah 55:1-9

Psalm 63:1-8

1 Corinthians 10:1-13

Luke 13:1-9

Prayer of the Day: Eternal God, your kingdom has broken into our troubled world through the life, death, and resurrection of your Son. Help us to hear your word and obey it, and bring your saving love to fruition in our lives, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“O God, you are my God, I seek you,
   my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
   as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” Psalm 63:1.

In his classic work, Confessions, Saint Augustine of Hippo discusses at great length the nature of sin. In common parlance, sin is typically thought of in terms of behavior evaluated against laws, rules or community norms. A sin is thus a particular bad act-murder, adultery, theft or improper thoughts. While such conduct is surely sinful, it is the symptom rather than the root cause of humanity’s broken condition. As odd as it may seem, sin is driven by the same engine as righteousness, namely, love. The problem is that human love is disordered. Created to love God and, through that pure love, to love the neighbor and enjoy the world God made, human love is directed toward lesser things, things which often are good in themselves, but lethal when they are allowed to become the object of love which ought to be directed toward God alone. Love of country, love of family and enjoyment of the fruit of one’s labors, all appropriate “loves,” morph into nationalism, tribalism and avarice when they become dominant.

The psalmist’s prayer illustrates the appropriate focus of ultimate desire. The psalmist “thirsts” for God as eagerly as would a traveler passing through a waterless desert. This is right because we are only as good as what we love. It was because God’s reign of love was more real for Jesus than the raw power of Rome and the complicit religious establishment of his own country that he ended up on the cross. Crucifixion is a terrible way for a life to end, but Jesus obviously felt that the kingdom of God was well worth it. So too for disciples of Jesus. They are to be distinguished by a passionate love that is rightly directed toward God and toward one another. For in fact, the command to love God above all else and to love one’s neighbor is actually the same command. There is no way to love God other than to love and serve the neighbor made in God’s image.

While our materialistic culture’s lust for wealth, power and pleasure are significant temptations for a disciple seeking to follow Jesus, the greatest danger lies closer at hand. Those who “thirst” for God are all too vulnerable to deception.  It was, after all, in a sincere belief they were doing God’s bidding that evangelical Christians supported a Florida law that, in effect, prevents elementary school teachers from protecting LGBTA+ children or the children of LGBTA+ families from bullying and intimidation. It is love for God that inspires extremists to strap bombs to themselves and detonate in populated places to kill as many civilians as possible. Love for God drove the Inquisition, the Crusades and the Thirty Years War. Religious people, people who share a zeal for God and a desire to do God’s will, are uniquely susceptible to temptations the religiously indifferent will never know.

ABC News ran a special this week recounting the origin, growth and tragic end of the Heaven’s Gate cult. For those of you who might have been on vacation that week and, like me, exclude during vacation any attention to the daily news, Heaven’s Gate was the name of a cult started in the early 1970s by Marshall Herff Applewhite and Bonnie Lou Nettles. Applewhite was the son of a Presbyterian preacher. Like his father, he had a deep sense of vocation and a charismatic personality. Applewhite was talented, intelligent and personable. He seems to have been precisely the sort of person I would have encouraged to consider parish ministry had I met him in my own church. But underneath his confident veneer, Applewhite was struggling with issues of self esteem and sexual identity. Shortly after graduating college, he began hearing voices.

Applewhite became acquainted with Nettles at a particularly low point in his life. She was a nurse, a mother of four children and a fervent believer in UFOs. Together, they began promoting through informational meetings around the country a religion constituting a mix of Christianity, pseudoscience and new age philosophy. In brief, Applewhite and Nettles taught that the human body was merely a “vehicle” for a soul on the verge of the next evolutionary leap from humanity to something much greater. In order to facilitate this transition, members of the cult were called upon to forsake all connections to bodily life, including family relationships, sexual relations, friendships outside the cult community and claims to personal property which was to become the possession of the cult. The beliefs of the cult evolved over the nearly two decades of its existence. In the end, thirty-eight members joined Applewhite in taking their own lives in an effort to make the final evolutionary jump. They were found poisoned to death in a suburban home, clad in homemade spacesuits for their final journey.

It would be slightly comforting, though no less tragic, if the members of Heaven’s Gate had been uneducated, illiterate, mentally ill or people of minimal intelligence. In that case, we could simply prescribe more education, better mental health care and access to accurate information as the solution to events like these. I could also take comfort in knowing that educated and sophisticated persons like me are immune to such nonsense. But, in fact, the members of Heaven’s Gate were mostly college graduates, some of whom even had advanced degrees. They were a lot like me in my twenties: curious, inquisitive, idealistic, eager to become part of something bigger than themselves and to make a difference in the world. So how did these bright, young, promising people get caught up in a movement like Heaven’s Gate? I have been pondering that question these last few days. I am not convinced that I have an answer.

The ABC commentators pointed out that some members’ involvement with Heaven’s Gate came at a point of crisis in their lives, i.e., divorce, loss of a job, death in the family or return from combat, etc. They also pointed out that the early 70s were fraught with social upheaval leading many to seek the comfort of certainty cults typically offer, even at the expense of surrendering their independence of thought and action. I am not sure any of that totally explains the Heaven’s Gate phenomenon. After all, few of us get through life without at least some severe personal stressors and we don’t get drawn into cult life. Moreover, has there ever been a decade without social upheaval? There is more going on here than can be explained away by appeal to ignorance, emotional instability and external social conditions.

The frightening truth is that, in spite of our American belief in individualism, self determination and freedom, we are more like “sheep without a shepherd” than we like to admit. Whether we admit it or not, we are who we are largely because of what has been allowed to shape us. Culture, family, church, professional colleagues, political leaders and peers have made us who we are. We are shaped by entertainment media that convinces us daily through shows like FBI, NCIS and Law and Order, that men[1] with guns, punitive laws and the use of violence are the only means by which we can live in safety. We are shaped by work places that value us in terms of our contribution to the company’s bottom line. We are shaped by news media that dictate to us what the news is, who matters and what does not even merit comment. We see and experience the world through the lens all these forces have made for us. When we think we are making independent decisions, we are using the reference points that have been hardwired into our brains by powers we are incapable of seeing or controlling. Saint Paul would call these “the principalities…the powers…the world rulers of this present darkness…the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Ephesians 6:12.

One purpose of Lent is to refine our appetites so that we do not “spend []our money for that which is not bread, and []our labor for that which does not satisfy” as the Prophet Isaiah admonishes us. Isaiah 55:2. Lent offers us the opportunity to examine critically our desires to be sure that the God we love is God indeed, that the kingdom we seek really is God’s gentle reign and that the power shaping us truly is the Holy Spirit working through God’s Word and the Sacraments. During this season, we practice fasting within a culture that markets to every imaginable appetite with the gospel of surfeit. We practice generosity over against the capitalist religion of acquisition. We practice confession of sin in a society where concession is a sign of weakness. We practice forgiveness toward enemies under wartime shouts for fighting to the last one standing. We do things that make sense only if God did, in fact, raise Jesus from death.

Lenten discipline is perhaps nowhere more important than among those of us entrusted with the responsibility for ministry. It is no accident that Jesus was assaulted by the devil immediately following his baptismal call. We, of all people, are tempted to invoke God’s authority to get what we want when we want it. We of all people need to recognize the temptation to grab the levers of power, be they governmental or ecclesiastical, and “do whatever it takes” to ensure that right prevails. We should know better than anyone else the temptation to employ the scriptures recklessly and inaccurately to support our own agendas-be they ever so progressive, right and noble. We, more than anyone else, need to be reminded that greatness under God’s reign is humility and service. We, more than anyone else, need to be sure about who is shaping us and certain that we are being sustained by “eat[ing] what is good” (Isaiah 55:2) and that our “thirst” for God is actually being satisfied by God.     

Here is a poem celebrating the discipline of prayer and its sustaining and shaping power directing us to the thirst only One can satisfy.

The Lamps are burning

“The lamps are burning in the synagogue,

in the houses of study, in dark alleys. . . .”

This should be the place.

This is the way

the guide book describes it. Excuse me, sir

can you tell me

where Eli lives, Eli the katzev—

slaughterer of cattle and poultry?

One of my ancestors.

Reb Haskel? Reb Shimin? My grandfathers.

This is the discipline that withstood the siege

of every Jew;

these are the prayer shawls that have proved

stronger than armor.

Let us begin humbly. Not by asking:

Who is This you pray to? Name Him;

define Him. For the answer is:

We do not name Him.

Once out of a savage fear, perhaps;

now out of knowledge—of our ignorance.

Begin then humbly. Not by asking:

Shall I live forever?

Hear again the dear dead greeting me gladly

as they used to

when we were all among the living?

For the answer is:

If you think we differ from all His other creatures,

say only if you like with the Pharisees, our teachers,

those who do not believe in an eternal life

will not have it.

In the morning I arise and match again

my plans against my cash.

I wonder now if the long morning prayers

were an utter waste of an hour

weighing, as they do, hopes and anguish,

and sending the believer out into the street

with the sweet taste of the prayers on his lips.

Today this creditor is at your office;

tomorrow this one in your home;

until the final creditor of all

places his bony hands upon your breast.


Dig your heels into the dust!

How good to stop

and look out upon eternity a while.

And daily—at Shahris, Minha, Maariv,

in the morning, afternoon, and evening—

be at ease in Zion.

Source: The Complete Poems of Charles Reznikoff 1918-1975 (Black Sparrow Press, 2005). Charles Reznikoff (1894 – 1976) was an American poet. His multi-volume Testimony: The United States (1885–1915) followed by his Recitative (1934–1979) explored the experiences of immigrants, black people and the urban and rural poor in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His third great poetic work, Holocaust was published in 1975. His lines in this epic poem consist of versified court testimony about Nazi death camps during World War II. Reznikoff was born in Brooklyn, New York, to immigrants fleeing the Russian Empire and its pogroms. He entered the law school of New York University in 1912 and graduated in 1916, but practiced law only briefly. In 1918 he entered officer training school, but did not see active service before the end of World War I. Reznikoff lived and wrote in relative obscurity for most of his life, with his work being either self-published or issued by small independent presses. But in 1971, after endorsements from several distinguished poets, his work began to gain recognition. Reznikoff was awarded the Morton Dauwen Zabel Prize by The National Institute of Arts and Letters. Around this time, he found a new publisher which published the aforementioned works. You can learn more about Charles Reznikoff and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

[1] Recent years have seen women increasingly playing the roles of tough cops facing down evil criminals. Maybe that is a good thing. I have to confess, however, my skepticism at the proposition that establishing women as equal to men when it comes to killing people and breaking things amounts to an advance for women.

Where is your Citizenship?


Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

Psalm 27

Philippians 3:17—4:1

Luke 13:31-35

Prayer of the Day: God of the covenant, in the mystery of the cross you promise everlasting life to the world. Gather all peoples into your arms, and shelter us with your mercy, that we may rejoice in the life we share in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Philippians 3:20.

The word translated as “citizenship” in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is “politeuma,” from which we derive our word “politics.”It is better rendered “commonwealth” as the old RSV has it. As such, it refers to a body politic, a people governed by common laws, foundational beliefs and way of life. Citizenship, then, is membership and participation in a commonwealth. In the New Testament, citizenship is often used to describe a person’s status within the Roman Empire. Roman citizenship conferred certain rights and privileges unavailable to the vast majority of Roman subjects during the First Century. Among these were the right to trial before punishment of any kind, immunity from torture and the right to appeal from arrest or conviction to the imperial court. Cadbury, H.J., The Beginnings of Christianity (Volume 5, 1933) pp. 297-338; Sherwin-White, The Roman Citizenship (1939) cited in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Volume 1 (c. 1962 by Abington Press).

Of course, the flip side of citizenship’s privileges are the obligations that come with it. Chief among these is loyalty to the sovereign and recognition of the rights of the commonwealth, be it an empire, nation or state. Though empires, monarchies and nation states have taken numerous forms over the centuries and have operated under diverse polities, there are some constants. The sovereign has the right to make and enforce laws obligatory for its citizens. It has the right to extract revenue to finance itself. Most importantly, the sovereign has the right to take human life both as a punishment for offenses among its own and as defense against hostility from foreign hostiles. As to the latter purpose, the sovereign has the power to conscript its citizens as soldiers authorized, or rather required to kill in order to protect the sovereign’s interests.

It is in stark contrast to this notion of citizenship that Paul describes the “commonwealth” to which Jesus’ disciples belong. This commonwealth is more than just the church. It is the coming reign of God, the “end” when God is “all in all.” I Corinthians 15:28. God’s reign, though yet to come in its fullness, has broken into our present existence compelling a radically different way of life. Under the reign of Jesus, a disciple might be called to die for the commonwealth of God, but never to kill for it. The only defensive weapons disciples possess are righteousness, peace and faith. The only offensive weapon in their quiver is the Word. Ephesians 6:13-17. The only response given to enemy attack is love, forgiveness, blessing and prayer. Luke 6:27-28. Loyalty to Jesus and the reign of God he proclaims appears “foolish” and “weak” to a world in thrall to power, violence and wealth; a world in which it is taken for granted that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” I Corinthians 1:26-31. But it is the way that will be shown to have been the direction, goal and end toward which God has been drawing creation from the beginning. Then the worthlessness, futility and folly of all misdirected loyalties will be exposed.

Too often, I think, we allow the issues of the day to be framed in terms of the vested interests of nation states, commercial entities and political associations. There has been much consternation these last few weeks over what should be done about Russia’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine. What kind of support and how much support should be given to Ukraine? What steps should NATO take to halt Russian aggression? What sanctions should be employed and against whom? I am not convinced that, as disciples of Jesus, we can shed much light on these questions-nor should we. Disciples of Jesus ought not to be thinking about global conflicts from the perspective of the nation states that purport to dominate our world, but from their own perspective as members of the commonwealth of God’s reign.

That brings me front and center to the question haunting me and that nobody else seems to be asking, namely, how is it that we have Orthodox Russian Christians and Orthodox Ukrainian Christians taking up arms against each other? How is it that the waters of baptism uniting all believers as one body are so easily cast aside for the sake of blood, soil and nation? That question, which, in turn, calls into question the faith, proclamation and witness of the church, is more fundamental in my view than the relative claims of the nation states currently waging this murderous conflict.

To be sure, the church in Eastern Europe is not the only one to whom this question must be directed. After all, the last two world wars were waged by the predominantly protestant and Catholic nations of Western Europe along with the United States. These examples illustrate, as does the present conflict between Ukraine and Russia, that for too many identifying as Christian, national citizenship is far more significant and formative than the baptismal community of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church we confess. I wish I could tell you how many parents I have met who would proudly send their sons to kill or die for their country yet who will not pull them out of basketball practice for confirmation class. Once again, blood, soil and nation trump loyalty to God’s reign-even among those who identify as disciples of Jesus.

Nationalism is perhaps the most destructive form of idolatry in our age. Contrary to Paul’s call for loyalty to the commonwealth under God’s peaceful reign whose salvation is from God and whose call is to reconciliation, we have pledged our loyalty to principalities and powers calling upon us to kill and to die to preserve borders, uphold privilege and advance state interests at the expense of outsiders. We should know better. We have seen the dead ends to which these gods have propelled us in the past throughout two world wars to a terrifying thermonuclear stalemate. Now they draw us to the precipice of an unwinnable third world war between nations equipped with all manner of weapons of mass destruction. Terrifying as this is, it should not surprise us. The security promised under the umbrella of national belonging, like the promises of all false gods, turns out to be a mirage. The blood sacrifices demanded by false gods never buy anything that is real.

So the question I would pose for our Lenten reflections is this: What should citizens of God’s commonwealth in Jesus Christ be saying and doing in a world dominated by armed nation states demanding bloodletting and shaking their thermonuclear swords? How do “we, though many throughout the earth…” who are yet “one body in this one Lord” live and witness faithfully in a nation that proudly and defiantly screams “America First?”[1] What price are we prepared to pay for being one with fellow disciples living within nations deemed “enemies”?

Here is a poem by Karl Shapiro suggesting what a disciple’s witness might look like in a world of war.

The Conscientious Objector  

The gates clanged and they walked you into jail

More tense than felons but relieved to find

The hostile world shut out, the flags that dripped

From every mother’s windowpane, obscene

The bloodlust sweating from the public heart,

The dog authority slavering at your throat.

A sense of quiet, of pulling down the blind

Possessed you. Punishment you felt was clean.

The decks, the catwalks, and the narrow light

Composed a ship. This was a mutinous crew

Troubling the captains for plain decencies,

A Mayflower brim with pilgrims headed out

To establish new theocracies to west,

A Noah’s ark coasting the topmost seas

Ten miles above the sodomites and fish.

These inmates loved the only living doves.

Like all men hunted from the world you made

A good community, voyaging the storm

To no safe Plymouth or green Ararat;

Trouble or calm, the men with Bibles prayed,

The gaunt politicals construed our hate.

The opposite of all armies, you were best

Opposing uniformity and yourselves;

Prison and personality were your fate.

You suffered not so physically but knew

Maltreatment, hunger, ennui of the mind.

Well might the soldier kissing the hot beach

Erupting in his face damn all your kind.

Yet you who saved neither yourselves nor us

Are equally with those who shed the blood

The heroes of our cause. Your conscience is

What we come back to in the armistice.

Source: Shapiro, Karl, Selected Poems (C. by Estate of Karl Shapiro; pub. by New York: Library of America, 2003). Karl Jay Shapiro (1913-2000) was an American poet and critic. His poems range from passionate love lyrics to social satire. Educated at the University of Virginia and Johns Hopkins University, Shapiro first won critical acclaim in 1942 with the publication of his poetry collection, Person, Place and Thing. Three years later, his collection V-Letter and Other Poems, based on his experiences during World War II, won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Shapiro also wrote several works of literary criticism. He was a consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress, an editor of Poetry magazine and taught at the universities of Nebraska, Illinois, and California. You can read more about Karl Jay Shapiro and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website and Britannica.

[1] “One Bread, One Body,” Text and music by John Foley; printed in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, (c. 2006 by Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and published by Augsburg Fortress) Hymn #496.