All posts by revolsen

About revolsen

I am a retired Lutheran Pastor currently residing in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. I am married .and have three grown children.

Putting in a Good Word for Dogma

See the source imageHOLY TRINITY SUNDAY

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Psalm 8
Romans 5:1-5
John 16:12-15

Prayer of the Day: Almighty Creator and ever-living God: we worship your glory, eternal Three-in-One, and we praise your power, majestic One-in-Three. Keep us steadfast in this faith, defend us in all adversity, and bring us at last into your presence, where you live in endless joy and love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Trinity Sunday is the one and only festival of the church year that celebrates an ecclesiastical dogma apart from any particular biblical narrative. Although the term “trinity” does not appear in the Scriptures, this way of articulating the scriptural witness to God grew out of centuries of reflection by the church’s greatest pastors, theologians and teachers. The doctrine of the Trinity represents the church’s best effort to articulate the mystery of the God revealed in the Bible. That articulation is not simple or easily understood. From time to time, the church has been confronted with easier, more seemingly straightforward and understandable ways of explaining the relationship between God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. These were rejected because theories that are simple and easy frequently fail to capture the depth, goodness and beauty of our enormously complex and mysterious God.

The term “dogma” has acquired an unsavory reputation over the last century. If somebody calls you “dogmatic” it is almost certainly not a complement. Dogma is popularly associated with dry, outdated and uninspired religious, political or ideological precepts. Dogmatic people, in common parlance, are ridged, narrow-minded and intolerant individuals with an annoying propensity for imposing their stuffy opinions on others. I suspect we all know people like that. I am not defending them or their conduct. I believe, however, that we need to define our terms more carefully to ensure that we are gunning for the right target.

The word dogma literally means “teaching” and one who possesses dogma is one who has been taught. Unless you think there is some virtue in ignorance, you should not be speaking ill of dogma. Being taught is not always a pleasant experience. I frequently hear people say that they don’t want to be part of a religion that “rams its teachings down their throats.” I can relate. When I was kid, my parents and teachers rammed a good many things down my throat that I wasn’t interested in learning-like math, reading, good manners and the like. Thankfully, I was surrounded by mentors that knew better than me what I needed to learn and cared enough about me to see that I learned it-like it or no.

When I was a freshman in college, I had the good fortune to wind up in Professor S’s Old Testament History class. Professor S was a hard driving instructor with high standards. Very early on in the course, a young woman raised her hand and said, “Professor S, with all that is going on today in the world, I just don’t see how any of this is relevant to our lives.” Professor S asked in a measured tone, “May I have the privilege of knowing your name.”

“It’s Janet Jones,”[1] the student replied.

“Well, then Ms. Jones,” Professor S went on, “You are not yet at the point where you have the first idea what is and is not relevant and you are clearly not ready to have the conversation with me that you would like to have. But you are obviously bright, passionate and intelligent. If you develop the patience to listen, learn and understand, I have no doubt that one day you will have something meaningful to say to me. That time is not yet.”

You might think that was a bit arrogant and off putting. Perhaps it wasn’t the best pedagogical approach Professor S might have taken under these circumstances. There are probably better ways to make your point than by humiliating people. That aside, Professor S makes an important point, namely, that anything worth knowing takes time, patience and effort to learn. Moreover, you can’t expect to converse on a complex subject you have not taken the time to learn.

All teachers worth their salt correct their students when they are wrong, chide them when their work is less than satisfactory and push them to take their learning beyond what is necessary simply to receive a passing grade. Learning is a life long task and dogma, so far from being a finite set of precepts to be learned by rote, is a growing body of knowledge upon which further learning builds. Dogma is always reinterpreting what has been learned, expanding upon what is known and pushing forward into the unknown. So says Jesus in our gospel lesson for this Sunday:

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” John 16:12-15.

Jesus’ promise that the Spirit will guide his disciples “into all the truth” indicates that they do not yet possess “all the truth.” They must be taught the truth and this “teaching” (dogma) will occur over time. Of course, the Spirit does not begin with a blank slate. God revealed God’s self to Sarah and Abraham when God called them to leave behind everything familiar to pursue the promise of a land, a people and a blessing. God revealed God’s self to Israel through its liberation from slavery in Egypt by the words and acts of Moses. God spoke through the prophets and, in the fullness of time, God revealed God’s self in Jesus, the Word made flesh. This is the dogma, the core of the church’s teaching that must be learned in light of two millennia of the church’s reflection and interpretation. It is helpful, I believe, to think of dogma as the language of faith the Spirit uses to guide each generation of the church “into all the truth.”

Education begins with learning to speak. Those of us who have learned or tried to learn another language understand that it is tedious work in the beginning. Learning the rules of grammar and memorizing vocabulary is mind numbingly boring. But it is absolutely essential if you want to arrive at the point where you can converse with people who speak the language and read the great works of literature produced in that language. If you are not willing to do the hard work of mastering a country’s language, then you will forever be struggling with a few words, rudimentary phrases and inarticulate sign language simply to find a bathroom. You are unlikely ever to feel at home, develop deep friendships or learn to conduct everyday transactions with confidence. So, too, faith without dogma is doomed to remain forever shallow and to fumble along in perpetual immaturity.

For that reason, I don’t much care that people with no faith background walk into our sanctuaries and find what we are doing incomprehensible. I don’t worry that our worship is hard for novices to follow. I think we need to stop apologizing for the fact that our language of faith and its expression is deep, nuanced, complex and difficult to learn. Biologists don’t apologize for the complexity of DNA. Physicists don’t apologize for the complexity of quantum mechanics. So why should we be chagrined because someone who walks in off the street complains that they can’t figure out how to follow the liturgy through which we praise the Triune God? Why should we tie ourselves in knots because somebody says they “can’t relate to all of our God talk?” I can’t relate to Mandarin. If I want to understand it, the burden is on me to learn it. To be sure, that would be a difficult undertaking requiring from me a good deal of time, effort and sacrifice. But that is no fault of the Chinese.

Yes, I understand that our churches are to be welcoming communities. I am not suggesting that we should make worship unnecessarily difficult by forcing worshipers to follow the liturgy through three different books and two separate pamphlets. I also understand that loving our neighbors and working together with them to build a more hopeful future does not require that we indoctrinate or convert them. I am perfectly content for people to be involved in the life and mission of the church at whatever level of commitment and understanding they bring. But I don’t think we are being honest with the people we encounter or faithful to our Lord when we substitute entertainment for worship, offer dumbed down sermons filled with profanity and colloquialisms, third grade level liturgy, musically mediocre and lyrically banal hymns all in the hope of making our faith simple and attractive enough for public consumption. A faith shallow enough to pick up in forty-five minutes probably isn’t not worth having. It takes more than a lifetime for the Spirit to lead one into all truth.

We owe everyone who darkens the door of our sanctuaries a liturgy that evokes imagination, creeds that draw us to the precipice of mystery, sermons that leave us with more questions than answers and prayer that reaches to the depths and complexities of our souls. Church on Sunday morning is no place for the incurious and intellectually lazy. Jesus calls upon us to love God with “all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Matthew 22:37. Participation in something so profound as worship of the Triune God requires one to learn the language of our faith-dogma. There is no shortcut.

What goes for our faith applies equally to everything else. Our lesson from Proverbs calls us into to a holy curiosity about all aspects of life. The psalmist invites us to reflect on the heavens, the moon, the stars and the place of our own human race in the midst of this marvelous universe. We are challenged to cultivate an inquisitive spirit that pries beneath the surface of everything coming into view. To be sure, we are not all specialists in the various fields of science, mathematics, economics and other areas of learning. Nevertheless, these are realms where wisdom beckons us to apply our understanding, however limited it might be. To dismiss these varied and marvelous opportunities for learning more about ourselves and our world as being beyond the scope of our interest or irrelevant to our lives is to disrespect our Creator and spurn the “call of wisdom.” It is, in short, to be a fool.[2]

Here is a poem by Michael J. Bugeja expressing some divine Trinitarian curiosity. I cited this same poem last year for Trinity Sunday and do so again because I believe it captures the nature of dogma as that foundation from which we exercise our imagination, direct our curiosity and build upon our knowledge.

Trinity

  1. God

You have distinct dimensions. They are we:
Encyclopedias and alphabets
Of the Big Bang, exobiology,
Inhabitants on multitudes of planets.

Our light cannot escape your gravity.
The soul is linked to yours, a diode
Through which we must return as energy
Until we flare like red suns, and explode:

We try to reconstruct you with an ode
Or explicate your essence line by line.
We canonize commandments like code
Etched within the DNA. If we are divine,

Composing simple poems, making rhymes,
Then what are others in this paradigm?

  1. Son

Then what are others in this paradigm
If not superior? We’re grains of sand.
You have a billion planets to command
With technologies that attained their prime
Before we left the alluvial slime
For land and land for trees and trees for land
Again. These chosen beings went beyond
The boundaries and laws of space and time
To greater meccas. What miracles do
They require? How many stars, their Magi?
Who, their Pilot? When, their Armageddon?
Are we made in God’s image and they too?
Do you save sinners on Alpha Centauri?
All the nebular rosaries of heaven?

III. Spirit

All the nebular rosaries of heaven
Are bound by the lace of your cosmic string.
The unifying force, interwoven
In the clockwork of space-time, is a spring:

One movement we live here and the next, there.
The universe has edges of which
No one will fall. Because you’re everywhere,
Its seam appears the same from every stitch:

The Father sparks the singularity.
We breed like godseed in the firmament.
The Son forgives so that eternity,
Your sole domain, becomes self-evident:

Together you complete the trinity.
You have distinct dimensions: they are we.

Source: Poetry, March 1994, pp. 316-317. Michael J. Bugeja was born in Hackensack, New Jersey and received his B. A. from St. Peter’s College. He earned his M.S. from South Dakota State University and a Ph.D. from Oklahoma State University. He currently teaches magazine writing and ethics at Ohio University at Athens, Ohio. He has published several collections of poetry and was a recipient of the National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship for Fiction. He was also named honorary chancellor of the National Federation of State Poetry Societies. You can learn more about Michael J. Bugeja at this Amazon link and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

[1] Obviously, a fictitious name. I haven’t the foggiest recollection of what her real name is and wouldn’t disclose it if I did.

[2] It also goes a long way toward explaining how a twenty-first century democracy could elect as its leader a man so thoroughly ignorant as to believe that vaccines cause autism and windmills cause cancer! In the immortal words of Forrest Gump, “Stupid is as stupid does.”

On Making a Name

Pentecost Bulletin Cover 2SUNDAY OF PENTECOST

Genesis 11:1-9
Psalm 104:24-34, 35
Acts 2:1-21
John 14:8-27

Prayer of the Day: God our creator, the resurrection of your Son offers life to all the peoples of earth. By your Holy Spirit, kindle in us the fire of your love, empowering our lives for service and our tongues for praise, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” John 14:25-27.

The lessons for Pentecost juxtapose two types of naming. In our reading from Genesis, the peoples of the world are determined to make a name for themselves. They are concerned lest they be “scattered abroad upon the face of the earth.” They are frightened by the prospect of losing their national identity, losing their homeland, losing their language and culture. They fear that their nation will become diluted to the point where it is no longer recognizable. So, they decide to build the biggest city and the biggest tower imaginable, a tower with “its top in the heavens.”[1]

The fear of “being scattered abroad on the face of the whole earth,” of being culturally diluted and racially contaminated is very much alive and well these days. It is being everywhere exploited by leaders eager to “make a name for themselves” and their tribes. The United Kingdom’s vote to withdraw from the European Union seems to have been driven in large part by xenophobic fears of immigration and a loss of national identity. Donald Trump rode to victory in 2016 on an electoral tidal wave of racial hate and resentment under the nationalistic howl of “America first.” Last year, Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, whose campaign was driven by nationalistic and anti-Islamic rhetoric, won a sweeping victory in national elections. Italy, under Matteo Salvini and his Northern League, has long been moving to ever more extreme nationalistic, anti-migrant policies. Last Sunday, Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National rode a wave of nationalist sentiment to win a majority of the vote in France’s election to the European Parliament.

Over against this spirit of self promotion and self preservation behind the people of Babel’s desire to make a name for themselves, our gospel lesson brings us to Jesus on the eve of his crucifixion promising to send a quite different Spirit through the name that God is establishing for him. Judas asks Jesus why he does not show himself to the world as he has revealed himself to his disciples. That is a reasonable question.  If it is for the salvation of the world that Jesus came, shouldn’t Jesus be promoting himself to the world? Shouldn’t he be trying to “make a name for himself?” Jesus’ answer is that God is making a name for him and that God will manifest Jesus to the world. But God will not do so through any show of force. Jesus is revealed in the lives of his disciples who are to receive the Spirit of God that will enable them to practice the new commandment to love one another as they have been loved. As we learn in John 17, the love that binds the Trinity as one will be the glue holding together the community of Jesus. The church is to be a sign and a mediator of God’s love for the cosmos. That is how God makes a name for Jesus.

Our lesson from the Book of Acts puts shoe leather on Jesus’ words. Here the nations represented by their various tongues are brought together by the Spirit of God. This marvelous story puts the lie to fears of cultural dilution and national extinction brought about by cultural diversity. To the contrary, each nation becomes more than what it is, richer than what it was and greater than it could ever be on its own when grafted with all other nations, tribes and peoples into the fabric of God’s new creation under the gentle reign of God’s Spirit. God’s Spirit is able to unite us in spite of our diversity and enrich our existence precisely because of it. This bold promise of Pentecost assures a world on the brink of disintegration that the Spirit of oneness holding it together is mightier than the spirits of nationalism, racism and tribalism threatening to pull it apart.

Here is a poem by Bob Kaufman urging us to believe in the signs of hope, beauty and renewal that are the hallmarks of God’s reign over cynical assessments of “conditions on the ground.”

Believe, Believe

Believe in this. Young apple seeds,
In blue skies, radiating young breast,
Not in blue-suited insects,
Infesting society’s garments.
Believe in the swinging sounds of jazz,
Tearing the night into intricate shreds,
Putting it back together again,
In cool logical patterns,
Not in the sick controllers,
Who created only the Bomb.
Let the voices of dead poets
Ring louder in your ears
Than the screechings mouthed
In mildewed editorials.
Listen to the music of centuries,
Rising above the mushroom time.

Source: Cranial Guitar (c. 1996 by Eileen Kaufman, pub. by Coffee House Press).  Bob Kaufman (1925 –1986)  was an American poet, jazz performance artist and satirist.  Born in New Orleans, he was the 10th of 13 children born to an African American mother and Jewish father. He joined the United States Merchant Marine at the age of thirteen, but  left in the early 1940s to  study literature at New York’s  New School for Social Research. There he came under the influence of beat poets,  William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. In 1959, along with Ginsberg  and poets John Kelly, A. D. Winans, and William Margolis, Kaufman founded Beatitude magazine where he also worked as an editor. You can read more about Bob Kaufman and sample more of his poems at the Poetry Foundation website.

[1] From primeval times we are warned against people with fixations on building huge cities, towers and walls.

Rev. Franklin Graham Launches a Revised Bible

Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham

Kierkegaard’s Ghost

(News that’s fake, but credible)

Today Rev. Franklin Graham, CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, unveiled the Alt-right Revised Bible, a fresh translation of Holy Writ revising substantially the New Testament cannon long recognized by the church as authoritative. “When I finally got around to actually reading the Bible, I was shocked and appalled at what I found there,” said Graham. He went on to say that he was particularly distressed by many of the things Jesus is reported to have said. “I think Jesus was basically a good person, but I think he was swayed and given a lot of bad information by the liberal media.” Graham went on to point out that his New Alt-right Revised Bible is not really a departure from the original. “As I see it,” said Graham, “we are simply putting into the Bible what Jesus would have said if he had had access to accurate news and wise counsel. There was no Fox News in the first century.”

Other evangelical leaders praised the new Bible as a significant improvement over the original. Said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, “This Bible gives us a Savior we can respect instead of a weakling who tells us to ‘turn the other cheek.’” Jerry Falwell, Jr., President of Liberty University, Rev. Robert Jeffress, consultant to President Donald Trump, and Dr. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family concurred. “It’s a Bible that I think our president and Republican leaders can really get behind,” said Jeffress.

Here are a few of the revisions found in the Alt-Right Revised Bible:

When Jesus then lifted up his eyes, and saw a great company come unto him, he saith unto Philip, Whence shall we buy bread, that these may eat? And this he said to prove him: for he himself knew what he would do. Philip answered him, Two hundred pennyworth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may take a little. One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, saith unto him, There is a lad here, which hath five barley loaves, and two small fishes: but what are they among so many? And Jesus said, Make the men sit down. Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, in number about five thousand. And Jesus took the loaves; and when he had given thanks, he distributed to the disciples, and the disciples to them that were set down; and likewise of the fishes as much as they would. Yea, verily thou speakest truly, Andrew. We must feed ourselves with this bread which by our labor hath been honestly earned. Let us not give it freely to the crowd lest we go hungry and their incentive to support themselves be destroyed.

And there came a leper to him, beseeching him, and kneeling down to him, and saying unto him, If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean. And Jesus, moved with compassion, put forth his hand, and touched him, and saith unto him, I will; be thou clean. said unto him, Nay, I would not. Knowest thou not that health care is not a right and that thou art not entitled to anything from him that supporteth himself and that payest his fair share of tax?

For a certain woman, whose young daughter had an unclean spirit, heard of him, and came and fell at his feet: The woman was a Greek, a Syrophenician by nation; and she besought him that he would cast forth the devil out of her daughter. But Jesus said unto her, Let the children first be filled: for it is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it unto the dogs. And she answered and said unto him, Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs. And he said unto her, For this saying go thy way; the devil is gone out of thy daughter. not even the crumbs shall be given to thee, O woman of a hostile nation proven to be a haven of terrorists. If thy daughter perish, what is that to us? My nation first.

And he saith unto them, Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her. shall be entitled to a mulligan; and he that shall put away his second wife shall be entitled to a mulligan; and he that committeth adultery against his third wife shall be entitled to yet another mulligan. And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery.

When they which were about him saw what would follow, they said unto him, Lord, shall we smite with the sword?  And one of them smote the servant of the high priest, and cut off his right ear. And Jesus answered and said, Suffer ye thus far. And he touched his ear, and healed him. Yea, verily, strike ye hard. For well thou knowest that the only way to stop an evil person with a sword is a good person with a sword.

In addition to the revisions, there will be several amendments addressing issues that Jesus failed to discuss. These include condemnation of abortion, same sex marriage, socialism, feminism, liberalism and other abominations. Look for the Alt-right Revised Bible to appear on book shelves soon.

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FAKE NEWS ALERT: The above article is satirical. The events it describes didn’t happen. In the words of John Steinbeck, “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.”

Holy Outrage

SEVENTH SUNDAY OF EASTER

Acts 16:16-34
Psalm 97
Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
John 17:20-26

Prayer of the Day: O God, form the minds of your faithful people into your one will. Make us love what you command and desire what you promise, that, amid all the changes of this world, our hearts may be fixed  where true joy is found, your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour.” Acts 16:16-18.

I usually trust reputable translations of Biblical texts, such as the New Revised Standard Version and its predecessors. Occasionally, however, I have my doubts. This is one of those occasions.  Something about the above reading seemed a little off to me. So, I summoned up as much New Testament Greek as I could recall from my college and seminary years, pulled my Greek New Testament off the shelf along with the Arndt & Gingrich lexicon and the Moulton & Geden concordance and went in search of anything that might have gotten lost in translation. Often as not, these rare forays of mine leave me with a somewhat refreshed recollection of Greek vocabulary and grammar, but little else. This time, however, I might just have found something.

On the face of our English reading, it seems that the Apostle Paul was simply annoyed by the slave girl who, for whatever reason, was following him about and seemingly promoting his mission. But the word translated as “annoyed” in our reading is the Greek word, “diaponeomai.” Though it can be so translated, as the New Revised Standard Version does here, the word can also mean “to be greatly disturbed” in the sense of being morally outraged. In the two other places where  this verb is found in the New Testament, it has precisely this meaning. In Acts 4:2, the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem were outraged that Peter and John were preaching Jesus and the resurrection. In Mark 14:4 the disciples are morally outraged by the anonymous woman’s use of expensive oil to anoint Jesus. However misguided such outrage may have been in these two examples, the point here is that the word used to express such outrage rises far above the level of mere annoyance. This is not the story of an apostle’s irritability leading him to employ the name of Jesus to quiet a pesky girl. Paul is not annoyed. He is outraged.

Paul had good reason for outrage. The slave girl was what we would call a victim of human trafficking. She was the property of her owners who were exploiting her spiritual/emotional/mental bondage for their own economic gain. So far from being impressed by Paul’s liberation of this girl from her bondage, her “owners” are angered that “their hope of making money was gone.” Acts 16:19. For them, she was a cash cow whose udders were now dry. The biblical narrative follows Paul and Silas into prison,  however, and we are left to wonder about the fate of this poor slave girl. I would like to believe that the liberating word spoken by Paul broke not only the yoke of demonic possession, but also that of her servitude. I would like to believe that she found her way to liberation and freedom. But the Bible gives us no such assurance. We know very little about this young woman. Was she merely a child now abandoned to fend for herself in the streets? Or did her owners find some other means of extracting profits from her too horrible to contemplate? Tempting as it is to to follow Paul and Silas on their remarkable journey, perhaps the Spirit would have us stop at this point and feel a little Pauline outrage.

When we hear the term “human trafficking,” it calls up images of young people trapped in the sex trade. This horrific form of exploitation is surely worthy of our attention and concern. I believe, however, that human trafficking in the sex trade is symptomatic of  something deeper, namely, an economic system that views human beings as “commodities” whose time and labor can be exploited for whatever compensation the almighty market deems appropriate and without regard to their needs. Once you accept the proposition that a person’s worth is measured by what s/he can earn from producing goods or services for anyone willing to pay for them, it is not such a great leap to the sale of human bodies to gratify the lust of whoever has money to buy them.  A culture in which one’s value is measured by one’s employability in a profit-making venture is, in the Pauline view, demonic. Holy outrage is the only appropriate response-even if it gets you arrested.

How did the slave girl in our lesson fare once she became worthless to her owners? We don’t have to speculate. We know only too well what happens to people deemed worthless. We only have to witness the fate of the homeless in our streets. We needn’t look any further than refugee camps the world over filled with people deemed to have no economic value sufficient to justify their reception into any nation. We have only to listen to the hateful rhetoric of our president toward people coming to us desperate to escape hopeless poverty and violence. Our world has little use for people deemed “valueless.” The worst part of all this is our lack of outrage, our sense that the exploitation and disposal of people as so many commodities is somehow normal.

This is the story of an apostle’s outrage against an oppressive hierarchical economy that reduces people to commodities. It is the story of an apostle preaching good news to the poor and liberation to the captives, a word that has power to topple the pyramid of oppression and return to its victims their humanity. And yes, it is also the story of what happened to the apostle as a result.  But we are not ready to move into that portion of the narrative until we experience in the depths of our souls the outrage that sparked it.

Here is a poem by Claude McKay expressing a little of that holy outrage. Read it-and be outraged.

Harlem Shadows

I hear the halting footsteps of a lass
In Negro Harlem when the night lets fall
Its veil. I see the shapes of girls who pass
To bend and barter at desire’s call.
Ah, little dark girls who in slippered feet
Go prowling through the night from street to street!
Through the long night until the silver break
Of day the little gray feet know no rest;
Through the lone night until the last snow-flake
Has dropped from heaven upon the earth’s white breast,
The dusky, half-clad girls of tired feet
Are trudging, thinly shod, from street to street.
Ah, stern harsh world, that in the wretched way
Of poverty, dishonor and disgrace,
Has pushed the timid little feet of clay,
The sacred brown feet of my fallen race!
Ah, heart of me, the weary, weary feet
In Harlem wandering from street to street.

 

Source: This poem is in the public domain. Claude McKay (1889-1948) was born Festus Claudius McKay in Nairne Castle, Jamaica. He came to the United States in 1912 to attend the Tuskegee Institute. McKay was shocked by the racism he encountered in this country and that experience of culture shock shaped his career as a writer and poet. McKay became a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, a Black American intellectual, social, and artistic movement centered in Harlem, New York spanning the 1920s. His poetry celebrates peasant life in Jamaica, challenges white supremacy in America and lifts up the struggles of black men and women striving to live their lives with dignity in a racist culture. You can learn more about Claude McKay and read more of his poetry on the Poetry Foundation Website.

President Trump Gives Alaska Back to Russia

See the source image

Kierkegaard’s Ghost

(News that’s fake, but credible)

Today the White House announced that President Trump reached a deal with Russian President, Vladimir Putin for the return of Alaska to Russian jurisdiction and sovereignty.  The United States originally purchased what is now the State of Alaska from Russia through an agreement negotiated by then Secretary of State, William H. Seward, on March 30, 1867 for the sum of  $7.2 million. Russia is reportedly paying $10 million for re-purchase. “The president believes that this gesture will restore and strengthen friendship between our two countries,” said presidential press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders. The transaction, evidently negotiated in a series of e-mails between the two leaders, will be signed next week at a special ceremony in the Rose Garden where Mr. Putin is scheduled to appear with President Trump. Sanders brushed off concerns that the presence of Russian troops and military installations on the Alaskan frontier might compromise national security. “To the contrary,” said Sanders, “a strong Russian military presence on the North American continent will provide a necessary deterrent to the growing power of the Democratic House, the deep state and the liberal press. They’re are the real enemies of the United States.”

Opposition in Congress has been strong even among Republicans. “I sent a strongly worded objection to my e-mail draft box,” said Maine Senator Susan Collins. Senator Lindsay Graham also expressed concern over the president’s decision, but added “I still support Donald Trump as do the American people.” Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell likewise expressed dismay, though he criticized the Democrats and the media for its coverage of the Alaska transaction. “We need to view this whole thing in context,” McConnell said. “The president has an overall strategy. This is just one tiny piece of it.” The only Republican senators unequivocally opposed to the deal are Alaska Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan.

The president  lashed out on Twitter at critics of his decision. “I know real estate,” he said. “It’s what I do. Seward was an idiot. Served under a president who got impeached. No wonder he paid $7.2 million for an icebox. I sold it back for $10 million! $2.8 million profit!” In addition to the aforementioned payment of $10 million, Russia is also transferring several commercial lots in downtown Moscow to an American company, rumored to be a Trump subsidiary. “Fake news,” the president shot back. “The company is wholly owned and operated by my son, Donald Jr. No ownership by me.”

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin hinted that there might be further such transactions to come. “We are looking into the possible sale of California, Oregon and Washington to Russia as well.” Though stressing that these talks are in the very preliminary stages, Mnuchin went on to point out the advantages of Russia taking over the defense of America’s western border. “The savings in military costs would be astronomical,” he said. “We could give all that land away and still come out ahead.”

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FAKE NEWS ALERT: The above article is satirical. The events it describes didn’t happen. In the words of John Steinbeck, “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.”

What It Takes to Heal Nations

San Diego Solidarity Brigade & OLBSD Projections for Racial Justice - Dismantle White SupremacySIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER

Acts 16:9-15
Psalm 67
Revelation 21:10, 22–22:5
John 14:23-29

Prayer of the Day: Bountiful God, you gather your people into your realm, and you promise us food from your tree of life. Nourish us with your word, that empowered by your Spirit we may love one another and the world you have made, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
for you judge the peoples with equity
and guide the nations upon earth.” Psalm 67:4.

“On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” Revelation 22:2.

The relationship between Gods people and the “nations” is-well, a little bit complicated. In the Hebrew Scriptures the nations are often seen as enemies of Israel. “Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and his anointed, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.’” Psalm 2:1-2. These verses reflect the geopolitical reality of 9th and 8th Century Palestine where relatively small kingdoms like Israel and Judah led a precarious existence among other petty kingdoms vying for control of the fertile crescent in the shadow of the great Hittite, Babylonian, Egyptian and Assyrian empires. The nations and their ambitions posed an ever-present existential threat to Israel.

Particularly insightful is Psalm 82 in which “God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment.” Psalm 82:1. The “gods” referenced here are the gods of the various nations. See Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary on the New English Bible (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 164. The religion built around these gods functioned as a divine justification for the hierarchical regime that stratified human society from the king down to the slave. In contrast to these gods who “judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked” (Psalm 82:2), the God of Israel gives “justice to the weak and the fatherless” and maintains “the right of the afflicted and destitute.” Israel’s God “rescue[s] the weak and the needy; deliver[ing] them from the hand of the wicked.” Psalm 82:3-4. Indeed, this unique God to a band of escaped slaves turns the hierarchical regime of these other so-called “gods” on its head. So, too, in the New Testament the “nations” personified by Herod and Pontius Pilate were instrumental in the rejection and crucifixion of Jesus. Acts 4:27-28. In the end, the nations will be judged for their neglect and abuse of the poor, the hungry, the naked and oppressed. See Matthew 25:31-46.

This is not the entire story, however. Abram was called and blessed in order to “be a blessing” and so that by his and Sarai’s descendants “all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.” Genesis 12:1-3. Psalm 87 speaks of Zion as the mother of peoples from many nations, some of which were mortal enemies of Israel. The Lord declares to the prophet Isaiah, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6. John of Patmos visualizes the people of God’s new creation as coming from “all tribes and peoples and tongues.” Revelation 7:9. “The glory and honor of the nations” are to be incorporated into the new Jerusalem and by that holy city’s light the “nations shall walk.” Revelation 21:22-27. The nations as nations are objects of God’s redemptive goal for all creation. Like individual persons, they stand in need of God’s healing touch.

There is plenty of healing that needs to be done if the nations are to dwell together justly and peacefully in God’s new creation. I can’t think of any nation, past or present, that does not have injustice, violence and blood in its history. Every nation, including my own, has a tendency to demand loyalty that belongs to God alone, impose its own nationalistic agenda on the rest of the world and neglect the most vulnerable people under its jurisdiction. The indictment made against the Near Eastern deities in Psalm 87 could as well be made against the nations of the modern world. So, how does God go about “healing” the nations?

A nation is healed the same way individual persons are healed: through repentance and forgiveness. The delightful Book of the Prophet Jonah suggests that such a thing is indeed possible for the most wayward of nations. But it is hardly realistic to expect it occur with the speed and thoroughness that repentance overtook the empire of Assyria in response to the prophet’s message. There are some suggestive events in our own time that I believe give us clues about what national repentance might look like. One example is The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) assembled in South Africa after the end of apartheid. The TRC was a court-like body before which witnesses who were identified as victims of gross human rights violations were invited to give statements about their experiences. Some of these witnesses were selected for public hearings. Perpetrators of violence under the former regime could also give testimony and request amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution. A register of reconciliation was also established so that ordinary South Africans who wished to express regret for past failures could also express their remorse. The TRC hearings were crucial to South Africa’s transition to full and free democracy.

So how might repentance and healing take shape in our own nation? Clearly, there is much for which we need to repent. But if there is one defining sin of the United States it is the pervasive and systemic racism built into our nation’s founding document and the social and and economic arrangements under which was built an empire on the lands of dispossessed peoples and on the backs of enslaved Africans. If there is one sin that continues to breed violence, poverty and injustice it is the ideology of white supremacy that manifests itself not only in the overt activities of the Ku Klux Klan, skinheads and white nationalist organizations, but in the more subtle and therefore more lethal practices of discrimination in government, education and the workplace.

Proposals have been made for reparations in some form to descendants of slaves, most notably, Representative John James Conyers, Jr.s “Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act” (H.R. 40). This legislation would “establish a commission to examine the institution of slavery, subsequently de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes.” Few political leaders have been willing to promote even the notion of such action.[1] It should be pointed out, however, that restitution to persons wronged by the American government under color of law is not a new idea. At the end of the Civil War, General William Sherman issued a series of orders granting each freed slave family forty acres of tillable land in the sea islands and around Charleston, South Carolina. This land was to be for the exclusive use of black people who had been enslaved. Around 40,000 freed slaves were settled on 400,000 acres in Georgia and South Carolina.  (However, President Andrew Johnson reversed the order after President Lincoln was assassinated, and the land was returned to its previous owners.) Under the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 the U.S. government apologized to Japanese Americans for their internment during World War II and provided reparations of $20,000 to each survivor in compensation for loss of property and liberty during that period. Additionally, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act transferred land, federal money, and a portion of oil revenues to native Alaskans. The moral imperative is clear. The legal precedent is there. What we lack is the will.

Admittedly, reparations to African Americans in the United States posses many difficult and perplexing issues: What form should reparations take? Cash payments made through restitution courts? A vigorous affirmative action initiative? Programs aimed at developing predominantly black communities and schools? Who administers the process of reparations? How will reparations in any form help to dismantle the hateful ideology of white supremacy and its ongoing contribution to discriminatory conduct? Should there be a “truth commission” component of reparations? Such perplexities, though daunting, should not deter us. Imperfect and flawed justice is still better than allowing injustice to continue. Nothing worth doing is easy and we have to start somewhere. Representative Conyer’s bill seems as good a place as any.

This is hardly a “hot” partisan political issue. Neither of the two major parties has shown any strong desire to make racial justice a centerpiece of its platform. But for disciples of Jesus, reconciliation isn’t a peripheral issue and it cannot be set aside in the interest of an election. Because “healing of the nations” is the end game for God’s new creation, followers of Jesus cannot be neutral when it comes to addressing this chief sin afflicting the nation in which we reside. The only way is forward and into the light.

Here is a poem by Elizabeth Alexander urging us to march forward into the light.

Praise Song for the Day

Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.
All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.
Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.
Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.
A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.
We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.
We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what’s on the other side.
I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.
Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,
picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.
Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.
Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?
Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.
In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,
praise song for walking forward in that light.

 

Source: Praise Song for the Day, (c. 2009 by Elizabeth Alexander, pub. by Graywolf Press). Elizabeth Alexander was born in Harlem in 1962. She grew up on Washington, D.C., however, where her father, Clifford Alexander, served as United States Secretary of the Army and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission chairman. She earned her Ph.D. at University of Pennsylvania. Alexander is chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and a professor of poetry at Yale University. She composed and read the above at President Barak Obama’s inauguration in 2009. You can find out more about Elizabeth Alexander and read more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

 

 

 

 

[1] In a paper opposing reparations by the U.S. government, the National Legal and Policy Center cites a Harper’s Magazine estimation of total of reparations due as of 1993 at approximately “$97 trillion, based on 222,505,049 hours of forced labor between 1619 and 1865, compounded at 6% interest through 1993”.This figure does not take into account the corrosive effects on black families and their opportunities resulting from years of overt segregation or the continuing effects of ongoing systemic discrimination.

In Defense of Extremism and Intolerance

United Church of Christ at March for Our Lives DCFIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER

Acts 11:1-18
Psalm 148
Revelation 21:1-6
John 13:31-35

Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, you teach us that without love, our actions gain nothing. Pour into our hearts your most excellent gift of love, that, made alive by your Spirit, we may know goodness and peace, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” John 13:34.

This is not a “new” commandment in the absolute sense. The commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself comes directly out of the Hebrew Scriptures and lies at the heart of Torah. It is new only in the sense that we view it now through the lens of Jesus’ death and resurrection which reveals the depth of God’s love for us and which we, for our part, are called to practice toward our neighbors and one another. In Jesus, God takes love to extremes.

The term “extremism” has unsavory nuances. If someone calls you an extremist, it is probably not intended as a complement. The word conjures up images of suicide bombers, white nationalists and religious fanatics of all flavors pushing their perverse agendas by all means necessary-including violence. To be sure, these are all examples of extremism. But are they the only kinds? What about people like Saint Vincent de Paul who took generosity to extremes? What about people like Saint Francis of Assisi who took compassion to extremes? Isn’t discipleship about taking love to extremes? Isn’t Jesus’ determination to exercise love and healing rather than self defense against those who came to take his life about the most extreme expression of love imaginable?

Like everyone else, those of us in the church are suspicions of people who “take things to extremes.” We prefer moderation. If there must be change, let’s make it incrementally. Let’s be thoughtful and deliberate. By all means, let’s not take things to extremes! According to our lesson from the Book of Acts, the church leaders in Jerusalem felt that perhaps Saint Peter’s baptism of a gentile family was taking things a bit too far. They would become increasingly alarmed by Saint Paul’s mission to the gentiles.  Many in the New Testament church seemed to feel that Paul was taking things to extremes. The Book of Acts gives us the picture of a church struggling to keep up with the Spirit of God pulling it incessantly to new extremes.

“Moderation” and “tolerance” are the supposed counterbalancing virtues to the vice of extremism. Admittedly,  prudence might dictate practicing moderation in some areas of life, such as alcohol consumption. Wisdom and charity require my tolerance of the neighbor’s screaming children. But neither of these tepid virtues serve us well as guiding principles. We fault Nazi extremism for crimes against humanity, yet could we not as much fault millions of moderates of that time who tolerated conditions under the Third Reich and chose not to take love to the extreme of standing with the victims of state violence? Moderation does not go to the extreme of supporting racism, sexual abuse of women, separation of families, abuse of power and environmental degradation. But it will tolerate all of these things as long as the stock market goes up and unemployment goes down. Moderation would never deny a child food or access to medicine; but it will tolerate childhood poverty and disease if the price of addressing it takes a bite out of the wallet. Turns out that moderation and tolerance are often just polite words for cowardice and self-preservation.

Extremism is not really the problem. It’s all a matter of the extremities. Extremists for hateful ideologies have demonstrated that they are prepared to injure, kill and even die for their perverse beliefs. They are prepared to close borders, gate their communities and segregate their schools to protect the purity of their nation and culture. In response to all of this, the last thing we need are moderates willing to tolerate it. What is needed are extremists unwilling to tolerate evil, extremists equally committed to opening borders, breaking down walls and pledging their allegiance, not to any flag or nation, but to that kingdom composed of “every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” Revelation 7:9. If extremists of hate are prepared to embrace a bomb in furtherance of their perverse aims, extremists of love must be prepared to embrace the bomber accepting all that may follow. Disciples of Jesus are those who are prepared to die taking love to extremes.

Here is a poem by Denise Levertov dismissing the banal moderation that makes a false virtue of tolerance.

Goodbye to Tolerance

Genial poets, pink-faced
earnest wits—
you have given the world
some choice morsels,
gobbets of language presented
as one presents T-bone steak
and Cherries Jubilee.
Goodbye, goodbye,
                            I don’t care
if I never taste your fine food again,
neutral fellows, seers of every side.
Tolerance, what crimes
are committed in your name.
And you, good women, bakers of nicest bread,
blood donors. Your crumbs
choke me, I would not want
a drop of your blood in me, it is pumped
by weak hearts, perfect pulses that never
falter: irresponsive
to nightmare reality.
It is my brothers, my sisters,
whose blood spurts out and stops
forever
because you choose to believe it is not your business.
Goodbye, goodbye,
your poems
shut their little mouths,
your loaves grow moldy,
a gulf has split
                     the ground between us,
and you won’t wave, you’re looking
another way.
We shan’t meet again—
unless you leap it, leaving
behind you the cherished
worms of your dispassion,
your pallid ironies,
your jovial, murderous,
wry-humored balanced judgment,
leap over, un-
balanced? … then
how our fanatic tears
would flow and mingle
for joy …

 

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.