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.

Mercy From Where You Least Expect It

FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Deuteronomy 30:9-14

Psalm 25:1-10

Colossians 1:1-14

Luke 10:25-37

Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, your mercy delights us, and the world longs for your loving care. Hear the cries of everyone in need, and turn our hearts to love our neighbors with the love of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

There is more than one way to read a parable. There are three characters in this story of the Good Samaritan. There is the lawyer standing at the sidelines posing the question, “who is my neighbor?” We might well put ourselves in his shoes and, in so doing, hear Jesus’ admonition to do as was done by the Samaritan to the robbery victim. Or we might look at this parable from the standpoint of the Samaritan who, finding a wounded Jew on the road side, sees not an enemy but simply a man in need of care and feels compassion. From that standpoint, we might evaluate our own capacity to see in our enemies the call of Jesus for the exercise of compassion. But it is also possible to view this parable from the standpoint of the guy who got the crap beaten out of him and was left on the roadside to die-and then received mercy from a source he never imagined mercy would ever come.

Twenty-three years ago, my wife lay in a coma and I was sitting at her bedside in the ICU waiting for some word on her prospects of recovery from any one of the many physicians caring for her. Had I been at home on the east coast, I would have been surrounded by family, caring friends and my church. As it was, we were on vacation in Seattle, Washington when my wife became ill and sank into unconsciousness. I desperately needed someone with whom to pray, to share my fear and pain. I made this need known to the hospital social worker. Though the hospital had no chaplaincy program, the social worker said she would reach out to the local Lutheran churches. A day later I had received neither a visit nor any pastoral communication. The social worker told me apologetically that she could find no Lutheran pastors willing or able to come out to the hospital. So I told her that I was not denominationally particular and that any flavor of Christian would do.

Not twenty minutes later a young man walked into the ICU room where I was sitting with my wife and introduced himself as an elder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, commonly known as Mormons. Having grown up in a town where Mormons were heavily represented, I had had a number of experiences with their aggressive evangelistic methods. I learned very early on that when they showed up at the door, the best policy was to say that you were in the middle of an important  phone call that would probably last for at least an hour and so were unable to speak. Then you shut the door before they can suggest scheduling another visit at a more convenient time. Under no circumstances do you open the screen door even a crack, unless you really are interested in having your soul saved. That was about the last thing I needed that day. I was beginning to think that my request for “any flavor of Christian” was maybe just a bit over broad.

Perhaps the young elder sensed my dismay. “Brother Peter,” he said. “You’ve probably heard that my church is very committed to evangelizing and winning people to our faith. But I know this isn’t the time or place for that. So perhaps we can sit together and pray in Jesus’ name for your wife and say the Lord’s Prayer together. Would that be OK?” That was exactly what I needed at that time and in that place. I was looking for ministry from my Lutheran and/or orthodox Christian siblings. But help came from the last place I could have expected. I think I know how that beaten and bloodied Jew lying on the side of the road must have felt when he looked up into the face of that Samaritan tenderly washing and binding up his wounds. Since that day, I have never been able to think of Mormons with the same uncharitable and judgmental attitude I developed growing up. To be sure, I still have my doctrinal and theological differences with Mormons. But I know now that they are my neighbors because, of all the churches from which help was sought on my behalf, the Mormons came and showed me compassion.

When you are in dire need of compassion and another human being offers it, you tend to forget about all the distinctions that seem so very important in this polarized culture of ours. When your house is on fire, you don’t ask the firefighter that got you safely outside and is risking life and limb to save your home whether she is a Muslim or whether he is gay or whether their politics is liberal or conservative or whether they are properly documented or what church, if any, they belong to. You are just grateful that your neighbors care enough about each other to arrange for fire protection; that there are women and men who care enough to take on the risky work of fighting fires and saving lives; that there are people willing to open their doors for you if necessary until you get back on your feet. Compassion does not recognize distinctions. God has created us with a marvelous capacity to look beyond our surface distinctions and recognize in one another the holy image we all share with our Creator. Sometimes, though, we need to get the crap beaten out us to remind us that it’s there.

Here is a poem by Mark Turbyfill speaking to our common humanity pulling against all that divides us.

Strangers

God,

I shall tell you:

I am seeing and seeing strangers

Who are not strangers,

For there is something in their eyes,

And about their faces

That whispers to me

(But so low

That I can never quite hear)

Of the lost half of myself

Which I have been seeking since the beginning of earth.

And I could follow them to the end of the world,

Would they but lean nearer, nearer,

And tell me….”

Source: Poetry, (May 1917). Mark Turbyfill (1896-1990) was an American poet, dancer, and painter. He was born in Oklahoma City and came to Chicago with his parents in 1911. He began publishing poems while still a teenager. His professional dance career began in 1919 when he joined the Pavley-Oukrainsky corps de ballet with the Chicago Grand Opera Company. He continued to dance through the 1920s and 1930s, later becoming principal dancer under Adolph Bolm with the Chicago Allied Arts and partnering Chicago dancer and choreographer Ruth Page.

Sheep Among Wolves

FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Isaiah 66:10-14

Psalm 66:1-9

Galatians 6:1-16

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Prayer of the Day: O God, the Father of our Lord Jesus, you are the city that shelters us, the mother who comforts us. With your Spirit accompany us on our life’s journey, that we may spread your peace in all the world, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.” Luke 10:3.

We in the United States live in a culture steeped in violence. The culture of bloodshed permeates our popular literature, entertainment networks, advertising and, increasingly these days, our politics. The attack on our Capital following the 2020 election was not, as some would have us believe, an anomalous bleep on the radar. It was, not to put too fine a point on it, an expression of our national character. Our national creed is well expressed by Wayne Robert LaPierre Jr., CEO and executive vice president of the National Rifle Association (NRA) who famously reminds us that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Not to be out done, Colorado Republican congresswoman Lauren Boebert told an audience of conservative Christians that if only Jesus had had an AR-15, he could have prevented the Romans from executing him. Perhaps Boebert’s comment was only a lame attempt at humor. But that she felt comfortable making light of what to Christians is (or should be!) the central tenet of their faith to a Christian audience speaks volumes.

Into this increasingly violent culture, Jesus sends his disciples as lambs among wolves. That registers as lunacy to a people steeped in the myth of redemptive violence and the firm belief that, when push comes to shove, a violent response to evil is finally unavoidable. In the words of Kenny Rogers, “Sometimes you have to fight to be a man.” I was recently in a discussion with a fellow Christian who said to me, “those who beat their spears into plowshares wind up plowing the fields of those who keep their swords.” When I pointed out to him that his clever remark was actually mocking the words of the Prophet Isaiah, he was, to put it mildly, chagrined. This little interchange demonstrates once again that American Christians are typically more American than Christian. How else can you explain Christians supporting “the right to bear arms” while claiming to follow the one who tells his disciples to “put away the sword?”

Yet disciples are distinguished by the conviction, lived out by their Lord, namely, that it is better to die than to kill. It all comes down to this: there are evils in the world that seem to cry out for an immediate remedy and nothing is more immediate than a bullet. Our temptation is to address such evils with appeals to some noble end justifying violent means. There can be no clearer example of such self justifying violence than the war in Ukraine where unspeakable carnage continues to be fed by a seemingly endless supply of weapons from NATO countered by a Russian arsenal of nearly equal magnitude. Of course, both sides are armed with weapons that could plunge civilization into new dark age if and when one gets the upper hand and the other’s security seems genuinely threatened. This is the dead end to which Mr. LaPierre’s philosophy finally leads.

To be a disciple of Jesus is to refuse, along with our Lord, to get caught up in the cycle of retribution; to reject the notion that the use of violent force is inevitable; and to be prepared to suffer death rather than to inflict it. It is to be sent as a lamb into the midst of ravenous wolves. To be a disciple of Jesus is to recognize that the ends never justify the means because we cannot know what the ends will be and whether they are the ends toward which God is working. The ends cannot justify the means because unjust means will always infect the ends. We cannot control the ends to which our actions bring us, but we can control the means by which we act. To do that, we must sometimes resist the temptation to bypass the peaceful way of our Lord to achieve some noble end or avoid some unspeakable evil.

Here is a poem by Dudley Randall illustrating that, whether we put our lives on the line to confront evil with a potent witness of peace or whether we simply gather to pray for peace, violence is still able to reach us. No greater juxtaposition has ever been seen than that of the ongoing courageous and peaceful struggle for racial justice in our land and the violent and ruthless opposition to it.

Ballad of Birmingham

(On the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963)

“Mother dear, may I go downtown

Instead of out to play,

And march the streets of Birmingham

In a Freedom March today?”

“No, baby, no, you may not go,

For the dogs are fierce and wild,

And clubs and hoses, guns and jails

Aren’t good for a little child.”

“But, mother, I won’t be alone.

Other children will go with me,

And march the streets of Birmingham

To make our country free.”

“No, baby, no, you may not go,

For I fear those guns will fire.

But you may go to church instead

And sing in the children’s choir.”

She has combed and brushed her night-dark hair,

And bathed rose petal sweet,

And drawn white gloves on her small brown hands,

And white shoes on her feet.

The mother smiled to know her child

Was in the sacred place,

But that smile was the last smile

To come upon her face.

For when she heard the explosion,

Her eyes grew wet and wild.

She raced through the streets of Birmingham

Calling for her child.

She clawed through bits of glass and brick,

Then lifted out a shoe.

“O, here’s the shoe my baby wore,

But, baby, where are you?”

Source: Cities Burning (c. 1968 by Dudley Randall; pub. by Broadside Press, 1968). Dudley Randall (1914-2000) was an African-American poet and poetry publisher from Detroit, Michigan. He founded a pioneering publishing company called Broadside Press in 1965, which published many leading African-American writers. Randall’s poetry is characterized by simplicity and realism. Randall became interested in poetry at an early age. His interest stemmed from his father taking him to hear prominent African-American writers and artists speak, including W. E. B. Du Bois, Walter Francis White, James Weldon Johnson and others. Randall worked on the floor of a Ford Motor plant, as a postal clerk and served in the military during the Second World War. He earned a master’s degree in library science and served as a reference librarian at University of Detroit where he was also named the University’s Poet-in-Residence. You can find out more about Dudly Randall and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

What Does the Bible Really Say About Abortion?

It’s official. The Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade returning to the states full authority to regulate medical termination of pregnancies without regard to a women’s needs or desires. As a practical matter, this means the issue is no longer a mere culture war talking point. The extent to which women are entitled to determine the medical treatment surrounding their pregnancies will be a hotly contested issue in several states. As has been the case from the get go, religion figures heavily into the debate. Volumes have been written and I am sure more will be forthcoming about all the implications of this development. However, I am confining this discussion to the question posed in the title of my article, namely, what the Bible really says about abortion. As a disciple of Jesus, I want to make sure that if the Bible is to be dragged into this debate, people understand what it does and does not say. As a lawyer who took an oath to uphold the Constitution (back in the days when that actually meant something), I want us to be clear about what the issues actually are so that we do not clutter the airwaves, internet and barber shop with a lot of fruitless, ignorant chatter. One can only hope. So here goes.  

In the strictest sense, the answer to the question posed is “nothing.” The Bible does not address abortion anywhere. The one place where the status of a fetus is discussed is Exodus 21:22. Here the law provides that, where a pregnant woman is injured in the course of a brawl such that she miscarries, the responsible party must pay a fine to the woman’s husband. The provision clearly does not treat the wrongfully caused miscarriage as a homicide. It is rather a civil offense against property, more specifically, the property of the woman’s husband. This verse does nothing to support either the proposition that a fetus is the equivalent of a mature human or the claim that a woman should have the right to control her own body. It has no useful ammunition for either army in the abortion culture war. Not surprisingly, both sides ignore it.  

Now some anti-abortion advocates cite passages like Psalm 139:13-18, Jeremiah 1:5 and Genesis 25:21-26 (Jacob and Esau wrestling in Rachel’s womb) and Luke 1:41-44 (John the Baptist leaping in Elizabeth’s womb) in support of their claim that human life begins at conception. All reputable biblical scholars agree that these texts are poetic expressions of God’s involvement with and destiny for the people involved. They are not addressing our Twenty-First Century culture war disputes about how or when a person comes into being or when a person becomes a sentient human creature. The Lord says to Jeremiah, before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” The psalmist declares that his or her days “were formed for me when as yet there was none of them.” Yet if one insists on ignoring the biblical writers’ intent and taking these verses as addressing the moment when life begins, then one can only conclude that life begins before conception. As a matter of fact, the biblical authors did not even know about conception. The ancient view was that a person springs from the “seed” of one’s father. Females are simply incubators for their husband’s seed.[1] This understanding is exhibited by the author of the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews who states that the patriarch Levi was in the loins of his great grandfather Abraham. Hebrews 7:9-10. However valid the theological point made by the author, one must admit that his or her understanding of human biology is wanting. Nonetheless, if you insist on taking the Bible literally at this point, then we should be regulating penises rather than wombs.

So here is the bottom line. I don’t know when a psycho-spiritual being emerges from the human reproductive process. Neither do you, nor does anyone else for that matter. The Supreme Court was incapable of making that determination and said as much. Science cannot answer the question for us and, as we have seen, the Bible is silent on the matter. Your opinion that the emergence of sentient being occurs at conception, birth or some point in between or after is just that-an opinion. More precisely, it is a religious/philosophical opinion.[2] Of course, you are welcome to your opinion. But you cannot maintain that it is a biblical teaching to which all Christians are bound and you certainly are not entitled to have it enshrined in law on that basis. The truth is that when, if ever, in the process of reproduction a fetus is deemed a person is purely a legal determination. It is a decision we as citizens make based not on religion or metaphysics, but by weighing the rights and interests of women, the interests of society as a whole and our understanding of pre-natal fetal development gleaned from medical science. The Supreme Court balanced all of these interests in its 1973 decision, Row v. Wade,  and determined, rightly I think, that the right of women to privacy in this most personal of decisions predominates. You can argue that these interests should have been balanced in some other way. But you cannot argue either that the Bible or medical science supports the proposition that a “person” emerges at conception. As they say down south, “that dog won’t hunt.”


[1] Thus, the same reasoning applies to Jacob and Esau as well as John the Baptist. The point made is that their origin lies in the mystery of God’s predestination. Yet, once again, if we take this text as a literal description of when a person comes into being, that point would have to be before conception takes place.

[2] I have an opinion on this matter as well. I choose not to share it in this article as it is no more germane than yours. Nevertheless, if you are interested, you can find it at this link.

Salvation Bigger than the Church

THIRD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21

Psalm 16

Galatians 5:1, 13-25

Luke 9:51-62

Prayer of the Day: Sovereign God, ruler of all hearts, you call us to obey you, and you favor us with true freedom. Keep us faithful to the ways of your Son, that, leaving behind all that hinders us, we may steadfastly follow your paths, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

In the first section of today’s gospel, Jesus must restrain his disciples who would nuke Samaritan villages that will not receive him. He would have his disciples know that retribution is not consistent with the reign of God he proclaims. Jesus’ love and forgiveness extends even to those who reject him. We never find Jesus turning away anyone in need of his assistance. He does not ask any one of the five thousand people he fed with loaves and fishes to demonstrate genuine need or that they have made good faith efforts to find gainful employment. Jesus responds with compassion to agents of the Empire occupying his homeland and which ultimately crucified him. He welcomed invitations to dine with respected religious leaders as well as social outcasts. Jesus’ love is radically inclusive, embracing even those who nailed him to the cross.

When it comes to selecting his disciples, however, Jesus is careful and discriminating. He spent the whole night in prayer before selecting the Twelve. Luke 6:12-16. He made it clear to the admiring crowd following him that, if they would be his disciples, they would need to put the reign of God before everything else and be prepared to take up the cross on which he himself would soon die for its sake. Luke 9:23-25. In the second half of our gospel reading, Jesus turns away three people who desire to be his disciples. The first, who promises to follow Jesus wherever he might go, is warned that homelessness is part of the discipleship package. The second two learn that the reign of God takes precedence even over “family values.” All of this strikes one as rather severe and uncompromising.

Or perhaps not. If we understand that Jesus’ love extends to all people and, indeed, the whole cosmos, then his words to these would be followers do not amount to rejection. Nor are they a reflection on their characters. Jesus is simply suggesting to them that they are not yet ready to be his disciples. They are not ready to make the sacrifices required to proclaim in word and deed the good news of God’s reign or to begin living into that reign in the mist of a world hostile to it. It does not mean that they are excluded from that reign or from the love God has for all creation.

Perhaps one of the most destructive errors infecting the church over the centuries is our coupling of church with God’s promise of salvation. I have seen on any number of occasions and perhaps you have too the bumper sticker declaring “No salvation outside the church.” I grew up with that assumption in my home congregation. As a young man pursuing ministry, I believed that salvation consisted in being converted to Christianity and being thus included in the church. My job, then, was to “bring people to Christ.” Over the years, however, I have come to recognize the insidious effect this misconception has had on what was supposed to be “good news.” Instead of sharing an incredibly good word to a world hungry for God’s inclusive kindness, mercy and reconciliation, we found ourselves trying to scare people into an exclusive church with threats of God’s wrath. Missionary work was a zero sum game in which people were called upon to abandon altogether their faith, their families and the faith communities that had formed them to “get aboard” the good ship salvation. It was that or face eternal damnation. Of course, this outlook on the missionary endeavor fit all too comfortably with western racism, colonialism and ruthless imperial exploitation. Though there were and are missionaries that respect and value the cultures and religion of the people to whom they minister, too many of them shared the prejudice and contempt of their oppressors. That condescending attitude is amply reflected in the poem by  Anita Endrezze below.

The equation of church with salvation has been equally harmful to our ecclesiology. If salvation means conversion and church membership, then evangelism equates with church membership growth. A church that is not growing is not doing its job. That explains a great deal of the angst these days over the marked decline in membership among mainline and, increasingly, so-called “evangelical” churches as well. If we are not growing, it means we are not “connecting” with people. If we are not growing, it means we are no longer “relevant.” If we are not growing, it must be because we are doing something wrong. Hence, the frantic effort to attract young families with flashy Sunday School curriculum, exciting youth activities, couples’ clubs, singles groups, book clubs and novel worship innovations like “seekers worship” and “dinner church.” Please understand that I don’t believe there is anything wrong with any of these things in themselves. But when they are part of an effort to lure people into the church by appealing to their appitites for freebies, entertainment and cheap babysitting services, they betray Jesus’ call to make disciples.

That brings me to my final point. Nowhere does Jesus call us to make church members of all nations. He calls us instead to make disciples of all nations or, more accurately stated, from among all nations. Membership implies a degree of status that goes with being part of a group. As a member of this church, I have a right to have my kids baptized, confirmed and married here. When my time comes, I am entitled to be buried out of this church. All I need to do in return is contribute a few dollars every year and show up often enough not to be taken off the rolls for inactivity. It is all transactional. As much as we preachers like to rail against inactive members, we have only our own flawed theology and practice to blame. We have sold the church as a warm, friendly community that offers all manner of benefits while requiring next to nothing in return. Can we really blame the people we have lured into our midst on this pretext when they balk at having an offering plate shoved under their nose and a request for a pledge of financial support? Understandably, these folks feel like the victims of a classic “bait and switch.” By appealing to their consumer appitites, we have neither proclaimed to them the Good News about what Jesus has done for them nor have we challenged them to join with him in witnessing to that Good News to a world that desparately needs it.  

The church is not a life raft designed to rescue as many souls as possible from a sinking ship. The church is the first fruits of God’s design to save the ship. The church is to be “a demonstration plot” for the coming reign of God, as the late Clarence Jordan, founder of Koinonia Farm so aptly put it. To be chosen as Jesus’ disciple is not an election to privilege above and beyond the rest of humanity. It is election to a vocation of service to the world for which God sent the only begotten Son. The church, however imperfectly, testifies to what human community is supposed to look like and the end to which God is drawing all of creation. Its mission is not to expand its numbers, but to form people capable of living in communion of Trinitarian love.  

Properly understood, the gospel lesson for this week is incredibly good news. The burden of saving the world no longer rests upon our shoulders. We need no longer worry about children who seem to have no interest in the church or critics who malign the church or the seeming indifference of the dominant culture to the church’s ministry. The salvation of the world and of each individual is God’s responsibility and God’s work of salvation extends far beyond the borders of the church. As Jesus reminds us, those who are not against us are with us. Mark 9:40. Indeed, if we believe what Saint Paul tells us about “all things being held together” in Christ, then it should not surprise us to find Jesus reflected in the faith and life of Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and people other faith-or no faith-traditions.See Colossians 1:15-20.

I suspect that congregations changing their focus from growing membership to making disciples might lose some long time members who want only the privileges that come with belonging to a voluntary organization. I also suspect that such congregations will attract new people hungry for community grounded in thick spiritual practices and dedicated to witnessing in word and action to God’s coming reign of justice, reconciliation and peace. Whether that will be a net loss or gain in terms of numbers, I neither know nor care. The church from which the Good News of Jesus Christ spread to the entire Mediterranean world was small enough to meet in a single room. As the story of the loaves and fishes illustrate, God does not need much to work with in order to accomplish great things.  

Here is the poem by Anita Endrezze to which I referred above.

Indian Vices

By nature Indians are very lazy and sworn enemies of work.
They prefer to suffer hunger than to fatigue themselves
with agriculture. Therefore, they must be forced to do this by their
superiors. With six industrious Europeans one can do more
in one day than fifty Indians
—Joseph Och, Missionary in Sonora: Travel Reports
of Joseph Och, S.J., 1755-176

Mining: The Indian is naked, swinging

quarter to half hundredweight steel-edged crowbars.

He climbs beams with notches set step by step,

carrying ore in plaited baskets

on his shoulders.

They are given one half-bushel of maize per week.

This is their payment unless they have a family–

then they are given two half-bushels.

Two men using a wheelbarrow could haul out

more than can thirty lazy Indians

working an entire day.

Natural resources: They are naked, with only a loincloth.

Otherwise they would steal valuable ore.

Instead they laugh

when their hair is thick with dusted gold

so that they look like ugly yellow-haired creatures.

Their hair is long and they secrete fragments

of ore there, wrapping their hair up

like a turban. You can no more trust them

than you would a Turk.

Gold and silver ore varies.

Some is very heavy, pure

silver spiked, as it were,

with silver nails.

The completely black

very heavy ores

are considered the richest.

Processing: The Indian washes his hair

several times a day, sluicing water

over his long hair, letting the silver fall

into a bowl which he then strains,

keeping more silver.

Then again, the Indian must relieve himself

and he hides behind a bush,

thereby stealing more ore

in a most despicable way.

Some can be reduced by fire . . .

or be broken up

and placed into a clay oven

. . . with molten lead,

until . . . the lead has amalgamated

with the silver.

Pebbles and slag float on top

and are skinned off

with hoes and the lead heated

with a double fire

until it becomes light and frothy

like glass.

This froth is removed in heaps;

what remains is pure silver.

The waste product: When the Indian dies,

perhaps careless at work, he is wrapped in a horse blanket.

Thread from deer or plant fiber

is used to sew him up.

It is heathen, this practice

of putting bows and arrows,

small bowls, and other things

in the grave. Instead, I pull the bell rope

and they are pleased at the songs

and lighted tapers

on the altar of the whitewashed church.

They die when they want to,

saying they are only journeying

to the next village.

They have many vices

which I have discovered

and abolished, including the throwing

of patterned sticks,

which is like gambling.

They would rather lie on blankets

in the bushes, throwing these sticks

against the rough wool to muffle the sound,

than work in the fields

or in the mines which are very near,

nor do they think of tomorrow

and the profit that must be made,

whether it is gold, silver, maize,

or their heathenish souls.

Source: Throwing Fire at the Sun Water at the Moon, (c. 2000 by Anita Endrezze, pub. by University of Arizona Press). Anita Endrezze (b. 1952) is an American poet, writer and artist based in Washington State. She claims Yaqui ancestry from her father. The Yaqui are an Uto-Aztecan-speaking Indigenous people of Mexico in the valley of the Río Yaqui in the Mexican state of Sonora and the Southwestern United States. They also have communities in Chihuahua and Durango. Endrezze graduated with an master’s degree from Eastern Washington University. Her poems and stories have been translated into seven languages and published in ten countries. You can read more about Anita Endrezze and sample more of her poems at the Poetry Foundation website.

The Holy Art of Listening

SECOND SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Isaiah 65:1-9

Psalm 22:19-28

Galatians 3:23-29

Luke 8:26-39

Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, we bring before you the cries of a sorrowing world. In your mercy set us free from the chains that bind us, and defend us from everything that is evil, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask,
   to be found by those who did not seek me.
I said, ‘Here I am, here I am’,
   to a nation that did not call on my name.
I held out my hands all day long
   to a rebellious people,
who walk in a way that is not good,
   following their own devices;
a people who provoke me
   to my face continually…” Isaiah 65:1-3.

The psalm for this Sunday begins with the cry of dereliction echoed by Jesus hanging on the cross: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?” Psalm 22:1. It is a cry that I am sure resonates with parents of the children gunned down at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas on May 24th. So, too, the loved ones of those shot down the week before in a Buffalo, New York shopping center by a white supremacist. I could add to the list millions of people in this country who have been living hand to mouth for decades and now find that their fragile existence has become even more tenuous due to crushing inflation. These words also resonate with the Israelites recently returned from exile to a land ravaged by war and ruled by foreign powers. Their high expectations for a new beginning seemed dashed by the hard realities of life under Persian domination. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” they cry out in despair. Isaiah 64:1.  

Our lesson from Isaiah, part of which is quoted above, is God’s response to Israel’s complaint in the prior chapter. In effect, God replies, “I did come down to you! I’ve been here all the time stretching out my hands to you, calling you, pleading with you. The problem is not that I’m not speaking. The problem is that you are not listening!”

Listening involves more than hearing. Listening creates, in the words of poet, Mary Oliver, “a silence in which another voice may speak.” It requires focus, discipline and patience. I find that the most difficult part of listening is putting what I want to say out of mind. I don’t know about you, but I often find that, when discussing what I believe to be important issues, particularly with those with whom I disagree, I lose a lot of what is being said to me because I am already formulating my response to what is said. I have convinced myself that I already understand the tired, ignorant and fallacious arguments my conversation partner is raising and all that remains for me is to defeat them with the superior knowledge and reasoning I already possess. I don’t believe there is anything I have to learn in this discussion. This isn’t about learning. It is about winning. For that reason, much of our dialogue these days is unfruitful. People are seldom persuaded through argument and debate. Minds are seldom, if ever, changed as the result of a single argument, speech or sermon-much less a post or a tweet. In any event, that has never been the case with me. My mind changes more like an aircraft carrier altering its course than a hydroplane making an abrupt turn. Profound changes of opinion come more through having to wrestle with troubling questions raised by people who have listened to me long enough to understand not only my convictions, but also the life experiences that brought me to those convictions. I have been most profoundly changed by people who speak parabolically rather than strictly rationally.  

Arguments operate as frontal assaults upon our beliefs. They evoke a defensive response and so tend to drive us deeper into our entrenched positions. Jesus understood this well. That is why he seldom allowed himself to be drawn into moral and theological arguments. Instead, he used parables. Rather than pounding on the front door and demanding admission, parables sneak in through the back door. They invite us to recognize ourselves in stories that put flesh and blood consequences upon what we claim to believe. They tend to sow seeds of doubt about our entrenched convictions causing us, over time, to question and, perhaps, abandon them.

Many of our modes of communication do not lend themselves to the art of listening. So much of our public discussion takes place these days over social media where we often know nothing about those with whom we are disputing other than what little they can manage to say about significant issues in tweets and Facebook posts. Such disembodied, one dimensional dialogue tends only to deepen divisions, re-enforce stereotypes and inflame passions. Would it make a difference, I wonder, if you knew that the pro-life activist with whom you are debating online was a woman who lost a pregnancy, but never found a way to grieve that loss through ritual, tradition and communal support typically accompanying the loss of a child? Would it make a difference if you knew how it grated on her to hear the terms “miscarriage” and “loss of a fetus”? Would it make a difference if you knew that the pro-choice advocate you encounter in the chat room was the father of a teen with a pregnancy threating her life and health? Would it make a difference if you knew how this family is agonizing over how to deal with this crisis? If we took the time to listen, not merely to each other’s points of view but to our respective stories, would that change the way we speak to and treat one another?

How, then, do we listen to God? Jesus has answered that question for us. In the gospel of Matthew, he tells us that whatever we have done or failed to do for those regarded as “least” among us, we have done to or left undone for God. Maybe we have spent too much time looking for the God who sits at the controls making things happen down here on planet earth. Maybe we have looked too long and hard for the God who will solve all our problems and make everything come out right. In fact, there is no such god and it is therefore not surprising that those seeking it find nothing and meet only silence. The true God is crying out to us from refugee camps around the world, from the depths of prisons, from slums, from war torn cities and towns, from homeless shelters, from within abusive and dysfunctional families. The true God addresses us in all that God has made; through “weeds in a vacant lot, or a few small stones.” The true God calls out to us from rivers choaked with sludge, deforested wasteland and dying coral reefs. This God is ready to be found. This God’s arms are outstretched. This God is present and longing to be heard. We need only listen.

Here is the poem by Mary Oliver to which I alluded above and which invites us to prayerful listening.

Praying

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

SourceThirst, (c. 2007 by Mary Oliver; pub. by Beacon Press). Mary Oliver was born in 1935 in Maple Heights, Ohio. She spent much of her life on Cape Cod and was deeply influenced by poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay. Her work received early critical attention with the 1983 publication of a collection of poems entitled American Primitive. She is a recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the National Book Award. You can read more about Mary Oliver and sample some of her other poems at the Poetry Foundation Website.

Trinitarian Pacifism

HOLY 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.

“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.

This Sunday most mainline churches will celebrate the feast of the Holy Trinity, a day on which more heresy will find its way into the pulpit than at any other time of the year. It will all begin with the invocation of God the creator, God the redeemer and God the sanctifier-or some such similar formula. Don’t misunderstand me here. There is nothing wrong with invoking God in these or other words reflecting God’s mighty acts. The problem arises when they get passed off as Trinitarian invocations, which they are not. The terms creator, redeemer and sanctifier (and any other of the many things God does) are not synonyms for Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The former are merely descriptions of what God does. The latter is a testament to who God is.

As Saint Augustine points out, the distinction between the persons of the Trinity exists only within the Godhead. Externally, that is, in God’s dealings with creation and all of its creatures, God is always and only one. Thus, even when the scriptures say that God spoke to Moses or that Jesus raised Lazarus or that the Holy Spirit fell upon the disciples at Pentecost, we are to understand that the Trinity is fully present and acting in perfect concert in every case. Thus, to substitute creator, redeemer and sanctifier with the aforementioned terms renders the Trinity a committee of three, each with its own area of responsibility. That hardly comports with Jesus’ words to the effect that “All that the Father has is mine….” and that the Spirit will “take what is mine and declare it to you.”[1]

So who cares? The church, for one. The Nicene Creed was the product of centuries of rancorous ecclesiastical debate over the nature of the relationship between God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. The Athanasian Creed, following an exhaustive articulation of Trinitarian faith concludes with this withering declaration: “One cannot be saved without believing this firmly and faithfully.” Though it seems to me that opining about anyone’s ultimate salvation is beyond the pay scale of any mortal, the Creed makes a valid point: it matters what you believe about God. I hardly need to catalogue the atrocities that have been committed on God’s behalf by adherents of numerous faiths, Christianity included. That Christians have taken up the sword to defend the church, to defend the faith, to defend the nations in which they happen to reside and to defend themselves against their neighbors and fellow citizens continues to discredit the church’s public witness. Worse still, it reflects a woeful ignorance (or willful disregard?) of the profound significance of Trinitarian faith.

Jesus leaves his disciples with a “new” commandment: to love even as they have been loved by God. It cannot be overstated that love in this sense is not a human sentiment. It is the glue that holds the Trinity together. The Holy Spirit, says Augustine, is the love binding the Father and the Son. As such, it pre-exists creation and, for this reason, Saint Paul calls it eternal. I Corinthians 13:13. Eternal life, then, is to “know God” and Jesus Christ whom God has sent. John 17:3. Jesus’ disciples are “sent” into the world that God so loved just as was Jesus. John 20:21. The trinitarian love at the heart of the Godhead plays out in human history through the faithful life, obedient death and glorious resurrection of Jesus. In Jesus God is on the receiving end of all the worst humanity can throw. But this God, instead of retaliating, raises up the crucified Son and offers him back to the world-which will undoubtedly crucify him again. God overcomes evil by confronting it with love, love without limit and love without end. We might find it hard to imagine that love alone is any match for AR-15s, tanks and long range missiles. But, as we have seen, love is eternal. That means God has all eternity to work with and God is nothing if not patient. The power of God is the patience of God. Against that patience, evil must finally wear itself out.  

This brings me to my final point, namely, that Christian pacifism is grounded in the Trinitarian understanding of God. There is no hierarchy within the Trinity; no coercion; no conflict. God is complete in God’s self and needs nothing besides God. Yet, as the hymn so eloquently says, “the universe of space and time did not arise by chance, but as the Three, in love and hope, made room within their dance.” “Come Join the Dance of Trinity,” by Richard Leach, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, # 412. Love is, after all, making room for another to be. Of course, when you do that, you take a risk. Couples who make room in their lives for a child experience profound pain when that child rejects their love, makes harmful decisions or suffers injury or death. Yet we continue to have children “in love and hope.” When they hurt us, we forgive them. When they disappoint us, we continue to love them. When they are in danger, we put our own lives on the line to save theirs. We do this because, after all, we are created in God’s image and God is the one who takes the risk of declaring “Let there be.” To take a human life, for any reason, is to insist that someone God has let be should not be. It is as simple as that.

Of course, it bears repeating that pacifism is not the same as passivism. Jesus was hardly passive in the face of oppression, injustice and poverty. His life and ministry consisted of confronting the engines of imperial oppression and its devastating effects on those deemed “the least” in the human family. Yet violence, coercion, threats and manipulation were not arrows in Jesus’ quiver. Neither should they be for Jesus’ disciples. As the Father is one with the Son in love, so should believers be one among themselves. John 17:26. As Jesus was in the world as one who chose death over killing, so should his disciples be in the world. John 17:11.

It is difficult to be a pacifist in these days. It is hard not to respond viscerally when witnessing the brutality of Putin’s Russia against its neighbor, Ukraine. Again and again I have been asked, “So you think the Ukrainians should just lie down and let Russia take their country?” My only response is to say that I have no guidance to give concerning what Ukraine or NATO or Russia should or should not do. But I know that disciples of Jesus, be they Russian, Ukrainian or American, should not take human lives. Jesus refused to allow his disciples to raise the sword in his defense. So if violence in defense of God’s only beloved Son is not justified, how, quite literally in God’s name, can we ever justify it?

Here is a poem by Michael J. Bugeja I have cited previously. It bears repeating as it gives the doctrine of the Trinity its due.

Trinity 

I 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 a code
Etched within the DNA. If we’re divine,

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

II 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?
Were 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 roasries of heaven
Are bounded by the lace of your cosmic string.
The unifying force, interwoven
In the clockwork of space-time, is a spring:

One moment we live here and the next, there.
The universe has edges off 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. Bugeia at this Amazon link and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.


[1] I am mindful of the concern that terms such as “father” and “son” carry a gender bias some find troubling. Much of this problem stems from our English language in which gender is exclusively linked to sexual identity. Such is not the case for the biblical languages. While I welcome invoking God with feminine images and addressing God with feminine pronouns (or plural for that matter), I am not prepared to dispense with the Trinitarian formula set forth in our creeds, our liturgy and hymnody. That said, I think it is possible to speak of the Trinity in other ways that distinguish the persons of the Godhead while affirming God’s oneness, such as, for example, as “Speaker, Word and Voice.” It is possible to be sensitive without being sloppy and imprecise.   

Pentecost-The Marriage of Conservative and Liberal

PENTECOST SUNDAY

Genesis 11:1-9

Psalm 104:24-34, 35b

Acts 2:1-21

John 14:8-17; 25-27

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.

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. John 14:26.

Over the years I have often been accused of being a “liberal” or a “conservative” or asked to declare myself one or the other. I hesitate to respond to such queries or accusations and often find myself equivocating. That isn’t because I am afraid to own up to my convictions. It is more that I feel as though I am being asked to sign a blank check. I am not sure those terms mean much of anything anymore. They are more tribal identifiers than descriptions of what a given person believes. People who press these questions are usually asking, “Are you in my tribe?” “Are you one of my people?” “Are you on my side.” I cannot honestly say that I am conservative or liberal when so confronted because I don’t know exactly what I am signing on to. There was a time, of course, when the terms “liberal” and “conservative” actually had content. Furthermore, they were not mutually exclusive. If I am allowed to return to what conservatism and liberalism actually mean, I am probably both in roughly equal parts .

Literally speaking, a conservative is one who desires to conserve. To be conservative is to believe that what has happened in the past is worth remembering. What we have learned in the past is worth preserving. Because I am conservative in this sense, I continue to consult with the likes of Ignatius of Antioch, Athanasius, Augustine of Hippo, Irenaeus of Lyons, Ignatius of Antioch and the other women and men who throughout the ages have reflected deeply on and articulated our faith. I believe their insights are as valuable and important today as ever. Because I am conservative, I believe the ecumenical creeds should be a prominent part of every worship service. They reflect centuries of the church’s best thinking about the scriptures’ testimony to the God we worship. As a conservative, I favor hymns, liturgy and music that are deeply layered, nuanced and have stood the test of time. I should add that I am not overly concerned about whether a first time visitor to my church can easily understand our worship. Any faith that can be sized up in an hour’s time probably isn’t worth having. I care less about what is relevant and more about what is and always has been true, beautiful and good. Not everything that is trending on Google is worthy of one’s attention. To be conservative is to believe in the Holy Spirit and be confident that the Spirit continues to remind us through centuries of testimony what Jesus has said and done.

By contrast, to be liberal is to be generous and, in particular, generous in one’s understanding of all points of view. It is to recognize that, being finite, we each occupy a unique space in history, a particular cultural milieu and imbedded biases that govern our thinking. I am liberal because, though I affirm the canonical scriptures as the source and norm of the church’s faith and life, I recognize that they are not the sole source of truth. Because I agree with Saint Augustine’s affirmation that truth exists, that it is knowable, that our senses are capable of perceiving it and our minds are capable of understanding, I welcome scientific discoveries. I am not threatened when they challenge established church dogma, but rather welcome such instances as opportunities to think more deeply about the meaning of our faith and its implications. Liberals do not see the creeds as boxes neatly containing the sum of all truth, but rather as portholes through which we gaze at a mystery finally beyond understanding. To be liberal is to recognize that, however much we might admire and learn from great teachers and theologians of the past, we also acknowledge their shortcomings, blind spots and biases. To be liberal is to welcome the testimony of persons historically excluded from the church’s moral and theological deliberations, recognizing that they are essential in assisting us to repent of our sins, correct our erroneous views and deepen our understanding of the good news that is Jesus. In short, to be liberal is to believe in the Holy Spirit and that the Spirit is still calling us to greater faithfulness through the testimony of contemporary prophets, preachers and teachers.

Jesus tells his disciples that the Holy Spirit will teach them everything, which means that they do not yet know everything-any more than we do. If the church really were in possession of the whole truth, there would be no need for the Spirit. As it is, “we see in a mirror dimly” and “know only in part.” I Corinthians 13:12. We need the Spirit to guide us into “all the truth.” John 16:13. There is no inconsistency between learning from teachers of the past and honoring our traditions on the one hand, and openness to the prophetic voices addressing us today, often from those historically neglected or rejected, on the other. Though it works through humanly constructed institutions and agencies, Saint Paul reminds us that the church is a body-The Body of Christ. It is organic, not inert; evolving, not static; living, not dead. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Hebrews 13:8. No such guarantee is made regarding the church!

Here is a poem by Wendy Videlock that might well serve as a Pentecost prayer for the church.

Change

Change is the new,

improved

word for god,

lovely enough

to raise a song

or implicate

a sea of wrongs,

mighty enough,

like other gods,

to shelter,

bring together,

and estrange us.

Please, god,

we seem to say,

change us.

Source: Poetry (January 2009). Wendy Videlock is a writer, visual artist, teacher, and a life-long student of the world.  She lives in Palisade, Colorado. Her books include Nevertheless (San Jose, CA: Able Muse Press, 2011), Slingshots & Love Plums (San Jose, CA: Able Muse Press, 2015), The Dark Gnu (San Jose, CA: Able Muse Press, 2013), and a chapbook, What’s That Supposed to Mean (New York, NY: EXOT Books, 2010). You can read more about Wendy Videlock and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Struggling With Unity

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.

“As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” John 17:21-23.  

Jesus prays that his disciples will be one. He would have his church prefigure what God intends for all people, nations and tribes. The day will come when “God is all in all.” I Corinthians 15:28. God smiles at the border walls, frontiers and barbed wire we erect to protect our sovereignty-because God is thinking of how much fun it will be to knock them down. Those who cry “America first,” and all others throughout history who have pounded their chests boasting of their empires, most of which are now relics of past history, are living in the past. Disciples of Jesus are called to live in God’s future where there is but one Sovereign and one kingdom encompassing all peoples of every nation, tribe and tongue.

Of course, that does not comport with the church as we know it. The “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” is as much an article of faith as the Incarnation and the Resurrection. What we see is a church that has been riven with divisions from its inception. We are divided on matters of doctrine. We are divided by nationalist loyalties that, sadly, are larger than our loyalty to Jesus. We are divided by the fault lines of class distinctions, disparity of wealth and racial identity. We have allowed these differences to become larger than what should be our common commitment to Jesus. Instead of a counter-cultural alternative to human life as it is lived under the worldly machinery of violence and oppression, the church is often simply a microcosm of that world.  

While I lament this state of affairs, I have to confess that I am part of the problem. There are plenty of Christians with whom I have no desire to be one. I don’t want to be associated with a community of faith that rejects my daughter’s ministry because she is a woman. I don’t want to be one with a community of faith that rejects the families of my LGBTQ+ friends and family. I don’t want to waste my breath trying to talk to Christian communities that swallow hook, line and sinker the crackpot conspiracy theories churned out by right wing crazies. It is hard enough maintaining a semblance of unity among people whose understanding of the Christian faith is roughly the same as my own. I am part of a community that has struggled and still struggles with accepting the ministry of women, welcoming gay, lesbian, transgender and nonbinary folk and recognizing the need for dismantling white supremacy. I have no desire to take any backward steps in order to refight those battles all over again, especially when we still have so much further to go. The advice of Anita from West Side Story is appealing to me: “stick to your own kind.”

But Jesus, not Anita, is Lord of the Church. His prayer that we might all be “perfectly one” controls, unappealing as it may be to my tastes. That means we, that is, I have to try overcoming our divisions. To be perfectly honest, though, I don’t even know how to begin this task. I Know that trying to conduct a dialogue along the contours of our differences is unlikely to be productive. Nothing either of us has to say is likely to move us from our entrenched positions. We have reached a degree of polarization in which we find ourselves in tribes, like minded in groups insulated from one another and receiving our news, getting our socialization and obtaining religious training from completely different sources. We cannot even agree on common facts, much less find common ground.   

Perhaps, then, at least when it comes to dialogue, we need to focus less on issues and more on the individuals with whom we speak. Maybe we need to adopt a more inquisitive and less apologetic posture. Instead of responding to an argument with a counter-argument, we might try asking, “how did you come to that belief?” As a good friend often reminds me, no one is ever only one thing. There is a story that goes with each person. There are events, traumas, triumphs and failures, fears and hopes that bring us all to where we find ourselves. And somehow, all of us who bear the name “Christian” find ourselves associated with Jesus of Nazareth. If there really is a way forward to unity for this fractured mosaic of institutions, gatherings and individuals we claim to be Christ’s body, then it must be found in our common humanity where we encounter the Word made flesh and try to make sense of him.

Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that differences can be swept under the carpet or that some “middle ground” can be found. We may not be capable of healing our rifts. But by listening, by learning one another’s stories, by opening our hearts to one another, we give the Holy Spirit an opening. And once the “God factor,” is introduced into the equation, who can predict what the outcome will be?

Here is a peom by Emiy Dickenson describing the way we might begin to dialogue toward oneness within the Body of Christ.

Tell all the Truth, but tell it Slant

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

Source: The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition, (c. 1999 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College; edited by Ralph W. Franklin, ed., Cambridge, Mass.) Emily Dickinson (1830-1866) is indisputably one of America’s greatest and most original poets. Born in Amherst, Massachusetts, she attended a one-room primary school in that town and went on to Amherst Academy, the school out of which Amherst College grew. In the fall of 1847 Dickinson entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary where students were divided into three categories: those who were “established Christians,” those who “expressed hope,” and those who were “without hope.” Emily, along with thirty other classmates, found herself in the latter category. Though often characterized a “recluse,” Dickinson kept up with numerous correspondents, family members and teachers throughout her lifetime. You can find out more about Emily Dickinson and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Holding Together a Disintegrating World

SIXTH 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.

“You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.” John 14:28-29.

The Feast of the Ascension is, alas, one of those unmovable observances, meaning that, unless it falls on a Sunday, it gets lost somewhere during the last couple of weeks of Easter. That is a shame. The ascension of Jesus to the right hand of God the Father is a central feature of our creeds and crucial part of the gospel narrative. This event establishes Jesus’ faithful life, obedient death and glorious resurrection as a truly cosmic event. This Jesus is shown to be that word “upholding the universe.” Hebrews 1:3. He is the one “for whom and by whom all things exist.” Hebrews 2:10. “In him,” says Saint Paul, “all things hold together.” Colossians 1:17. Through Jesus God works “to reconcile to himself all things.” Colossians 1:19-20. As the words of a recent hymn proclaim, “Christ is alive, no longer bound to distant years in Palestine; but saving, healing here and now, and touching every place and time.” “Christ is Alive! Let Christians Sing,” Brian A. Wren (pub. by Hope Publishing Co. c. 1975) Hymn # 389 in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, (c. 2006 by Augsburg Fortress Publishers). Jesus, we must be clear, is not anybody’s “personal savior.” He is the savior of the world. The church is not the privileged and exclusive owner of salvation. It is the people entrusted with announcing it and testifying to it.

This word comes at a time when the world seems to be coming apart at the seams. The brutal mass killing this week in Buffalo, New York has exposed once again the ugly face of white supremacy that is now the dominant unifying principle in one of our two major political parties. We find ourselves teetering on the brink of world war between nuclear powers. Our best scientists world-wide are warning us that we are on a trajectory of ecological ruin. Against this grim backdrop of disintegration, the ascension narrative reminds us that the world, indeed, the universe is held to together by God’s Incarnate Word. The nail pierced arms of Jesus hold God’s beloved world together against all the forces threatening to tear it apart. Whatever evil we might do-and we can do plenty-we cannot break God’s loving embrace of all God has made.

Our lesson from Revelation rounds out the Ascension witness in its graphic visual imagery of the consummation of the age. The world spoken into existence by God’s word “Let there be…” continues by the Spirit’s animation and is guided by God the Father’s providential grace toward the eternal embrace of Trinitarian love.

To say that Jesus is at God’s right hand is to say that Jesus is now everywhere. He is not gone, but more intensely present than ever before. Whatever God does is done in and through Jesus. That is to say, we can no longer speak of God apart from God’s Son or speak of God’s acts apart from reference to Jesus. For disciples of Jesus, every effort to understand God prior to, after or without Jesus ends in idolatry. That is why, when a disciple of Jesus picks up the Bible, the disciple reads every word through the lens of Jesus, allowing nothing “to draw our eyes away from him.”

Here’s a poem by Joyce Hernandez speaking to the narrative of the Ascension.

When Jesus early rose and breathed
The pungent air of new-dug earth,
Passed the stone, and passed the flesh,
Passed the mourners of his death,
(and left them dazed, but following)
He rose with such a limpid flight
As wind or wings could only clutter,
And left no scratches on the world,
No broken twig or parted cloud,
To draw our eyes away from him.

(c. 1972 by Joyce Hernandez) Joyce Hernandez is a teacher, nurse and poet living in Yakima, Washington. Her publications include The Bone Woman Poems (c. 2009, pub. by Allied Arts and Minuteman Press). She is also, coincidentally, my sister.

Nitty Gritty Unglamorous Love

FIFTH 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. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35.

Anyone familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures knows that the commandment to love is not new. It is a central tenant of the Torah. Leviticus 19:18. Moreover, as illustrated in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, the commandment applies as much to the stranger, the foreigner and the outsider as it does among God’s chosen people. Leviticus 19:33-34. Such love is not to be construed as mere sentiment or as some unachievable ideal. It is central to human thriving. As the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning observes, “[w]e cannot live, except thus mutually [w]e alternate.” The commandment to love is “new” only in the sense that it was actualized in human flesh within time and space by the Incarnate One. Henceforth, it cannot be said that divine love is humanly impossible.

But it’s damned hard. For one thing, love is dangerous. It got Jesus killed. Jesus warns us that the same fate may well await those who follow in his footsteps. John 15:18-20. Furthermore, even when love is not lethal, it can hurt like nothing else. Nobody is capable of wounding me like those I most love. A stranger can insult me, criticize me and call me all manner of demeaning names and it won’t matter much in the grand scheme of things. But when someone I trust betrays me, someone I admire criticizes me, someone I care deeply about turns away from me-that hurts. Perhaps that is why appeals to blood, soil, race and nation are so appealing to so many. Maybe that is why remarks such as “charity begins at home” resonate with us. By keeping the circle about those we love and trust small and well defined, we reduce the chance of getting hurt.

For most of us disciples, love does not take the shape of martyrdom in terms of a violent death. It is more like being nibbled to death by ducks. Church leaders, who thought they were agreeing to a three year term on the council, find out instead that they have been sentenced to life without parole when no one steps forward to take their place when the term ends. And for all that, they frequently receive more criticism than praise for their sacrifice. There are plenty of Church musicians who seldom know a Sunday when someone doesn’t complain about the choir anthem or which hymns are or are not being sung. There are pastors who find themselves held personally responsible for declining membership, sermons that rub people the wrong way and decisions of their national church over which they have little control. And of course, there is no shortage of stories about people who have been judged, rejected and deeply wounded by the words and actions of church people. Church is not for the faint of heart. I can understand why so many people leave it in disgust. Churches are typically not communities in which you find the kind of love Jesus is speaking about.

But the church is not the place you come to find love. It’s the place you come to learn love. You can’t learn to love people different than yourself if you surround yourself with people like you. You can’t learn forgiveness if you surround yourself with people who don’t offend you. You can’t learn to love your enemies if you insist on surrounding yourself with friends. So if you are looking to find in the church the loving, accepting and affirming family you never had; or if you are looking to find in the church a safe place where you can’t get hurt, you are bound to be disappointed. The church has never been such a place. It is, instead, a place where people chosen by Jesus are brought together. They might not be people who like each other. They might not be people who agree with one another. They might not be shining examples of kindness, compassion and dedication to justice. But if we believe what Jesus is telling us in John’s gospel, the church is made up of people chosen by him. John 15:16. That means, hard as it may be to swallow, everyone in every congregation is there because Jesus called them. Everyone in my congregation has something to teach me that I cannot learn from anyone else.

Once again, I understand why people give up on the church. I have been tempted to give up on it more than once in my life. But just about the time I am ready to throw in the towel, something happens to change my mind. The meanest, most bigoted and seemingly heartless person in the congregation knocks my socks off with a selfless act of heroism, courage and kindness. A congregation hopelessly turned in upon itself discovers a new purpose and is renewed by responding to a critical need in its neighborhood. The young person I thought would never darken the church door again after confirmation expresses an interest in ministry. Somebody tells me about how something I said or did that I cannot even remember inspired them in a transformative way. These things don’t happen very often. But they happen just often enough to convince me that the love released into the world through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is real and active in the church.

Here is the poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning to which I alluded above.

Love

We cannot live, except thus mutually

We alternate, aware or unaware,

The reflex act of life: and when we bear

Our virtue onward most impulsively,

Most full of invocation, and to be

Most instantly compellant, certes, there

We live most life, whoever breathes most air

And counts his dying years by sun and sea.

But when a soul, by choice and conscience, doth

Throw out her full force on another soul,

The conscience and the concentration both

Make mere life, Love. For Life in perfect whole

And aim consummated, is Love in sooth,

As nature’s magnet-heat rounds pole with pole.

Source: This poem by Elizabeth Barret Browning is in the public domain. Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) was held in high regard throughout her lifetime surpassing nearly all other female poets of the English speaking world eclipsing even the work of her poet husband, Robert Browning. She had a formative influence upon American poet, Emily Dickinson who hung her portrait in her bedroom. Browning was highly skilled in multiple languages reading voraciously the Greek and Latin classics as well as the Hebrew Scriptures. Though the beneficiary of a privileged upbringing, she was a passionate advocate for the oppressed on the issues of slavery, child labor and the exploitation of colonized peoples. You can read more about Elizabeth Barrett Browning and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.