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.

Trump Supporters to White Male Progressives: Deep in Your Heart, You Know We’re Right

 

Kierkegaard’s Ghost

(News that’s fake, but credible)

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Kierkegaard’s Ghost is committed to generating dialogue across the fault lines of our polarized society. To that end, we are pleased to publish this letter from Reginald Wright, a devout supporter of Donald Trump, to his progressive friend, Louis Leftowitz.

Dear Lou.

You liberal white guys really don’t get us Trump supporters. You look down your Ivy League noses at us. You call us angry, ignorant and racist. But let me tell you a few things about us. We grew up in an America where a man was master of his household and the way he disciplined his family was his own business-not the concern of schools, social workers or the police. We grew up in an America where women respected their men, knew their places as wives and mothers-and liked it. We grew up in an America where a man was expected to take advantage of a girl wherever possible and it was a girl’s responsibility not to give any advantage and, if she did, she had only herself to blame for the consequences. We grew up in an America where the high school football team could dunk a guy’s head in the toilet if he looked and acted like a girl and it was all just good, clean fun. No suspensions or law suits or any of that crap. We grew up in an America where those folks you libs like to call “people of color” stayed in their place along with their own kind-and were a lot happier for it. In the America where we grew up, we knew what it meant to be a man.

But the America we find ourselves in today is a foreign country. It’s like we don’t even speak the language. We see the streets on which we grew up full of foreign language signs. We see people on the sidewalks we can’t understand. We see our religion banished from school, pushed out of the town square and the shopping centers on Christmas and mocked on late night television. But we can’t even tell a joke without somebody getting offended. We flirt with a girl and we are sexual predators. We put a confederate flag sticker on our bumper and we’re racists. We don’t know how to be men in this new order of yours. Angry? You bet we are! Our country has been taken away from us. America is becoming less American every day we are getting pushed out of the land we love. Our backs are against the wall and there is no place for us to retreat.

So what do we see in Donald Trump? It’s like this. When we are at one of his rallies, when we look out over that sea of cheering humanity and see nothing but white skin, when we hear Donald expressing all the things we feel deep down inside but are afraid to say in “polite company,” when Donald Trump speaks to us, we feel like men again. When he speaks, it’s possible for us to believe that the old America, the America we grew up in, the America we love is coming back. And that feeling means more to us than the economy, more than health care and more than politics. So listen very carefully Lou: We don’t care that Donald Trump lies about his business prowess, or that he molests women who might easily have been one of our daughters, that he is a draft dodger, a tax cheat and an adulterous philanderer. It doesn’t matter that he lacks any semblance of policy, conservative or liberal. You can talk facts to us till you’re blue in the face and it won’t matter. We don’t care about facts. We believe in Donald Trump because he stands for something beautiful, something we love and miss. And we will keep on believing in Donald Trump and nothing you say will ever change our minds.

There is something else you should know about us. We aren’t as stupid as you think. Of course, we don’t live in the middle of a Trump rally 24/7. Most of the time, we live in the same world you do. We know what’s really going down. We see more and more dark skin on television, in professional sports, in movies, in congress and in our courts. We see more and more women doing men’s jobs. We see mixed race couples walking the streets without getting a second look. We see those folks you call “gay” kissing in public in ways that would have gotten them beaten to a pulp in our youth. We know in the depths of our hearts that the old America we loved is never coming back. Nevertheless, although we’ve lost our America, we can still stop you from building yours for a good long time. We can make a mess so big, leave a country so divided and so ruined that you libs will have your work cut out trying to build your crappy vision of an effeminate, socialist, multi-cultural paradise. Donald Trump is the wrench we are throwing into your well oiled machine. We can’t win, but we can damn well see to it that you lose.

Finally, I’ll let you in on a little secret. Donald Trump is going to be re-elected in 2020 and all you white, male libs are going to help us put him over the top. You see, Lou, you really aren’t so very different from us. Don’t tell me you weren’t relieved when you found out that your company decided not to hire that young woman they were considering to run your department and hired the old white guy instead-who will probably be your boss until you retire. Don’t tell me you didn’t breathe a sigh of relief when you googled that new boyfriend your daughter has been gushing about and learned that, thank God, he was white. Don’t tell me that you don’t feel an overwhelming sense of relief every weekday after you drive across town from work and cross that invisible line into your suburban neighborhood where everyone looks like you. You feel just as jittery as we do when you find yourself in a neighborhood where everybody is speaking a language you can’t understand. You know very well how tempted you are to cross over to the other side of the street when you see a group of black men coming toward you talking their jive. Face it, you are more like us than you want to admit.

And one more thing. You can’t deny that Trump has given you a booming economy. However much you may hate Donald Trump, you love what the stock market is doing.  Change, any change could do a number on that nest egg of yours, the savings you are counting on to give you and the little woman a first class retirement. This thing you libs call “white, male privilege,” you benefit from it even more than we do. You have more at stake in preserving it than us-even if it is only to the end of your lifetime. So here’s how it’s going to go down. You will go on talking the talk of “equality,” “women’s rights,” “it’s OK to be gay.” You will continue holding forth on your enlightened views in your liberal church and at cocktail parties among your liberal co-workers and on the golf course with your liberal friends. But when the second Tuesday in November of 2020 rolls around, when you and all your liberal buddies are alone in that voting booth where no one else can see or judge you, you are going to pull the lever for Donald Trump. You will do it to protect your white neighborhood. You will do it to protect the security and seniority you enjoy as a man in a man’s workplace. You will do it to protect your pocketbook. You will vote with us for Donald Trump because, deep in your heart, you know we’re right.

Your good friend,

Reggie

Of Crime and Punishment

See the source imageELEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Isaiah 58:9b-14
Psalm 103:1-8
Hebrews 12:18-29
Luke 13:10-17

Prayer of the Day: O God, mighty and immortal, you know that as fragile creatures surrounded by great dangers, we cannot by ourselves stand upright. Give us strength of mind and body, so that even when we suffer because of human sin, we may rise victorious through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“…to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” Hebrews 12:24.

Lawrence Russell Brewer was convicted of drug possession and burglary in the late 1980s. He was paroled in 1991, but returned to prison three years later after violating his parole conditions. During this second incarceration, he joined a white supremacist prison gang and became indoctrinated with the ideology of white supremacy.  On June 7, 1998, following his release from prison, Brewer, along with Shawn Berry and John King, offered a ride to James Byrd, Jr. an African American man. Instead of taking Byrd home, the three men took Byrd to a remote county road out of town, beat him severely, spray-painted his face, urinated and defecated on him and chained him by his ankles to their pickup truck before dragging him for about three miles. Byrd died as a result of his injuries. Brewer, along with his two accomplices, was arrested, tried and sentenced to death for Byrd’s murder.

There are many disturbing aspects of this case, but the question that strikes me is this: what nation in its right mind would create and finance an institution that takes young men who have committed petty crimes and turns them into hardened, racist murderers? Lawrence Brewer went into prison a non-violent offender. There is no indication that he posed a threat to himself or others. It appears from the record that he had an addiction problem and stole to support it. Whether the addiction problem was ever addressed during his incarceration, I don’t know. What we do know is that he came out of prison filled with racial hate and bent on violence. If the point of incarceration is rehabilitation, then the system failed miserably. But I am not convinced that the criminal justice system is about rehabilitation. In the American context, criminal justice has more to do with punishing criminals than restoring them to responsible citizenship or doing justice for their victims.

Our tendency is to equate justice with punishment. Wrongdoers should “get what they deserve;” hence, our attachment to the death penalty or its more cruel and unusual refinement, life in prison without parole. So, too, our insistence on “hard time” in prison for offenders rather than alternatives to incarceration. We have an aversion to seeing people “get off too easy” for their offenses. Criminals must “pay their debt to society,” though I am hard put to understand how expending tax payer dollars to feed, clothe and shelter people in an institution that dehumanizes them and returns them to the streets more dangerous than before can satisfy any kind of debt. From all appearances, the prison system is making our streets more dangerous with every penny we spend on it. But none of that seems to matter. The objective appears to be that of inflicting upon convicted criminals the misery they have brought to their victims. Whether that does the victims or the rest of society any good is beside the point.

The author of the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews makes reference to the murder of Abel by his brother Cain in the fourth chapter of Genesis. Genesis 4:1-16. God confronts Cain by asking him, “Where is your brother?” Cain responds with the infamous rejoinder, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” Then God tells Cain that Abel’s blood is crying out to God from the ground. The author of Hebrews assumes that Abel’s blood is crying out for vengeance, as does one of our fine Lenten hymns.[1] Whether or not that was so, the point to be made here is that the blood of Jesus makes no such cry for vengeance. Retaliation is not God’s way. It is important to note that Cain received neither the death penalty nor imprisonment. He was exiled from his community, but sent away with God’s mark of protection so that nobody would try to take revenge upon him. What God told Cain before his murderous act remained true as he was sent into exile: “If you do well, [you will] be accepted.” Genesis 4:7. Cain is being given another opportunity to “do well.”

There can be little doubt that our criminal justice system is in desperate need of reform. Laws passed in response to hysteria over drug trafficking and sex crimes deliver prison sentences and postconviction penalties out of all proportion to the offenses committed. It is well known that this oppressive hammer falls most heavily on Black Americans whose incarceration rates in comparison with white Americans is obscenely out of balance. A conviction on one’s record closes the door to nearly every professional avenue and has the potential to bar employment in the most menial of jobs. It places a scarlet letter of shame on the back of people who are already coming away from an experience that has likely made them angrier, more resentful and thus more dangerous.

None of this should surprise us. After the murder of Cain and God’s gracious response, we read in the following chapters of Genesis about how the cycle of vengeance grew to the point where “the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” Genesis 6:11. Revenge is not justice. Retaliation only sucks us ever further into the vortex of destructive violence. Whatever cathartic satisfaction we might get from learning that the one who harmed us is going to prison for a long time, it does nothing heal the wrong. Neither does it deter further violence. Indeed, as Lawrence Brewer’s case demonstrates, incarcerating criminals only makes them more dangerous.

I am not suggesting that there shouldn’t be consequences for criminal behavior. Furthermore, I understand that there are some people who, because of the threat they pose to themselves and others, must be incarcerated in some way. But I believe that punitive incarceration as the default response to criminal conduct is wrong headed and counter-productive. As people of faith in Jesus, we ought to know that punishment is not the solution to crime. What we need is common sense legislation that treats addiction as a public health issue rather than a law enforcement crisis. What we need are alternatives to incarceration that provide opportunities for offenders to make restitution to those they have harmed, receive the medical and psychiatric treatment they need and be given opportunities for education, training and integration into productive work. We need to stop stigmatizing persons who have been convicted of crimes. It is one thing to hold a person responsible for a wrongful act. It is quite another to make that act the defining factor for the rest of a person’s life. None of us would want our entire lives judged by the meanest, most cruel and destructive thing we have ever done. Why should the same charity we grant to ourselves on that score be denied to those whose wrongs happen to be against the law?

We are our best selves when we are conscious that we live by the grace of a God who “is merciful and just; slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Living in the mercy of God quenches our thirst for retribution with profound gratitude overflowing in generosity toward our neighbors-even the ones who wrong us. Here is a poem by Denise Levertov giving expression to that infinite mercy.

To Live in the Mercy of God

To lie back under the tallest
oldest trees. How far the stems
rise, rise
before ribs of shelter
open!

To live in the mercy of God. The complete
sentence too adequate, has no give.
Awe, not comfort. Stone, elbows of
stony wood beneath lenient
moss bed.

And awe suddenly
passing beyond itself. Becomes
a form of comfort.
Becomes the steady
air you glide on, arms
stretched like the wings of flying foxes.
To hear the multiple silence
of trees, the rainy
forest depths of their listening.

To float, upheld,
as salt water
would hold you,
once you dared.

To live in the mercy of God.

To feel vibrate the enraptured

waterfall flinging itself
unabating down and down
to clenched fists of rock.
Swiftness of plunge,
hour after year after century,
O or Ah
uninterrupted, voice
many-stranded.
To breathe
spray. The smoke of it.
Arcs
of steelwhite foam, glissades
of fugitive jade barely perceptible. Such passion—
rage or joy?
Thus, not mild, not temperate,
God’s love for the world. Vast
flood of mercy
flung on resistance.

Source: Sands from the Well (c. 1996 by Denise Levertov; pub. by New Directions Publishing Corporation) 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.

[1]
Abel’s blood for vengeance
Pleaded to the skies;
But the blood of Jesus
For our pardon cries.

“Glory be to Jesus,” Lutheran Book of Worship, Hymn # 95. Unfortunately, this is another fine hymn that didn’t make the cut for the subsequent Evangelical Lutheran Worship. 

 

White House in Damage Control After Trump Hitler Gaffe

 

Kierkegaard’s Ghost

(News that’s fake, but credible)

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To the shock and horror of many across partisan lines, President Donald Trump told a crowd today that Germany’s late war time chancellor, Adolph Hitler “was not really such a bad guy.” The startling comment came during his formal endorsement of Curt Schilling, who is running for congress. Schilling is an outspoken conservative and Breitbart podcast host known for espousing conspiracy theories, white nationalist rhetoric and collecting Nazi memorabilia. In defense of Mr. Schilling in the face of widespread criticism for his seeming Nazi sympathies, Mr. Trump reiterated his point that many Nazis are “very fine people.” He also pointed out that Hitler’s views on race mirror his own preferences for encouraging more immigration from northern European countries like Norway and stemming the flow of immigrants form South America and African nations. When pressed on the dictator’s genocidal policies, Mr. Trump was quick to defend the chancellor. “Look,” he said. “I have every reason to believe Hitler was not really such a bad guy. Did he even know about concentration camps? Germany is a big country. You can’t expect him to know what’s going on in every corner of it.” At that point, the sound system inexplicably shut down and Mr. Trump was whisked away by secret service agents citing unspecific “security concerns.” In a tweet later in the day, Mr. Trump stated that the Holocaust was likely engineered by Hillary Clinton. “Nasty woman,” he said. “Wouldn’t put a thing like that past her.”

Mr. Tump’s remarks drew severe and immediate criticism from Democrats and many organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the NAACP, Amnesty International, the VFW and numerous individuals. Several foreign leaders, including Britain, France, Canada, Germany and the Netherlands also condemned Trump’s statements. Even Israeli prime minister  Benjamin Netanyahu, ordinarily a staunch supporter of Mr. Trump, said that the president’s remarks were “troubling and disappointing.” By contrast, many voices on the far right of the political spectrum applauded the president. “At last,” said National Policy Institute president, Richard Spencer, “our president has found his voice.” David Duke, former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan also registered approval tweeting, “I always knew he had it in him.”

Republican Congressional leaders are all unavailable for comment. The congressional switchboard on the Republican side of the House of Representatives appears to have been shut down. Reporters have been unable to contact any Senate Republicans. The whereabouts of Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell is currently unknown, though it was reported that a man fitting his description, except for a pair of thick glasses and a mustache, was seen lurking in the Senate coat room. Maine Senator Susan Collins is reportedly holed up in a stall of the woman’s room at her Augusta office and is not responding to inquiries. But White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham addressed reporters this afternoon and emphatically denied that Mr. Trump intended to praise Adolph Hitler. “This is just another example of the liberal press taking one statement of the president and twisting it out of context,” Ms. Grisham said. She then told reporters that a teleprompter malfunction was responsible for the misunderstanding and that the intended words were “Adolf Hitler was such a bad guy.” Ms. Grisham went on to explain that “When the teleprompter breaks down, the president tends to say what he thinks instead of what he means.”

Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, dodged inquiries into the president’s statements about the Nazi dictator, but defended his policy positions on immigration. “We need to protect the cultural character of our country,” he told reporters. “That inscription on the Statue of Liberty welcoming immigrants into the country, it’s not about a lot of diseased, dirty, lazy people who speak gibberish-like the kind we are getting over the border today. It’s about people coming from Europe who speak English and have good jobs.” He went on to explain that plans are being made to eradicate the words “poor huddled masses” from the base of the Statue and replace them with the words, “people who can stand on their own two feet.” Mr. Cuccinelli explained that this new rendering expresses more clearly what poet Emma Lazarus, author of the poetic statement, actually meant. “We don’t want to create the impression that the United States is the dumping ground for the world’s refuse,” he said.

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FAKE NEWS ALERT: The above article is satirical. The events it describes didn’t happen.  “There are people who will say that this whole account is a lie, but a thing isn’t necessarily a lie even if it didn’t necessarily happen.” John Steinbeck

Interpreting the Times for A Dying Empire and a Dying Church

See the source imageTENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Jeremiah 23:23-29
Psalm 82
Hebrews 11:29—12:2
Luke 12:49-56

Prayer of the Day: O God, judge eternal, you love justice and hate oppression, and you call us to share your zeal for truth. Give us courage to take our stand with all victims of bloodshed and greed, and, following your servants and prophets, to look to the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“…why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” Luke 12:56.

A large part of prophetic ministry involves “interpret[ing] the present time.” The Hebrew prophets were not hermetic mystics speaking only out of esoteric visions. They were politicly savvy and incisive critics of their time. Better than the Israelite kings and their courts who played the high stakes game of geopolitics, Isaiah and Jeremiah understood that the world around them was changing. They could see that the future of Canaan belonged not to Israel and its rival kingdoms of Moab, Ammon and Philistia, but to the great empires of Egypt, Assyria and Babylon. The prophets could see that the way of faithfulness for Israel in the days to come would be radically different. There could be no return to the past, no “making Israel great again” as some of Jeremiah’s prophetic contemporaries insisted. The end of the world as Israel knew it was at hand. All hope now must be placed on whatever new world God might raise from the ashes. Salvation there surely would be-but only on the far side of judgment.

So, too, Jesus ministered at the end of an era, that era being one in which his fellow Jews occupied the land promised to Abraham and Sarah’s descendants. Theirs was a life of faith revolving around the temple in the holy city of Jerusalem, albeit under the shadow of Roman occupation. Jesus recognized (as did many of his contemporaries) that Judea was on a collision course with the Roman empire, a conflict that would bring an end to Israel as Israel knew it. But Jesus challenged is disciples and the rest of his people to recognize that the reign of God was bigger than both the temple and the empire that would finally destroy it. Turns out, he was right. From the ashes of Jerusalem’s destruction in 70 CE there arose the rich and revitalized Judaism we know today and the church bringing the covenant promises of Israel to the nations.

So how are we to interpret the present times? I am no prophet by the measure of Isaiah or Jeremiah and certainly not Jesus. But there some trends that present both dangers and opportunities I believe we should be thinking about. I present my thoughts along these lines as questions because they are as tentative as my limited perception.

Is this the beginning of the end for the American empire? One might challenge the notion that the United States is an empire. But let’s not argue semantics. What I mean by “empire” is a nation state that, in addition to its sovereign territory, controls numerous “spheres of influence” throughout the globe. To put it as kindly as possible, one might say that the world has for seven decades depended on American economic and military power to ensure its well-being. A less charitable (and perhaps more accurate) assessment would be that American economic and military power has been instrumental in supporting the supremacy of North American/Western European domination of Africa, Asia and South America. Either way, America’s position is eroding and much of the rhetoric on both ends of the political spectrum is calling for a reversal of that trend.

This situation presents both temptation and opportunity. The temptation will be to fall in with one version or another of the “make America great again” meme. As I have often observed, the progressive vision of the American church’s mission differs from the evangelical Trumpist vision in methods and priorities only. Whether through banning abortion and returning prayer to the classroom or making healthcare available to all and implementing a livable wage, the objective is the same: saving America, restoring it to some golden age in its past or moving it to some lofty ideal of what it was always intended to be. Here the rhetoric of American mythology mixes freely with biblical imagery in ways that have often proved misleading and even toxic. Make no mistake, I am all for doing the right thing politically. But let’s do it because it is the right thing to do and not only because it has sufficient popular support to succeed in pushing us toward a kinder, gentler America.

To illustrate the above point, let’s stop promoting phony half baked responses to America’s gun fetish and avoiding criticism of the Second Amendment as though it were some god-given sacred cow. Let’s stop pretending that “self defense” is a natural right. According to the “just war doctrine” as espoused by Augustine, Aquinas and the Lutheran Confessions governing my own ELCA, the use of lethal force in the furtherance of justice belongs solely to the government. Thus, there is no reason for a Christian to possess a lethal weapon unless s/he is a law enforcement officer or soldier on active duty.  We ought to be witnessing to God’s just and peaceful reign by banning weapons from our sanctuaries (sad to say that this is even a necessity) and calling upon our members to empty their homes of the same. Let the politicians worry about the fallout.

This is an opportunity to proclaim loud and clear that one ought not put one’s trust in empires, parties, candidates or elections. Empires crumble, parties align themselves with narrow self-interests, candidates are corruptible and, as Professor Stanley Hauerwas pointed out this summer at the annual gathering of the Ekklesia Project, there is only one example of democratic rule in the Bible. In that one instance, the people chose Barabbas over Jesus. So let’s purge from our rhetoric all idiotic phrases like “faith in democracy,” “faith in our constitution,” “faith in the rule of law.” There is but one who is worthy of our faith. Idolatrous blather about faith in institutions has no place in our preaching and teaching.

This is a good time to consider how one can recite with integrity both the Apostle’s Creed and the Pledge of Allegiance. This is an excellent time ask ourselves why it is appropriate to have the flag of the United States of America (or any nation state for that matter) displayed in a sanctuary where we confess one holy catholic and apostolic church throughout the world in which there is “neither Jew nor Greek…slave nor free…neither male nor female.” Galatians 3:28. This is a good time for us to do some soul searching, asking ourselves whether we are more American than Christian and why so many of us are not even capable of entertaining such a question.

Is this the end of the Church? The end of the church might be at hand-in the sense that the Babylonian conquest was the end of Israel and the Roman sack of Jerusalem the end of Judaism. These events resulted in the unthinkable, the destruction of everything Israel thought essential to its existence as God’s chosen people. Though Israel did indeed “rise from the ashes,” its existence, self understanding and covenant life were, though in continuity with, radically different from the past.

We have good reason to believe that, at the very least, the church in America will be much smaller, poorer and less influential in the decades to come. Our decline is due to numerous factors, but the bottom line is this: American society no longer needs us. The time is long past when the Church was a big player in municipal, state and national politics. In my childhood, everyone went to church or lied and said they did. Being a believer in the Christian God was as much a part of being an American as saying the pledge of allegiance. Today, next to nobody cares whether you go to church or believe in God. You can be a good American citizen without having a trace of religion in your psychic DNA. The church isn’t necessary to American society anymore and so people no longer feel it necessary to attend, much less join a church.

The temptation will be to try and save the dying church of yesterday just as we are tempted to try making America great again. Once more, the means and priorities differ on opposite ends of the theological spectrum, but not the objective. We mainliners will be tempted to continue trying to convince progressive politicians that we are “relevant” and have something important to contribute while they, for their part, will exploit our angst to get  whatever votes they think we can still deliver. We will feel compelled to continue generating new programs and projects with whatever resources we have left more, I fear, to convince ourselves that we have a reason to exist than out of a commitment to the reign of God. A mirror image of this same effort can be expected on the fundamentalist end. In both cases, the end result is the same. In desperately seeking to save our institutional lives, we stand to lose our souls.

The opportunity here is to re-examine our mission and reflect on what it means to be a diminished church in a dying empire. That might sound dreary, but it isn’t. Really. Think of it this way: You just got fired from a job you didn’t much like and were not very good at anyway. Once you get over the anger and humiliation, you realize that this is the best thing that could have happened to you. Now you are free to do what you want, what you are good at and what brings you joy and satisfaction. I look at the situation of the church today in much the same way. It has always been assumed that the church must provide the moral framework justifying America. We have been co-opted into deifying white middle class morality, rationalizing America’s violent ways, sanctifying its wars and elevating its sacred symbols in our sanctuaries. In exchange for “Americanizing” our faith, we got “god” on our money and in the Pledge of Allegiance along with lip service in the form of our leaders occasionally referring to the United States as a “Christian nation.” Now, at long last, we are out of that damned, stinking contract. Praise be to God for that pink slip! We are free at last from the onerous burden of propping up a dying empire and free to be God’s people in Christ Jesus.

So, what does it mean to be church in America but not of it? First and foremost, I think it means being the sort of community that forms in its members the mind of Christ. Let me put some shoe leather on that. About twenty years ago now I was listening to the interview of an old Polish Catholic woman on public radio. Unlike so many others in her generation who turned away Jewish refugees during World War II, she welcomed these families into her home and, when the Nazi’s invaded, she hid them in her basement. The interviewer asked her, “Why would you put yourself and your family in danger of death or imprisonment in a concentration camp for people who are complete strangers to you?” There was a long, pregnant pause-almost as though she didn’t understand the question. Then the woman answered with a question of her own: “Well, what else would one do?”

We need communities capable of forming people like that woman, people who cannot even imagine doing other than what Jesus would have us do. That is why, though I applaud my ELCA’s decision to declare itself a sanctuary church for refugees, I wonder whether we are ready to live into that commitment. Jesus solemnly warns us in this Sunday’s gospel that he came not to bring peace to the world, but division. Are we prepared for hard conversations that might divide congregations, split families and alienate friends?  Are we ready for the bad press we are already starting to see from Fox News? Are we ready for an exodus from our church by angry Trump supporters on a magnitude bigger than what we saw in 2009 when we welcomed same sex couples? Are our pastors ready to preach the word of God’s welcome to strangers in front of hostile congregations? Are we prepared to face not mere criticism, but death threats? Legal action? Tear gas and bullets?

This might sound hyperbolic. I truly hope it is. But we have seen in the last few weeks the strength and intensity of white nationalism and the horrific violence of which it is capable. We have seen all too clearly that the present administration is whipping up racist hysteria for its own purposes and seems disinclined to moderate its rhetoric. We have seen the emergence of racist populism throughout Europe and the increasing instability of international institutions and treaties that once held nationalistic impulses in check. I would like to think that these trends are just blips on the historical pulse monitor and not signs of impending systemic crisis. But our hope can never be based on mere optimism. It must rest solely upon our confidence in the crucified one who God raised from death and with him a new creation. Such faith is learned in communities where it is lived out day by day in ways big and small. I pray that our churches are making disciples like that old Polish saint in whom the mind of Christ was so thoroughly formed that she could not imagine doing less than putting her very life between ruthless oppression and its victim. That, after all, is what it means to be a “sanctuary church.”

Here is a poem by William Butler Yates speaking a timeless yet timely message on interpreting the times.

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Source: This poem is in the public domain. William Butler Yeats (1865 -1939) was an Irish poet. He was born in Sandymount, Ireland and spent childhood holidays in County Sligo. Yeats studied poetry from an early age when he became fascinated by Irish legends, spiritualism and the occult. He later abandoned his pursuit of spiritualism as he became increasingly drawn to the Irish struggle for independence. Yeats served two terms as a senator of the Irish Free State. He was a leader in the Irish Literary Revival of the late 19th and early 20th century along with Lady Gregory, Edward Martyn and others. In 1923, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. You can read more about William Butler Yeats and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Clinging to an Impossible Promise

Image result for Abraham and starsNINTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Genesis 15:1-6
Psalm 33:12-22
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Luke 12:32-40

Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, you sent your Holy Spirit to be the life and light of your church. Open our hearts to the riches of your grace, that we may be ready to receive you wherever you appear, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Luke 12:32.

But I am afraid. Within less than twenty-four hours I have watched news coverage for two mass shootings, one in El Paso and the other in Dayton, with a total body count of 39 dead and 66 wounded. And then there was the shooting in Gilroy, California last week killing three and wounding twelve. Those are the numbers I have as of this writing. Behind the numbers are children excited about starting a new school year with fresh notebooks, new crayons and the latest Disney back packs. Some are moms and dads leaving their spouses to wonder how they are going to break this horrible news to their children and how they will go about raising them on their own. Some are parents experiencing the unspeakable sorrow of having to bury their children. Yes, I am afraid. I am afraid because this could have as easily taken place in a mall, a park or a place of worship where my children and grandchildren spend their time.

I am afraid because I know these killings are not random. They are motivated by a deep seated racist anger, the flames of which have been fanned into wildfires by a fascist demagogue and a political party in thrall to him and his base of white rage. I am afraid because my church has failed to name the idolatry of American nationalism, condemn in specific terms a president whose racist words and actions precipitate violence daily and denounce the deviant evangelical religion that legitimates his regime. I am afraid because I fear that, just as my church has had to apologize for its complicity in American slavery and its silence during the Holocaust, decades from now it will be apologizing for its inaction as thousands of refugees were turned away from sanctuary and sent back to the mortal dangers threatening them; as numerous persons of color were forced to live in fear of their own government; and as sexual minorities were subjected to humiliation, discrimination and violence.

I am afraid today and Jesus’ call for me to be unafraid seems like a big ask. But as I see it, I don’t really have any other choice. If I don’t believe that Jesus will deliver on his promise of God’s just and peaceful reign, I have to accept that the world I have helped to make for my grandchildren is the only one they can expect. If I reject hope, I am left only with fear. The best I can expect is survival and, if that is all the future holds for us, what is the point? So I am clinging to Jesus’ promise to give us God’s reign, trying to let go of all the stuff in my life that I know can’t bring me any true security and doing my best to look forward with hopeful anticipation rather than dread. But to be honest, it isn’t working very well for me today.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1. These words preface a roll call of biblical heroes who placed their confidence in an as yet unfulfilled and seemingly impossible promise, Abraham and Sarah being the primary examples. For these folks, God’s promised future was more real than the facts on the ground. For many of the saints, those facts were pretty ugly-as they are for us today. The alternative was the same: let the dark and violent past determine the future or be open to God’s future and its power to transform the present. Saints are promise driven and future oriented. We cling to the promise of God’s just and gentle reign, though sometimes its only with our fingernails. This hope of ours sometimes has but “half a heart,” but it perseveres nonetheless. And it is enough-just enough-for days like this.

Here is a poem about hope by Maya Angelou that I think captures the state of faith many of us are experiencing today.

A Plagued Journey

There is no warning rattle at the door
nor heavy feet to stomp the foyer boards.
Safe in the dark prison, I know that
light slides over
the fingered work of a toothless
woman in Pakistan.
Happy prints of
an invisible time are illumined.
My mouth agape
rejects the solid air and
lungs hold. The invader takes
direction and
seeps through the plaster walls.
It is at my chamber, entering
the keyhole, pushing
through the padding of the door.
I cannot scream. A bone
of fear clogs my throat.
It is upon me. It is
sunrise, with Hope
its arrogant rider.
My mind, formerly quiescent
in its snug encasement, is strained
to look upon their rapturous visages,
to let them enter even into me.
I am forced
outside myself to
mount the light and ride joined with Hope.
Through all the bright hours
I cling to expectation, until
darkness comes to reclaim me
as its own. Hope fades, day is gone
into its irredeemable place
and I am thrown back into the familiar
bonds of disconsolation.
Gloom crawls around
lapping lasciviously
between my toes, at my ankles,
and it sucks the strands of my
hair. It forgives my heady
fling with Hope. I am
joined again into its
greedy arms.

 

Source:  The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou ( c. 1995 by Virago Press). Maya Angelou (1928-2014) was a multi-talented American poet, author, singer, dancer and civil rights activist. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and was credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning over 50 years. She is perhaps best known for her well known autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969. The book earned her the National Book Award. Angelou was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton in 2000 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2010. You can read more about Maya Angelou and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

President Trump Nominates Vladimir Putin for Director of National Intelligence

Kierkegaard’s Ghost

(News that’s fake, but credible)

See the source image

The White House announced today that President Donald Trump has nominated Vladimir Putin to replace Dan Coats as Director of National Intelligence. “Mr. Putin is highly qualified for the position,” said Stephanie Grisham, White House press secretary. “He served many years as KGB chief under the former Soviet Union. He understands intelligence and espionage like no other.” The President said of his nominee, “Vladimir has assured me that he will put an end once and for all to this fake Russian witch hunt. He’s going to weed all the bad apples out of the intelligence community.” Attorney General, William Barr praised Mr. Putin’s experience and ability adding, “His expertise will prove invaluable in my planned prosecution of former special prosecutor Robert Mueller and his gang for their bogus and illegitimate investigation of the president.”

House minority leader Kevin McCarthy and representative Devin Nunes expressed enthusiasm for the President’s choice. “Mr. Putin is a patriot. He is going to put an end to the deep state once and for all,” said Mr. Nunes. Mr. McCarthy expressed his scorn for Democratic concerns about Mr. Putin’s eligibility and fitness for the job. “First they complain because the president’s nominee for intelligence chief has no experience. Then they carp about Mr. Putin because he has too much experience!” When asked whether Mr. Putin’s lack of citizenship disqualified him from serving in the United States government, Mr. McCarthy dismissed the concern as a distraction. “This is just another smear campaign against the president. Look, Barack Obama wasn’t even born in the United States and he got to be president. You didn’t hear the Dems moaning about that.”

Response from the Republican controlled Senate was more subdued, with many Democratic members fearing that Mr. Putin’s position as President of Russia might put him in a position of conflict. That concern was also on the minds of some Republicans. Still, Republicans are backing the president. Said South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, “Mr. Putin wouldn’t have been my first choice. But what the heck, he’s got white skin and a penis, he’s not a liberal and he’s been consistent in his support of our president. That’s good enough for me.” So, too, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell voiced his support. “We are prepared to introduce a motion in the Senate to grant American citizenship to Mr. Putin so there will be no legal impediment to his assuming the position of Director of Intelligence. After all, he came here legally.” After expressing some reservations, Senator Susan Collins of Maine also announced that she would vote to confirm Mr. Putin. “I have spoken to Mr. Putin and he has assured me that he has America’s best interests at heart and I believe him,” she said in a statement to her colleagues in the Senate.

No date has yet been set for Mr. Putin’s confirmation hearing, but the president is confident that he has enough votes in the Senate to get his nominee appointed.

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

FAKE NEWS ALERT: The above article is satirical. The events it describes didn’t happen.  “There are people who will say that this whole account is a lie, but a thing isn’t necessarily a lie even if it didn’t necessarily happen.” John Steinbeck

Why I No Longer Say the Pledge of Allegiance

I grew up saying the pledge of allegiance in class each day in elementary school and at assemblies, games and civic events throughout high school and college. Yet from the time I was old enough to think about it, I felt vaguely uncomfortable about the pledge. Though it is not explicitly religious, reciting it always had a liturgical feel. We were required to take off our hats, place our hands on our hearts and focus our gaze on the flag. “I pledge allegiance to the flag…and to the republic for which it stands…” It was very much like reciting the Apostles Creed in church-except we were not in church and we were not all Christians. Perhaps that was the point. As different as we all were in terms of our faith (or no faith) traditions, we were nevertheless united in this “pledge of allegiance” to one nation under god (whichever one that might have been). If this wasn’t religion, it sure felt like it. Consequently, it was a little unsettling for a strict Missouri Synod Lutheran like me raised to believe that one ought not to be involved in synchronistic worship.

In spite of these misgivings, however, I could still justify the pledge on a very high level of abstraction. We all have worldly loyalties and commitments of varying degrees solemnized by a formal statement of some kind. I pledged to be faithful to my wife until death parts us. When I took out my first mortgage, I signed a pledge to the bank that I would make the all the payments in a timely fashion as spelled out in the note. Clearly, I am obliged to share with my fellow citizens the expense of government that provides the many services and protections making our shared life together possible. So, what is wrong with articulating this shared civil commitment in a verbal pledge?

If that is all there were to it, I could live with the pledge of allegiance. But I am no longer convinced that the pledge is a benign recital of civic duty. It purports to demand much more. Allegiance, as defined by Mirriam Webster, is first and foremost the obligation of a feudal vassal to his liege lord. It harkens back to a medieval social arrangement under which peasants were obliged to live on their lord’s land and give him homage, labor, and a share of the produce in exchange for military protection. With the rise of nationalism, this duty of allegiance was transferred to the nation state. Like the liege lord, the state commands obedience and a willingness on the part of its citizens to kill and die for it. Nations, whatever form they may take, all have one common denominator: they are the sole agents authorized to take human life. Homicide is not murder when committed under color of law by appropriate authorities. In this respect, the state usurps the prerogative of God. That alone should cause us to wonder whether it is appropriate for a disciple of Jesus to pledge unconditional loyalty of this kind to any state.

Coupled with the loyalty every nation state demands, however, is the myth of American exceptionalism and its next of kin, white supremacy. The belief that America is uniquely destined to dominate the continent led to the ruthless ethnic cleansing of Native American nations. Belief in the superiority of the “white race” justified the slave trade and the use of slave labor to drive the nation’s economy to unprecedented production of wealth, but only for the master class. These two myths have provided the rationalization for decades of Jim Crow segregation and now drive the cries of “send her back” bellowed by that howling white lynch mob known as the GOP base. White supremacy is not a long discarded doctrine of the distant past. It is alive and well normalizing racism, bringing neo-nazi extremism into mainline politics and driving the inhumane practices of deportation and family division at our border. American exceptionalism insists that we must turn a blind eye to these realities and continue to insist, as the saying goes, “My country right or wrong.” That sounds very much like a disfunctional and warped sort of religious faith. I have therefore reached the conclusion that American nationalism is a rival religion demanding from us uncritical faith and obedience blind to the realities of our history. Thus, pledging allegiance to the flag of the United States of America is idolatry. For that reason, I can’t do it anymore and I won’t.

I think that American Christians need to acknowledge that these ideologies of American exceptionalism and white supremacy have been propped up and legitimized with biblical imagery, often with the aid of the church. America fancies itself the new Israel driving the Canaanites from the land. America sees itself as the “chosen people” with a God given mission to tame the wilderness. America’s wars are all “holy wars” and our soldiers are martyrs making the ultimate sacrifice for that god we call America. We, the American clergy (yours truly included), have been only to eager to bless our nation’s carnage with invocations and benedictions on Veterans Day and Memorial Day observances, thereby feeding the lie that our soldiers all died in the noble service of protecting our freedoms though, in fact, the lives of these young people were too often squandered in wars of aggression. This has to end if we are going to witness credibly to the just and peaceful reign of Christ.

I understand that refusing to take the pledge of allegiance is commonly understood as nothing short of treason. “If you hate America so much, why don’t you go somewhere else?” one of my exasperated friends recently asked me. Rest assured, I do not hate America. Following Jesus leaves no room for hatred. Though America has made itself an enemy to me, I am determined not to be an enemy to America. There is much about America that I love, such as its vast wilderness areas faithfully preserved by the United States Parks Department. I love the many vibrant communities and neighborhoods throughout this diverse land and the musical, artistic and cultural contributions they continue to make. I honor and respect the sacrifices made by so many individuals whose words and actions call this nation to follow the lead of its better angels and reject the dark and sinister forces of greed, racism and imperialism that have driven it historically. I will continue to vote, pay my taxes and support government agencies providing the services we need to thrive and protecting the most vulnerable among us from the ravages of poverty, sickness and exploitation. I will continue to pray for this country and its leaders because, as the prophet Jeremiah points out, its welfare is the welfare of us all. Though I cannot give America my allegiance, I will always offer it my love.

I know that these commitments of mine to America do not rise to the level of what many consider appropriate patriotism. That doesn’t bother me, however. I know of no instance in which Jesus calls upon his disciples to be patriotic. He does, however, call upon his followers to love the Lord God with all one’s heart, soul, mind and strength. The word all leaves no room for any another sovereign, least of all one whose violence and injustice oppress the most vulnerable among us and wounds the very Body of Christ. Jesus calls upon me to love my neighbor as myself. I can’t square the parable of the Good Samaritan with cries of “America first,” with turning away refugees in desperate need of sanctuary or with the increasingly racist rhetoric spewing from the mouths of America’s leaders. So I am done with the pledge of allegiance. Henceforth, when invited to partake in that ritual I will, most respectfully, remain seated and silent.

A Dead End for the “American Dream”

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of ______.EIGHTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
Psalm 49:1-12
Colossians 3:1-11
Luke 12:13-21

Prayer of the Day: Benevolent God, you are the source, the guide, and the goal of our lives. Teach us to love what is worth loving, to reject what is offensive to you, and to treasure what is precious in your sight, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

The Book of Ecclesiastes was composed in post-exilic Jerusalem late in the Old Testament period, most likely between 350-250 B.C.E. It stands in the biblical cannon as a direct antithesis to the preceding Book of Proverbs. Proverbial wisdom maintained that there exists a moral underpinning to the universe discernible to the wise and virtuous.  “The Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding; he stores up sound wisdom for the upright; he is a shield to those who walk blamelessly, guarding the paths of justice and preserving the way of his faithful ones.” Proverbs 2:6-8.  The “teacher” of Ecclesiastes casts serious doubt upon this assumption.  He declares, “I said to myself, ‘I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.’ And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.” Ecclesiastes 1:16-18.

The double irony here is that both of these works are attributed to King Solomon. Most biblical scholars agree that this attribution is more literary than historical. That said, I am not ready to dismiss the potential contribution of Solomon to either of these two books. Wisdom literature reaches “back into the earliest stages of Israel’s existence.” Crenshaw, J.L., Wisdom in the Old Testament, Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Volume, (c.1976, Abingdon). It was during the reign of Solomon that the Israelite monarchy reached the height of its international prominence. Solomon formed treaties with Egypt and the Phoenician kingdoms transacting commerce and military compacts. Cultural exchanges would have followed naturally and thus exposure to wisdom literature from these sources. The authors/editors of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes may well have had access to collections of sayings from this ancient and illustrious period.

However the question of Solomon’s connection to Ecclesiastes might be resolved, the teacher clearly has a literary incentive for attributing his work to the king. If ever there was a man whose wisdom could have answered the mystery of suffering, injustice and the emptiness of material success, it was the proverbially wise King Solomon. Yet not even Solomon can unravel these deep and terrifying mysteries. Most people sweat their lives away toiling under the sun and have nothing to show for it in the end. Even in rare cases, such as that of Solomon, where wisdom and hard work produce an abundance of wealth, such success brings neither joy nor satisfaction. Death will erase whatever a person manages to accomplish. Sensual pleasure finally becomes empty and boring. “So,” says the teacher, “I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and striving after wind.” Ecclesiastes 2:17.

The message of the teacher is not one that a positive, anything-is-possible, can-do culture like ours likes to hear. We believe fervently in the value of hard work and the blessings of prosperity it promises to bring. But I cannot tell you how many people I know who hate their jobs and are counting down the days until retirement. I have known more than a few individuals over the years whose hard work and dedication to the company earned them only the jealousy of their co-workers and termination at the hands of supervisors worried that they might get “shown up.” The world of work as we know it is often a heartless environment where the bottom line reigns and workers are little more than replaceable cogs in the machine. This reflects the experience not merely of unskilled, minimum wage employees, but also that of more highly compensated professionals.

“Of course, many of us believe the myth the churches help perpetuate that the common good will be advanced by our work as teachers, physicians, lawyers and managers. But the reality is that physicians need to spend more time answering to HMO’s and guarding costs than to patients’ needs. And lawyers need to increase their billable hours to 100 or 150 per week to cover office expenses and partners’ profits, leaving less time for family and community. And managers either worry about being downsized themselves or need to downsize others in a vicious game of productivity and survival. And teachers must adapt to increased class size, standardized curricula and standardized tests as a means of assessing their students and their own teaching effectiveness. And at the college and university level, more classes need to be taught to enable others to enter the professional ranks, as though the world really needs more plastic surgeons, corporate lawyers and professors of philosophy.” Brimlow, Robert, Paganism and the Professions, (c. 2002, The Ekklesia Project), p. 8.

The teacher could well understand the rage of the proverbial 99%, against the 1% holding the vast majority of the nation’s wealth. But I doubt he would have endorsed with enthusiasm their cries for a bigger piece of the financial pie. That is because a bigger slice of the pie will not bring about the better life for which we all hunger. In reality, life is no better for the 1% at the top of the heap. They will learn soon enough that their acquisitions and achievements amount to “vanity and chasing after wind.” So King Solomon discovered:

“I said to myself, ‘Come now, I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself.’ But again, this also was vanity. I said of laughter, ‘It is mad’, and of pleasure, ‘What use is it? I searched with my mind how to cheer my body with wine—my mind still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, until I might see what was good for mortals to do under heaven during the few days of their life. I made great works; I built houses and planted vineyards for myself; I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house; I also had great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and of the provinces; I got singers, both men and women, and delights of the flesh, and many concubines. So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom remained with me. Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 2:1-11.

Perhaps the teacher can help those of us in the church begin changing the conversation about wealth and poverty which too often mirrors the partisan divides in our country. Perhaps we can help focus the discussion on what makes life good rather than accepting uncritically the American Dream of middle class “upward mobility” as the good life and then arguing about how to get there. The teacher can help us deflate the notion that the good life depends on satisfying an endless thirst for accumulation that finally will exhaust the planet and leave us empty and despondent.

Here is a poem by Samuel Johnson on the futility of human desire for glory, wealth and power. Listen carefully and you can hear echoes of the teacher’s voice-and something more.

The Vanity of Human Wishes

The Tenth Satire of Juvenal,[1] Imitated

Let observation with extensive view,
Survey mankind, from China to Peru;
Remark each anxious toil, each eager strife,
And watch the busy scenes of crowded life;
Then say how hope and fear, desire and hate,
O’erspread with snares the clouded maze of fate,
Where wav’ring man, betray’d by vent’rous pride
To tread the dreary paths without a guide,
As treach’rous phantoms in the mist delude,
Shuns fancied ills, or chases airy good.
How rarely reason guides the stubborn choice,
Rules the bold hand, or prompts the suppliant voice,
How nations sink, by darling schemes oppress’d,
When vengeance listens to the fool’s request.
Fate wings with ev’ry wish th’ afflictive dart,
Each gift of nature, and each grace of art,
With fatal heat impetuous courage glows,
With fatal sweetness elocution flows,
Impeachment stops the speaker’s pow’rful breath,
And restless fire precipitates on death.

But scarce observ’d the knowing and the bold,
Fall in the gen’ral massacre of gold;
Wide-wasting pest! that rages unconfin’d,
And crowds with crimes the records of mankind,
For gold his sword the hireling ruffian draws,
For gold the hireling judge distorts the laws;
Wealth heap’d on wealth, nor truth nor safety buys,
The dangers gather as the treasures rise.

Let hist’ry tell where rival kings command,
And dubious title shakes the madded land,
When statutes glean the refuse of the sword,
How much more safe the vassal than the lord,
Low sculks the hind beneath the rage of pow’r,
And leaves the wealthy traitor in the Tow’r,
Untouch’d his cottage, and his slumbers sound,
Tho’ confiscation’s vultures hover round.

The needy traveller, serene and gay,
Walks the wild heath, and sings his toil away.
Does envy seize thee? crush th’ upbraiding joy,
Increase his riches and his peace destroy,
New fears in dire vicissitude invade,
The rustling brake alarms, and quiv’ring shade,
Nor light nor darkness bring his pain relief.
One shews the plunder, and one hides the thief.

Yet still one gen’ral cry the skies assails,
And gain and grandeur load the tainted gales,
Few know the toiling statesman’s fear or care,
Th’ insidious rival and the gaping heir.

Once more, Democritus, arise on earth,
With cheerful wisdom and instructive mirth,
See motley life in modern trappings dress’d,
And feed with varied fools th’ eternal jest:
Thou who couldst laugh where want enchain’d caprice,
Toil crush’d conceit, and man was of a piece;
Where wealth unlov’d without a mourner died;
And scarce a sycophant was fed by pride;
Where ne’er was known the form of mock debate,
Or seen a new-made mayor’s unwieldy state;
Where change of fav’rites made no change of laws,
And senates heard before they judg’d a cause;
How wouldst thou shake at Britain’s modish tribe,
Dart the quick taunt, and edge the piercing gibe?
Attentive truth and nature to decry,
And pierce each scene with philosophic eye.
To thee were solemn toys or empty show,
The robes of pleasure and the veils of woe:
All aid the farce, and all thy mirth maintain,
Whose joys are causeless, or whose griefs are vain.

Such was the scorn that fill’d the sage’s mind,
Renew’d at ev’ry glance on humankind;
How just that scorn ere yet thy voice declare,
Search every state, and canvas ev’ry pray’r.

Unnumber’d suppliants crowd Preferment’s gate,
Athirst for wealth, and burning to be great;
Fortune hears th’ incessant call,
They mount, they shine, evaporate, and fall.
On ev’ry stage the foes of peace attend,
Hate dogs their flight, and insult mocks their end.
Love ends with hope, the sinking statesman’s door
Pours in the morning worshiper no more;
For growing names the weekly scribbler lies,
To growing wealth the dedicator flies,
From every room descends the painted face,
That hung the bright Palladium of the place,
And smok’d in kitchens, or in auctions sold,
To better features yields the frame of gold;
For now no more we trace in ev’ry line
Heroic worth, benevolence divine:
The form distorted justifies the fall,
And detestation rids th’ indignant wall.

When first the college rolls receive his name,
The young enthusiast quits his ease for fame;
Through all his veins the fever of renown
Spreads from the strong contagion of the gown;
O’er Bodley’s dome his future labours spread,
And Bacon’s mansion trembles o’er his head.
Are these thy views? proceed, illustrious youth,
And virtue guard thee to the throne of Truth!
Yet should thy soul indulge the gen’rous heat,
Till captive Science yields her last retreat;
Should Reason guide thee with her brightest ray,
And pour on misty Doubt resistless day;
Should no false Kindness lure to loose delight,
Nor Praise relax, nor Difficulty fright;
Should tempting Novelty thy cell refrain,
And Sloth effuse her opiate fumes in vain;
Should Beauty blunt on fops her fatal dart,
Nor claim the triumph of a letter’d heart;
Should no disease thy torpid veins invade,
Nor Melancholy’s phantoms haunt thy shade;
Yet hope not life from grief or danger free,
Nor think the doom of man revers’d for thee:
Deign on the passing world to turn thine eyes,
And pause awhile from letters, to be wise;
There mark what ills the scholar’s life assail,
Toil, envy, want, the patron, and the jail.
See nations slowly wise, and meanly just,
To buried merit raise the tardy bust.
If dreams yet flatter, once again attend,
Hear Lydiat’s life, and Galileo’s end.

Nor deem, when learning her last prize bestows
The glitt’ring eminence exempt from foes;
See when the vulgar ‘scape, despis’d or aw’d,
Rebellion’s vengeful talons seize on Laud.
From meaner minds, tho’ smaller fines content
The plunder’d palace or sequester’d rent;
Mark’d out by dangerous parts he meets the shock,
And fatal Learning leads him to the block:
Around his tomb let Art and Genius weep,
But hear his death, ye blockheads, hear and sleep.

Enlarge my life with multitude of days,
In health, in sickness, thus the suppliant prays;
Hides from himself his state, and shuns to know,
That life protracted is protracted woe.
Time hovers o’er, impatient to destroy,
And shuts up all the passages of joy:
In vain their gifts the bounteous seasons pour,
The fruit autumnal, and the vernal flow’r,
With listless eyes the dotard views the store,
He views, and wonders that they please no more;
Now pall the tasteless meats, and joyless wines,
And Luxury with sighs her slave resigns.
Approach, ye minstrels, try the soothing strain,
And yield the tuneful lenitives of pain:
No sounds alas would touch th’ impervious ear,
Though dancing mountains witness’d Orpheus near;
Nor lute nor lyre his feeble pow’rs attend,
Nor sweeter music of a virtuous friend,
But everlasting dictates crowd his tongue,
Perversely grave, or positively wrong.
The still returning tale, and ling’ring jest,
Perplex the fawning niece and pamper’d guest,
While growing hopes scarce awe the gath’ring sneer,
And scarce a legacy can bribe to hear;
The watchful guests still hint the last offence,
The daughter’s petulance, the son’s expense,
Improve his heady rage with treach’rous skill,
And mould his passions till they make his will.

Unnumber’d maladies his joints invade,
Lay siege to life and press the dire blockade;
But unextinguish’d Av’rice still remains,
And dreaded losses aggravate his pains;
He turns, with anxious heart and crippled hands,
His bonds of debt, and mortgages of lands;
Or views his coffers with suspicious eyes,
Unlocks his gold, and counts it till he dies.

But grant, the virtues of a temp’rate prime
Bless with an age exempt from scorn or crime;
An age that melts in unperceiv’d decay,
And glides in modest innocence away;
Whose peaceful day Benevolence endears,
Whose night congratulating Conscience cheers;
The gen’ral fav’rite as the gen’ral friend:
Such age there is, and who could wish its end?

Yet ev’n on this her load Misfortune flings,
To press the weary minutes’ flagging wings:
New sorrow rises as the day returns,
A sister sickens, or a daughter mourns.
Now kindred Merit fills the sable bier,
Now lacerated Friendship claims a tear.
Year chases year, decay pursues decay,
Still drops some joy from with’ring life away;
New forms arise, and diff’rent views engage,
Superfluous lags the vet’ran on the stage,
Till pitying Nature signs the last release,
And bids afflicted worth retire to peace.

But few there are whom hours like these await,
Who set unclouded in the gulfs of fate.
From Lydia’s monarch should the search descend,
By Solon caution’d to regard his end,
In life’s last scene what prodigies surprise,
Fears of the brave, and follies of the wise?
From Marlb’rough’s eyes the streams of dotage flow,
And Swift expires a driv’ler and a show.

The teeming mother, anxious for her race,
Begs for each birth the fortune of a face:
Yet Vane could tell what ills from beauty spring;
And Sedley curs’d the form that pleas’d a king.
Ye nymphs of rosy lips and radiant eyes,
Whom Pleasure keeps too busy to be wise,
Whom Joys with soft varieties invite,
By day the frolic, and the dance by night,
Who frown with vanity, who smile with art,
And ask the latest fashion of the heart,
What care, what rules your heedless charms shall save,
Each nymph your rival, and each youth your slave?
Against your fame with fondness hate combines,
The rival batters and the lover mines.
With distant voice neglected Virtue calls,
Less heard and less, the faint remonstrance falls;
Tir’d with contempt, she quits the slipp’ry reign,
And Pride and Prudence take her seat in vain.
In crowd at once, where none the pass defend,
The harmless freedom, and the private friend.
The guardians yield, by force superior plied;
By Int’rest, Prudence; and by Flatt’ry, Pride.
Now Beauty falls betray’d, despis’d, distress’d,
And hissing Infamy proclaims the rest.

Where then shall Hope and Fear their objects find?
Must dull Suspense corrupt the stagnant mind?
Must helpless man, in ignorance sedate,
Roll darkling down the torrent of his fate?
Must no dislike alarm, no wishes rise,
No cries attempt the mercies of the skies?
Enquirer, cease, petitions yet remain,
Which Heav’n may hear, nor deem religion vain.
Still raise for good the supplicating voice,
But leave to Heav’n the measure and the choice.
Safe in his pow’r, whose eyes discern afar
The secret ambush of a specious pray’r.
Implore his aid, in his decisions rest,
Secure whate’er he gives, he gives the best.
Yet when the sense of sacred presence fires,
And strong devotion to the skies aspires,
Pour forth thy fervours for a healthful mind,
Obedient passions, and a will resign’d;
For love, which scarce collective man can fill;
For patience, sov’reign o’er transmuted ill;
For faith, that panting for a happier seat,
Counts death kind Nature’s signal of retreat:
These goods for man the laws of Heav’n ordain,
These goods he grants, who grants the pow’r to gain;
With these celestial wisdom calms the mind,
And makes the happiness she does not find.

Source: This poem is in the public domain. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) was an English writer who made lasting contributions to English literature as a poet, playwright, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer. He was a conservative political thinker and devout Anglican. Born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, Johnson attended Pembroke College, Oxford, for just over a year. A lack of funds forced him to leave  before completing his studies. After working as a teacher, he moved to London, where he began to write for The Gentleman’s Magazine. Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1755. It had a far-reaching effect on the English language and has been acclaimed as one of the greatest achievements of scholarship. Until the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary 150 years later, Johnson’s was the pre-eminent British dictionary of the English language. You can read more about Samuel Johnson and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

[1] The Satires are a collection of satirical poems by the Latin author Juvenal written in the early 2nd century AD. Juvenal is credited with sixteen poems divided among five books. All five books are in the Roman genre of satire comprising a wide-ranging discussion of society and social mores.

Learning to Pray

NamasteSEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Genesis 18:20-32
Psalm 138
Colossians 2:6-19
Luke 11:1-13

Prayer of the Day: Almighty and ever-living God, you are always more ready to hear than we are to pray, and you gladly give more than we either desire or deserve. Pour upon us your abundant mercy. Forgive us those things that weigh on our conscience, and give us those good things that come only through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Lord, teach us to pray…” That is the simple request Jesus’ disciples made of him. Praying rightly does not come naturally. It must be learned. Based on much of what passes for prayer these days, I am not convinced the church has done a particularly good job of teaching or that we children of the church have learned our lessons well. Nowhere in the Lord’s Prayer are we instructed to pray for the self-interested welfare of our own particular nation state. Nowhere are we instructed to pray for victory in war. Nowhere are we instructed to seek special miracles of healing for ourselves or loved ones, professional success or financial security. Prayer is not a means of gaining God’s favor, support or intervention to further our own personal interests. That, however, is the focus of many prayers I have heard over the years.

How different is the prayer Jesus teaches us to pray! Jesus’ prayer begins not with his own needs, but with a plea that God’s name be regarded as holy. Prayer is not all about us, our needs, our hopes, our desires and longings. It is about glorifying God. Many of the Psalms illustrate that very point. including, for example, Psalm 150. In his/her prayer, the psalmist asks nothing of God, seeks nothing from God and does not attempt to influence God in any way. The psalm is pure praise to God from beginning to end. What we are commanded to pray for, above all else, is the coming of God’s reign on earth. That is not to say the coming of God’s reign depends on our prayer. As Martin Luther rightly points out, “God’s kingdom comes without our prayer, but we pray that it may come among us.” We are that for which we yearn. We are shaped by what we desire, what we long for and that for which we hope. If the primary focus of our prayer is something less than the reign of God, then we become less than all God would have us be.

So what hopes and longings are shaping our souls? Our culture of late stage capitalism instills in us a thirst for acquisition and consumption. The American Dream is often cast in terms of home ownership, financial security and increasing wealth. By contrast, when it comes to material things, Jesus teaches us to pray for no more than today’s sustenance, leaving tomorrow to be concerned for itself. This “daily bread” is all we need and all we should be seeking from God. The so-called “prosperity preachers” have got it wrong.

Finally, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray that God’s will be done-not our own agendas for personal well-being. In praying for God’s will to be done, I might be praying for poverty, persecution or even death. The kingdom is revealed through the suffering witness of a church that lives as though the kingdom were fully present in a world that does not yet recognize or accept it. It is only with this understanding that we can pray rightly to be delivered from evil and temptation. Deliverance from evil is not protection from suffering, but faith that endures suffering without succumbing to unbelief and despair. This petition is essential precisely because loyalty to the reign of God brings a disciple into conflict with the values and priorities of the dominant culture. The “evil” to be avoided is not suffering or persecution, but the danger of yielding to the ways of the world under the threat of these necessary consequences of faithfulness.

Ultimately, prayer is less about altering the external environment to our own liking than being altered in heart and mind so that we learn to yearn for God’s kingdom, seek God’s will and hallow God’s name through faithful discipleship.

Soren Kierkegaard, the great Danish philosopher and theologian of the 19thCentury, was well schooled in the art of faithful prayer. Here is one of his.

Move in Infinite Love

You who are unchangeable, whom nothing changes! You who are unchangeable in love, precisely for our welfare, not submitting to any change: may we too will our welfare, submitting ourselves to the discipline of Your unchangeableness, so that we may in unconditional obedience find our rest and remain at rest in Your unchangeableness. You are not like us; if we are to preserve only some degree of constancy, we must not permit ourselves too much to be moved, nor by too many things. You on the contrary are moved, and moved in infinite love, by all things. Even that which we humans beings call an insignificant trifle, and pass by unmoved, the need of a sparrow, even this moved You; and what we so often scarcely notice, a human sigh, this moves You, You who are unchangeable! You who in infinite love do submit to be moved, may this our prayer also move You to add Your blessing, in order that there may be brought about such a change in us who pray as to bring us into conformity with Your unchangeable will, You who are unchangeable!

Source: Christian Classics, c. The Words Group, 700 Sleater-Kinney Road, Suite 303-B, Lacey, Washington 98503.  Soren Kierkegaard was born in Copenhagen in the early nineteenth century. He graduated from the University of Copenhagen and spent two years in Germany before returning to Copenhagen, where he would spend the rest of his life. Kierkegaard’s life and works presented a serious challenge to the institutional church of his day, which he felt had replaced faithful discipleship with mere cultural and ethical convention. Rightly or wrongly, he is regarded as the father of modern existentialism and was one of the first thinkers to take a modern, analytical and psychological approach to religion. You can find out more about Soren Kierkegaard at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.