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False Prophets, Conspiracy Theorists and the Gospel Antidote

FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 111
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

Prayer of the Day: Compassionate God, you gather the whole universe into your radiant presence and continually reveal your Son as our Savior. Bring wholeness to all that is broken and speak truth to us in our confusion, that all creation will see and know your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.” Deuteronomy 18:20.

False prophets abound and they seldom fail to find a ready audience. Nearly a decade ago, Harold Camping, president of Family Radio and moderator for a talk radio program called “Open Forum,” famously predicted that all true Christians would be raptured to heaven on May 21, 2011, leaving the rest of humanity to suffer war, plagues and famine until the final conflagration that would consume the earth on October 11th of that year. Thousands of his listeners heeded his warning, some resigning their jobs, some quitting school and some liquidating their life savings to finance a final missionary push to warn the world of its impending doom and call as many as possible to repentance. As is evident, the final judgment did not unfold as predicted. Of course, I felt sorry for Camping’s duped followers, many of whom had staked their reputations and livelihood on his bogus claim. But on the other hand, I could not help but wonder how so many mature and educated adults with responsible jobs could be induced to believe such malarky.

These days I find myself asking the same question about Qanon disciples who are finding their faith in tatters following the collapse of former President Donald Trump’s failed attempts to overturn the election ending his presidency. For those of you who might have been living on another planet for the last four years, Qanon is a right-wing conspiracy theory. Its adherents claim that a secret cabal of Satan-worshipping, cannibalistic pedophiles constituting the “deep state” is running a global child sex-trafficking ring. They believe that former president Donald Trump has been fighting the cabal throughout his tenure. The wild fantasies of Qanon followers have been fed by regular internet information “dumps” originating from a person identified only as “Q.” Qanan loyalists have been living for the last couple of years in anticipation of “the storm,” a massive military style assault to be led by Donald Trump against this evil deep state cabal, arresting such of its supposed leaders as former secretary of state, Hilary Clinton, billionaire investor and philanthropist George Soros and other prominent “liberal elites.”

The decisive defeat of Donald Trump in the 2020 election temporarily rattled Qanon’s faith and its grandiose expectations. But its followers soon found new hope in Donald Trump’s unfounded claim that the 2020 election was “stolen” from him by fraudulent means and his failed efforts to invalidate the results. They were energized by the baseless assertion that Vice President Mike Pence had authority to reject the certified results of the electoral college and enraged when he did not do so. The Qanon faithful were well represented in the mob that attacked our Capital on January 6th. According to the latest Qanon prophecy, the long awaited “storm” would finally come on January 20th, the day of President Joe Biden’s inauguration. On that day there were supposed to be blackouts across the country, mass arrests of deep state actors to be tried in military tribunals and executed.

The altogether uneventful transfer of power on January 20th (albeit under the watchful eye of the military) seems to have dashed Qanon’s followers’ last hope for fulfilment of their apocalyptic dreams. “It’s done and we were played,” said one of them. “I just want to throw up. I’m so sick of all the disinformation and false hope,” said another. Refinery29 (January 21, 2021). “So, was Q just one big lie and psyop that I foolishly followed and believed for over 3 years?” another remarked. Insider, (January 20,2021). One Qanon follower interviewed by CBS at the nation’s capital early in the day just prior to the inauguration ceremony expressed the view that the inauguration would never happen. “I still have hope,” he told a reporter. “Something big is up. You can feel it coming.” He was considerably subdued when interviewed again in the late afternoon. “I can’t believe it” he said. “I’ve been just walking around all day wondering how it could all just be a lie.” Not only did the former president fail to come through with the dramatic “storm” Qanon was expecting, but he publicly condemned the very people who risked their lives and put themselves in legal jeopardy following what they thought was his order for them to storm the Capital building.

There remains a Qanon remnant, however, still clinging to faith in Trump, analyzing his every word and action for some clue that the game is still on. Several Qanon followers speculate that the seventeen flags planted on the site of Trump’s farewell speech at Andrews Air Force Base denote the seventeenth letter of the alphabet, Q. Ibid. Others suggest that President Biden is actually in league with Trump and will ultimately hand him back the presidency. They are snatching at every straw they can find to keep the dream alive as its theoretical framework, never all that solid to begin with, continues to collapse under the weight of undeniable facts. As with the followers of the late Harold Camping, so with the followers of the elusive Q, I can’t help asking, “How could you possibly have fallen for that load of corn?”

I am afraid the answer is almost too simple. People believe crack pot conspiracy theories because they want to. As the Simon and Garfunkel lyrics so aptly observe, “a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” The Boxer, (Copyright: Edmund John Simons, Tim Burgess, Thomas Owen Rowlands). Conspiracy theories do what all false prophecy does. They tell us what we want to hear. They spin narratives in which we can view ourselves as righteous, justify our bigotry and blame the “enemy” (i.e., migrants, antifa, liberals, radicals, socialists, feminists, LGBTQ folk…fill in the blank) for our failures instead of taking responsibility for them. They help us make sense of a confusing and frightening world by putting a face on our fears and reducing complex issues to simple binary choices between good and evil. They make it possible for us to imagine ourselves the heroes of our own story. False prophets of conspiracy appeal to people who are too lazy to think for themselves and too cowardly to confront the truth.

The good news about Jesus is the antithesis of and antidote to false conspiracy prophecy. The gospels will not allow us to be the heroes of our own stories. There are no heroic disciples in the gospel Passion Narratives, but only cowards, traitors and deserters. There is a reason we tell these stories about disciples who fall asleep at their posts, deny their Lord under oath and turn tail and run away when the going gets rough. They are true stories, stories we tell on ourselves about ourselves. We do this not out of some masochistic impulse, but because we know that, when we find the courage to face the truth about ourselves, we find courage to speak the truth to a world desperately in need of it.

God knows that in this age of “alternative facts” we can use a good dose of truthful prophetic speech. The last four years have uncovered some ugly truths, “something brutal snaking underneath us” to borrow from poet Ada Limón. We have learned that ours is a nation lying to itself about its history of slavery, white supremacy and the ongoing effects of that legacy on its citizens of color. The Trump presidency has uncovered a huge swath of American Christianity complicit in defending white privilege and giving its full throated support to a morally degenerate leader in exchange for raw political power. It has simultaneously exposed the moral paralysis of another swath of the American Church which has remained largely silent about this shameful appropriation of its Lord’s name and the symbols of its faith in the service of these unholy objectives. Of course, we don’t need prophets to tell us that. But the world does need to be told and the church needs to be reminded of the God who judges us all, and that because God loves us too much to let us go on this way.

Here is the poem by Ada Limón quoted above in which we are challenged to view the truth under the superficial veneer of national mythology.

A New National Anthem

The truth is, I’ve never cared for the National
Anthem. If you think about it, it’s not a good
song. Too high for most of us with “the rockets
red glare” and then there are the bombs.
(Always, always, there is war and bombs.)
Once, I sang it at homecoming and threw
even the tenacious high school band off key.
But the song didn’t mean anything, just a call
to the field, something to get through before
the pummeling of youth. And what of the stanzas
we never sing, the third that mentions “no refuge
could save the hireling and the slave”?[1] Perhaps,
the truth is, every song of this country
has an unsung third stanza, something brutal
snaking underneath us as we blindly sing
the high notes with a beer sloshing in the stands
hoping our team wins. Don’t get me wrong, I do
like the flag, how it undulates in the wind
like water, elemental, and best when it’s humbled,
brought to its knees, clung to by someone who
has lost everything, when it’s not a weapon,
when it flickers, when it folds up so perfectly
you can keep it until it’s needed, until you can
love it again, until the song in your mouth feels
like sustenance, a song where the notes are sung
by even the ageless woods, the short-grass plains,
the Red River Gorge, the fistful of land left
unpoisoned, that song that’s our birthright,
that’s sung in silence when it’s too hard to go on,
that sounds like someone’s rough fingers weaving
into another’s, that sounds like a match being lit
in an endless cave, the song that says my bones
are your bones, and your bones are my bones,
and isn’t that enough?

Source: The Carrying (c. 2018 by Ada Limón; pub. by Milkweed Editions). Ada Limón (b. 1976) grew up in Sonoma, California. She attended drama school at the University of Washington where she studied theater. She received her MFA from New York University in 2001. Limón now lives alternately in Lexington, Kentucky and Sonoma, California, where she writes and teaches. She has authored five books of poetry and is the recipient of several awards and honors. You can read more about Ada Limón and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

[1] Reference here is to the third verse of the Star Spangled Banner:

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more!
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Living Well in a World that is Passing

THIRD SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalm 62:5-12
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20

Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, by grace alone you call us and accept us in your service. Strengthen us by your Spirit, and make us worthy of your call, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short…the present form of this world is passing away.” I Corinthians 7:29; 31.

Most of us mainline protestants tend to dismiss verses like these that warn us about the imminence of the “appointed time.” The conventional exegetical wisdom is that Paul was under the impression Jesus’ return and the close of the age were near at hand and likely to occur during or shorty after his lifetime. That being the case, one ought not to invest an inordinate amount of time and energy on one’s marriage, career or property. Who needs a 401K if the world is ending tomorrow? Now, of course, we know that Paul’s assumptions were incorrect. Now we understand that the church is on a long pilgrimage through history, the end of which we cannot predict. Knowing all of this, we can safely disregard Paul’s admonition as misguided, get back to the work of practical day to day living and put the passing of this world out of our minds.

Or can we? I believe Paul’s observation that “the present form of this world is passing away” is quite descriptive of our present reality. Just one year ago we were gathering in our sanctuaries for worship, dinning out at our favorite restaurants, walking crowded streets without a care, exchanging hugs and kisses without reservation and travelling as often and as far as our time and money would allow. Now that world is just a memory. Last year no one doubted that we, as the world’s oldest democracy, would see yet another presidential election ending either with four more years of an existing administration or a peaceful transfer of power to the next. But on January 6th of this year, the Feast of the Epiphany, we witnessed a violent and nearly successful coup d’etat incited by a president unwilling to accept the election results. Now the transition of power is taking place in a capital on lock down and under armed guard.

The world we know is fast passing away, says Paul. But that should not be heard as tidings of gloom and doom. The form of this world must pass away in order for the reign of God to establish itself. In our gospel lesson, Jesus tells us that the reign of God has drawn near; hence, the passing away of this world’s forms and structures. One thing the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests should have made clear to us is that much of the “form of this world” is not worth preserving. We have been made painfully aware of systemic racism, sexism and economic inequality deeply entrenched in government, education and the work place. We are feeling, I believe, the pressure of God’s reign of justice, mercy and peace breaking in upon us. That pressure is painful, especially for those of us who are a little too comfortable with the present form of this world. We fear change and tend to think of God as a bulwark against it. But according to what the New Testament witnesses tell us and as poet Wendy Videlock observes, God is change. Thus, the passing of this world’s form should be received with joy and expectation.

This isn’t to say with blithe optimism that “things are looking up.” I am not so sure they are. Though I am thankful that we have removed from power a sociopathic autocrat with dangerous delusions, one of our two major political parties continues to be dominated by a fascist faction that, sadly, represents the sentiments of a huge section of our population. There are an alarming number of people in our country for whom the passing away of this world’s form is a terrifying prospect. They have demonstrated that they are willing to kill in order to preserve that from. So while the new heaven and earth may be drawing near, the old one isn’t going down without a fight. The call issued to the four fishermen-and to all of us-is a call to engage in the struggle for God’s reign in a world bound and determined to reject it. Like our Lord, we might well be required to lay down our lives for the sake of a kingdom we will not live to see, trusting in God to complete what we can only begin and raise us up to participate in its consummation.

We need to understand that loyalty to God’s reign may require severance from all lesser loyalties, even family ties. Think of poor Zebedee left alone with his hired hands as his two sons depart with Jesus. Think of Jesus’ response when informed that his mother and brothers had come to take him home: “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Mark 3:33-34. Or consider Jesus’ admonition to his disciples: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:26. I have listened to more than a few preachers try to dance around these hard words, using all manner of exegetical and hermeneutical acrobatics in vain efforts to get out from under them. But they are what they are and they say what they say.

I believe Saint Augustine can help us here. Augustine teaches us that what we call “sin” is not a matter of breaking rules. It is basically a matter of disordered desires. That is to say, we love things, people and God in the wrong order. There is nothing wrong with loving one’s spouse and children-unless that love becomes possessive, controlling and smothering, which is likely to happen when one looks to one’s family for what only God can provide. There is nothing wrong with loving one’s country. But when loyalty to one’s country is elevated over faithfulness to God and love for our neighbor-wherever in the world that neighbor might be, patriotism degenerates into idolatrous nationalism. If we would love our family, our nation and our world rightly, we need to renounce the distorted and dysfunctional affection that enslaves us to them. That is, we need to “hate” the disordered relationships that destroy the objects of our love so that we can learn to love them in a life-giving way through the prism of our communion with Jesus.

In Sunday’s gospel, Jesus invites us to life under God’s gentle reign, a life of rightly ordered desires. Following Jesus will challenge us to loosen our grip on the “form of this world” so that our hands will be free to take hold of the inbreaking reign of God.

Here is a poem by Wendy Videlock referenced above.

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 (b. 1961) lives with her husband and children in Palisade, Colorado, a town on the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains. She is the author of three full length books of poetry and teaches in a freelance capacity. You can find out more about Wendy Videlock and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Sen. Ted Cruz is Recipient of “Benedict Arnold Award”

Kierkegaard’s Ghost

(News that’s fake, but credible)

Today the Commission for Recognition of Treason, Sedition and Incitement (CRTSI) announced the winner of its coveted Benedict Arnold Award. Named after the notorious traitor and trusted major general under George Washington who attempted to surrender West Point to the British during the Revolutionary War, the prize has been awarded to such infamous Americans as Brian Patrick Regan and Aldrich Ames. This year’s recipient is Senator Ted Cruz.

Senator Cruz had to fight off some tough competition. Josh Hawley, Kevin McCarthy, Matt Gaetz, Louie Gohmert, Devin Nunes and Jim Jordan were all serious contenders.“It was a tough call,” said Commission chairperson, Taran Feathers. “There were many formidable candidates. But in the end,” said Feathers, “we felt Mr. Cruz was the most deserving.” Feathers pointed out that Mr. Cruz demonstrated an exemplary degree of dedication to dismantling American democracy. “He was willing to throw his wife and father under the bus for the cause,” he said. “How much more committed can a man be?”

According to Feathers, many of the contestants are upset over Cruz’s first place finish. They feel Cruz’s win was fraudulent, that the CRTSI’s voting procedures were illegal and that the contest was rigged. In an effort to mollify the disappointment of losing contestants and avoid legal challenges, CRTSI is awarding “participation trophies” to all Republican senators and representatives. Each will receive a certificate stating: With gratitude from the American people for your support of our nation’s first coup d’etat. “It’s only fair,” said chairman Feathers. “The attack on our Capital could never have gotten off the ground without the silence and tacit support of all the Republicans in Congress.”

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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

On the Care of Words and the Cultivation of Language

SECOND SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

1 Samuel 3:1-20
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
John 1:43-51

Prayer of the Day: Thanks be to you, Lord Jesus Christ, most merciful redeemer, for the countless blessings and benefits you give. May we know you more clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly, day by day praising you, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.” Psalm 139:4.

It is more than a little unsettling to be told that we are so well understood that our very thoughts are known before they find their way into words. More disturbing still is Jesus’ warning that, on the day of judgment, “people will render account for every careless word they utter.” Matthew 12:36. That accounting came due with a vengeance last week. If the horrific events we witnessed five days ago have taught us anything, it is that words are powerful and speech has consequences. Words maliciously fashioned into lies and employed to trigger raw anger can incite violence. That is exactly what we saw on Wednesday as an angry mob sacked the United States Capital.

Sometimes, however, we misspeak without intending harm. Often, the consequences of our words do not become clear until after they have passed our lips. Who among us does not regret words spoken carelessly, ignorantly or in anger? One of the less fortunate characteristics of texts, e-mails and social media is that through them words carelessly uttered can spread faster and further to a larger audience than ever before. Moreover, once they are out in cyberspace, ill advised words are practically impossible to erase, recall or correct.

As one whose careers, both in law and in parish ministry, involved working with words, I take this call to circumspection in our use of language seriously. I have been blessed with teachers throughout my lifetime who taught me to appreciate the beauty and persuasiveness of a potent word strategically placed in a well crafted sentence. I was mentored by attorneys who taught me the importance of making sound, fact based arguments from the building blocks of tightly drawn paragraphs, each laying the groundwork for the next. Most important, I have learned both from instruction and experience how a single word can carry shades of meaning that can strengthen or sabotage one’s entire message. Like learning to play a musical instrument, good writing requires life long learning, voracious reading and practice, practice, practice. You never arrive at the point where you can re-read something you have written only yesterday without saying to yourself, “I could have said that better.”

For that reason, few things are more painful to me than listening to a long, rambling “stream of consciousness” sermon strung together with lame attempts at humor. Few things are more frustrating than trying to make sense of lengthy posts rife with grammatical errors, filled with spelling mistakes and lacking in punctuation. But while sloppiness and stupidity in writing and speaking annoy me, worse yet is the misuse of language to mislead or appeal to our darkest fears and prejudices. Back in the 1980s when the term “welfare queens” was coined to demean women on public assistance, nobody had to ask what color they were. Likewise, nobody ever had to say that black men are inherently dangerous. All they had to do is repeat the name “Willy Horton.” Words like “communist,” “fascist” and “socialist” are thrown about like molotov cocktails in political discourse these days with little explanation of what they actually mean in their historical context or how, if at all, they might apply to current circumstances. All too frequently, political and religious discussion amounts to little more than name calling and heated exchanges of memes and bumper sticker slogans. Under these conditions, language loses its power. Words become empty. Talk really is “cheap.”

As disciples of Jesus, we ought to be concerned about the health of words and language. Do we not confess that the Word, the Second person of the Trinity, became flesh? John 1:14. Do we not assert that “faith comes through what is heard and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.?” Romans 10:17. Are we not admonished “Always [to] be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls [us] to account for the hope that is within [us]?” I Peter 3:15. It is, I would argue, our Christian duty to write and speak elegantly, taking care that our letters, posts and articles employ accurate spelling, proper grammar and appropriate punctuation. Faithful discipleship means expanding our vocabularies to enrich our prayer lives, deepen our understanding and empower our witness. It is our responsibility to use words with care and to acquaint ourselves with all shades of meaning they carry, especially their potential to mislead our hearers, perpetuate racial stereotypes, demean others or incite hatred when used in particular contexts. We owe it to ourselves, our neighbors and to the world to which we are ambassadors for Christ to use the gift of speech and writing with reverence, care and circumspection. May the words of the psalmist be our prayer:

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” Psalm 19:14.

Here is a poem by Pauli Murry about the stewardship of words.

Words

We are spendthrifts with words,
We squander them,
Toss them like pennies in the air–
Arrogant words,
Angry words,
Cruel words,
Comradely words,
Shy words tiptoeing from mouth to ear.
But the slowly wrought words of love
and the thunderous words of heartbreak–

Those we hoard.

Source: Dark Testament and Other Poems, Murray,  Anna Pauline (c. 1970 by Pauli Murry; pub. by Liveright Publishing Corporation). Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray (1910 – 1985) was an American civil rights activist who became a lawyer, a women’s rights activist, Episcopal priest and author. She was the first African American woman to be ordained in the Episcopal Church in the United States. Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Murray was orphaned when young and raised by her maternal grandparents in Durham, North Carolina. She received her BA from Hunter College in 1933. In 1940, fifteen years before Rosa Parks sparked the civil rights movement by refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery city bus to a white passenger, Murray and a friend were arrested in Virginia for violating segregation laws, taking seats in the “whites only” section of a city bus. Murray later attended and graduated first in her class at Howard University where she became deeply involved in feminism, coining the phrase “Jane Crow.” She was the first African American to earn a law degree from Yale Law School. As a lawyer, Murray argued civil rights and women’s rights cases and was appointed by President Kennedy to serve on the Presidential Commission for the Status of Women. She was also a cofounder of the National Organization for Women. You can read more about Pauli Murray and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

An Open Letter of Thanks to Congressional Republicans Who are (finally) Speaking Out

Dear Republicans:

For the last twenty-four hours I have listened to you abhor the sacking of our nation’s capital by hoards of your party’s base, waving Trump flags, looting and vandalizing as they went. “That isn’t who we are,” is the constant refrain I keep hearing from you. At the risk of being indelicate, bull shit. Those are the people you have been courting for the last four years. Those are the people you have been defending while ignoring their racist rants and threats of violence. These are the people your president has been inciting for the last four years, whipping them into racist and sexist chants at his rallies. That despicable mob you now pretend to excoriate carried the banner of your president as they smashed the windows of our capital, terrorized our elected officials and desecrated the halls of congress. Please don’t pretend they were a renegade band of extremists. They are your people.

Don’t tell me either that you never believed your support of Donald Trump would come to this. During his presidential campaign, you heard him mock a disabled reporter at one of his rallies while his audience howled with laughter. You saw how the 2016 Republican National Convention cheered as Trump mocked the family of a soldier who died in combat. You heard him refer to women who offended him as “pigs” and “dogs.” You heard him boast about how he sexually assaulted women whenever he had the inclination telling you, with a sneer, that “when you’re a celebrity, they let you do it.” You know that he referred to African nations as “shit hole” countries and called Mexicans murderers and rapists. You heard him declare that he would not concede the 2016 election if he were to lose. You gave him a pass when he threatened to withhold military aid to an American ally under attack in exchange for “dirt” on his political opponent. If you had any objection to his trying to steal the election by intimidating a state official into “finding” him enough votes to change the outcome of the election, I didn’t hear anything from you. You stuck with Donald Trump like white on rice-until yesterday.

I guess it’s kind of hard to keep pretending that the lynch mob you call your base is just a group of faithful patriots when they are smashing down your doors, screaming threats at you and ransacking your offices. Trump’s hateful rhetoric and violent threats didn’t matter much when they were directed against people of color, the disabled or your political opponents. But I guess that when your own skin is in the game and the mob comes looking for you with rope in hand, you get religion fast. Nothing like a deathbed conversion, is there?

I hope you all got the elephant crap scared out of you. I hope you are still having nightmares about what could have happened to you if that angry mob had managed to bust into that chamber before the police were able to spirit you away. Because I have been having those nightmares for the last four years while you gambled recklessly with our national security, toyed with our health care and played games with our very lives in the midst of the worst pandemic we have experienced in a century. You flat out ignored the constant, willful, persistent lies your president told the American people-lies that destroyed the careers of faithful public servants, lies that endangered our crucial national alliances, lies about Covid-19 that cost untold thousands of lives-all to rack up votes. You all supported Donald Trump or remained silent when he launched a campaign to convince his base-your base-that the 2020 election had been stolen from them. You have demonstrated a reckless disregard for your country’s wellbeing by championing a man that you knew was a cruel, racist bully-and you did it to buy the votes of the lowest, meanest, most ignorant and malicious elements of our nation’s population. And it worked for you-until the day it blew up in your face and the monster you created came stalking you.

Unlike you, I understand men like Donald Trump. They were the guys I knew in high school who thought it was funny to dunk the head of a special needs kid in the toilet. They were the guys I knew in college who gang banged freshmen girls and joked about it. They were failed supervisors who tried to keep their jobs by blaming and firing their subordinates to cover their own mistakes. They are criminals convicted of unspeakable crimes who complain that they, not the people they have injured, are the true victims. Guys like Trump and his mob know nothing of loyalty, nothing of affection, nothing of duty. They’ll use you for as long as they need you. Then you are yesterday’s newspaper. Just ask Jeff Sessions, Michael Cohen and Mike Pence. Or, better yet, ask anyone in that crowd Trump incited to attack you. After all, Trump promised from behind his bullet proof screen to march with his worshipers to the capital steps on their crusade to save America. But in fact, the valiant Commander Bone Spurs raced back to the safety of his bunker to watch the spectacle he unleased on TV. Bottom line, you all brought this bull into the china closet with the tragically mistaken belief that you could ride him. So tell me, who rode who?

Now you are shocked. Now you are horrified. Now you are appealing for order, respect and civility. Now you condemn Donald Trump for inciting violence. I only wish you had been as eager to protect the United States Constitution, the rule of law and the wellbeing of the American people as you were to save your own precious skins. Thanks for nothing.

Rev. Peter A. Olsen (retired)

President Trump’s Spiritual Advisor Calls upon Evangelicals to “Pray Donald Trump into Another Term”

Kierkegaard’s Ghost

(News that’s fake, but credible)

Today Rev. Paula White, spiritual advisor to President Donald Trump, called upon evangelicals to join together and “pray Donald Trump to victory” on January 6, 2021. On that day a joint session of Congress will certify President Elect, Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election. A number of Republican senators and representatives have vowed to object to the certification of the electoral college vote in a last ditch effort to keep Trump in office for another term.

“The press and the Democrats say it’s a done deal,” said White. “But they don’t know the power of prayer.” Rev. White is calling upon believers everywhere to join in prayer throughout the day. “I want all born again believers in this country to get down on their knees, fold their hands, close their eyes and repeat again and again for as long as it takes:

“I do believe in Donald
I do, I do, I do!
I do believe in Donald
I do, I do, I do!
I do believe in Donald
I do, I do, I do!”

Rev. White insisted that the election is not legitimate “and I don’t give a hoot about what a bunch of pressies, liberals and eggheads say about the so-called facts.” She went on to say that, “there is too much emphasis on facts and truth these days. What we need is faith-strong faith, blind faith, unwavering faith. That’s why I’m calling on all the faithful to believe: believe, believe and believe.”

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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

The Perils of Going Down into the Water

BAPTISM OF OUR LORD

Genesis 1:1-5
Psalm 29
Acts 19:1-7
Mark 1:4-11

Prayer of the Day: Holy God, creator of light and giver of goodness, your voice moves over the waters. Immerse us in your grace, and transform us by your Spirit, that we may follow after your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” Genesis 1:1-2.

Life had its primordial beginnings in the ocean. So evolutionary biologists tell us. The ancients knew this instinctively. There are countless legends recounting the earth’s creation arising out of epic battles in which divine heroes defeated great sea monsters, forming the land from the heart of the sea. So, too, the biblical account in our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures has God’s breath sweeping over the waters, breathing into them what will soon yield light, land, fish, vegetation, animals and finally human beings in God’s own image.

Water is life. You can’t get away from that reality when you live in close proximity to the ocean. Every morning little boats leave our harbor here in Wellfleet seeking, fish, clams, scallops and the rest of the ocean’s bounty. Though the tourist industry is by far the biggest contributor to our economy, the fishing industry remains an important piece of our common livelihood. It has always been so. In centuries past, the marshes with their wealth of shellfish provided sustenance for the Nauset tribes inhabiting Cape Cod long before the coming of European settlers. Their culture and society revolved around the rhythms of the tide and the changing seasons bringing with them varieties of sea mammals and shore birds. They understood, as should we, that our very lives depend upon the waters.

But as necessary as water is to life, it is also an agent of death and destruction. You can appreciate the beauty of the ocean from the shore, but, as one mariner once told me, “if you venture out into the ocean, you better respect it.” The ocean bottom is littered with ships great and small caught in storms and wrecked on shoals. The ocean has claimed the life of many an experienced skipper who made but one dangerous miscalculation. The cemetery down the road from where I live contains the remains of some.  One of them was Elisha Higgins, Jr., son of Elisha and Rebecca Higgins. He died at sea in 1836. His epitaph reads:

“My body on the wreck was found
And now lies buried underground.
From the raging sea my spirit did fly
To reign with God above the sky.”

The biblical witnesses knew all too well the dangers of the ocean, the haunt of the great monster “Leviathan.” Psalm 104:25-26. The terror it held for Israel is reflected in the 107th Psalm:

Some went down to the sea in ships,
doing business on the mighty waters;
they saw the deeds of the Lord,
his wondrous works in the deep.
For he commanded and raised the stormy wind,
which lifted up the waves of the sea.
They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths;
their courage melted away in their calamity;
they reeled and staggered like drunkards,
and were at their wits’ end.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he brought them out from their distress;
he made the storm be still,
and the waves of the sea were hushed.
Then they were glad because they had quiet,
and he brought them to their desired haven.
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wonderful works to humankind.
Let them extol him in the congregation of the people,
and praise him in the assembly of the elders. Psalm 107:23-32.

Again, we who live on the Cape are painfully aware of this reality.  The ocean is literally taking the ground from under our feet. Cape Cod is being eaten away by the ocean at an average rate of three feet per year-and that is without the aid of global warming. There are not a few summer homes and cottages, once a safe distance from the ocean’s edge, that are not long for this world-like the one pictured. The Cape is only about twenty-thousand years old. While that precedes all recorded human history, it constitutes a mere second in terms of geological time. Another ten thousand years and the land I am living on will be under the ocean.

So it should not surprise us that Jesus’ ministry begins with immersion in water, the bearer of both life and death. Just as the waters of the Jordan bringing life to the promised land should summon up the image of creation, so too we should hear in the words “this is my beloved son” an echo of words spoken to Abraham centuries before: “After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’” Genesis 22:1-2.

Without mincing words, the Sacrament of Baptism is a human sacrifice. It plunges us into the darkness of death. In it we place upon the altar a human life and tie it to the destiny of a man who poured out his own life proclaiming the reign of God under the shadow of an empire that ultimately crucified him. And among us Lutherans, that life most often belongs to an infant who has no more say in the matter than did poor Isaac. Let that sink in and think about how often you may have heard people say to their children, “I only want you to be happy.” Actually, I don’t believe I have ever said that to my children. Of course, I would prefer that they be happy rather than unhappy. But I want more for them than happiness. I want for them to be faithful disciples of Jesus. I want them to be good, compassionate and courageous. If the price of that is the loss of their happiness, so be it.

Reflecting on Jesus’ baptism, as well as our own, is a good way to begin the secular new year. A good plunge into the waters of life and death might be exactly what we need. It could be a long time before limitations on the accoutrements of happiness imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic are lifted. But opportunities for doing justice, exercising compassion and caring for our neighbors abound. Those of us engaged in this good work often discover that the rewards of friendship and community, whether cultivated within our households, built from behind masks at a socially safe distance or developed in cyberspace, bring us a depth of joy worth more than that elusive thing called “happiness.” With any luck, this horrible pandemic will at least have taught us that happiness is highly overrated.

Here is a poem reflecting on the ocean and its life giving yet death dealing power over all souls that encounter it.

On the Beach

The oceans of the world are one.
One great commonwealth
Teaming with protoplasm
In every conceivable form,
Yet one being is she,
One heart and one soul.
Though she rules the better part
Of this planet, still she rages,
Throwing herself against
Rocks, seawalls and dams
Designed to keep her at bay.
She stretches her body to cover
The sandy shore as a lover strains
And struggles in the embrace,
Then withdraws to her place,
Exhausted, satisfied yet
Even so planning her next encounter.
Her appetite knows no limits,
Hungering forever and always
For more sailors and ships
To devour and hide forever
In the depths of her icy bowls.
She is so deep, so dark and so blue
That being in her presence empties you,
Draws all memory out of your soul
And leaves nothing but sound
Of breakers crashing over sand,
Fragments of stone and shell
Tumbling head over heel
Winds capping the dark blue
Waters with frothy white,
The roar of churching tides,
But above all, the deafening silence.
They say that in the womb of that silence,
A man can lose his pain.

Source: Anonymous

Real Presence in a Virtual World

SECOND SUNDAY OF CHRISTMAS

Jeremiah 31:7-14
Psalm 147:12-20
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:1-18

Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, you have filled all the earth with the light of your incarnate Word. By your grace empower us to reflect your light in all that we do, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” John 1:14.

This has been a good Christmas for my family. All of us have remained healthy and Covid free thus far. All of us are retired or able to work from home and so spared from the anxiety faced by so many who are either out of work or working under conditions that expose them daily to infection. Though we have remained separated from one another, we are in touch by way of Facetime, Zoom and constant texts. Still, I miss having bodily contact. Sure, I can tell stories and joke with my grandkids during video chats. But that is no substitute for their warm bodies snuggling up to me as I read to them from an old fashioned book. Or, as the poet Marion Strobel says, “singing on my beast/ warm as a colored light,/ your head is at rest.”

Christmas this year has made me painfully aware of how bodily our faith is. No one knew this as well as Martin Luther. One story has it that, when Luther sat down to debate the theology of the Lord’s Supper with fellow reformer, Ulrich Zwingli, he wrote in chalk on the table in front of him “this is my body.” So determined was Luther not to betray this central affirmation: the bread and wine in the Lord’s supper does not merely symbolize but is the Body and blood of Christ. So, too, when Saint Paul refers to the church as the “Body of Christ,” he is not speaking metaphorically. For Paul, the church, with all its faults, is the resurrected Christ in and for the world.

There is no spirit/body dualism in biblical Christianity. While we might distinguish between body and spirit or soul and body, the two can never be separated. Just as a body without a soul is only a corpse, so, too, a soul without a body is a mere phantom. We confess in our creeds, not that the soul somehow survives death, but that God raises the body, soul and whatever other part of us there might be from death. Salvation through Jesus Christ is not a purely spiritual measure designed to “save souls.” It is a life and death struggle for the whole cosmos in which Jesus invites us to participate here and now in our present bodily existence, assuring us that the outcome will be a new creation in which we will also participate bodily-whatever that might mean.

Aside from the gospel witnesses, I don’t think there is a narrative better illustrating the mystery of Incarnation than one particular incident related by author and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, in his book, Night. This short book is an autobiographical account of his incarceration at the Buna concentration camp. There Wiesel relates a story about the gruesome hanging of a young boy by the SS guards. He and all the other prisoners were marched out into the commons to witness this event. As the child hung, struggling for some time in the noose, someone near Wiesel kept muttering, “Where is God?” Wiesel tells of how a voice within him answered, “Where is He? Here he is-he is hanging here on the gallows.” Wiesel, Elie, Night, (c. 1958 by Les Editions De Minuit; pub. by The Hearst Corporation, New York, NY) p. 74-76. Though not a Christian, Elie Wiesel comes much closer to understanding incarnational theology than a good many of us who are!

The Incarnation, it must be understood, was not God’s temporary foray into human affairs. The Word both became and continues to be flesh. The stench of God’s flesh rises up from the ovens of Auschwitz; it is scarred by the lash of the whip; it is starved and frozen just across our southern border; it struggles for one last breath under the knee of a cop; it fights for one more moment of life on a ventilator. When John tells us that the Word became flesh, he is telling us that the glory and grace of God cannot be seen apart from the crucified Jesus who, even when raised from the dead, still bears the scars of torture. God cannot be blasphemed by the desecration of any temple save the temple of the human body, the flesh made sacred by God’s indwelling.

It should further be understood that the Incarnation was not an unpleasant duty that the Word underwent as a result of our sinfulness. According to John’s gospel, the Word’s becoming flesh was God’s intent from the beginning. The cross was the price God paid for following through with that intent, notwithstanding our sinfulness. In Jesus, God becomes human-more human than any of us have ever been. In so doing, God exposes both God’s dogged determination to “form the mind of Christ” within the human family and the depth of human resistance to God’s merciful intent.

This second Sunday of Christmas is a good time to double down on the miracle of the Incarnation. With the manger set back up in the attic, the Christmas tree out on the curb and the toys broken, out of batteries or their novelty spent, we are no longer competing with the sentimental overtones of the holiday season. With Santa in the rear view mirror and some very dark and frightening months ahead, we could use a Christmas story that enters into our anxious and stormy lives-and stays there. That good news is Emmanuel, God with us. Not just for the holidays, but always.

Here is the poem by Marion Strobel quoted above.

On Christmas

Often, on Christmas,
I listen to a chant
Float from a colored window
Softly sibilant.

Often, on Christmas,
I wait until a glow
From a colored pane of glass
Slides across the snow.

Yet though I hear songs,
And listen from without,
I never quite know what
Christmas is about.

In never quite know-
Till, singing on my breast
And warm as a colored light,
Your head is at rest.

Source: Poetry Vol. XXV, No. 111 (December 1924). Marion Strobel (1895-1967) was a poet, fiction, writer, critic and editor. In 1922 she married dermatologist James Herbert Mitchell and settled with him in Chicago. The couple had two daughters, including abstract expressionist painter Joan Mitchell. Strobel was an associate editor of Poetry from 1920 to 1925 and from 1940-1949. She published two collections of poetry in the 1920s and published five novels in the 1930s and 1940s. Strobel established the Harriet Monroe Poetry Prize in memory of the Poetry founder in 1936. You can read more about Marion Strobel at the Poetry Foundation website.

Draft of Trump Concession Statement Leaked to Press

Kierkegaard’s Ghost

(News that’s fake, but credible)

It appears that, at long last, President Trump is prepared to concede the 2020 election to President Elect Joe Biden. The Ghost recently obtained what appears to be a draft of the president’s concession statement  from an employee of the Mara Lago resort where the president is currently staying. Our source, who prefers to remain anonymous, told us that the document evidently fell off the president’s golf cart. The text is as follows:

I, Donald J. Trump, hereby conceed the 2020 elexion to Joe Biden. Melania made me say it. I didn’t reely lose. It was a stupid elexion and Joe won because he cheeted. Joe and his cruked son Hunter snuck in with loser Hugo Chavez and made all the voting mashines in the swing states say Biden and not Trump. I wud still be president exept Mich McConnill and all the other republican seneters terned agest me and sed Joe was president when they shud have sed it was me. Even Mike Pence is terning agenst me. My family turned agenst me. Only Sidney Powell and Mike Flynn still luv me. Everybody else hates me. I hate them too and I wont forget how mean they were to me.

Everyone was mean to me. I win a landslide against Hilary and everybody says oh Trump cheeted with Rusha. Then they told Robert Muler to invsto investa envest luk into me. He said mean things and untrue things about me. Then I made a perfekt fone call, a butiful fone call. And even tho it was a perfekt and butiful fone call, I got impeeched for it. That was very unfair. Adam Shiff and Nansy Pilosi were mean to me, but then the senate acwited me. They said I cud still be president. They acted like they were my frends.

But they were not reely my frends. Now they are saying Joe Biden won the elexion-even tho he cheeted and even tho millions of peeple know I won. After all I did for them they are treeting me very bad. Ever sinse I was president everyone is mean to me. They call me names. They make fun of my hair and my ties. They don’t give me muny for my border wall. The supreem cort keeps on telling me I cant do anything even tho I am president and the boss of them. They dont lisen to my loyers and their butiful, perfekt lawsutes. Even tho I gave them their jobs they dont help me. They just say go away Donald. Joe Biden won.

Joe Biden Joe Biden Joe Biden. Everything is Joe Biden. Everybody luvs Joe Biden. But did he bild a butiful border wall? Did he make a perfekt fone call? Did he yell at the sientists and make them hurry up and make a vaxine for covid 19 even tho it was a stupid hox like the rushan hox? No. He didn’t. But I did. But nobody says thank you. No nobody says you did a good job. They just keep saying oh Donald is bad, bad, bad. I do all wunderful things for America. But America says go away Donald. We want Joe Biden not you.

I am tired of being president of this stupid cuntry that is mean to me and never does what I say. I was a grate president. The gratest president sinse Aberham Linkon. Maybe even grater then him. But the press and the democrats and the liberals just make up lies and say I am bad. And the repubikans tern their bak on me and wont stik up for me when I won the elexion. America wont stik up for me. So I wont stik up for you either. I am going to florida to play golf and I dont care what happens to this stupid cuntry anymore. I wont let you have any releef from Covid or any muny to pay your soljers or any muny to run your stupid goverment. I hate all you stupid people. Poop and buggars on you.

Your president (even tho you say I am not)

Donald J. Trump      P.S. This is You:

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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