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Sunshine and Shark Attacks

As you probably already know, a shark attack tragically ended the life of Arthur Medicia, a twenty-six-year old man, on Newcomb Hollow Beach here in Wellfleet last Friday. This horrible occurrence put our small town on the map for at least one news cycle and cast a dark cloud over the end of an otherwise uneventful summer season. Newcomb Hollow is, in my opinion, the loveliest of our four ocean beaches and a favorite haunt of Sesle and me. The dunes are rich with sea grasses, pitch pines, oaks and a large variety of flowering plants. The cliffs overlooking the ocean are majestic and the sand is as white and soft as any you are likely to find in the tropics. On that particular sunny morning, wave upon frothy wave broke silky white out of a sea as blue as the sky above. It was a perfect beach day and the last time and place you would expect to encounter violence and death. A memorable utterance of philosopher Alfred North Whitehead comes to mind: “fairies dance and Christ is nailed to the cross.”[1]

The following Sunday I was in church listening to a preacher struggle at making sense out of this terrible loss of life. He was clearly moved by Arthur’s cruel and untimely death. His deep compassion spoke volumes even though we were left with less than an explanation for what still seems for all the world like a random, violent and meaningless act of nature. I have long since concluded that tragedies like these have only as much meaning as we can give them. We give meaning to lives lost in war by striving for peace. We give meaning to lives lost to cancer by dedicating ourselves to finding treatments for the disease. We give meaning to lives crushed under the wheel of oppression by striving for a more just and peaceful world. So how do we give meaning to the life of Arthur Medicia, a young man killed while out enjoying the ocean waves with his family?

Some verses from Psalm 104 in praise of God’s creative power might be of some assistance:

O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
Yonder is the sea, great and wide,
creeping things innumerable are there,
living things both small and great.
There go the ships,
and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.

Psalm 104:24-26.

I can appreciate the psalmist’s sense of wonder and awe. When you stand on the ocean shore, you can’t help being overcome with the beauty and grandeur of this planet with its manifold living and non-living forces. The ocean is indeed filled with marvelous creatures, but these include the sea monster, Leviathan. Just as C.S. Lewis reminds us that God is not a “tame lion,” so the psalmist would have us know that the world God made is not a safe playground. Those of you who happen to be of my vintage know what I am talking about. For you youngsters, I am referring to playgrounds with which you are familiar and perhaps the only ones you have ever known. They were all built since the 1990s. They are paved with soft, rubbery padding and equipped with cushioned playthings designed to prevent injury. You won’t get hurt in these play areas, but if you are over six, you probably won’t have much fun there either. By fun I mean the sensation of rocketing into the sky on a wooden slab swing and the thrill that comes with coming face to face with the sky for just an instant before falling back to earth. I am talking about the merry-go-rounds that the strongest and fastest among us would crank up to warp speed while the rest of us clung for dear life against the pull of centripetal force. There were more skinned knees and elbows back then. Occasionally we broke bones. Rarely, but tragically, we saw some serious injuries. But maybe that’s the cost of having fun, of living fully in this marvelous world, of playing in the vast oceans where Leviathan and the great white sharks sport.[2]

This Monday morning my daily bike ride took me on a turn down to Newcomb Hollow Beach. At the end of the parking lot was a sign posted by the township announcing the closure of the shore to swimming and surfing until further notice. Surrounding that sign were bouquets of flowers and shell arrangements memorializing Arthur Medici. Down in the water I could see about half a dozen surfers taking advantage of the high surf in seeming defiance of the sign’s injunction. Foolhardy? No more so than me when I hop on my bike to negotiate the narrow, curvy and shoulderless highways of the outer Cape. I am aware that cars kill far more cyclists than sharks do swimmers. Still, I ride. I love the sea wind in my face and the scent of the ocean. I love the exhilaration of cresting a hill and coasting down the other side. I love the subtle sights and sounds of the national forest that you miss when you travel through it in a cage of steel and glass. Like those surfers, like Arthur Medici, I believe that life, however short or long it might turn out to be, is far too precious to spend in a safe playground. So I will honor and give meaning to the life of Arthur Medici by fully celebrating and living in God’s beautiful, mysterious and terrifying universe-Leviathan and all.[3]

[1] Whitehead, Alfred North, Process and Reality (c. 1978 The Free Press, NY) p. 338.

[2] I feel compelled to put this incident in some sort of context. This event was the Cape’s first shark fatality since the 1930s. Shark attacks are rare in these parts for a couple of reasons. First, understand that white sharks typically do not attack human beings intentionally. On those occasions when they do attack, it is usually because they mistake us for something else. A surfer in a black wet suit looks a lot like a seal to a hungry shark. You reduce your chances of encountering a shark substantially by staying away from seals and avoiding the water at dawn and dusk. Second, during the official holiday season, the beaches are under the watchful eye of lifeguards who are trained in emergency medicine as well as water rescues. They are skilled at spotting rip currents and detecting the approach of marine life dangerous to swimmers, including sharks. The life guards are in radio contact with the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy which studies and monitors shark activity. That does not preclude the possibility that a white shark might slip through undetected into swimming areas and attack swimmers as happened earlier this year in the neighboring town of Touro. But your chances of suffering harm from a shark are exceedingly small. After Labor Day, the beaches are unmonitored and swimmers are essentially on their own. Because cell phone reception is poor to non-existent on the beach, anyone spotting a swimmer in distress would need to run back to the point of beach entry and climb up the substantial incline to the parking lot in order to call for help. Even so, rip currents and hypothermia are far more likely to take you out than a shark.

[3] Predictably, this tragedy has inspired the usual upsurge in shark hysteria and calls for the elimination of great white sharks from the Cape or the seals drawing them to our shores. This, in my view, amounts to little more than creating a “safe playground” on a grander scale. Though I am no marine biologist, I can still say that, from a biblical standpoint, altering the ecosystem of the Cape for no better reason than eliminating what we know to be a slight risk to some vacationers constitutes an act of profound homocentric arrogance.

Questions We Fear Asking to Escape Truths We Prefer not to Know

See the source imageEIGHTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Jeremiah 11:18-20
Psalm 54
James 3:13 — 4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30-37

Prayer of the Day: O God, our teacher and guide, you draw us to yourself and welcome us as beloved children. Help us to lay aside all envy and selfish ambition, that we may walk in your ways of wisdom and understanding as servants of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
 
“They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” Mark 9:30-32.

I can well understand why the disciples were afraid to question Jesus about what he had just told them. We often don’t ask a question when we suspect we won’t like the answer. There are times when I would rather not know the truth, times when I am afraid of the truth, times when I prefer to go on believing what I know are very probably lies to learning the truth. But denial comes at a terrible cost. In a profoundly moving article titled “The Hidden Truth” published recently in the Wellesley College Magazine, Wellesley alumnus Julie Catterson Lindahl finds the courage to ask some hard questions about her family’s history and recounts at length her efforts to uncover the truth about her grandparents’ dark past. Lindahl, a child of German immigrants who came to Brazil after the war, writes:

“I had been raised to believe that my maternal grandfather, my Opa, whom I had met as a toddler but couldn’t remember as an adult, was a farmer who only wanted “the best.” He had managed land in Poland during the war, I had been told, and in 1960 had resettled in Brazil, the land of my birth, where there were better land prospects. He was obsessed with work and being “correct.” That was the truth delivered to me in childhood—perhaps to protect someone, though I am not sure whom. The manner of delivery was often indignant and left me burning with shame. Because I was a child and a grandchild, this person, my Opa, had to be explained.”

Lindahl explains how “when a family stifles its own history, it leaves an indignation that easily tips over into rage.” Her grandmother indignantly insisted that her grandfather had nothing to do with the SS-yet interspersed with this denial were angry assertions that Hitler had done a lot of good that had been unjustly forgotten; that the Holocaust was largely exaggerated-if it ever even happened; that Germany and its people were the real victims of the Second World War. Lindahl had plenty of reason to believe that the truth was being hidden from her and her quest to find it was born out of a “desperation, the unbearableness of continuing to walk blindfolded, and the desire to spare my children this condition.”

Turns out that the only prospect more terrifying than learning the truth is the hell you create for yourself spending your life hiding from it. It takes an enormous degree of emotional effort to live with the protective lies that must be told to justify and excuse an alcoholic relative’s addictive behavior. It is hard, too, for victims of sexual abuse who, under pressure from their employers or their own family members, deny and suppress their experiences in order to protect their abusers. The lies promising to protect us from the truth ultimately turn on us. They keep us in bondage to the past and cast a dark cloud over the future. They require us to sacrifice our integrity for the sake of a peace that is no peace.

Jesus loves us too much to allow us to go on hiding from the truth. Knowing the truth sets us free, but that freedom does not come easily. It requires us to relinquish the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves. It demands that we let go of the narrative in which we are the heroes, the innocent victims, the martyrs. Learning the truth about ourselves is a painful and disruptive process. But it is the only way to healing, freedom and true peace. That is as true for us collectively as it is individually. I have said before and I will say again that perhaps the one important accomplishment of the Trump administration is its uncovering the deep and systemic racism that continues to infect our life as a people. The truth is that there continues to be a powerful sense of entitlement among white folk like me who are blind to the systemic discrimination that confronts people of color on a daily basis in government, education and the workplace. The truth is that there is a deep seated fear among those of us who benefit daily from white privilege that we are about to lose “our” country to people with dark skin, strange accents and unfamiliar religions. Donald Trump didn’t create any of this, but he aptly exploited it and, albeit unwittingly, diagnosed and exposed our deep societal sickness.

The truth that heals is laid bare in the cross of Jesus Christ. It is a truth that we fear because it exposes us for who we are: people who are complicit in the murder of God’s beloved Son. That complicity takes the shape of our own culturally inherited racial prejudices as well as our nation’s systemic racism. Sometimes the good news about Jesus Christ needs to be experienced as bad news before it can be heard as good. The gospels are not easy reads if we take them seriously. There are no heroes with whom we can identify. Our spiritual ancestors, the apostles, are shown to be traitors, cowards and deserters. That is the story we tell on ourselves every year at Holy Week. That is who we are. But the good news isn’t finally about who we are, but about who God is. God is the one who raises up his crucified Son, the most precious gift God has to give and the gift that we ruthlessly rejected-and gives him back to us. Knowing who God is gives us the courage to confront who we are-and move beyond it.

I sometimes worry whether we who call ourselves disciples are really making an effort to grapple with the truth of racism. The New Jersey Synod  of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, of which I was recently a member, has been sponsoring “conversations” about race at its annual assemblies. At the last assembly I attended, I heard a colleague remark: “I’m sick of this! All we ever do is talk and it’s the same stuff over and over.” He was right. These conversations often are frustrating, both for those of us identifying as white who can’t understand why we can’t let bygones be bygones and just get along and the more so for the few persons of color in our church who are increasingly impatient with our blindness to their experience of racism as a present and pervasive reality, not a “bygone.” But we have to start somewhere and I think there is no better place to start than with those of us who have become accustomed to privilege and the benefits it brings listening-without judgment, without defensiveness and without the assumption that we can “fix” everything-to the way persons of color experience life in our American culture and, more importantly, in our church. We might not like what we hear, but as Julie Catterson Lindahl discovered and what disciples of Jesus know, it is the truth that sets us free.

Here is a poem by Roberta Hill reminding us that truth is “scarred” and bound up as much with suffering and death as life and beauty.
 
Leap In The Dark

“The experience of truth is indispensible
for the experience of beauty and the sense
of beauty is guided by a leap in the dark.”
Arthur Koestler

I.

Stoplights edged the licorice street with ribbon,
neon embroidering wet sidewalks. She turned

into the driveway and leaped in the dark. A blackbird
perched on the bouncing twig of a maple, heard

her whisper, “Stranger, lover, the lost days are over.
While I walk from car to door, something inward opens

like four o’clocks in rain. Earth, cold from autumn,
pulls me. I can’t breathe the same

with dirt for marrow and mist for skin,
blurring my vision, my vision’s separate self.

I stand drunk in this glitter, under the sky’s grey shelter.
The city maple, not half so bitter, hurls itself

in two directions, until both tips darken and disappear,
as I darken my reflection in the smoking mirror

of my home. How faint the sound of dry leaves,
like the clattering keys of another morning, another world.”

II.

She looked out the window at some inward greying door.
The maple held her glance, made ground fog from her cigarette.

Beyond uneven stairs, children screamed,
gunned each other down. Then she sealed her nimble dreams

with water from a murky bay. “For him I map
this galaxy of dust that turns without an answer.

When it rains, I remember his face in the corridor
of a past apartment and trace the anguish around his mouth,

his wrinkled forehead, unguarded eyes, the foreign fruit
of an intricate sadness. With the grace that remains,

I catch a glint around a door I cannot enter.
The clock echoes in dishtowels; I search love’s center

and bang pans against the rubble of my day, the lucid
grandeur of wet ground, the strangeness of a fatal sun

that makes us mark on the margin of our loss,
trust in the gossamer of touch, trust in the late-plowed field.”

III.

When the sun opened clouds and walked into her mongrel soul,
she chopped celery into rocky remnants of the sea,

and heard fat sing up bread, a better dying.
The magnet in each seed of the green pepper kept her flying,

floating toward memories that throb like clustered stars:
the dark water laughter of ducks, a tangle of November oaks,

toward sudden music on a wheel of brilliant dust
where like a moon she must leap back and forth

from emptiness. “I remember the moon shimmering
loss and discovery along a water edge, and skirting

a slice of carrot, I welcome eternity in that sad eye of autumn.
Rare and real, I dance while vegetables sing in pairs.

I hug my death, my chorus of years, and search
and stretch and leap, for I will be apprentice to the blood

in spite of the mood of a world
that keeps rusting, rusting the wild throats of birds.”

IV.

In lamplight she saw the smoke of another’s dream:
her daughter walk woods where snow weighs down pine,

her son cry on a bridge that ends in deep-rooted dark,
her man, stalled on a lonely road, realize his torque

was alcohol and hatred. “Hungry for silence, I listen
to wind, to the sound of water running down mountain,

my own raw breath. Between the sounds, a seaborn god
plays his reed in the caverns of my being.

I wear his amethyst, let go my dreams: Millars, Lacewings,
and Junebugs scatter, widen and batter the dark,

brightening this loud dust with the fever of their eyes.
Oh crazy itch that grabs us beyond loss

and lets us forgive, so that we can answer birds and deer,
lightning and rain, shadow and hurricane.

Truth waits in the creek, cutting the winter brown hills.
It sings with needles of ice, sings because of its scar.”

Star Quilt, Roberta Hill, (c. 1984 by Roberta Hill Whiteman, pub. by Holy Cow! Press, 1984) Roberta Hill, is a poet of Wisconsin of Oneida heritage. She grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, among the Oneida community. She earned a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Montana and a PhD in American studies from the University of Minnesota. She has produced three poetry collections, including Star Quilt, the work from which the above poem is taken. Her work has also been published in Carriers of the Dream Wheel: Contemporary Native American Poetry (1975); The Third Woman: Minority Women Writers of the United States (1980), and Harper’s Anthology of Twentieth Century Native American Poetry (1988). She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant. You can find out more about Roberta Hill and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Beach Erosion, Mortality and Discipleship

SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 116:1-9
James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38

Prayer of the Day: O God, through suffering and rejection you bring forth our salvation, and by the glory of the cross you transform our lives. Grant that for the sake of the gospel we may turn from the lure of evil, take up our cross, and follow your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”  Mark 8:35.

“[W]e were never meant to survive.” Audre Lorde, A Litany for Survival

If you look closely at the above image, you will see the active erosion of a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean at LeCount Hollow beach on Cape Cod where I now live. It’s a constant reminder to us that the land on which we live is being consumed at the average rate of about three feet per year. The Cape is a relatively young body of land, having existed in its current form for approximately 25,000 years. That is hardly a minute in geological time, but from the standpoint of those who call the Cape home, it might as well be forever. It is unsettling to walk along the beach and view homes once safely inland now on the verge of falling into the ocean. We don’t need poet Audre Lorde to tell us that “we were never meant to survive.” Nor do we need Jesus to tell us that, no matter how hard we might try to save ourselves from the sea and everything else threatening us, we are fighting a losing battle. Though we live in denial of this fact most of the time, we know deep down that everyone dies as do the civilizations, nations and families through which they hope to perpetuate their memories. In time, our planet will become a cold, lifeless rock circling a dying star. There will be no sign that any of us ever lived here, nor anyone to see it even if such a sign did exist. And there’s not a damn thing we can do about it.

But Jesus goes on to tell us something more, something extraordinary, something that isn’t at all self-evident: “Those who lose their lives for my sake and for the gospel will save it.” Mark 8:35. It didn’t make much sense to Jesus’ disciples then. It still doesn’t make much sense-except for the fact that God raised Jesus from death. If you believe that, then you have got to believe that God’s love for the world and God’s stubborn determination to save it from itself is stronger than the world’s hatred for God and its resistance to his gracious intent for it. If you believe that God raised Jesus, then you have got to believe that death is not the last word: not for the universe, not for the earth and not for you. If you believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, then you have got to believe that God is at work in the midst of our dying to forge a new creation. If the future belongs to Jesus, then the place to be is with him among the poor, the persecuted, the hungry and the hated. The option of saving your life does not exist. You can lose it to Jesus and trust him to transform and return it to you, or you can cling to it until death finally pries it from your cold dead fingers.

I have often pondered what “losing” my life to Jesus might mean for me. For the New Testament church, this was not an abstract hypothetical. One could die then for acknowledging Jesus (not Caesar) as Lord. Though I can hardly imagine such a thing happening in this country, I have seen a great many things in my lifetime that I once thought unimaginable. What I have no need to imagine is the hatefulness, the spite and often violence directed against disciples of Jesus who stand with “undocumented” persons, black victims of police brutality, gay, lesbian and transgendered persons. I know people whose jobs have been jeopardized, whose families have turned on them and whose friends have deserted them for speaking the hard truths Jesus would have us speak, for doing the works of justice and mercy Jesus would have us do and placing loyalty to God’s reign of peace over all other claims of sovereignty. I cannot honestly say that I am among even these martyrs. I am therefore compelled to ask myself whether this is because the occasion for losing my life has never arisen or whether I am too much blinded by my survival instincts to recognize Jesus’ lifegiving call to lose myself in him.

For all the uncomfortable questions this gospel lesson raises for us, it is finally good news. As I witness the erosion of our land, the disintegration of our democracy and the degeneration of my own aging body, it becomes clearer each day that “we are not meant for survival.” However hard we may try to save ourselves, we will finally lose everything in the end. That much we can see for ourselves. What we often cannot see, but what Jesus promises is that the bonds of love formed by our association with him are eternal and that our life in him is the stuff out of which God is even now fashioning a new heaven and earth. A life poured out in love for God and for our neighbor is not wasted. What appear to be the death throws of life as we know it are, in reality, the birth pangs of a new creation under the gentle reign of our gracious God.

Here is the Audre Lorde poem referenced above.

A Litany for Survival

For those of us who live at the shoreline
standing upon the constant edges of decision
crucial and alone
for those of us who cannot indulge
the passing dreams of choice
who love in doorways coming and going
in the hours between dawns
looking inward and outward
at once before and after
seeking a now that can breed
futures
like bread in our children’s mouths
so their dreams will not reflect
the death of ours;

For those of us
who were imprinted with fear
like a faint line in the center of our foreheads
learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk
for by this weapon
this illusion of some safety to be found
the heavy-footed hoped to silence us
For all of us
this instant and this triumph
We were never meant to survive.

And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning
when our stomachs are full we are afraidof indigestion
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again
when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent
we are still afraid

So it is better to speak
remembering
we were never meant to survive.

Source: The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde, (c. 1997 by the Audre Lorde Estate, pub. by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.) Audre Lorde (1934-1992) was born in New York City to West Indian immigrant parents. She published her first poem in Seventeen magazine while still in high school. She describes herself as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” Lorde dedicated her considerable literary talent to addressing the evils of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Hunter College and a masters from Columbia University. Lorde taught English literature at John Jay College and Hunter College. She was poet laureate of New York from 1991-1992. Lorde’s other honors and awards included a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. You can read more about Audre Lorde and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Of Faith and Works-The Apostle James vs. Martin Luther

See the source imageSIXTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Isaiah 35:4-7a
Psalm 146
James 2:1-17
Mark 7:24-37

Prayer of the Day: Gracious God, throughout the ages you transform sickness into health and death into life. Open us to the power of your presence, and make us a people ready to proclaim your promises to the whole world, through Jesus Christ, our healer and Lord.

“So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” James 2:1-17.

This is the verse Lutherans like me dread. On its face, it contradicts the Reformation axiom: “Salvation by faith alone.” Martin Luther was said to have called the Letter of James “an epistle of straw” for that reason. Yet, as much as we might admire Luther’s determination to make grace and salvation by faith the centerpiece of his theology, we cannot so cavalierly dismiss one of the canonical books of the Bible. If we maintain, as I think we must, that the whole of scripture witnesses faithfully to the person and work of Jesus, then James must be heard on his own terms. It will not do for us to domesticate, edit and interpret him into silence.

Context matters when trying to understand voices coming to us from the past. We need to know something of the audience to which James and Luther addressed themselves and the world in which they moved. Luther’s theology, preaching and teaching were shaped by the late medieval European society into which he was born and the church which exercised pervasive influence over government, education and commerce. Luther inherited from his church the image of God as an angry judge intolerant of the slightest infraction against his law. Christ’s work of salvation from the terrible wrath of God was purely transactional. It was all neatly explained through the doctrine of “substitutionary atonement.” At the risk of oversimplifying this deeply held and time honored explanation of Christ’s work, it goes something like this: God is good, holy and cannot abide sin. God created human beings who, regrettably, sinned and fell from his good graces. God, being loving as well as holy, would like to forgive us. But God cannot exercise such forgiveness without compromising God’s holiness. Only by making atonement for our sin can we find our way back into God’s good graces-something that is quite beyond our capabilities. But what if God were to become human? What if God in human form were to take upon God’s self the punishment we deserve, paving the way to reconciliation? Bingo! Problem solved. Jesus dies on the cross in our place taking the punishment we deserve and that satisfies God’s need to punish sin while enabling God to receive us back again.[1]

But how do we appropriate this forgiveness? According to the medieval theology in which Luther was raised, you “do what is within you and God in Christ will do the rest.” Sounds good, until you realize how difficult it is to know whether you actually have done all that is within you. Was I the best father I could have been to my children? Did I really study as hard as I could have for the test? Am I being the best person I am capable of being today? These were the questions that tormented young Luther as he sought to find the face of a gracious God in the teachings of a church proclaiming an angry deity and salvation that was uncertain at best. Through his study of the scriptures, Luther finally came to reject the notion that God’s love and salvation must be earned through our “doing our part.” Salvation, Luther declared, is God’s work from beginning to end. Because of what Jesus accomplished for us in his sacrificial death, we need only trust God’s promise made in baptism that we are loved, forgiven and made God’s children.

So now what? According to Luther, our liberation from fear of an angry God and the tyranny of God’s impossibly difficult commands frees us to live thankfully, joyfully and obediently as God’s beloved children obeying the law no longer in fear of God’s wrath but out of gratitude for God’s grace in the service of our neighbors. Nonetheless, the place of “good works” and personal transformation (“sanctification”) has always been a source of conflict and consternation among Lutherans and other protestants. We fear that any discussion of sanctification, growth in faith and moral discipline will undermine our proclamation of salvation by grace alone and take us back into the error of “works righteousness.” Yet we cannot but recognize that our preaching of salvation as God’s exclusive work apart from any contribution on our part, without more, doesn’t quite tell the whole story. The millions of babies we baptize each year whose parents have little or no involvement in the church and who never again darken our doors more than suggests that something is lacking in our faith and practice. Perhaps we Lutherans need to pay more attention to James. He might have something important to teach us.

James is no stranger to God’s free grace and forgiveness. Recall how he told us in last week’s reading that “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” James 1:17. God does not need or want a bloody sacrifice of any kind in exchange for forgiving sinners. God does that because God loves us. There is no “debt” that must be repaid before God can forgive. That concept is the residue of “substitutionary atonement” doctrine discussed above. Jesus’ death on the cross is not the settlement of indebtedness. Rather, it is the ultimate triumph of “mercy over judgment” in which God’s capacity for love and forgiveness proves victorious over our hatred expressed in the ultimate injury we are capable of inflicting on God. See my post of March 1, 2015 for more on that topic.

Another misconception inherent in the doctrine of substitutionary atonement is its tendency to “individualize” salvation. That is to say, salvation becomes a transactional affair between the individual woman or man and God. Salvation is equated with individual belief in Jesus and church membership. James tells us something quite different. “In fulfilment of [God’s] own purpose,” says James, “[God] gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of [God’s] creatures.” James 1:18. Salvation, as John 3:16 tells us, is for the “world” and all of God’s creatures. To be baptized and incorporated into the church is become a sign, a proclamation, a witness and the “first fruits” of God’s gentle reign of love destined finally for the whole world. God has no interest in salvaging a few souls from a sinking ship. God is determined to save the ship. Moreover, God is quite capable of doing that without our help. Nonetheless, God graciously invites us to take part in this good work. As Luther tells us in his Small Catechism, “God’s kingdom comes without our prayers (and without anything else we do), but we pray that it may come among us.” That is to say, we want to be “in that number when the saints come marching in,” not mere spectators sitting on the curb watching the parade go by.

To sum up, saying good works are necessary is not the same as saying they are necessary in order for God to save us. To say salvation is exclusively God’s work by grace from beginning to end does not imply that good works are unnecessary. It is precisely because we are free from having to placate God that we can focus our religion[2] on “care for orphans and widows in their distress.” James 1:27. Though speaking from different times, different places and different circumstances, James and Martin Luther are preaching the same good news: that Jesus calls us to a life of hope, danger, joy and suffering at the frontier of a new creation. “Our faith,” says Luther, “is a living, busy, active, mighty thing.” It is anything but dead and devoid of action.

Here’s a poem by Harriet Monroe offering us a glimpse into what this living, busy, active and mighty faith might resemble.

Heroes of Peace

“There must be prisoners,” he said,
“And some of them get killed.”
He was one of those adventurers
Who have dared the things they willed.

There must be pioneers-my mind
Called the long roll of dead
Who died to lead us on, who broke
Our trail wild miles ahead.

Poisoned by deadly germs they died,
They fell from the sky in flames.
In tropic jungles, in arctic ice
They lie-we forget their names.

In every sea their singing souls
Rise to the crest of the wave.
In every land their banners flie-
From many an unmarked grave.

They took the leap, and bade us follow
Into the starry stream-
Heroes who did the impossible,
Dreamers who lived the dream.

Source: Poetry, October 1929. Harriot Monroe (1860-1936) was founder and editor of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse.  She was born in Chicago and read at an early age. Her father’s large library fed her insatiable curiosity and love for verse. Monroe graduated from the Visitation Academy of Georgetown, D.C., in 1879 and published a number of poems thereafter. In 1912 she convinced one hundred prominent Chicago business leaders to sponsor the magazine Poetry by each committing to fifty dollars a year for a five-year subscription. This money, along with her own funds, launched the publication that continues to this day. Monroe was determined that her publication be a portal for aspiring talent.  “Open Door will be the policy of this magazine” she wrote. “…may the great poet we are looking for never find it shut, or half-shut, against his ample genius! To this end the editors . . . desire to print the best English verse which is being written today, regardless of where, by whom, or under what theory of art it is written.” You can learn more about Harriot Monroe and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

 

[1] Perhaps I am being a tad flippant here. There are articulate defenders of this doctrine who would point out that I am oversimplifying and caricaturing their positions. That is probably true. Guilty as charged. Nevertheless, this is how the preaching of substitutionary atonement comes across to most people. It either makes God into a mean spirited, rule obsessed ogre who will have his pound of flesh, or into a helpless middle manager stuck enforcing rules over which he has no independent jurisdiction. The death of Jesus, in the most horrible, painful and humiliating way imaginable, is necessary to remove some legal or metaphysical impediment to God’s forgiveness.

[2] My daughter, the classics professor, pointed out to me last night that the Greek word translated “religion” in this text is used only in James’ letter and nowhere else in the New Testament. The only Old Testament use is in the apocryphal book, The Wisdom of Solomon, found in the Septuagint (Greek Translation of the Hebrew Scriptures). (Chapter 14). In this chapter, which discusses the origin of idol worship, the author has this to say:

“Then the ungodly custom, grown strong with time, was kept as a law, and at the command of monarchs carved images were worshipped. When people could not honor monarchs in their presence, since they lived at a distance, they imagined their appearance far away, and made a visible image of the king whom they honored, so that by their zeal they might flatter the absent one as though present.” Wisdom of Solomon 14:16-17.

This passage, which discusses the practice of worshiping emperors and monarchs as divine, describes to a tee the imperial cult constituting the official religion of the Roman Empire. It was in the shadow of such religion and under the threat of punishment for all who challenged it that James describes a radically different sort of religion focused not on the worship of monarchs, but on service to widows and orphans.

The Dangers of Doing the “What” Without Remembering the “Why”

FIFTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Psalm 15
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Prayer of the Day: O God our strength, without you we are weak and wayward creatures. Protect us from all dangers that attack us from the outside, and cleanse us from all evil that arises from within ourselves, that we may be preserved through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children—” Deuteronomy 4:9

Forgetfulness is the mortal enemy of covenant loyalty. It also leads us into a warped and toxic way of interpreting the scriptures. In these final words of Moses to Israel, memorialized in the book of Deuteronomy, the call to remember is a constant refrain:

“When your children ask you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the decrees and the statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your children, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. The Lord displayed before our eyes great and awesome signs and wonders against Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household. He brought us out from there in order to bring us in, to give us the land that he promised on oath to our ancestors. Then the Lord commanded us to observe all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our lasting good, so as to keep us alive, as is now the case. If we diligently observe this entire commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, we will be in the right.’” Deuteronomy 6:20-25 See also, Deuteronomy 8:11; Deuteronomy 11:2; Deuteronomy 31:9-13.

Israel was admonished not merely to remember “what” God had commanded but also “why.” God did not liberate Israel from slavery in Egypt only for her to become a mirror image of that oppressive empire. Israel was to be a different kind of community, a “light to the nations.” The law is to be diligently observed, says Moses, “for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!’ For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?” The whole reason for God’s election of Israel was to show the world a new way of being human. Obedience to the covenant laws and statutes was a means to that end, not an end in itself. For this reason, Israel was warned never to forget her story of how God’s compassion and zeal for justice brought her into being as God’s instrument of blessing for all creation.

To forget our stories is to forget who we are and why we do the things we do. In Pierre Boulle’s book, Bridge over the River Kwai, a group of British soldiers under the command of Lt. Colonel Nicholson are captured by the Japanese during World War II and ordered to work on building a bridge across the River Kwai. In order to keep up the morale of his men under cruel and inhumane conditions of captivity, Nicholson orders them to take special care with their work. He directs them to build the best bridge possible to show the Japanese just how skilled and competent the British are and what the Japanese are up against. The bridge was to be a symbol of British power-an act of defiant resistance giving the captive soldiers a sense of purpose and dignity. But before long, Colonel Nicholson becomes enamored with his bridge, proud of the project-so much so that it consumes him. In the end, when British commandos show up to destroy the bridge, Nicholson fights with his Japanese captors to protect his bridge.

Colonel Nicholson forgot who he was. He forgot who his enemy was. He forgot why he was building his bridge. So, too, Moses knew that his people would be tempted to forget who they were, how they were called from slavery into freedom and the reason for which they were given the commandments and statutes of God. He therefore admonishes them (and us) “neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life.”  Deuteronomy 4:9

When the law is observed with no recollection of why it was given, it becomes an instrument of bondage rather than a vessel of liberation. In this Sunday’s gospel, Jesus’ opponents seem to have lost touch with who they are called to be and why they are following the law. They practiced well enough the “what” of the law, but quite forgot its “why.” For them, the law had become an instrument of judgment, exclusion and condemnation. The rules were ends in themselves and it mattered not whether one knew or understood why they were given or what they were intended to accomplish. Suffice to say, Moses surely never imagined that the statutes he delivered to Israel in order to protect their newfound freedom from bondage would one day be used by a religious elite to condemn, enslave and shame hungry people. Clearly, that was not God’s intent for God’s people or God’s law. Nor, do I believe, is it God’s intent that the Scriptures be used by Christians to shame, condemn and reject people because of who they love, or what their legal status under the laws of any nation state happens to be or the nation, race or culture of their origin. The commandments, we dare not forget, were given by the God who liberates God’s children from slavery. If the scriptures are not lived, taught and proclaimed in a way that moves us from bondage into freedom, they are being misinterpreted.

Our lessons for this Sunday call us to remember who we are: Children of a God who, at the cost of his only beloved Son, liberates slaves, lifts up the lowly and embraces the outcast. That is the narrative that must control how we understand, interpret and apply every verse we find in the Bible.

Here is a poem/hymn about biblical remembering by James Weldon Johnson.

Lift Every Voice and Sing   

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand.
True to our God,
True to our native land.

Source: Johnson, James Weldon, Complete Poems (c. 2000 by Penguin Publishing Group). James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) was a lawyer, teacher and civil rights leader in the early part of the twentieth century. As head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) during the 1920s, Johnson led civil rights campaigns aimed at eliminating legal, political, and social obstacles to black advancement. In addition to these achievements, he was also a gifted author and poet. The above poem, ultimately set to music, constitutes a tribute to black endurance, hope, and religious faith that was later adopted by the NAACP and dubbed “the Negro National Anthem.” It is found in many Christian hymnals today, including Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW). See ELW # 841. Concerning this hymn, Johnson had this to say: “A group of young men in Jacksonville, Florida, arranged to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday in 1900. My brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, and I decided to write a song to be sung at the exercises. I wrote the words and he wrote the music. Our New York publisher, Edward B. Marks, made mimeographed copies for us, and the song was taught to and sung by a chorus of five hundred colored school children.

“Shortly afterwards my brother and I moved away from Jacksonville to New York, and the song passed out of our minds. But the school children of Jacksonville kept singing it; they went off to other schools and sang it; they became teachers and taught it to other children. Within twenty years it was being sung over the South and in some other parts of the country. Today the song, popularly known as the Negro National Hymn, is quite generally used.

“The lines of this song repay me in an elation, almost of exquisite anguish, whenever I hear them sung by Negro children.” You can read more about James Weldon Johnson and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

  

To Preachers Everywhere: Stop Domesticating Jesus!

FOURTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Joshua 24:1-2, 14-18
Psalm 34:15-22
Ephesians 6:10-20
John 6:56-69

Prayer of the Day: Holy God, your word feeds your people with life that is eternal. Direct our choices and preserve us in your truth, that, renouncing what is false and evil, we may live in you, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Seems I got a little ahead of myself last week putting up the lessons for this coming fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, thereby skipping altogether the thirteenth. No point in looking backward; therefore, I offer these further reflections on the texts for the fourteenth Sunday.

“So Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.’” John 6:53-56.

If we are honest, most of us will agree that these words of Jesus are more than offensive. They are revolting. Cannibalism is taboo in nearly every culture and was certainly so in every strain of First Century Judaism. You might point out that Jesus is not to be taken literally here, but that only begs the question. If Jesus is speaking metaphorically, why choose such a vulgar metaphor?

The answer is that Jesus is not speaking metaphorically and that he knew full well the reaction he was likely to evoke from his audience. Internalizing Jesus is offensive and contrary to our deepest instincts. The way into which he calls us goes against all of our sensibilities. Take, for instance, Jesus’ call to turn the other cheek when stricken. There is nothing natural about that. Doesn’t Kenny Rogers tell us that you have to fight to be a man?” Preachers and religious pundits fall all over themselves trying to explain away the clear sense of Jesus’ command. Take for, example, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council who, when asked about that very saying, replied “You know, you only have two cheeks…Look, Christianity is not all about being a welcome mat which people can just stomp their feet on.” Evidently, you can’t rely on a milksop like Jesus to get Christianity right.  That’s a man’s job.

Jesus also calls his followers to “Sell your possessions, and give alms,” but who does that? Again, numerous hermeneutical gymnastics have been performed in order to extricate us from this clear and unambiguous command. I recall the pastor who confirmed me assuring the congregation that, while Christians must believe that the earth was created in seven days of twenty-four hours (as per Genesis 1), that Jonah was actually swallowed by a fish in whose belly he lived for three days and that the sun literally stood still in the sky for twenty-four hours at Joshua’s command, we need not take Jesus literally in this instance. What Jesus really meant was that we must “have our possessions as if we have them not.” That is, we can keep what we own as long as we are ready to let go of it all at Jesus’ explicit command. If I had not been a timid, introverted teenager at that point, I might have asked, “So pastor, what part of ‘sell your possessions and give alms’ is less than fully explicit?” It all goes to show, I suppose, that we take the Bible literally until it says something we don’t like. When that happens, the staunchest fundamentalist is reduced to a wiggling bowl of liberal Jello.

Let me be clear in saying that I don’t follow Jesus’ teachings with any more rigor than the two gentlemen I just pilloried. It is not my purpose to charge them or anyone else with hypocrisy. You know what they say about people living in glass houses throwing rocks. But we do need to stop co-opting Jesus in support of our hypocrisy.  We need to stop trying to smooth out Jesus’ rough edges to make him more appealing and less abrasive to our cultural notions of manhood, our capitalistic values and all other aspects of our lives we deem non-negotiable. We need to stop trying to shape Jesus into the image of someone who fits neatly into our middle class lives to help us cope. Jesus didn’t come to help us cope with life. He came to transform it. Jesus didn’t come to help us adapt to and accept our circumstances. He came to make us uncomfortable with our circumstances to the point of being unable to tolerate them. Jesus came to put us into conflict with the “blood and soil” nationalism that is sweeping the globe; the blatant and cynical disregard for truth that characterizes our political discourse and the self-centered tribalism that demonizes the stranger. If you are comfortable with the way things are, you haven’t been paying attention to Jesus.

For the last few weeks we have been following Jesus through Chapter 6 of John’s gospel. When the chapter began, Jesus had five thousand enthusiastic followers who were ready to make him their king. At its close, Jesus had only twelve disciples. That is hardly a model of success by megachurch standards. But Jesus doesn’t seem interested in gaining followers. He is intent on making disciples. At the end of the day,  Jesus has twelve disciples who-however imperfectly, however incompletely and however tentatively-know that Jesus has the words of eternal life. That’s as much success as Jesus needs to build his church.

So perhaps we need to start asking ourselves whether we are more afraid of membership decline than we are committed to making disciples. Are we ready to take a hit in membership for the sake of discipleship? Are we preachers ready to say point blank, not in any denominational statement, but to our own people in our own pulpits, that we stand, as disciples of Jesus, with our LGBTQ sisters and brothers, victims of deportation, young black men who are being victimized by police, women and men who are crying out against sexual abuse, the sick and dying who are being systematically denied life saving medical care? Are we prepared to call out the growing tyranny of a president who calls women dogs, Mexicans murderers and rapists and black Americans names I won’t print. Are we ready to hear a large part of our membership tell us, “This is a hard teaching! Who can listen to it?” Are we, like Jesus, willing to lose our following to gain disciples?

We (myself obviously included) are a long way from following Jesus with complete fidelity. We probably never will perfect our faith this side of eternity, but we can, and if the Apostle Paul is to be believed, we should grow in our faith. I believe that begins with letting our churches hear Jesus in the unedited, unredacted and unmodified biblical witness. We need to let Jesus question our most basic assumptions about our economics, our politics and our beliefs about God. We need to hold up our cultural assumptions, our patriotism and our relationships with one another to the light of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom with unflinching honesty-even when the words of Jesus embarrass, confuse and frighten us. My preaching professor in seminary used to tell us: “Don’t ever let me catch you explaining in any sermon what Jesus really meant. Jesus meant what he said and if you can’t stomach it, get out of the pulpit and make way for someone who can.” The words Jesus speaks are sometimes hard to hear, difficult to accept and run contrary to our deepest instincts. Nevertheless, they are good words; redemptive words; words of eternal life. They may not win many followers, but we can trust them to make solid disciples.

Here’s a poem/song by Phil Ochs illustrating both the radical nature of Jesus and our tendency to domesticate him.

The Crucifixion

And the night comes again to the circle studded sky.
The stars settle slowly, in loneliness they lie
‘Til the universe explodes as a falling star is raised.
Planets are paralyzed; the mountains are amazed
But they all glow brighter from the brilliance of the blaze
With the speed of insanity, then he dies.

In the green fields a-turning, a baby is born.
His cries crease the wind and mingle with the morn.
An assault upon the order, the changing of the guard.
Chosen for a challenge that is hopelessly hard.
And the only single sighing is the sighing of the stars
But to the silence of distance they are sworn

So dance dance dance
Teach us to be true.
Come dance dance dance
Cause we love you.

Images of innocence charge him to go on
But the decadence of destiny is looking for a pawn.
To a nightmare of knowledge he opens up the gate
A blinding revelation is laid upon his plate
That beneath the greatest love there is a hurricane of hate
And God help the critic of the dawn.

So he stands on the sea and he shouts to the shore
But the louder that he screams the longer he’s ignored.
For the wine of oblivion is drunk to the dregs;
The merchants of the masses almost have to be begged
‘Til the giant is aware that someone’s pulling at his leg
And someone is tapping at the door.

To dance dance dance
Teach us to be true.
Come dance dance dance
Cause we love you.

Then his message gathers meaning and it spreads across the land;
The rewarding of the fame is the falling of the man.
For ignorance is everywhere and people have their way.
Success is an enemy to the losers of the day.
In the shadows of the churches, who knows what they pray
And blood is the language of the band.

The Spanish bulls are beaten; the crowd is soon beguiled.
The matador is beautiful, a symphony of style.
The excitement is ecstatic, passion places bets;
Gracefully he bows to the ovations that he gets.
But the hands that are applauding him are slippery with sweat
And saliva is falling from their smiles.

So dance dance dance
Teach us to be true.
Come dance dance dance
Cause we love you.

Then this overflow of life is crushed into a lie;
The gentle soul is ripped apart and tossed into the fire.
It’s the death of beauty, the victory of night;
Truth becomes a tragedy limping from the light.
All the heavens are horrified, they stagger at the sight,
And the cross is trembling with desire.

They say they can’t believe it, it’s a sacrilegious shame.
Now, who would want to hurt such a hero of the game?
But you know I predicted it; I knew he had to fall.
How did it happen? I hope his suffering was small.
Tell me every detail, I’ve got to know it all
And do you have a picture of the pain?

So dance dance dance
Teach us to be true.
Come dance dance dance
Cause we love you.

Time takes a toll and the memory fades,
But his glory is growing in the magic that he made.
Reality is ruined; there’s nothing more to fear;
The drama is distorted into what they want to hear.
Swimming in their sorrow, in the twisting of a tear
As they wait for the new thrill parade.

The eyes of the rebel have been branded by the blind.
To the safety of sterility the threat has been refined.
The child was created; to the slaughterhouse he’s led;
So good to be alive when the eulogy is read.
The climax of emotion, the worship of the dead
As the cycle of sacrifice unwinds.

So dance dance dance
Teach us to be true.
Come dance dance dance
Cause we love you.

And the night comes again to the circle studded sky.
The stars settle slowly, in loneliness they lie;
‘Til the universe expodes as a falling star is raised.
Planets are paralyzed, mountains are amazed.
But they all glow brighter from the brilliance of the blaze
With the speed of insanity, then he dies

Phil Ochs (1940-1976) was born in El Paso, Texas. He was a folk singer/songwriter and contemporary of Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie. He wrote hundreds of songs in the 1960s and 1970s and released eight albums. He performed at numerous anti-Vietnam War, civil rights and organized labor rallies. Ochs’s mental health deteriorated in the 1970s owing to what is now known as bipolar disorder and alcoholism. Tragically, he took his own life in 1976. You can find out more about Phil Ochs and his music at this website. If you would like to listen to the above song as performed by Phil Ochs, click here.

 

The Hard Truth about “Ends” and “Means”

THIRTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Joshua 24:1-2, 14-18
Psalm 34:15-22
Ephesians 6:10-20
John 6:56-69

Prayer of the Day: Holy God, your word feeds your people with life that is eternal. Direct our choices and preserve us in your truth, that, renouncing what is false and evil, we may live in you, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Ephesians 6:12

Of course, the evil one would have us believe that our struggle is against enemies of flesh and blood-such as immigrants, liberals, socialists, fascists, racists, conservatives, Muslims, Jews, people of color, etc. Victory over evil consists in overcoming evil people by banishing them from our neighborhoods and churches, preventing them from coming into our country, driving them from positions of authority in government, silencing their voices in the public forum and, if all else fails, killing them. What is war, after all, but the most extreme strategy for ridding the world of evil? Sure, its ugly, cruel and brutally unjust, especially to non-combatants that happen to be in the way of strategic military strikes. But the ends justify the means, don’t they?

I recently read an angry manifesto from a young woman who left my own Lutheran Church. She said, in part, “I’m done with being patient. I’m done with loving people who treat my people like s#$%. I’m done waiting. I’m done with hoping people are going to change, that the world is going to change. Ain’t no change gonna happen but the change we make any way we can make it!” I understand the anger, the frustration and the hurt. God knows that we who call ourselves church have managed to do a lot of nothing about everything. But I am not ready to accept the proposition that it’s finally up to us to make the change we want to see “any way we can make it.” The ends don’t justify the means but, as Alduous  Huxley reminds us, they frequently determine them. We don’t employ the weapons of violence, force and coercion without being shaped by them. Furthermore, we cannot truly know the “ends” of our deeds. At best, we can only hope they will work out for the best. But how often don’t good intentions lead to unanticipated consequences? If we are honest with ourselves, we have to confess that the ends or consequences of our actions are beyond our ability to control. The only thing we do control are the means-and Jesus tells us the means by which we are to live into the reign of God. Until that kingdom comes in all its fullness, discipleship takes the shape of the cross. That’s a difficult word. Most won’t accept it. But it is, as Peter rightly recognizes in this Sunday’s gospel, “the words of eternal life.”

In fact, no human being is an enemy. All people are created in the image of God. Some, to be sure, have been shaped by violence, hateful ideologies and false values. A few have become so thoroughly corrupted by evil that one can scarcely discern their humanity. Can one become so thoroughly twisted and perverted by evil influences that nothing of the divine image is any longer recognizable in him or her?  Does one ever reach the point where the Creator says of the creature, “I do not know you”? Since Jesus seems to allow for that possibility, we do well take seriously the corrupting power of evil in our own lives. Nevertheless, God alone is capable of making such a call. For our part, we must assume that everyone we encounter, however flagrantly they manifest evil tendencies, retain traces of their dignity as God’s human creatures. We cannot allow our determination to resist evil to degenerate into a campaign against the people held in bondage to its grip. To do so is to fall into the devil’s trap.

The Apostle Paul understands the evil one’s stratagem well. He knows that peace, justice and righteousness can never be achieved by violent acts against God’s creation and its creatures. So, he takes the imagery of imperial military might, the sword, the helmet, the shield and turns it on its head. The only weapons disciples of Jesus wield are truth, peace, integrity, faith and the word of God. This is the whole armor of God. Nothing further is needed nor allowed to the disciples in carrying out their struggle against evil.

“This is a difficult teaching,” Jesus’ disciples remarked. They were right. Internalizing the Spirit of Jesus, leaning wholly on the power of the Word and the strength of the Spirit to defeat the forces of evil manifested around us requires a willingness to lose a few battles, suffer some losses, perhaps endure persecution or death. Moreover, we may die without ever seeing any positive result from these sacrifices. In a culture that rewards only results and insists that the ends justify the means, it is all the more difficult to resist the temptation to seize hold of more “efficient” means than words, acts of mercy and peaceful resistance. Paul’s words and Peter’s witness keep us focused on the long game and the means necessary for winning it.

Here is a poem by Denise Levertov illustrating the power of the word, of imagination and courage that make for peace-not unlike Paul’s admonition to avail ourselves of the weapons of the Spirit.

Making Peace

A voice from the dark called out,
‘The poets must give us
imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar
imagination of disaster. Peace, not only
the absence of war.’
But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself,
can’t be imagined before it is made,
can’t be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid.
A feeling towards it,
dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have
until we begin to utter its metaphors,
learning them as we speak.
A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,
questioned our needs, allowed
long pauses . . .
A cadence of peace might balance its weight
on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,
an energy field more intense than war,
might pulse then,
stanza by stanza into the world,
each act of living
one of its words, each word
a vibration of light—facets
of the forming crystal.

Source: Breathing the Water, c. 1987 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.

Putting Away Falsehood and Speaking the Truth

See the source imageTWELFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

1 Kings 19:4-8
Psalm 34:1-8
Ephesians 4:25—5:2
John 6:35, 41-51

Prayer of the Day: Gracious God, your blessed Son came down from heaven to be the true bread that gives life to the world. Give us this bread always, that he may live in us and we in him, and that, strengthened by this food, we may live as his body in the world, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” Ephesians 4:25.

When I was a teenager, the Vietnam war was raging. So was the national public conversation over the merits of that war. I heard it over the radio, on TV, in the barber shop and at my table in the high school cafeteria. That conversation was always passionate, frequently heated and sometimes less than civil. But it was everywhere. Everywhere, that is, except in our church. There were reasons for that, of course. We had families whose sons were serving in Vietnam. We had families whose children were actively involved in the resistance to the war. Our church, like all others, was sustained by longstanding relationships of love and mutual respect. The war constituted a threat to that unity in the Body of Christ. It was the third rail we all took care to avoid, talking around it and over it but never about it.

At the time, it seemed like a sensible strategy. After all, there were plenty of venues for talking politics. Why not let the church be that one place where all the political opinions, ideologies and crusades that divide us are left outside? Why not acknowledge that there are, after all, people of good will on both sides of issues like these and simply agree to disagree-at least for an hour on Sunday? Isn’t our unity in Christ bigger than the temporal issues that divide us? Shouldn’t the church be that one place where we can rise above all of the divisiveness that plagues the rest of our society?

As much surface appeal as this argument might have, the apostle is having none of it. His admonition is to put off falsehood and tell the truth-and not just the truth that is comforting and uncontroversial. Disciples of Jesus owe one another the truth-even when it hurts. After all, how can the good news of Jesus Christ heal us if we won’t let it come near to our deepest wounds? How can a community be truly united as long as its divisions remain undiagnosed, untreated and festering under the surface? There can be no genuine unity in Christ as long as painful truths remain unspoken. What unity there may be is but a brittle façade just one unguarded moment away from shattering.

There is no more troubling and painful truth confronting the American church today than that of its own racism. Despite what I believe are genuine and heartfelt expressions of repentance for our participation in and complicity with our country’s sad legacy of slavery, oppression and segregation put forth by our mainline churches, the harsh truth is that Sunday morning remains the most segregated hour of any given week. Moreover, whatever our denominational leaders are saying, our rank and file continue, at best, to retain a “blind spot” when it comes to recognizing systemic racism. At worst, we are experiencing in our midst and with increasing frequency a resurgence of the ugliest expressions of racial hatred and intolerance.

As I have said before, the one positive contribution of the Trump administration to date is its exposure of the deep seated fear and suspicion with which white folk regard people of color in general and African Americans in particular. The 2016 campaign has laid bare the pillars of systemic racism that permeates our government, our work places and our educational institutions. We are not, some people proudly proclaimed with the election of Barak Obama in 2008, a “post racial society.” We remain a nation that favors the privileged position of white people, white men in particular at the expense of all others. None have experienced more deeply and destructively the receiving end of all this than black Americans. The consequences of more than two and a half centuries of slavery, segregation and racial terrorism are brutally clear. According to Laura Shin of Forbs Magazine, the average white household possesses 16 times the wealth owned by the average black family. The incarceration rate for black Americans is six times higher than for white people. Access to adequate health care, good schools and affordable housing is too often severely limited in black communities. So too are opportunities for higher education and employment.

In the face of these brutal realities, we are tempted to take comfort in falsehoods. “Slavery has been over for more than a century. Nobody living to day can claim to have been harmed by it and on one living today is responsible for it.” “The civil rights movement ended segregation. So now everyone is playing on a level field.”  “Black people have no one to blame but themselves for the state of their own communities. They need to quit playing the victim and pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.” “Hey, we elected a black president, didn’t we? That proves the race thing is over.” These expressions are all to common within the churches I have held membership and served over the years. They are not as obviously abrasive as some of the more vulgar assertions of racial hate that have gained currency in our cultural landscape of late. But they are, for that reason, even more insidious. They allow us to avoid the hard and truthful conversations we need to have within the Body of Christ if we are going to become that one, holy, catholic and apostolic church we claim to be.

So where do we go from here? As a white male and beneficiary of systemic racism, I am hardly in a position to proscribe comprehensive solutions to that evil. Nonetheless, we all have to start somewhere. I believe that the best first step white folk like myself can take is to assure our African American neighbors that we believe them. We need to say clearly and unambiguously, “I believe your stories of brutalization at the hands of police. I believe you when you tell me of the regular indignities and slights you experience in going about your daily business at the grocery store, in the restaurant and at work. I believe that your experiences are real.” In other words, we need to put aside all of the old falsehoods and begin to acknowledge and speak the truth.

Of course, before we can do even that we need to learn the truth. In order to do that, we need to be listening to the stories of our non-white neighbors with a compassionate ear and without judgment or defensiveness. That is not easy, because we are bound to learn some truths difficult to hear.  It’s hard to “shut up and listen” when every bone in your body wants to argue, defend and explain. But until we can do at least that, we cannot hope to move in the direction of healing and reconciliation, much less move the world closer to justice.

Here is one hard and truthful story told by poet and author Kwame Dawes.

Dirt

I got one part of it. Sell them watermelons and get me another part. Get Bernice to sell that piano and I’ll have the third part.—August Wilson

We who gave, owned nothing,
learned the value of dirt, how
a man or a woman can stand
among the unruly growth,
look far into its limits,
a place of stone and entanglements,
and suddenly understand
the meaning of a name, a deed,
a currency of personhood.
Here, where we have labored
for another man’s gain, if it is fine
to own dirt and stone, it is
fine to have a plot where
a body may be planted to rot.
We who have built only
that which others have owned
learn the ritual of trees,
the rites of fruit picked
and eaten, the pleasures
of ownership. We who
have fled with sword
at our backs know the things
they have stolen from us, and we
will walk naked and filthy
into the open field knowing
only that this piece of dirt,
this expanse of nothing,
is the earnest of our faith
in the idea of tomorrow.
We will sell our bones
for a piece of dirt,
we will build new tribes
and plant new seeds
and bury our bones in our dirt.

Source: Duppy Conqueror: New and Selected Poems, (C. 2013 by Kwame Dawes, pub. by Copper Canyon Press)

Kwame Dawes was born in Ghana in 1962, but he spent most of his childhood in Jamaica. He subsequently emigrated to Canada and came eventually to the United States. From 1992 to 2012 he taught at the University of South Carolina as a Professor in English, Distinguished Poet in Residence, Director of the South Carolina Poetry Initiative, and Director of the USC Arts Institute. He is currently the editor of Prairie Schooner and Chancellor’s Professor of English at the University of Nebraska. He is the author of numerous books and poetry collections. You can sample more poetry by Kwame Dawes at the Poetry Foundation Website.

Grow Up Already!!!

See the source imageELEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
Psalm 78:23-29
Ephesians 4:1-16
John 6:24-35

Prayer of the Day: O God, eternal goodness, immeasurable love, you place your gifts before us; we eat and are satisfied. Fill us and this world in all its need with the life that comes only from you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Grow up!” That’s the message of our lesson from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. The apostle has no patience for immature, simplistic faith that can be boiled down to pious platitudes suitable for bumper stickers and refrigerator magnets. Nor does he tolerate a church that produces biblically illiterate disciples with shallow, incomplete and therefore erroneous understandings of Jesus and the reign of God he proclaims. Paul does not envision a church of passive members employing professionals to do the work of ministry. In his view, the work of ministry belongs to the whole church. Proclaiming good news to the poor, the oppressed and the sinful; prophetically speaking truth to power; healing the sick; casting out demons-this is not the sole province of the “clergy.” It is the ministry of all the baptized people of God. The job of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers is “to equip the saints [the whole people of God] for building up the body of Christ until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature adulthood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ…” Ephesians 4:11-13.

I don’t have to tell anyone deeply involved in the life of the church that most congregations are precisely the inverse of this Pauline vision. Sadly, all the churches I have served fit this perverse description to some degree. Moreover, I must confess that I have too often encouraged passive membership by my own well meaning efforts to be a “good pastor.” For example, my response upon receiving word that a member had been hospitalized was, more often than not, “I’ll be right over to see her.” Of course, that did a lot to convince the messenger that I was a prompt, caring pastor ready to meet the spiritual needs of all my congregants. But quarry, would it not have been more Pauline for me to respond, “Gee, I will make sure to get her on the prayer list. When do you think you can get over to see her?” It was expected in my congregations that, as Pastor, I would be ready with a prayer or blessing whenever the occasion called for it. So, when asked, “Pastor, would you lead us in grace for this meal,” Perhaps I should have responded, “Why don’t you lead us this time.”

I suspect that my suggested responses in both cases would have been perceived as dereliction of duty. After all, pastors get paid for providing these services, don’t they? Actually, they do not. As Paul just pointed out, we are called to equip our people to do the work of ministry though preaching and presiding at the sacraments. If we are doing our job well, our departure should not constitute a crisis. Visitation of the sick, comfort to the bereaved, education of the young, ministry to the poor, hungry and oppressed should continue without missing a beat. Every church member should be comfortable offering prayer. Every baptized believer should know the scriptures and liturgy well enough to lead a devotional study, offer a brief meditation or lead a short worship service. Every believer should be competent, confident and willing to testify to the good news of Jesus Christ and how s/he has witnessed the transformative power of that good news in his or her own experience. There should be no need to call the pastor when such opportunities for ministry arise.

Unfortunately, we have created an ecclesiastical culture based on the model of a voluntary association providing services to its members. It’s all transactional. I attend church more or less regularly and contribute more or less generously (most likely less). In return, I am entitled to have my children baptized, confirmed and married. I am assured of pastoral care and visitation when needed and burial services when my time comes. Heaven, of course, is also an added benefit. Furthermore, because the church is all about me, my needs and my wants, I am free to switch my membership whenever another congregation offers me a better deal. Churches guided by this consumer mentality are not likely ever to “grow up.”

Changing the culture of a congregation from a consumerist outlook into a community of disciples committed to spiritual growth and mission is a daunting task. Yet there is reason for hope and it comes from the last place you would expect. There has been plenty of consternation over the last few decades about the decline of the mainline churches and, more recently, the loss of support among the so-called evangelical congregations. If the present trends continue, the consumerist model of church may simply no longer be sustainable. With ever fewer members contributing ever less in terms of time and money, we may soon be unable to continue supporting the institutional machinery necessary to carry on the professional work of mission and ministry. Circumstances will force us to change. Of course, we can deal with all this by merging smaller congregations together, closing those that are no longer able to support a pastor and reducing denominational staffing accordingly. But the task of downsizing is far more complicated and fraught with difficulties than might appear from graphs, pie charts and statistics. More to the point, it is only a rearguard defensive strategy making room for a somewhat orderly retreat and temporary reprieve. It is rather like applying to grad school after college in order to avoid the anxiety of having to find a job. To put it in Pauline terms, it is a refusal to “grow up.”

Denominational decline is not the worst consequence of failing to grow up. As Paul points out, the spiritually immature are likely to be “tossed to and fro and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness and deceitful wiles.” Ephesians 4:14. They are ripe pickings for the likes of Franklin Graham, James Dobson, Robert Jeffress, Tony Perkins, Pat Robertson and the like whose weird mix of end times hysteria, sexism, homophobia, American/Christian nationalism and subliminal white supremacy strike a chord resonating with so many folk fearful of a future that looks dark and threatening and who are ready to grasp any straw that promises to make sense of it all. Some of this low hanging fruit has been plucked from the midst of my own congregations. To many men and women we have baptized and confirmed are very much in thrall to these charlatans and they are not happy when we publicly call them to account and dispute their ideologies. In the recent past, I called for an ecumenical Barman like declaration from our bishops and theologians condemning specifically these distortions of our faith and reaffirming with boldness and clarity the good news of Jesus Christ confessed in the ecumenical creeds. While there have been no shortage of ecclesiastical statements condemning one or another of our government’s recent policy decisions, there has been no widely subscribed confessional declaration naming what I can only characterize as the heretical perversions of our faith undergirding the present reign of evil.

I can sympathize with our leaders. It is hard challenging the consumerist mentality of a congregation. People who have for generations believed that the church to which they belong is their church and that the length of their membership and the significance of their contributions entitle them to a degree of influence inevitably feel that something is being taken away from them. Members who have ingrained upon their psyches the assumption that faith and patriotism are two sides of the same coin and that the church exists to shore up a particular notion of American cultural values will have a hard time adjusting to an understanding of church as a counter-cultural community that sometimes must question, criticize and even oppose the dominant culture. I have experienced all of this first hand and have the scars to prove it. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for a bishop charged with unifying the church facing the prospect of schism within a denominational body already under stress. There is a real danger that a lot of individuals and congregations will be driven away by a clarion call to repentance, faith and a radical change of ecclesiastical culture. But I must ask our leaders-and all of us-what is the alternative to growing up?

It seems we are coming to a crossroads. We have reached the point at which a faith seamlessly woven into the fabric of white American middle class values that demands nothing from us and promises little more than helpful programming can no longer witness effectively to the world. We have reached the point where a church that ministers globally but is peripheral to the lives of most of its members is no longer sustainable. We cannot pretend that going on with business as usual is a real option. We need to recognize the poverty of our faith, acknowledge our need for conversion and be prepared to embrace the costly grace of discipleship whatever the consequences. In short, we need to grow up.

Here’s an anonymous poem featuring the kind if preaching that just might put us on the path to growing up. It’s obviously directed to non-believers, but as none other than a Lutheran seminary president once remarked to a group of us pastors, “Our biggest problem is that our own people remain unconverted.” Can we find the courage to tell that hard truth to ourselves?

The Street Preacher

Hey there, you!
With the Floresheim shoe!
And your Brooks Brothers suit,
And your wallet full of loot!
You with the skirt half-way up your hips
And the ruby lips
And the long blond hair
With your nose in the air!
You on the grate
With your dingy little plate
Full of quarters and dimes,
Guess you’re seeing hard times!
You with the sack of books on your back
Stopping by for a snack
In the Starbucks shop
Where the Yuppies like to stop!
You all may think that you got no soul,
That you got no need to be made whole.
But whether you wanna believe it or not,
And eternal soul is what you all got.
You can lie to yourself and pretend it ain’t there.
You can tell yourself that I’m full of hot air.
But I don’t care what you say about me.
I got peace with my soul and that makes me free.
You can say I’m crazy and that’s OK.
You can say “Drop dead” or just “Go away.”
I’m speaking today in the name of the Lord
And what you’re hearing is His Holy Word.
He’s here to tell you that you got to get right.
You need to get you some inner spiritual sight.
Cause when you see you got a soul and the shape its in
The truth is gonna make your head spin.
See, your soul was made holy and pure and good,
But you done dragged it all through the mud.
You got a stain on your heart, filthy thoughts in your mind
And evil and sins of about every kind.
Yea, you can scrub your skin till it turns all pink.
You can stand in the shower but your soul’s gonna stink.
If you don’t let Jesus in to clean it out,
Come judgment day the Lord’l throw it right out
Into outer darkness to burn with the trash
And with the wicked forever your teeth you’ll gnash.
God loves ya too much to let you go where you’re going.
That’s why the wind of the Spirit is a blowing.
It’s calling you child, to come back home.
You’ve had enough time now to wander and roam.
Giving your body to men for pleasure,
Piling up money, too much to measure,
Lying and cheating to get on top
You ain’t going nowhere. It’s time to stop.
Let Jesus into your heart today.
He’s calling you brother, don’t turn away!
He’s come to make your filthy soul clean.
He’s come your whole life to redeem.
Go to him! He calls you! You can’t refuse!
Your life’s a wreck! What you got to lose?
You give him your shame, your sin, your strife
And He’ll give you eternal life!
That’ a deal, my man, you can’t pass up.
Come here and die, let him raise you back up!

An Open Letter and Plea to Republicans of Conscience

See the source imageDear Republican Friends:

I am not a member of your party, but I am a fellow citizen of our country. I am talking to you because your country needs you right now. We are in deep trouble. Yours is the governing party and you hold all the cards. If the destructive course set for the nation by Donald Trump is to change, you need to lead the way.

I am not talking to those of you who are still true believers in Donald Trump. That, I have learned, is a lost cause. No, I am speaking to those of you Republicans who know deep down in your heart of hearts that your party is off the rails and not by a little bit. I am talking to those of you who still believe in everything your party used to stand for. I am talking to those of you who still believe that the way to economic prosperity and social progress for all lies in open borders, fee markets, individual freedom and its essential corollary, personal responsibility. I am talking to those of you who believe that fiscal restraint and responsible spending are key to ensuring the future health of our nation; that a strong military sparingly used by an America taking the lead among its democratic allies in addressing global issues is the key to national security. I am talking to those of you who understand that, for every job lost as a result of international trade agreements, more and better jobs are created. I am talking to those of you who still believe that honesty, transparency and integrity are essential to representative government.

I cannot believe for a single minute that you don’t see just how far your party has fallen from the aforementioned principles. Who would ever have thought that a president from the party of Ronald Regan would one day snub, disrespect and insult our closest democratic allies while falling all over himself to ingratiate a Russian autocrat and give legitimacy to an outlaw regime that rules its people through starvation and terror? Who could have predicted that a Republican president would one day be closing borders, stifling trade and manipulating markets with punitive tariffs against our closest allies to preserve inefficient companies and outdated technologies? Who would ever have imagined that a Republican congress egged on by its president would wind up passing legislation that increases the national debt by a cool $2.3 trillion? And who can fathom how the party of “Honest Abe” came to tolerate the tsunami of falsehoods that spew out of the White House nonstop? You have thrown away all of your guiding principles in the service of Donald J. Trump. Admittedly, that got you the White House and more, but I have to ask you, was it worth it? Are you proud of what your party has become? Is your president and his supporters building the kind of America you want to leave to your children?

You and I both know how you got to this point. It all started with the “southern strategy.” Sure, deny it if you want to. If it makes you feel better, scream self-righteously that you’re not a racist, that I’m playing the race card, some of your best friends are black and that this whole southern strategy thing is a media hoax cooked up by liberal snowflakes like me. Say whatever you like, but it’s an indisputable fact (remember, I’m only talking to those of you who still believe in such things) that, whether strategically engineered or by plain dumb luck, your party inherited the angry white southerners still bitter over losing their fight against segregation, the white evangelicals whose perverse religion has a long history of sanctifying racism and other deeply bigoted white voters that once were the backbone of white supremacy. Their emigration to the GOP is perhaps the biggest factor in your electoral success over the last five decades. Of course, you never took these idiots seriously. You didn’t really believe that abortion should be criminalized, that borders should be closed, that science is an atheistic conspiracy, that Barak Obama was born in Kenya or any of the rest of that conspiracy crap espoused by your witless new base. But you welcomed their votes just the same and you were willing to pay lip service to their nuttiness to get them, at least during the primaries. Then you moderated your rhetoric to pick up the additional votes you needed to be competitive in the general election. You know exactly what I am talking about. It’s what Mitt Romney’s handlers called the “etch a sketch” maneuver back in the election of 2012.

That seemed to work for you-until it didn’t. You probably thought the members of your newly acquired base were too stupid to realize they were being played. You figured you could go on taking their votes for granted as long as you kept throwing out the kind of mindless red meat that warms the cockles of an angry white man’s heart, like “family values” and “traditional marriage.”  You knew that you didn’t have to use the “N word” to win the hearts of bigots if only you expressed such racist sentiments in thinly veiled suggestive memes, such as the Willy Horton narrative and terms like “welfare queens.” You assumed that it was enough to spew anti-abortion and anti-LGBT proposals that you knew very well would never materialize as legislation capable of withstanding judicial review.  You knew you could advance any dead end law the crazies wanted and blame the activist judiciary, the liberal media and the Democratic majority for their failure. I have to admit, you had a pretty good run of it for a lot of years. But now your base of crazies has gotten away from you and the inmates are running that asylum once known as the Grand Old Party.

You were right about one thing. Your base of angry white folk is pretty stupid. Bigots, bullies and abusers usually are. But they are pretty good at recognizing the putrid stench of their own kind. When Donald Trump came along and took their craziness front and center, they knew that he was the real deal. Here was a guy who really would kick all those dark skinned illegals out of the country and build a wall along the entire Mexican border to make sure they don’t come back. Here was a guy who wasn’t afraid to call those femmie nazis, those uppity women who think they can wear pants to a man, pigs, dogs and a good many other things I can’t print. Here was man who cut through all that “political correctness crap” and made it OK to be racist, cool to be KKK, and just good clean fun to ridicule special needs kids. In Donald Trump, your base found an advocate for all the imagined grievances of the poor, forgotten white man who sees his power, privilege and delusions of supremacy slipping away from him. Donald Trump was the one man among the crowded field of Republican presidential candidates in 2016 who promised to make America great (read white) again and really meant it. The rest of the crowd employed the old “etch a sketch” strategy of keeping one foot in crazyville and the other in the real world. Trump, with both feet firmly planted in crazyville, knocked them off balance and sent them reeling every time.

I had hoped that Donald Trump’s primary victories would wake up the old Republican party; that enough of you would have said to yourselves, “My God! What have we done? We need to end this no matter what the backlash, no matter what the effect on this election cycle. We cannot allow ourselves to become the party of Trump.” But that moment never came. I thought that it might have come during the Republican National Convention after Donald Trump defamed and abused a gold star family whose son gave his life in Iraq. I thought the moment might have come when Donald Trump mimicked, mocked and ridiculed a disabled reporter on national television while his adoring audience laughed and clapped while the drool ran down their imbecilic faces. I thought that when the Access Hollywood tape came out, in which Donald Trump boasted of molesting women in terms too vulgar to repeat, this would surely be the end of his campaign. At first, it seemed it was. A lot of Republicans not only denounced Trump’s remarks, but even called for him to drop out of the race-until it became clear that his base-your base-didn’t care. Then these briefly incensed Republicans all came back like whipped pups with their tails between their legs to lick their master’s boots.

Your slavish devotion and/or grudging tolerance of Donald Trump demonstrates a frightening sickness in your souls. Bad enough that you tolerate his ridicule and abuse of women, people of color and those with disabilities.  What is truly pathetic is the way you let him walk all over you. Trump insulted the wife of Senator Ted Cruz and accused his father of engineering the assassination of President Kennedy. Though endorsing Trump at the Republican National Convention was a little too much for even Mr. Cruz to stomach, he eventually came prancing back to Trump, just like the faithful hound that returns to his owner no matter how badly he’s been mistreated. The same with Jeff Sessions who meekly responds to his master’s regular abuse and criticism with nothing but adoration and praise. And who can forget how the much maligned and berated Mitch McConnell meekly followed the Donald like a little lamb on a leash into the Rose Garden to announce the billionaires’ tax break and deficit bomb-the one legislative victory to which your party can point. It appears that you have as little respect for yourselves as you do any constituents outside of your beloved base. Donald Trump once said that his followers were so blindly loyal that he could shoot an innocent bystander on Fifth Avenue and they would still love him. That was perhaps the only true statement he ever made.

Harnessing the energy of racist, xenophobic, homophobic and misogynist paranoia has been a winning strategy for you. It’s gotten you the White House, both houses of congress and a good crack at stacking the Supreme Court. Congratulations! But, oh, my friends, what a price you have had to pay! How much you have had to sacrifice! As each day brings out more sordid details about Mr. Trump’s and his associates’ political, financial and sexual misdeeds; as the most extreme representatives of racial hate become ever more emboldened in his shadow to spew their vile rhetoric and engage in acts of violence, all under your party’s brand; as the strategic alliances that have kept the peace in Europe and defended democracy around the globe for six decades crumble under the weight of Donald Trump’s gigantic ego; as all of this goes on day after day I keep asking myself, how much more of this can your consciences endure? Your leaders have jeopardized the security of our country, thrown their own families under the bus, compromised their careers and sacrificed their integrity on the altar of this pathetic little man baby and his delusions of grandeur. How much of your party’s soul is left to sell? What will it take to tickle your gag reflex? How far will this man go before you finally say “Enough!”

You know all of this to be true whether you are willing to admit it or not. So why do I waste my breath telling you what you already know? Because I still have a faint hope that there are enough Republicans of conscience like you left to bring the GOP back to life. I still hope against hope that you will finally recognize that you own this mess and it’s yours to clean up. I still cling to the possibility that you love your country enough to put its well-being ahead of your party’s unprincipled lust for raw power and that you will find the courage to act on what used to be your convictions. My question to you is this: can your country count on you to be who you always said you were?