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Just a Face in the Crowd

FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Lamentations 3:22-33

Psalm 30 

2 Corinthians 8:7-15

Mark 5:21-43

Prayer of the Day: Almighty and merciful God, we implore you to hear the prayers of your people. Be our strong defense against all harm and danger, that we may live and grow in faith and hope, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’ And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” Mark 5:30-31.

If you are crowd averse as I am, you can perhaps understand the disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ inquiry. I have stood on many a crowded subway car shoulder to shoulder with people I have never seen before, bumping against them, feeling the heat from their bodies and covering my face to avoid droplets from their coughs and sneezes. Under these circumstances, you don’t smile, speak or even make eye contact with these strangers. You just wait for your stop and, when it finally comes, you get out of that car as fast as you can. You seldom think about or try to imagine that each person in that car has a name, a story and unique reason for travelling with you in the same direction at the same moment in time. Perhaps that is because people placed in such close proximity to so many other people feel pressed, violated and slightly claustrophobic. As a result, they become withdrawn and defensive. Or it may be that such intimate knowledge of so many individuals, each with their own triumphs, tragedies and dreams would simply crush us.

To Jesus, the woman with the ongoing vaginal discharge of blood was no anonymous face in the crowd. She had a face, she had a story and a desperate need, the depth of which not even she was aware. Her medical condition rendered her perpetually ritually “unclean.”  Leviticus 15:25-28. Accordingly, she would have been forbidden to touch anyone or anything that might come into contact with someone else, as this would render them unclean. Leviticus 15: 26-27. Obviously, she should not have been out and about in a tightly packed crowd like the one following Jesus. Furthermore, a woman’s intentionally touching the clothing of a strange man was, at best, a breach of propriety and etiquette. Small wonder, then, that she did all she could to remain unseen.

Jesus, however, will not allow this woman to slip out of his sight unacknowledged, unknown and as soulless as another body in a subway car. He knows the woman needs to know that she is known and that she has been healed of more than her medical condition. She needs to know, as does everyone present, that she is, and always has been, a precious child of God-a person Jesus addresses as “daughter.” Her touch does not render Jesus unclean, but he declares that she is and always has been clean in every respect.  

Hopefully that was not lost on the other desperate actor in this story, Jairus. Jarius, it should be noted, was a ruler of the synagogue. As such, he may have supervised worship services. Clearly, however, he held a position of honor and leadership in the Jewish community. Nineham, D.E., Saint Mark, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963 D.E. Nineham, pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 157; Taylor, Vincent, The Gospel According to St. Mark, Thornapple Commentaries (c. 1966 by Vincent Taylor, pub. by Baker Book House) p. 287; Cranfield, C.E.B., The Gospel According to St. Mark, Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1959 Cambridge University Press) p. 183. He would have been responsible for teaching and upholding religious standards in the community, including those governing ritual purity. He probably would not have approved of this woman going about in public in her condition of “uncleanness.” Perhaps his presence with Jesus was one of the reasons the woman was so fearful about being exposed.

Jesus publicly commends the woman for her faith and dismisses her with a benediction, calling her “daughter.” I wonder if these words were not also directed at Jairus, who summoned Jesus to save the life of his own daughter. The message here is obvious: “Jairus, I am about to have mercy on your little daughter. See to it that you show some compassion toward mine.” In short, I believe these stories, the raising of Jairus’ daughter and the “daughter” with the discharge of blood, are intimately related. Together, they force us to re-evaluate everything we think we know about what is “unclean,” taboo, immoral, socially unacceptable and untouchable.

When Jairus is informed that his daughter is dead, he is admonished by Jesus not to fear, but to believe. He is challenged to be confident, as was the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment, that nothing deemed unclean or untouchable by any law, custom or ritual is beyond Jesus’ cleansing touch. Jairus will need such faith. Jesus will soon take the hand of his daughter’s dead body-yet another breach of ritual purity (Numbers 19:16)-and raise her to life.

The gospels don’t tell us whether Jairus took this lesson to heart, but we should. Everyone has a story. Some have more of the trappings we associate with happiness and fulfilment. But even these seemingly happy stories can take a tragic turn-such as when your little daughter dies. Other stories are filled with heartache from beginning to end-yet somehow radiate a joy that transcends the worst of circumstances. There are stories filled with meanness, cruelty and hate, yet even these are capable of redemption. Some of their elements may yet be woven into the fabric of God’s coming reign of peace. Every story, however soiled it may seem in the telling, is holy. That is because it is not beyond the healing touch of Jesus.

Here is a poem about a life lost through neglect and indifference that seemed not to matter. The poet does not tell us how or under what circumstances the life of this young child or infant was taken. He may have been “collateral damage” from some military operation. He might have been killed in the crossfire of a dispute of which he was not even a part. He might have simply been allowed to starve in a squalid refugee camp while waiting for asylum. But his story, though forever unwritten, is still holy and to us who might have given him the gift of life, unknown and unknowable. It illustrates how every human story of which we remain ignorant impoverishes us.  

Missing Person  

You’ve never met this little one,

nor will you ever see him play

at children’s games beneath the summer sun

on this or any other day.

His drawings will remain unknown,

his songs and poems lost,

the seeds of his ideas, thoughts unsewn,

forever bound in winter’s frost.

The friends he might have had

can’t know they’ve been deprived.

They know too little to be sad,

or feel the crater in their hearts

he could have filled had he survived.

No one will catch his knowing glance,

the fire in his eyes.

No heart will ever know romance

with this young land beneath the evening skies.

All he ever was is what he might have been.

What we’ve lost we’ll never comprehend.

And that is fitting judgment for the sin

of indifference toward this child

whose life, just begun, is at an end.

Anonymous

Riding Out Storms

FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Job 38:1-11

Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32

2 Corinthians 6:1-13

Mark 4:35-41

Prayer of the Day: O God of creation, eternal majesty, you preside over land and sea, sunshine and storm. By your strength pilot us, by your power preserve us, by your wisdom instruct us, and by your hand protect us, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Mark 4:38.

The ocean is often employed as a metaphor for trials and tribulations of life. Consider, for example, the old favorite “Jesus, Savior Pilot Me.” Here on Cape Cod those terrors are frequently anything but metaphoric. This week Michael Packard, a fifty-six year old lobster diver, suffered a broken leg after having been swallowed by one of our humpback whales. Thankfully, these gentle giants, that feed principally on plankton, have no taste for human flesh. Thus, after twenty seconds in the whale’s mouth, Mr. Packard was ejected just as a cyclist might spit out a fly. He is now qualified to be enrolled along with Jonah and Geppetto as one of the few people swallowed by a whale that lived to tell about it.

With the exception of our reading from Paul’s Second Letter to the church at Corinth, the lessons for this Sunday all speak in some fashion about the sea and its terrors. In language echoing Babylonian mythology, the Book of Job speaks of God’s triumph over the sea and God’s power that “proscribed bounds for it.” Job 38:10. The psalm recounts the terror of seagoing pilgrims caught in a storm. In our Gospel we find the disciples in a similar predicament crying out to Jesus, “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?” Mark 4:38. The ancient Israelites were not seafarers. They did not willingly take to the water. Only once in the Bible do we read about an Israelite taking a sea voyage. That story is recited in the Book of the aforementioned Jonah-and it did not end well.

Our love, fear and fascination with the sea is, I believe, grounded in what it tells us about ourselves. We are small, vulnerable and the universe does not care if we live or die. I experienced something of what the disciples must have been feeling one day out on Puget Sound fishing with my Dad. Dad was in most respects a cautious man. You would never find him scuba diving, hang gliding or scaling cliffs. He always admonished us kids not to take foolish risks with our lives. “A cheap thrill sometimes comes with a steep price,” he told us many times. But when it came to fishing, Dad threw caution to the wind. He would forge his way into whatever waters he had reason to believe the fish were lurking with the obsessive passion of Captain Ahab.

On this particular day the weather was calm, though the sky was dark and cloudy. We were already much further out in the water than anyone in a twelve foot aluminum boat with a five horsepower motor had any business being. Dad could see seagulls circling over a patch of water some distance out. He reasoned that the gulls were after herring that, in turn, had been driven to the surface by king salmon pursuing them. If we could get ourselves over to where the seagulls were, we stood a good chance of getting our limit. Dad was right about the fishing. It was great. In fact, we were so busy pulling fish out of the water that we failed to notice the wind picking up. Only when the waves started rocking the boat did it occur to us that we had best get ourselves back to shore.

On this particular day, Dad allowed me to run the outboard motor and steer the boat-quite a thrill for an eleven year old boy. Though his expertise was now sorely needed in the stern, there was no way we could risk changing position under these rough water conditions. So it fell to me to start the engine and steer us back to shore. I pulled the starter cord several times, but the engine would not start. It was then we realized that it was probably out of gas. While Dad took the oars and kept the bow into the waves so that we would not capsize, I struggled with the gas can and the cap on the motor. This ordinarily simple task proved nearly impossible with the boat pitching around in the waves. I am sure I lost more gas in the Sound than I managed to get into the tank. At one point I shouted out in rage, terror and frustration, “Can you just hold still for a goddam minute?” I don’t know who I thought I was talking to. But I recall how it suddenly occurred to me that the sea didn’t care. There was no malice in the waves. The Sound wasn’t “out to get us.” It was just doing what the sea does and we happened to in its way.

Obviously, Dad and I survived this adventure. I eventually got the engine going and, with Dad’s coaching, managed to maneuver the boat back to shore. We arrived home shaken and chastised, but alive and well. I couldn’t have told you where my faith was at that instant anymore than the disciples were able to answer Jesus’ question to the same effect. But in retrospect, I understand the mortal danger we were in and appreciate more fully our deliverance in which, I believe, God had a hand. I hasten to add that there was nothing here I would call miraculous, if by that one means an unexplained, unnatural and unexpected occurrence that could only be attributed to divine intervention. My father’s skill at the oars, his coaching and my following directions were clearly instrumental in getting us safely to land. While the water was rough that day, I’ve seen worse. Had the wind increased a bit more, this story might have ended tragically for us. So there was an element of “dumb luck” as well. Nevertheless, I am convinced that there was also a “God factor” in, with and under all of that to which I owe my life.

Of course, we all know that not every encounter with the sea ends as well as it did for the disciples, me and my Dad. The ocean floor is littered with boats that did not make it back to shore. One can pray for God’s deliverance from the storm and give thanks for it, but one can never presume upon it. When deliverance does occur, it needs to be seen in a larger context. No matter how dramatic and remarkable an act of deliverance may be, it amounts to nothing if the benefactor fails to recognize it for what it is. Deliverence is nothing more or less than the gift of more life, more opportunities to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. It is this for which Noah and his family were rescued from the great flood; Israel brought through the sea to freedom from slavery in Egypt and the church called through the waters of baptism into Jesus Christ, sanctified and commissioned. Divine deliverance from the dangers of the sea is really no different than waking up in the morning. But such dramatic experiences can serve to remind us that each new day is in reality just such a miraculous deliverance. This morning you have been given the gift of another day, the day which the Lord has made for you to rejoice and be glad in it. So, then, what will you do with this day that you did not earn, do not deserve and have no right to expect another like it on the morrow?   

It is also important to recognize that deliverance from storms and other catastrophes are only temporary reprieves. One day there will come a storm you will not survive. The One who gives us our lives ultimately claims them back again. That reality should hold no terror for those who know that One as “Abba Father,” the God who numbers our hairs and has the burning desire and the determination to give far more than is taken. So in every storm, whether it be one of the many I pass through during the course of my life or the last, “In every high and stormy gale/
My anchor holds within the veil.”

Here is a poem about the terrifying power of the sea by Cleopatra Mathis, a power that puts us in our proper place of awe and thankfulness.

The Sea Chews Things Up

When I woke, the waves had gone black,
turning over the macerated
curd of the ocean bottom, heaving its sludge
onto the beach. Some storm far out, I thought,
had ravaged the sea, stirred up its bed,
sent the whole mess flying to shore.
At my feet I found a grave of starfish,
broken and gnarled among the fleshy
snipes and heads. Every shade of death
covered the sand. It looked hopeless
in the pale day but for the birds,
a congress of gulls, terns, and the rarest plovers,
calm for once, satiated, a measure of
the one law: this sea will claim it all—
feed them, catch them, grind their complicated bones.

Cleopatra Mathis (b.1947) was born in Ruston, Louisiana. Her father left when she was just six years old and she was raised by her Greek mother’s family. Her grandmother ran the family café. Mathis received her bachelor’s degree from Southwest Texas State University in 1970 and spent seven years teaching public high school. It was during this period that Mathis became interested in poetry. She went back to school to earn her M.F.A. from Columbia University and graduated in 1978. Since 1982 Mathis has been the Frederick Sessions Beebe Professor in the English department at Dartmouth College where she is also director of the Creative Writing Program. In addition, she is a faculty member at The Frost Place Poetry Seminar. You can read more about Cleopatra Mathis and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Of Pitch Pines and Mustard Seeds

THIRD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Ezekiel 17:22-24

Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15

2 Corinthians 5:6-17

Mark 4:26-34

Prayer of the Day: O God, you are the tree of life, offering shelter to all the world. Graft us into yourself and nurture our growth, that we may bear your truth and love to those in need, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

 “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” Mark 4:26-29

“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” Mark 4:30-32.  

The most common tree on the Outer Cape region of Cape Cod is pitch pine. It isn’t the most beautiful or majestic evergreen, but I must confess that it has grown on me just as it has on the rest of the Cape. This scrappy, scraggly tree is perfectly adapted to our acidic, well-drained and sandy soil. The National Seashore that occupies most of the Outer Cape is dominated by forests of pitch pines, floored with a cushiony layer of needles and covered with scrub oak, beach plumb and hardy species of undergrowth that I can’t begin to name. It wasn’t always that way. The Cape was once dominated by dense cedars that blocked out the sunlight, leaving little opportunity for the smaller deciduous trees and shrubs to gain a foothold. You can still find a few patches of woods like these that have managed somehow to resist the pitch pine invasion. The forest around the Cedar Swamp Trail in the National Seashore at Marconi Beach is one such example.

The pitch pine was imported by European settlers. It’s pitch was used to make tar and turpentine as well as charcoal. The wood from these trees was used for firing steam engines and for brickyards. Once introduced on the Cape, pitch pines gradually began to dominate the landscape. Eventually, what was once a mixture of cedar forest and scrub land transitioned into pine forest. Ecologically, the Outer Cape is a place entirely different from the one on which the Pilgrims landed in 1620.

All of this brings me to Jesus’ two parables. The first is unremarkable. It reflects a reality of which every farmer and gardener is aware. You can prep the soil, plant the seeds at just the right depth and properly spaced. You can weed and water. But the growth is a matter beyond your control. Drought, blight, insect pests, flooding or hail can frustrate your best laid plans for a bountiful harvest. So it is with the reign of God. Disciples can seed the kingdom of God, but only God can bring it to fruition in God’s own way and in God’s own time.

By contrast, the parable of the mustard seed speaks not about the ordered practice of agriculture, but about the chaotic infestation of weeds. Though the mustard plant has always had its culinary uses, nobody in First Century Palestine would have planted it deliberately on any precious plot of arable soil. Like the pitch pine, the mustard bush is bent on dominating the field. It will transform your vegetable garden into a bird sanctuary.

Can we speak of the Kingdom of God as an invasive species? Is it like a non-native plant that sets down its roots, grows, spreads and finally transforms its environment? The analogy is a little discomforting, given that the pitch pine’s introduction to Cape Cod is tied up with the history of colonialism. I have no doubt Jesus’ comparison of God’s approaching reign with an infestation of weeds raised more than a few eyebrows as well. But maybe that is the point. The progressive Protestantism, in which I was raised, has always viewed the Kingdom of God as the endpoint of human development. From the darkness of barbarism, the light of Christ raises church and society up to a greater level of enlightenment. The realm of government, family and work are the arena for transformation of human existence along the arc of justice toward which the universe bends. The garden is, after all, a work in process. But what if God is not interested in the progress of the garden we envision? What if God has something entirely different in mind? What if the order, structure and patterns of regularity we reflexively defend are not the foundation for a fruitful harvest, but the servants of systemic oppression? What if revolution, not evolution is God’s intent?

In addressing these questions, a few things need to said. First, the reign of God is not to be identified with the church. It is the church’s mission to proclaim the reign of God, to bear witness in word and deed to that reign and, to the extent humanly possible, to embody that reign in its communal life. But the church is part and parcel of the current global environment and as much in need of transformation as the rest of it. If we forget that, we run the risk of equating ecclesiastical growth, programmatic success and societal influence with the transformative work of the Holy Spirit. It isn’t about us and what we are doing. It is about what God in Christ is doing. As theologian and preacher Karl Barth put it, the church is the crater left by Jesus’ death and resurrection. If we are not pointing to Jesus and the reign of God he proclaims, we are just an empty hole in the ground.

Second, just as we dare not equate the church and its programs with God’s reign, so too we cannot confuse our own views of what constitutes progress in the direction of God’s reign with what God actually wills. We have seen for the last few decades the corrupting effect of alliances between religion and political agendas. We know all too well the tragic consequences of the church and its representatives seizing the levers of power to make history come out right and so hasten the coming of God’s reign. Jesus rejected the use of imperial force to bring about God’s reign and so should his disciples. This is so because, as Jesus points out, we know neither day nor the hour of the kingdom’s revealing. Nor can we begin to guess the means God is using to bring it about. I don’t suggest for one moment that the church or disciples of Jesus individually are to be politically neutral (as though such a thing were even possible!). In politics, as in everything else, disciples of Jesus are called upon to love their neighbors, especially those deemed “least” in the human family. I think I have some understanding of what that should look like and the actions I need to take in order to bring it about. But I don’t have the advantage of seeing the universe from God’s long range perspective with which my own well meaning efforts might not be in concert and might even be opposed. Thus, I can never blithely assume that “I am on the Lord’s side.” I can only pray that the Lord is on mine and that through my faithful work, God is working a change in my cultural environment.

So what kind of environmental changes would I hope to see the nearness of God’s reign bring about? I would like to see an environment where racial slurs-even the dog whistle kind-no longer find a place in public discourse. I would like to see an environment where all lives really do matter so that people of color no longer have to work so hard convincing the rest of us that theirs do. I would like to see an environment where political candidates who make their case with reasoned arguments and without resorting to falsehoods, insults and wise cracks are rewarded with electoral victories. This is hardly utopian and far short of the glory of God’s kingdom to which the scriptures testify. But it would be a better environment than we now have. It would be a better environment in which to live, work and raise our families. And if enough of us feel the impact of God’s approaching reign, if enough of us can be convinced that the way things are is not the way they have to be, if enough of us start believing that there is a better way to be human, who knows? We might wake up one day to find the ecological landscape changed.

Here is a poem by Bin Remke illustrating how linguistic, cultural and family influences shape us and transform us along with our communities. Can you see the Holy Spirit at work in these media striving to plant the seeds of a better environment in which to be human?  

The Melting Pot

“Who are you to tell us how to live or why,
et cetera?”   No Man, of course, and not so tall   
as is the current fashion, nor smart enough
in the acceptable modern way, to enthrall

the crowd with stories of my life among
the savages where I was home and growing
baffled day by day, raging through the night
as if it were new music I made, groaing.

It came to me today at lunch, the sound
of women in the next booth, a voice like
Aunt Odile’s—whom I never knew well
nor did I like her, but not her spite

but her voice like home-grown fame, a touch
gravelly, a considerable groan itself, it seemed.
They spoke outmoded French around me, never
to me, except to taunt, I thought.   She leaned

above me, on those visits, speaking to Mother
in their private French, laughing.   A boy
surrounded by the sound of foreign tongues
knowing what wasn’t meant for him:   toy

temptations, suggestive coils of syllables.
I learned Latin, for Mass, and did love
its terrific laddered randomness:   
The Blessed hovering Virgin above

every station of a boy’s new path, hormonal
disharmonies, her praises sung into hundreds
the first Tuesday of every month: and yet
Latin could not expose such shreds

of glittering flesh as I found in French,
not like the living tongue whose tip twined
into an Uncle’s mustache as he leered
at the wrong Aunt and winked and a fine

distance crystallized loud there, then
gone. Crashing like German. Father’s family
spoke clear English among the bayous, boys
and girls of immigrants accentless happily

German through two wars, not counting
Civil.   I had the tongue for arithmetic
and spoke it beautifully.   I loved to count:   
precision’s a tempting career, clicking

into a future like an abacus ignoring
all those accents around.
I never learned the luck of any
but English, bland and bound.

But only yesterday I heard a word
the mechanic said in Czech
to his cousin—shop rag—clearly centered
in a welter of incomprehension, the wreck

of my car at their wretched mercies:   shop
rag.   And he wiped his hands and cried   
for me, shrugging like a cousin would.
I wrote a check. I drove home, or tried.

So does it count?   Am I a man of passion or
child of comprehension?   “Father of little lusts
driving myself home who thinks:   Buy some
sentiment, a little like love and she must

speak French this time. She longs
for you, you know; it isn’t just the money.
America loves you for yourself alone”
and so I go for professional help, honey-

blond hair and a disposition like
a happy banker, whose French for dear
sounds like dog; the cost of living
is going up, loving her here.

Source: Massacre of Innocents, (c. 1995 by Bin Ramke; pub. by University of Iowa Press). Bin Remke (b. 1947) was born in Port Neches, Texas. He began writing poetry while an undergraduate at Louisiana State University from which he graduated. He earned his master’s degree from University of New Orleans and his Ph.D from Ohio University. Remke taught at Columbus College in Georgia for several years and he edited the University’s Press’s Contemporary Poetry Series. He currently teaches at the University of Denver. You can read more about Bin Remke and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Casting out Demons without Demonizing

SECOND SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Genesis 3:8-15

Psalm 130

2 Corinthians 4:13—5:1

Mark 3:20-35

Prayer of the Day: All-powerful God, in Jesus Christ you turned death into life and defeat into victory. Increase our faith and trust in him, that we may triumph over all evil in the strength of the same Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.’” Mark 3:22.

Demonizing one’s opponent is as old as the Bible. The scribes in this Sunday’s gospel use demonization to “shut Jesus down.” “Sure,” they say. “He casts out demons and works miraculous cures. That’s easy when you are in league with the devil.” Once they have put Jesus in the devil’s camp, they can safely dismiss everything he does and says. Why would you waste time arguing with the devil? Why would you believe anything that comes from the mouth of one possessed by the devil? No need to engage with Jesus, think about his parables, wonder at the healing power at work in him or consider his remarkable claim that God’s reign has drawn near. He is of the devil. You don’t negotiate with the devil; you don’t talk to the devil and you certainly don’t listen to the devil. The devil is the enemy of all good. The only appropriate response is to silence him.

Demonization is still very often the method of choice in our politically polarized culture. One’s political opponents are not merely people whose policies are misguided, whose priorities are distorted or whose leadership skills are wanting. They are intrinsically sinister. They are “squads” of non-white women manipulating a senile president elected by fraudulent means. Their goal is to undermine America, replace “American values” (whatever those are) with the values of “multiculturalism” (whatever they are). Our opponents are bound and determined to take our guns, bibles and lightbulbs; to implement Sharia law, build cancer causing windmills, slow down our toilets and take God out of the pledge of allegiance.[1] Just as you don’t negotiate with the devil, you don’t negotiate with people whose goal is your destruction. Compromise in this circumstance only drives you closer to capitulation. So you fight your opponent, giving no quarter. You block them at every turn. Such is the politics of demonization in which everyone finally loses because nothing of importance gets done.

Of course, religion makes good use of demonization as well. And we are a good deal less subtle about it. Ecclesiastical history is stained with the blood of victims demonized as heretics and infidels. The Inquisition, the Thirty Years War and the church’s complicity in the Holocaust are just a few illustrations making the point. Jesus had to fight his own disciples’ impulse to demonize more than once in his ministry. When his disciples wanted to call down fire from heaven to “nuke” a Samaritan village that refused to welcome Jesus, Jesus had to rebuke them. Luke 9:51-56. When the Apostle John wanted to silence a man casting out demons in Jesus’ name because “he was not following us,” Jesus had to remind him that “anyone who is not against us is for us.” Mark 9:38-40. The “other” is not necessarily the “enemy.” Moreover, even when one chooses to be an enemy of a disciple of Jesus, the disciple is instructed not to be an enemy in return. Luke 6:27-32. No one, however horrendous their words and conduct may be, is beyond the redemptive reach of God’s love.   

Jesus has some harsh words for his demonizing opponents: “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin. Mark 3:28-29. There has been no shortage of debate over exactly what constitutes “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.” For my part, I believe it is the sin of demonization. Demonization puts an end to any possibility of argument, discussion, reconciliation and peace. It cuts off all lines of communication. When persuasion, compromise and coexistence are off the table, there remains but one solution: silencing, ethnic cleansing and genocide. Once you classify someone as “of the devil,” no insult, act of cruelty or violent attack is off limits. Demonization effectively closes the door to the Spirit’s call for repentance, reconciliation and peace.

Let me be clear about one thing. While disciples must never demonize another human being, they must always uncover, bring to light and condemn demonic ideologies-and that might very well alienate those who hold them. The call to reject demonizing one’s opponent does not suggest one should tolerate the opponent’s demonic beliefs. Nor should it be used as a cover for false moral equivalencies and “what-aboutism.” To state but one example, U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a progressive congressperson whose views you might not endorse, is not simply the flip side to Marjorie Taylor Greene’s harassment of teenage gun violence survivors, blatant antisemitism and outright lies. Racism, bullying and dishonesty are not simply alternative political positions deserving of respect in what some leaders of my church like to call “our community of moral deliberation.” You don’t give oxygen to racist ideologies and crackpot conspiracy theories by “deliberating” over them. There is quite frankly nothing over which to deliberate. Nothing to discuss. The only faithful response when confronted by a demon is to cast it out.[2]

That said, it is critical to distinguish between the demon and the possessed. People enslaved to demonic ideologies, hostile as they often can be, are not the enemy. Saint Paul reminds us that “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. The devil, of course, would prefer that we believe our enemy is of flesh and blood. Nothing pleases the devil more than to see us at each other’s throats, rending each other’s flesh and shedding each other’s blood. But Jesus knows better and so should his disciples. Those possessed by the hateful ideologies of white supremacy, nationalism and sexism are to be pitied, not hated. We are called upon to liberate them from bondage, not to destroy them.

It helps to recall, as a good friend once reminded me, that “nobody is ever only one thing.” People in bondage to hateful ideologies are frequently angry, frightened souls. Those whose marriages are failing, whose careers are heading south or who have experienced other painful reversals in life are primary hosts for demonic ideologies. Such ideologies put a face on their fears, provide a target for their pent up anger and give meaning to their unexplained suffering. As such, they function as a sort of sick type of religion. In my own encounter with such persons, I have sometimes found it helpful to get them talking about themselves, their struggles and experiences rather than getting drawn into a dead end argument with their weird belief systems. When you do that, you discover that beneath the strident bigotry they project, there is a world of hurt and insecurity-as well as an openness to being heard and understood. But to get there, you sometimes have to go around to the back door or find a side enterance.

The minute we lose sight of our enemies’ humanity, the image of God in them that no evil can completely erase, we have demonized them. In so doing, we hand the devil a victory by allowing ourselves to be transformed into the mirror image of what we claim to despise.

Here is a poem by Wendell Berry I have cited before and do so again here. Berry illustrates how forgiveness saves us from becoming the “monsters” we see in our enemy, destroys the enemy’s power over us and sets us at liberty to recognize the enemy’s humanity.

Enemies

If you are not to become a monster,
you must care what they think.
If you care what they think,

how will you not hate them,
and so become a monster
of the opposite kind? From where then

is love to come—love for your enemy
that is the way of liberty?
From forgiveness. Forgiven, they go

free of you, and you of them;
they are to you as sunlight
on a green branch. You must not

think of them again, except
as monsters like yourself,
pitiable because unforgiving.

Source: Indivisible: Poems for Social Justice (c. Wendell Berry, 1994; pub. by Norwood House Press, 2013). Wendell Berry (b. 1934) is a poet, novelist, farmer and environmental activist. He is an elected member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, a recipient of The National Humanities Medal and the Jefferson Lecturer for 2012. He is also a 2013 Fellow of The American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Berry was named the recipient of the 2013 Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award. On January 28, 2015, he became the first living writer to be inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame. You can read more about Wendell Berry and sample more of his works at the Poetry Foundation website.


[1] Incidentally, I think God would be just fine with the last proposal.

[2] For more on this, see my “An Address to Supporters of Donald Trump in the Spirit of ‘Golden Rule 2020’”

A Dangerous World and the Good God who Made It.

HOLY TRINITY SUNDAY

Isaiah 6:1-8

Psalm 29

Romans 8:12-17

John 3:1-17

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

There will probably be more heresy preached this coming Sunday than in all the church year as preachers throughout the world teeter between proclaiming a god that is a committee of three and a god that is one, but has three suits in the closet. This comes about, in my opinion, as a result of well meaning but misguided efforts to “dumb down” the doctrine of the Trinity. Rather than repeat my rant of a few years ago addressing that issue, I will simply reference it here. I prefer to focus on our Psalm for this Sunday-the topic of which is God’s voice.

This Psalm is disturbing. The “voice” of God is portrayed largely as a destructive force, breaking cedars, stampeding terrified animals and belching forth storms of lightning and thunder. This is not the kindly deity who manages the universe in such a way as to make everything come out right for every individual. God did not make the world a safe playground with padded play equipment, no sharp corners and plenty of foam flooring on which to land. You can get hurt out here.

The hazard of living in God’s good but wild and unpredictable world was brought home to me last week when Sesle, my wife of thirty-eight years took a fall while engaging in competitive sport at a local gym. This accident left her with near total paralysis. She is currently in rehab working to regain movement and strength. The doctors tell us her prognosis is good, but that there are no guarantees. What strikes me is the complete randomness of it all. How remarkable-and terrifying-it is that one’s life and the lives of all who love them can be so thoroughly disrupted and transformed in a matter of seconds. God’s voice shatters the cedars, but the psalm says nothing about the people upon whom the splinters might have fallen. Perhaps that is to remind us that our little lives are far more frail, vulnerable and subject to erasure than we imagine. That is a hard word to hear.

So, was God responsible for Sesle’s injury? I don’t believe God caused, willed or allowed this to happen; not as punishment for sin or to impart some lesson or to accomplish some greater good. There is nothing good about human suffering. Nothing. It just plain sucks. God is not the author of pain. Nevertheless, there is one sense in which you could say that God is responsible. As I said before, God did not create a safe world. God created a world that is beautiful, mysterious and filled with possibilities. This is a world where you can find love, accomplish great things and acquire wisdom. It is a place where you can work hard and play even harder. But it is also a world that can break your heart, hand you some stinging disappointments and crush your dreams. It is a world that offers unlimited joys and unimaginable sorrows. Is it possible to have one without the other? Is the risk of freak accidents causing crushing injuries and events like the Holocaust worth creating a universe with such randomness in it? I have wondered about that a lot over the last week.

In any event, God has determined that the risk of making such a world was worth taking and that this world, in which so much has gone so terribly wrong, is worth saving. So determined is God to see through the work begun in the opening chapter of Genesis that God sends God’s only beloved Son to be born into, grow up in and die upon this beautiful, wonderful and dangerous world-knowing full well the probable outcome. Moreover, God will not accept rejection. Rather than retaliating against the world that murdered the Son, rather than giving up on a world bound and determined to reject God’s love, God raises the rejected Son from death and offers him back to the world again. God continues to offer him and always will, because in God’s view, we are worth it.

So while I acknowledge that God is in this sense responsible for Sesle’s injuries, God is not indifferent to them. I believe that the God who knows when each sparrow falls, is grieved over the suffering of this, his child. I also believe that, just as God is in the storms that shatter cedars, God is present in the cellular reactions that heal wounded nerves and muscles, in the caring hands of doctors, nurses and therapists, in the prayers of the faith community and in the healing outpouring of the Holy Spirit promised in baptism. So I am riding this emotional roller coaster clinging to that promise, the promise that God sent, continues to send and always will send the Beloved Son.

Here is a hymn/poem from the Lutheran Hymnal, the book of hymns and liturgy for the church in which I was raised. It is sung to the tune of Jean Sibelius’ Finlandia. Sadly, it did not make the cut for subsequent Lutheran hymnals. I still find it of enormous comfort at times like the one I am going through now.

Be Still My Soul

Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change, He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heav’nly Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
To guide the future, as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
His voice Who ruled them while He dwelt below.

Be still, my soul: when dearest friends depart,
And all is darkened in the vale of tears,
Then shalt thou better know His love, His heart,
Who comes to soothe thy sorrow and thy fears.
Be still, my soul: thy Jesus can repay
From His own fullness all He takes away.

Be still, my soul: the hour is hast’ning on
When we shall be forever with the Lord.
When disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.

Source: The Lutheran Hymnal, (c. 1941 by Concordia Publishing House) #651. This poem is in the public domain. Katharina Amalia Dorothea von Schlegel was born in Germany in 1697. Little is known about this remarkale woman. Her name suggests that she came from an aristocratic family. She was associated with a Lutheran religious house in the town of Köthen, though her name does not appear in the house records. There are in existence several letters written by her between 1750-52 to Heinrich Ernst, Count Stolberg. There is some suggestion in the correspondence that, rather than being in a religious house, von Schlegel was a member of the court of the duke of Anhalt-Köthen where Johann Sebastian Bach was musical director from 1717 until 1723. She also corresponded with August Hermann Francke, a prominent Lutheran clergyman, philanthropist and Biblical scholar. The date and place of her death are unknown. Von Schlegel wrote a number of hymns in the spirit of early Pietism. Among English speakers, her best known hymn is the above printed “Stille mein Wille, dein Jesus hilft siegen” written in 1752. This 1855 translation is by Jane Borthwick.

The Holy Spirit and the Right Whales

THE DAY OF PENTECOST

Ezekiel 37:1-14

Psalm 104:24-34, 35b

Romans 8:22-27

John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Prayer of the Day: Mighty God, you breathe life into our bones, and your Spirit brings truth to the world. Send us this Spirit, transform us by your truth, and give us language to proclaim your gospel, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“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.

It is hard to forget the greatness and wideness of the sea when you live on what amounts to a sand bar jetting right out into its depths. With Cape Cod Bay just a short walk from my house to the west and the open ocean less than three miles due east, I can’t easily escape the reach of the sea. Nor would I want to. I have grown to love the wet salty breeze that blows through our forests of scraggly pitch pines, the cry of seagulls and hypnotic pounding of breakers against the sand in their endless tidal dance of back and forth. It is strangely exhilarating, this existence at Leviathan’s doorstep. During the month of April, those of us fortunate enough to be on the Cape are treated to a rare opportunity for witnessing Leviathan’s sporting about. Each year at that time the magnificent right whales aggregate in Cape Cod Bay after spending the winter months off South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. If you spend a few hours on Herring Cove beach in Provincetown, you are likely to spot them from shore.

Seeing these marvelous creatures is a bittersweet experience for me. As mighty and powerful as it is and as regally as it carries itself through the waves, the right whale is, in fact, a fragile creature classified as endangered. Climate change, habitat destruction, hunting and lethal encounters with commercial fishing gear have all reduced the global right whale population to a mere estimated 360. It breaks my heart to think that mine might be the last generation to see a right whale in the waters of Cape Cod. “The whole creation has been groaning in labor pains,” Saint Paul tells us. That groan can be heard in the diminishing right whale numbers and the many other animal and plant species teetering on the brink of extinction. Selfishness, violence and cruelty do not wreak havoc only on the human family. They threaten the entire fabric of life on our planet.

While we tend to think of the Holy Spirit strictly in terms of Pentecost and the outpouring of that Spirit upon God’s people, it is worth remembering that the Spirit was around long before that. In the opening chapter of Genesis, we find the Spirit of God brooding over the waters, enlivening them with the potential for being, soon to be given shape, color and identity be the word, “Let there be.” For this reason, one faithful way to name the Trinity is by calling upon God the Speaker, God the Voice and God the Word. The psalmist tells us that all life, human and every other species, owes its being and sustenance to God’s Spirit (“breath” in the original Hebrew) poured out upon the cosmos. Psalm 104:30. Thus, human beings share a kinship with the rest of the animal and plant world far more profound than even the common building blocks of life we hold in common. All life is sustained by the same Spirit we invoke in baptism, confess in our worship and rely upon to sustain our faith until the last day.

There are profound implications for this broader understanding of the Holy Spirit’s work. The Spirit, Paul tells us, raises our prayers to God with “sighs too deep for words.” Romans 8:26. So, too, I believe this same Spirit brings before God the anguished cries of suffocating coral reefs, diminished pods of whales and the last song of each bird species lost forever to extinction. Earlier on in his Letter to the Romans, Paul tells us that “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” Romans 8:19. When the human family finally learns to live as God’s faithful creatures and beloved children, when we finally understand that this good earth, that can surely provide for our need, will just as surely perish under the weight of our insatiable greed, when we finally take our place as God’s caretakers for this marvelous planet and learn to live gently on the land, then the creation’s bondage to decay will have ended. For the right whales, that day cannot come too soon.

Here is a poem by Charles Harper Webb giving voice to the groans of creation under the oppressive rule of human greed and exploitation. Webb memorializes some of the unique creatures whose calls will never be heard again, nor their forms seen in the flesh. Lord, in your mercy, hear your creation’s prayer.

The Animals are Leaving

One by one, like guests at a late party   
They shake our hands and step into the dark:   
Arabian ostrich; Long-eared kit fox; Mysterious starling.

One by one, like sheep counted to close our eyes,   
They leap the fence and disappear into the woods:   
Atlas bear; Passenger pigeon; North Island laughing owl;   
Great auk; Dodo; Eastern wapiti; Badlands bighorn sheep.

One by one, like grade school friends,   
They move away and fade out of memory:   
Portuguese ibex; Blue buck; Auroch; Oregon bison;   
Spanish imperial eagle; Japanese wolf; Hawksbill   
Sea turtle; Cape lion; Heath hen; Raiatea thrush.

One by one, like children at a fire drill, they march outside,   
And keep marching, though teachers cry, “Come back!”   
Waved albatross; White-bearded spider monkey;   
Pygmy chimpanzee; Australian night parrot;   
Turquoise parakeet; Indian cheetah; Korean tiger;   
Eastern harbor seal ; Ceylon elephant ; Great Indian rhinoceros.

One by one, like actors in a play that ran for years   
And wowed the world, they link their hands and bow   
Before the curtain falls.

Source:  Amplified Dog, (c. by Charles Harper Webb 2006, pub. by Red Hen Press). Charles Harper Webb is an American poet, professor, psychotherapist and former singer and guitarist. He was born in Philadelphia in 1938, but grew up in Houston. He earned his bachelors degree in English from Rice University, a masters degree in English from the University of Washington and an M.F.A. in Professional Writing. Web also earned a PhD in Counseling Psychology from the University of Southern California. He currently lives and teaches in Long Beach, California at California State University. He has been awarded a Distinguished Faculty Scholarly and Creative Achievement Award as well as the Distinguished Faculty Teaching Award. His most recent poetry collection is Shadow Ball (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009). His honors include a Whiting Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, The Kate Tufts Discovery Award, a Pushcart Prize and inclusion in The Best American Poetry 2006. His poems have appeared in literary journals and magazines including American Poetry Review, Paris Review, and Ploughshares. You can read more about Charles Harper Webb and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.  

Ascended Lord, Sent Church and a Yard Sign

SEVENTH SUNDAY OF EASTER

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

Psalm 1

1 John 5:9-13

John 17:6-19

Prayer of the Day: Gracious and glorious God, you have chosen us as your own, and by the powerful name of Christ you protect us from evil. By your Spirit transform us and your beloved world, that we may find our joy in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.” John 17:18-19.

When I was in full time parish ministry, I always celebrated Ascension Day on the nearest Sunday to the day on which it fell. Liturgical purists among my colleagues objected, informing me that Ascension is not a “movable” feast and ought to be celebrated on the precise day it falls, Sunday or no. I always replied that, in a perfect world where no one works, goes to school or has qualms about driving at night, I might follow the appropriate practice. But the world does not operate with the precision of the liturgical calendar. Because I feel that Jesus’ ascension to the right hand of the Father is critical to the gospel narrative, I don’t believe I can either skip it or relegate it to a weekday service almost no one will attend. So, I told my liturgical purist friends that I would celebrate Ascension on the nearest Sunday and they, for their part, could sue me. If you are of the same mind, I invite you to revisit my post for the Sunday of June 1, 2014.  

Even if you are not inclined to abandon the lectionary order, I still believe that it is possible to speak of the Ascension and urge any preacher to do so. At first blush, that might seem an impossible task. So far from focusing on Jesus’ ascension to the right hand of the Father, Sunday’s gospel has Jesus praying for the disciples he is about to send out into the world. Thus, whereas the Ascension story leaves us gazing into the heavens, our gospel turns the focus on the church’s being sent into the world. But appearances are deceiving. Recall that in the account from the Book of Acts, the angels chide the disciples for staring up into the clouds after the ascended Lord. Acts 1:11.That is because the right hand of God is not somewhere “away beyond the blue,” but wherever God is active-which is everywhere there is. The little band of disciples sent out into the world is the right hand of God at work.

I believe it is just here that Luke’s unique gospel perspective is important. Theologically, logically and chronologically different as it is from the narrative of John the Evangelist, Luke lifts up for us another important dimension that complements and fills out John’s witness.  It is not quite enough to say only that Jesus’ presence continues with his disciples through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Luke would have us know that Jesus’ ascension to the right hand of the Father extends his presence to every corner of the universe. Whatever God does, God does in and through Jesus whether that is evident or not. The Word of God that became incarnate in Jesus remains incarnate. The Word that is Jesus is the same word by which Saint Paul tells us “all things hold together.” Colossians 1:17. God is not all in all-not yet. But we can say with assurance that there is in each historical occurrence, each human relationship, each reaction among subatomic particles a “God factor” struggling toward that end.

It is for this reason that science, the search for understanding of our planet, its place in the universe, the complex ecosystems that make up our world and the millions of creatures whose lives they support is so very important. It is for this reason Black lives, that have mattered too little historically in our nation, matter so very much at this moment in time. It is for this reason that families cannot be ripped apart, the last door to sanctuary closed or life saving food, water and shelter denied to anyone on the basis of which side of an arbitrary line drawn on a map they happen to be. It is for this reason that love, being the very glue that binds the Trinity, is not merely a human emotion among others, but the creative and redemptive power that drives the universe. It is for this reason that the full humanity of women, whose bodies bore the incarnate Lord, cannot be enslaved under patriarchal hierarchies. It is for this reason that kindness really is everything. Because the one who poured out his life in love is the hand through which God is at work in the world, the affirmations on the above yard sign are not merely matters of human opinion. They are, whether the sign maker recognized it or not, matters of divine truth.

Here is a poem by William Blake that I have shared previously. I do so again because it illustrates, I believe, the incarnate, ascended and transcendent Word that is God’s right hand.

The Divine Image

To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
All pray in their distress;
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.

For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is God, our father dear,
And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is Man, his child and care.

For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.

Then every man, of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine,
Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.

And all must love the human form,
In heathen, Turk, or Jew;
Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.

Source: This poem is in the public domain. William Blake (1757-1827) was an English poet, painter and printmaker. Though unrecognized during his lifetime, Blake eventually came to be considered an important figure in poetry of the Romantic Age. He was born in Soho, London and attended school only long enough to learn reading and writing. Blake considered himself a committed Christian, though he did not identify with the Church of England in which he was baptized and had little use for organized religion. The Bible was an early and profound influence on Blake. It remained a source of inspiration throughout his life. Blake met and married Catherine Boucher in 1782. She was five years his junior and lacked formal education. Blake taught his young wife to read and write, however, and she assisted him in his artistic endeavors throughout the rest of his career. You can learn more about William Blake and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Bevis and Butthead Do America First

Kierkegaard’s Ghost

(News that’s fake, but credible)

Bevis and Butthead, MTV’s animated pair from the 1990s, are embarking on what they hope will be their comeback tour titled, Bevis and Butthead do America First. The tour, sponsored by U.S. Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Goetz and the  Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), is intended to generate enthusiasm and support for the policies and agenda of the former (some say current) president, Donald J. Trump. “It’s like, you know, the deep state, Big Tech, the ‘fake news media,’ socialists, Antifa, and RINOs are taking us down,” said Mr. Bevis in an interview with our Ghost reporter. “Right,” added Mr. Butthead. Our country’s election’s been stolen. You know, like dead people voting, man. That zombie stuff, it’s not just movies and TV.” The America First tour will hold rallies throughout the United States promoting-well-America first. “Like, no brainer,” said Bevis. “America has the most atom bombs and the most guns.” Butthead agreed, pointing out that America leads the industrial world in gun violence. “But the good guys with the guns always win,” he said. “Just watch any cop show.” “And yet,” added Butthead, “we have Jews with satellites and laser guns starting forest fires, a dead guy in the jungle rigging the vote and the Chinese spraying viruses at us. But nobody is doing anything about it. Go figure.”

Republicans across the board have endorsed the America First tour. “Who better than Bevis and Butthead to make the case for the American people that Donald Trump should be the undisputed leader of the Republican Party,” said Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. “These two guys are the embodiment of Republican values.” Senator Ted Cruz of Texas agreed. “Bevis and Butthead represent the best of all the Republican Party can be,” he said. “I think they have a tremendous future in the party.” When asked whether they were entertaining a potential run for office, both members of the America First duo declined to comment. But several attendees at their kickoff event were enthusiastic about the idea. “These guys would be great for the America,” remarked one participant sporting a MAGA hat. “What we need in the Republican Party today is fewer Liz Cheneys. It takes a Butthead to push our true agenda.”

Bevis and Butthead, however, have an objective behind their planned chain of appearances that is more personal than political. “We wanna score,” said Bevis. “Like, that’s why all our rallies are at middle schools. That’s were the cute ones are.” Our Ghost reporter pointed out that both actors are now well into their forties and that sexual advances toward middle school girls on their part would be a felony. “We’re animated characters,” Butthead responded. “Just like Trump, we never grow up. We’re as self absorbed, cruel, immature and ignorant as the day Mike Judge created us. So in a way, we’re still middle schoolers too.” “And we’re celebs,” Bevis added. “So, you know, its Ok if we kiss ’em, grab ’em by the [expletive deleted], whatever. So, like, it’s all cool.”

Stay tuned for further coverage of America First with Bevis and Butthead.

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

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

Love is a Violin

SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER

Acts 10:44-48

Psalm 98

1 John 5:1-6

John 15:9-17

Prayer of the Day: O God, you have prepared for those who love you joys beyond understanding. Pour into our hearts such love for you that, loving you above all things, we may obtain your promises, which exceed all we can desire; through Jesus Christ, your Son and our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” John 15:12.

How does that work? How can you command someone to love? To be sure, you can command me to eat my spinach. But you can’t make me like it. Nothing illustrates the point better than my tortured relationship with the violin, an ill starred union that began in my fifth grade year. My teacher determined that my less than stellar handwriting was the result of a lack in manual dexterity. She suggested I take up an instrument that would require use of my hands and fingers. My parents encouraged me to choose the violin. I am not sure whether that was because we already had a violin that belonged to my brother and they were not keen on buying or renting another musical instrument, or whether they thought the finger action required to play it would best address my dexterity problems. Whatever the case may have been, I had no strong feelings either way. Thus, I readily acceded to my parents’ wishes, and so it was my career as a violinist began.

I entered into my studies with enthusiasm and determination. That lasted about a week. It soon became clear to me that learning to play the violin was going to be a long and tedious process. I had to learn to read music. There were scales to be memorized and tedious exercises to be repeated over and over again. I wanted out, but my parents were not the sort to look kindly upon quitting. So I persevered for the next two years, attending elementary orchestra practice where I occupied the last chair in the string section. When I reached middle school, I had a decision to make. The school required two years of music education. I could sing in the choir and ditch the violin. Or I could join the orchestra and continue playing that cursed instrument. I chose the orchestra. I was too self conscious to sing and so the choir was not an option. Although sitting in the last chair of the violin section was humiliating, it was at least a humiliation to which I had become accustomed. So I played violin in the orchestra (sort of) for the next two years, showing up to class and doing as little in the way of practice as I could get away with.

When I departed middle school for high school, I left the violin behind forever. I haven’t touched the violin again and never dreamed I would regret the parting. It was not until my mid fifties when I found myself married and living in a suburban neighborhood with three children of my own that I began to revisit my experience with the violin. It was Kira who brought back some of the old memories. Kira was a little girl that lived in the adjoining yard in back of ours. She sometimes played with my own children and she took up the violin at about the same point I did. Unlike me, Kira’s dedication stuck. She graduated quickly from irritating scales and simple tunes to more advanced compositions. By the time she reached middle school, she was making delightful music. Separated as our houses were by thick forsythia bushes, I seldom if ever saw Kira, but I used to sit out on our patio and listen to her practice on warm spring evenings when the windows were open and her sweet music drifted across the yard with the breeze. As I listened, I became aware of a sadness, a sense of regret. For the first time in my life, I understood what I had thrown away in my youth.

I doubt that all the practice in the world would have enabled me to play like Kira. But I might have become sufficiently proficient to play in community orchestras, church groups and at family gatherings. There is something magical about good music, something that draws us together and brings out the best in us. I see that now and I wish I had the skill to make myself a part of that magic. More importantly, I covet the sheer joy of making music for no particular reason and for no audience but myself. At the age of thirteen, I could not see beyond the tedium of practice imposed by the violin and how it stood between me and numerous other entertainments so enticing to kids my age. Now I understand the joys that awaited me and that I might have known-if only I had traveled further down the road.  

I think that learning to love is a lot like learning to play the violin. It doesn’t come naturally, not even for talented people like Kira. Learning to listen instead of talking all the time takes discipline. Learning to recognize the telltale signs of joy, pain and longing in the tone of a friend’s voice, facial expressions and choice of words requires years of careful attention. Understanding the needs of a faith community requires the hard work of building friendships with its members, participating in its worship, ministry and mission. Learning to love the world instead of hating and fearing it requires regular and disciplined prayer for all its creatures, the environments that sustain them and the human family in all of its divisions and brokenness. Learning to love one’s enemies calls for acquiring the skill of placing oneself in the enemy’s skin and seeing the world through the enemy’s eyes. The love Jesus commands of us is not a feeling, but a habit of the heart shaping the way we encounter all the people in our lives from family to strangers. It is a skill perfected by practice, practice, practice.

As I said, I paid a price for my lack of effort and diligence with the violin. How much greater, though, the price for never learning to love! That price is well articulated by the great Russian author, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. In his monumental work, The Brothers Karamazov, there is a scene where the sainted Father Zossima, elder of the local monastery, addresses the monks under his leadership for the last time from his death bed:

“Fathers and teachers, I ponder, ‘What is hell?’ I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love. Once in infinite existence, immeasurable in time and space, a spiritual creature was given on his coming to earth, the power of saying, ‘I am and I love.’ Once, only once, there was given him a moment of active living love and for that was earthly life given him, and with it times and seasons. And that happy creature rejected the priceless gift, prized it and loved it not, scorned it and remained callous. Such a one, having left the earth, sees Abraham’s bosom and talks with Abraham as we are told in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, and beholds heaven and can go up to the Lord. But that is just his torment, to rise up to the Lord without ever having loved, to be brought close to those who have loved when he has despised their love. For he sees clearly and says to himself, ‘Now I have understanding and though I now thirst to love, there will be nothing great, no sacrifice in my love, for my earthly life is over, and Abraham will not come even with a drop of living water (that is the gift of earthly, active life) to cool the fiery thirst of spiritual love which burns in me now, though I despised it on earth; there is no more life for me and will be no more time! Even though I would gladly give my life for others, it can never be, for that life is passed which can be sacrificed for love, and now there is a gulf fixed between that life and this existence.’” Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, The Brothers Karamazov (Trans. by Constance Garnett, c. 1950 by Random House, Inc., New York, NY) p. 387.

The greatest tragedy is not death. The greatest tragedy is that people die without ever having lived. The worst thing that can happen is that you will hear the music of love only when it is too late to learn it, play it and dance to it. “Abide in my love,” says Jesus. John 15:9. Love is what life is for and life without it is wasted.

Here is a poem about learning to love-at the beginner’s level.

I Lay Down My Life

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” John 15:13.

I have never laid down my life.

Not all of it anyway.

Just bits and pieces.

The hospital visit I made

The day I planned to go fishing,

The neighbor’s kid’s

school band concert I attended

On a beautiful Sunday afternoon

When I would rather

Have been doing

Just about anything else,

All the times I said,

“Well, that’s an interesting point”

When I felt like saying

“You’re full of crap,”

All the rude check out people

Bank tellers, receptionists,

At whom I smiled

And wished a good day,

All the Sundays I went to church,

Albeit mostly for the wrong reasons,

And in spite of the fact

I was sorely tempted

To stay home with my coffee,

Bagel and the New York Times,

All the times I’ve contributed

Money to good causes,

Though nothing truly sacrificial

And more to salve my

Privileged conscience

Than in zeal for justice,

All the birthday, anniversary,

Sympathy cards I’ve sent

To show that I cared,

Though probably less

Than the words expressed-

If you add all that up,

It doesn’t come close to a life.

Still, these fragments

I lay down,

Short of the whole

And of mixed quality,

Daring to hope that someday

They’ll look something

Like love.

Source: Anonymous

Open Letter to Senator Mich McConnell on Civics and History

The Hon. Mitch McConnell

United States Senate

317 Russell Senate Office Building

Washington DC 20510

Dear Senator McConnell:

I read with amusement your letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona expressing your newly discovered “grave concern with American History and Civics Education.” Better late than never I suppose. But we could have used some of that concern back in December and January when Donald Trump was undermining our civil democratic electoral process with what you damn well knew was a blatant lie about the election being stolen from him. Instead of standing up to defend the very civic exercise that gave you your job, you refused to acknowledge the will of the American people expressed in what even Donald Trump’s most loyal toady, former Attorney General Bill Barr, admitted was a free, fair and legitimate election. Not until you found yourself cowering somewhere in the bowels of the Capital Building wetting your trousers as Trump’s mob screamed for your blood did it finally occur to you that perhaps respecting constitutional requirements might not be such a bad idea after all.

While your hypocrisy alone disqualifies you from self-righteously pontificating about the importance of civic education, your purported outrage over “activist indoctrination” and your call for “a rigorous understanding of … American history” is even more laughable. The above photograph, wherein you stand proudly under the banner of treason and white supremacy, the very banner that the Trump mob carried into the halls of our Capital building, belies your purported patriotism. It also demonstrates why you are in no position to tell anyone what constitutes “a balanced assessment of our imperfect but exceptional nation.” Indeed, you are part of the reason we desperately need to “reorient” our teaching of American history and civics. When an elected official cannot tell the difference between treason and patriotism, the flag of the American republic and the flag of those who tried to destroy it, that reflects poorly on the historical understanding and civic intelligence of the people who put him into office.

One can reasonably argue with the analysis put forth by some of the contributors to the New York Times’ “1619 Project.” What you cannot argue away are the facts it discloses, none of which were taught in mine or my children’s primary education classes. To wit,

  • The United States Constitution, so far from guaranteeing the Declaration’s bold assertion that “all men are created equal,” counted black Americans as “three fifths of a person,” and that only for purposes determining representation of the states in Congress.
  • Ten of the first twelve presidents of the United States were slaveholders.
  • The routine separation of enslaved black families, wives from husbands and children from parents, for sale and re-sale.
  • The routine and quite legal use of beating, starvation and torture to discipline and control Black slaves.
  • The occurrence of the Tulsa race massacre of June 1921 in which mobs of white residents, many of them deputized and given weapons by city officials, attacked Black residents and businesses of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma on the ground and from private aircraft and destroyed more than 35 square blocks of the district—at that time the wealthiest Black community in the United States- leaving 36 dead and hundreds hospitalized with injuries.
  • Lynching was not an isolated occurrence, but happened routinely and claimed the lives of at least 3,446 African Americans between 1882 and 1968.    
  • In 1932 the U.S. Public Health Service knowingly withheld life saving antibiotics to Black victims of syphilis in order to study the advanced effects of the disease.
  • Until 1967, interracial marriage between Black and white persons was illegal in nearly half of the states of the U.S. and punishable by imprisonment.
  • The historic (and still existent) practice of “redlining” and systemic discrimination in housing against persons of color which, incidentally, your former president practiced with regularity and was prosecuted during his years as a real estate baron.

Once again, you might quarrel with some aspects of the Times’ analysis, but the facts are what they are and your railing about “revisionism” and “propaganda” cannot erase them. Nor can the American story be told in a “balanced” way without them. I find the following paragraph from your letter particularly telling:

“Families did not ask for this divisive nonsense. Voters did not vote for it. Americans never decided our children should be taught that our country is inherently evil. If your Administration had proposed actual legislation instead of trying to do this quietly through the Federal Register, that legislation would not pass Congress.”

Since when, Sir, is historical truth determined by legislative action, majority vote or the will of the masses? Do you really think it is the job of teachers, professors and scholars to tell people what they want to hear and already think they know? Is history nothing more than talk therapy for building up national self esteem? I think you know better than that-just as you knew better than to placate the propagators of the “stolen election” lie. But you have demonstrated to all of us throughout your career, Mr. McConnell, that truth, candor and integrity mean nothing to you. You will fly any flag, sing any anthem, placate any foreign dictator or domestic extremist and tell any lie you think will serve your political ambitions. Thus, your plea for “balanced” and “rigorous” education in civics and history strikes me as more than a tad hollow.

For all of the above reasons, your letter deserves to be dismissed out of hand and tossed into the dustbin of history (the real one) along with the rants of George Wallace, Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms. It has no more merit than its author does integrity.

Very Truly Yours,

Rev. Peter A. Olsen (Retired)