Thursday, December 17, 2009

Christmas Eve

Whose Story Would You Rather Believe?
Luke 2:1–14 [15–20]

With the intimate associations of Christmas to home and family, comfort and security, Christmas Eve is not always seen as an evangelical opportunity. And this may not be the best time to pressure people into making a personal commitment for Christ.

Yet Christmas is a crucial time when we can choose whose story to listen to, whose story to believe.

One story blares on Caesar’s Network News. This story shows the Emperor literally ruling over the world. Images of Caesar and Roman gods fill every city, proclaiming “Caesar is Lord.” This story reinforces the message that you had best submit, in order to enjoy the blessings of Roman-imposed peace. Significance and value are defined by how you fit into the Imperial story. In this story, Joseph and Mary were a flyspeck among countless conquered peoples, their role simply to pay tribute and glorify Rome.

Yet there is this little bitty baby...

If it were up to Caesar, you would never hear his story. Nothing in it is exalted. The poor travelers have no family, connections, or money to give them a place. They carry only a swollen belly of questionable paternity. The newborn’s cradle is gilded with leftover hay and livestock spittle. The witnesses to this glory are the least reputable characters around, shepherds who, filled with angel visions, abandon their flocks.If it were up to Caesar, you would not dare to:
think of responsibilities to any Lord other than Caesar;
glorify any Lord other than Caesar;
even hint at challenging Caesar’s authority.

If it were up to Caesar, the tables of the powerful would never be overturned. When Caesar hears a story like this, he knows only to crush it, to crucify it.

Yet in the starlight of those Palestinian hills and in the candlelight of a midnight Mass, we can glimpse a new reality:

+ where peace comes not from armies, but from justice;
+ where sin withers in the face of truth;
+ where mercy rules the arena of human society; and
+ where love conquers fear.

The angel said “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” Not just the few at the top, not just the ones who deserve it. And the angels rejoiced, not at the mightiest humanity had to offer, but at the meekest.

And bless those shepherds. They believed that angelic story, at least enough to go and see. And their fear turned to awe, and they shared this amazing good news. God sought them out, not as bit players in God’s imperial nativity, but that God’s story might become their story.May Christ’s redeeming love be your story, this night and forevermore.

This text can also be found, with additional material, at the American Bible Society's Bible Resource Center, with this article in PDF.

Unbalanced Load Error

My long-distance friend Erik Doughty writes weekly prayers based on the lectionary. This week's seemed especially timely. (Prayer based on texts for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, year C.)

"Unbalanced Load Error" blinks at us from the washing machine, which does not work well now, despite the Frequently Asked Questions online, and the Knowledge Database. Someone will need to arrive with the ability to repair it, soon.

That washer is not the only one
with an unbalanced load error.
We carry with us the weight of Too Much--
Too Much Responsibility,
Too Much Stuff
Too Much to Afford
Too Much to Understand
Too Much to Do
Too Much to Bear.

Arrive soon, Christ Jesus,
with mercy and strength.
Re-balance us, that we
who have Too Much
may share with those
who have need;
and what pain and struggle
no one needs
take from us and destroy.

You who give grace to the unremarkable and unexpected, grace us too. Wash us clean, right our balance, send us out to get our hands dirty in your world as we continually expect and count on your aid.

© 2009 Erik Doughty. Permission to reproduce this work is granted only when the author is credited.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Peace be upon Fort Hood

Coming out of the bank today, I heard the guy in front of me exchange a greeting of peace with someone: "Salaam Aleichem - Peace (or well-being) be upon you." So as I approached him I wished him the same, and he answered back.

As we walked to our cars I called out to him, "One of the things I love about Islam is that you cannot get though the day without speaking peace."

Only a little while later I heard from a friend, soon to deploy to Egypt with the National Guard, about the shootings at Fort Hood, and the report that a shooter had an Arab name. One is always on unstable ground if one rushes to simple explanations of tragedy. But it is not hard to imagine that violence can infect and affect those exposed to it, sometimes fatally, and that words of peace must be butressed with works of peace.

God, all-powerful, all-compassionate, all-knowing, all-merciful: dwell with all those touched by violence, and minister to any who are tempted to hatred. Grant rest to those slain, healing to those who have been wounded, and courage to those who carry on with your work. Bless all those who mourn, and who seek to make peace out of destruction, that your holy name be both a scourge to evil and the hope of the world. May your peace be ever upon our lips, in our hearts, and manifest in our deeds. Peace be upon your people this day and forevermore. Amen.

Calligraphy (at top) by Todd Ricker, "using the two Arabic words for peace (Al Salaam) and God (Allah). The characters were then formed into a rosebud, while trying to maintain as much of the integrity of the Arabic as possible."

Friday, October 30, 2009

All Saints

On Sunday, the church observes All Saints Day (also known as All Souls or All Hallows) Day. At All Saints, the church remembers all those who have gone before us in faith, and especially those who have died in the preceding year.

The word Hallowe'en is a contraction of All Hallows Evening, the night before All Saints Day. It was an Irish and Scots custom to place a candle in their western (sun-setting) window on the eve of All Hallows' to honor the departed. There has also been a folk belief that the souls of those who have died continue to roam the earth until All Saints Day, and from this comes the association of Halloween with ghost, witches, ghouls, gobblins, monsters.

Then on All Saints Day, we remember the new life that Christ has promised. At St. Matthews in Jersey City we will remember our loved ones who have died, writing their names in a memorial book. We will light yahrzeit candles and bring them one by one to the high altar, so that the memory of the blessed dead is a living presence among us. As we gather to share God's body and blood in bread and wine, we share in communion with all the saints. In the flickering flames of the memorial candles, we might see them gathered with us around God's holy table.

For all the saints, Lord, we offer prayer.

For those who have cleared and tilled the ground where we now harvest, and have preceded us in death, especially those we remember before you now:
Marian, Irene, Dennis, and [those dear to you]. May we hold their memory close and their example dear, and may we continue to commune with them at your holy table, where heaven meets earth and our need.
Lord have mercy.

For those saints living among us, the faithful witnesses who support us and who bear our burdens, and even more for those saints unknown to us and unrecognized by us, that we may be made one in the body of Christ, who is reconciling all humanity.
Christ have mercy.

For those saints yet to come, that when our mortal journey comes to an end, we may die in peace, knowing that Christ's saving witness is alive in the world, and future generations will know the love of Christ made visible in the people of God, faithful, struggling, redeemed.
Lord have mercy.

May all your people be one, and may we, sharing in Christ's holiness, be welcome at the great feast, now and eternally, through Jesus Christ, the holy One. Amen.


Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Prayer

God of wind and of rain, God of sunlight and shadow, ruler of seasons and turnings, nurture and sustain in us trust in thy goodness and confidence in thy loving faithfulness, that, as we are turned and tossed by changes beyond our control, we may always turn to thee and seek thy grace, trusting in the one who lives in us and gave himself for us, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Art by Liz Wright, "Determination, or Weathering the Storm."

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Children and prayer

Prayer Corner - October, 2009

Our gospel readings lately have had Jesus involved with children. The gospels do not describe him teaching children to pray, as he did with his older disciples. But prayer is a natural desire of young people, just as it is with those of greater years. They, and we, long for One who will hear our inmost voice. And just as with other forms of speech, children benefit from examples, teaching, and practice.

There are at least three basic things adults can do to help children develop a prayer life. The first is to pray yourself, so that people – including children – can see that prayer is part of your life. Even better is praying together with the children in your life, holding hands as you pray, or they pray, or you say the same prayers together.

This leads naturally to the second basic way to help children with prayer. Teach them. Teach and repeat prayers they can use, and teach habits and times for prayer. The world’s prayer warriors most often began with simple prayers like “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest, let these thy gifts to us be blest” at dinner time and “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep” at bedtime.

Fortunate indeed is the one who in times of trouble can turn to “The Lord is my shepherd,” or “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name” without having to think, because the prayer was planted deep in their soul when they were young.

And finally, there is one more crucial thing you can do to help children with prayer. Listen. When you understand something of what a child hopes, fears, loves and wants, then your prayers with them and for them will be deeply meaningful. Prayer will be a way for them to begin to know that their prayers do not go off into outer space, but are heard and held by a loving God. May that God lead you and all the little children in the ministry of prayer.

Lord Jesus be our holy guest,
our morning joy, our evening rest.
And with our daily bread impart
thy love and peace to every heart. Amen.

Friday, September 11, 2009

September 11th - Eight years later

We notice anniversaries, sometimes in our flesh and bones, even when the calendar date is not consciously marked or observed. It still strikes me as a little jarring when September 11th (2009) is referenced simply as a date on the calendar, when ordinary meetings are scheduled, bars hold happy hours, and movies are premiered. I’m ok with that - it's natural and even good. I’m just noting it as my reaction.

Eight years of living means that much has happened since that morning when the sky was bright and clear, and an ordinary day became so deeply marked, profoundly affecting to so many.

Those four planes striking the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania, and those two collapsing towers, sent out ripples which are still being felt.

We have had eight years of wars, with costs far exceeding the heavy toll of 9/11/01. The cruelty perpetrated eight years ago has unfortunately been multiplied in military and civilian casualties, in expressions of ethnic prejudice, in torture.

Nearly three thousand families, plus unnumbered co-workers and friends, have had eight years without loved ones. New towers will be built. Those human losses are permanent.

The attacks continue to kill a small but real number of those who survived that day. Family members, survivors, and responders have taken their lives. The dust and debris has proved toxic to some of those exposed, and that number will only increase.

We have had eight years of recovery. As happens after every injury, the natural response of living organisms is to regroup, repair, recover, and renew. The losses hurt. The suffering has not ended, and for some the problems are just as acute today as they were in 2001. But time and time again, people have mourned and moved forward. People have reached out and helped one another. They have received the gift and done the work of forgiveness. They have shared their stories. People have offered hope and found inspiration. People have fought for understanding, for resources, for accountability, and have fought demons. Not every fight has been successful. But they have been holy, and the power of healing has won out so many times.

As a nation, we are still confused about how to achieve our need for security. While the towers have fallen, so much is still up in the air. It is literally eight years later, and it seems right to ask what have we done, what have we learned, where are we going.

Recently I’ve been remembering and reflecting upon my 9/11-related experience. My 9/11 memories are so much based in the people I have met and related to around those events. But lately I’ve found myself remembering those buildings and the way much of my New York City life passed through them. Never my favorite parts of the NYC landscape, they have become hallowed in memory, and more so by the people that lived and died in them. And I am so grateful for every life that was saved from disaster that day.

I remain hopeful about what people can accomplish when working together on a common goal. I remain profoundly skeptical about whether we have the willingness to focus our attention on the problems that the attacks of 9/11 revealed. In national policy this means things like the security theater we go through in airports, bowing down before the gods of safety, removing and replacing our shoes and buying 3oz containers of shampoo as if those were meaningful steps towards airline safety. Little has been done to change the reality that terror can always find a target. And is seems that some of the important 9/11 responses serve to make more who are willing to seek destruction in the name of righteoousness.

A national day of service is a step in the right direction. But declaring each other heroes for helping paint an underfunded school is less than we are called to. The God who redeems life from the Pit asks more of us. I know we are capable of it. Eight years ago, hundreds of thousands of ordinary heroes showed up to do their part in response to an obvious atrocity. Can we do the same for the on-going atrocities of war, poverty, and oppression? We needn't raise a grand tower - we only need follow the more humble way of the ones who gave of themselves to help others.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Who do you say that I am?

The gospel reading for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B - Mark 8:27-38.

Of course, Jesus' question is not about his identity - who he really is - but how people see him and relate to him. Our answer, of necessity, says more about our self than it can say about Jesus.

It seems significant to me that this question comes at a particular place in Mark's gospel. It is the setup for the Transfiguration story, where Jesus' God-given identity will be revealed, shrouded, and misunderstood. But it also comes at a particular place. For the first time in Mark, Jesus is in Roman territory. It is when he approaches the Roman city of Caesarea Philippi that he asks the question. Identity politics were not invented in our generation.

Jesus' identity - or how he is seen - has a particular meaning in relation to the empire. The rest of the gospel turns on this point. Is he the Son of God (divi filius, the same appellation used of Emperor Augustus)? Or is he a rebellious slave who must be crushed and obliterated, lest he infect others with his heresy?

We cannot help but get the answer wrong, as did Jesus' disciples before him. The only one with both a clue and the courage to speak up is Peter - and then a moment later he is telling Jesus not to pull this suffering servant crap. Perhaps he is concerned not simply for the success of their mission and his place in it, but for the safety of his friend and teacher. He knows this kind of talk can get you killed.

The appointed Old Testament lesson for today says something more intelligible about Jesus than we are likely to, even with a lot of practice.

The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens - wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty? All of them will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up. Isaiah 50:4-9

Who do you say that I am? You are the one who sustains the weary with a word/Word. You are the one who, like a flint, has been sharpened by the blows that struck you. And you are the one who listens to, who is supported by, and who is willing to stand with the Lord God - even in the face of an empire which respects neither God nor humans, only power.

The gospel reading is unfortunately truncated. I'd really suggest going on and reading one more verse into chapter 9, right through that awkward chapter division. "And Jesus said to them, 'Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power'" Mark 9:1.

Jesus knows that we have trouble recognizing God's kingdom and the kind of power it expresses. We have been seeing kings and kingdoms in an entirely different light. Not the divine light of righteousness, of heaven breaking through, but we have been deceived in seeing power in the glow of gold and the glint of steel, the luster of purple robes and the deep red of spilled blood. Jesus is pointing the way to our transformation, that in his ministry we will see God's kingdom revealed.

Who do you say that I am?

I love this picture... Jesus has a power that Caesar cannot even dream of. If you want a glimpse of that power, click on this link to visit the site which produced this portrait of Jesus. If you zoom in, you will find it is composed of 2019 photos of ordinary people doing ordinary things.

We're in position to answer Jesus' question when we know what God is doing for us. Caesar depends on keeping people off-balance, so they can be pushed, coerced, seduced, threatened, and rewarded into dancing the empire's tune. Caesar cannot stand except on the backs of the conquered, those who have bowed down, who have become obedient to Caesar. Caesar cares not if they submit willingly or by force, only that they submit. By contrast, God's kingdom depends only on God standing with us, in the hard places and the very ordinary ones. Who do you say that I am? "It is the Lord God who helps me..."

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Oh say, can you see?

I receievd an email today, forwarded who knows how many times. It contained a picture of the Statue of Libery photoshopped to overlook a freeway, with photoshopped highway signs. One pointed the way to "Welfare Dept," "Social Security," and "Free Medical." The other announced "Entering Meximerica." [I have reduced the photo's resolution so it cannot be used for its intended purpose.]

The original author of the email then provided commentary: "No apology for sending this! After hearing they want to sing the National Anthem in Spanish - enough is enough. Nowhere did they sing it in Italian, Polish, Irish (Celtic), German or any other language because of immigration." It goes on to decry Spanish versions of the Star Spangled Banner. And it is followed by other comments claiming the author has nothing against immigration, but that immigration today is not like it was in the good old days, presumably when their ancestors came.

But the original author gets their facts wrong. Ignorance and untruth have always been allies of bigotry.

For an example, please see the 1861 version of "Das star-spangled banner," H. De Marsan Publisher, No. 54 Chatham Street, New York (from the Library of Congress website.)

Every immigrant group has struggled with issues of "keeping faith" with their heritage and assimilation into an American identity. In fact, the Germans provide an example of a group which maintained strong German-American communities, ethnic civic organization, ties to the homeland, and German in place of or alongside English over many years. It was the pressure of WWI-era persecution and the desire to demonstrate American patriotism that is the most critical event in ending German-ness in favor of a more assimilated English-speaking American identity.

While Spanish-speaking imigrants are the primary focus of anti-immigrant racism today, Spanish has been an American language since well before the founding of the United States of America. Recall the Spanish settlements in Florida and the US Southwest, and its influence over the southern portion of the Louisiana Territory. Spanish is a US language also through conquest, when Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the US following the Spanish American War, and it has been a language of our colonial territories in Panama and the Philippines.

For a look at some of the Spanish translation issues with the Star-Spangled Banner, and a video of the "controversial" version mentioned in the original opinion piece, see Translation of the US National Anthem.

In my opinion, it is a patriotic statement of love for America, which at its best has always welcomed those seeking freedom, justice, and the opportunity to live in peace. The America I learned about in school, and the one which I love, is about the constitutional practice of freedom and justice, and a shared vision of responsibility to those values. "We hold these truths to be self-evident..."

Though the language was English, it was never about the language, but about those universal values which are just as true in Spanish, Hindi, Russian, and Arabic. I often wish that those of us who are US citizens by accident of birth would know that as well as those who have chosen to come here, just as our ancestors did, to seek the golden door of freedom.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A new day in Iraq

There are many pictures which reflect the past six years of war in Iraq. Far too many show destruction, blood, and death. Today, even as U.S. military forces leave Iraqi cities, the conflicts and interests which have made Iraq a place of violence have not been transformed. Yet we look forward in hope that a step away from occupation is a step towards better governance for the people of Iraq, and a step towards healing some of the wounds of war.

God of justice and God of hope, lead the nations of Iraq and the United States of America to peace. Heal the wounds of warfare and of division, that your people may prosper. Thwart the aims of the wicked, and restrain the hands of those who seek to do violence. Help us to know the immense cost of war, and let us seek always to build rather than bomb. Strengthen us in the ways of peace and the bonds of reconciliation, that we might overcome the next temptation to attack, trusting in the goodness of your desire for us and your hope for the world. Amen.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Prayer and revolution

There are all kinds of things which make a celebrity. In the face of the on-going press of urgent competition for the world's attention, I would like to briefly recall someone from whom the media gaze will soon pass.

Neda Agha Soltan has become a symbol of the violent suppression of dissent in Iran. Neda's name means "the voice" or "the call" in Farsi. She studied philosophy, took underground singing lessons, and was engaged to be married. On June 20, 2009 ahe was shot and killed, apparently by government security forces, during a Tehran protest against the Iranian election results.

The graphic video of her death (Neda Agha Soltan, killed 20.06.2009) has helped make her death a focal image for seeing the conflict in Iran (perhaps similar to images from the U.S. killings at Kent State in 1970). Her bloody image has been used in protests, and pictures of her have been used in memorial gatherings. And the killing of a peaceful demonstator, when seen in this way, can be revelatory.

The regime understands this. Iran bans prayers for "Angel of Freedom," runs the headline. Iranian authorities have sent out a circular to mosques banning collective prayers for the woman. One of Neda's relatives said the givernment ordered her family to bury her immediately and barred them from holding a memorial service.

Prayer is dangerous, because prayer calls evil and suffering and hope to God's attention, and prayer is a mobilizing tool for God's people.

When demonstrating on the street is too dangerous, the rooftops cry out in the night.

The woman in this video is saying that they can take our phones, our internet, all our communication away, but we are showing that by saying "allaho akbar" we can find each other. She ends it [by] saying that tonight they are crying out to God for help.

Satan fears prayer, as do the powers of this world. In a fallen world, prayer is a revolutionary act. It was so when Abel's blood cried out from the ground (Genesis 4:10). It was so when the Hebrew slaves (Exodus 2:23-25). It was when Jesus cried out in anguish from the cross (Mark 15:34), and when he asked God to forgive his murderers (Luke 23:34). And it is so today.

Photo of Neda Agha Soltan's grave, said to have
been taken by her boyfriend. Caspian Makan AP

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Gambling with leadership

Albert Einstein is famously quoted as saying he could not believe that God plays dice with the universe. Not so, apparently, with apostolic succession!

“And the believers cast lots, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.” Acts 1:26

I like this story. It is, of course, possible to read this in a determinative way that sees God as in charge of every last detail of the universe, therefore the dice had to land the way God wanted them to, ensuring that the "right" disciple replaced Judas to complete Jesus' twelve-man leadership team. For me, this approach runs counter to my faith, and begs way too many questions. (If the Twelve were so important to Jesus and in Acts 1, whatever happened to that institution? And a myriad of issues related to predestination and theodicy. Did God "set up" Judas as the betrayer and did God demand the murder of Jesus? If God is in charge of everything, is not God then the author of evil? And this theo-logic is so often used as a justification of the current order; since God is involved in every roll of the dice, this must be the best of all possible worlds.)

But I prefer to read this text as reassurance from the Holy Spirit, an appropriate corrective to the anxiety which often accompanies leadership succession in the church.

We might note that the apostles have a history of conflict over leadership and position. Examples abound. “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory” (Mark 10:37 and parallels). Peter’s earnest attempts to be Jesus’ chief apostle. John’s gospel hints, and tradition has long speculated that Judas' betrayal might have been related to his own desire for top rank. Many of Jesus' final moments with them in the passion stories have to do with the quality of community and leadership they are to practice when Jesus has gone from them. And the group has suffered several shocks - the betrayal of their teacher by his own, his murder, his resurrection appearances and loss again via ascension. Judas' death is another trauma that precipitates this scene, and the new apostle must fill his ill-fated shoes. Is it any wonder that this decision might be filled with tension?

Yet while this anxiety is a part of life as we know it, it is not a feature of the kind of community Jesus has been discipling his friends into. Nor - except as it is transformed, resolved, and healed - promote the kind of mission the Holy Spirit is working to bring about.

So we might take a step back and look at the scene without the angst of those in the midst of it. We apparently have two well-qualified candidates. They each meet the job description (Acts 1:21-22). And each has their supporters and advocates. We might reasonably see that this is a winning choice no matter which way the dice may role.

Lest we take our own leadership struggles too seriously, we might also reflect upon the fact that we never hear another peep from either Joseph Barsabbas ("Son of the Father") or Matthias. Canonically, it does not seem that the church's future mission hung in the balance. Whatever work they did, however important their ministry was to the church as a whole and the people involved, after this point it is "behind the scenes" of the New Testament. Neither individual, nor the office was the cornerstone of the church. (That job had already been filled, see Ephesians 2:20.)

In this light, the casting of lots is a graceful way to resolve a conflict over leadership.It depends upon the willingness of those involved to trust God - but also, I think, to trust the community which produces and which will support and nourish these leaders. It is great to have a capable, strong, energetic, Spirit-filled, wise, and compassionate person in the office of pastor or bishop. But their success in the office is due to so much more than their own abilities.

"Success" in ministry depends on the work of the Holy Spirit, which leads people in new ways, and brings about surprising methods and results. And it depends not so much upon the gifts - however substantial - of one talented leader, but upon the gifts of the whole community of saints. Ultimately, that "team" of disciples gathers together around not the leader, but the cross and the table.

No one person can build the church. As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be - the kingdom of God is a community organizing project. Jesus Christ did not seem to care much about his "office." After all, he took his beloved Son-ship and became a slave, homeless, misunderstood more often than not, crucified. But he did care for his sheep, the ones who know him, who leap for joy at the sound of his voice, and who follow him, because the trust him.

Matthias, Joseph Barsabbas, bishops, presbyters, deacons... whether by casting of lots, election in assemblies, vetting by committees, the touch of one already in the office... if the people of God are faithful to their Lord, the church will do just fine. The Holy Spirit is busy sending the good news of Jesus Christ throughout the world. Best we get on with it.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Word goes where it will

Notes on Acts 8:26-40 for the fifth Sunday in Easter.

Everything about this story is incredible. Did you really expect to see an Ethiopian eunuch, a man at once powerful and marginalized? Add to this the fact he is either a very marginal Jew, or a God-fearer who has found in the God of Israel something that speaks to him. And speaks strongly enough for him to acquire and study the holy writings of Israel. Have you ever tried to read a Hebrew scroll while bouncing along a wilderness road? The appearance of the water itself is a surprising thing in the desert – but perhaps not as exalted or lush as painters have imagined it. We picture an oasis, but it might just as easily be a humble waterhole.

The eunuch asks: "What is to prevent me from being baptized"?

Well, almost everything. The eunuch is missing the sign of the covenant (circumcision) for Jewish males. And, missing his testicles, he would not have been permitted in the Temple to worship. He could never be a "full member." Philip, who is not an apostle, is not clearly authorized to go out on his mission, or to baptize. (Note how in 8:1 the dispersion from Jerusalem is the result of persecution, not an apostle-planned mission strategy, and how in 8:44 the Jerusalem apostles follow Philip to Samaria to ensure that he is doing things right, especially regarding baptism.)

But the book of Acts is misleadingly titled. Its traditional name, "Acts of the Apostles," is true enough – except the apostles are not the ones driving the action. One sees the apostles busy organizing a reform movement and new, communitarian institutions based in Jerusalem. But the book instead shows the Holy Spirit continually calling into action the people who make up this new assembly, blowing the breath of God into new and distant places and bringing new, boundary-pushing people into fellowship with Jesus. The Spirit, not bound by human constraints ("we've never done it that way before"), is continually pushing the limits of who God welcomes and where this good news is to be proclaimed.

It is interesting to note that the interaction between Philip and the eunuch is driven by questions:
+ Do you understand what you are reading?
+ How can I, unless someone guides me?
+ Who is the prophet speaking of?
+ What is to prevent me from being baptized?

One easily imagines that the eunuch is seeing in Isaiah and hearing in the Jesus story something of himself (echoes of the Samaritan woman in John 4), for his powerful position comes at a price, and he is cut off from the earth, in that he will die childless.

Yet what is impossible with humans is possible with God. This is a theme with Luke (see Luke 18:27, 1:37, Acts 2:24), but one might even more regard it as a canonical theme of the scriptures. Everything about the journey of faith that began with Abraham has been about God making space for divine transformation in the narrow places of human life.

It happened with Abraham and Sarah, laughing at the prospect of children, much less a nation flowing from their journey and remembering their stories. It happened with a young at-risk girl in the Judean hills who said "Yes" to an angel, to God, and to the new life that she would carry. In the background of this Acts 8 story, this holy reorienting is happening to a zealous persecutor (Paul) who would fall off his high horse and into a heaven which shocked him, and to an energetic apostle (Peter) who would be driven further into the unclean world of the gospel. And it happened to a eunuch on the road to Gaza, a sexual minority who is today revered as the father of the Ethiopian church.

There are unlikely apostles everywhere.

Listen. Listen to the Spirit telling you to go to that unlikely place. Listen to the questions and the stories of the people around you. Pay attention to the interaction between the words of scripture and words of peoples' lives, of your life. Share the goodness of God as you have experienced it. The Holy Spirit is still blowing, especially in the edgiest places of life. With the Spirit at work, what is impossible for humans becomes not only possible, but immediate, compelling, and real. Places and situations that might seem God-forsaken become the sites of revelation and blessing.

We might wonder where in our churches and in our communities the Spirit is blowing right now? Perhaps, for a hint, with the eunuch and Philip we might read again the words of the prophet - "In his humiliation, justice was denied him" - and go to the places where human humiliation becomes the opening point for divine glory. And that is a good place to ask a few questions.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Augusto Boal

Augusto Boal, actor, activist, teacher, humanitarian, died early on Saturday, May 2nd.

Augusto Boal is best known internationally for developing Theater of the Oppressed (T.O.), what he called a "grammar" of theatrical methods, related to Paolo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed. T.O. aims to help people, using their senses and bodies, perceive, analyze, and transform situations of oppression. It invites spectators to become spect-actors, fully involved not simply in theatrical performance, but in the life-work of liberation.

Because of his work, Boal was viewed as a threat by Brazil's military rulers. Iin 1971, Boal was kidnapped, tortured, and eventually exiled to Argentina, then self-exiled to Europe. This period of exile led to the publication of his first major theater text, Theatre of the Oppressed, and to the spread of his method to Europe and North America. Since then, T.O. has literally traveled aroud the world, with active and beautiful work on every continent.

I was privileged to study with Augusto Boal in several Theater of the Oppressed Laboratory workshops over the past decade. One of the things I will remember best is the way he had - as teacher, as actor, as person of power - of being able to direct a large gathering of people. With the gentle power of his presence, and using the power given him by the audience, within moments a few hundred people would be drawing circles with their feet and crosses with their hands, bumping into one another in the act of introduction, laughing, and on their way to learning something new about themselves, what is real, and how they can transform the world.

Yet I think I know him better from his students and from his grammar of liberation - the Theater of the Oppressed. If, as Shakespeare said, "the play's the thing," Augusto Boal was always a player. A player in the interplay of workshops, in the conscientization of theater, and in the artful work of liberation. This took place not only in theaters and workshops, but on the street, in the fields, in prisons, and in legislative chambers, acting upon the structures of civic power. The play was always foremost. And the "play" was the end of oppression, the growth of liberative community. This is an amazing legacy, a great gift to his friends and to the people of the world.

I find that it is often hard to be precise about the many influences which have led me on my own path of transformation. Yet the schooling of bodies willing to move together, eyes willing to look together, and people willing to think and act together through Theater of the Oppressed came to me at a very good time. And Augusto Boal's personal example remains quite inspiring. At one and the same time he was committed to popular education, participatory liberation, and opposition to oppression - and thoroughly good-humored, optimistic, and engaged. His gentle and lively spirit remain very much alive for me.

Augusto Boal, 1931-2009.
Rest in peace. May light perpetual shine upon him.

For further information:
A Brief Biography of Augusto Boal, by Doug Paterson
Wikipedia: Augusto Boal
Short list of the best books on T.O.
Boal in his own words - audio from the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, 4/3/08

Sunday, April 12, 2009


When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”

When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. [Mark 16:1-8]

It is remarkable. Not that a body disappeared. But that Mark would announce the resurrection, and end his book, with terror-awe and silence. Revealed is not the treasure of risen life, but the emptiness of a tomb which could not stomach death.

Most scholarly opinion believes that Mark was writing during or just after the rebellion of 66-70 CE, which resulted in the devastation of Palestine and the destruction of the Jewish Temple by Rome. The signs of resurrection must have been... difficult to experience, and puzzling to discern.

Perhaps it has always been so. When you are in the grip of death, of oppression, of forces which seek your capitulation or destruction, it is difficult to think "outside the box" of those prison-tombs.

And yet - there is Jesus. Once again, God is not in the place we expect.

Christ is risen! Alleluia! To find him, now go where he has sent you.

Fra Angelico, Resurrection, 1440-41, Convento di San Marco, Florence.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Holy Saturday

The day between Good Friday and Easter does not get much attention. Seemingly, nothing happens. The gospel texts lay Jesus in the tomb before the sundown beginning the sabbath. And then, nothing until morning of the following day.

Tradition has filled in the gap, having Jesus descend to the dead, breaking open the gates of hell, and bringing his resurrection to the righteous dead of earlier generations.

It is also a day for churches to be busy with preparations for the Resurrection celebration of the vigil service or Sunday morning.

But that day after his death, Holy Saturday, deserves its own place. It is a time where one thing has ended, and the new thing that is to follow is not yet visible. "A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how" [Mark 4:26b-27]. Buried in the earth, out of sight, under the radar a holy mystery is taking place.

In the "real world," his followers are observing the sabbath and passover. They are hiding from the authorities. They are disturbed and what has happened, the way their teacher and friend is gone, the way their plans and hopes have died. Some are distraught, some are guilty, some are trying to figure out how to rebound - or put this behind. The God who did not answer Jesus' cry - "My God, why have you forsaken me" - is no more visible this day.

Yet God's presence is as hard to fathom this day as it was yesterday, and God's story is not done. Somewhere, deep in the tomb's darkness, the faithfulness of God is undimmed.

Photos: RazorCD, Extinguished candle (detail) and Dr. Alzheimer's Photo Blog, Kerze.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday

We pray to you this day mindful of the sorry confusion of our world.

Look with mercy upon this generation of your children, so steeped in misery of their own contriving, so far strayed from your ways and so blinded by passions.

We pray for the victims of tyranny, that they might resist oppression with courage and may preserve their integrity by a hope which defies the terror of the moment.

We pray for wicked and cruel men, whose arrogance reveals to us what the sin of our own hearts is like when it has conceived and brought forth its final fruit.

O God, who resists the proud and gives grace to the humble, bring down the mighty from their seats.

Excerpt from a prayer by Reinhold Neibuhr. Artwork by Edward Boccia, Stations of the Cross - Station XII Jesus Dies on the Cross (1964).

Friday, April 3, 2009

Prayer for Binghamton

Kyrie eleison – Lord have mercy;
Christe eleison – Christ have mercy;
Kyrie eleison – Lord have mercy.

Like most acts of violence there are likely many strands which came together to produce today's massacre.

It is tragically easy to find a scapegoat. But there has never been a scapegoat that deserved the weight of all the sins cast upon them.

O God, you came among us and suffered the pain of violence and the loss of your life. Have mercy upon our fallen world. Receive the dead into your care. Lay your healing hand upon the wounded and suffering. And bring forth compassion and mercy among your people, that violence be met with love, and that which is senseless may bring forth better understanding among your people. Amen.

AP Photo/Matt Rourke - People embrace outside a Catholic Charities office where counselors tend to relatives of victims of the shooting in Binghamton N.Y., Friday, April 3, 2009.


This Sunday is Palm Sunday - the last Sunday in Lent and the entrance into Holy Week. For centuries, Christians have turned again and again to the story of Jesus' Passion.

This story exposes the work of sin which condemns righteousness to death, makes sacrificial offering of others, and leaves a trail of broken bodies. And this story also reveals God's mysterious work of salvation, realized in forgiveness, self-giving love, and the breaking of bread.

Come - let us turn our hearts to the mystery of Holy Week and the victory of God. The shouts of "Hosanna!" which Christians so often hear as triumphal hope, actually means "Please save!" or "Save now!" One of the roots of Christian praise is in our experience of God as savior. And, regardless of nuance, our approach to God is always connected with our need - to be made whole, for forgiveness, for deliverance.

As we draw near to Jerusalem, as we prepare to ascend to the place of pilgrimage, let us pray.

O God, you came among us to proclaim the good news of our salvation. Yet we have been listening to other programming, and lack eyes to see and ears to hear the signs of your kingdom. Help us this week to turn to your Passion, that by drawing near to your holy Mysteries, we might let the same mind be in us that is in Christ Jesus. Grant that this day and this week we may partake of your glory by taking on the divine humility revealed to us in Jesus, to whom we are bold to cry Hosanna! Save us!

Thursday, March 19, 2009


It's amazing what the world wide web will tell you.

Amazing Grace is a three bedroom, three bathroom mountain top chalet with beautiful views... (Amazing Grace Chalet - Pigeon Forge, TN)

Amazing Grace (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) is a large weeping tree up to 35' tall and more tree-like than typical weeping katsuras...

Amazing Grace is mostly vegetarian, but they do serve some chicken and turkey dishes... (Denver Skiing Lifestyle)

Amazing Grace is our best selling fragrance and was created to make a woman feel and smell infinitely feminine. Amazing Grace allows you to wear a beautiful dress every day of the week... (philosophy amazing grace for women perfume collection)

This week we will hear the Gospel of John give a different take on grace: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him." With God, amazing grace is not about lifestyle, but about LIFE. Life given, new life received, forgiveness emerging from wreckage and sin.


["Grace Jones Hat," by Keith Haring with David Spada, encaustic on aluminum, 1984, detail]

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

I read the news today

I noticed a headline today: Obama's plan to hike taxes meets fierce opposition. NPR told me that the wealthy no longer wish to flaunt private jets, and that television producers are no longer greenlighting projects with "tricked out people living their tricked out lives" (Marketplace: Less bling on TV screens next season). Bernie Madoff says his $7 million penthouse and $62 million in investments belong to his wife and have nothing to do with his theft of billions (Madoff: NYC Penthouse, $62 Million Are Mine).

In completely unrelated news, a friend called seeking help after receiving a foreclosure letter. Another acquaintance, evicted from their apartment, is almost lucky to be sick enough to be in the hospital rather than on the street. The local liquor store reports that business is good. 12.5% of the world (900 million people) is hungry; two thirds of Americans (200 million) are overweight.

"Gluttony (from Seven Deadly Demons)," Artemio Rodriguez.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Prayer at the start of Lent

How hard it is to contemplate a fast, Lord, when we already feel starved for what we need. How difficult to walk into the desert, when we already feel barren and alone. Help us in our distress. Whatever our circumstance, give us the grace to know your abundant presence. Feed us with your abiding love. And strengthen us with courage and trust to follow you wherever you would have us go: to wilderness or urban jungle; slum or suburb; hut, skyscraper, or marbled hall; to cross, to tomb, and, we pray, into your eternal kingdom, through Jesus Christ, our fellow pilgrim and Lord. Amen.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ashes and Lent

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

So began the day, so begins the season. Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, marks the time in the church year when we walk with Jesus to Jerusalem and to the cross.

The ashes remind us of Jesus' journey to the cross and of human sin which grieves God. They remind us of our own mortality. And they also serve as a mark of God's grace. As we carry Christ's cross with us, so also we share in his resurrection.

This morning, lay ministers from St. Matthew's offered ashes to more than 160 commuters at the Grove Street PATH station, the sixth year now. It is always a bit amazing the way people will stop, sometimes turning around, when they feel that God is close, reaching out to them, touchable.

This year our congregation's approach to Lent is to keep it simple. Sunday worship. Wednesday evening gathering for prayer and contemplation with scripture. We'll join with another congregation to walk a labyrinth.

Sometimes, the most we can manage is putting one foot in front of the other, trusting that God will guide us.

I'd appreciate your reflections and reports on the day and the season. How will you observe Ash Wednesday? What will you and your congregation be doing this Lent? And where are you in this - what's it mean, and how does this fit into your pilgrimage?

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Prayer of the day

For whom this day do we need to pray?

For the people answering customer service hotlines...
For everyone in debt...
For those who work outside in the cold...
For those who are homebound...
For everyone trying to make a budget or a payroll...
For those who are imprisoned...
For child soldiers...
For those who prepare meals...
For Rod Blagojevich...
For doubters, and still more for the cynical...
For all those who work for the church...
For musicians and artists and poets...
For AA and NA and OA and GA and DA and all those seeking recovery...
For the past and present readers of this blog...
For prophets...
For parents, siblings, children...

And for ourselves, dear Lord, that you may dwell in us. That we may have what we need. That we may be known by others. That love may grow in our lives and relationships. That prayer be often on our lips, that we be blessed to give and to receive, and that you see us safely home to the peace we have in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

This Land Is Our Land

The post I want to write will take me a little longer. So let me simply offer a few snapshots.

I am very fortunate in that I live, work, and attend church in places which have ethnic and other kinds of diversity. But not everywhere I go looks like that. The people on the Mall looked like America. The buses came from everywhere. I talked with a teacher from DeKalb, Illinois, a group of Native Americans from eastern Oregon, local folks from DC. The American idea has always been that we are more than the sum of our parts.

[The photo is of Lisa Bellan-Boyer, singing "This Land is Your Land."]

During the inauguration ceremony, the area surrounding the Capital, Mall, and parade route was temporarily the 5th largest city in the U.S. The DC folks should have consulted with United for Peace and Justice on crowd management. The numbers were through the roof – the planning was not.

My favorite official picture of the day: President-Elect Obama with his hand on the Bible used to swear in Pres. Lincoln, held by Ms. Obama.

“Obama laid his hand on the burgundy-velvet-covered Bible that Abraham Lincoln used for his inauguration in 1861, and history again trembled. The chief justice that day was Marylander Roger B. Taney, who wrote the Dred Scott decision that said blacks could never be citizens. The Constitution, he said, recognized blacks as ‘beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations’” "A Historic Inauguration Draws Throngs To the Mall," Washington Post, January 21, 2009.

I was happy to hear Rev. Rick Warren pray for the protection of this President and his family, a prayer I have heard before, and one which I hope is answered throughout his term of office. And for Rev. Joseph Lowery, an American hero, to pray with words of the great hymn: “Thou who hast brought us thus far along the way... Keep us forever in the path, we pray..."

And then there was that name: “I, Barack Hussein Obama...”

Change has been a long time comin'. And I know we won't get fully where we ought to go. But we have made another installment payment towards realizing the American promise.