Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas cancelled

I imagine this bothers Jesus less than it does me.


I'm sure they just want their members and visitors to be safe. But for Christ's sake! It's like they put up a sign saying "It's not that important."
 

Monday, December 20, 2010

Praise and Creation

The First Sunday After Christmas
Psalm 148

This is one of my favorite psalms. I love its exuberant, over-the-top, unabashed joy in praising the Lord of all creation. In one sense it is very simple to exegete: it is a hymn and a prayer for all creation to join in praising the Lord.

It does so in fairly simple fashion. In parallel structures of Hebrew poetry, it pulls in all parts of the universe by listing the "alphas" and "omegas," the boundaries which define the created world. The reader will note its similarities to the creation story in Genesis 1, the same cosmology of the three-tiered universe, a rough correspondence to the order of creation, the same varieties of living creatures. Everything, everything, is praising God!

This psalm only appears in the lectionary the first Sunday after Christmas every year. It is appropriate here, given the way the church has retrospectively and exuberantly glorified its Messiah’s birth. How natural that all creation sings in praise!

Yet praise does not come easy to everyone. In fact, some of us are natural born critics! But some part of this comes to us honestly. Praise for attributes we do not have or honors we have not earned is deceit or mockery. While praise may be spontaneous, and it may be genuine, it cannot be automatic. Real praise involves an assessment that something is worthy to be praised.

There is a godly model for having this evaluative eye. After many of the creative acts of Genesis 1, we hear that "God saw that it was good." But the Hebrew "ki tov," might be more literally translated as either "How good!", or "How good?" It might be read as God expressing approval – and it might also be an assessment of the divine handiwork.*

Sometimes one may gain the impression (perhaps even from this psalm, or from the throne scene in the book of Revelation), that creation is created to give praise, and that the natural, automatic response of creation is to praise God. Maybe so...

But we misunderstand Biblical creation if we think it is a story about how the universe was made. In the whole scope of Biblical theology, creation is the act of God making the world godly, finding chaos and bringing about a good, productive, life-generating, fruitful order. God is the God of creation because God is also the God of redemption, giving the breath of life and giving the holy breath of new life, righteous, just, peaceful, and loving. Creation and eschaton are more than kissing cousins – they are the seemless garment of God bringing goodness into being.

In this way, the psalmist is pointing the way for creation to follow. It is an invitation. Praise the Lord, because the Lord is worthy of praise! Yes, ALL creation, in all its variety, sings praise because it has asked "ki tov," "How good"?, and found God’s eternal YES. "Praise the LORD from the earth... [for] God has raised up a horn for God’s people" (Ps 148:7,14). God has always been in the incarnation business, taking the humble stuff of the material world, and spinning it into holiness. Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens; praise him in the heights!


* Phyllis Trible pointed this out to me in her 1998 seminar on Genesis 1-11. I think that God’s final look at the end of day six ("God saw all that he had made, and it was very good," Gen 1:31) has definitely turned to pure "it's good!" One might consider that this final statement should then be guide the translation of the prior ones. I prefer to think that is the capstone. The prior "how goods" contain the flavor both of a question and its answer, and the final exclamation in 1:31 is the culmination of previous judgments, seen at the end of this mighty work. Even this declaration is not a final statement, but one suited to its moment. Creation is not over on day seven. It is ongoing, and Genesis 1's account lays out the framework in which God's further actions will take place.

Artwork:
"Creation According to Genesis 1", by Judy Racz, 9 oil on canvas panels.
Mandelbrot Set by Peter Alfeld.
 

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The grace of God has appeared

Christmas Eve
Titus 2:11-14

Christmas! It's a time we celebrate. The harvest festivals have edged into a "last hurrah," in the face of the long cold nights of winter. The season's images (in the north at least) include a warm hearth, lights decorating home and streets, rich foods, and gifts wrapped up brightly to be even more special.

The church, too, is decorated with pine boughs and bright red poinsettias, with elaborate manger scenes, Christmas pageants, white and gold paraments. And Christmas Eve services are often a "dress up" occasion.

The Feast of the Incarnation is justly celebrated with the best we have to offer, with gold and exotic spices.

Yet sometimes I think that we might instead put out tattered altar cloths, and light only the barest stub of a candle. When I think of the Christmas stories that affect me the most, they're not tales of glory and bright shiny things under the tree – but of the glory and radiance that shine forth when love comes to dwell in seemingly unlikely places.

They may be sentimental images. When adversity throws strangers together and they discover in it a blessing. When an unexpected kindness becomes a saving moment of grace. When the rich and powerful are humbled at receiving a gift from one who is poor or outcast. When generosity breaks down barriers and food and stories are shared. When a long-lost soul finds their way home. Perhaps you have been part of moments like this in your life.

These are stories of Presence, when the holy breaks into the ordinary.

The New Testament icon of the season is the Word made flesh, the living God come among us, as One of us. As the apostle marvels to Titus, "the grace of God has appeared" (Titus 2:11, NRSV). And this is not simply a good show, but God showing up, "bringing salvation to all." God's appearance changes the world. Grace changes the situation we're in. It schools us in new ways of seeing, believing, and being. And these appearances of holiness in our lives become "the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ" (2:13).

Jesus came into the world not at the top, but at the bottom, and while you may justly see the glory of God in the immensity of creation and the grand things of human artistry, we do better to look in the forgotten corners of the earth and of human community. For God has always been in the redemption business: bringing light from darkness, calling unlikely people to remarkable things, hearing the prayer of slaves and foreigners, leading captives homeward.

Like us. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that all our finery is fleeting. No one is that far from being told there is no room for us. We all have our manger moments. But by the grace of God, the blessing appears not only in the "best" place or to the "best" people – but in the right places and to the right people, the very ones ripe for redemption.

May the grace of God dwell in you this day, and shine forth forevermore.
 

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving 2010

Everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving... 1 Timothy 4:4 (NIV).

Everything?

That's what it says. Everything God created is good. And nothing is to be rejected - IF - it is received with thanksgiving.

This is a radical, surprising, and controversial claim.

While it may now be Christian theological orthodoxy (that creation itself is good, but fallen), most creation theologies and origin-stories are violent. Creation itself is often seen as suffused with blood, born out of the battle between gods, or between good and evil forces. Not every Christian even believes in the thorough goodness of creation, as seen in traditions which "deny the flesh" without also embracing it, or which fixate on the battle with evil.

But this scripture is clear. Everything God created is good.

And now the still more amazing claim. No part of creation is to be rejected, nothing denied or disowned - but its acceptability is determined by its reception! If it is received with thanksgiving, as a blessing - well, IT IS!

One of the hallmarks of Native American spirituality is the centrality of thanksgiving. Some have called it the highest form of prayer. It is certainly true that it permeates our awareness of the holy: thanks for the world which which walk upon, thanks for the plants and animals which feed us, thanks for the ancestors who brought us into this world, thanks to those who journey with us, thanks for each breath which gives us life.

We can hardly go wrong in this world if we are continually alert to those many things for which thankfulness is the true and appropriate response. And if we make opportunities for experiencing and lifting up and hallowing those moments of thankfulness. Those hokey grade school turkeys, with every feather a prayer of thanksgiving. Thank you to the teachers who brought those thanksgivings into the world.

People talk about cultivating an "attitude of gratitude." Almost every moment, every action is an opportunity to be thankful. In this way, you have a greater opportunity to live in holiness, in that you more often experience the goodness which so so much part of the fabric of God's creation. The major problem with Thanksgiving Day is that every day might be a day of thanksgiving. It is wonderful that so many meals are being served this day to those who need food and companionship. Thank God, and thanks to all who are moved to donate their money, their time and skill, their care and compassion. How much more thanks are needed for those who do this every day? Thank God!

We need not be thankful for everything, as we pray for the end of things which are no blessing: war, poverty, illness, pain, broken relationships. We all have our list of things from which we await deliverance.

But there is so much to be thankful for this day. What is your thanksgiving?

I am grateful for the opportunity to write these words, and for those who read them. It is amazing sensation to know that people in Nigeria, the Philippines, Ukraine and Hudson Bay, Egypt and Panama have glanced this way - Thank you! For the good friends who are sharing their home and hospitality with me. For my partner and friend. For a job which has blessed me in so many ways, in feeding me and in making more of me. For the hope of change in our government and political life. For a church which is trying to love, welcome, nuture, and serve. For the first snow of the season. For a God who is faithful and so much more than I have been able to imagine.

 

Monday, November 22, 2010

Singing in Advent - Psalm 122

First Sunday in Advent, Year A
Psalm 122

The Season of Advent, the four Sundays which precede Christmas, is traditionally a time of singing. The rest of the world is playing Christmas carols in the background with Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the sounds of jingling bells. And perhaps we might sing along joyfully, knowing what is coming.

The season of Advent has this tension built into it. It is a season of expectancy and anticipation. Of preparation and watchfulness. Advent has a penitential character. It has been seen as a parallel season to Lent, with the same traditional color of the season (penitential purple) and with the same strict fast.

Yet, God love us, we have peeked under the wrappings and know that Christmas awaits, the Savior is coming but he is the One who has already come! Alleluia!

I was glad when they said to me, "Let us go to the house of the LORD!" (Psalm 122:1, NRSV).

This psalm-song lives in the joy the pilgrim feels when anticipating their journey to the holy city, the place they know (or imagine) that God touches earth. Singing this psalm, it is impossible to think that hope is an abstract concept, or that joy is something which is more anticipated than lived. Each also has a habitual quality. They can be practiced, rehearsed. They are virtues which need cultivation.

By imagining the end of the journey – "Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem" (verse 2) – you already begin to feel the joy of arrival in this "promised land." It may be that there is more joy in the anticipation than in many actual arrivals...

The anticipatory joy quickly turns to memory to reinforce, to solidify the imagined fulfillment of the pilgrimage, in conjuring up an image of this place and its importance: "Jerusalem—built as a city that is bound firmly together. To it the tribes go up, the tribes of the LORD, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the LORD. For there the thrones for judgment were set up, the thrones of the house of David" (verses 3-5).

And it is striking how recalling the significance of Jerusalem so quickly turns to care and concern for the very stones of the holy place. Apparently even the holiest places are under threat.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: 'May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.' For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, 'Peace be within you.' For the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I will seek your good. (verses 6-9)

Jerusalem, Jerusalem... we pray, like the pilgrim, for the peace of Jerusalem. It is the tangible symbol of the shalom we urgently need in our world and in our lives. Three faiths profess it as a place where heaven and earth meet. You may look to the golden dome that now stands there, to the old rock of Zion that crowned the Temple mountain, to the mysterious lacuna of an empty tomb – or even to that vision of a new Jerusalem, a source of healing for all the nations.But the hope is not less fervent if your vision sees Amritsar or Bodh Gaya or the Black Hills.

We hope for a transformed world, for deliverance, for shalom, for a good end. Hope is not optional for the pilgrim. Nor is the joy - so often proleptic, anticipated, long-awaited - reserved only for the realization of our hopes, those moments when heaven touches the spot of earth where we are standing. We cannot save all our joy for Christmas, or for the end of whatever journey we are on. "Advent" is the coming of the holy, the real-izing of that hope which God has for our world. And it is our work to be ready, to rehearse, to practice, to live that longed-for reality.

I was glad when they said to me, "Let us go to the house of the LORD!"


A sign for the journey:
The previous image is of Rabbi Menachem Froman, who says that "The key to peace is peace in Jerusalem, to re-establish Jerusalem as the capital of peace in the world." See From an Israeli Settlement, a Rabbi’s Unorthodox Plan for Peace, Isabel Kershner, NYTimes 12/5/08. Photo by Rina Castelnuovo.

Pointers to other texts in the day’s lectionary:

Isaiah 2:1-5
A vision of all the nations streaming to the holy mountain of Jerusalem, and the Lord teaching an end to war.

Romans 13:8-14
Pure anticipation: "salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near..." (11b-12a)

Matthew 24:36-44
The gospel text inhabits a rather different world from the psalm, with the prophetic warning that the end of the age will come suddenly and unexpectedly, and urging watchfulness. Perhaps there are two good points of connection. 1) One way of maintaining watchfulness is by "going to the house of the Lord" and being attentive to your encounter with signs of the holy. 2) The peace of Jerusalem is not a feature of this age. Rather, the end of this age will see the end of the violence, warfare, and injustice which now afflicts us.
 

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Veterans Day 2010

This is an odd holiday, commemorating a number of different things. Do we pick and choose? Do we try and hold them together?

In the United States, November 11th is observed as Veterans Day. The service of all veterans of U.S. military service, living and dead, is lifted up as a civic honor. It was established in 1954 after a grassroots campaign to make it a day for “All Veterans.”

Previously the day had been observed as Armistice Day, commemorating the cessation of battle on the Western Front during the First World War. That day, the guns fell silent, and the people at home rejoiced at the end of unimaginable destruction (16 million dead, 21 million wounded, both military and civilian).

That beginning of the peace, set for the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, fell upon St. Martin’s Day.

Martin of Tours was a Roman soldier when, through a dream where Jesus recognized him, he became convinced in his Christian faith. He continued to serve in the military, until he came to believe that his faith prevented him from fighting. Martin was jailed for cowardice, but offered to go into battle at the front of the army, but without arms. Eventually released from military service he lived as a hermit, founded a monastery, and was acclaimed bishop of the city of Tours. The patron saint of soldiers, he is also seen as a witness for peace in the way he put down his arms but not his courage.

Honoring veterans... celebrating the end of a destructive war... remembering one person’s holy struggle with faith and mission...

There are these tensions built into the day. One is the place where military veterans stand. Veterans know war to be both horrible and compelling. Veterans tend to support the military enterprise, yet none are more glad and relieved at the end of a war. Veterans love the flag, yet know in real and personal terms some of the cost of that cloth.

However you choose to observe November 11th, please remember those who serve and have served in uniform. Please remember those, military and civilian, who have been sacrificed in war - in numbers too vast to comprehend and whose loss is too dear to calculate. And pay honor to the symbols that speak of the promise that people in every day seek to realize - freedom, justice, and peace.

Photos:
Military graves at Douamont, France (near Verdun) is by David Straker, 2006.
 

Monday, November 8, 2010

Christ the King, Christ the Head

Christ the King
November 21

Colossians 1:11-20

When you think about it, it’s really miraculous – that we can use words to describe the wonders of creation, the transcendent, those things which go so far beyond the syllables which reference them. Brain and language researchers are beginning to respect how, as we heard in Genesis 1 and John 1, the Word calls things into being. Language and meaning go hand in hand, and words do more than describe reality. For humans, words help constitute reality.

This means we take theology (theo-logos, God-speech) seriously. When we say “Christ the King,” we are proclaiming something about Christ – that our Messiah is a king.

The beauty of metaphor is the way it says something real. The problem of metaphor is that, in saying that one thing is another, we can get stuck in the metaphor and lose track of how the metaphor “exegetes,” illustrates, and illumines its subject. What about the earthly kings we know is true of Christ?

There is much commentary and preaching on Christ’s kingship – particularly the way his kingdom differs from that of earthly kings (see for example Philippians 2:5-11). Christ is kingly – but the armies he commands do not seek vengeance or inflict violence. Instead they sow mercy and kindness and proclaim God’s love. Christ’s kingdom is filled with riches – but those riches are not stockpiled gold in the treasury. They are the endlessly distributed productive activity of people and yeast and all of creation sharing life with one another.

This image from Colossians – that Christ “is the head of his body, which is the church” (1 Col 1:18, CEV) – is another metaphor. This passage contains exalted, extravagant, beyond kingly language: “He is the first-born Son, superior to all creation. Everything was created by him..." (1:5-16, CEV).

But let us take those metaphors of head and body seriously. Nowadays we give honor to the head, thinking that the brain is the seat of consciousness, sitting atop the body and commanding it.

But the head does not create the body, and if we are honest, the head does not command nearly as much as we thinkers might like. The head does not end nor the body begin at the neck. The head and body are linked from the beginning, from the process of conception and development in the womb, to the way nervous system and blood supply and our marvelous chemical signals ensure that the whole body is linked together in an interdependent, continually communicating network where nutrients and messages are exchanged among all parts. And when that circulation, that interdependence stops – by illness, injury, or death – the body and its parts die.

As we hold this body metaphor together with that of Christ as king, we might think about the Roman and similar empires as diseases which inhibit the healthy functioning of humanity's body. We can see the signs of disease when humans are kept in debt, in poverty, in slavery, and hung on the world's many crosses.

We justly call Christ “King,” we honor and follow him not simply because of his exalted position at the head. But read further into the passage. Christ is at the head because he was first to be raised from death, and that death was sacrificial. And that sacrifice was not deadly, but reconciling and healing and life-giving for the whole body. It was the medicine that diagnosed (revealed) the condition of human evil and at the same time applied the antidote, seen in Christ's anti-kingship.

“God was pleased for him to make peace by sacrificing his blood on the cross, so that all beings in heaven and on earth would be brought back to God” (1:20, CEV).

Christ’s body does not end at the neck any more than his life ended at the tomb.

You can have all the other kings, all the other heads, all the other leaders and shepherds and lords. Give me Jesus, whose kingship, whose headship, whose Son-ship all speak of his great love for his whole body – which is you and me and all those who share life in Christ.

[This text is available with additional resources for Christ the King Sunday, as an American Bible Society EBulletin.]
 

Saturday, October 30, 2010

All Saints 2010

All Saints 2010

Death and what happens to our human “selves,” our consciousness, our soul, is one of the great mysteries that all peoples have tried to understand. One moment a person is breathing, their heart beating and body warm, sharing life with us. And then something passes, they are still, grow cold, the light leaves their eyes, and they do not respond to any of our entreaties. All animals feel pain, and social animals feel social pain. We mourn the loss of those we know, and wonder what it means for us.

In Mexico, Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead), November 2, links ancient indigenous practices and imagery to the Catholic feast of All Souls. In Roman Catholic doctrine, souls which are not condemned to hell but who still need some purgation as a result of earthly sins, spend time in Purgatory or “limbo.” So on the day of the dead, those departed who are still “in play” are invited back into the world. Altars are built to honor the deceased using sugar skulls, marigolds, and favorite foods and beverages of the departed. Their graves are visited and these items brought as gifts.

All Saints Day, November 1, is the Christian remembrance of those ancestors in faith who have gone before us and passed from this earth. Officially, the festival commemorates those who have attained heaven. In practice, and especially under the influence of the protestant Reformation which has moved away from intermediaries between humans and heaven, people remember all the baptized, “all the saints.” And still more broadly, people remember all those who have died for whom heaven is a hope.

Hope is something which connects many death rituals. The great unknown of death is a space into which people naturally project their imagination. The fear of ghosts and other spirits inhabiting the world after life is one side of that coin. And another is the hope that somehow, in the face of this great change, life will continue and that things will be well.

In this icon, Christ is enthroned in heaven, surrounded by angels and saints and the heavenly altar. In the scene below, we see Abraham in Paradise, holding someone (a child?, the poor man Lazarus?) at his bosom, as at the right the repentant thief (Luke 23:32-43) enters. The great testimony of Christian faith is that God has a heart for salvation.

All Saints is a hopeful festival. We do not understand the mysteries of the universe, or the mystery of faith, or what the resurrection will be like, but we do know something about hope.

We hope that what we see is not all there is - that more and better awaits us. We hope that God’s promises of justice and liberation and peace are still being worked in our lives and in this world. We hope that death is not the end, but that a new life awaits us. We hope that the ones we love and who have loved us are not gone, but waiting for us and praying for us and hoping for us. We put our hope in Christ and his promises that the day will come where all things find their end in a new beginning, a new Jerusalem, a new kingdom where all is eternally whole.

This year, as every year, I am a step closer to my own death and I’m remembering more people than last All Saints Day, especially Jon and John and Gregorio and Joe and Frank, saints. Throughout the world, an All Saints tradition is to light candles to remember those lights in heaven who still illumine our way. May God bless and keep all of us still awaiting the fullness of resurrection, and strengthen in us the memory of those faithful ones who inspire us still.

 

Monday, October 18, 2010

A Mighty Fortress

Reformation Sunday
October 31

Psalm 46

On this day in 1517, Martin Luther attempted to open a public theological dialogue about reforming the practice of the church. One of the results was the Reformation, as social, political, and ideological conflicts divided the Western church. Different branches of the Protestant tradition emphasize different ideas about the Christian faith: the primacy of grace, the distinction between law and gospel, the sovereignty of God, the freedom of the Christian.

The readings for today touch on these themes, which the reformers would assert are not theirs alone, but true for all Christians. Perhaps the most enduring and most radical notion was the reformers’ return to the Bible, translating scripture into modern languages.

Reading and hearing the actual words of scripture... Of course, this has produced some bizarre, idiosyncratic interpretations. But this has also been eye-opening and liberating for uncounted millions, for the church, and for the whole people of God. For the Lord often says something more surprising, more subtle, more challenging, and more grace-ful than we expect.

Take Psalm 46, which was a starting point for Martin Luther’s most famous hymn. “God is our mighty fortress, always ready to help in times of trouble” (Psalm 46:1, CEV).

This kind of prayer is a staple of personal faith. So often we need protection from the things which bedevil us, from real enemies and forces which threaten our safety and wellbeing. Luther himself spent nine months hidden from his enemies at Wartburg Castle, in that time translating the New Testament into German.

Yet the psalm – and the whole of scripture in which it is set – takes us well beyond that very real desire for God’s protection. It is a declaration that our refuge goes far beyond that which we imagine.

We hope for security. But God’s strength is not found in fortifications – the walls of Jericho, Jerusalem, Babylon, and Berlin have all come tumbling down. It is not found in mighty empires – they all crumble, leaving behind the rubble of their fleeting glory. It is not found in the created order – for neither the earth nor the sea is secure. It is not found in wealth, nor family, nor even our religious institutions, despite our deep desires to find something in this world we can trust wholeheartedly. (The psalmist himself may well believe that the holy city of Zion is so closely tied to God that it is such a fortress... Luther himself placed an unfortunate trust in the fortress of the state, with dire results for the German people in his day and in later centuries...)

But the words are clear: “God is our mighty fortress...”

God is more than we dare suspect. More than creation: “At the voice of God the earth itself melts” (Psalm 46:6, CEV). More than empires: God “breaks the arrows, shatters the spears” (Psalm 46:9, CEV). And even when we dare to cling to God’s might, “The LORD All-Powerful is with us” (Psalm 46:11, CEV), we might ponder the nature of God’s power.

For we know that, much as we might wish it, the fortress God does not make us invulnerable. That is the desire of those who build castles and fortifications, which stand only for a moment. “A mighty fortress is our God,” sing the Psalmist and Brother Martin and all the faithful. If we wish to find refuge in God, let us cling not to that which is fleeting – but to God’s righteousness, God’s justice, God’s saving power, God’s loving faithfulness, and yes – though it may be unjustified and totally unexpected – to God’s mercy.

Images:

Joseph Fiennes as Luther posting his 95 Theses, http://www.theologynetwork.org/Images/Layout/headers/mt8.jpg

Photo of Wartburg Castle, Eisenach, Germany taken by Robert Scarth, 9th September 2006, and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license (original at http://www.flickr.com/photos/18222776@N00/241708183).

http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/walkingthewall/wp-content/uploads/2007/07/img_68801.jpg
 

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Prayers for Domestic Violence Awareness Month

October, 2010

Since 1981, October has been designated as Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Domestic Violence is a problem that cuts across all religious, cultural, racial, social, and economic class lines. The color of Domestic Violence Awareness Month is purple – many people wear purple ribbons to remember the victims of private violence, where it takes place behind closed doors.

Here is the text of a proclamation by President Obama about Domestic Violence Awareness Month and why it is so important to consider this issue carefully in every family and every community.

NATIONAL DOMESTIC VIOLENCE AWARENESS MONTH, 2009
BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

A PROCLAMATION

Domestic violence touches the lives of Americans of all ages, leaving a devastating impact on women, men, and children of every background and circumstance. A family's home becomes a place of fear, hopelessness, and desperation when a woman is battered by her partner, a child witnesses the abuse of a loved one, or a senior is victimized by family members. Since the 1994 passage of the landmark Violence Against Women Act, championed by then Senator Joe Biden, our Nation has strengthened its response to this crime and increased services for victims. Still, far too many women and families in this country and around the world are affected by domestic violence. During National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we recommit ourselves to ending violence within our homes, our communities, and our country.

Read the full proclamation by President Obama.


These prayers were compiled through the ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Metro New York Synod Domestic Violence Awareness Task Force, for daily devotions during the month of October. We hope you will pray these prayers with us, each day, throughout the month. May God bless you with abundant grace and peace as you pray.

October 1: Gracious God, you created us in your image and breathed life into us. A life you want us to live abundantly. We ask you to free those living with abuse physically, mentally or spiritually, from their oppression, so that they may walk in peace and enjoy a life full of your blessings. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

October 2: Teaching God, we pray that you open our ears, our eyes, and our hearts to be more aware, outreaching, and supportive to people in abusive situations, so that they won’t feel alone and know that someone cares. Let us love them as you have loved us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

October 3: Compassionate God, protect the innocent children who suffer or witness violence and abuse at the hands of the ones they love. Bring them to a safe place where they can begin to heal. Restore their minds to trust and their hearts to love and their spirits to be free. Surround them with your angels. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

October 4: Loving God, help us to be kind to everyone so that people who are poor, abused, hungry, neglected and afraid, or in any need will have justice. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

October 5: Loving Savior, touch the hearts of those who abuse others. Heal their thinking, so that they may turn to you and seek your ways. Help them to know that every human being is a treasure to you. Help them to know that you are a forgiving God and can lead them on a path to new life. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

October 6: Merciful God, we give you thanks for your gift of strength and life and especially for the gift of your Son, Jesus Christ, through whom we have health and salvation. Help us by your Holy Spirit to witness your power in our lives and to know your eternal love. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

October 7: Almighty God, we pray for all victims of abuse. We ask you to surround them with your care and protect them by your loving might and permit them to enjoy health and healing, wholeness and strength, calmness and peace and love. Most of all that they feel your presence and be confident in you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

October 8: Good and Merciful God, comfort me in moments of distress. Help me to not give in to anger, fear, resentment, bitterness, and not forgiving. Rather call to my mind your promises of love, joy, and hope. Fill me with your peace. Heal any disease in my body, mind, and soul, including my memories or my emotions which overwhelm me at times and cause me to default to old patterns of thinking that are not of you. Allow your healing waters to refresh and renew me. Show me your ways, oh Lord, so that I may walk in the light of thy eternal love. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

October 9: Gracious God, look upon the victims of domestic violence with compassion and guide their journey through the legalities of obtaining an Order of Protection so that they might have the chance to begin a new life free from fear and pain. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

October l0: Merciful Father, we ask that you watch over your elderly children who are left weak and frail from their many years on this earth. Remove them from the harsh and hurtful treatment they are being subjected to and provide them gentle and loving care for their remaining time on this earth. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

October 11: Righteous Lord, be with all the judges and lawmakers so that all who enter their courts will be dealt with in a fair and just manner. Touch their hearts to pray for all their petitioners. Let these systems, set up to enforce justice, work for the good of your people. In Jesus’ name. Amen

October l2: Giving Lord, we thank you for all caregivers, foster parents, clergy, deacons, and lay people who open their hearts and their homes to help people find or rediscover their worth. Thank you for all congregations and communities that welcome and provide fellowship, understanding and assistance to people who are in need of knowing and experiencing your love. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

October 13: O Lord, help us to be strong stewards of all you have entrusted to us. Give us the courage and your strength to stand against abuse of any kind inflicted upon your precious people and also to the animals you have placed on this earth. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

October 14: Loving God, be with all men and women who are in doubt about their intimate relationships. Give them clarity of mind and peaceful hearts so that they can make good decisions guided by your love. Let those who must, discern any abuse that may exist so that they can learn to care for themselves with your help. Let those who must, acknowledge that they are harming the other, so they can learn to abhor their own behavior and come to true repentance and amendment of life. Keep us all safe in our relationships. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

October 15: Most Holy Spirit, comfort and protect all who work to help victims of domestic violence, rape and assault. Give them the strength and courage to listen day by day to the hurts of others. Help them as they seek to comfort and guide the lost souls who come to them for aid. Bring them peace in their own lives, that they may better serve those to and for whom they are responsible. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

October l6: Gentle God, we give you thanks and praise. Touch us with your grace. Strengthen us to accept the conversion of heart which requires us to live in equality and mutuality, with gentleness and compassion, with reverence and respect, toward ourselves and toward one another. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

October 17: God of Peace, there are many places and many people who do not experience your peace. Right now there are many, many women and children who live under the weight of fear and violence in their own homes. We pray for your protection and for wisdom for friends and officials to help bring that right protection to them. We pray for the many men who themselves feel powerless and confused about their relationships. We ask that you would help them find healthy ways to work out their frustrations and to find hope without resorting to destructive impulses. We ask for your perfect peace. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

October 18: Merciful Lord, we pray for those who suffer in silence, who are afraid to utter a word, afraid of being misunderstood or misjudged. We pray that as a church you help us to hear the voices of those who cry in silence. Help us to be compassionate and not to judge. Help us to be a responsive community of faith in denouncing verbal, emotional, physical, sexual and economic abuse when we see it. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

October 19: Dear Jesus, help me to be humble, willing to apologize, make amends, and change any hurtful behavior. Please help me, too, to find the courage and compassion to confront hurtful behavior as you would. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

October 20: Lord God, your own Son was delivered into the hands of the wicked, yet he prayed for his persecutors and overcame hatred with the blood of the cross. Grant those who stand against violence peace of mind and a renewed faith in your protection and care. Protect us all from the violence of others, keep us safe from the weapons of hate, and restore to us tranquility and peace. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

October 21: God of Restoration, we ask you to guard and guide our youth as they struggle to find their way and your way in life amid all the pressures and messages sent out by media and peers. These messages look down on women, musical messages that inspire the love of money and no sexual boundaries. Help parents to be more involved in what their children are involved in, to inspire them to do good, to respect and to honor others. Restore family structure to be a strong unit, a safety net, and a light to the path that leads to you and your ways. In. Jesus’ name. Amen.

October 22: O God, in whose enduring love we trust, bind up the wounds of those betrayed by abuse at the hands of others. Heal them and make them whole, that they may once more receive and give love with confidence in their dignity as your sons and daughters. In. Jesus name. Amen.

October 23: God of Truth, we ask you to bless and protect the offspring of relationships where domestic violence murder has taken place. Help them to recognize you, O God, as their strong and gentle parent. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

October 24: All Knowing God, you know what is in our hearts and you know our intentions. Help us examine ourselves before we try to help others. Heal us so that all we do will magnify you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

October 25: God of Peace, restrain the hands and convert the hearts of those who seek to do violence. Bring to repentance the perpetrators of domestic violence, and minister with persistent grace to all those harmed by abuse, that they may be signs of your healing power and hope for the world. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

October 26: Suffering God, stand always with those hurt by violence and abuse. Let none suffer in silence. Give voice to all who cry out, give courage to all who speak out, and give power to all who intervene, replacing abuse with loving justice. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

October 27: Divine Provider, we ask for your protection and inspiration for those who suffer from economic abuse, and the loss of hope, self esteem, vision and enthusiasm that result from the suffocations of poverty and need, in our households and in our society. We pray for those who use financial resources to control or dominate, and we seek your guidance in establishing economic justice in wages and benefits that are sustainable and foster the well-being of everybody. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

October 28: Divine Protector, spread your Holy Wings over those who are affected by domestic violence, both victims and perpetrators, in the wake of environmental disaster, economic collapse, terrorism and war. Violence behind closed doors ever increases after such events, and we ask you to help guide those who experience these “ripple effects” to healing resources and safe havens. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

October 29: God of Mystery and Majesty, we pray for those who suffer, and those who inflict suffering and injustice, based on abusive interpretations of Scripture, religious traditions, and language about what is sacred and sanctified. Give us a sense of wonder and awe at the infinite and intimate faces you show us in our lives, and gratitude and reverence for all of them, in all their diversity. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

October 30: Faith and Hope of our Mothers, living still, we thank you for the blessings of our ancestors, the women and men of faith and compassion who have gone before us, and sacrificed much for the love of God and for their children, even to giving their lives. We pray, on this eve of All Hallows, for those throughout history, and in many countries around the world today, who are accused, tortured and killed as scapegoats and “witches.” Bring the Light of your Mercy and Love into these places of shadow. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

October 31: Renewing and Reviving God, we thank you for the continuing reformation and formation of your holy church, in all its variety, and for the communion of the saints. Grant us a spirit of refreshment and reformation in our lives at home, in our work and service, in our devotion, and in the wide world. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Download a Word document formatted for printing here (available until 10/23/10). Edit the last page to reflect Domestic Violence resources in your community.
 

Monday, September 20, 2010

Life among the wicked

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 3

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
Psalm 37:1-9

Family flees election-related violence in Kenya.

O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?
Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?

Habakkuk 1:2, NRSV)

Do not fret because of the wicked... (Psalm 37:1, NRSV)

The prophet knows that evil is a problem. The psalmist knows that the wicked “will soon fade like the grass” (Psalm 37:2, NRSV).

Which is it, Lord?

The prophet knows that “do not fret” is not an adequate response to those who have suffered the trauma of injury and injustice. Even if the wicked will fade, they are here now, and they are all too strong. “Destruction and violence are before me;... The wicked surround the righteous” (Habakkuk 1:3,4, NRSV). The prophet cannot rest. What he sees afflicts him, and his unanswered cries for help cut as painfully – maybe more so – than the suffering he witnesses.

A number of people have noted that some prophetic literature seems to describe symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It should hardly be surprising. Witnessing or experiencing violence is shocking. We are created for good, and violent perversions of this divine purpose shock and terrify us.

The effects of trauma are not confined to an unlucky few. All those who witness violence and injustice are hurt. Victims, bystanders, and perpetrators alike are damaged. It skews us, it knocks us off a more idyllic or healthy path, sometimes off the path of righteousness. And though it may be self-evident, it must still be said that violence and injustice can be fatal.

The prophet must speak of the real anguish, which is a true experience, and a crisis for all the faithful.

But the Word of God is not one dimensional. Because God suffers with creation, God also speaks from within anguish. And God speaks not only about anguish, but to the anguished.

Sometimes it may be easier to hear from a voice outside our own tradition.

“When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it – always.”

Mahatma Ghandi was himself brutalized by the wicked. But he knew what the prophet and psalmist knew. God’s will will be done. Not soon enough by our lights, but inevitably. In God’s kingdom, the wicked cannot write the last chapter. As Habbakuk says, “There is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay” (2:3, NRSV, see also Psalm 37:6-7).

“Wait for it”? You say wait for justice, wait for healing, wait while we are in the midst of suffering!?

Sometimes we may think that “wait for it” means “do nothing.” But that is not the counsel of prophet or psalmist.

“Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act.... Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath. Do not fret – it leads only to evil” (Psalm 37:5,8, NRSV). We might not be able to change the evildoers, or the fact that the wicked surround us. But we do not have to let them define us. “Fretting” – being preoccupied with evil – prevents us from claiming that which is good, and provokes us to return evil for evil. It is better – perhaps not easier, but better – to keep our eyes upon the Lord.

This is a pastoral response to trauma, urging us to seek not the obsession of retribution or regret, but to seek the power of hope by practicing the righteousness and mercy that is God's answer to the failings of this world.

In truth, one way out of violence and injustice is simply to try and incarnate the kind of world we hope God is bringing about. “The righteous live by their faith,” says the prophet (Habbakuk 2:4, NRSV). Living by faith... the most active kind of waiting imaginable.


This text and additional resources can be found as an American Bible Society E-Bulletin (PDF).
 

Friday, September 10, 2010

Holy ground - nine years after

One of the central features of current controversy over the Park 51 Islamic community center is the public debate over what constitutes “holy ground.” This is held to be an essential part of understanding and remembering what happened on 9/11/01.

Unsurprisingly, the public debate is most intense at the World Trade Center. It was the first and focal point of the 9/11 attacks, and the first and focal point of public attention. It had the “most seen” images of that day, it is the real estate most familiar and most valuable, and of course, it is the location of the greatest number of victims.

The debate is not a new one. New Yorkers and victims’ families have been contending over this since 9/11/01, even that day as the site was dubbed “Ground Zero,” a metaphor for the epicenter of total destruction and toxicity of a nuclear blast, recalling the U.S. attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki 56 years earlier, and perhaps alluding to the concentric waves of devastation from that center (buildings destroyed and damaged, lives mangled and griefs multiplied, and subsequent effects such as attack-caused illnesses, retaliatory actions, even healing).

Victims’ families, responders, and other interested parties picketed and contended – never fully successfully – for what ground would be officially hallowed. They presented maps and graphs showing where each piece of recovered human remains was found. This approach reflects the ancient understanding that “blood hallows” – or in other terms might provide a telling indicator for where victims’ lives should be memorialized.

Perhaps the best known fight was to preserve the footprints of the original WTC towers as “holy ground” for memorial space only. Because the WTC plan includes memorial pools, most people think this battle was won. In fact, the memorial pools and surrounding area are smaller than the tower footprints, and not the same ground as the original tower space. “Holy ground” at the World Trade Center site has never been a self-evident, fixed, or agreed-upon concept.

In these political, commercial, and emotional negotiations, the entire WTC site has never been regarded by most people to be off-limits to all activity other than memorialization. In recovery, construction, and post-development, the WTC has been and will be a place for all kinds of human activity – as it was before 9/11/01. It is a place where people work and eat. It has toilets and garbage baskets. I have no doubt that the site has and will see love and sex, arguments and peacemaking, drinking and cursing and joking, music, dancing, and prayer in many different traditions.

Holy ground...

In the fervor to define the limits of where the “holiness line” is to be drawn, at least as it applies to Muslims, one of the more interesting proposals has come from Carl Paladino, one of the candidates for the NY Republican gubernatorial nomination. He proposed that mosques should be excluded from the area covered by the dust cloud. (”I want a simple restriction over the Ground Zero site which is the footprint and includes the dust cloud that includes the remains of all those people who died”.) While he seemed to me to be grasping at straws to find a rational basis for drawing his line, this idea again hearkens back to the notion that “blood hallows,” or that the place where human remains are laid to rest is particularly sacred.

While not accepting Mr. Paladino's premise that the Islamic faith or the prayer of Muslims profanes the memory of 9/11, his more expansive notion of “holy ground” is a way to touch some of the realities of 9/11. Like the firefighters who sifted through the dirt looking for their lost ones, like the family members wishing to retrieve debris from the Fresh Kills landfill because some specks of dust were missed, we have this sense that the lives lost that day were precious. Seeking to hallow every fragment speaks to the true depth of loss.

But we cannot gather up the dust to remake - even in memory - those who were killed. Some of their atoms are burned and scattered to the winds. Some we breathed in over those next few days and months, to become part of us. Some have been absorbed into the surrounding landscape. And some have traveled the world on jetstream and ocean currents.

The dead are dead. Their resurrection is in hands other than ours. And we can change neither of these realities.

So how can we claim holy ground out of what has been ground to bits?

We must be clear that the reasons the murderers gave for their crimes are not the outrage of 9/11. Neither their cited religious faith nor their claims of secular-Western-American evils were the abomination of that day.

Murder is the abomination of 9/11. The murder of people in downtown New York, in suburban Virginia, and in rural Pennsylvania is an abomination. The spilling of innocent blood is what evoked our outrage nine years ago when it happened close to home. But the spilling of innocent blood did not start or end on 9/11/01. We should regard all the world’s killing fields - the blood-soaked asphalt of poor neighborhoods, Iraq and Afghanistan, Cambodia and Congo, Israel and Palestine, Armenia and Eastern Europe - as kin to 9/11.

It dishonors the memory and profanes the ground of those who lived and died at the World Trade Center to make it a site of hatred rather than of healing.

Let us hallow the World Trade Center - once a killing ground - by making it a ground zero for peace. As the site is rebuilt, let it be a foundation stone for bridges between people, especially between the fearful and hopeful of every clan. Let it be, as it was on 9/11/01 and in the days which followed, even to the present day, a site where mercy and compassion reign in sad and holy triumph even amidst the ashes of destruction.

Gracious and loving God, whose name is peace and whose being is holy: sanctify our grief; heal our wounds; and redeem our loss. Lead us through our struggle, that we may not give in to evil, but may be renewed by your goodness, walking in your mercy and blessing your world, in the name of all those you loved, and whose lives are holy to you. We remember all victims of violence, and pray that we may be led out of the shadow of death through the light of your redeeming love. Amen.

Artwork:

Stephane Jaspert, "Two candles" (1982) after Gerhard Richter, used by permission.

Roses thrown by mourners float in a reflecting pool at the World Trade Center site in New York during a ceremony to commemorate the eighth anniversary of the Sept 11 terrorist attacks Friday, Sept. 11, 2009. AP / Chang W. Lee
 

Monday, August 30, 2010

Don’t Let Jesus Manage Your Money

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 12
Luke 15:1-10

Very often in the gospels, when there is conflict, Jesus’ teaching, his story telling, his actions are directed at helping people see things differently, to model or lead them to another way.

In reading these parables we have to be frank. Leaving 99 sheep unguarded to search for one lost sheep is terrible stewardship. The smart move is to protect your – or your master’s – major investment.

“Won't you leave the ninety-nine in the field...?” (Luke 15:4, CEV). Some read this and assume that the shepherd assures the safety of the 99 before searching for the lost one. Not so. The Greek word eremos means a wilderness. The 99 are left in a desolate, not a protected place.

99 sheep will soon enough make more sheep. Risking those 99 is not good business and is just plain irresponsible. No, most people probably wouldn’t leave the 99 unprotected to search out the lost one.

What’s a sheep worth anyway? Before you risk the 99, you’d better know what the one is worth. The scriptures are well aware that animals have a value. Matthew and Luke may disagree on the value of a sparrow, but not that there is a price for them in the market. (“Aren’t two sparrows sold for only a penny?” Matt 10:29, CEV, whereas Luke 12:6 declares that “Five sparrows are sold for just two pennies.”) Apparently the value of a sparrow may fluctuate, according to time and place, buyer and seller.

I was thinking about this recently when I heard a news report which tried to understand how much a pelican is worth. This comes as the U.S. and state governments calculate how much to make BP pay for the damage caused by its oil in the Gulf. (See Robert Smith, “Pricing The Non-Human Cost Of BP Spill,” National Public Radio, Morning Edition, July 30, 2010.)

In the U.S., it’s illegal to trade in pelicans, so we can’t get a “market price.” If you ask people how much they’d pay to prevent pelican deaths, you get numbers all over the map. Since it costs, on average, $500 to clean an oil-covered pelican, we know a pelican must be worth more than $500. A trained pelican for film work rents at $4,500 a day, and thus can earn its owner many thousands over its lifetime. A dead pelican, contaminated with oil, is worth less than nothing – you have to pay to dispose of it with other chemical waste. What’s a pelican worth?

Jesus tells this story to tax collectors and sinners, precisely when some economists of righteousness are questioning their value.

How much is a lost sheep worth? Nothing, if you’ve already given up on them. Everything, if you care for that sheep - or for their master.

It’s terrible economics if you’re looking to protect your investment, but life-giving if you are among the lost. Don’t let Jesus manage your money – but you might trust him with your life.
 

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Peace in Downtown Manhattan

In an article for the Huffington Post, Sister Joan Chittister argues for "another way" to respond to the controversy surrounding the construction of an inclusive and Islamic community center near the World Trade Center site (The 'Ground Zero Mosque' Conundrum: Lessons From the Convent at Auschwitz). She argues by analogy, saying that "Unfortunately, the world has been here before..." and recalling the controversy over a convent and cross at Auschwitz.

I think a lot of Sr. Joan Chittister, and have gained from her writing and speaking. But when viewing this situation through the lens of the convent at Auschwitz, she sees more similarities than I do.

First, some technical differences.

1. The convent was established within camp grounds ("in a building which was utilized during World War II to store the poison gas used in the Auschwitz-Birkenau crematoria," "Auschwitz Convent"); the proposed center is located a short distance (two blocks) from the site widely designated as the locus of the WTC atrocity.

2. The camp is designated a memorial site and recognized as such by most of the world; the WTC is being rebuilt as a commercial center which includes a memorial.

3. The convent actually erected a large religious symbol (a cross) visible to Auschwitz visitors; the Park 51 project will not be visible from the WTC site (until one goes well above ground level, not part of the explicit memorial and museum).

4. The area surrounding Auchwitz is largely rural; the area surrounding the WTC site has been urban for more than 200 years, and includes strip clubs, bars, and other enterprises which might well be seen to profane "holy ground."

Now I think there are more significant differences.

The events of Auschwitz (by itself, notwithstanding the other death camps) unfolded over years and resulted in the killing and suffering of more than a million people (Franciszek Piper, "Die Zahl der Opfer von Auschwitz. Neue Erkentnisse durch neue Archivfunde"), at the hands of hundreds of thousands (mobilized by the Nazi state and its allies). The 9/11 attacks were a one-day event by a relatively small number of people that killed about 3,000.

Auschwitz had, over the decades since the end of the Shoah and the war which surrounded it, become the central symbol for the clearest, defining example of what the world was coming to know and condemn as genocide. The WTC is for me an unambiguous example of murder. Yet it has been used by some as a justification for nine years of wars which have resulted in more than 100,000 civilian deaths. It is not as clear or universal a symbol for the evil of terrorist violence.

The case for Christian and church complicity in the slaughter of Jews at Auschwitz is centuries deep and widespread. The very institution and some of the very same people which built convent and cross were directly involved in the atrocity, as bystanders certainly and in some cases as collaborators. They included unrepentant offenders. (The Carmelite convent and order remained subject to the Roman Catholic church, and while things have changed since 1984, I don't think most would regard the church as coming as far as it needs to in owning up to its part in the genocide.)

I don't know what I should about the Polish tradition of religious liberty. But I do know that the Polish convent project was conceived during and approved by an authoritarian regime in a mono-religious culture. And it is clear to me that the efforts to prevent the Park 51 project from building rather than to persuade them to modify their plans are profoundly counter to the most deeply held constituting principles of U.S. society and government.

Sr. Chittister goes on to say:
> From where I stand, there has to be another way
> to deal with this that is sensitive to both sides,
> accepting of both positions, healing of both
> wounds and a monument to real peace.

I hope and believe there is a better way. But I don't think we get there by catering to the worst prejudices among us.

The problem with her formulation of "accepting of both positions," is that one position is rooted in sickness, bigotry, and prejudice. I am a 9/11 responder who has lived with the fallout of this attack for almost 9 years. I know many 9/11 families and responders. I am saddened to say that the opposition to the center depends (unlike the Auschwitz example cited by Sr. Chittister) on blaming people who had nothing to do with the offense. The few glimmers of other reasons usually wind their way back to "we don't want them here because we don't trust them - they're the same as the ones who hurt us."

A monument to real peace must find a way to transform that. But that is what the community center is trying to do. (It is also simply not true to say that the Center did not reach out to 9/11 families and other concerned groups prior to the current controversy. I know people privy to some of those conversations.)

As a matter of law and government policy, George Washington got it right exactly 220 years ago: "...happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens..." ("Letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport," August, 1790).

While Joan Chittister is calling for something beyond the role of the state, it is unfortunate that she does not say much about steps that real people might take to get there. The social-theological problem is that everyone is calling on someone else to make a sacrifice. And that is a 9/11-size problem.

The state has fulfilled its legitimate role by ensuring that the project meets legal requirements, and by providing for civic order as people demonstrate pro and con. But at this point we have stepped into it. This is a time for leadership - and statesmanship - beyond what is required by law.

Perhaps a good role of public leaders - including religious leaders - is now to provide tangible support for "breathing space" whereby some of those offended (I am not speaking of the grandiose and politically opportunistic), the downtown NYC community, and the Park 51 community may sit together. Arguments are not the best way to begin a relationship - but they are a starting point nonetheless for those who truly seek to be good neighbors.
 

Friday, July 23, 2010

They Desire a Better Country

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

This passage begins with a discourse answering an implied question: “What is faith?” And we hear a well-known answer, often quoted when speaking of faith: it is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1, NRSV).

There is no mistaking the importance of faith in Christian community, and it’s good to know what we mean when we use this powerful word. Yet there are two key things to be careful of in reading this passage.

First, “faith” is often invoked as an antidote to reality, belief in spite of the evidence. But this passage does not quite say that. It only says that we trust in, we look towards, and we set our hearts upon things which we know, but which are not yet in view.

There are plenty of things which are invisible whose existence we do not doubt. While 7/8s of an iceberg is under water, we understand that what is unseen is still there. We do not see the wind, but when we feel it on our cheek or hear it blowing through the trees, we know it is real. We cannot see beyond the horizon, but we believe that if we keep walking, we’ll get to a new country.


Faith is itself a mode of perception. Through “the eyes of faith,” we can see things not otherwise visible or clear.

It’s also important to understand the author of this letter is not asking an abstract question or debating a point of philosophy. His people need to know what faith is because they are being tested, not by God to see how faithful they are, but by persecutions, public abuse inflicted upon them, their families, and friends in the gospel (see the preceding chapter, especially Heb 10:32-33). Faith is not an object of academic interest – it is essential for survival.

Their persecutors aimed to make them submit, not to the faith-worthy and faithful God, but to the lesser gods of empire and culture in which these human outposts of good news were embedded.

It might have worked. But there is this little thing called faith...

Faith is linked not to evidence, but to hope. (Perhaps the Apostle Paul was thinking of something similar when he joined faith, hope, and love together in 1 Cor 13:13.) Faith looks ahead to things which are not yet in view, but which are real, are known, and are hoped for with urgency.

Perhaps a more recent example may help both our faith and our sight. Looking at Montgomery, Alabama in 1954, not many people could see that bus segregation would soon be ending. But Rosa Parks and a mighty host set out in faith, because they desired a better country, a heavenly one (Heb 11:16) – as seen in an integrated bus system.

In 1963 as Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on Lincoln’s steps and looked out over America, there wasn’t much proof that America would repent its sin of racial segregation. But his dream of an integrated and just America was not based on fact, but on faith. His faith in God’s transformative power was, to him and to many others, the assurance of the things they hoped for. He stepped forward in faith, because he and millions more desired a better country, a land well-watered by justice and righteousness.
Today we’re telling faith stories of Parks and King much the way Hebrews recalls Abel and Abraham. And that old letter-writer knew that the hope of heaven was not separate from the hope for a transformed earth. The trials of today are connected to the promised land just across the horizon. We step forward in faith not because we’re sure everything will work out in the next few days – but because we put our hope in God’s beautiful dream for creation.

Horizon image from www.cornucopia.org.

The same text, with additional resources, is available as a PDF file at the American Bible Society's Bible Resource Center.
 

Friday, July 9, 2010

Prayer for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Good God, we overhear Jesus telling a story to a lawyer, and wonder where we fit in. We like to imagine that we are the good neighbor, glossing over the Samaritan part.

Yet if truth be told we have preyed on others (and are thus robbers) and we have ignored those in need, for very good reasons I'm sure (choosing again and again to live in stand-by mode).

And even in these roles we find more comfort than identifying with the man in the ditch, beaten down, on our way to death, and unable to restore ourselves.

Lead to us the blessing of one (thousands if you can manage it) who will take our care upon them and bring us to a place where we may be healed. And help us to make that blessing ours, that we may share it with others, outcast to outcast, in your name, which is mercy. Amen.

The Parable of the Good Neighbor (Luke 10:25-37)
 

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Martin Luther King and the Good Samaritan

Martin Luther King, Jr. often referred to the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). While King’s interpretation of the parable evolved over time, he maintained a consistent focus on the way the parable allows us to examine the obligations owed to one another, provided an enduring way to read this text.

King had a sermon on the topic which he used frequently. "Who Is My Neighbor?" highlights the question asked of Jesus. Jesus’ questioner, a lawyer, is testing Jesus and testing the limits of what Jesus’ God requires. They are agreed that loving God and neighbor is essential. But how far does this go?

In 1964, in a sermon preached at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, he discerned a philosophy or motivating principle expressed in the actions of three sets of the parable’s characters. "Everyone within the sound of my voice today lives by one of these three philosophies."

1. The Robbers

Often taken for granted, the waylaying of the traveler is what makes the parable possible.

Predatory behavior has bedeviled human history, and King gave a number of examples ancient and modern: slavery, colonialism, street crime, even preachers’ playing on people's religious desires in order to line their pockets. King’s fury was evident as he recited again and again the robber’s credo: "What is thine is MINE! And if you don’t give it to me, I’ll take it from you."

2. The Way of the World

The priest and the Levite evoke some sympathy. Not only does King understand something about religious professionals, they seem to have very ordinary motivations. The Jericho road through the Judean wilderness was known for its dangers. Are the robbers still near? Is this a trap? If they touch the man, whether he is dead or alive, they will become unclean and thus unfit for their duties at the end of their journey. And if the man is dead already, what sense is there in stopping?

All this is very understandable and makes great sense. "And so the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" (King, April 3, 1968).

We know this philosophy, this way of living. Yet King indicts this attitude of cautious self-preservation, using Biblical stories, including his favorite parable of the rich man and Lazarus. (King inherited much of his thinking on this parable from the great preacher Vernon Johns, his predecessor at Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.) It was not his wealth which sent the rich man to hell, but his failure to see the plight of his neighbor Lazarus, whom he passed by every day. And this attitude is found not just among the most powerful. It was in Dr. King's congregation, it is in our churches, it can be found whenever our time, talent, and treasure are devoted to the philosophy which segregates peoples' needs and gifts, letting some live in prosperity and others in poverty.

Whether unconscious or studied, indifference to the needs of our neighbors fixes a great gulf between us and our neighbor, and thus between us and God. King expressed this as the working out of a familiar idea: “What is mine is mine, and what is thine is thine.”

3. The Neighbor

Of course, the parable makes clear that the Samaritan, the one who does not pass by, the one who risks himself and gives of himself, is the true neighbor of the wounded traveler.

King, noting that the merciful stranger was of a different race* than the wounded traveler, also notes that he lives by a different principle from that of the robber or the passersby. This Samaritan, this good neighbor has somehow come to know that "What is mine is thine." Like Albert Schweitzer, peace corps volunteers, and those working and marching and dying for civil rights, the Samaritan understands that "all humanity is tied together." Neither predators nor passersby can be safe in a world where misery, famine, plague, and hatred are the scourge of millions. These ills are contagious, you know...

"He who lives by this philosophy lives in the kingdom NOW!", not in some distant day to come. This is the witness of Jesus, "who said in his own life 'what is mine is thine, I’ll give it to you, you don’t have to beg me for it.' This is why the cross is more than some meaningless drama taking place on the stage of history. In a real sense, it is a telescope through which we look out into the long vista of eternity and see the love of God breaking forth in the night.... It is God saying 'I will reach out and bridge the gulf that separates me from you.'"

For King, the Samaritan neighbor has flipped the implicit question asked by the passersby (what will happen to me if I help?) and acts on the question "what will happen to the wounded stranger if I don’t help?" It is this, and his effective action to render aid, take the wounded traveler to safety, and subsidize his treatment that makes the Samaritan a good neighbor.

One More View

Later on, King came to enunciate yet another view. You might call it a development of the "Good Neighbor" philosophy, a prophetic perspective, or even a God’s-eye view.

King made use of his own experiences to understand something about the parable. "I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road I said to my wife, 'I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable.' It's a winding, meandering road. It's really conducive for ambushing. [The road descends nearly 3000 feet in elevation over only 20 miles between Jerusalem and Jericho.] That's a dangerous road. In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the 'Bloody Pass'" (King, April 3, 1968).

Dr. King had come to know other dangerous roads. The road to integrated buses, waiting rooms, and lunch counters was a dangerous road to travel. The road to voting registration was a dangerous road for African Americans. The road to economic health and opportunity was a dangerous road for poor people. The road between Selma and Montgomery was a dangerous road when walked by integrated protesters. The road to justice - which must of necessity challenge those who depend on injustice - has always been a dangerous road.

But King realized that the danger of these roads was not a feature of creation, but of social relation, and proposed a re-architecture of our social landscapes.

"A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring" (King, April 4, 1967).

There are many ways to improve the Jericho Road. One is to send Good Samaritans down it to rescue those in trouble. Another might be better policing to protect travelers. Another might fund a public works project to straighten out some of the most dangerous spots. And still another might be the transformation of society such that few are tempted to become robbers.

In this final step, King has gone beyond the parable, which was Jesus' goal in telling the story. Answering the question "who is my neighbor?" is only the first step. It is the way into the personal and collective transformation to which God is calling us. One might say that neighborliness is next to godliness.


* NOTE: Some have objected to King "reading race" into the parable. While it is a commonplace of New Testament studies to understand Samaritans as an "other" to Jewish identity, not unlike blacks to American whites, the story itself contains a signifier that ethnic identity issues are present. Jesus identified the final traveler as a Samaritan. But when he asks the lawyer which was a neighbor to the wounded man, the lawyer answers "The one who showed him mercy." Not many interpreters have been able to find ambiguity in who shows mercy in this story. Is it a stretch to see the lawyer as unable to say the word "Samaritan" in praiseworthy context?

SOURCES

Unfortunately I have not been able to locate a full version of either King’s standard “Who Is My Neighbor?” sermon, or his May 3, 1964 version, which is quoted on p.302-3 of Taylor Branch’s Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998).

King, Martin Luther Jr., "A Time to Break the Silence", address delivered April 4, 1967, meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned, Riverside Church, New York City.

King, Martin Luther Jr., "I've Been to the Mountaintop", address delivered April 3, 1968, Memphis, Tennessee.

SEE ALSO: Martin King: Prophet & Martyr.