Walking in the Darkness

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light …


That’s where we’re headed in Advent, these words from Isaiah that we’ll read on Christmas Eve.  Advent is a journey set in the darkest weeks of the year, as the days grow shorter and shorter.  Even after the solstice, a few days before Christmas, we don’t yet see enough lengthening in daylight to hope for the end of the winter and the light to be restored.


The path in daylight … I won’t be seeing this in the mornings anytime soon

This time of year, when the temperature allows for being outdoors (by being within a few degrees of freezing), my morning walks take place in the dark.  There’s just a bit of a reprieve around the time change, but week or two after the switch back to Daylight Wasting Time, I’m back in the dark on my morning walks.


This walking in the dark has prompted me to consider what is useful in terms of light … and what is not.


Most useful is a full (or nearly full) moon in a cloudless sky.  It isn’t as bright as day, but the soft light is enough to see the path, to see familiar landmarks, and (likely) to be seen by others.  Unfortunately, this phase of the moon lasts for just a few days and the sky must be cloudless, which is a rare thing in Minnesota.  A cloudless sky in winter typically means the temperature is so far below freezing that every drop of moisture has frozen out of the atmosphere … which also means I am NOT walking outside.


The streetlights generally help.  For aesthetic considerations and a quieter neighborhood, the overall light level is low.  But the lights are directed down to the streets and walkways and the lights are close enough to see where you’re going (in most places).  However, it isn’t enough light that a pedestrian can be sure that drivers have a good chance of seeing her.  In some places, the walkway curves away from the road and drops below grade.  For that part of the path, the streetlights up by the road don’t provide enough light to see where the path goes.  Along the one major road through the neighborhood, the streetlights are on one side of the street and the sidewalk is on the other.  The lights along that area help the drivers – not the pedestrians.


What does not help at all is the glare from headlights of approaching cars.  Much like the streetlights, the headlights are designed and positioned in such a way as to best assist the driver behind the wheel – not those outside of the car.  Rather than illuminate the area in front of me, the glare of on-coming headlights floods the area with so much light, it washes out nearly everything between the light source and me.  It’s kind of like the inverse of “all dark” blind, but it’s a form of blindness just the same.


For times like these, when the on-coming glare of headlights is too much or when the streetlights are insufficient for my needs, I’m really glad to have my flashlight.  In many ways, my flashlight is the most useful light of all.  I can turn it on when I need the light and point it where I need the light to be.  I can have a focused, bright light if I need that, or a softer, more widespread light.  The flashlight also has a strobe feature, which is helpful when I need to cross streets as it is much more able to catch the attention of drivers than I am. Drivers who don’t normally yield to pedestrians do when the strobe light is flashing.


It’s hard to walk in the dark … where does my next step land? … what might be in the way to trip my feet? … is the path ahead level or is there a dip I cannot see? … what else is along the path that might be a hazard?  I know the path I walk very well from all the months I’ve walked it in the bright, morning light.  Even in dim light, I’m fairly sure of the way.  But if I didn’t know the path or if there were crossings or points of divergence, having light with which to see would be essential to avoid losing my way.


Moving through the weeks of Advent is kind of like these morning walks in the dark.  In some ways, it is a familiar path … a cycle of weeks that comes around each year … the familiar countdown rhythm that leads to the Christmas celebrations … a wheel that turns like clockwork.


We know the stories … the Annunciation … the mysterious, miraculous pregnancies (mostly for Mary, but also for Elizabeth) … the visions of angels who announce what God is doing … the waiting and the watching … the cry of John the Baptizer: “Prepare the way of the Lord!”  Even if these aren’t necessarily the passages read in churches and homes each week through Advent, these are the subjects of our Advent hymns.  The hymns of Advent aren’t heard much outside of churches – not like the Christmas hymns and carols that have become standards alongside more secular Christmas music that plays almost non-stop from November until year’s end in the stores and on radio stations.


But we don’t necessarily need these external guides to show us the way and tell us when we are in time.  We know the path we travel.  We have our routines of preparations, how to get things done, signs that the expected event of Christmas is at hand … the tree, the lights, maybe candles on a wreath … the smells of fresh pine and spices and sugar … the rustle of paper and the slicing of scissors and the whispers of tape dispensers.  Like a well-trodden path or the hands of the clock, these things tell us where we are and when we are.


But like walking in the dark, sometimes it is good to have a light, something to help us see.  And like my morning walks in the dark, some lights are very helpful while certain others are no help at all.


Least helpful to the Advent journey is the swirl and clamor and glare of the cultural Christmas celebration.  It’s all glitter and sparkle and overly bright and shiny.  There’s the whirl and swirl of activities and festivities.  There’s the endless to-do list that gets longer, not shorter, with each item accomplished … oh, don’t forget this other thing … oh, now there’s this to take care of … oh, sure, I can squeeze this in, too … on and on and on it goes.  There’s the blare of the holiday music that’s been playing for a month now … the same tunes on the radio as in the stores … the same singers with their once-new takes on old classics … maybe made worse for “fresh arrangements” or up-to-date instrumentation or auto tune.  Then there are the crowds of people everywhere, the long lines, the overtired and whining children along with their frustrated adults (who sometimes aren’t any better).  Like the glaring headlights of the approaching cars as I walk, these things wash out all the peace, the quiet, the space for contemplation and reflection … the whole point of the Advent season.


And just what is the point of this season we call “Advent”?  Isn’t it about getting ready for Christmas?  Doesn’t that mean all the things we’re doing to get ready for the main event are, in fact, part of the Advent season of preparation?


Ah … but this is where the cultural approach to Christmas is like the streetlights along the path I walk in the dark.  Yes, sometimes these things are helpful an aid support in our Advent observance as we indeed do look toward Christmas and the coming of Jesus as the baby born that holy night in a stable somewhere in the little town of Bethlehem where he was laid to sleep in a manger because there was no crib for his bed.  Like the streetlights along the walk path, the guiding lights of culture can assist our preparations.  However, like the streetlights along my walking path, sometimes the path we’re on diverges from where the lights are … and sometimes the lights are lighting another way.


The cultural calls to prepare for Christmas don’t help when they pressure us towards consumption of things we don’t need (gifts or food), to buy more than our means honestly can accommodate, to have unrealistic expectations of what our holiday celebrations “should” look like (the perfect tree, the perfect décor, the perfect gifts, the perfect table, the perfect everything).  Following these would-be guiding lights can only lead to disappointment because they lead us to expect more than can possibly be done or arranged or provided.


And even at best, when the focus is on the right thing – the birth of Jesus, the lights around us might still take us off our intended path.  If the focus is only on the baby in the manger, caroled by candlelight on Christmas Eve, celebrated in the exchange of gifts (birthday presents in Jesus’ name we give to each other), then we’re still a bit off the path.  Christmas isn’t just about a poor couple’s baby born in a barn.  It’s about God breaking into the world – how God broke into the world then … which gives us some clues as to how God might be breaking in now.


In the midst of all this, the practices of Advent are a lot like my trusty flashlight on those morning walks in the dark.  The practices of Advent put the light where we need it to be, to show us the path we intend to be on, to help us avoid what might trip us or cause us to stumble as we find our way through this dark and confusing time.


There’s no way of telling what bumps or stumps or rocks or unexpected breaks in the surface might be lurking as we make our way in through the darkness of Advent this year.  We’ve seen plenty of disasters already.  The people in Puerto Rico and Florida and Houston are still struggling to rebuild their lives that were ripped apart by hurricanes this summer.  We remember how children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary were brutally murdered in Advent five years ago, shattering the season for so many.  There’s no way to know what form of chaos will spin its way out of the nation’s capitol next.  Here in my area, a decision about charges in the latest high-profile shooting by a police officer could be coming any day now.


We can’t turn off – or even fully unplug – from the Christmas dazzle all around us (even if we want to).  We can’t prevent things in the world around us from disrupting our peace and disturbing our path.  The world keeps moving.  Life keeps happening, the good and the bad.


But we can steward are time, watch how we use our minutes and days and hours … choose carefully where we invest our energy.  Such discipline is like that flashlight, guiding our attention to where we need to be looking, what we need to watch for … showing us the way we intend to travel so we can take our steps accordingly.


I don’t have to walk in the dark on these mornings.  I have other options … places to walk inside where it’s not just warm, there’s also light.  But I choose to walk in the dark … to be outside … to connect with the physical world around me … the rhythm of the seasons … the cycles of life.


Observing the season of Advent is that same sort of intentional engagement.  It is choosing to walk the dark, yet familiar way.  It requires both intention and attention.  It takes effort to stay on the way … to take the time out of the rush for quiet contemplation … to sit with the small light of candles in hope and expectation that a greater light will come … to look at the coming of God in the Jesus story so we can better see the coming of God in our stories.  We won’t see these things unless we’re looking … unless we know where to look … take the time to look … and have some light by which to see.


Author of time, Creator of Earth and its seasons, Keeper of Eternity …


As our seasons cycle again into winter’s darkness

As the year of your Church moves from the end of one cycle into the advent of a new

As the calendar that has marked this year enters the final weeks and we wait for a new one to begin


We light this small flame


Turning again to your promise to come once more

Remembering how you came to us a baby in Bethlehem’s manger

Trusting your presence that has sustained us to this time


May the hope of your coming and the light of your presence sustain us through the darkness of winter.  As we wait for the day of your promise, may your birth in our darkness renew our hope and life as we watch and wait for your return and the coming of the Day.



Because Easter fell rather late this year, the commemoration of the theologian Anselm of Canterbury on April 21st falls within the first week of Easter.  Maybe it’s because these events are so close this year … Maybe it’s because I spent Lent reading Walter Wangerin Jr.’s The Book of Sorrows … Maybe it’s because of yet another Easter with more people in church than on a typical Sunday … I don’t know.  However, it seems to me that, since we have so many people present on Easter Sunday – the day to tell the Church’s best story in the most beautiful ways we can find – and yet those people do not return the following week or any other weeks (aside from maybe Mother’s Day or Christmas Eve), maybe we’re telling it wrong … and Anselm may be a part of it.

Anselm was Bishop of Canterbury in the first century of the second millennium, dying on this date in 1109.  He is most remembered even to this day for his theological writings.  Philosophy students may still read his proofs for the existence of God.  Theology students still read his explanation of what is called the Satisfaction Theory of Atonement.  For the average American Christian, this is likely the most familiar theory of atonement (how human beings are made right with God through the death and resurrection of Christ).  The briefest popular summary of this theory might be “He [meaning Jesus] paid a debt he did not owe because we owed a debt we could not pay.”

It is a rather concise statement of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo (or Why the God-Man).  Anselm’s argument works within the feudal system of his time.  The local lord was sovereign and the serfs were beholden to and completely dependent upon their lord. (If you weren’t the former, you were unquestionably the latter.)  In a similar way to that of serfs toward their lord, people owe God the Creator every thought of their minds, every work of their body, and every inclination of their hearts.  Failure to do this incurs a debt to God.  And since people owe God everything they have to begin with, they have nothing extra with which they might make up such a debt.  As a human being, Jesus also owed all to God as any other human being does … and because he lived perfectly, he did not incur any debts of his own.  Furthermore, through his generosity and divine right (being also fully God as well as fully human), he extends this perfection as payment of debts to Christians.

Within the feudal context of Anselm’s time, this makes a great deal of sense.  But when it becomes unmoored from its context, this theory can become distorted and even damaging.  The closest we in America have ever experienced to the feudal system of medieval Europe was the plantation system in the time of slavery.  Do we really want to use that as the basis for an example of how things should work?

Detached from the context in which it arose, Anselm’s theory has been distorted to the point of perversion.  Much has been made of the blood of Jesus being shed to wash away sins … of God’s wrath at human sinfulness being poured out on the innocent Jesus on the cross … as if the only thing God can do with anger is vent on someone.  Feminist theologians aren’t the only one making the point that this comes across as divine child abuse.

Truth be told, the Christian faith has never settled on a single theory of atonement.  There have been several prominent ones in the history of theology, each with some valid points.  But none has ever been hailed as the definitive statement.  Even in Anselm’s own era, there were critics of his theory.  Most notable among them was Peter Abelard who asked, if the problem were one of justice – that a debt owed must be paid, then how is the greatest injustice the world has known – the execution of a truly innocent man as a criminal – a just solution?

Abelard’s own theory was based on love … that Christ’s death and resurrection was an act of great (and even divine) love intended to motivate Christians to be more loving.  Of course, this also begs the question: Then why aren’t we more loving?  Why are we so often unloving and judgmental?

Abelard may not have had the definitive answer either.  But we need a better explanation than the current formula of Anselm run amok.  Any explanation of what Jesus Christ accomplished in his death and resurrection that even hints at divine child abuse is simply not going to work in our modern context – nor should it.  Although this isn’t exactly what Anselm was describing in his theory, it is how the theory has devolved in our modern context.

Easter is the big day in the Church.  Yeah, a lot of people think it’s Christmas.  But as John Irving wrote in A Prayer for Owen Meany: Anyone can be sentimental about the Nativity; any fool can feel like a Christian at Christmas.  But Easter is the main event; if you don’t believe in the resurrection, you’re not a believer.”  Easter is the main event – and people do turn out for it.

Yes, it’s possible they show up for the trappings and the pageantry … the pastels and the hats, the flowers and the joy, the egg hunts and kids in cute clothes.  It’s entirely possible these elements are the draw.  But for whatever reason, people are in the pews and it is the congregation’s biggest chance to really tell the biggest and the best of all stories.  Is that what we’re really doing?  And if we are, just what story are we telling?

Do we tell the devolved American version of Anselm’s satisfaction theory?  If not (and there are plenty of reasons not to!), then what do we tell?  Do we try to keep it as benign and inoffensive as possible so as not to upset anyone there, especially the visitors or occasional attenders?  Just what does resurrection mean for the crucified Jesus – and for us who profess to be followers of this crucified and risen Jesus today?

Like I said earlier, I spent Lent reading The Book of Sorrows by Walter Wangerin, Jr.  It’s a sequel to his best-selling and National Book Award Winning beast fable The Book of the Dun Cow.  However, as the title might suggest, the sequel is more difficult to read than the original.  The second book is more painful and sad; it’s darker in tone and more disturbing.  But perhaps for that very reason, it is also more profound.  Both books are beast fables.  Like those of Aesop or Chaucer (in some of his Canterbury Tales), they are morality tales … what is right and good? … what is wrong and evil?  … how does one know? … how is one to choose? … what ought we do?  These aren’t really parables and certainly not allegories.  But the fantastical setting makes it possible to look at our world and its ways from a different angle, thus seeing things we might have missed before.

Although the evil Wyrm was defeated in his bid for freedom and contained once again at the close of the first book, the second book opens with Wyrm attempting a new strategy to defeat the animals who are his Keepers so he can run loose throughout the cosmos.  Rather than a direct attack as before, he tries something more subtle.  By allowing himself to be killed, he decays into a myriad of tiny worms.  Eventually Wyrm succeeds in luring Chauntecleer, the rooster who leads the community of Keepers, to his rotting corpse.  Chauntecleer is content to remain in the depths and eventually die beside the bones of the beloved companion who defeated Wyrm at the conclusion of the first book.  However, Chauntecleer is moved to leave this abyss by the antics of one of his most loyal followers, a Weasel.  As Chauntecleer pursues the Weasel, he lashes the Stag he is riding with a spur, sending the Stag into a frenzy … and in his frenzy, the Stag tramples an animal mother and one of her babies.

Thus Chauntecleer returns to his community, infected with the little worms who persuade him to refuse the love of his friends and even his wife, persuading him that their words are false … that the only truth in life is that all who are cut then cut back – at least as much, if not more.  The tragedies and broken relationships escalate, until finally the bereaved animal father comes to Chauntecleer.  The Rooster expects this other ,whom he wronged so horrifically, to strike back at him and even attacks this poor father in order to provoke the counter attack.

But none comes.  Instead, the sorrowful father absorbs the Rooster’s blows.  Rather than striking back, he acknowledges the ways he failed his family.  He tells Chauntecleer that he forgives him and offers a message from the Dun Cow (identified in the first book as a messenger from God to help and comfort the animal Keepers).  The message is one of love, of understanding, and forgiveness.  In the face of such unbreakable love, Chauntecleer is finally freed from the influence of the remnants of Wyrm and does what he must to root out the evil from himself, purging it from the community.

Perhaps this points toward the real truth of what the crucifixion and resurrection mean.  Love is stronger than hate and anger.  God does not require the anger to be vented in order to let it go; God can simply let go of the anger.  God can – and does – choose love and rejects anger (understandable and justifiable though such anger might be).  There is no requirement that a debt be paid or wrongs be righted or anger be assuaged somehow.  God simply chooses love in the face of hate, chooses life in the face of death because God can.

Back in seminary, in the second semester of systematic theology, in which we focused on Jesus Christ and the second article of the creed, we often pondered the question “What got Jesus killed?”  There are actually a number of answers, but one of the most provocative is because that’s what sin does – it kills things.  Perhaps literally in some ways, perhaps more figuratively in many others, those acts we might regard as sin, as missing the actual intention, as being not quite what we wanted to do or be in a situation, as falling short of what we (or others) expected us to be and to do … these kinds of things do real damage to others, to relationships, to ourselves.  That’s what sin does; it kills things.  And since Jesus came into the world to deal with the problem of sin, then, sooner or later, sin would kill Jesus.

Of course, where there is some form of killing or damage, there is some form of death (even if not in the most concrete, literal, actual sense).  The resurrection then is the negation of death.  Death is undone.  God’s decree is that life shall be the final word, not death.  Forgiveness is the choice not to repay in kind the wrong done, to allow the possibility of restored relationship.  Anger isn’t undone through venting; anger is undone by love.

This is good news – that life can be different, that we can be different … that death need not have the final word because God has the final word and that final word is life.  By offering love instead of hate or anger, by undoing death itself, Jesus shows a different way of life … and calls any who will to follow and do likewise.

SIGNS OF THE TIMES: Cycles … Advent … Elections …”The Second Coming”

lav-pillar-2Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote “The Second Coming” in 1919, during the aftermath of World War I. American history books don’t attend to this, but “the war to end all wars” was not only a profound social-political crisis for Europe; it was a spiritual and theological one as well. Throughout the whole conflict, the front line only moved a mile or so in either direction. The techniques of trench warfare unleashed a number of horrors that prompted many to ask how good, Christian men of enlightened, modern nations could do such hellacious things to one another. Yeats ponders this sense that world has been so profoundly shaken that what has been can no longer be and what may yet be cannot be imagined …

images-5Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer…


The gyre refers to the ancient concept of the wheel of time. Life cycles through the wheel of time. The task of life is to stay on the wheel and move with the cycles. But what if the wheel spins off center? In such times of profound dislocation, it feels as though the wheel has lost its center, spinning and whirling off course and out of control. A falcon that cannot hear the call of the falconer has lost the point of reference for directions, the guide to the way home. Likewise, in a time of such profound dislocation, any sense of rootedness or grounding seems lost.

images-6Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold …

While a number of lines from the poem have been quoted in some form or used as titles, this may be the best known line from the poem. When people have been asking “Can the center hold?”, this is what the question refers to … because if the center of a spinning wheel does not hold, everything flies apart. Think about swinging and object tied to a string around and around; what happens if you suddenly let go or the object becomes free of the string? It flies off in some direction – and may do a fair amount of damage if it hits something.

Can the center hold? That has been a question in our national, and even local, political life for some time now. Once upon a time, I’ve heard (as I was too young to observe such things at the time), the Republican Speaker of the House and the Democratic Senate Majority Leader would travel by taxicab together to speaking events, discussing along the way the points each would raise at the event. Then afterwards, they would get into the same taxicab and go out for a drink together. Could you imagine such a thing happening today?

When President George H. W. Bush failed to win a second term in 1992, even if Senator Bob Dole had dared to think it, he would never have stated publicly to anyone that the top priority for Republicans would be to make Bill Clinton a one-term president, as Senator Mitch McConnell said in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s victory in 2008.

Maybe some of it had to do with the ending of the Fairness Doctrine in the Reagan Era, which allowed the rise of voices like Rush Limbaugh and others of what came to be conservative talk radio and eventually gave rise to Fox News. Maybe some of it has to do with fighting between moderates and conservatives in the Republican Party with neither willing to become separate in the way that the Green Party led to the separation of the ultra-liberals from the less extreme elements of the Democratic Party. Maybe some of it has to do with Newt Gingrich and the “Contract with America” during the mid-term election in 1994, raising up new Republican members of congress to oppose Clinton’s agenda. Maybe some of it has to do with the rising profile of the Green Party, which drew voters from the Democrats in 2000 and caused the party to appeal more to the far left in efforts to garner more votes.

488px-2000prescountymap2Whatever the reason, studies show that where there was once a fair amount of overlap between the Republicans and Democrats in terms of policies in the 1960s and 70s (when Republican Senator Bob Dole helped author the Food Stamps program), there now is little – if any – overlap between the two. Each seems more interested in opposing the other rather than seeking common ground where policies can be built to the benefit of people in this country. The center is gone. Each side views everything – and everyone – in black-or-white terms. Either you’re a liberal or a conservative. If you don’t agree with my position, then you must be on the opposite side. If you’re not conservative or liberal enough, then you’re an apostate. There’s no place in either sphere for moderates or the less-than pure.

Neither Bob Dole nor Tom Daschle would have dared delay a vote on a Supreme Court nomination by Bill Clinton or George W. Bush by citing a need to defer to the next president (or the next election) as Mitch McConnell did this year in defiance of clear constitutional directives and all precedent. But McConnell’s purely partisan maneuver met with nothing but approval from conservatives (despite their avowed devotion to the Constitution).

Is there any center left to hold? It seems not. Everything is put in terms of “us versus them” in a zero-sum, winner-take-all battle. When George W. Bush narrowly lost the popular vote to Al Gore but won just enough of the Electoral College vote in 2000, he recognized he did not have a majority or any sort of mandate. He understood the frustrations with the election outcome and recognized the need for deliberate outreach to build connections and find some common ground.   Despite the similar outcome in this year’s election, the President-elect and his party speak of a mandate that they clearly (by any objective measure) do not have. They won and so all those who wanted someone else in office must now come to agree with the winners.

The divides were so distinct in the recent election … rural is “red”, urban is “blue” … the oldest generation skews strongly one way, the youngest one is as strongly the opposite … college–educated voters head in one direction, the non-college-educated in the other … it’s “elites” verses the “real people” and never the twain shaIl meet because neither (we are told) can possibly understand the other. The respective worlds are too far apart. Where is a middle way? Where is some center point where common ground can be found? It appears there is none to be had. And if the center is lost, then things, of necessity, fall apart.

imagestw71gql6Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

This is a reflection of what we have just been through … “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

untitled-5Many critiques have been made of Hillary Clinton over the years. Most were over-exaggerated at best and dishonest at the worst. However, one that is true is that she seemed to lack core convictions. Every policy was carefully thought out in advance … and just as carefully vetted and nuanced to appeal to as many while offending as few as possible. Her slowness to respond until she’s tested the wind and the waters gives the perception that she lacks any solid convictions. Although she is most authentic when she talks about her faith and the impact it’s had on her life, she’s always been reluctant to speak of it. That’s unfortunate because it is the source of the actual convictions she has.

Passionate intensity fueled both the rise in prominence of Bernie Sanders as well as Donald Trump and the other major contenders in the Republican contest this year (Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio). For Bernie, at least, that intensity is consistent with who he has always been, the causes he has always pressed for.   The passionate intensity is an expression of who he is and what he does. For President-elect Trump, that passionate intensity was useful in winning the election. Now that he has accomplished his goal, he has little interest in things that aroused such passionate intensity in his supporters: building a wall tens of feet high all along the southern border … pursuing a criminal investigation of Hillary Clinton (despite the fact that numerous investigations over the years have found nothing with which to charge her) … bringing back waterboarding “and worse” for captured terror suspects… completely repealing the Affordable Care Act. All of these have fallen to the backburner or have been significantly modified for the incoming Trump administration, no doubt to the disappointment of all those who voted for him because they shared the passionate intensity he voiced on these issues.

160118134132-donald-trump-nigel-parry-large-169Donald Trump is yet to be sworn in as the next president and his proposed cabinet is only beginning to take shape. However, despite the promises of bringing in top-tier, high caliber, “the best” people for positions, his selections so far are well below those promises. Jeff Sessions, who was unable to garner enough votes from a Republican majority for a federal judiciary appointment, as Attorney General … Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon who has done no development of housing stock or businesses, is being considered for Housing and Urban Development … Nicky Haley, governor from a small state with little international connection or experience (other than being the daughter of immigrants), for UN Ambassador … Betsy DeVos, an opponent of public education with a demonstrated determination to advance an agenda rather than cultivate public policies (the most recent evidence of which is her sudden reversal of her prior support for the Common Core), for Secretary of Education … these are not the brightest and the best that Trump was promising.

All indications, so far, are that Jeb Bush was correct in his assessment of Trump as a “chaos candidate” who will “be a chaos president.” But when things are falling apart, chaos is a given. Anarchy, too, is a form of chaos. Our nation is now 240 years old; the US Constitution a little more than a decade less at 227 years. Nothing lasts forever. All things eventually come to an end. Chaos and even some anarchy may be a necessary part of the undoing and remaking part. But remaking into what?

imagesqj79u5wySurely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

Longing for the Second Coming, for Jesus to return and finally make everything right, the poet describes the Sphinx of the Egyptian desert, animated by the spirit of the world. This is no answer from God, but rather an expression of the earth itself. It is animated just like the Sphinx of myth, which never gave answers, only questions posed in riddles. However, this one does not even pose a question. Is the world itself indifferent to the chaos of the present? The reeling shadows of the desert birds echo the lost falcon of the first line and drive home the point that there is no clear answer, no stable center to return to, no way back to what once was. But if this is the present, then what of the future? The poet reaches back beyond the present to the far past …

imagesv0ra2oreThe darkness drops again; but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

This is the only revelation to be had: twenty centuries (or two thousand years) … a rocking cradle … and a beast slouching to Bethlehem, waiting for a birth. A birth … Bethlehem … the time of the early 20th Century – all these indicate the poet is pointing toward Jesus. Rough beast might call to mind the donkey that carried Mary on her journey to Bethlehem where her promised son, the Savior, would be born. But if it’s the rough beast itself waiting to be born … then where does that point?

Advent 1We journey into Advent in each new liturgical year by passing through Christ the King Sunday that ends the previous year. During 2017, those that follow the liturgical patterns from antiquity, closed out the third of the three annual cycles, the one that centers on the Gospel of Luke. For Christ the King Sunday this year, we read a passage from Luke’s account of the crucifixion in which Jesus is very roughed up – beaten, bleeding, starving, exhausted. Nailed to the cross, he could be described as beastly-looking.

In the revelatory language of the Bible, the term beast often refers to a nation or a ruler or a power of some kind. But words such as rough or slouching aren’t used to describe their appearance or movement. While the poet is suggesting some kind of emerging power, he doesn’t seem to mean the traditional kind. Perhaps he has in mind the “scapegoat,” the other animal used in the annual atonement ritual of the ancient Israelites. Two goats were chosen. One was slaughtered as a sacrificial offering. The other, however, had the sins of the people placed upon it by the hands of the priest. Then it was driven out into the wilderness, to Azazel, to carry away the sins of the people. The exact mechanism was never clear, nor was it clear what happened to the goat after the duty was fulfilled. Perhaps Yeats’ rough beast is the scapegoat, having fulfilled its mission, slouching back to the people who sent it out.

Were we to ask the poet which of these it is, though, he would likely say, “Yes.” Poets and their poems can be that way, I’ve heard. But Yeats was an Irish Protestant and the last part of the poem is rich with layered Biblical imagery … as is the turn towards seeking a revelation that comes before this. It feels like the end of the world, but is it? Could the long-anticipated second coming finally be at hand? Maybe … but rather than point forward, the poem reaches back toward Bethlehem, where Christ the Savior was born. If you’re looking for some sort of revelation, the poem seems to suggests, Jesus is all you’re getting.

This is the advent movement – looking backward and forward at the same time. It’s a preparation to celebrate the birth of Christ and at the same time a reminder to prepare for Christ to come again. It’s a reminder that the promised deliverer came in obscurity to a poor family in a backwater village rather than among the powerful in their castles. It is a reminder that way Jesus lived and taught is the way things are to be when the world returns to God’s intentions. It is a reminder that Jesus died and rose to bring the world as God dreams it into the world that is today. We who would be followers of this Jesus are called to do the same, to work for the same dream.

IMG_0081So where does that leave us as 2016 winds down and 2017 approaches with a mixed bag of hope and fear, promises and risks … when for some it already seems the like the end of the world is possible (much like Yeats in his poem) and for others it may seem things are finally turning the right direction (illusory though that sense may be)?

Nothing in the world (or even the world itself) can last forever. Things change … sometimes slowly, other times rapidly, but always moving and shifting. Any person, any structure, any system we might want to use as a focus of stability will, sooner or later, shift or change or disappoint or fail. If it is time for things to come apart, we’d be foolish to fight against that. Falling apart, chaos, upheaval and destruction are necessary parts of re-making. It is that re-making that is a better focus for our energies and efforts.

But what shall we use as a guide? Perhaps, as the poet suggests, we might slouch … stumble … stagger back to Bethlehem, see what is born there, and try once more to learn.


In some traditions, there is a custom known as “St. Martin’s Advent” or Celtic Advent by which the season begins November 16th so as to be 40 days before Christmas, balancing the season of Lent, which is 40 days before Easter (not counting Sundays). It is with a view to that tradition that I offer this invocation. The basis is the old Celtic spiritual practice of invoking a blessing on daily tasks from striking a spark to light a lamp or relight the fire at the break of day to smooring the fire and laying down to sleep at night. The rest is my embroidery ….

Trio 7I light this light; I begin this day in the Name of Three:

The Three in One, the One in Three

The Holy, Life-Giving Trinity

Blessed be for eternity. Amen


Praise be God; we have a light.

Thanks be to God for the light that God gives …


The Creator spoke and there was light

Come, Holy Creator, and speak into my darkness, chaos and despair

Bring forth

+    green-pilar-1Order and Peace

+    Serenity and Purpose

+    Joy and Structure

+    And maybe even beauty

In my darkness, in my chaos, Holy Creator, let there be light.


Jesus Christ is the light of the world

Come, Holy Christ, and shine your light in the darkness and chaos of life in this world.

Call through the cacophony and show me the way

lav-pillar-2+    Show me the way of life that I might live and move and be

+    Show me the way of love that I might be loved and learn to love

+    Show me the way of light that I may be in the light as you are in the light

In my darkness, in my chaos, Holy Christ, be my light.


The Holy Spirit is the light within me

Come, Holy Spirit, Light Divine, and kindle your fire within me.

Votive 1+    Refine what is true

+    Purge what is dross

+    Guide me and lead me in all truth

You are the light and life of all creation; be light and life to me

In my darkness, in my chaos, Holy Spirit, give me light.


I light this light; I begin this day in the name of Three:

+    The Father who created me in love

+     The Son who redeemed me in love

+     The Holy Spirit who guides me in friendship and affectiontea-lt-3

The Three in One, the One in Three

Blessed be for eternity. Amen


images-4 There isn’t much TV that I watch consistently. In fact, I haven’t checked out any of the new shows that have debuted as this new season starts. But I am looking forward to the January-February mid-season interim when American Crime will be back for a third season. The decision to go ahead with a third season was made back in May, but I only learned of it a few weeks ago … and recently heard the third season will be based on an actual crime that has a Minnesota link.

American Crime has been a favorite among critics in both of its seasons (so far) and has garnered multiple nominations for Emmys in each of them. It was expected, but still disappointing, that at the 2016 Emmy Awards back in September HBO’s similarly named series based on the OJ Simpson trial of 1994 walked away with all the awards for limited series – except for Best Supporting Actress, which went to American Crime’s Regina King for a second year in a row. In all fairness, the OJ story was a riveting spectacle that played out in real time on TV as the actual events unfolded. Undoubtedly, the dramatized retrospective was even better, having been tailored specifically for a TV audience. The slew of awards for HBO’s The People vs. OJ Simpson: An American Crime Story certainly added some much needed diversity to the parade of winners. But for an exploration of crime, the impacts on all involved, and the question of what is justice, nothing tops American Crime. This is TV that will make you feel and make you think.

This is not yet-another police procedural, neither a whodunit nor a how-catch-em, focused on the work of clever detectives. It’s not a courtroom drama where persuasive attorneys force the truth to come out through gripping testimony or well-written arguments. The police, detectives, lawyers (whether prosecutors or defenders) are bit parts in this series. Instead, what has unfolded in each of the two seasons is a deep dive into the impacts of a crime on the victims, on the accused, on their families and the community. The stories press the question “What is justice in this situation?” but never offer any easy answers.

untitled-2The first season revolved around the murder of a husband and the violent assault on his wife. She had been left in critical condition, but although she did ultimately survive, she was unable to provide any information about the attack that killed her husband and nearly killed her. The groups of suspects connected to the crime included two Hispanic males (one only a teen), a black male, and a white female. Suspicion quickly focused on the sole black male (Carter, played by Elvis Nolasco). Rather than consider the role that her son’s drug dealing might have played in his death, the victim’s mother, Barb (played by Felicity Huffman), kept pressing to have the event considered a hate crime, arguing that her son was killed and her daughter-in-law was attacked because they were white. We never did learn for certain who did the killing, although we certainly saw Aubry (played by Caitlin Gerard), the white girlfriend of prime suspect Carter, become violent when her boyfriend was threatened. Near the end of the story, she confessed to the killing in order to spare her beloved Carter. That may have been the truth, but there was never any definitive statement within the storytelling that the truth was out at last. In the very end, Aubry killed herself in the state mental health facility where she’d been sentenced in her plea deal … after learning that her beloved Carter was dead … having been shot by the distraught father of the victim (Timothy Hutton) … who then killed himself, having reached the limits of his own abilities to cope with what had happened and having no support for rebuilding his life. The other characters were left with somewhat lesser levels of upheaval and devastation … and only a few had some small hope for a better future.

This past season, the crime story was even more complicated and the questions about what would be justice for those involved were even harder to answer ….

untitled-3From the opening sequence in the gym of Leland High School, a fictional tony private school in Indianapolis (capitol city of the basketball-crazed state of Indiana), it’s clear there’s something about Eric (played by Joey Pollari) as we watch him very hesitantly place his hand on the back of teammate and co-captain Kevin (Trevor Jackson) as they work on Eric’s defense under the watchful eye of Coach Dan Sullivan (Timothy Hutton). The basketball team is practicing … and so are the cheerleaders. A few students are sitting in the bleachers watching the goings-on. Among them is a student named Taylor Blaine (Connor Jessup), who is scrolling through his Facebook feed on his phone. We are given glimpses of the pictures and comments but not enough to be certain what exactly has been posted. A flashback reveals Taylor is a charity case at the school, a capable student who could go onto college (meaning great things) if he’d apply himself a bit more in his classes. But then we discover Taylor is being expelled. He only tells his mom, Anne Blaine (Lili Taylor), that he wants to go back to his previous public school – but not why. She finds out he’s been expelled for behaviors that violate the school conduct policy – but not what the behaviors were. In desperation, Anne meets with Taylor’s girlfriend, Evy (Angelique Rivers), who reluctantly shows her the pictures on social media of an obviously intoxicated Taylor at a party … pictures that show evidence of vomiting, complete loss of self-control, possibly taken while Taylor was barely conscious or even unconscious. Evy was at the party with Taylor, but she and Taylor were soon separated for some time. Although she isn’t sure exactly what happened to Taylor, she is certain “somebody messed with him” … a certainty Taylor also expresses when his mom confronts him about what she’s seen. Armed with this knowledge, Anne returns to the school to meet again with the director, Leslie Graham (Felicity Huffman). At this meeting, Anne states that her son was raped at the basketball team’s Captains’ Party. Leslie takes notes as Anne talks and then asks her to sign the last page under a hand-written statement that Anne is agreeing to abide by the school’s disciplinary policy and will seek no further action. Leslie then talks to Dan, urging him “to have a talk” with his team. images-3The coach is reluctant, but he mentions what he’s been told at the end of the team meeting and invites anyone who knows what happened to come tell him. No one does (of course). When Anne checks back with Leslie and learns that it’s been handled as far as the school is concerned, she calls 911 to report the rape of her son Taylor.

The first season started with the immediate aftermath of the crime. So does the second, but it takes the whole first episode for the crime to be revealed. What follows is the usual intricacies of investigating and trying to prove sexual assault (something we’ve seen played out in real life and dramas many times over) with the added complications that significant time has passed since the assault and that the situation involves two males … and how deep does anyone really want to dig when money, power, and the popularity of championship sports team are involved? A number of people try to do the right things, like Anne, Evy, the investigators, Taylor’s counselor. Others are mostly trying to look out for themselves … Kevin’s parents (a wealthy Black couple played by Regina King and Andre L. Benjamin), Leslie, Dan, the rest of the team and others connected with the school.

What comes to light is messy. The assault happened at the Captains’ Party, an annual tradition for the basketball team that involves alcohol, drugs, and team members “making the team” by having sex at the party. Co-captain Eric invited Taylor to the party for the purpose of having sex. Prior to the party, he and Taylor exchanged text messages discussing sexual activity. But does flirtatious texting beforehand constitute consent in the actual moment? Although Taylor willingly accepted a beer at the party, it’s clear the beer he was given contained some kind of drug. Does the fact he was drugged negate any consent he might have given previously (if the use of alcohol alone weren’t enough to remove the possibility of consent)?

images-2As for Eric, Taylor’s accused rapist, his situation is just as complicated. No one on the team knew Eric was gay until it became clear he was the one Taylor was accusing. As everything becomes public, Eric attempts suicide. The revelation of Eric’s homosexuality leads to increased turmoil in Eric’s already fragile family and increased tensions within the larger community as Leslie attempts to use Eric to demonstrate the school’s commitment to inclusivity. Ultimately the disclosure leads to direct insults at the next basketball game from the opposing team and its fans, a game that ends in a loss for the Leland Knights, the regular state champs.

While Eric and Taylor struggle in their separate ways to cope with what happened, the incident sets off ripples throughout the community. Kevin is the only team member of legal age, so he’s the only one who can be named in reports. His parents, Terri (a high-powered management level professional) and Michael (an architect), have the money to hire a good attorney who’s able to offer competent advice. imagesThey also have a friend in the police department who is able to provide them with advanced warnings as the investigation proceeds. Eric’s dad asks them to help for his son as well, but they refuse. Leslie frets about the potential impacts of the crime on the school’s upcoming fundraising gala. Dan tries to hold the team together at the school while balancing tensions in his own home between his worrisome teenage daughter (one of the cheerleaders) and his pot-addled wife who punts all the heavy-lifting of parenting onto him. Eric’s brother attends the same public school that Taylor returns to where the embattled principal, Chris (Elvis Nolasco), is trying to navigate tensions that pit one ethnic group’s interest against another for the limited resources available to the school. These conflicts are brought to a boiling point around a situation that involves Evy. Only late in the story do we learn that Evy was touched in a sexual way by a student at the school – igniting tensions between her circle of friends and the guy who touched her. It’s a secret she keeps for most of the story … adding insight to Taylor’s reluctance to disclose what happened to him.

After having been rejected by Evy when his sexual orientation is exposed, Taylor reunites with his first boyfriend once he’s back at the public school. He’s seeing a counselor, but he isn’t cooperating with his counselor or working towards healing. Mostly, he just wants to clear the air with Eric and move on with his own life. After the basketball game at which insults directed at Eric are hurled at the whole team, Kevin shoots off his mouth with some of his teammates, characterizing Taylor as a bitch who needs to be taught a lesson. The other teammates convince Eric to text Taylor, asking to meet him at a playground. Eager to finally be able to talk to Eric, Taylor goes to the playground and is badly beaten by several members of the basketball team.

untitledWe wish Taylor would go to the police with what happened … or at least tell his mom … or confide in his counselor … or even just try to follow his counselor’s guidance. But instead he hides out with his boyfriend, not wanting to be seen until his bruises are gone.

Throughout the story, Eric engages in hook-ups with guys who drive hot cars, exchanging sexual favors for some time in a car he’d like to have. As happens in real life, people misrepresent themselves on hook-up apps and one such hook-up turns out to be a dad with a minivan. Their encounter quickly turns violent and Eric has to fight his way out of the minivan. He’s badly shaken and we never learn what condition he left the other man in.

Things turn even worse for everyone when Taylor, partially recovered from his beating, steals a gun from the family friends who have been like foster parents to him … buys some drugs from the coach’s daughter (marijuana and pain killers she’s stolen from her mother’s stash) … and concludes that the solution to his situation is to kill Leslie. He goes to the school, but she’s out of the office, giving a speech at a conference. Finally, after some consoling words from the secretary, Taylor decides to leave.  As he makes his way across campus, he encounters one of the basketball players who assaulted him at the playground. The player gets in Taylor’s face and yells “Didn’t I tell you if you ever showed your face around here again, I’d kill you?” To everyone’s surprise, Taylor pulls the gun from his jacket pocket and shoots the other student. He dies … and now Taylor is facing murder charges.

As the series winds to a close, Taylor is preparing to accept a plea deal instead of pursuing a defense strategy that would emphasize his trauma in a plea of self-defense. Eric, after having been confronted by his dad about the “dates” he goes on, is preparing to hook up with yet another guy in a hot car. Does Taylor take the plea deal? Does Eric get in the car? We’re left with those questions … along with the question of what would truly be justice in this situation

What would truly help Taylor find healing and peace after what has been done to him: the assaults (physical and sexual), the betrayals by people he was supposed to trust, the unjust expulsion? He is a good kid to whom a number of terrible things have happened. What will help him back on the path he was brutally knocked off of? What will give him hope and open the door to a good future?

And what is justice for Eric? Luring Taylor to the party and ensuring his compliance with drugged beer was cruel … so was rejecting Taylor afterwards, claiming embarrassment by how Taylor was acting under the influence, embarrassment from the photos of that episode posted on social media. But Eric has his own torments and problems, starting with rejection and condemnation from his parents … and then the public shaming from others in the community. Where can Eric find love and acceptance and help navigating the transition to manhood as a gay man?

And what are the roles of the adults in this? The Captains’ Party is an established tradition for the basketball team. Surely the coach must know something about the event and the goings-on. The school director is also turning a blind eye because a winning coach who brings home championship banners also helps bring in the donations her school needs. Money protects Kevin and his parents to some degree … but in the end Terri’s bosses at the firm find the lengths she went to in order to protect her son embarrassing and she’s offered a lateral move to a different city or an exit package … suggesting that race ultimately trumps money nearly every time.

Money, race, class, privilege … who is valued for what and who is overlooked … who matters and who doesn’t … all these currents swirl though the stories of American Crime and add complexity to the question of just what is justice in these situations for all involved. The open-ended conclusions of the stories with no hint of closure drive the question home. Producer and writer John Ridley (with help from a pool of talent) demonstrates that his Oscar for writing Twelve Years a Slave was no fluke.

untitled-4This season, Emmy nods went to Lili Taylor as Anne, Felicity Huffman as Leslie, and Regina King as Terri (the second time in a row for the latter two … and Ms. King has won the Emmy both years). Timothy Hutton is as excellent as he has been since his Oscar-winning debut decades ago in Ordinary People. But overlooked in the nominations were the outstanding performances by Connor Jessup and Joey Pollari as the characters at the heart of this drama. Both delivered powerful, gusty, unflinching performances in very difficult roles neither of which were truly hero or villain.

Completely overlooked in reviews and awards for this second season were the choreographer and dancers. Several scenes in early episodes were set around the high school’s dance company rehearsing for a performance at the fundraiser gala where the piece was performed in its entirety. The dance number was an exploration of humanity, sexuality, power, and consent that offered wordless commentary on the story in a highly effective way.

If you missed the first seasons of American Crime, spend some time catching up — and be watching come January!


Walk 3aA few weeks ago on a Friday, on my usual morning walk, I was pondering the gospel for the coming Sunday … especially the part known as the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  Knowing I have to watch my time in the mornings (because my commute now takes about three times as long to detour around construction), I was trying to decide whether to take the full walk or save a few minutes time by cutting it a little short.  When I reached the point where I’d need to turn back or keep going, I decided to keep going.

Just past that point, I encountered a white Labrador dog walking around loose … up on the path, then down in the street.  I really did not have time to deal with a lost dog, I tried to tell myself.  But what had I just been thinking about?  A story Jesus told that turns on whether or not people will interrupt their own agendas for the sake of a stranger in need.  And here was a creature in need of help.  The dog had a collar … which would indicate she belongs with someone … so even if the dog didn’t quite qualify as another human being, the person the dog belonged with surely qualified.

I convinced the dog to come to me.  But as I attempted to search her collar for a tag, she darted back into the street.  There wasn’t a lot of traffic on the street at that time.  The posted speed limit is only 25mph because the road has lots of sharp curves, poor sight lines, and is a popular area for bicyclists, walkers (with and without dogs), and the occasional roller-skier.  However, drivers regularly disregard the speed limits … and one such driver was approaching.  I yelled and waved my arms to warn him of the dog just ahead.  He stopped … and the driver coming from the other direction stopped as well.  The dog made it safely out of the street and I was able to grab her collar.  There was no tag.

As I pondered what to do now, a man rode by on a bicycle.  “That’s a nice puppy you got there,” he said.  I explained she wasn’t mine and asked if he knew where the dog belonged.  He said he didn’t and pedaled on.  Looking around at the houses across the street, I thought I remembered an older man sitting in a lawn chair tossing a ball to a similar dog in one of the yards.  So I started to lead the dog across the street.  Her collar was loose and she pulled out of it.  Once I got her across the street, I managed to slip her collar back on and led her to the house where I thought she might belong.  She went up the steps to the door readily enough and I rang the doorbell … realizing as I did that it was about 6:30am.

The door was answered promptly by a woman who was fully dressed, with a dog beside her and a man standing behind her.  I asked if the dog were hers and she said no.  She recalled a white lab that had been lost from a home a few doors down … but that was a couple years ago.  Then she explained that she was getting ready for her mother’s funeral that morning … if not for that, she would have been glad to help.  She gave me the name of a neighbor a few doors in the other direction who had lived there for years and who might know where the dog belonged.  Watching me struggle with the dog’s collar (it pulled loose again as I tried to lead the dog away), she offered to lend me a leash.  I accepted and promised to return it.

I took the dog to the house she suggested and, knowing it was still pretty early in the morning, I only rang the doorbell once.  A number of lights were on, so I had some hope someone might answer.  But no one did.  Without a watch, I wasn’t sure of the time, but I was going to be late for work at the rate things were going.The loaner leash made it much easier to walk the dog and we headed back home.  As we walked, I noticed she was favoring one of her hind legs a bit and I wondered if it had been that way for a time (she was an older dog) or if she’d been injured while she’d been lost.  But she kept up at a good clip as we walked.

LabradorRetriever_heroOnce we reached the house, I secured the dog’s leash in the back yard, went in the house and woke the kids up.  The time wasn’t as late as I feared; there might still be enough time to make it to work.  I gave my son the task of calling animal control to report the lost dog.   After helping me find dishes to put out some food and water for the dog, my daughter took care of our cats (a task that I usually do) and put my lunch items into the bag.  As I dressed for work, the kids took reluctant turns sitting out with the dog and keeping her company.  My son called animal control as soon as the office opened and reported that they would come at some point to pick up the dog.

I was just a few minutes late to work.  As soon as I reached my desk, I had a text from my daughter letting me know that animal control agents had just picked up the dog.  They had left a card so I could follow up on the situation.  My daughter had also taken a picture of the agent’s card in case she encountered anyone looking for a lost dog when she went out for a walk.  My son was able to walk his dog and make it to his job on time.

Between the bad leg and the fleas my daughter noticed on the dog, we thought she might have been lost for some time.  We agreed the dog had such a sweet disposition; she was instantly charming.  If no owner showed up, we were seriously considering adopting her ourselves.

The following Monday, I called animal control to find out what had happened to our little friend.  I was told that the dog had been reunited with her owner a little more than an hour after she had been picked up at our house.  Maybe she did have a microchip and they had a way of scanning for it in the truck.  Maybe the dog had already been reported lost with such a good description that the officers decided to contact the person who reported the dog missing before taking her to the shelter.  In any case, the dog was reunited with her owner quickly.  It all worked out.

That particular day, I was thinking about that parable of the “Good Samaritan” and how I would actually tell it (rather than read it) to the congregation that coming Sunday.  We all know the form of the story; it is certainly one of the best-known among the parables …

A certain person was going down the road that leads from Jerusalem to Jericho.  As he went, he fell among some bandits.  They stripped him and beat him and left him half-dead by the side of the road.  Then they went away.  By chance, a priest (a holy man) came along the same way.  He saw the man lying naked and half-dead by the side of the road.  But he passed by without attending to him.  Likewise, a Levite (a higher order of priest) came along the same way.  He, too, saw the man lying naked and half-dead by the side of the road.  But he, too, passed by without attending to him.  good-samaritanBut when a Samaritan – one of those despicable half-breeds of bad faith and questionable character – when this Samaritan saw the man lying naked and half-dead by the side of the road, his guts were twisted with compassion.  Taking oil and wine, he came near the man and poured these on his wounds.  He bandaged the man’s wounds.  Then he put the man on his own beast of burden and transported him to an inn where travelers lodge.  There, he cared for the man.  The next day, he took out two coins, each worth a day’s wages; these he gave to the innkeeper.  “Take care of him,” he told the innkeeper; “if you spend more than this on his care, let me know, and I will repay you when I return.”

 “Now,” Jesus said to the legal expert who questioned him, “which of these three are you thinking acted as a neighbor to the man who fell among the bandits?”

The whole story, of course, is intended as an answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?”  We usually think of neighbors as those close by … people we know … maybe those who live in the places next door to our own.  But Jesus answers a question about neighbors by telling a story about people who are traveling.  The one who acts as a neighbor is the one who has compassion on the one in need – and does something the alleviate that need, something that demonstrates care and concern.  To love our neighbors as ourselves is to act with care and compassion to those we find in need however we find them.

It’s easy enough, I suppose, to stop for a sweet lost dog … for the helpless creature herself, if not for the people who are desperately trying to find her.  For those whom we know, whom we care about, who are dear to us, it requires no thought at all.  Of course, we will drop everything to help as much as we can when they call.  For casual acquaintances, those we know only slightly, we’re a lot less willing – and perhaps wisely so.  But what about the complete stranger?

There’s no easy answer.  The parable makes it seem simple.  The person in need is the neighbor and, to fulfill the commandments, one must show love and compassion to them.  We might stop for someone we saw trip and fall in the street … summon help … direct cars around her … stay until help arrives.  We might help someone in a parking lot jump start a car or stop for someone stranded at the side of the road … or at least call for appropriate help.  But would we stop if there was an accident unless it directly involved us … if there were no police or paramedics or firefighters on the scene yet?  And then what do we do for the man standing at the intersection, holding a sign asking for help?  The woman begging bus fare in the parking lot between the grocery store and the liquor store?  Do the taxes we pay for the transit system count? Does the change we dropped into some kettle back at Christmas count as helping the one with the sign?  And would it truly be helping to give money – or is that delaying the person from accessing real help?  There are no simple, clear answers.

But here are some clues … because we’ve lost sight of who’s who in the zoo of this parable.  We call the Samaritan “good” because of what the character does.  But no one in Jesus’ audience would ever have associated an adjective like good with anyone of Samaritan descent.  Someone like the priest would be expected to be the hero of the tale, the example to emulate.  If not the priest, then certainly the Levite could be expected to rise to the occasion.  But just as the right thing to do is murky for us, it was for these characters as well  The purity codes priests were expected to follow imposed specific sanctions for contact with a dead body.  It would be hard to tell half-dead from all-dead without violating the laws that guided the behaviors of priests.  If the person were indeed dead, the one who had contact with him would be ritually impure, unable to perform his priestly duties.  That the priest and the Levite are coming from Jerusalem suggests they wouldn’t have been expected to perform any temple rites before they could become ritually pure again.  Perhaps for the sake of following the rules, they weren’t willing to risk contact with the man by the road.  Should either of them have made an exception to the rules for the sake of the man by the side of the road?  These are important people in the community, with places to go and things to do.  Should they set aside their duties, obligations, agendas for the sake of whoever, whatever this person by the road happens to be?

The Samaritan, of course, does stop to help.  We forget now, but Jesus’ audience would have regarded him as suspect and dangerous, expected a Samaritan to take advantage of a situation like that and perhaps do further harm to the man by the side of the road.  But the Samaritan in Jesus’ story does the unexpected.  He stops.  He does the right thing.  He does more than just help a little.  He either takes care of what is needed or arranges for the rest of it.  But who do we suspect will harm rather than help?

Accident 4Almost three years ago, I was one in need of help … stuck by the side of the road after a freakish vehicle accident.  Those already at the scene responded immediately … checked that everyone was okay, called for the police.  The police officer came and did his job – collected the information, verified that all of us would be able to drive or otherwise remove our vehicles from the scene.  Once that was done, he left.  Everyone else moved on … except me.  My vehicle didn’t seem to be drivable (and that did later prove to be the case).  I had already called my husband and he was on his way.  But that would take time.  Everyone left and there was nothing more to do but call the insurance company to initiate the claim, get a referral to a body shop, and arrange for the tow.

While I was on my phone, a man came along the sidewalk, walking his bike rather than riding it.  He stopped by my minivan.  When a bus stopped at the nearby stop, he spoke to someone on the bus, but he didn’t board it.  He just waited.  He didn’t say anything to me … didn’t ask what happened.  I suppose I could have (should have?) felt a little frightened.  After all, I’m a white woman and he was African-American.  But I found his mere presence to be a comfort, not a threat.  I was still on the phone with the insurance company when my husband arrived.  The two of them talked a bit … and then the man with the bicycle moved along his way.

I don’t know why he stopped.  Maybe he was curious about what happened.  But he never asked … and I never had a chance to ask him.  I like to think he stopped to keep an eye out for me while I was distracted on the phone.  Once he knew I was safe with the next person who showed up (my husband), then my unexpected helper, my “good Samaritan” went on his way.

We know how to do this with helpless creatures like dogs … We know how to do this for people we know, especially those we love … Can we learn to do these things for one another simply because we are all human beings?

Good Tidings, Dear People — One More Time

I’m indebted to pastor & author Walter Wangerin, Jr.  for the title line (which also appears in the text) as well as for the indentifier “the fear-not angel.”  I also want to acknowledge my mom for the theological insight she gave me twenty-some years ago…

Nativity - GR 1We’re here tonight because it’s Christmas Eve … because this is just what we do. It’s tradition, after all. And like all traditions, it’s not about any one thing; it’s the whole constellation of things. It’s the memories that are wrapped around the specifics like Silent Night will soon be wrapped around our little candles. It’s the togetherness of family – the memories of being children … then adults … then parents with our little ones. It’s a touchpoint as the year winds down – a night to watch and ponder. It’s a moment of stillness and peace amid the frenzy that is our cultural holiday celebration, a time to relax between all the preparations and tomorrow’s gifting and feasting. And it’s a story.

143897fbdf2d8499b1953c50e78e9628We are here tonight for the story … so often-told we know it by heart … perhaps best told by the child’s voice of Linus in A Charlie Brown Christmas, reciting a part of that story straight out of the good ol’ King James Version. It’s the story we sing in our beloved hymns tonight – the reason why those hymns are beloved. It’s a story of a wondrous baby, stars and angels with a few other characters tossed in like Mary and Joseph and the shepherds out in their fields. So long as Jesus is lovingly tucked into that manger-bed and the angels sing their glorias, then, at least for this night, all is truly right and beautiful in the world.

untitled (2)We need that tonight as much as ever we did – and maybe even more – because so much is not right in this world. Where to start? We’ve seen pictures this year of other little babies washed up on shorelines half a world away. We’ve heard the stories from their devastated parents of the terrible risks they’d taken to find a place of safety after being driven from their homes by war and mayhem.

09-04-2015Refugees_FYROMWe know the violence that drives such desperate choices. We’ve experienced the terror such violence produces as it spilled into Paris, France and San Bernardino, California. We ponder the toll this violence takes on families here in our country as our service men and women continue to serve in these war-torn lands, as we add up the loss of lives and the battle damage that never fully heals. We wonder if our military efforts are helping or hurting. Would more troops help or should we just get out?

Military action elsewhere isn’t the only source of violence that haunts us. We’ve seen a number of mass shootings here in our land this year. images (3)One of the most shocking was the slaying of nine people in the sanctuary of “Mother” Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The young man did it to act out his racist perspectives, citing the slaying of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman as his wake-up call.

Touching on that subject, we are becoming more aware of the number of people of color, mostly young males, almost always unarmed, who have been killed by police or died while in police custody. We’ve seen it happen recently here in the untitled (3)Twin Cities and yesterday’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations have sought to raise awareness of the struggles people of color face when it comes to matters of justice and equality. A seemingly endless litany of demographic statistics around income, education, housing, you-name-it shows these inequalities are not simply a matter of perception.

Tonight, in our city of Saint Paul, families are doubled up with others or sleeping in cars or huddled anywhere they can be out of the elements for the night. The shelters are full and there is no room to be had. ChristmasTreeRents keep rising and housing that’s affordable to low-wage earners is harder and harder to come by. Supposedly our economy has recovered from the recession, but most of us aren’t feeling it.

I know … this is supposed to be a happy, joyous time and I’m really not trying to deprive you of that happiness and joy or to depress you. But this is the situation that surrounds us as we gather tonight to tell that story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. And if that story doesn’t speak into these times in which we live, to the world we know, then it won’t mean much of anything.

So let me tell you another story – a true story. As stories go, it’s neither unique nor unusual. It could have happened five years ago or fifty years ago; it could have happened almost anywhere.

WIN_20151227_181315A new grandmother was watching as her own daughter cradled the new little baby boy who had made the daughter into a mother and the mother into a grandmother. “You know,” the grandmother remarked to her daughter, “watching you with him I wonder if this was what it was like to see Mary with Jesus.” “Mom!” the daughter protested, “I’m sure Baby Jesus never pulled his mother’s hair or kicked her when she was trying to feed him.” But the grandmother smiled back with a wry, knowing smile that seems to come with being a grandmother. “I wouldn’t be too sure about that,” she said; “I think he just might have.”

Yes, Jesus just might have done those things. Sure, he was quiet that first night – worn out from the process of being born as any other newborn is … for a while. But he probably wasn’t quiet the next night or for many more after that. As he grew, he was probably as rambunctious as any other toddler … and got into as much trouble as your average growing boy. We know there was some consternation on Mary and Joseph’s part when Jesus up and decided all on his own to stay back in Jerusalem after Passover and not tell anyone his plans.

No, Jesus wasn’t a perfect angel baby. Jesus was a human baby who was born as all of us are, who grew as all of us do, who experienced human life in all of its complexity and messiness. That’s the whole point of the incarnation. God was rolling up the holy sleeves and plunging wholeheartedly into human existence and all that life in this world involves. Jesus didn’t come because we finally got it all together or fixed ourselves up enough that all we needed was a slightly better model of perfection. God broke into the world in Jesus because it’s a mess, because our lives in this world are a mess.

Tea Lt 3So let me tell you another story … one that might be a bit different in the telling, but familiar nonetheless. It did happen a long time ago, but within a span of years we can reckon. It did not take place in some galaxy far, far away but in an area we still map today. In the days of the Roman Empire, when Augustus ruled as emperor and decreed a census, and so the whims and the demands of the empire set people moving about.

That’s why Joseph had to travel south, from his home in Nazareth to a city called Bethlehem, because his ancestral roots ran there. But over the many years between the time of David the Shepherd Boy who became king and the time of Joseph and Mary and Augustus and Quirinius in neighboring Syria, Joseph’s people had been moved about by exile and return and other needs. Hence, it wasn’t just Joseph; a lot of people were having to move about to satisfy the demands of the empire.

Joseph had to leave his home and he took his very pregnant wife with him. Why? Who knows! Maybe he didn’t want to miss the baby’s birth. Maybe he wasn’t sure how long it would take him to return from Bethlehem (especially if he spent all the little money he had for that initial trip). Maybe Mary having her baby away from their hometown would blunt the counting of the months between their hurried-up wedding and the birth of her child and allow the local gossip chain to settle down.

imagesA3F5A19LIn any case, Joseph took Mary with him to Bethlehem and there she gave birth to her baby. Like any mother, she wrapped him tight in what cloth she had to keep him snug and warm. Then she laid him in an animal’s feed box for a bassinet because there was no shelter for them, except with the animals. No one took any notice. People such as these don’t really matter in the overall scheme of things.

imagesA07EVF73Now somewhere outside of town, there were some working stiffs up on the night shift. It was to them that the angel of God appeared as the stars overhead seemed to explode into a myriad of heavenly beings. This messenger of God said to them: Don’t be afraid; I have good news that brings great joy – first to you and then to everyone else. To you a Savior has been born in Bethlehem. This is the messiah, the one sent by God to put the world to rights. You’ll find the baby wrapped up like any other, but this one is lying in a feed box. Then the angels sang their glorias and the working stiffs went to see. And when they had seen, they told everyone they met about what they’d seen, what they’d heard. Maybe a few listened … maybe.

What God did some two thousand years ago, God could do again. God broke into this world then and God can break into it now. After all, you really didn’t think God went through all that coming in Jesus just to leave us all on our again, did you? Of course not! In the incarnation, by coming to us in Jesus, God has demonstrated a dedication to this world that God made and continues to love. Trio 10In Jesus’ living and teaching, in his dying and his rising, God acted to put the world back on a course toward the dream God has had for this world and life in it from the moment of creation.  God is still at work in this world to bring that dream to life in the here and now. You just need to know where to look.

What does the story tell you? It wasn’t to the big names like Augustus or Quirinius and their wives that Jesus was born. Instead, the holy child was born to a peasant couple whose names would otherwise have been completely lost to history if not for this story. It wasn’t in the halls of power in the palace or the temple where the messengers of God sang the glorious good news. It was to no-name laborers out in the fields, outside of town and society. If you want to see what God is doing, look there … among the forgotten, neglected, and rejected, those at the margins and on the outside. There you will find Emmanuel, God with us – for God has come to us.

So sing your glad songs. Gather around the table; eat the bread and drink the wine. Take the real presence of Christ into your own flesh and bones. Light your candles and sing the sweet song. Then blow that small flame in – not out, in – into you, God’s love now made flesh in you. untitled (2)Then go out like the shepherds and tell all you meet what you’ve heard, what you’ve seen. Go out as fear-not angels, singing out the good news of great joy which is for all the people, for you and everyone else. Christ is born. God is with us.

Good tidings, dear people, one more time. Amen.

Letting Go … My Son Leaves the Nest

Theme 6I can see my rocking chair again, even sit in it – if I want …which I haven’t in a long time. Until about two months ago, it had gradually disappeared under a rapidly growing pile of things … things like pillows and bedding … surrounded by furnishings like a hamper, lots of hangers, laundry detergent and toiletries … boxes with furniture, a desk and a chair, waiting to be assembled … later … after they were delivered to their real destination (which was not my rocking chair). The growing accumulation of stuff was destined for a room in a fraternity house at a university some three states away. Just over two months ago, the whole pile was loaded up and delivered to the intended destination … along with my son, who’s starting a new chapter in his life.

pI suppose it’s fitting that all this stuff for him piled up around the old rocking chair. I’ve had that chair almost as long as I’ve had him … a gift from my own KSU Journey 2parents to honor their first grandchild. Originally, they planned to give me the rocker in which I’d been rocked as a child. But that was broken in their own move more than a year before my son was born. So they gave us funds to buy a new one. It was a good investment. There’s no way to calculate the hours I’ve spent in that chair … nursing my babies, rocking them to sleep, reading to them.

That chair has been such a symbol of nurturing in the house that even our late cat Yeti recognized it as a place of nurturing. Years ago, when I was in seminary, our house in Blaine became infested with mice. Yeti would dutifully hunt down the mice that came out of the attic into the living space. In the morning, I would find his kill from the previous night left near the rocking chair in the family room. I imagine he considered it to be doing his part to provide and care for the family.

Unlike the old rocker my parents meant to pass along to me, my rocker has survived every move we’ve made so far … the move from Mesa (where the kids were born) to the Twin Cities (where they started school) to Kansas (where they both attended middle school), back to the Twin Cities (where my son graduated and my daughter will soon graduate from the same school district in which they started elementary school). And although this chair was never even considered to make this big move with my son, it served as a gathering point for the things he would be taking on his first big move.

Having his new stuff surrounding that well-loved chair was a way of blessing them, I suppose. The chair was so much a part of my early nurturing of him, maybe it was fitting that it played a central role in one of my last acts of nurturing for him: providing him the things he would need as he stepped out into the world (mostly) on his own.

thCA1MOAC0Oh, he’s not totally on his own. He’s in a fraternity with a band of brothers all around, some of whom may come to be as dear as brothers he might have been raised with (if I’d had other sons). There’s a house dad to keep an eye on things and a cook to prepare dinner most nights. I send care packages with food and other things he may need (a wastepaper basket and, most recently, his Harry Potter wand). But he is making his own nest now, someplace else. He no longer resides under my roof, in my nest … and likely won’t on a full-time basis ever again.

It helps to know that this is making a dream come true for him. He’s known what he wanted to study in college and where he wanted to study it since a Boy Scout merit badge clinic at that very same university years ago. Glad as he was to leave Kansas and come back up to Minnesota (and especially the cold), his heart was still set on that university back in Kansas. I wasn’t sure how that could happen, but it’s worked out. He’s there, living his dream. And I am very glad and happy for that.

Chelsea Hts 2In many ways, taking him to college was much like taking him to Chelsea Heights on that first day of kindergarten. Fourteen years ago, with a mixture of pride and grief, I pulled up in our minivan in front of that school house. I helped him out, gave him a hug, and sent him on his way into his classroom for his very first day of school. While I stood and watched, he walked up the sidewalk, through the open doors and turned left to go into his classroom, never once looking back.

Maybe it was a good thing he didn’t look back so he didn’t see the tears in my eyes. Yes, some of them were tears of sadness that a chapter in my life, a chapter in which I was his main teacher and was present with him for most of his waking hours, was ending. Chelsea Hts 4He was growing up and there was no turning back the clock. That first day of kindergarten was the first rung on a long, but limited, ladder that would lead to graduation … college … and then life on his own as adult. But for him to have all the wonderful experiences and the life I’ve been hoping for him since I knew of him, he would have to take those steps up the sidewalk and into that school.

But some of those tears that day flowed from a heart full of pride – pride in how he’d grown and developed … that he was now ready for the learning adventures of school and excited about going … at the way he walked up that sidewalk and into that school, never once looking back. I was thrilled for him and the experiences he was about to have.

When I saw him the last time two months ago, it was much the same thing. It grieved me to let him go into that house that evening … to drive back to the hotel … knowing that we would leave town the next morning without him. After the pledging ceremony the day before, a mom sitting next to me confided she didn’t know how she would make it until family day, a month away. I said I would have to wait until Thanksgiving. She asked how I was going to make it; I said I didn’t know, but I’d have to somehow.

imagesAnd just like that first day of kindergarten, I was also proud of all he accomplished and excited for the adventure that was about to begin for him.   If he’s going to have all that I’ve hoped for and dreamed for him all this time, this is another step he has to take. So there was pride and happiness mixed in with that grief once more. I tried to focus on that as I gave him a hug that somehow had to be big enough to last three months.

Of course, just like that first day of school, he walked up the sidewalk into that big brick house and never once looked back.

Since we’ve been back here, things have been quieter in the house. The foolish fighting he and his sister would frequently engage in has stopped. His room is clean, with much of what he’s left here packed away. The bed has been made every single morning since I last made it after washing the sheets a month ago. Such wonders rarely happened when he inhabited the room.

Still, I do miss him. I miss having an eye on his comings and goings … hearing the few things he might say about his classes and how things were going … discussing current events and sports news. So I send him things I find that we might have talked about whether it’s links to articles that I email or comic strips clipped from the paper. I write letters; I send emails. I put together care packages to send out … sometimes surprises … sometimes things he’s requested – with a surprise or two or three tucked in with what he asked for.

thCAYQ1BISI don’t hear much in return. That’s to be expected, I suppose. He’s a busy guy these days with a full load of classes that take a lot of study time. He’s a pledge in a fraternity with tasks to complete in order to become a full member as well as social activities. He’s now completely responsible for his laundry, assigned house chores, and arranging his own meals (except for weeknight dinners).

So I learn to live with the “no news is good news” approach. If something bad were to happen, I would hear from someone. If there were a major problem, I think he’d ask for help. He is developing the habit of dropping us a sentence or two by email once a week. At least we know he’s still there. That helps.

In time, I’m sure I’ll get used to the infrequent contact. This is what the future holds. For the next few years, he’ll spend more time there than here … and the time spent here may gradually diminish before he graduates. Then he’ll find work somewhere … maybe close to here, but maybe not. Either way, once he’s working and has his own place, we’ll likely hear from him even less frequently … no more often than I call or write or have contact with my own parents. That is what it means for him to grow up and I never did want him to stay little forever.

But I’m not quite ready for that yet. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to a month from now when he’ll be home on Thanksgiving break and I’ll have him back in my nest for a little while.

Dear God … It’s The Good Wife


The Good Wife 2When I saw the title (“Dear God”) and the briefest of plot synopses (Christian mediation) for the episode of The Good Wife that aired on CBS on Sunday, October 5th, I wondered. It’s not very often that television gets this stuff right. Sure, The Good Wife is reliably one of the best dramas on TV (especially broadcast network TV) right now. The writing and directing and acting are consistently top-notch. Many weeks the guest cast list includes at least one notable name. While faith has come up from time to time throughout the seasons, it’s always been a sideline part of a story, not the main focus. Usually it involves mother-in-law Jackie sniping at Eli Gold (her son’s previous campaign manager who is now his chief of staff) about his Jewishness … or more recently daughter Grace and her burgeoning Christian faith.


thCANZLH9NBut overall, far beyond The Good Wife, television has a long history of getting faith more wrong than right. I still regard TV’s best portrayal of Christian faith and life (at least as I’ve experienced it) as the short-lived series Nothing Sacred, which aired from the fall of 1997 until early spring the following year. Set in Chicago (like The Good Wife), the series centered on the staff of fictional Saint Thomas Catholic Church. Characters wrestled with faith and doubt and questions for which there were no simple, clear, easy answers. Angels never showed up to explain anything; this was no Touched by an Angel (a much more popular program that started a few years earlier). Viewers, it seems, prefer fantasy to reality again and again … a dynamic that does not bode well for those seeking honest, realistic portrayals of people of faith on television. So back to The Good Wife and “Dear God” (Episode 3 in this sixth season)


105162raw-95bThe primary story for this episode features a client named Ed Pratt (Richard Thomas), a sort-of John-Boy Walton who went to business school and then into agribusiness rather than becoming a writer. (Yes, it is a bit of type-casting; however, few actors can convey earnest sincerity and have it seem natural and unforced like Mr. Thomas does.) Ed is a client of attorney Kary Agos (Matt Czuchry), who is on the sidelines due to pending criminal charges. So Alicia (Julianna Margulies) takes over arguing his case, assisted by newcomer Dean Levine-Wilkins (Taye Diggs). The courtroom sparring between Alicia or Dean and the defendant’s attorney, Carter Schmidt (Christian Borle), does not sit well with Ed or with the defendant, Wendell Keller (familiar face Robert Joy). As it turns out, not only are Ed and Wendell neighbors, they are also Christians. So they decide to try a different approach to resolve their dispute: Christian mediation by what is called “the Matthew Process” and appears to draw from instructions in Chapter 18 of Matthew’s gospel.


Now here we go … but in which direction? What variety of Christian behavior and practice is going to be on display?


Enter Robert Sean Leonard (more recognizable here than in his recent turn as Dr. Roger Kadar on TNT’s Falling Skies) as the mediator, Del Paul. His mediation sessions take place at a conference-style table set up in a church sanctuary. thCA2YNURYIn the hands of a lesser writer and a lesser actor, this character could have easily become a buffoonish compilation of clichés that the entertainment industry frequently associates with Christians … which is what I feared would happen. But that is not what happens at all.


As the first mediation session begins, the lawyers attempt to recreate the same arguments and strategies we just saw them using in the courtroom. Del, however, is having none of that. The rules and procedures to which the lawyers are accustomed don’t apply here. Instead, Del’s primary concern is what is going on with Ed and Wendell – what is the issue as each understands it? … which is where any mediation process generally begins. This being a Christian mediation process, Del is also concerned about Ed and Wendell’s on-going relationship as neighbors and as fellow believers, their personal integrity and the role their faith has in their interactions. Hence, it is quickly made clear to the attorneys that scripture is to inform their arguments – not legal precedent.


This sends Alicia home to consult with her daughter Grace (Makenzie Vega) for a crash course in what passages from the Bible would be appropriate for her to use. As Alicia lines up the passages to use to support her case and then to argue against what the opposing counsel is likely to say (yes, “Bible bullets” to shoot back with), bibleGrace explains that the Bible doesn’t work that way. This leads to Grace explaining how things in the Bible can be true “the way poetry is true.” It’s a great moment for the characters and a realistic explanation that most pastors would love for a member of the youth group to be able to articulate.


Back in mediation, Alicia and Carter give working from Scripture their best efforts, but they are still attorneys. Del acknowledges that they have done their homework … while at the same time subtly conveying his awareness that their use of scripture is utilitarian … in a manner that is not condescending or insulting. And when Del states he will pray and reflect on the points that have been raised, inviting the others to do the same, he comes across as genuine and conveys an openness to possibilities rather than a mind that is set on a foregone conclusion. When the next mediation session convenes, Del has reached an understanding that opens a safe place for one party to confess … and to explain why he felt he had few options other than to act as he did … and for both parties to work out a means of restitution that honors their relationship as neighbors and friends by not forcing the party in the wrong into destitution.


Also during the back-and-forth of dueling scripture passages in the second mediation, as the Alicia and Carter attempt to use scripture much as they do case law, the heretofore quiet second-chair Dean spontaneously cites a very relevant passage of scripture. That leads to a conversation with Alicia that exposes some backstory for Dean’s character … 9781435132412_p0_v2_s260x420that he considered going into the priesthood before To Kill a Mockingbird drew his interest to what legal practice could accomplish … and, like Alicia, he didn’t consider himself to be “genetically built to believe in God” … until he did. Without this bit of self-disclosure, who would have guessed – or even wondered for a moment – that this character might also be a Christian?


What makes Dean different now that we know he has faith in God, that he considers himself a Christian? Maybe nothing really. After all, what did we assume about this character (or any other character) initially? Do we expect characters we encounter in stories, whether on TV or in film or in books, to be Christian (or have any kind of faith affiliation)? Do we assume, if it isn’t made clear and expressed in a specific way, that some form of religious faith is, therefore, absent?


thCAEZIQQOWhat about the people we meet in real life, day to day? What do we expect or assume about them? If they don’t say they’re Christian … if they don’t throw the word blessed around … if they aren’t given to spouting phrases like “praise the Lord” or “the Lord laid it my heart… if they aren’t constantly putting it out there, do we imagine they might possibly be Christian? Statistics indicate that most of the people we cross paths with (except for those we did see at church on Sunday – if we were there) were not at church the previous Sunday. But is regular church attendance the definition of a Christian? Or is it attending Bible studies? Or does some indication of devotional practices or a prayer life prove that one is a Christian?


What do we expect of people? What do we take as a given to be true of them? And how do our expectations change if we know they are Christian … or if we know they are not?


Looking at this episode of The Good Wife, what evidenced the characters as Christian wasn’t necessarily what they said or the way they said it. What made the mediation process Christian was not the role of prayer (at no time did any of the parties clearly pray during the mediation) or the use of scripture — the non-believing Alicia and the who-knows-what-he-believes Carter cited scripture the most. What marked the characters identified as Christian – Ed, first, and also Wendell and Dean as well as Del – was a sense of integrity.


thCANUXXLCThe dictionary defines integrity as soundness or completeness, honesty and sincerity. The word shares a root with integrate, meaning to bring the pieces together into a whole. It’s not that having religious faith, whether particularly Christian faith or any faith at all, is essential to having integrity. People without religious beliefs can – and do – have integrity. But for those who do have religious faith, that faith is a part that must be included in the whole-making necessary of integrity. The faith has to be expressed in how you live … the way you look at other people and life and things … and how you do what you do in the world.


“A Christian cobbler,” Martin Luther famously explained, “makes good shoes, not shoes with little crosses on them.” Faith isn’t lived out by putting a pious gloss on something, whether it’s little crosses or fish symbols or a “blessed.” Faith is lived out by doing our best work consistently because it is the right thing to do, not because we’ll get a bigger reward (this life or the next … take your pick). Faith is lived out in relationships marked by care, respect, honesty, a concern for the well-being of the other equal to one’s own. “See how they love one another?” remarked a confounded critic, observing the early Christians. This sort of faith made visible in relations with others, how and why we do what we do, is a key piece in Christian integrity.


Kudos to The Good Wife for getting faith right (at least in this aspect). Can we do the same?


"The Lyons" Opening NightAnd, speaking of people doing their best work in whatever role is given, also check out Linda Lavin’s work in this episode. She has a significant role in this episode as part the on-going story line involving criminal charges against Kary. As Joy Grubick, Kary’s Pretrial Service Officer while he’s out on bond, she hits all her marks as a dedicated, hard-working, probably underpaid, clearly underappreciated public servant. Ms. Lavin’s performance in her last scene in this episode is as real as it gets.

Toward a New Pentecost

Trio 10Pentecost has come … and gone … at least the festival day, the celebration of the momentous day millennia ago regarded as the birth of the Church … the very public launch of the Christian movement … when the first followers of Jesus began the work of carrying on what he began among them. Observing this festival is supposed to launch the church today into a fresh season of growth over the following “Sundays of Pentecost” or “Ordinary Time” that’s supposed to be anything but ordinary. Yes, that’s “supposed to.” But six weeks in, how are we doing?

Some weeks ago, on the Day of Pentecost, we read once again of the coming of Spirit, as told in the Book of Acts, with the rush of a mighty wind and flames of fire for each one. Maybe we heard words spoken in other language to capture some of the wonder of that ancient story, how those who heard understood what was said, even though they all spoke different languages. Maybe we paused to wonder how it worked that day in Jerusalem centuries ago. Did each person hear his native language, no matter the speaker’s language? Or did each of the disciples speak in a language he – or she (there were women in that assembly!) – didn’t know, and the hearers gathered round the speaker whose words they recognized? We’ll never know.

IMG_0097Even now, we still might marvel at how 3,000 members joined “the Church” that very day … and wish such a thing could happen in our own time. Many congregations’ numbers continue to decline. Some of the reasons we know: People die. Some move away for all kinds of reasons. Families aren’t connected to the church like they used to be. Grandma’s children may still be attending as middle aged adults, but her young adult grandchildren probably aren’t. “They’ll be back for the wedding,” we assure ourselves … and they might be, if the venue suits their taste and situational needs (location, size, etc.). “Once they settle down and have children, they’ll come regularly like we did.” But they don’t; that hasn’t been happening for some time now. If great-grandma and grandma press hard enough, the baby will likely be baptized. But it’s more about peace in the family and just the way we do things … not so much about pledging this tender new life to a specific way of life that we ourselves are joined to … because maybe we’re not.

Yet another blog post (or article) is floating around out there about signs of a declining church … another piece describing what needs to change in churches to stop this decline. But time and again, it’s really about institutional survival … finding ways to cultivate sufficient adherents who are appreciative enough to give the money and the time it takes to keep things going. Granted, the ways in which things are done needs to change to keep pace with the sensibilities and trends of the younger generations. They cannot be expected to do it the exactly the same way previous generations did. But the end goal in all these discussions and descriptions is the numbers. Get those numbers back up – the numbers of people attending … the number of dollars given … the number of dollars in the budget for staff and for the buildings. It’s about the bottom line – keeping the church going pretty much as we have known it: a building with a group of people who gather there to worship and have their spiritual needs met by properly trained and educated spiritual leaders. But preservation of the status quo is hardly the message one can draw forth from Jesus’ life and death and resurrection, the way he gave it all away.

Just what was the resurrection, what Peter and others testified to on the Day of Pentecost and all the days after that, all about anyway?

Votive 1Too often, in recent times, Jesus’ resurrection seems to be mostly a sort of proof that life goes on even after death. The early imaginings of heaven were as a place above the earth, above the clouds, out of sight but not completely disconnected from earth. Such images find their roots in the account of Jesus’ ascension, in the theophanies of clouds and fire from the Book of Exodus, in the various mountain top experiences in Biblical stories … with perhaps a bit of Mount Olympus, the mythical home of the Greek gods, mixed in as well. Before the advent of aviation and then modern astronomy with far-seeing telescopes and satellites, heavenly life just above the clouds would be easy enough to imagine. But as airplanes took us up above the clouds … as telescopes and rockets and satellites expanded our awareness of the vast universe, the ancient poetic image of the dome of the sky was shattered – quite literally. After discovering just how vast the universe is, a heaven above and beyond the reaches of physical space seemed impossibly far away. Aided and abetted by the enduring sense of a sharp distinction between physical bodies and immortal spiritual souls (which was acquired from pre-Christian Greek Gnosticism), the common understanding of heaven gradually shifted into a purely spiritual existence completely removed from anything on earth. In popular practice, Christian faith and practice became very much about making it to a disembodied heaven after death. To fall short of heaven could mean eternal damnation to the tortures of hell … or much time for purification in the limbo of purgatory.

To be honest, such a vision of eternal existence in a remote, detached, purely spiritual state of bliss as the promised of reward after death has indeed functioned, as Karl Marx (in)famously termed it, “the opiate of the masses.” It’s been used to lull people into accepting situations and conditions they would naturally find unacceptable and even revolting. IMG_0111But through promises of rewards in the hereafter proportionate to the suffering endured here, teachers in the Church over the centuries have numbed people to their real pain and struggles and suffering and problems in their lives, urging them to inaction. Christian life was framed along the lines: “Yes, life may be difficult, hard, even painful – but when you get to heaven, all good things will be yours then. Keep your focus there. Ignore the unpleasantness of the here and now. After all, this is just temporary; heaven is forever. It’ll all be better then. Just wait in faith and hope.”

Is this really all that Jesus lived and taught, suffered and died, rose from the grave to breathe the Spirit into his first followers for – all this just to promise a blissful eternity in heaven … eventually?

The particularly American experience of Christianity has been largely shaped by pietism, a movement focused on personal engagement with religious faith. Over the years, this personal focus has played well with emergence of hyper-individuality in American culture. Now, in popular expression and practice, Christian faith is a matter having Jesus as a personal savior, making a public profession that one is a sinner and accepts the atoning work of Jesus’ death, and in so doing is then saved from the fiery punishment of hell for eternal life in heaven. The vision of heaven is just as personal—a place of eternal bliss with all the people you love, all the good things the world has to offer, endless rest and relaxation.

Tea Lt 3I am well aware that not all American Christians subscribe to this singular personal acceptance of Christ as the sine qua non (without which, none) of authentic Christian faith. This is certainly not my belief, my understanding of Christianity. But I’m also aware that my voice seems a marginal minority within the broad sweep of American culture.

Following from this intensely personalized expression of faith, American churches developed into places where congregants could have their personally felt spiritual needs met.

  • “Here is where I go to get reassurance for my faith, to be reminded that I am indeed a good person … that God does love me … that I will have eternal life after death in an endless paradise, freed from all earthly concerns.“
  • “Here is where the style of worship appeals to me, the hymns express my faith in both words and style of music. What happens in this place speaks to me and moves me.”
  • “Here is where God’s word is taught to me in ways that I understand and (mostly) agree with (since even I might need a little correction from time to time). But if something strays too far from what I am already convinced of, the pastor/teacher is wrong and I must find another church – if she or he doesn’t.”
  • “When my needs aren’t met, when I don’t agree completely with all that happens in a particular congregation, then I no longer belong to that one. I might just avoid the parts I don’t like or agree with … I might need to find a different congregation that is a better fit for my needs and beliefs … or I might just stay away all together, since God loves me anyway and I know I’ll make it to heaven, which is all that really matters.”

Trio 7In a very real way, the struggles most congregations are facing are the results of a long history of bad teaching and poor faith formation. Rather than look around and blame the cultural shifts that seem to have left us high and dry, we would do better to look deep into Christian faith and practice in order to reclaim what has always been present to give meaning and purpose to everything we do. We would do well to heed the ancient Biblical calls to repent – to undergo a complete change, not only in our actions and behaviors, but in our ways of thinking and even our feelings … to return again to God’s calling and purpose for our collective, communal life.

Too often, the message heard from the members of our faith communities (and maybe within many faith communities) has not been the message that Peter boldly preached on the Day of Pentecost. His use of words from the prophet Joel speaks to the coming of the Day of the Lord with dramatic signs, such as what the observers outside the place where the apostles had gathered were experiencing. But this coming of the Day of the Lord is not the fulfillment of some fluffy, cloud-drenched happy-ever-after removed from anything on earth. The Day of the Lord, in its coming, would turn the world upside down. Those who had used their power and abused their authority by actions contrary to the ways of God would find themselves displaced by the divine mandate. Those who had suffered under the abuses of the powerful and privileged would find their situations altered by that same divine mandate. The wrongs done to them would be righted and their lives would be restored to wholeness.

To those on the bottom of the overall scheme of things, the coming of the Day of the Lord would be a welcome event indeed. To those at the top … not so much. And where are we now – really?

Lav Pillar 6Let’s look beyond the exciting drama of Pentecost at events that followed. Do we really think Peter was repeatedly imprisoned, occasionally threatened with execution, and (at least according to tradition) finally executed in Rome for preaching about a blissful life after death similar to that enjoyed by the mythical gods of Olympus? Do we think Paul encountered all the problems he did – run out of town sometimes … imprisoned other times … eventually executed (in Rome, by tradition) – for teaching and writing about the primacy of the eternal soul and the irrelevance of life in this world?   Did Jesus die and rise again just to show that the soul lives on after death? (If you really think so, go back and read your Bibles again.)

Jesus was ultimately arrested by the religious leaders for claiming the ways of God were broader than they imagined, that there was place within the Reign of God for sinners and outcasts and outsiders (types of people who still struggle to find a welcome and place in many congregations), that God’s will was different than they had construed it in order to serve their own purposes. When the religious leaders turned Jesus over to Pilate for a state execution, they accused him of treason against Caesar, the divine emperor because he claimed there was another kingdom, another Reign … another way.

Paul, Peter, all the others martyred through the years were rejected, harassed, threatened, and killed because they insisted Jesus was Lord … which meant that Caesar or any other lesser power-figure was not … that God’s rule would guide their actions within the world, and eventually, ultimately reshape the world as Joel and the ancient prophets foretold. It meant the powerful would be put down and the ones they exercised power over would be freed and lifted up. Not something those with the power of life and death cared to hear… and it isn’t a message we, to the extent we have privilege and power, care to hear either. (And there’s a long tragic history of the Church in its power not wanting to hear any more than anyone else.)

untitled (2)ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton is fond of asking the question: What if the main thing about our churches were that we really believe the resurrection is true? I think she’s pointing beyond the sense of historicity (that it actually happened) to the truth revealed in it: that Jesus’ resurrection ushered in the Reign and Realm of God, that the promised Day of the Lord has begun, that the Spirit of God is loose in the world – at work in the world and in God’s people within the world, that God is already in the process of making all things new and we, named as followers of Christ and empowered by the Spirit, are part of moving things towards that vision of the new heaven and the new earth … which is the eternal future we have actually been promised.

Lamp 3Maybe there’s the way back to the vigor of the Day of Pentecost, a way to revive the life in our congregations … a return to that message that God is at work in the world. The world as we know it does not have to be this way. We who are named as Christians are called and empowered to walk in the ways that Jesus has shown us – not for our own benefit (whether here and now or in the hereafter) but for the purposes of God in making the world more as God always intended it to be. It’s not about building up the numbers, the budget, the physical plant. It’s about doing the work of God in this time and place … those kinds of things that Jesus did, the way of life he showed us.

That might be something to get excited about …