SATURDAY 6-PACK: November 18, 2017

 

A weekly listing of articles, audio clips, and other tidbits I’ve encountered that seemed interesting, insightful, or otherwise useful …

First, this is a holdover from last week that I finally had a chance to listen to.  Kerri Miller had one of her usual insightful conversations with a couple of experts about the role of prescribers (doctors and pharmacists) in the current opioid epidemic.  Not only is this a call for more responsible prescribing and better counseling when the medications are dispensed, there is also genuine push-back against the use of opioid painkillers for chronic pain.  (Actual studies indicate that these medications are not effective for long-term use.)

https://www.mprnews.org/story/2017/11/08/americas-opioid-crisis-what-health-care-providers

 

Second, for on-going issues from past weeks and months, Luke O’Brien’s long-form piece from the new issue of The Atlantic on “The Making of an American Nazi.”  Warning: this piece does include foul/offensive language.  It also does not shy away from clear indications of serious mental illness in the subject.  Reading it, I was strongly reminded of M. Scott Peck’s People of the Lie.  Yes, this is crazy-business … and yet, many people seem to be drawn to it.

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/12/the-making-of-an-american-nazi/544119/

 

The House passed a tax alteration plan … the Senate Finance Committee green-lighted a similar, but distinctly different, version.  Is this a good thing?  Here’s two reports from Marketplace to consider:

https://www.marketplace.org/2017/11/17/economy/opposing-views-tax-reform-and-against-jeffrey-sachs-douglas-holtz-eakin

https://www.marketplace.org/2017/11/17/economy/weekly-wrap/trickle-down-economics-based-tax-bill

 

And there’s the latest national chapter in the on-going exposure of sexual harassment and worse by men in positions of power.  Kate Harding offers some good consideration of the larger factors to be considered and why resignation/firing/being disappeared from public sight are unworkable as “one size fits all” solutions.  I wish she had pushed a bit further on a couple of lines of thought in her piece.  First, that there are not isolated individuals; the individuals are symptoms of a pervasive systemic problem.  (Perhaps part of the reason men are so quick to call for the expulsion of the fellow who has become a pariah is to make him a scapegoat for their own offenses?)  But second, I wish she would have given more attention to the varying degrees between harassment (from isolated incidents to a clear pattern) to various levels of physical assault to rape.  It’s a continuum and the responses need to vary accordingly.  However, there are word limits to consider when submitting opinion pieces to newspapers:

http://www.startribune.com/kate-harding-franken-must-stay/458288473/

 

Apparently the chief tweeter can’t stop himself.  He really should … he definitely should not be commenting on things like the Al Franken revelation , as Steve Sack makes perfectly clear:

http://www.startribune.com/sack-cartoon/458283793/

 

But what else is new?  Trump has such a long record of trying to shift blame for others, exaggerate the mistakes of others to seem far worse than his big ones.  You’d think people would be so tired of it by now … at least tired enough to stop falling for it. Leonard Pitts explains why we need to keep the focus where it belongs.

http://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/leonard-pitts-jr/article185269983.html

 

SATURDAY 6-PACK: November 11, 2017

A weekly listing of articles, audio clips, and other tidbits I’ve encountered that seemed interesting, insightful, or otherwise useful …

It’s been quite the week, opening with the shocking events in Sutherland Springs, Texas … moving into the off-year elections … the unveiling of the Senate Tax Plan … oh yeah, and the on-going cascade of reports of sexual harassment and assault involving famous, powerful men … all taking place against the backdrop of Trump’s trip to Asia.  Where to begin?

 

This does not involve the shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs.  But it does speak to the beauty of family ties and the way such acts of violence leave permanent scars, from the StoryCorps Project … and a mass shooting you may have forgotten

Lost in all the major news and drama of the week, one of Chicago’s most famous legal residents answered his summons for jury duty.  Barack Obama was only the most recent former president to receive such a summons.  Scott Simon muses on the power and privilege of the highest office in the land … which might not be the one you think it is…

Continuing in the You, Me, and Them: Experiencing Discrimination in America, this report makes it clear that words, actions, mistreatment DO take a real toll on a person.  This piece focuses on a doctor with Hispanic heritage and things he experiences repeatedly that will make you cringe … and maybe gasp … and it might make you mad…

And some of the same truths also apply to the women finally coming forward to tell the truth about their experiences of harassment and worse.  Here’s a good reason to burn one of your monthly free articles from the New York Times Lindy West, telling it straight-up, as always …

 

And here’s another good reason : Gail Collins’ run-down of the many clouds and shadows looming over Trump’s efforts to celebrate the anniversary of his election, the week that was …

 

And finally, do these apparent missteps, mistakes and out-right failures really matter?  It may depend on whom you ask.  Michael Kruse’s visit to Johnstown, Pennsylvania is revealing — and stunning.  Warning: this piece does contain some very frank language that some may find offensive.  However, it is an accurate and exacting portrayal of what is happening in this slice of “Trump Country”.

 

SATURDAY 6-PACK: November 5th

 

A weekly listing of articles, audio clips, and other tidbits I’ve encountered that seemed interesting, insightful, or otherwise useful …

The big news story of the week was supposed to be the Tax Bill from the House.  Clearly, it’s only a starting point and campaigns to preserve the deductions and exemptions that are slated to be removed in the proposal. were underway even before Tuesday.  In the swirl of exaggerated claims, both in support of and in opposition to the bill, it’s important to mind the spinning.  Here’s some fairly straight talk courtesy of Marketplace, including a segment in which Kai Ryssdal puts some very pointed questions to Kevin Hassett, Chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisors.  You can decide if the answers make sense  … or not.
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But, of course, the tax plan unveiling was eclipsed by the news of the pending indictments from Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian influence in the 2016 Election … and by the delay in the tax bill unveiling due to lack of agreement among drafters of the bill. Here’s some clarification amid all the chaos:
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The news of the indictments (and the Papadopoulos plea) has been a cause for celebration among some liberal factions.  However, even if their great hopes are ultimately realized, this still doesn’t solve the underlying problem.  Leonard Pitts reflects on a column from March 2016 … and points to the real problem underlying all this.  (And follow from this to his more recent piece responding to White House Chief of Staff’s John Kelly’s comments about the Civil War that almost got lost in the twin dramas of the latest steps in the Mueller investigations and the House tax plan):
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This week’s two-fer … Because an immigrant was involved, Donald Trump wouldn’t consider passing up a chance to spout off how terrible immigrants are after the truck attack on the bike path in NYC.  (Notice how it was “too soon to discuss gun laws” right after Las Vegas, but less than a day is soon enough to call for changes to immigration programs)  The attacker came into the US through the “Diversity Visa Lottery.”  First up, how the program actually works … then, how better community supports for immigrants might have prevented this – and can going into the future:
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Children are listening and watching … what are the hearing and learning in our tech-saturated culture?  Here’s a timely reminder to watch your tone an language in their presence – even with Alexa (or other voice-activated assistance programs:
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Here’s a good example of why saying “All Lives Matter” is not the same as saying “Black Lives Matter.”  This is the first part of a two-part story; the second airs on Sunday.  You can also link to the You, Me, and Them: Experiencing Discrimination in America page on the NPR website for other pieces in this series.  There were also a couple regarding Latinos and discrimination around housing and voting.

 

WHAT IF IT DOESN’T GET BETTER?

Summer and assembly time have  passed.  Rally Day, the now traditional re-launch of regular congregational activities, has come and gone.  In many cases, some of the prompting for renewed focus on activities — and attendance — in the congregation has come from the downward trend lines that are dogging most congregations these days.  (And in many congregations, this has been the case for decades.)  Trend lines may be discouraging; however, there is something to anticipate.  With the approaching 500th Anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses going public in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517 (however it happened that those points for private debate within the church became public knowledge), there has also been encouragement to celebrate our history and, perhaps, find in that history the fresh courage and direction we need for going forward.

I don’t know that a significant historical milestone is going to change much … for us or anyone else.  The sale of indulgences, which the 95 Theses protested, is a historical relic.  The Catholic Church no longer engages in fund raising by means of selling indulgences in the ways Luther protested.  Modern Catholic theologians readily acknowledge that Luther raised some good points with his critiques.  Recent studies show that what Lutherans and other Protestants and Catholics in the pews believe is much more similar than different.  Lutheran and Catholic leaders are discussing how to heal the breach between these branches of the Christian Church.  Were it not for the larger implications where the clergy are concerned (that Lutheran pastors may marry and can be women as well as men), I suspect Luther’s excommunication would be readily rescinded.

If the past has any lessons for the present, those lessons would be in the return to scripture as the guide for faith, the recognition that the Word of God is not simply the printed text on the page but it is the Spirit of God speaking through these words that make it the living Word of God, able to impart faith and direct our living.  This would be a helpful antidote for much the “Bible-olatry” that is present these days, where the printed text on paper is regarded as an inviolate, sacred thing that is not to be questioned … as though the Bible came down from heaven, already printed in English, shrink wrapped and ready for purchase at the bookstore.  I’m not a major-league Biblical scholar, but I know first-hand that translation is messy business.  Words in any language have subtle connotations that allow for multiple readings before we even get to variations in copies and questions of later insertions.  If people of faith were to demonstrate more humility in our approach to scripture, how we read it and how we use, and if we were to let it work more on us rather than applying it to others, that would go a long way toward better engagement with the people and the culture outside our church doors most Sunday mornings.  (The so-called Nashville Statement is the opposite of what I’m describing here and a move in the wrong direction.)

It is there, in the engagement between congregations and their communities, that the struggles mapped out in our trend lines are being most keenly felt … it’s where those struggles play out in congregations.  Most of our congregations are not growing.  (This isn’t just an ELCA or even a Lutheran problem; many congregations in all Christian denominations are facing it.)  Among the relatively few congregations that are not declining, most of these are holding their own – not losing too many members, but not gaining very many members, either.   Word on the street has it that, in the synod where I live, 85% of the congregations are considered to be in decline.  I doubt that number varies too much across the synods.  More members die than are baptized, especially if we don’t count the babies who are brought for baptism in order to make Grandma happy and are rarely ever seen in a congregation again, even when time of confirmation rolls around.  More congregations close or merge than new ones are established.  For decades now, most new mission starts have failed to produce viable congregations and end up closing after just a few years.

We keep looking for some sort of magic formula or secret sauce that will turn things around for us, that will get us growing again, that will attract the new members, that will bring in the people at the margins into active membership.  There isn’t any such formula and looking for one is just a distraction from the real causes of this struggle … and the deeper assessments of our current goals and motives.  Maybe we already sense we won’t like what we find and that the hard truths we find will force us to change and so we avoid all this because what we really want is to keep things the way we like them, which is the way we’ve known and experienced.

If we are to be brutally honest, much of our congregational decision-making – what we do and how we do it – is based on keeping current members pleased so they will keep coming and keep giving.  Much as we try to gloss over naked financial realities and spiritualize things somehow, congregations require money to get things done.  Buildings require mortgage payments as well as upkeep and maintenance costs, just the same as any other house or building does.  Utility bills for electricity, phones, internet, and maybe even gas service must be paid the same as for any other household or business operation.  There are salaries to pay … pastors, office administrators, custodians, and (in many places) the musicians who give significant contributions of time to preparing things for Sunday worship.  It takes the labors of people to keep lines of communication open, make sure the building is clean and ready for use, have everything ready for Sunday services (and other events).  People should be paid for the work they do; we all expect this in our daily lives.  A congregation has a certain amount of basic operating expenses and it is reasonable to expect the members to provide financial support for the congregation’s operations.

As a result, much of our recruitment efforts are motivated by the need for member replacement, to make up for those who were lost (through death or moving away or other life transitions).  Adding members will keep the attendance numbers up and (with proper encouragement) the funding levels steady.  With effective stewardship education, perhaps giving could be increased … which would, of course, allow the congregation to do more – more of what it already does, or perhaps even more beyond its walls. If we were to strip them down to the most basic level, most of our outreach (and our in-reach) efforts are about membership recruitment and motivation.  It’s not about making disciples, which is the calling Jesus has actually given us.

We didn’t set out with the intention to become this way.  It just happened as things in our culture and society shifted and changed.  But we didn’t notice and didn’t respond until things had changed so much that nothing we did seemed to work anymore.  Now that we have noticed, we’ve been wondering why, trying to do what we’ve always done – but do it better, hoping that we can turn the tide.  But such a task is nearly as impossible as altering the tides of the ocean by our own direct efforts.

Just how did things reach this point?  Let’s review …

Coming to America as immigrants, Lutherans organized their congregations for the preservation of the culture of the old country at least as much as for the active practice of Christian faith.  The community of the congregation was a chance to gather with those who shared the language of the old home, the music and rhythms, the smells and tastes.  It was a way to connect with the homeland in the midst of a very different country.  As a result, keeping tradition has been a significant value within our congregations.

Most of our congregations did not drop their ethnic languages (German, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, Danish, etc.) until the war years (especially World War II).  Moving to English was a way of showing loyalty to the US and support for the war efforts.  (Placing American flags in sanctuaries was part of this demonstration as well.)  Because Germany was an aggressor nation in both World Wars, German congregations may have been swifter to let go of the old language and move to English than other ethnic groups.  But however the language shifts came about, many congregations did not make that change until most of their members were much more comfortable and fluent in the English of America than the language of the old country.

After the war years, the red scare phenomenon and the post war baby boom helped increase church membership.  The Baby Boom was the most apparent development as huge numbers of men left the military, took up civilian life, married … and had children, lots and lots of children.  Congregations soon found themselves overflowing with children who needed space for classes, places to sit in worship, and ways to be engaged in what was happening.  The sky-rocketing birth rate meant congregations didn’t have to do anything to increase their numbers; families were doing it all on their own.

Beyond the Baby Boom, an increasing interest in the public invocation of religious faith as a protection against the threat of communism also helped.  America’s roots with the pilgrim settlers from Europe who came to the New World seeking religious freedom were highlighted.  The Christian faith of these early pilgrims was expanded to include Judaism as well, primarily an act of contrition for American non-assistance when the Jewish populations in Europe faced the horrors of the Holocaust.   In the heady mix of patriotism and religious devotion as a defense against the aggressive, godless Communist menace, it was almost a civic duty to be a member of some congregation.  Whole programs developed to help congregations enroll as many of their neighbors as possible for membership, primarily out of a sense of civic obligation.

The flourishing economy of the post-war years also had a shaping impact on congregational life in the 1950s and well into the 1960s.  Standards of living rose for most workers.  Benefits such as Social Security, pensions, and home ownership were allowing more elders to leave a significant amount of wealth behind when they died, something almost unknown in previous generations.  People had money to give and they did.  Directing a portion of one’s estate to the church became a fairly common practice.

How times have changed over the following 40 to 50 years!  Wages have largely been stagnant for much of the working population for several decades now.  When households are struggling to afford the basics (rent, food, utilities, transportation needs) and provide for the children (including higher education), there’s less money available for any sort of discretionary spending, including giving to a congregation.  The modern way of death (together with our longer life spans) is depleting the assets of our elders to the point there is often little to nothing left from which to make a final bequest to a congregation.  The Baby Boom went bust and even the echo boom isn’t increasing church membership rosters.  The 1950s and 60s are gone in so many ways (not just in terms of congregational life) and it’s more than time we all accepted those times are never, ever coming back.  Things will never again be the way they used to be.

And yet, our congregations are hard-wired for cultural preservation.  Initially, preservation of the ethnic culture served as a driving force for congregations.  During World War II and the Cold War that followed, congregations readily adapted to preserving a Christian culture tailored to the patriotic needs of an America striving against the godless forces of totalitarianism and Communism.  The world and the culture around us have shifted and changed, but here we are, still trying to preserve a past culture, much as we have always done.  Part of preserving the original ethnic culture was keeping the outsiders out … and that dynamic is still present … which continues to make it hard for outsiders to enter the doors of our congregations.

Now that there are fewer and fewer of us already inside, we’re going to have to connect with others on the outside … somehow.  We’ve never done that before.  We don’t know how.  And we can’t learn to do something new when we’re trying with all our might to keep things the way they’ve always been.

So, to ask the classic question from the catechism:

What does all this mean?

It means, at a minimum, these trends are not going to get better – not any time soon, maybe not ever. We need to come to terms with that.  Congregations will be smaller in terms of members and giving will decrease with the diminishing numbers of members and as the members age.  We can no longer afford all that we used to do.  There is no “doing more with less.”  Having less to work with means we are going to have to do less or find other ways of doing things to compensate for the loss of dollars and of people.

This means some congregations may have to sell or rent out their buildings, share them with others … put them to work in some way to generate the income needed for the upkeep.  Other infrastructure of the larger church, colleges and seminaries and managerial operations (synodical offices and churchwide headquarters), will also have to shrink.  An increasing amount of the declining congregational offerings will need to stay local, to take care of business at home; this leaves less to be sent forward.  Just as physical property at the local level is going to diminish, property held at higher levels will have to be reduced.  Seminaries and colleges may need to combine, maybe with one another … maybe with similar programs in the area … maybe with other colleges and universities that do not have strong connections to a religious organization. Seminaries in particular may have to add other graduate degree programs to attract a wider range of tuition-paying students.  (Another reason for this will be described in a bit …)

We also have to become more realistic about pastors.  It is certainly preferable that congregations provide pastors with salaries commensurate with their levels of education (a master’s degree program on par with law school in terms of academic requirements).  Professionals with similar credentials have starting salaries well above $50K per year and, in many cases, approach or exceed the six-figure mark after five to ten years of experience.  This is not going to happen in most congregations.

So is that why there are now reports of a clergy shortage?  Is it because salaries aren’t high enough to attract candidates?  Perhaps the better question to ask is: Do we really have a clergy shortage?  Some interesting calculations are used to support claims of a clergy shortage.  One is to compare the number of retirees to the number of new graduates from seminaries each year … as if all retiring pastors were retiring from full-time positions that would need to be filled.  The reality is that many pastors ease into retirement, stepping down from full-time positions into part-time roles.  A number of positions come to an end with a pastor’s retirement, eliminating a possible opening for someone else to fill.  Rather than a clergy shortage, we have a clergy surplus; we have more clergy than positions for them to fill.

But claims of a shortage are made to increase seminary enrollment. Seminaries need more tuition-paying students to sustain their current operations.  Claims of a shortage are far more about the financial needs of the seminaries that the needs of the church at large.  Yes – one of the proofs offered for the alleged shortage of pastors is the number of “first call” openings that go unfilled because there aren’t enough new seminary graduates to fill them all.  But how many of these openings are deemed suitable for first call because that is the only level at which the congregation can support a full-time pastor’s salary?  “Because it’s all the congregation can afford” is not a suitable reason to consider any opening to be appropriate for a newly ordained pastor.  Most of these congregations would be better served by experienced pastors who can help them work through the anxieties provoked by the disturbing trends lines that are beyond anyone’s control.

Since we’re facing a future in which many congregations will not be able to pay the salary expected for a professional with a master’s degree and several years of experience, pastors will have to be bi-vocational.  They may draw some salary from the congregations they serve, but they will also need some form of regular employment, separate from the congregation, to provide a significant portion of their income.  This necessity also offers seminaries a path to growth: education for this type of bi-vocational work will also require courses and degree programs beyond the traditional Master of Divinity. Seminaries can find ways to offer these additional opportunities.

It’s not necessarily a negative for congregational life, either.  It could be a benefit.  Instead of being the full-time, “professional” Christian operating out of the church building, the pastor will be more like the people of the congregation, sharing the same struggles to live as a follower of Jesus in the midst of normal daily life.  Pastors would not just talk about this in theory; they would practice it and live it out as role models.

And that might just turn out to be a very good thing … it could lead congregations back into the work of becoming disciples, students of Jesus … followers who help others follow the way of life he taught … which is what we’re really supposed to be doing

AFTER EASTER … AFTER ANSELM …

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.

A POEM FOR THE INAUGURATION … Of Sorts

The inauguration of our 45th President last month did not include a poem, which has become something of a custom at these events in recent years … at least for Democrats. Poems have only been read at five of the inaugurations, starting with JFK’s.  That innovation lay dormant for decades until Bill Clinton opted to have a poet read a poem at both of his events.  George W. Bush did not follow suit, but Barack Obama did.  Since Trump’s expressed desire was to exceed anything done before, doing everything that had been done before — including a poem — and then some would have been a decent plan toward that goal.  (And, given that several poet/ storyteller/ bard-types had left us in the days after the election, including a poet with a poem to share might have been a way to blunt such an ill-omen.)  Many poems have been written; surely one would be appropriate to the occasion.

One that strikes me as appropriate for the time is very old; indeed, it is ancient … composed long before anyone had ever conceived of the word president … long before anyone spoke in the English language. It was written in Hebrew, the language of a people govenerned by kings, either their own or oppressive kings of other nations. Psalm 12, a lament, seems suited to the time.

 

Maya Angelou at Bill Clinton’s 1st Inaugural

Help, O Lord, for there is no longer anyone who is godly;

The faithful have disappeared from humankind ….

Throughout the past twelve months, a number of public religious leaders have voiced support for Donald Trump and continue to do so even as his positions, pronouncements tactics, behaviors contradict the teachings and examples of Jesus. These are ministers, preachers, teachers, who presume to speak and preach and teach in the name of Jesus … who are called to be stewards of the mysteries of God … whose work is to guide others in following Jesus. Whether through the expressed support of the likes of Franklin Graham (who has taken up the mantle of his revered father Billy), Jerry Falwell, Jr. (now president of Liberty University, the Christian college his father established) … public Christian figures such as James Dobson (Focus on the Family) and Tim Wildmon (American Family Association). Perhaps the most galling example of a public failure by a Christian leader to keep faith with God was the invocation at the Republican Convention by Mark Burns of South Carolina, who identifies himself as an evangelist, a herald of the good news of Jesus. But there was nothing of that gospel in his words.

Whether these led their followers or their followers pushed them towards it, exit surveys show over 80% of people who identify as evangelical Christians (and are considered white in our raced society) cast their ballots for Donald Trump. His constant dishonesty was no barrier for their support. The self-identified public champions of family values raised no concerns about his multiple marriages, his well-publicized affairs, and the sketchy comments regarding his daughters’ appearance. None of this mattered. It was all shrugged off with a “well, who can know what’s in his heart?”

In their public support of Donald Trump (who himself has demonstrated no faithfulness to and little interest in the ways of God), so many, who want to be considered godly, faithful to God as revealed in Jesus Christ and in the words of scripture, have shown themselves to be faithless.

 

Miller Williams at Clinton’s 2nd Inaugural

They utter lies to each other;

With flattering lips and a double heart they speak…

Oh where to begin on this one? The lies … the deceits … the innuendo … the spurious accusations. During the campaign, Trump branded Hillary Clinton as “Crooked Hillary” when she was far more honest, direct, and up-front than ever he was. After bullying and belittling her and many, many other women, he claimed that no one respects women more than he does. (Saturday Night Live made good use of that nonsensical remark) He insists he’s a highly successful business man, but where’s the proof? He still refuses to release his tax returns, so how can we know? He points to the opulence with which he surrounds himself as evidence of his great wealth. He claims he has little debt. But how do we know? Where is the proof?

As has been observed, he says many things that are not accurate – and keeps insisting that they’re true. When the inaccuracies are called to his attention, he doubles down, continuing to repeat them and insisting they are true and that any evidence or reports to the contrary are fake news.

 

Elizabeth Alexander at Obama’s 1st Inaugural

May the Lord cut off all flattering lips,

 The tongue that makes great boasts.

Those who say, “With our tongues we will prevail;

Our lips are our own – who is our master?”…

It’s not just the tongue that makes great boasts; the fingers on Twitter do as well. Nothing is acceptable to Donald Trump unless he is the best ever, lauded in the most superlative of terms. It was inevitable that the crowd for Trump’s inauguration would be smaller than the gathering in 2009 when Barack Obama was inaugurated for his first term. After all, the crowd for Obama’s second inaugural was smaller than the first. That first one in 2009 was truly historical; it will be a long time before anything like it happens again.

But Mr. Trump always has to have the best for himself, the highest praise, the biggest turnout or ratings or whatever. He used a photo of the crowd from President Obama’s first inaugural and tried to pass it off as the crowd at his own. The switch was obvious, especially to those who had been at the inaugurals. But when challenged about it, Mr. Trump doubled down and kept insisting that his was the biggest crowd ever.

But that was just the beginning. He bragged about himself in his address at the CIA the day after his inauguration. A few days later, in an interview for ABC, he boasted of his reception when he was giving that address. He insists everything is going incredibly well, better than has ever been done before … that his proposed cabinet is being met with nothing but astonishment at its uniform awesomeness (even though a number of nominees have faced appropriately harsh criticism because their qualifications and knowledge base are minimal at best) … the travel ban he ordered a week into his presidency was going very well (despite the obvious problems that were happening – in no small part because those who were charged with enacting it weren’t sure what procedure to follow because none of the impacted agencies had been involved in the drafting and there had been no preparations for its implementation). Mr. Trump refuses to hear anything that contradicts his grandiose assessments of himself and his actions.

 

Richard Blanco at Obama’s 2nd Inaugural

“Because the poor are despoiled because the needy groan,

  “I will now rise up,” says the Lord;

  “I will place them in the safety for which they long.”

The needy are already groaning – the refugees seeking a place of safety, a new home in which to rebuild their lives … those struggling to support themselves and their families with minimum wage jobs, a wage that doesn’t even cover the cost of living for a single adult … the people struggling with mental illness or addictions and need help from programs like Medicaid, help that is now being threatened with cutbacks … the list can go on.

The promise is there that God will rise up and act. This isn’t an insistence that churches ought to take over poverty relief operations.  In 2014, Bread for the World calculated that if religious organizations were to take over the food stamps program, every congregation (of any religious affiliation) would have to increase its annual budget by $40,000 for ten years. In other words, it cannot be done.

No, it’s not the churches nor the civic government. It is the Lord God who is to rise up. That’s good news for those in need but not so much for the rest of us. The more dependent we are on the established order of things, the more upheaval we are likely to face. Chaos and collapse are necessary parts of the drastic change that it is required to bring forth something new. If nothing else, chaos is a guarantee with the current president and his administration.

 

The promises of the Lord are promises that are pure,

 Silver refined in a furnace on the ground,

                                 Purified seven times.

This we are promised – and it is a promise that depends upon God, not us … not our leaders … not our president, whoever he (or she) may be. God keeps promises with or without our help. Our part is simply to live and act as best we are made able in the direction of God’s promises.

 

You, O Lord, will protect us,

You will guard us from this generation forever.

On every side the wicked prowl,

 As vileness is exalted among humankind.

Wicked? Maybe not. Weakness and ignorance are more evident than overt ill-will for the most part. However, this is not to exclude the potential for wickedness on the part of some in positions of influence time will tell on that account.

In some translations of this psalm, vileness is rendered that which is worthless and that we do value on a social and cultural level. Why are enough people paying attention to anything the members of the Kardashian family do that they are featured on covers of magazines every week, mentioned in every news feed? We binge watch all manner of entertainment, invest energy and attention in such meaningless contexts as The Voice or Dancing with the Stars or Celebrity Apprentice. I don’t even want to start on HGTV.

2017 Inaguration

But wickedness and vileness is in the eye of the beholder. What seems wrong and even evil to one may seem good and right in the mind of another. Who is to say which is true and which is not when each claims his own perspective as the correct one?

2009 Inauguration

We can no longer even agree on what the facts of a situation are. Studies in the weeks since the inauguration people who voted for Trump are choosing to disregard established facts of the inauguration crowd photos from 2009 and 2016 to support Trump’s claim that his is the photo with the largest crowd. When wanting something to be true is enough to make it so, what is left for a standard to determine what is real and factual? Garry Trudeau’s “My Facts” call center in Doonesbury seems almost prescient.

And what is worthless if someone values it, whether rightly or even wrongly? Who is any one among us to tell another what she values is, in reality, trash? If the Kardashian tribe or HGTV provides something of value to someone, then maybe it has value after all. If rooting for or voting for one competitor over another in any competition provides some meaning or purpose or focus for someone, then there is some value. Just like with facts, who can say what is truly worthy and what is worthless for anyone else? Do we value even a common center, point of reference enough to seek one?

There are people of faith proclaiming that Donald J. Trump is God’s man for our times, that his election as president was God’s doing, God’s will. As the Persian emperor Cyrus was a pagan leader used for God’s purposes, they explain, so God will use Trump whether he is truly a believer or not. There are people of faith who see his behaviors and actions, his words and policy proposals as contrary to the ways of God. For them, Trump’s will and ways are often in direct opposition to what they discern of God’s will. Christians of sincere faith disagree – and who is to say which side speaks God’s truth, truly understands God’s ways?

The psalmist doesn’t stand apart from the community in this lament. There is no one left … The faithful have disappeared … humankind … everyone … the language exempts no one. Yet there is some us/them language. Us are those trying to seek God’s ways; them are those seeking their own ways apart from God. But even those who are seeking may not have it right.

Perhaps that is the way out of the right or wrong, true or false conundrum: an honest, humble recognition that seeking is all we can do; certainty may ever elude us. We cannot be certain where God is in this or what God is doing. We can only trust that God is present in this somehow and search as best we can for signs of God’s movement. But we do so with the knowledge that we are not God and it is not our place to dictate to God, to demand God do our will. Instead, we are to let go of anything that is not God – including our established ways, our institutions, and even the world as we have known it, built it, wanted it to be.  Rather than twist Jesus and his teachings to match our desired ends, the call to follow Jesus means fitting our lives, our words, our wills to the example that he has set for us as best we are able.  Lent is upon us.  It’s time to walk the hard wilderness road, following where Jesus leads.

Turn us again, O God… May your justice shine like the sun and the poor be lifted up.

(from the Lenten dialog for Evening Prayer)

 

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.

AN INVOCATION

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

AMERICAN CRIME WILL BE BACK!

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!

FOR THE LOVE OF DOG // FOR THE GOD OF LOVE

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?