Friday, March 29, 2013

MacMillan's "Seven Last Words from the Cross"

Old church in East Ayrshire,
A very moving piece, appropriate for Good Friday, is James MacMillan's "Seven Last Words from the Cross." MacMillan was born in Scotland in 1959 and is a very interesting contemporary composer. I first learned of his music from a piece ("From Ayrshire") on a Nicola Benedetti recording. Here is the "Seven Last Words" on YouTube:

Here is a description of the piece:

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Easter Egg Hunts and the Holy Spirit

My hometown, Vandalia, IL, has several pretty parks. I grew up on Fillmore Street, close to City Park, Rogier Park, and (where the swimming pool is located) Greer Park. That first one is a low-lying area (with respect to the streets and the Illinois Central tracks) with a pavilion and playground equipment, and the park is watered by a small stream, usable for wading and adventure. Beside the tracks are large, abandoned foundations of (I believe) a long ago water tower. These were also great things on which to have adventures, though later, as teenagers, a buddy and I peed on one in imitation of the cover of The Who's album "Who's Next." The song "Baba O'Reilly" still takes me back to those concrete structures.

But I don't want to stray too far from childhood. Rogier Park is on the same side of Fillmore Street, just across (or at one place, under) the railroad tracks. I'm "borrowing" two pictures of the park from a Facebook friend who posted them on our hometown Facebook page. The local Lion's Club hosted an Easter Egg hunt in Rogier, and I remember being a little, little kid---maybe three or four years old (1960 or 1961) running through this landscape in search of Easter eggs. I remember that they were actual hard-boiled eggs, which apparently drew some concerns about the healthiness of hiding cooked food in the outdoors. So the following year and thereafter, good ol' plastic eggs, concealing Hershey's Kisses, were used.

As many people know, eggs function as a symbol of fertility and/or new life in many religious traditions. Eggs were a symbol in the Anglo-Saxon festival that Easter superseded, and eggs were also symbolic of Christ's resurrection. When painted red, as ancient Christian Mesopotamians did, the eggs could also symbolic his crucifixion. Thus began the practice within Christianity of coloring eggs. Regarding the search: among the children-focused aspects of the Seder is the hiding of the piece of matzo called the afikoman, which is hidden so that the kids can go searching for it.

Years ago I grew so tired of Christians (both lay and clergy) who had boxed-in ideas about spirituality: if it's not quick, results-oriented and quantifiable, it's not good. For me, having a happy church related event at a very young age, in a place already associated with happiness and freedom, was a tremendous way that the Holy Spirit planted seeds of faith in my life which grew and matured much later.

I don't want to be simplistic and too sentimental, but I don't want to presume to know God's mysteries, either. An Easter egg hunt isn't a big deal, and not necessarily a faith-related thing, but the Spirit can use such things that will help a child have a simple faith. Thank you to whoever boiled and colored a bunch of eggs and hid them in the spring grass, fifty-some years ago.

Maundy Thursday

Today is Maundy Thursday. I'd known that a possible reason for the word "Maundy" was the Latin "mandatum," or "commandment" to love, from John 13:34. But another reason may be the old English word "maund," which were baskets poor people carried to receive alms.

That reminded me of a verse that has always haunted me: "He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? says the Lord" (Jer. 22:16). If we love God but begrudge care and justice for the needy, we not only fail in loving them, we fail in loving God and do not even know God! According to Jeremiah, though, the righteous King Josiah knew God.

Jeremiah 22:16 dovetails with Micah 6:6-8, and 1 John 4:20b, as well as Matthew 25:31-46 and James 2:14-17. Even the famous John 3:16 implies helpfulness to the needy, for if you believe in Christ as John 3:16 instructs, you respond to “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40).

Many churches will have communion services this evening. Years ago, I had an elderly friend who didn't take communion because he didn't feel worthy. I was a teenager and didn't know the meaning of 1 Corinthians 11:27---a passage that I wish Paul had expressed differently, because of its potential to be misunderstood---and I don't know if anyone tried to explain the meaning of "unworthiness" to my friend.

Of course, the Eucharist is a sacramental means of grace for sinners. If you feel unworthy, then you're exactly the person Jesus wants to share the meal! The meaning of that whole passage (1 Cor. 11:17-34) is that the Corinthians tolerated divisions in their congregation and, at the meal, some ate and drank their fill and left nothing for the others, thus humiliating them. Not surprisingly, the persons left out at the meal were the less-well-off. Thus Paul scolded the church for missing the meaning of the experience.

When Paul talks about "discerning the body," his phrase has a double meaning: discerning the body of Christ in the Eucharist, but also discerning the body of Christ in the fellowship of Christians where, instead of insisting on our own way, we're sensitive to the needs and feelings of others.


Another aspect of Maundy Thursday is foot washing. I’ve never attended a foot washing. In fact, I walked out on a college vespers service that, I hadn’t realized, was going to feature the rite. I didn’t want to do or receive the washing; I was lonely and didn’t feel close enough to the people, or loving enough, to overcome my discomfort.

Nevertheless, John 13:1-20, where Jesus washes his disciples' feet, is a sobering and challenging passage. A host would show hospitality by providing guests water and a towel so they could wash their feet (or a servant did the washing). Jesus “lowered” himself in order to show love to his disciples, who arguably didn’t deserve his love and certainly didn’t understand at that time the depth of his love. Jesus, in turn, calls us to love him in such a way that we place ourselves in his care, and also to love one another so deeply that we, too, are willing to “lower” ourselves to serve each other.  If we can’t love him and one another like that, we can’t claim as our Lord!  

But what all of us tried to live by these words (with the help of the Spirit)? Say you have a congregation in the midst of conflict; people are critical, gossiping, and unsupportive of one another. Tell the folk that all further decisions about finances, building programs, and program development will stop immediately and won’t be resumed until we’re able (at least hypothetically) to wash each others’ feet. Joe, you want John fired from the staff: wash either others’ feet. Fred, you’re sweet to Sally's face but you talk about her behind her back … There is a bowl of water ….

I would never “use” a scripture just to trick people, but I wonder what would happen if we offered people a chance to be reconciled to each other through mutual, though very humbling service. People might not get together all… or, the Spirit might work wonderful transformation…and some folks will walk out (though the Spirit will continue to work in their lives).

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Gay Marriage, Churches, and SCOTUS

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments in two marriage cases. Today (Tuesday, March 26t), the Court hears oral arguments in Hollingsworth v. Perry, the challenge to California's Proposition 8. Tomorrow (Wednesday, March 27th), the Court hears arguments in Windsor v. United States, the challenge to the “Defense of Marriage Act” (DOMA).

The Freedom to Marry site has a live blog for coverage of the hearings and other news: The Talking Points Memo website also has breaking news coverage. And here is the website of the court itself:

Jaweed Kaleem writes in Huffington Post concerning the part of religious communities. ( He writes,

“The battle over same-sex marriage is often framed in terms of faith, and the landmark cases set to go before the nation's highest court this week have brought two very different sides of religious America to the forefront. In one corner are socially liberal faith groups and secular organizations such as those behind United for Marriage, the coalition of more than 25 faith leaders from across 15 religious traditions that's organizing the early morning prayer and pro-gay marriage rally. Taking the opposite view is the March for Marriage, organized by the National Organization for Marriage with sponsors including evangelical groups such as Focus on the Family and the Catholic organizations Cardinal Newman Society and Catholics Called to Witness. Both sides will draw on religion to advocate for what one calls marriage equality and the other calls traditional marriage.”

Kaleem goes on to say that supporters of marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples are holding events at churches such as prayer vigils. “Even if religious services in support of same-sex marriage are more visible in certain parts of the country this week, strong religious support can be found on all sides of the debate. A recent survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, released last week, showed that majorities of Jewish Americans (81 percent), religiously unaffiliated Americans (76 percent), Hispanic Catholics (59 percent), white Catholics (58 percent) and white mainline Protestants (55 percent) support legalizing gay marriage. Majorities of white evangelical Protestants (71 percent), Hispanic Protestants (65 percent) and black Protestants (57 percent) said they oppose same-sex marriage.”

Some of the conservative side of the argument tends to allude or echo 2 Chronicles 7:14, as if the support of same-sex marriage was tantamount to failing to love God and to disdain biblical teachings. But as I wrote in another post on this blog (concerning ordination of gay persons), we understand homosexuality differently today than those in biblical times. We can affirm contemporary understandings of homosexuality as an identity, a possibility of a commitment relationship with another person, and as a gift from God---while acknowledging that the Bible defines homosexuality differently (e.g., as a male behavioral sin or an exploitive relationship), both within the Levitical holiness code (which otherwise does not, generally speaking, apply to modern Christian practice) and Paul's lists of sins in some of his letters. (Some of us may be guilty of a few of the other sins on Paul's lists.)

We can recognize the historical development and time-bound character of the Bible writers, so that when we encounter in the Bible ancient and “outdated” views of the cosmos, we need not think that we’re selling-out the Bible to a modern world view when we recognize the former’s cultural origins, nor do we have to declare the Bible any less God's word if modern understandings (including those concerning sexuality and identity) do not comfort to biblical details.

Additionally, there is an irony in seeing America through the lens of 2 Chronicles 7:14 is that we do not at all have a society and government of the kind reflected there, which concerns the Israelite monarchy of Solomon, by no means the constitutionally defined, representative democracy of our own time. We can affirm the authority of the Bible while knowing that we have quite a different way of living and defining our lives and our citizenship than in those ancient times: for instance, the blessings of constitutionally protected rights, in this case, the right of same-sex persons to marry and have legal protections as couples.

To me (and many others), the growing support of so many people toward same-sex marriage is a sign of greater rather than lesser love: a love supports persons, whether gay or straight, to be committed to those they love and to become a family.

Bach's St Matthew Passion

One of the first classical LP sets I ever purchased was a previously owned copy of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, conducted by Herbert von Karajan, with whom I was unfamiliar. Nor was I familiar with the set’s Jesus, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, nor the other excellent soloists Peter Schreier, Gundula Janowitz, Christa Ludwig, and Walter Berry. Studying classical music on my own, I soon learned that these were very notable contemporary musicians. Eventually I purchased the Otto Klemperer set and, by then, I appreciated that set’s singers: Fiescher-Dieskau, Berry, and Ludwig again, and also Sir Peter Pears, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Nicolai Gedda, John Carol Case, Helen Harper, Helen Wats, Geraint Evans, and others. I’ve been playing the Klemperer set for Holy Week this week.  

I found an article by Joshua Rifkin concerning the Passion ( Rifkin notes that after Bach moved to Leipzig in 1723, he wrote many cantatas as well as the St. John Passion and other works. But after the summer of 1725 his productions of cantatas nearly ceased and he never resumed his earlier prolific output of weekly services. Yet, during that seemingly “down” time, he composed the St Matthew Passion, “the longest and most elaborate work that he ever composed. It would appear that he saw significant phase of his life drawing to a close and took the occasion to produce a work that would synthesize and surpass all that he had previously done in the realm of liturgical music. The St. Matthew Passion was his last major composition for the Leipzig congregation. (The few large sacred pieces still to come – the B-minor Mass (BMV 232), the Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, and the lost St. Mark Passion of 1731, BWV 247 – consists mainly of adaptations of music written for other purposes; furthermore, Bach apparently did not intend the Mass for church use, and the oratorio is actually a series of six cantatas, each sung on a different day.)” The St Matthew Passion was first performed in 1727 or possibly 1729.

He writes of the St. Matthew Passion: “The action of the libretto unfolds on three levels. Chapters 26 and 27 of the Gospel According to Matthew present the events of Christ's suffering and death; the story is divided by Bach and Picander into two unequal parts (not corresponding to the chapters of the Gospel), the first ending with Christ's capture. Picander's twenty-eight recitatives and arias ... offer a concise and often affecting commentary on the drama. The fifteen chorales mediate between the other elements: like the recitatives and arias, they connect the action to the present; but they also belong to the liturgy and thus share the higher authority of the Gospel. ....

“The disposition of the chorales and madrigalesque verses follows the dictates of the unfolding drama, relying on subtle connections of imagery and expression rather than on a systematic architectural plan to establish continuity and formal coherence. The elements of the libretto interrelate in a number of ways. For example, their confrontation creates symbolic dialogues like the exchange "Herr, bin ich's? Ich bin's, sallte büssen" produced by the juxtaposition of the chorus of the disciples (No. 15) and the succeeding chorale, or the reply to Pilate's question "Was hat er denn übels getan?" (No. 56) with the recitative "Er hat uns allen wohlgetan" (No. 57). This movement and the following aria, "Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben," momentarily relax the tension of the scene; but commentary can intensify the action as well: immediately before Pilate speaks, the chorale "Wie wunderbarlich ist dach diese Strafe!" (No. 55) heightens and transforms the savage emotions unleashed by the crowd screaming "Lass ihn kreuzigen!" (No. 54). Other interpolated movements expand emotions and ideas latent in the biblical text. Peter's remorse, succinctly described by the Evangelist with the words "Und ging heraus, und weinete bitterlich" (No. 46), underlies the aria "Erbarme dich" (No. 47) and the chorale "Bin ich gleich van dir gewichen" (No.48), while the recitative "O Schmerz!" (No. 25) and the following aria, "Ich will bei meinem lesum wachen," deepen, then radiantly dispel, the atmosphere of gloom that enshrouds Christ in Gethsemane.”

Here is a website that provides the words and the translation:

And... Here is a YouTube video of the whole piece, from 1971, conducted by Karl Richter.
And here is a more recent recording (if you prefer more contemporary interpretations) conducted by Philippe Herreweghe.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Beethoven, Verdi, and Wagner

Interesting article in today's NYT about the influence of Beethoven on Wagner and Verdi, who were both born in 1813 and are subject of bicentennial commemorations this year.

Palm Sunday Aroma

If you smell perfume in church, it's often because someone has used too much. I had a church friend whom I always wanted to tell (but of course never did) to use less floral perfume or shop for different scent. My nostrils hurt if we sat beside each other!

Last Sunday our pastor made an olfactory connection I’d never thought about before. In John 11, Lazarus’ family was concerned about the sickening smell that would fill the air from his tomb. Then right away, in John 12, we have another experience of aroma: the perfume that Mary poured upon Jesus’ feet. Our pastor---who has been teaching us to use our senses and imaginations in our experiences of the scriptures---noted that smells and aromas are very powerful triggers to memory, perhaps informing John's original account, and she speculated that the smell of perfume on Jesus’ skin might have lingered for days, during the experiences of the ensuing week (Jesus entered Jerusalem the day after Mary anointed him) and maybe as he hung upon the cross. After all, Mary used a pound of the perfume upon Jesus! Smells of death and perfume characterized the last days of Christ.

I’d forgotten what nard is---the substance Mary poured on him---so I looked it up. The stems of the spikenard plant are crushed and distilled to make a very aromatic, amber-colored and thick essential oil. Obviously perfume can be expensive; my wife likes Chanel #19 perfume, which is about $90 for a 3 oz. bottle. But the perfume might have even represented the family’s well-being; as our pastor pointed out, people of Jesus‘ time might have invested their savings in something like a pound of perfume or some other valuable tangible item, since banks and credit unions didn't exist. Our pastor consequently challenged us to think not only in terms of saving our money but also in being spontaneously and even foolishly generous in the spirit of Mary.

That’s a tough message; as I wonder whatever happened to Lazarus after his restoration, I wonder about the state of the family well-being after their investment is lost. But I also wonder about the permeation of essential oil that followed Christ and his friends as they began what we---we who are called the aroma of Christ (2 Cor. 2:15)---now call Holy Week.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Christ in Black Light

Recently I noticed a "Jesus Christ Superstar" poster up for auction on eBay. I borrowed the picture of the poster for this post but didn't bid on it. I couldn't justify the significant expense for something I knew would just be kept in storage as a nostalgic keepsake. Someone did purchase it.  But I displayed a different copy of the poster forty years ago in my bedroom, along with other black-light posters discarded long ago. I forget which posters I had but several covered the walls of my room, along with non-florescent posters of Santana and Black Sabbath. I had a black light bulb that darkened my room but filled the night with amazing colors from the posters, most of which I purchased at the old Sav-Mart store on Collinsville Road in Collinsville, IL. In this poster, notice how the da Vinci Christ appears as a psychedelic pattern, LOL.

I haven't listen to that music---Jesus Christ Superstar by Lloyd Webber and Rice---for a long time. (Andrew Lloyd Webber turned 65 yesterday!) But I remember thinking about the music during Holy Week at my hometown church, since the album is essentially the story of Christ's passion. Telling Christ's story is always tricky, I think, because if his struggling, uncertain humanness is emphasized (as in this album) his divinity and lordship seem eclipsed, but if his divinity and is emphasized, as in the famous Zeffirelli film where Christ is all wide-eyed and unblinking otherness, he doesn't seem quite one of us.

The approaching Holy Week is a time to think about both: the real and tragic humanness of a young man moving toward abandonment and death, and the divine meaning and presence that connects passion to resurrection and eventually Pentecost.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The National Old Trails Road

The purpose of this post is actually to get this sign on the Internet so that people will be interested in its location: I found this sign online, purchased it, and donated it (in memory of my parents) to the National Road Interpretive Center in my hometown, Vandalia, IL, located downtown at 106 S. Fifth Street. Here is the website for the center: According to information I have, there is one other sign on display, at the Arrow Rock State Historic Site at Arrow Rock in Saline County, Missouri, but few others are extant. This style of sign is known to have been used in both Illinois and Missouri to mark the old National Old Trails Highway.

That highway was one of the early automobile highways of the U.S. It was established in 1912 and eventually extended 3096 miles from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles, CA. The highway’s name comes from the fact that it incorporated older trails like Braddock’s Road, the National Road, the Boone’s Lick Road, the Santa Fe Trail, and the Grand Canyon Route. In 1926 the NOTH was supplanted by several numbered highways---including US 40, US 50, US 350, US 85, US 60, and US 66---when the Federal Highway System was established. But the Daughters of the American Revolution kept the memory of the NOTH alive by placing Madonna of the Trail statues in all the twelve states the highway crossed. One of those statues stands in Vandalia on the corner of the Old State Capitol.

In Vandalia (according to an old AAA guidebook), the NOTH followed Gallatin St. to Sixth St., then Sixth St. to Edwards St., then Edwards St. to Seventh St., then Seventh St. to South Street (St. Louis Avenue). This route was simplified to: Gallatin Street to Seventh Street to St. Louis Avenue. The NOTH in Illinois was also called Illinois State Route 11 until 1926, when the number/name changed to US 40.

The highway approaches Vandalia from the east along U.S. 40, with only a few places where the modern highway diverges from the original alignment (just across the Kaskaskia River, where 40 was realigned slightly to accommodate a new river bridge in 1963, and the place east of Bluff City where 40 was realigned to accommodate Interstate 70, although the original pavement is still present). St. Louis Avenue in Vandalia out of town was signed U.S. 40, then Alternate U.S. 40 after the main route was relocated in the late 1940s, and then Illinois 140 (thus extending the route that already existed between Alton and Greenville). A few years ago 140 was truncated at Mulberry Grove, so the old route is unsigned between Mulberry Grove and Vandalia. On a recent trip, I took a new picture of this abandoned 1920 bridge (east of Vandalia and of Hagerstown, IL) that indicates where the original National Old Trails Road took a wider curve over a stream than the modern alignment.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

A Papal Week

Like many people I’ve been following with interest the news of Cardinal Bergolio’s election to the papacy as Pope Francis I. Just arriving home from a trip to my hometown this past Wednesday, I turned on the TV and realized they were about to announce and introduce the new pope! I bought my laptop to the kitchen counter (next to the TV) and started posting information on Facebook as it appeared: that the new pope was born in 1937, was a Jesuit, and most profoundly, Latin American! The news in 1978 of a Polish pope was momentous and this news was hardly less so.

Not that my personal history matters, but I remember that when I was six in 1963, the death of Pope John XXIII came on a TV news bulletin. I thought his last name was cool----XXIII---but Mom explained to me what that was. Of course I don’t remember his election in 1958, when I was one, but all the other papal elections (only six in my lifetime, including this week’s) have interested me.

Some friends of Facebook friends began posting their disappointment that he isn’t for gay rights, women’s reproductive rights, women’s ordination, and other topics. While agreeing (as a Progressive-leaning Protestant myself), I had to think that those are important issues but not high (one assumes) on the agenda of the college of cardinals, so one can be disappointed but not startled. Among my web-surfing, I found a clip of an interview with ethicist Stanley Hauerwas who noted his passionate advocacy of the poor and impoverished, adding that those issues, rather than others  important to North Americans, are highest among the new pope's interests. Other articles focused on what Fr. Bergolio did or didn’t do during the Argentinian “dirty war” of a few decades ago, and still others noted his modest lifestyle and humility. See, for instance:
I also found articles that were hopeful, based on the cardinal’s background and values, that his papacy would be very good for Christian-Jewish and Christian-Muslim relations.

I attended one of my interfaith groups this past week and enjoyed the different perspectives. A Latin American colleague was so thrilled at a Latin American pope that he said he felt like dancing. A liberal Protestant colleague said that she had greeted news of Francis I’s election in a typical way as many of us: with a “grocery list” of important theological and social issues with which we judge the new pope’s background, but she added that she appreciated our Latin friend’s perspective and joy. A Jewish colleague said that Francis I’s background bodes very well for Christian-Jewish fellowship.

A ministerial colleague puts several perspectives together very well with a reminder that the church is the Body of Christ, even though our different sources of authority among Christian groups puts us at opposing theological conclusions---and yet we remain Christ’s body, upholding prayerfully the well-being of one another:

Monday, March 11, 2013

Childhood and Product Symbols

"‘Sometimes,’ he sighed, ‘I think the things I remember are more real than the things I see.’" (Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha)

I borrowed that from a blog I was reading, because I was happy recently to have something verified from childhood. This nondescript warehouse once stood at the corner of Sixth and Main Streets in my hometown, Vandalia, IL, just south of the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks. My hometown is small, with Sixth Street the western edge of the main commercial buildings downtown, and Gallatin St. rather than Main is the primary thoroughfare. When my parents and I went downtown, we often took Sixth Street. I remember being a tiny child when I saw the cursive C of Coca-Cola on the north side of this warehouse, but the billboard covered the rest of that soda’s name. For some reason that fascinated me; something old had become hidden by something new.

I had always wondered if the memory was correct. Then a good friend posted some 1960s and 1970s snapshots of our hometown on the “Vandalia Memories” page of Facebook. One was the warehouse, and when I zoomed in on the picture, I could see the faint C to the side of the billboard.

I feel a little guilty by how enduring to my thoughts of home are product symbols. Trademark symbols for Pet Milk and Ked’s shoes, Buster Browns and Hush Puppies, Kiwi shoe polish, Gold Medal flour, Sherwin-Williams paint (“Cover the Earth”), Firestone tires, the Standard Oil Company’s flaming torch, Shell Oil’s shell, the Socony-Vacuum Pegasus, Zenith with its lightning bolt Z, General Electric's fancy, cursive “GE”---all these symbols stir recollections of going to downtown Vandalia, holding tightly to my parents’ hands, not having a care in the world.

Even beer ads--–this would have horrified my non-drinking parents--–caught my juvenile attention. One purchased the brands, after all, in “package stores”–--there were an abundance of package stores and saloons following the late-Thirties oil boom in the county--–and “package” was a sweet-sounding word, a word we used at Christmas. Beer signs hung from the old facades and flashed in dark tavern windows. I liked the ads for Falstaff best. They looked like the six-pointed U.S. highway shields that I also liked, except the Falstaff shields were misshapen, as if left on a hot car seat on a summer’s day. I also liked the Miller High Life signs, with their muted colors of red, green and gold, like an old gift in an old home.

Perhaps it is not merely the triumph of marketing which makes me remember such things, but also the fact that one’s childhood memories are a complex of rich associations both banal and sublime. The sight of anything–a business marquee, an architectural relic, a highway sign–--triggers a litany of memories that have collapsed into a common experience of being at home, being in place.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Lent and Reconciliation

We had communion at our church last Sunday. Matthew 5:23-24 was not one of the scriptures, but it’s one that has always been important to me:

So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

Although I tend to think of this scripture connected to the Eucharist, the passage actually refers to the practice of presenting an offering in the Temple. The point is a very Jewish one: human relations take precedence over religious observance, even (in Jesus’ time) something as crucial as sacrifice. As a Jewish acquaintance put it another way: if you have a choice of going to Yom Kippur service or taking someone to the hospital, you take the person to the hospital, a more important thing than even worship on the year’s holiest day.

This passage from Matthew is important to me because my grandmother---who could be hardheaded and stubborn---nevertheless tried to reconcile with people and took the initiative to do so. That was a strong, tacit witness to me when I was young, and I wanted to live my Christian life in a similar way as she.

But reconciling with people can be difficult, depending on the circumstance. That’s because we’re all very different kinds of people, with different personality dynamics, and different comfort levels of pride and guardedness. Christ calls us to love one another, and when we love, we make ourselves vulnerable. On the other hand, we still need to have common sense, self-knowledge, and wisdom regarding human nature. When I was a very new Christian, I claimed this scripture as a promise: if I followed it with a sincere heart and obedience to Christ, God would heal the situation. But that was a wrong expectation: God can certainly heal situations, but not necessary according to my perception or my sense of timing.

A very important thing about this Matthew passage is that it isn’t supposed to be a “rule” from a long-ago teacher, to be followed because we “should” whether our heart are into it or not. Jesus is our living Lord and constant companion who is guiding and helping us right now as we follow his teachings, not a teacher who is far removed from us. So we need to be prayerful when we seek to reconcile with others, and to seek Christ’s guidance and presence, both with ourselves and the other person. We need to seek God’s will in the situation, just as we’d seek God’s will in other kinds of things.

To seek Christ’s guidance and presence means that we might have to look for a proper occasion where reconciliation is possible and “timed” well. A while back, my wife and I had a spontaneous conversation with someone with whom some tension had existed---none of us had intended to talk about the subject but it came up naturally and “the air was cleared” very well. Martin Buber talked about the “event” of two people connecting with one another (encounter, Begegnung). It’s wonderful when that event of “encounter” happens, and we can seek to be sensitive to Christ's leading and serendipity.

Even when the timing is right, the reconciliation may not happen. I remember having coffee with a relative, several years ago, because I was tired of the person’s harsh treatment of me. The air needed clearing. I was open and honest and not down-putting, but the person didn’t treat me any better. I felt bitter and hurt. But not long afterward, the person scolded me on the phone and I blew up---something I very rarely do----and somehow, that made the relationship thereafter better! I'm not saying that yelling at someone makes things better, LOL. But as I said earlier, we’re all different kinds of persons, and reconciliation can take different and surprising forms.

I think we also have to be careful about our motives when we try to reconcile with someone. It would be very easy to be passive-aggressive in our efforts, communicating not love but a subtle superiority: “You hurt my feelings but I’m a good Christian person and so look how wonderful I am to take the initiative to reconcile with you.” It might not even be intentionally passive-aggression: lots of us, including myself, dislike confrontation, and so we have a hard time knowing how best to deal with a disagreement or misunderstanding. We might not even have the correct "take" on the situation. I've held off seeking reconciliation with certain people because I knew I wasn't sure how best to talk about, or even exactly what had gone wrong, and I didn't want to sound unintentionally "pious"---snobbish in my kindness, so to speak.

It might not be possible to reconcile with someone. Romans 12:18 famously reads, “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Once again, we need to have wisdom and common sense, and most of all we need to let Christ and his Holy Spirit to continue to work in that situation----it’s not all up to us. Remember the beautiful story of Jacob and Esau; Jacob expected the worst and hoped at least to appease his brother, but during all those years Esau’s heart had softened and he welcomed his scheming, imperfect brother, with a love comparable to the Prodigal Son’s father (Genesis 32-33). God had worked in the heart of Jacob, too.

I’m convinced that many times, when we offer ourselves at God’s eucharistic altar, we need to leave difficult interpersonal situations there, too. That can be a powerful way to be true to Christ’s teachings in Matthew 5:23-24.

Political Frustration and the Elder Brother

I noticed on Facebook a piece, supposedly written by Bill Cosby, called “I’m 83 and I’m tired.” Very quickly the piece began to stereotype the poor as lazy, lacking the ethic of people who work hard and have character, and take money from workers via taxes and programs in order to have nice things they (the poor) never worked for. I loathe that stereotype, but I read on, and the author expressed anger about Muslims (that it’s not really a religion of peace, etc.), liberals, the media, multiculturalism, left-wing millionaires, and other things.

I soon discovered that the piece was not by Cosby and, in fact, he had repudiated it on his own website. This website links to the whole piece: I believe that we should listen to one another and try to understand one another, so I read the whole piece. I wanted to understand the author’s viewpoint and take seriously the ideas and feelings he expressed as a veteran and public servant.

What puts you on a "soap box," if you listed political and social things that discourage and annoy you? For instance, I feel terrible bitterness about the fact that the common spirit we shared after 9/11 was so quickly squandered. I don’t know where to go with that anger, though---that lost moment was over eleven years ago, and we're more pissed off as a people than ever. (In his comment about the piece, Cosby called attention for our continuing need to "come together" post-9/11.) I also get angry at my friends who are Christians who love the Lord and his teachings but also engage in name-calling generalizations and stereotypes resulting from their political and social ideas. It's a kind of retrofitting that I deeply dislike. I've five or six other topics about which I could fuss.

But then I made an important connection during this morning's reading of the scripture lesson, the story of the Prodigal Son. Our anger at “them” and “those people”---in this case, those who aren’t as hard working as I am, who don't love our country as much as I do, whose religion isn't Christian, who are poor and therefore (we assume) are lazy---is a similar kind of anger as the Elder Brother's.

I AM NOT IMPLYING thereby that the poor, Muslims, multiculturalists, and others are dissipated and foolish like the Prodigal Son. My analogy is ONLY between the Elder Brother and those of us who feel angry at certain groups in our society because we feel like we’ve had better lives than they have, etc.----people with whom we dissociate ourselves and our common humanity via names and stereotypes. (The Elder Brother did this, too. When referring to him to his Father, he didn't say, "my brother," but rather "this son of yours.")  

All of us, liberals and conservatives, are the Elder Brother at one time or another. (Call the person Elder Sister if you want to be more inclusive.) We work our butts off and live good lives and are faithful in many ways, and care deeply about our country; and then, for whatever reason, we fear that our values are becoming threatened.

Obviously the U.S. Government and its policies are not analogous to the Father in the story: God and God’s wonderful, generous grace! But I’m thinking of ways we look at the frustration in our hearts and have a humane rather than resentful vision of people in our society, and of the common good.

The opinion piece falsely attributed to Cosby reminded me of some struggling words I wrote in a couple of November 2010 posts. (One nice thing about blogging is that you can plagiarize yourself, LOL.) The ethicist Eric Mount cites Robert Reich who in turn identifies four "stories" woven into American political discourse: the "mob at the gates" which is often about foreigners or any "dark force" portrayed as a real or perceived threat to American well being, "the triumphant individual" about workers and entrepreneurs which often pits economic discourage in terms of winners and losers, the "benevolent community" which lauds efforts to help the poor but which still portrays the poor as "them" who are helped by "us," and "the rot at the top" about big government and big business.(1)

To me, the theme of "better stories" is very rich, and the more you think about our social and political life as embodying "stories," the more you start to see that theme in other sources. The four stories that Reich frames can be seen in contemporary fears (as reflected in that original piece) about Muslims, anxieties about multiculturalism, fears that American has lost its way and needs to be "taken back" or "placed in a new direction," and the anxieties of groups that feel disempowered (for instance, the white working-class that has alternately voted Republican and Democrat during recent years).

A Mother Jones magazine article a while back (November-December 2010) traced the decline of the American middle class decline back to New York City's financial crisis in the 1970s, as well as California's Proposition 13 and the resulting decline in public services. Then came a recession and anti-union politics which hurt automobile workers. Manufacturing jobs have been declining, pensions have been declining, and more recently the housing market has hurt the middle class. Unfortunately some long-standing safety nets, notably Social Security and Medicare, have been under attack, for instance by GOP senator Alan Simpson and others who characterize Social Security as a form of welfare, rather than a fund to which we've paid for many years.(2)

This article dovetails well with The Great Risk Shift by Jacob Hacker, who argues, “Over the last generation, we have witnessed a massive transfer of economic risk from broad structures of insurance, including those sponsored by the corporate sector as well as government, onto the fragile balance sheets of American families.” That is, while the upper levels of society have become more secure, the lower and middle classes have had to shoulder more burden and more economic insecurity. This has come about in part because of free-market philosophies that are still popular among voters.(3)

Where does "story" come in? Another Mother Jones article argues that President Obama needed and still needs to tell a story that helped people understand and connect economic problems in a way that made his policies seem an alternative in the wake of "the failure of free-market conservatism" and which gives confidence to working voters. This is what President Reagan did. The article quotes Democratic consultant Paul Begala: Reagan "didn't blame President Carter or the Democrats. He indicted liberalism: too much government, too much taxation. To fix this mess, he said, we have to stay the course. That was his narrative. it was ideology; it was philosophical. It had sides. He had a story." (4)

Some of the frustration I feel about the president is exactly this: I wish he was telling a better story that would indeed help us liberals and conservatives find areas of common group----a feeling of “We’re all in this together.”  I want him to tell a better story more forcefully, but in that vacuum a much more inferior story (in my opinion) got told instead, that of the Tea Party.

Another good "story teller" was Reagan's antipode, Franklin Roosevelt. Robert Reich notes that FDR was overwhelmingly reelected in 1936 even though the economy had been in depression for the four years of his term, and eight years altogether. According to Reich: "FDR shifted the debate from what he failed to accomplish to the irresponsibility of his opponents. Again and again he let the public know whose side he was on, and whose side they were on. Republicans stood for 'business and financial monopoly, speculation, and reckless banking." FDR framed the "story" in a way that let voters know he was on their side. (5)

I do have to immediately say that, although us vs. them storytelling may be politically effective, I agree with Mount (taking the cue from Reich's own writing) that "us vs. them" is an inferior story to one which sees us working within the same crisis together to address the common good. In our discussions of politics and public policy we will likely never reach unanimity concerning the common good. But "covenant, community, and the common good" is a better source of a national story than the Tea Party's angry individualism, not to mention the political voices that speak language of innuendo and mockery. This is where the grace-ful language of religious faith can provide an alternative witness.

Another "story" which, in our current time, would also be challenging to articulate, is the story that government is not the problem, though certain government policies may be. A recent article in Christian Century notes that "No one should have to die of hunger--not in the 21st century." Churches and charities can do well, but so can government. For instance, the article notes that President Bush and Congress approved a $15 billion initiative for providing AIDS drugs to disease-ravaged Africa. (6) Yet another article, in a different issue of that magazine, noted that "our government could do much more to fight hunger if more citizens took part in the political process." Maybe the problem is not only misdirected government policies but also the fact that some of us do not practice our citizenship more vigorously, e.g., by writing our political leaders. (7)

Although I'm being idealistic, I think there is room for productive discussion on whether the federal, state, or local governments should shoulder the most responsibility. A friend and I chatted on Facebook about this topic recently. Speaking personally I trust and distrust different levels of government about equally. An interesting book that I used for one of my recent writing projects argued that, for instance, effective local application for and use of state and/or federal funds to provide low-income housing should not be neglected by people who appreciate volunteer and charitable efforts like Habitat.(8)

Another issue is what Evan Thomas called our "society of safety nets, a lawyer-constructed web where no one really has to take responsibility, where there's always someone else to blame..." We may have a society of safety nets, but as safety nets are taken away, people who have, indeed, taken responsibility in their lives but for the time being need extra help, are made to suffer while those less at economic risk avoid responsibility, as Hackler's book argues. One of Obama's challenges is to tell a story--Thomas even calls it "an ancient and honorable morality tale"---about the necessity for all Americans to sacrifice together for the long-term well-being of the country. As Thomas also says, "broadly speaking, American popular culture is not very amendable to sacrifice, to choosing the harder right over the easier wrong, as our sterner parents and grandparents might have said." (9) Somehow this must be done in a way that we don't continue to sacrifice (in the sense of discarding) the people about whom Barbara Ehrenreich writes in her book Nickel and Dimed. (10)

But those people are, unfortunately, too rarely the top priority, but what if we began to hear and read more public leaders speaking, Facebooking, or tweeting on the side of the working poor, the underfed school children, or the seniors who have paid into Social Security and pensions for many years? What if any of the leaders of either party began to say things like: "We need to focus partisan debates upon the the working poor and the struggling middle class. We may disagree on the role of the federal government, but nevertheless, we need to debate and act. My opponents, X Y and Z, are not taking seriously the struggles of the needy: why not? What are our priorities?" If that happens, our American stories would become all the more commensurate with an overwhelming Bible story: God's tender concern for the poor and needy, God's love for the struggling (including whose who "don't deserve" love and respect, of whom the deeply loved Prodigal Son is a type).

Approaching public issues from a faith perspective can be very challenging. On one hand, many religious people tend to keep their religious faith and their politics in two mental "zones," so they feel warm in the love of God while other times spouting angry, uncaring political convictions that they picked up from the media. There is also the challenge of ongoing public discussion about what is the common good, and what is the proper role of government in enhancing the common good.

Eric Mount says it well: “Social conflict is not going away, and sometimes we may fear 'the other' for good reasons. Our fears, however, become self-fulfilling prophecies if we are always acting on our worst suspicions of 'the other' instead of seeking areas of overlap between our problems, our interests, and even our hopes. Trying to tell stories that move us beyond the counter-productive antagonisms of ‘us’ against ‘them’ will not make all of our differences go away, but better stories could restore a sense of community membership in our land and even beyond our borders that has characterized us in our best moments as a people. In a world of increasingly inescapable interdependence and mutual vulnerability, the need has never been greater.” (11)

The Prodigal Son might be an excellent story to remember in this context. Not that the government is the loving God, and not other people are the Prodigal, but that we ourselves are the Elder Brother, feeling punished for being good people, unsure how to extend grace to others with whom we feel frustration.


1.  Eric Mount, “Covenant, Community, and The Common Good: A Tale of Two Americas,” Church & Society, May/June 2005, 47-48. See also his book Covenant, Community, and the Common Good: An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 1999), 11.

2. James K. Galbraith, "Attack on the Middle class," Mother Jones, Nov/Dec 2010, 27-29.

3. Jacob S. Hacker, The Great Risk Shift (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 5-6.

4. David Corn, "Will Obama Put Up a Fight?" Mother Jones, Nov/Dec 2010, 30.

5. Robert Reich's blog, "Why Obama Should Learn the Lesson of 1936, Not 1996,", Nov. 1, 2010.

6. Roger Thurow, "Criminal Negligence: the Scourge of World Hunger," Christian Century, Aug. 24, 2010, 22-23, 26.

7. David Beckmann, "Hunger is Political: Food Banks Can't Do It All," Christian Century, Sept. 21, 2010, 11-13.

8. Warren R. Copeland, Doing Justice in Our Cities: Lessons in Public Policy from America’s Heartland (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 124. My writing project was as the principal writer of a curriculum produced by the Center for the Congregation in Public Life, “Faithful Citizen: Living Responsibly in a Global Society,”

9. Evan Thomas, "Truth or Consequences," Newsweek, Nov. 22, 2010, 35-37 (quotes on p. 37).

10. Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2001), 25-27.

11. Eric Mount, “Storytelling and Political Leadership,” The Progressive Christian, 182:5 (Sept.-Oct. 2008), 19.

Quite a bit of this piece was written before the 2012 election, but it's interesting to me that "story telling" is, if not with that particular term, a contemporary challenge for both parties. It is still a pressing need for the president to shoulder, evidenced in some of the news magazine articles of the past few months. A piece in the 2/25/13 "Time" magazine by Mike Murphy explains why Obama "needs to stop campaigning and get serious about governing" (p. 16), and also the adjoining piece by Joe Klein who argues that "a lack of visionary ideas marks the start of Barack Obama's second term" (p. 17). But the Republicans, too, have perhaps an even greater need for new ideas and fresh leadership, as Pete Wehner comments in Time's March 11th issue: "There is an alternative conservative tradition [story] to draw on that seeks to accommodate timeless principles to shifting circumstances that rejects unyielding orthodoxy and believes limited government [but] is not carelessly antigovernment" (p. 16). An earlier piece, in the Feb. 11th issue by Michael Grunwald, complains that Republican leaders are "selling hypocrisy"in their inconsistency about spending cuts and thus are on a "road to nowhere" (p. 24). A long piece in the March 4 "New Yorker" similarly discusses Republican leaders' need to either revamp the party's message and approach or to communicate policy in a better way.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Life's Unpredictability & Repentance

This past Sunday (the day before yesterday: the Third Sunday of Lent), our pastor preached on Luke 13:1-9, where Jesus cites two contemporary tragedies.

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."

Jesus teaches that these tragedies did not occur because the people were worse sinners than anyone else! But the unpredictability and tragedies of life can alert us to the need for repentance.

To me, that’s welcome information from Jesus himself! Our pastor’s thoughts make me think a little more about providence and trouble. I love the Old Testament, and study it with both Christian and Jewish commentaries at hand, but like many people I struggle with the passages where God sends trouble and tragedy and death---the well-known image of God as a “smiter” who'll slap silly (or kill!) people who have messed up.

Another biblical image is marginally more compassionate, but still troubling to me. It is the idea that trouble is a way for God to teach us or discipline us (e.g., Heb. 12:5-11). (1) We need to be extremely careful how we interpret scriptures like this. People have suffered terribly who believed that their cancer (or whatever) is something that God has sent them. I prefer to say: God uses difficult circumstances for good, as in Rom. 8:28, wherein God works in and with circumstances without necessarily sending all of them.

Thinking again about Luke 13: Jesus teaches that circumstances happen regardless of the quality of our lives. But we do need to repent---to get our relationship with God in order, or at least to turn toward God with our disordered lives and begin the journey of discipleship.

Our pastor also brought in Jesus’ parable in that same passage, concerning the man who wanted to cut down a fig tree that was unproductive in spite of being cared for and nursed. The man’s buddy suggested another year of care before giving up on the tree.

Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, 'See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?' He replied, 'Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'"

Our pastor pointed out the wonderfulness of God’s patience with us. Eventually, something might happen and time will have run out for us, but in the meantime, God’s patient care remains, working the grace of repentance and renewal in us.

In my book, You Gave Me a Wide Place: Holy Places of Our Lives (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2006), I wrote: “The word 'repentance' (in Hebrew teshuvah) means to turn around or to return. Repentance is a synonym for regret and restitution. But [repentance can also have] a more positive meaning: of aligning one’s priorities in order to remain true to one’s values. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson writes that, 'The beginning place, as with any return, is of having a place from which we start, a home base, a point of origin, a beginning.' But Rabbi Artson also notes that turning/returning includes 'finding our essence…our core.' He asks, 'What is your core? What is your center? What is that part of yourself that you cannot abandon without walking away from who you truly are? Is your life balanced, centered? This kind of turning is not a turning to get back to some earlier time; it is a turning to remain true.'” (2)

The quotation continues to give me food for thought. How might we think of repentance in the way that Rabbi Artson writes: not just sorrow for sin but a rediscovery of our true nature? (That's been one of our pastor's Lenten themes as well: the renewal of our true humanness.)

One way might be to reassess the “truth” of who we are and where we are in our lives. Are we involved in activities that give us a sense of satisfaction and service? Are we anxious, which can reveal old sources of distress in one's heart (my own struggle)? Are we engaged in unhelpful activities (gossip, maneuvering for position, etc.) that bespeak a core of unhappiness and selfishness? Do the words we speak sound like the person we want to do--or like some angry, dispirited, unsettled person?

Rabbi Artson’s questions, posed for this Lenten season, can inform a meaningful time of reflection: “What is your core? What is your center? What is that part of yourself that you cannot abandon without walking away from who you truly are? Is your life balanced, centered?”


1. Writing from a Reform Jewish perspective, W. Gunther Plaut notes that the doctrine of “chastisements of love” (yisurin shel ahavah) is found not only in Deuteronomy 8:2-3 but also Psalm 94:12-13 and 119:71. He notes that, for Jews, this belief that God sends hardships in order to guide the people was upheld in Judaism until Maimonides, who argued instead that we suffer because of natural occurrences, social occurrences, and our own imperfection. While the biblical passages interpret the divine-human interaction in those situations, Plaut argues that the doctrine no longer has application in Judaism following the Holocaust, far too horrible an experience to attribute to a loving God. W. Gunther Plaut, ed. The Torah: A Modern Commentary (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981), 1390-1391.

2. Bradley Shavit Artson, “Turning,” in Tikkun, Sept.-Oct. 2002, pp. 66-67 (quotation from p. 66).

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Tertullian on Prayer

"Prayer is the offering in spirit that has done away with the sacrifices of old. What good do I receive from the multiplicity of your sacrifices? asks God. I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams, and I do not want the fat of lambs and the blood of bulls and goats. Who has asked for these from your hands? 

"What God has asked for we learn from the Gospel. The hour will come, he says, when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. God is a spirit, and so he looks for worshipers who are like himself.

We are true worshipers and true priests. We pray in spirit, and so offer in spirit the sacrifice of prayer. Prayer is an offering that belongs to God and is acceptable to him: it is the offering he has asked for, the offering he planned as his own.

"We must dedicate this offering with our whole heart, we must fatten it on faith, tend it by truth, keep it unblemished through innocence and clean through chastity, and crown it with love. We must escort it to the altar of God in a procession of good works to the sound of psalms and hymns. Then it will gain for us all that we ask of God.

"Since God asks for prayer offered in spirit and in truth, how can he deny anything to this kind of prayer? How great is the evidence of its power, as we read and hear and believe.

"... No longer does prayer bring an angel of comfort to the heart of a fiery furnace, or close up the mouths of lions, or transport to the hungry food from the fields. No longer does it remove al sense of pain by the grace it wins for others. But it gives the armor of patience to those who suffer, who feel pain, who are distressed. It strengthens the power of grace, so that faith may not what it is gaining from the Lord, and understand what it is suffering for the name of God.

"In the past prayer was able to bring down punishment, rout armies, withhold the blessing of rain. Now, however, the prayer of the just turns aside the whole anger of God, keeps vigil for its enemies, pleads for persecutors. Is it any wonder that it can call down water from heaven when it could obtain fire from heaven as well? Prayer is the one thing that can conquer God. But Christ has willed that it should work no evil, and has given it all power over good.

"Its only art is to call back the souls of the dead from the very journey into death, to give strength to the weak, to heal the sick, to exorcise the possessed, to open prison calls, to free the innocent from their chains. Prayer cleanses from sin, drives away temptations, stamps out persecutions, comfort the fainthearted, gives new strength to the courageous, brings travelers safely home, calms the waves, confounds robbers, feeds the poor, overrules the rich, lifts up the fallen, supports those who are falling, sustains those who stand firm.

"All the angels pray. Every creature prays. Cattle and wild beasts pray and bend the knee. As they come form their barns and caves they look up to heaven and call out, lifting up their spirit in their own fashion. The birds too rise and lift themselves up to heaven: they open out their wings, instead of hands, in the form of a cross, and give voice to what seems to be a prayer.

What more need be said on the duty of prayer? Even the Lord himself prayed. To him be honor and power for ever and ever. Amen."

From the treatise "On Prayer" by Tertullian, from The Liturgy of the Hours, Vol. II, Lenten Season and Easter Season (New York: Catholic Book Publishing Corp, 1976), 249-251