Holy Week in the Valley of the Shadow of Death

Are the times we live in good or bad, hopeful or discouraging? Signs of things getting better are often dashed by signs of things getting worse, making it hard to tell what to expect. In the immortal words of Roseanne Roseannadanna, “If it’s not one thing, it’s another.” In the midst of Holy Week, several correspondents have wondered where God is when it can seem that, if there is a God, ‘he’s’ allowed political, economic and social chaos to prevail.

It’s not a new worry, the psalmist wondered if God had fallen asleep and didn’t know what troubles hounded ‘his’ people (Ps.44). The ancient Israelites were perplexed about the matter, and alternated between trusting in themselves and foreign gods when things were going well, and wondering where the Lord God was when trouble got out of hand. God, speaking through the prophets from Isaiah through Zechariah, said the time would come when God ‘himself’ would save God’s people because it was obvious the people and their leaders were unwilling to follow God’s directions. In the prophets’ minds that meant saving from war, famine, social unrest, subjugation by foreign powers, and going into exile. In other words, they wanted the same things we want from God. Nearly three thousand years stand between the ancient Israelites and us, and every one of those years demanded the same thing from God as they plodded through times far worse than our own.

God had something else in mind. In Jesus, God fulfilled the promises made through the prophets that ‘he’ ‘himself’ would be the saving shepherd of ‘his’ people. Consider the 23rd psalm about going through the valley of the shadow of death and discovering a table of life restoring food and drink in the middle of it. The valley was still dark and dangerous, the journey still had a long way to go. Real enemies were present. But God had set a table in the midst of it where the traveler found rest, refreshment, anointment with oils of blessing. Assured of God’s protection and nourished with holy food and drink, the journey through the still dark and dangerous valley could be completed, ending in the house of the Lord where goodness and mercy abound.

Holy Week was the valley of the shadow of death through which Jesus led his disciples. He set a table in the midst of it, a feast at which he declared the bread and wine to be his body and blood, the sealing of the new covenant God had promised through the voice of Jeremiah many centuries before (Jer. 31). It was the holy food and drink of new and unending life. But the cross at the end of the valley did’t look like new life. It looked like death because it was death. It looked like failure. Jesus met the end we all meet – death and burial. It didn’t end in the house of the Lord where goodness and mercy abound. Was it the end of the story?

We know the valley didn’t end there. We know that in death life is not ended but changed. The disciples didn’t know that. They had no way of knowing it. It would take more than an empty tomb to convince them, and they got more. God Almighty came to them, ate with them, touched and was touched by them. Jesus, whom they had known as a carpenter turned rabbi with amazing powers, was fully revealed as God incarnate. The kingdom long promised existed in his presence, and his presence was with them always.

Their own journeys through many valleys of shadows of death lay ahead. Jesus would always be with them. There would always be a table of holy food and drink to strengthen and sustain them. When all the valleys of their days had been traversed, signs of the kingdom of God were left behind giving light in dark places; holy food and drink was left to nourish those who followed. The journey’s end was always in the house of the Lord where goodness and mercy abound.

We are their descendants with our own valleys to traverse. Jesus will always be with us. It’s the already but not yet living into the fullness of God’s kingdom. Holy food and drink will always be there for us. What we do and say will establish light in dark places that cannot be extinguished. It will help guide others. The last valley will always end in the house of the Lord where goodness and mercy abound.

Are things getting better or worse? The usual signs point in both directions. We are to be guided by an unusual sign. We are to plant a bit of the kingdom wherever we are. In its presence things will always be better, and unlike the usual signs, it will always point the way to fullness of new and unending life in the house of the Lord where goodness and mercy abound.

A Miscellany of Thoughts: Intolerance, Individualism, Frozen History

A Miscellany of Thoughts

Intolerance of Intolerant Intolerance

Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina posted comments on cancel culture with an emphasis on the left’s claim of tolerance offset by its intolerance of differing opinions.  Most people anywhere left of center, and most who are center right, favor political society rich in diverse opinions, even those with which they strongly disagree.  True, a few can be emotionally intolerant of what unjustly denies some people access to essential rights and privileges supposedly guaranteed to all.  It’s an intolerance that differs in kind from historic patterns of intolerant discrimination that denied full benefits of citizenship to non-whites and other minorities.  From the left has come demands for more justice, rights and freedom for more people.  From the right has come the ingrained practice of discriminatory segregation.  Two fundamentally different kinds of intolerance.  Nevertheless, Scott has a point: demonizing denunciation of those who don’t adhere to one’s approved position on issues, slams the door on conversation.  It continues a never ending zero sum game of feuding winners and losers.

Rugged Western Individualism Rocked in a Government made Cradle.

We lived for many years in the intermountain West where libertarian individualism has long dominated politics.  The many good people of the region are largely unaware of their own history, except for the romance of pioneer settlers and gold mining prospectors.  The Indian wars, Asian exclusion acts, sundown laws, redlining, and federal aid programs denied to people of color, are matters unknown.  Fiercely independent, wary of government, and anti tax to the core, they believe themselves to be self made.  Homesteading; locks, dams and hydroelectric power; rural electrification; highways and airports; subsidized air service; land grant colleges; farm subsidies; agriculture extension services; national forest management – taken for granted, justified by years of hard work giving them a presumed right to it.  Life would be even better but for government infringing on their rights and squandering their tax money on welfare for the undeserving.  

History Frozen in Time

A rapidly changing society with threatening demographic and cultural shifts stimulates nostalgia for the good old days.  Magazines and newspapers feature photos of times gone by when rural downtowns were thriving and everyone was happy.  They picture moments in time existing only in the moments the photos were taken – moments riding on waves of change, washed into the past by other waves of change.  We now live in Historic Colonial Williamsburg that makes its living by preserving a moment in time when it was the colonial capital of Virginia and life was peaceful.  It was only a moment in an ever-changing society born of conquest, slavery, war, and westward movement that would soon leave Williamsburg behind.  Decades later, the battles of the Civil War came and went and came again, eventually leaving the town to moulder, buoyed only by its College of William and Mary.  With many late 17th and 18th century buildings still standing, the early 20th century saw the city’s rebirth as a living museum of America’s colonial history.  Today it prospers with William and Mary on one end and Historic Colonial Williamsburg on the other.  It holds in place a single moment in time to educate visitors with an interactive experience of truth and illusion.  It does its best to be totally honest in all it presents, but for visitors, a day touring can be like a day in Brigadoon.

Georgia, Oligarchs & Elections

News sources report more than two-hundred bills intended to suppress voter turnout are pending in state legislatures. Every one of them is sold as ensuring the integrity of voting systems against fraud that doesn’t exist. Their sponsors aren’t naive. Their intention is to suppress growing voter turnout likely to undermine their hold on state legislatures and congressional delegations. Their motive is to retain power that, given elections with no impediments to voting, would soon be gone. Somehow it’s OK with them to corrupt a system in the name of fighting corruption where none can be found.

Bills are no longer pending in Georgia. The deed is done. Like others, I’m disturbed by the actions of the Georgia legislature and governor. No matter how they try to justify it, it’s intended to disenfranchise enough voters to make it easier for white male hegemony to reign in Georgia. Abrams came too close to being elected governor. Osoff and Warnock eked out senatorial victories: a Jew and a black Baptist preacher, both Democrats, how embarrassing is that for the ‘Ancien Régime’? Kemp & Co. self righteously claim they only want to ensure the integrity of a voting system that has already been proven free of fraud and intentional irregularities. It’s hard to believe they can say it with a straight face, or sleep well with a clear conscience.

It appears some political leaders have cast aside their facades of traditional conservatism to reveal their true identities as libertarian oligarchs who believe they’re entitled to rule, and are terrified of an energized electorate they label as left wing socialists, unworthy of having a voice in government. Perhaps it’s only a coincidence that it’s an electorate of non-white and low wage workers. As a reminder, oligarchs are not always from the wealthy elite. Oligarchs are those who believe themselves to be among the select few entitled to rule over the less qualified masses and fuzzy headed intellectuals. They’re aided and abetted by an assortment of ordinary people convinced that, if the oligarchs lose power, their own rights and privileges will be taken away, with guns as the idolatrous icon of their fears.

America has a well established history of oligarchy easily sold to targeted voters: New York’s Tammany Hall, Chicago’s Daley machine, Louisiana’s Huey Long machine, Kansas City’s Pendergast machine, most states in the Jim Crow South, and less well known examples scattered around the country. Nevertheless, by the end of the 1960s, following civil rights legislation, most state and local oligarchical political machines had given way to a more egalitarian democracy with real competition among the politically active. They were replaced by a sort of political equilibrium that depended on predictable voting patterns in which non-white and low wage workers could be counted on for low voter turnout. Occasional outliers gained national attention, and were tolerated as long as they didn’t shake up the equilibrium too much. Underneath the apparent equilibrium, changes were happening. More women and non-whites were being elected to local, state and national office. More non-whites were gaining recognition in the academy, movies and television. Demographic shifts were bringing them closer to plurality than minority.

At the same time, manufacturing job losses and wage growth stagnation made lower wage white workers easy targets for racist/nativist libertarian propaganda with an eery similarity to old time European fascism that favored a different kind of oligarchy. It was an oligarchical movement of extreme libertarianism intent not on local or state rule, but national rule in the interest of wealthy leaders of business and industry freed of government oversight. Having learned their lessons well, they knew how and what to do to motivate vulnerable parts of the electorate. They only needed the right moment, and it came with the election and reelection of Obama. A black man with an Arabic sounding name sitting in the Oval Office was the perfect bait.

Throwing bait out was one thing, but what they caught was Trump, spawning a bizarrely mutated version of their libertarian plans now known as Trumpism. Trump was not one who could be controlled from behind the scenes. Poorly educated and ill informed, he was a street smart operator with no moral compass and no allegiance to anyone but himself. The new oligarchs had backed him with their fortunes, hoping for someone to do their bidding. They did get their 2017 tax legislation, but it was served up with four years of corrupt self serving incompetency that shredded America’s global reputation, disrupted international trade, exploded national debt, and converted real economic growth into a hall of smoke and mirrors dependent on buybacks and risky stock market manipulation. The rest of us got four years of tearing open every class conscious and racist wound of America’s past from which poured forth Trumpism, championing mindless anti government individualism and white supremacy. Trump got soundly defeated in his bid for reelection. The majority of Americans rejected him and what he stood for, but not everybody and not everywhere. In states where trumpian politicians hold power, the way was opened for a return to segregationist voter suppression to shore up white, male control of state legislatures.

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. wrote “The Cycles of American History” in 1986. He described America’s story as something like a spiral moving forward but repeating basic themes over and over. He believed that moving forward was also upward toward a more just and open democracy, even if cycles sometimes hid progress. It was a belief dependent on a national consensus about the ideals of American democracy, each generation hoping for a better future even if the present was difficult.

Today’s wealthy oligarchs and their mutant offspring of dedicated Trumpists have no interest in the American ideals of democracy, and no interest in a better life for anyone but themselves. Georgia and the legislation now pending in other state legislatures – are they the tip of an iceberg, or the last gasp of a dying monster? It remains to be seen.

My Problem With John’s Gospel

John’s gospel has always given me a preaching problem because John is often the favorite of those in the pews.  It’s chock full of memorable sayings, and who hasn’t seen the John 3:16 banner hanging from stadium railings.  Nevertheless, I’ve found it equally full of contradictions, obfuscations, and its use of the phrase “the Jews” inspired centuries of Christian persecution of Jewish neighbors continuing into our own time and place.  Most of my sermons on John began by saying that it attempts to answer one question, and one question only: What does it mean to say Jesus is the Son of God?  Of that it does a terrific job. 

John, written late, had no need to retell what the synoptics already had, and it didn’t try.  If they emphasized Jesus as messiah, John emphasized Jesus as the Word of God made flesh.  In John, Jesus always knew what everyone was thinking.  He was always in control of every situation.  His divinity was never without question.  Yet John also revealed Jesus in his most human moments: when tired and hungry he sought respite at a Samaritan well; when he diddled in the dirt while self righteous men confronted him with a woman caught in adultery; when he wept at Lazarus’ tomb.  Often, when asked a direct question, Jesus went off on obscure tangents and the question never got answered. I found myself teaching John saying “yes, but” as I walked readers through the mystical maze that is John’s gospel.  One of my favorite parishioners complained that he wanted me to use only one hand because he got tired of me saying “on the one hand this, but on the other hand that.”

I had a couple of insights the other day that made John less problematic for me.  It came in the ecumenical clergy group I meet with each week.  We were talking about John 12 where Philip and Andrew came to Jesus to tell him there were a couple of Greeks who would like to meet him.  As usual, Jesus ignored them, and went off on a tangent about how his hour had come, grains of wheat, loving and hating life, his troubled soul,  and glorification.  Then he went off to a secret place to pray.  What about Philip and Andrew?  They never got an answer to their question.  What about the two Greeks?  Did they ever get to meet Jesus? 

The first insight was to think of Jesus’ non-answer tangents in John’s gospel as moments when the action stops, everyone frozen in their places, while Jesus turns to the reading audience to share his private thoughts.  They’re dramatic asides where the audience is expected to understand that only they are privy to what Jesus was thinking.  It is, in a sense, the Word of God made flesh speaking directly to the reader.  These asides bring Jesus into the present tense as he speaks directly to each reader in their own time and place. 

The second insight was given by a Methodist colleague.  Jesus had just made his Palm Sunday entrance into Jerusalem and knew what lay in store.  Philip and Andrew’s request that he grant an interview with a couple of visiting Greeks was met, my friend said, with an implied, ‘I don’t have time for autograph seekers. The moment has come for me to devote everything to what must be accomplished, so go away.’  His long dramatic aside followed, explaining to the reader what the disciples couldn’t understand.

If that makes sense to you, I’ll leave it for you to decide whether there are other dramatic asides in John’s gospel, and whether that helps clarify some of John’s narrative.

Sex & an Odd Confession

A fundamentalist minister asked to visit with me about a couple of my articles published in the local paper. It was years ago, shortly after I’d become an Episcopal priest. The articles were about my changing views on homosexuality and the blessing of same sex unions, which I favored. It was quite a change from a short essay I’d written a few years earlier on why the church should not bless them. That one, thankfully, got no farther than among a few friends.

We invited him, and one evening he came to explain why homosexuality was a sin. He understood it as perverted sexual adventurism engaged by the mentally ill. He could not imagine homosexuality outside the realm of the sex act, which, as far as he could tell, was the only reason anyone would choose to be a homosexual. As he kept talking it was clear that the question of homosexuality was only a subset of an obsession with all sexual acts and desires central to his understanding of sin. It seemed the fundamentalist Christianity he represented pivoted on humanity’s depravity, with sex at the center of it. The cure was salvation through Jesus Christ, the golden ring to be grabbed as the Merry Go Round of fallen humanity pivoted around the sin of lustful sex.

He ended his impassioned testimony with an appeal for me to admit that my views on homosexuality were distorted by the same sinful lust all men struggled with, as he confessed his own failure to resist the temptations of pornography. It was quite a show. I always wondered if his confession was real or just evangelical bait. Anyway, we joined hands, I prayed for his salvation and said goodbye. He left disappointed that I remained unconverted and condemned. I suspect he said his own prayers that I’d never write an article about him. Well, here it is, almost thirty years later. I think he’s safely anonymous.

I hadn’t thought about that visit for years, but was reminded of it by news reports about the Atlanta massage spa killings. The killer apparently came out of a fundamentalist community obsessed with sinful sex and gender rules. What is it about sex, this most natural and necessary gift, that causes some religions to demonize it? What is it about gender that causes some religions to tightly objectify men, women, and children to the exclusion of their identity as unique persons, children of God beloved for who they are, as they are? Fundamentalist Christians aren’t the only ones. The Wahhabi version of Islam in Saudi Arabia and the Taliban of Afghanistan are worse. The demonization of sex appears to be closely linked with a belief in male dominance, female submissiveness, and strict rules about family life. It’s a recipe for abuse and perversion. What is it that gets some people so fixated on that?

Psychologists have their answers. As a priest, I believe it’s also a problem of idolatry. When religion insists on strict rules for the correct structure of personal life, and fetishizes what it says are sinful behaviors, it creates idols displacing the God whom it claims to serve. The thing demonized becomes a bizarre object of bizarre worship. More recent conservative Christian friends appear to argue that their views on things sexual is the glue that holds all morality together. If that goes, like ancient Rome, we’ll be overrun with drunken orgies and society will collapse.

Jesus called us to follow him on the path of loving God, neighbor and self. The signposts marking the way include walking humbly with God, mourning for our part in the abuse of creation and each other, showing mercy, making peace, acting with integrity, seeking reconciliation, letting yes be yes and no be no, praying for persecutors, avoiding displays of piety, serving God not wealth, respecting all that is holy, and keeping only Christ at the center of our lives. What about sex? Honor the dignity of every person, and uphold the integrity of every relationship. That should cover it.

Bad Habits & New Possibilities

I have acquaintances, you probably have some too, who have a life long habit of making bad life choices.  It’s a common assumption that it’s a phenomenon of the poor and chronically unemployed, but I’m talking about run of the mill middle class people who populate neighborhoods of ordinary middle class life.  

One of them, well into his later years, went through life almost but never quite making it, according to his idea of what making it was.  One consequence of habitually making bad life choices has been his creation of a personal world that has become smaller and smaller.  His world is now a house he refuses to leave but is unable to care for, as he is unable to adequately care for his own needs.  His life is defined by diseases he doesn’t have while ignoring health issues he does have.  He complains of loneliness, but uses every excuse to avoid going outside.  He greedily consumes help as he requests it, but stubbornly refuses wise counsel about how his life might be made better.  What he does is grumble.  In “The Great Divorce,” C.S. Lewis wrote about a grumbler whose world, growing smaller and smaller, finally became the grumble, and then nothing at all.  It didn’t have to be that way, but it’s the way the character in the story chose.  The alternative to choose a larger, better life was open; all that was needed was to give up grumbling. 

Most of us go through life making good and bad life choices, lucky and unlucky guesses.  We take chances, some foolish, many well calculated, we avoid taking too many risks and try not to endanger ourselves too often.  In words attributed to Mark Twain, “Good judgement is the result of experience and experience the result of bad judgement.”  In other words, we muddle through and get on with life.  

People who go through life making a habit of bad life choices seem to be motivated by ignorance, fear and stubbornness.   By ignorance, I don’t mean stupidity, lack of intelligence, or even lack of education.  It’s the kind of ignorance that chooses to believe what is verifiably untrue, or highly improbable.  One acquaintance is a confirmed climate change denier who argues that the majority of scientists affirming climate change are obstructing the few who don’t, just as the majority of educated people who believed the sun orbited the earth obstructed the few like Galileo and Copernicus who didn’t.  He chooses to ignore the obvious: that Copernicus and Galileo probed beyond the limits of previous observers to discover new facts that created a new, more accurate picture of the world.  In like manner, a few scientists in our time have probed beyond the limitations of old ways of observing to discover new facts about global warming that peer reviewed examination have proven to be true.  What stands in their way are a few old timers who, in a sense, refuse to give up the idea that the sun revolves around a stationary earth.  It’s one example of the kind of ignorance that infects otherwise reasonably intelligent people.

Fear and bad life choices go together.  I mean the kind of fear that no good decision can be made unless every possible contingency is given adequate consideration.  It means there is always one more rock to look under, one more possibility to consider, one more outcome that could be better than all outcomes considered so far.  It means any choice actually made was the wrong one because something better was still ahead, or had been left behind.  A mark of effective leadership is the willingness to take calculated action based on adequate enough information.  Adequate enough is never all there is or might be, and taking action means accepting consequences without obsessing about what might have been.  Evening prayer in A New Zealand Book of Common Prayer reads in part, “It is night after a long day.  What has been done has been done; what has not been done has not been done; let it be.”  It’s sound advice.  We can’t change the past, we can only change the future, so let it be and move on, but move on wiser (see Mark Twain above).  

Related to fear, habitually making bad life choices is reinforced by willful stubbornness.  It’s the suspicion that others are trying to push in a direction one doesn’t want to go, or is unsure of, combined with latent distrust in others’ competency to give advice.  It’s a sense that it’s safer to dig in one’s heels and not do anything than be shoved or pulled into what one is unsure of.  It’s a stubbornness strangely gullible and open to conspiracies, quacks, and snake oil sales pitches.  Wisdom calls for caution, not stubbornness.  The bible’s book of Proverbs describes how some people are easily attracted to seductive promises that end badly, yet stubbornly resist the call of holy wisdom offering blessings of lasting value (Chapters 7 & 8). The book of Wisdom begins chapter 2 with the  admonition that those who think fulfilling self interest means it’s ok to selfishly take advantage of whatever can be grabbed or stolen, will make nothing but bad life choices ending in their own destruction.  Both are examples of stubbornly refusing to listen to sound counsel. 

Bad habits need not dictate the future.  As those in twelve step programs have experienced, even the most destructive habits can be replaced by more healthy and rewarding ways of life.  The same is true for life long habits of making bad life choices, but it requires two first steps.  The first is to acknowledge that one is in the habit of making bad life choices, and that doesn’t come easily.  C.S. Lewis’ allegory of the grumbler becoming a grumble before ceasing to exist altogether, describes how fiercely one will hold onto a bad habit that has come to define who they are.   The second is to step away from stubbornness and take a risk on a new way of life that offers new possibilities with good probabilities but no promises.  

There is a third step that will mean everything for those willing to take it.  “Let go and let God.” 

The Theological Blunder of Colonial America

It was a theological blunder for early American Christian colonists to believe they were the new Hebrews, and America was the new promised land to which God was leading them. They believed they were divinely authorized to make room for themselves by pushing out indigenous people by any means, just as the ancient Hebrews pushed the Canaanites out of the promised land. The new world had an added advantage of being big enough for competing branches of Christianity, long at war with one another in Europe, to carve out their own pieces of America, energetically forcing out anyone in their way.

It was predictable. Too many events coincided. European voyages of discovery and better ship design made the cross ocean trip more than feasible. They thought they had a greater probability of surviving it than staying where they were. Europe’s laws of primogeniture made it difficult for younger sons and all daughters to hope for a decent life in adulthood. Plagues added to the ordinary ebb and flow of disease and crop failure that were ill omens for everyone’s future. Religious dissenters, debtors, petty criminals, and the lowest classes had no future staying, but some hope if they left for America. So they went. The elite of Europe were glad to see them go, and figured to make a profit in the bargain if the colonists made it. A two sided win.

The European invasion and settlement of America happened, but the theology of a new, divinely ordained promised land was wrong from the start. It created a legacy some still adhere to that calls for the United States to be a (white) Christian theocracy – a claim based on flimsy evidence. Many of the earliest colonial settlements were founded by Christians intent on building a community limited to their particular expression of faith. Colonies slowly became institutionalized states, each establishing its preferred denomination as the tax supported legal religion. As the 18th century waned, a superficial, generic Protestant Christianity became the default religion of the nation – a religiosity that few questioned. Its theological foundation was always unbiblical, and strayed far from the path on which Jesus set his followers. It was, in short, a house built on sand, not solid rock.

Why were the early colonists not a new Hebrew people led by God to a new promised land? It’s true that the biblical record declares God set apart the Hebrew people to receive the story of God’s self revelation, and to live into it as an example to the rest of the world. God instructed them to invade the land of the Canaanites, and occupy it as a land holy to God. Their performance of obedience to God’s ways was dismal, but the record they left behind became a torch of holy truth for all peoples. In that sense, they fulfilled all that God required of them. It happened once. God never again called a particular people to leave their homeland and go to another place to start a new nation.

Through Jesus, God set the people of God on an entirely different path. He was not another Moses ordained to lead a people from bondage into a promised land. He was the Word of God made flesh who sent his followers into the world to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of God was at hand. Early in Jesus’ ministry, he proclaimed the good news to the people in a despised, enemy village of Samaritans. He didn’t invade it, or force its people to make room for their betters. He simply proclaimed the good news and left them in peace, blessed by God’s presence. He did the same in the region of Galilee, filled with Jews and gentiles of every description, excluding no one. His anger was reserved for the self righteous religious who were eager to condemn all others. He proclaimed God’s way of love for one another, and showed them what love looks like. He fed thousands, the good, bad, worthy and unworthy, whoever showed up. For this, he was condemned and executed, but death could not contain him. After his resurrection, he sent his closest followers into the world, not to invade it or create new nations, but to proclaim the good news wherever they went.

What does the good news contain? Matthew’s gospel records the core of it in the “Sermon on the Mount,” (chapters 5-7). It calls for a new way of life, one grounded in peace and good will toward others that Jesus said leads to a life in God’s kingdom, no matter what trials may be faced along the way. He commissioned his earliest disciples to go into nearby towns proclaiming the good news that the kingdom of God was close by. No one was forced from their homes. No one was forced to convert on pain of death. Parables were used to teach a new way of living, not a new way of conquering and subjugating. Jesus often wandered into foreign territory where he healed strangers for no reason other than their need for healing, then left them behind to go their own way proclaiming their version of the good news. In the end he instructed his followers to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…” What had he commanded them? To live as agents of God’s love wherever they went and among whomever they lived.

In the thirty years following Jesus time on earth, the good news of God in Christ Jesus reached every corner of the Roman Empire, and well beyond. Romans remained Romans, Greeks remained Greeks, Egyptians remained Egyptians, the peoples of many lands remained as they were, but the word of God penetrated wherever Christians went.

That’s the biblical theme established by the Word of God made flesh in Jesus. The Word of God stands contrary to kings and princes, claiming to act in the name of Christ, who made war on each other, forced conversions, enslaved the conquered, while building and destroying empires. The Word of God stands because there is no higher authority. The Word of God stands because it is the Word of God.

The Doctrine of Discovery notwithstanding, the Word of God never ordained any person or company of Christians to proclaim themselves a people set aside from all others with the right to conquer a new promised land for their own use. Nor did God authorize adventurers, conquistadores, or land speculators to claim for themselves, their kings, or anyone else, the divine right to invade and conquer the Americas. They did it, but not by divine right. Waving the flag of Christ was an abomination, no matter how genuine the intent.

Asserting that the United States was once a (white) Christian nation and should be again is equally abominable. Christians are called to proclaim the good news by bearing the light of Christ, doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.

Amidst it all, it is good to give thanks for the many who faithfully bore the light of Christ then, and bear it now. May you be among them.

Rebuilding the Economy from the Bottom Up: a conservative nightmare

When the Trump tax act passed in 2017 there was no outcry from ordinary conservatives because who couldn’t love a tax cut. That’s a good thing, right? It was supposed to pay for itself by spurring the economy. It didn’t. Nothing happened to move the economy to a better place. Instead, it tilted the playing field even more toward the most wealthy, and boosted the national debt by about $6 trillion in only four years. It’s expected to cost about $1.9 trillion in lost revenues over ten years, and that’s a hefty price to pay for making the wealthy richer while doing nothing for the nation. But no one complained because it was a tax cut. By the way, the minuscule tax cuts for lower and middle income people are due to expire inn 2022. Tax cuts for the wealthy are not.

With this week’s Relief Act, the outcry has started. Ordinary rank and file conservatives are upset with the bill because it will cost $1.9 trillion. It’s filled with waste, they say, and worse, it will burden our grandchildren with debt. It’s the old canard. The relief act is intended to help rebuild a solid foundation under a pandemic weakened economy so that its growth will return more prosperity to more low and middle income working people. Forty years of using government money to underwrite supply side, voodoo Reaganomics have demonstrated time and again that making the wealthy richer never trickles down. It never pays for itself; it only increases national debt without benefiting anyone but the wealthy.

This time, government resources are aimed at creating opportunities for low and middle income workers. It should set in motion more stable economic growth that will, once again, begin to reduce annual deficits and reduce national debt as a percentage of Gross National Product. It’s genuine fiscal responsibility, something ordinary conservatives should love. Will they? They won’t. They’ve been sold too hard for too long by supply siders. I encountered someone a few days ago who insisted this horrible bill will burden generations with debt that will kill the economy and their hope for a good life. She had no memory of the Trump tax cut fiasco, and no understanding of national income, deficits and debt. She only knew government spending, except for the military, was bad, tax cuts in any form were good, and this money was going to be wasted on people who don’t deserve it. It’s a mindset etched in stone.

What’s next, higher taxes? I sure hope so. A much higher marginal rate on super salaries, minimum corporate federal taxes on big corporations that have long avoided paying any, and maybe a small bite out of super wealth. Also, get rid of the cap on FICA. Yes, we need higher taxes. We need tax code reform that will return some degree of level to a playing field long tilted toward the wealthy.

The Deeper Meaning of The Ten Commandments

I generally write a piece when the Ten Commandments come around in the Sunday lectionary, but got behind this time so am catching up a few days late.  Although much has been said about restoring them to the classroom and court house, it would be a hypocritical waste.  Two fake tablets with ten Roman numerals say nothing. 

One cannot take pride in simply seeing them posted, not even in church; neither can they be limited to a plain reading.  That’s not their intent.  It’s the full spirit of the law that counts, and that’s both simpler and deeper than their plain reading would suggest.  It’s simpler because the ten come down to just three basic commandments: honor and love God; live with integrity in every relationship; the sabbath is for your benefit, take it.  They’re deeper because their words probe into the darkest corners of our words and deeds.

The first set of commandments are clear: God wants to live in a loving relationship with us, and there is no room for other gods.  Why God should love us is a holy mystery to be gratefully accepted, not solved.  We should love God, if for no other reason than God is the source of life itself, and desires that we have it in abundance. 

To honor father and mother is to honor the legacy of our ancestors who have bequeathed to us the knowledge of God and set an example of what faith means.  To honor it means to know it.  The story of our faith is the foundation on which we are to build, as we are able, for the generations that will follow us.

Murder is an extreme act of violence, but lesser words and deeds can kill parts of the soul that only God can restore to life.  The cruelty we inflict on one another from generation to generation can be a form of murder, a little bit at a time. 

The common meaning of adultery is to cheat on one’s spouse.  Adultery also means to corrupt the integrity of a product or relationship.  Any word or deed that violates trust is a form of adultery.  Adulterated foods and medicines grab headlines.  So does deliberate environmental pollution.  But perhaps the most common form of adultery is malicious gossip that undermines good names and reputations of family and friends who trusted us.  

The law says stealing is a crime.  In subtler ways the law says nothing about, words and deeds can appropriate for one’s use that to which they have no right.  Cheating and plagiarism by students is one obvious example that gets repeated ad nauseam by adults in their work and social life.  Comedic images of crooked used car salesmen are caricatures of ordinary people, in ordinary life, stealing from each other. 

Bearing false witness, like adultery, betrays trust.  It’s more than saying something about another you know is untrue, it’s about saying anything with intent to hurt, or about which the truth is speculative but potentially embarrassing, humiliating.

One definition of covet is to excessively and culpably crave what another has.  It’s equally coveting to excessively and culpably crave that another not have what you have.  Coveting exists where the rule of scarcity dominates life.  If there is only so much of the good stuff to go around, it’s a competitive scramble to get as much as one can, and keep others from getting what could be yours.  It’s part of what has made systemic racism so hard to recognize and correct.  Coveting is incompatible with Jesus’ way of love, and the life of abundance he desires us to live into. 

If the deeper meaning of the Ten Commandments is too much, just work on loving God, loving your neighbor, loving yourself, and loving each other as Jesus loves us.  You won’t go far wrong.

Tell Me a Story, a Story of The American Dream, Not the Old Story, Tell Me a New Story

My friend Tom said that for a public truth to be commonly understood there has to be a story about it that is commonly shared. What makes public truth so controversial these days is that we don’t have a common story with which to share it. We did not so many decades ago.  It was the white middle class story of the American Dream.  I don’t think it’s well understood how powerful it was.

What was the story, and who told it? It started on radio, morphed into television, and was told in half hour time slots that described what it was like to live the American Dream. The Life of Riley, Father Knows Best, Ozzie and Harriet, Leave it to Beaver. Beulah, featuring a black cook/maid who secretly ran the white household, made the point that it was possible for the middle class to have black servants. What about Amos N Andy? Middle class blacks, should there be any, spoke funny, were befuddled, a little corrupt, and belonged in the inner city, not the suburbs. The Honeymooners? Not everyone could make it, but they did what they could to imitate it.

Few adults remember these shows with clarity, but when they talk about the American Dream, the image in their minds is drawn from these shared stories describing what was believed as a public truth.  Was it really true?  “See The USA in Your Chevrolet,” and find out for yourself.

We need a new story.  What should it be and who should tell it?  There isn’t a consistent theme in today’s t.v. shows.  Besides, the entire nation doesn’t tune in on Thursday nights. at 7:00 to watch XXXX. It has to be a story of the American Dream that every person of every color and persuasion can say, “That American Dream is my American Dream.”

So, if you were telling the story, what would it be? Remember, it has to fit in a half hour time slot.