Whose Side Are We On?

Disclaimer:  You will not want to finish reading this post.

Did you feel it? Probably not! The earth beneath our feet shifted a bit from its old axis yesterday.

There are moments that are truly transformative — yesterday was one. America changed forever on September 11, 2001. When the history of the 21st century is written, I believe 9/11 will pale in comparison with all that July 9, 2011 symbolizes.

There were no catastrophic deaths; visible edifices did not crumble in flames. Like a poor girl from an obscure town on the fringe of an imposing empire giving birth in Bethlehem of Judea, what happened yesterday in Santa Cruz, Bolivia will likely go unnoticed by world leaders consumed with their presumption of power.

Like the irrepressible pressure that builds over eons causing the earth to quake — or the indomitable life-force within a tulip bulb that splits darkness, dirt and cold to blossom in Spring — forces building over centuries converged yesterday and found insistent and incisive expression.

It is as if the Book of Revelation found apocalyptic voice once again: “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev 21:5).

Here is a sampling. Beware, its tough reading — you will want to “zone-out”, stop once you get the gist, keep it at arm’s length if you succeed in making it all the way.

  • There is an unjust global system that results in exclusion. Individualism is at the heart of this injustice. The rule of money is fueling this injustice.
  • Keep fighting for justice — Focus on people and interpersonal encounter not abstract ideologies; be moved by their suffering.
  • A just economy is one that serves people —where the quest for profits dominates, the earth is destroyed, and there is an unjust distribution of goods.
  • The economy must foster conditions that are compatible with human dignity and that unlock the potential of each person by respecting all of their rights as a person and allowing each one to flourish.
  • A just distribution of goods is not a task for philanthropy or charity alone; there is a moral obligation to ensure this just distribution.
  • An inclusive economy enables all people to fully participate; solidarity and subsidiarity are only fully present when participation is real.
  • All people and states are interdependent; we need global and international action to achieve justice.
  • The Church is not innocent when it comes to the sins of colonialism.
  • Our faith is radical and countercultural.

Pope Francis chose remote Santa Cruz, Bolivia — hardly an epicenter of economic prowess or political prestige — for his prophetic exhortation.

Like a “voice crying in the wilderness”, Francis proclaims “the way of the Lord.” And let us not miss the poignancy of the location, Santa Cruz — are we not being invited to look upon the holy cross on which the Body of Christ hangs today?

I confess my tremendous resistance to paying more than pious lip service to Francis’ moral vision. Social and economic structures in which I am enmeshed serve my interests. I prefer not to see those who are excluded or on whose backs my security is built.

My hunch is most of us are in the same boat, heavily invested in the status quo. The more structures serve our personal interest, especially as we age, the more we resist change.  This seems to be the bane of the powerful, the truth of the ages!

But change we must. Change we will, willingly or not. Like the indomitable life force of a tulip or the irrepressible pressure of tectonic plates, the earth is shifting under out feet — and in this an always compassionate but insistent God is alive and active.

When the history of the 21st century is written, with whom and on whose side will we wish we had stood?
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I am indebted to Robert Christian at millennialjournal.com for his marvelous synopsis of Francis’ speech. The above sampling of themes are lifted from his post.  I heartily recommend his entire summary to you [link].

Look, See, Touch

It wasn’t closely covered by the media. My hunch is most of us aren’t pugged-in to communities where we would hear much about it. I stumbled upon it. Yet, it carried an image — and an invitation — that stopped me in my tracks.

Read the following. Who spoke these words last week? Can you guess the image I found so stunning in its originality?

Mother Church will continue rising from the dead if we keep crossing into new territories, in our back yards, prisons, city parks, and pockets of despair, here and across the globe. If we believe, if we’re faithful, we know that the ancient truth remains, and resurrection is always emerging from death. That healing may cost plenty of blood, sweat, and tears – but it is rooted in the firm belief that God does enlighten, heal, and deliver.

Pay no attention to the finger-wagging. Turn around and look for the hem of Jesus’ robe. Go searching in new territory. Reach out and touch what is clothing the image of God. Give your heart to that search and you will not only find healing but become healing. Share what you find and you will discover the abundant life for which all God’s children have been created. And indeed, the Lord will turn weeping into dancing.

These compelling words were spoke by The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church as she concludes her nine years as their Presiding Bishop.

The incisive image that captures the commission given to all the baptized?

Turn around and look for the hem of Jesus’ robe. … Reach out and touch what is clothing the image of God.

Of course, the Last Judgment (Matt 25) comes to mind, perhaps the Beatitudes. But even these famous Scriptures can be so occluded with so much pious baggage that we miss — or evade — the point.

Stop looking up — look down! “People of Jerusalem, why do you just stand there looking up into the sky? Move on!  Do something!” At least that’s my recollection of the angel’s admonition after Jesus’ ascension.

What are we looking for? What do we expect? If we but saw the hem of Jesus’ robe!  Knowing where to look, what to look for, and for whom to look dramatically increases our odds of finding what it is we seek!

What is clothing the image of God today? Here? Now? Right in front of us?  Don’t look up, look down!  Reach out… touch!
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The entirety of Bishop Jefferts Schori’s sermon may be found [here].

Carol

Carol died yesterday. Although she bore the toll of battling four recurrences of breast cancer, and we knew this was in her future, no one believed it would happen so suddenly. We thought there would be more time. We all wanted more time. So did Carol — perhaps until the final hours when she knew the most loving thing was to let go.

Carol had an incredibly positive meeting with her oncologist recently where she learned that 90-95% of her cancer was being contained by a newly approved drug she was taking. She and Steve were planning a trip with friends to Italy in September!

Her husband of thirty years and their twin sons — both of whom live on the East Coast — had gathered in South Bend at the home of Carol’s sister as was their Fourth of July tradition. They were all at her side for her last day and hours when she was lucid and without pain. What a gift!

More than anything, Carol refused to let cancer define her life. We all want to say that and we sometimes even fudge the truth a little in our grieving. But with Carol it was absolutely true. Carol sought out people who could laugh. She remained engaged in social relationships. She was brutally honest about her physical and emotional ups and downs with a select group of intimate friends. Carol lived — until she died.

In that, she became gift-for-others. In that, Carol was ever the life-giver. The circumstances of her diagnosis and her death at a South Bend hospital were quite ordinary. There was nothing routine or typical about the way she left us, however — she left us better, blessed, believing in something more than our small, self-referential lives.

I have lost both parents, six of nine siblings, uncounted family and friends. Death always hits us in the gut leaving us empty, at a loss. Carol’s death is only the latest reminder that these holes in our hearts never go away. They recur and remain. And, neither do we want them to close. We reluctantly come to recognize such black holes of the heart to be a sacred space, a testimony to irreplaceable love.

Love endures. Love lives on in laughter, in relationships both intimate and communal. Love gives life, is always generative. Love ultimately gives its life for others.

Carol beat her cancer. Carol transformed and transcended the worst life could throw at her. She loved. She is loved.

Our hearts were ripped open a little more yesterday!  And that is as it should be.

Interdependence Day

The Fourth of July… Independence Day!

My paternal grandparents’ wedding anniversary was July 6. Every year until my grandpa died we had a family reunion at the park pavilion of our hometown on the weekend nearest the Fourth. Many, many years have intervened. Yet, even while going out for ice cream last evening with my 52 year-old nephew, such enduring bonds of family console me.

Alleys! I never want to live in a neighborhood without alleys. Although we live on a block with a floating TGIF sign (who ever wants to host the weekly kid-friendly TGIF gets the sign from last week’s host and posts it in their yard on about Wednesday), most of our goings-on occur in the alley. That’s where we grow our raspberries — this time of year they come in such abundance neighbors know they are free to sample. That’s where neighbors stop for conversations so long the driver sometimes even turns the car off. If we need a tool or cup of sugar we could cross the street but we are more likely to cross the alley.

Last Monday we had dinner at the home of our pastor. The priest who will marry us is someone with whom we are more likely to share stories and laughter than Scripture and liturgy. And despite all the crap associated with clerical abuse (and it’s more than sex abuse), I have never been more comfortably Catholic in all my life. Things are breaking open, truth is being told, arrogant power is being challenged, we’re getting back to what really matters. All this suggests to me we are a much healthier church in 2015 than we were twenty years ago.

Minnesota may be a beautiful state but it’s really flat — the fifth flattest of all the 50 states as a matter of fact. No surprise, then, that water would be a really big deal here. Ten thousand lakes. Headwaters of the Mississippi. Lake Superior holding primacy of place. Yet, my special affinity is with Minnehaha Creek where Jeb the Dog takes me each day for a walk and where we mark the rhythm of the seasons. True to my Nebraska roots, I actually relax and resonate more with the farms of southern Minnesota than our state’s North Woods. In the past month we have been fortunate to enjoy them all — lakes, forests and farms.  Life is good!

It’s also been a great summer for Constitutional government — “We, the People of the United States, in order to form a [ever] more perfect union…” I am so grateful to live in nation where the Founders laid claim to certain inalienable rights and then crafted a system that would, as one Federalist writer wrote, “protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority.” Or as Gerald Ford assured my generation upon the resignation of President Nixon, “We are a nation of laws, not of men.” For this — and on behalf of the millions of Americans who have health care coverage because of the Affordable Care Act — I feel incredibly blessed.

Fourth of July weekend — family, neighbors, faith communities, nature, our nation. Blessings all! Each worth celebrating! All to be cherished! We call it Independence Day but it’s our interdependence we celebrate and cherish most.

May we always remember from Whom these gifts came and for which they were given.

Them and Then, Us Here and Now

Most of us go to movies to be entertained. If the scenes are well directed and the acting really good, so much the better. Rarely does a movie leave a lasting impact, open us to truly fresh insights, transform the way we see things.

That happened the other night when we saw Testament of Youth, based on the memoir of Vera Brittain. Set in the lush baronial estates of pre-World War I England, the Brittain family is one of stature and privilege. Young Vera bristles at the cultural constraints placed upon women and courageously surmounts them much to the chagrin of her elders.

Catalyzing Vera’s ultimate transformation is the horror of war. Postponing her tenaciously sought Oxford studies, Vera volunteers to nurse wounded soldiers in London and then on the battle front in France. Later she will return to Oxford and eventually become a renown writer, feminist and ardent pacifist. More about the movie later…

But, now… Some readers might know that we are planning a trip to Germany this Fall. Although I have visited the ancestral home of my paternal lineage whose family name I bear, this will be my first opportunity to visit the village from which my mother’s German heritage originated. Of course, we will be seeing friends and new sites such as Berlin, Dresden along with Germany’s many great museums.

Haunting my anticipation is the nagging horror of the Holocaust. Although my German ancestors emigrated to the U.S. more that 150 years ago, I remain troubled by the perversion Nazi Germany wreaked upon the world. How could a people so great and a culture so grand become so morally corrupt and the cause of unspeakable evil?

The traditional answer given by Jewish theologians has been that God chose (for whatever reason) to remain temporarily hidden. Or, more commonly, that God deferred to human freedom. This has never been a satisfying explanation for me.

Quite simply, that expression of “freedom” is the very denegration of human freedom and a defacto proof of its absence. More significantly, it begs the ultimate moral dilemma: If God is good, why would such a God allow such unmerited and unmitigated suffering?

My heritage is three-fourths German, one-fourth Irish. Nazi atrocities and that indictment of an uncaring God has nagged at me for decades. There have been two recent breakthroughs — of course, the first was a book; and then the movie, Testament of Youth.

Along with the usual German maps and travel-guides, I recently came upon The Female Face of God at Auschwitz. Rabbi Melissa Raphael challenges the traditional explanation of the Holocaust as God’s “hiddenness” or deferral to human freedom. Raphael interprets published testimonies of women imprisoned in the extermination camps in the light of Shekhinah, the feminine expression of divine presence accompanying Israel into exile and beyond:

God’s face, as that of the exiled Shekhinah was not … hidden in Auschwitz, but revealed in the female face turned as an act of resistance to that of the assaulted other as a refractive image of God. For women’s attempt to wash themselves and others, and to see, touch, and cover the bodies of the suffering were not only the kindnesses of a practical ethic of care; they were a means of washing the gross profanation of Auschwitz from the body of Israel in ways faithful to Jewish covenantal obligations of sanctification. Women’s restoration of the human, and therefore the divine, from holocaustal erasure opposes not only recent theories of divine absence, but also patriarchal theologies that accommodate absolute violence in the economies of the divine plan.

Wow! This really hit like a bolt of lightning, a blast of fresh air. It struck — as truth often does — with the sudden clarity of recognition.

The divine image of Shekhinah resurfaced in the theater when viewing the panorama of female nurses caring as best they could for brutally injured troops on the muddy battlefields of WWI France. The movie begins and ends with bucolic scenes at a swimming hole. Only at the end did I recognize the baptismal washing common to both Jewish and Christian faiths.

The stunning impact of Testament of Youth, however, came in an especially intimate scene in which Vera Brittain attends to a dying German soldier. Only later do we learn this was a death-bed confession meant for his fiancé in which he seeks forgiveness for the violence in which he now lies complicit.

This moment now imprinted on my heart also brings light, refreshment, clarity, recognition. I need not go to Germany to seek answers for how a people so great and a culture so grand could become so perverse. It is not a matter of my German ancestry from the past.

Like the long-suffering women of Auschwitz, the courageous nurse and an anguished soldier reveal God’s enduring presence in our broken, sinful world.

It’s not about them or then, but us here and now!

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The Female Face of God in Auschwitz: A Jewish Feminist Theology of the Holocaust, Melissa Raphael, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group: London and New York, 2003. The quote is from inside the front cover.

Claiming the Moral High Ground

Sorry, I just don’t get it! I simply don’t understand. People I love, people I respect, family members, friends, neighbors, fellow church members say things that surprise me. It’s not only that I disagree, I don’t understand how they believe what they say.

This post really is more about questions than answers. If anyone has comments, observations or explanations, please share them. My hunch is there are a lot of us who want to understand better — not just understand ideas or issues, but one another.

Here’s a question I’ve always wanted answered but seems too simplistic to ask: What did Christians do before the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg around the year 1440? Of course vast majorities of people were illiterate — there was precious little to read!

I respectfully ask anyone who grounds authority in sola scriptura — Scripture alone — to explain how the average individual or church community learned, expressed or evaluated the authenticity of their faith. My guess it that most pastors were pretty ignorant even if they had a rudimentary reading ability. Again, Bibles and other resources simply weren’t available.  How did they do it?

Okay, that was a gentle wind-up! I’ve generally kept silent about my second question. I’ve been afraid of and reluctant to implicate family, friends, neighbors, people I love. This one hits home because some Christians judge me — and that’s a generous verb — for being gay.

What I want to know is how those who so easily ground their moral assessment of me as a gay man intending to marry can so blithely overlook Jesus’ explicit condemnation of divorce.  Many consider the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in favor of marriage equality as an assault on the sanctity of marriage.  I don’t get it.

Jesus’ one specific reference to marriage is a quote of Genesis 2:24, not for the purpose of affirming some clear, incontrovertible, traditional law of marriage, but for the purpose of prohibiting divorce (Mark 10:2-9)! Truly, I do not want to pick a fight or alienate friends. My intention really is to open discussion and better understand people I care about.

Just given sheer numbers, wouldn’t the defenders of “traditional marriage” found in Scripture better expend their energies attacking divorce than moral outrage at gay people who desire the blessing and commitment of marriage? I’m not here to pick a fight. I really wonder about such questions.

Believe me, I am quite comfortable with a very forgiving application of Jesus’ prohibition of divorce and appreciate that the literal meaning of his teaching is not meant to be interpreted literally. My question is more about how we use the authority of Scripture to live our lives.  Why do we contextualize and moderate the literal meaning of some texts but tenaciously cling to others to justify our firm moral convictions?

Admittedly, my faith tradition affirms the ongoing inspiration of the Spirit over time expressed through the teaching authority of the church. Scripture is absolutely normative, but not exclusive. The Bible arises, through divine inspiration, from within the life of the church. Others Christians seem to believe it works the other way around — the church is formed by and springs from the Bible.

This seems to lead good people to come at things from different if not opposite directions. I’m not trying to argue which is right or wrong. However, I will admit I don’t understand how some people think, especially when their conclusions — if not their behaviors — carry an implicit moral judgment.

I truly want to understand better.  Maybe you do too.