Ancient Answers


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Was Jesus naive?

 

A study published this week offers startling facts about the behaviour of 62 mammal species – from opossums to elephants. Because of fear of humans, more and more animals are shifting their activity to nighttime in order to avoid encounters with humans. In parts of Africa, antelopes are more active at night – even though they’re more likely to be attacked by lions at night! So they’re more afraid of humans than they are of lions. And it’s not just human hunters that animals are afraid of. They increasingly seek to avoid contact with normal human activities!

Many people, even Christians, find the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel reading to be naive and irrelevant to our lives. Really? Jesus really expects us to be like birds of the air and lilies of the field, caring not for tomorrow, trusting that God will provide?

Perhaps the words are naive if they are taken literally. People who take everything in the Bible literally often end up seeming ridiculous to their friends and associates. Jesus is not telling us to be irresponsible and lazy. Have you ever really observed birds and animals? How hard they work to provide their basic needs? Birds, animals, insects, and yes, flowers of the field, work. Jesus’ message is not about waiting for handouts. Jesus’ message is about anxiety. Don’t be anxious. Work, take care of your responsibilities to the best of your talent and physical ability. But never lose hope, no matter how bad things appear. Don’t be anxious. Anxiety kills the spirit. Anxiety destroys your strength. Anxiety easily leads to depression and despair. Anxiety kills!

The animals that shift their essential activities to nighttime show us the wisdom of avoiding conflict, stress, anxiety. They become teachers to us of the same message Jesus preached. There is wisdom in nature. There is strength in nature. Environmentalists have been mocked as “tree huggers.” Every time you mock someone or something you may be missing at an opportunity to learn a means to harmony. Perhaps hugging a tree is more therapeutic than 20 sessions with a therapist at $200 a session. Or one of those empowering weekends that baby boomers spend thousands of dollars attending in the hope of enlightenment and stress relief. Learn from the birds and the flowers and the trees, Jesus tells us. And it will cost you nothing.

Two of the most enlightened men that this country has produced are Henry David Thoreau and Thomas Merton. Both lived in close contact with nature, and their brilliant books are filled with the wisdom of nature. Thoreau lived by Walden Pond and there wrote his most famous book. He traveled the forests of Maine, the rivers of Massachusetts and New Hampshire. He preferred the solitude of the wild to being around humans. Merton was a monk. And he was as much an observer of nature as Thoreau. These two men represent the best of America, in my opinion. 

To go out to walk silently in this wood—this is a more important and significant means to understanding…than a lot of analysis and a lot of reporting on the things “of the spirit.”

Questions of liturgy, questions of psychology, questions of history. Are they the right questions? In the woods there are other questions and other answers, for in the woods the whole world is naked and directly present, with no monastery to veil it.

Why do I live alone? I don’t know.…I cannot have enough of the hours of silence when nothing happens. When the clouds go by. When the trees say nothing. When the birds sing. I am completely addicted to the realisation that just being there is enough, and to add something else is to mess it all up… I can only desire this absurd business of trees that say nothing, of birds that sing, of a field in which nothing ever happens (except perhaps that a fox comes and plays, or a deer passes by). This is crazy. It is lamentable. I am flawed, I am nuts. I can’t help it. Here I am, now,…happy as a coot. The whole business of saying I am flawed is a lie. I am happy. I cannot explain it.…Freedom… This is what the woods mean to me. I am free, free, a wild being, and that is all that I ever can really be. I am dedicated to it, addicted to it, sworn to it, and sold to it. It is the freedom in me that loves you.…

I am telling you: this life in the woods is IT. It is the only way. It is the way everybody has lost.…It is life, this thing in the woods.

It is life, this thing in the woods – for Merton, but maybe not for you or me. We must every one of us find what life is for each of us. Don’t be quick to reject or overlook the wisdom that God has planted in all the unexpected places. Don’t be quick to call Jesus naive. He didn’t speak as a philosopher, or a scientist, or a theologian. He was wisdom incarnate. Wisdom in the flesh. Don’t be anxious. Don’t complicate things with big fancy words of theology. There is a deeper wisdom in each of us, if we could only take a break from our anxious, busy, gadget-filled lives.


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Permission to “Be”

 

The first chirps of the waking birds mark the “point vierge”

of the dawn

under a sky as yet without real light,

a moment of awe and inexpressible innocence,

when the Father in perfect silence opens their eyes.

They speak to Him, not with fluent song,

but with an awakening question

that is their dawn state,

their state at the “point vierge.”

Their condition asks if it is time for them to “be”?

He answers “Yes.”

Then they one by one wake up, and become birds.

They manifest themselves as birds, beginning to sing.

Presently they will be fully themselves, and will even fly.

Meanwhile, the most wonderful moment of the day is that

when creation in its innocence asks permission

to “be” once again,

as it did on the first morning that ever was.

All wisdom seeks to collect and manifest itself

at that blind sweet point.

Man’s wisdom does not succeed,

for we have fallen into self mastery and cannot ask

permission of anyone.

We face our mornings as men of undaunted purpose.

We know the time and we dictate the terms.

We know what time it is.

For the birds there is not a time that they tell,

but the virgin point between darkness and light,

Between nonbeing and being.

So they wake: first the catbirds and cardinals.

Later the song sparrows and the wrens.

Last of all the doves and the crows.

Here is an unspeakable secret: paradise is all around us

and we do not understand.

It is wide open. The sword is taken away,

but we do not know it:

we are off “one to his farm and another

to his merchandise.”

Lights on. Clocks ticking. Thermostats working. Stoves

cooking. Electric shavers filling radios with static.

“Wisdom,” cries the dawn deacon, but we do not attend.

My 40-year-old worn copy of this Merton book

Thomas Merton wrote this in the early 1960s (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, pp 131-32), when indeed there were radios in every home and electric shavers did create static in those radios. Long-play records have made a comeback – they call them vinyl now – so perhaps radios too will come back. We live in a retro age.

But the more important things reflected in this meditation will not come back. The silence of the morning that Merton experienced in his Kentucky hermitage is not ours to experience. The new creation that takes place every morning in the depths of nature are beyond our understanding. 

And yet, we can be like those birds. We can wake up each morning and ask permission from God “to be”! God’s answer will always be “Yes” to that question. 

As we get older many of us wake up each morning grateful to be alive. Don’t stop there. Ask permission from God to be! To become a new creation each day! Nothing pleases our heavenly Father than to see us rise each morning and become more fully human than we were when we went to sleep the night before.

Thomas Merton’s study in his hermitage

This meditation by Merton seeks to enlighten us with God’s wisdom. But man’s wisdom stands in the way. The tragedy is that “we have fallen into self mastery and cannot ask permission of anyone.” Not even of God. So we pursue our own “undaunted purpose.”

“Here is an unspeakable secret: paradise is all around us and we do not understand….Lights on. Clocks ticking. Thermostats working. Stoves cooking. Electric shavers filling radios with static.”

“Wisdom,” cries the dawn deacon, but we do not attend.

“Wisdom, let us attend,” our Liturgy also calls out several times. There is wisdom here. There is wisdom all around us. Sophia!


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Rediscover the Greatness of Spirit

 

While waiting for my MRI on Friday, I was reading a book by Rob Riemen, To Fight Against this Age: On Fascism and Humanism. It actually felt good to have a book with me instead of looking at my iPhone while waiting. The pleasure of holding a book is rapidly being lost, and that’s a shame. But hey, long-play records are coming back – they call them vinyl now – so perhaps people will rediscover books as well and become less brainwashed by social media.

Riemen lives in Holland and writes primarily from a European perspective. He describes the loss of spirit and values in the 20th century which led to the rise of fascism in Europe; and he sees much the same happening in our own 21st century. Much of the book consists of quotes from great thinkers of the past. It is not political, economic, or military history. But spiritual history!

He quotes Alexis de Tocqueville, who discovered during his tour of America in the early 19th century a new form of repression never previously experienced in history:

The old words despotism and tyranny are not suitable. The thing is new, therefore I must try to define it, since I cannot name it. I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of others… Above these an immense tutelary power is elevated, which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate…It likes citizens to enjoy themselves provided they think only of enjoying themselves… I have always believed that this sort of regulated, mild, and peaceful servitude, whose picture I have painted, could be combined with some of the external forms of freedom and … established in the very shadow of the sovereignty of the people.

Nietzsche, the great German philosopher who stood at the doorstep of the 20th century without entering it, identified “The danger of all dangers: nothing has meaning.” And if nothing has meaning then there is no knowledge of good and evil, there is no compassion, there is no courtesy, conversation, and appreciation of quality and value, no place for great art. Freed from all spiritual values and from anything that might make life meaningful, modern man simply wants all his desires to be satisfied – and if that does not happen, he would become violent.

If you really want to understand what is happening in the world, stop watching Fox News or MSNBC. Read the thinkers of the past. They’ll tell you more about what’s happening today than the talking heads on cable news. The repression that Tocqueville could not name 200 years ago, we can name today. It’s the culture of technology, speed, money, fame and celebrity, outward appearances. These are the things that rule our lives. Socrates, 25 centuries ago criticised the life that “focuses only on pleasure and ignores the highest good.” 2,500 years ago!

One of the most impressive quotes in Riemen’s book comes from the French poet Paul Valéry. In the 1920s he wrote: “Our emotional life can be transposed into works of art…A man can break free from himself, imagine himself in the place of others. Each person is thus equipped with the intellectual capacity to observe and criticise his own actions and values. But the human mind has become derailed.” He goes on to describe the derailment:

Nothing is durable anymore. Farewell cathedral, built across three centuries; farewell masterpiece that required a lifetime of experience and attention to perfect. We live passively. We defer to telephones, our jobs, fashion… We have the best toys that man has ever possessed. What a lot of fun! Never had so many toys! But what a lot of worries! Never had so much panic!

He wrote this a century ago. Does it sound like you and me and our even bigger toys…and worries of today? But here is the clincher that wraps up Valéry’s vision of the modern age:

Due to the demands of technological progress, society has a growing need for “professionals,” replaceable intellectuals. There is no longer any use for a Shakespeare, a Bach, a Descartes, poets and thinkers, irreplaceable intellectuals.

ReplaceableIrreplaceable. Think about that contrast and what you value. 

I fear that we have turned the “Saints” into the “professionals” of the Christian practice. That’s the impression we get from today’s Epistle and Gospel readings. They are the extremes – the supermen and superwomen of faith – while the rest of us are consigned to live our lives of work and whatever pleasure we can afford while paying lip service to our religious heritage. I prefer the Apostle Paul’s way. He addressed all Christian believers as “saints” – άγιοι. Do you want to be limited by the society that Riemen and the thinkers in his book describe? Why not choose to be a saint instead? Why not choose to live a life of meaning? And return to the spirit of greatness?  


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The Unspoken Morality

Viet Thanh Nguyen came to the United States in 1975 as a refugee from Vietnam. He was interviewed last night by Christiane Amanpour on PBS. They discussed the current policy of the United States to separate children from their parents if they enter the US “illegally”. After playing a clip of Attorney General Jeff Sessions defending the policy – even in the wake of revelations that the US government has lost track of about 1,500 such children who were separated from their parents.

Mr. Nguyen commented that separating children from their parents is “inhumane and immoral. So it’s a moral question that I don’t think we should lose sight of. And I think too many people in this country have lost sight of that as they stick to this rhetoric of legality.” That’s precisely the missing point, I thought to myself: No one is talking about the morality of the policy! And that is very much the problem with much of what transpires today in political debates.

Nguyen went on to discuss the visibility of American involvement in Vietnam and how that prompted a responsibility to take in refugees after that war. But, Nguyen pointed out, American involvement in the conditions south of the border that created some of the economic and political reasons for refugees coming north has mostly gone unnoticed, invisible to most Americans. So many Americans feel they have no obligation to these refugees, and so it’s “easier to behave toward them in inhumane and callous fashion.”

White House Chief of Staff, John Kelly, spoke out against immigrants and refugees who he feels will not assimilate to US society because of their low education and rural background. But as Nguyen went on to comment, his own mother was precisely the kind of person Kelly describes – born poor in a rural area, who had 6th-grade education! Yet, she was a heroic woman who worked hard and produced children who went on to Harvard. John Kelly’s own grandparents were Italian and Irish working-class labourers. And that has been the history of immigration in this country. Every wave of new immigrants has been greeted initially with suspicion and prejudice until after a generation or two.

The “boat people” who left Vietnam as refugees were in hindsight considered the “good” immigrants. Should the current refugees from the south be considered not “good”? Nguyen reminded Amanpour that the “oceanic refugees” (his substitute label for the “boat people”) had a 50% survival rate. And only 36% of the American people wanted to accept these refugees – even then! So perhaps not much has changed after all. People feared that the “boat people” would bring all sorts of problems and contamination to this country. But 40 years later, most Americans have forgotten the coming of the “boat people.” Even many Vietnamese themselves now oppose accepting new immigrants and refugees! With a smile on his face, Nguyen vouches for the fact that many of the Vietnamese refugees that he grew up with in California were pretty bad refugees, doing things like welfare cheating and scams and “much, much worse”! But they overcame. His point is not that immigrants or refugees are perfect, but given the opportunity they tend to succeed.

We all have a story; we’re all storytellers, Nguyen reminded me and other viewers of his interview; though most of us will never win a Pulitzer Prize like Nguyen did. But when Donald Trump says “Make America Great Again” he is telling a story in four words that is very seductive and powerful to many people, and they repeat that story, over dinner and in other settings. So those who believe in a story about an inclusive America, a welcoming America, an America that is about all kinds of people – it’s important to tell this other story, and make America love again! On that note, Mr. Nguyen ended his brief but illuminating interview with Christiane Amanpour.

I’m an immigrant myself – and not once, but twice! I emigrated to Canada in 1963, at the age of 10. And I became an immigrant to the US in 1983. After studying theology in New York (1980-83), I was offered a job by the Greek community in Astoria, New York, in 1983 to teach Chemistry and Physics at the St. Demetrios High School. I subsequently got married and that sealed my decision to stay in the United States. My experiences with immigration in both Canada and the US have been completely positive. I never experienced prejudice or suspicion in either country.

I received undergraduate and post-graduate education at Canada’s top three universities: McGill in Montréal, University of Toronto, and University of British Columbia in Vancouver. My two brothers had very little proclivity for academic work and preferred to have a good time. But both eventually settled to work for their own and for the family’s improvement. There were, to be sure, members of my extended clan who engaged in petty welfare fraud and took advantage of Canada’s very generous health and social support programs in ways that didn’t sit well with me. And there were one or two cousins who jumped ship in Halifax and entered the country illegally. But they became law-abiding productive members of Canadian society and eventually moved to the United States where they became successful businessmen. So certainly we were not all perfect immigrants, and I can relate a bit to what Mr. Nguyen was sharing about his own life among other refugees in California.

My family emigrated from Greece for economic reasons. We fled poverty to come to a country that offered opportunities to get ahead, to receive quality education, and live a mostly comfortable, but not luxurious, life. We were not political or war refugees.

Like Nguyen, I also am deeply saddened when I see fellow Greeks speak against immigrants today and support inhumane treatment of refugees and undocumented immigrants. How easily many of us forget where we came from, and why we came. When I see people who benefitted from the generosity of the United States – and even engaged in welfare fraud! – now promote anti-immigrant vitriol, it makes me angry. And I wonder whether such people have ever known the love of God in a personal way. People hear talk about the love of God in church gatherings, in Liturgy; they pay lip service to this love of God when it works to their own benefit. But they cannot see how this loving God might also be loving toward others not like us. And how this loving God may just be telling us to love others who are not like us.

I don’t know what religion Viet Thanh Nguyen subscribes to, if any. Did he become a Christian after his emigration to the United States? Is he a Buddhist, or an atheist? I don’t know. But hearing him raise the moral question today in the interview with Amanpour really hit the nail on the head. When “legality” takes precedence over morality, it is a very troubling matter for conscientious Christians. This is a moral question! And it disturbs me when I see millions of allegedly “evangelical” (that is, gospel-believing) Christians promote hatred toward people who are seeking a chance at a better life.

One of the greatest theologians the United States has produced was Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971). In 1932 he published what became his most famous book, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics, in which he claimed that that people are more likely to sin as members of groups than as individuals. This was a very controversial idea at the time, though the imminent rise of Nazi fascism quickly put a stamp of reality on the book’s thesis. And unfortunately, what is happening today in many countries, including or especially our own, is clear proof of the group dynamics of much immoral and hateful attitudes. People who are pleasant, supportive and welcoming in their inter-personal behaviors can quickly become something else when immersing themselves in “fake news” or when they are surrounded by cheering true believers at political rallies.

The Judeo-Christian scriptures are clear; the behaviour and teachings of Jesus are clear! Perhaps I will give voice to some of the scriptures in a later post, but for now this present post has grown long enough. My point has been to raise the moral question. Though Nguyen and I have partly and necessarily addressed the present political situation, the attitudes that ignore the moral question extend beyond partisan politics and religion. Nguyen’s point that we are all storytellers is the challenge that hit me personally. What story am I writing in this moment of world history? What is the story we are all creating as a country, as a planetary culture? For how long will refugees and immigrants continue to be a moral problem?

Hannibal Hamlin, 15th Vice President of the United States

P.S. As I finished this post and prepared to publish it, a new episode in the PBS series American Experience came on. The title of the episode: “The Chinese Exclusion Act” – about an 1882 law aimed against Chinese coming to the United States. Worth searching on-demand or online. There were voices of dissent, but not enough to prevent Congress passing the law. Standout among the dissenters was Senator Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, who twenty years earlier had been Abraham Lincoln’s first vice-president, and was now chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. On the floor of the Senate he denounced the Chinese Exclusion Actt: “I’m opposed to this. It violates fundamental American principles…I leave my vote, the last legacy to my children, that they may esteem it the brightest act of my life.” “This is a person with enormous moral authority,” the program narrator added. That is what we need today, persons with enormous moral authority.


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A Community of God’s Spirit

 

Let’s start with an interesting contrast of biblical paradigms:

Exodus paradigm: Revolution →→ Revelation

Pentecost paradigm: Revelation →→ Revolution!

The Pentecost paradigm can be illustrated with these two passages from the New Testament.

Luke 6:12-19 == Prayer (Solitude) →→ Community →→ Ministry (Mission)

Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles: Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, and James, and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Simon, who was called the Zealot, and Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.

He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

The events at Pentecost followed the same pattern.

Acts 2 == Prayer/Spirit →→ Community →→ Ministry & Mission

A Coptic icon for Pentecost. It’s a wonderful feature of Coptic icons to include women, in contrast to the more heavily or exclusively male presence in Byzantine icons.

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability….

[Peter preached to people of many races in Jerusalem…] 

… So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Awe (φόβος) came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Can you see from that last paragraph why I speak of revolution?

Henri Nouwen wrote (in Bread for the Journey):

It is the Spirit who offers us the life that death cannot destroy.

God’s selfie. Baptism of Christ icon in our Holy Trinity church

Dynamic images for the Spirit – wind, cloud, fire, water – all essential to life. The dove? Ah, that was just God’s selfie – a one-time shot. Nothing more. The other images are the important ones!

So today we celebrate life. The life the Spirit gives. The life that is revolutionary. Pentecost is an invitation to join the revolution of God’s love and the love that we humans are capable of giving and sharing. Yes, we are capable, if we can just overcome the ease with which we fall into selfish and combative ways.

As the  Spirit hovered over the darkness that covered the earth at the beginning of time (Genesis 1:2), may the same Spirit move among us in the prayer and community of this day, and prepare us for new life.

A beautiful blessing that I found in the book Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. I slightly modified it so that instead of “the peace of the Lord Christ” I have “the Spirit of the Lord Christ.”

May the Spirit of the Lord Christ go with you: wherever he may send you;

may he guide you through the wilderness: protect you through the storm;

may he bring you home rejoicing: at the wonders he has shown you;

may he bring you home rejoicing: once again into our doors.


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The Fire of Love

 

What a wonderful wedding yesterday. Wasn’t it? The pomp and pageantry of British royal tradition with a refreshing dose of American energy. Fabulous! And the African-American Episcopal bishop who gave the homily! And that gospel choir singing “Stand By Me”!

But that African-American bishop, he spoke of love – as one would expect at a wedding. But he didn’t speak of love in the trite, sentimental ways that we expect to hear at a wedding service. He brought fire into that wedding service – the fire of Christ’s love. The Archbishop of Canterbury was seated right behind him as he delivered his homily. He sat very still, and probably saying to himself, “Why can’t I deliver a sermon like this?” But he can’t; he’s British and he’s high Anglican. And let me tell you why that thought entered my mind about the Archbishop of Canterbury. It’s because that’s what I was thinking. Why can’t I preach like a black preacher? Because I’m not black. I’m Greek and I’m Orthodox, and I’m boring. I’m supposed to be boring!

The good African-American bishop spoke of love, spoke with love, spoke love. He spoke of love as fire. He spoke of love as redeeming. He spoke of love of God and love of neighbor. He spoke of a love that if it were to exist, there would be no wars; there would be no poverty; no hunger. When love is the way, there would be justice and righteousness for all. “When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary,” he said. He spoke the love that Jesus brought into the world. The transcript of Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon can be read here.

Love is everywhere in the Bible. As examples, here are passages in the writings of John in the New Testament.

John 13:1  Having loved his own, he loved them to the end – εἰς τέλος ἠγάπησεν αὐτούς – to the maximum, to perfection.

John 15:12  “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

John 13:34-35   “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this all people (πάντες) will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Do you hear that last sentence? Is that why there is no peace, no justice or righteousness in the world? Because the world does not see love even in the lives of the followers of Jesus?

1 John 3:16  We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.

1 John 4:8  Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.

1 John 4:19-21  We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

But who is my brother or sister? you might ask. You really want to ask that question of Jesus? You know what his answer is going to be. Just like he answered the rich man’s question, “Who is my neighbor?”

This is why love is fire. And this is why the fiery American preacher was right on yesterday at that royal wedding. Half the congregation probably didn’t quite know what to do with him. They don’t hear sermons like that in high Anglican churches. They got a bit of a taste of American fiery preaching. And we need some preaching like that to shake us out of our own rut and our own satisfaction with ourselves and our holy tradition and our sense of entitlement. 

Jesus ascended. He carried with him every human experience, everything that makes us human. He carried with him to heaven every human race, every form of human existence. That’s how great God’s love is for humanity. What do we do with that love? Fly flags at half mast? Pray with trite words while doing nothing to prevent the killing of our children? Is that the extent of our love? Where is the fire? Next week, on Pentecost, we will hear of how the Holy Spirit came down on the first disciples after Jesus ascended. And the Holy Spirit came down as fire. Jesus carried our shared humanity to heaven so he can send down fire – the fire that makes the world new, the fire that brings the new heaven and the new earth. That is the dream. That is the fire of love.


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Another School Shooting…More Hypocritical Prayers

In the wake of today’s school shooting in Texas, Ted Cruz, senator from Texas, appeared before the cameras, as politicians do in order to fool voters into thinking that they care about anyone or anything. So Mr. Cruz is talking about the newest shooting and as he links it to other recent shootings and tragedies in other communities in his home state – the great gun-toting state of Texas – he starts talking about how in these communities people have been “leaning” on each other and praying… And at that point I cursed Mr. Cruz under my breath and I turned off the television to avoid listening to any more hypocritical nonsense. It’s almost as if Mr. Cruz was trying to say: Look how much good comes out of these tragedies. Communities come together, people lean on each other, pray for each other, comfort each other… Yes, Mr. Cruz, communities and people do come together. But why should it take the killing of children to do this? (And let’s face it, even then it only lasts a day or two, or a week, or a month. Then it’s back to looking out for number one.) Why can’t communities come together to create a society that is less death-obsessed and death-worshipping?

Here is what I want to say to Mr. Cruz and every other politician who immediately invokes prayers when a tragedy occurs, especially whenever a school shooting shocks us for a day or two. Have these politicians ever really read the Bible? I mean really read the Bible – not just the select verses they hear week after week in their comfortable, plush evangelical mega churches? If they read their Bibles they would be a little more cautious about how often they invoke prayer in responding to school shootings. Here is what God has to say about prayers. And God says this in the first chapter of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. And yes, better believe that there is more in Isaiah than “a virgin shall conceive”! Here is what God has to say about prayers:

When you stretch out your hands,
    I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
    I will not listen;
    your hands are full of blood.
 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
    remove the evil of your doings
    from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
     learn to do good;
seek justice,
    rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
    plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:15-17)

Does God listen to the prayers of politicians and their supporters whose “hands are full of blood”? When are their hands full of blood? When they do not care for the oppressed and the poor; when they worship at the altar of the NRA.

I know that stricter gun laws will not solve the problem of school shootings. Our society has gone too far into inhuman ways. School shootings are just part of an overall picture of ungodly living: extreme wealth and extreme poverty, war industries, environmental destruction, racism and bigotry, abortion, drugs…

There are no single or simple solutions. But let’s start with our churches. Do we promote social justice? Do we challenge politicians to really do the things that God desires? (And I don’t mean Christian versions of sharia law, which is what evangelical conservatives want.) Do we really preach the gospel or only nice messages to pamper the pampered? Do we comfort the uncomforted and discomfort the comfortable? These are the criteria by which God judges churches – not by what Creed we recite or how we baptize or which patriarchate is number one.

If churches that call themselves Christian really believed the gospel of Jesus Christ and really read the prophets complete, they would have an impact on a society such as ours. But churches and church leaders are cowards. I’m sure the president will ask for a period of mourning and flags at half mast. What God said to ancient Israel applies to us too:

Bringing offerings is futile;
    incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
    I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals (and flags at half mast?)
    my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
    I am weary of bearing them. (Isaiah 1:13-14)

How the faithful city
    has become a whore!
    She that was full of justice,
righteousness lodged in her—
    but now murderers!
Your silver has become dross,
    your wine is mixed with water.
Your princes are rebels
    and companions of thieves.
Everyone loves a bribe
    and runs after gifts.
They do not defend the orphan,
    and the widow’s cause does not come before them. (Isaiah 1:21-23)

And lest you think that Isaiah had a mental or psychotic problem and put these words in God’s mouth, here is another prophet, Amos. God again is the speaker:

I hate, I despise your festivals,
    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
    I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
    I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
    I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:21-24)

Do not mistake God’s idea of “justice” with our ideas of justice. God’s idea of justice is the just treatment of the poor, the outcasts, the oppressed, the widows and the orphans and the homeless, and the refugees – in other words, precisely the victims of our forms of “justice”!

Will God listen to the prayers of a Ted Cruz or a Donald Trump, of the communities that suffer tragedies? I hope God will. But God will also not ignore or forget the words he spoke 2,700 years ago through the mouth of Isaiah or Amos. And he speaks them today as well, in the pages of what Mr. Cruz calls the Holy Bible.