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The Provocative Jesus

Two versions of the same Gospel story, the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter.

First, Mark’s version:

And from there he arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden. But immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. And he said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And he said to her, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone. 

Then, Matthew’s version:

And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Mark calls her “Syrophoenician”, Matthew “Canaanite” – either way, a pagan, an outsider to the community of God’s people. She comes to the Jewish man of God as a beggar. Matthew writes that she called him Lord and Son of David. Perhaps that is the title that she heard other people calling him, for she a pagan would not “son of David” in her vocabulary. But more likely it is simply Matthew’s insertion, as Matthew among the four Gospel writers is the most concerned to refer to Jesus as son of David – 9 separate times in Matthew, only 2 in Mark, 2 in Luke, and none in John. And only in Matthew’s version does Jesus speak of “the house of Israel.” And only in Matthew does Jesus commend the woman’s faith! In Mark he simply commends “this word” (διὰ τοῦτον τὸν λόγον) that she spoke to Jesus. I prefer to see Mark’s version as the more original version. Both Gospel writers recognize the Jewish-pagan contrast at the heart of this story, but by calling the woman a “Canaanite” Matthew places the encounter in the context of the ancient conflict between the Israelites and Canaanites. Matthew’s hand in his version is heavy indeed.

The much-missed late Jesuit Father Daniel Berrigan reflected deeply on this passage in the Epilogue to his book, Sorrow Built a Bridge, Friendship and AIDS, a book in which he recounts his care of people with AIDS during the 1980s in the Supportive Care Program of St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City. Berrigan’s ministry toward people with AIDS was one more chapter in his extraordinary life of resistance to the culture of death that reigns over much of human affairs. The fight against AIDS went hand in hand with his life-long fight against war and nuclear weapons and against social and government institutions that are indifferent to suffering, poverty and exclusion.

After quoting the passage from Mark’s version, Berrigan went on to write:

I commend this text to you, and to my own soul. Many of us have, we are told, for different reasons, something less than a human claim on the bread of Christ; which is to say, on his attentiveness, his response, his healing. Certain claims are neither large nor persuasive. What, after all, is the worth of a canine claim, proceeding as it does from a dog’s life? … Those securely in possession, established where they sit – they are given to glances, words, slamming of doors in faces, such acts as might improve the occasion when a stray dog enters a banquet hall. Or a church.

Berrigan is speaking to me and you. He is provocative as he always was in his books and in his life work. As a Catholic who devoted his life’s work to human suffering and exclusion, he cannot avoid bringing the “bread of Christ” into his meditation – the exact thing that most Christians, and certainly we Orthodox, do not date to do. Imagine that, bringing the holiest of the sacraments into a discussion about AIDS and a pagan woman’s encounter with Jesus!

The church has more rules about participation in the Eucharist – the communion of the body and blood of Christ – than about anything else. The modern rules that most people grew up with are pathetic – rules about food, sex, and other trivialities. Of greater importance are the developments during the formative centuries of Orthodox theology and jurisprudence. The bishops who met at the various ecumenical councils could not find enough reasons to exclude as many people as possible from communion! They were certain that God had entrusted them with protecting the holy sacrament from defiled hands and souls.

Jesus provoked the Syrophoenician woman by calling her a dog. In doing so, Jesus was parodying the way most Jews mocked pagans. But the woman had substance, she would not go away just because a man treated her this way. She met Jesus’ insult head on and earned his respect and her daughter’s healing. When the church today refuses communion, are we treating people as “dogs”? Do we exclude where Jesus included?

Last Sunday morning an elderly man of a rather haggard appearance walked into our church during Matins and clearly wanted to speak with the priest. I was in the midst of a service and obviously I could not attend to him. I actually felt bad as I saw him leave the church, and I placed myself in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Was I like the priest or the levite who were more intent on their religious duties than to care for the wounded man? Had I put my liturgical responsibility above hearing a man’s cry for help? I struggled with those thoughts as I continued Matins and Liturgy. However, after Liturgy was over, I was told what this man uttered on his way out: “I thought this was a church for whites!” Clearly he was disappointed to see black people in our church. He walked into our church that morning, intent even to interrupt a service in progress, to ask for money. This happens quite often in our church as we are an inner-city parish. And yet, this needy man could not avoid spewing out his racist filth.

Very rarely indeed are moral lines clearly drawn or visible. Human behavior never ceases to surprise and confuse. But whether it’s a man spewing racial hatred or governments keeping people out or religions seeing the world in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’, we are heading for disaster unless we begin to take Jesus seriously – not in the apocalyptic terms that many American Christians do, but in the terms he defines in the various Gospel stories that show us his true face.

The December issue of National Geographic magazine has a challenging article by Jared Diamond that paints in convincing terms competition for the earth’s limited resources as more and more people and nations aim to achieve the same standard of living we are used to. The results will be disastrous for the planet unless governments – starting with our own – take steps to decrease income inequality and the chasm between rich and poor. Unless a more equitable distribution of wealth and resources is achieved, the growing clamor of people to have what we have will spell disaster before this century is out. The article is available online. It’s well worth reading if you care about the world around you, or the world your children or grandchildren will live in.

The story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman is a parable for today. It should provoke us to think deeply about how we view others. But more importantly, it is a parable for governments and churches. Who do we exclude? Who do we treat like ‘dogs’? And when are we who call ourselves Christians start following the example of Jesus?


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When God is rejected

God’s love for the world entailed also a love for the nations. The Bible does not shy away from the political overtones of God’s ways. But God’s desire for the nations has always – without exception – been disappointed. Yes, disappointed – from the very beginning. God’s desire was that his people would be “a light for the nations” as the verse from Isaiah boldly proclaims.

But what happens when the people of God become like the “nations”? Then the light is no more. In the early days of the Jewish people, after their exodus from Egypt and their settling in the promised land, they were led by “judges” – men or women (yes, women!) of wisdom and spiritual (and military!) strength. Samuel was the last of the judges. Two books in the Old Testament are named for him, because of the huge role he played in the early life of the nation of Israel. In chapter 7 of the First Book of Samuel we read:

Then Samuel said to all the house of Israel, “If you are returning to the Lord with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you, and direct your heart to the Lord, and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” So Israel put away the Baals and the Ashtaroth, and they served the Lord only.

But it didn’t last long. Have you noticed how few things last long in the Bible? How easy it is for people to forget God and God’s goodness? Is it easy for you to want to be like everyone else and do what everyone else is doing? You’re not alone. In the very next chapter of 1 Samuel, chapter 8, we read one of the most devastating and most political passages in all Scripture:

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint for us a king to govern us like all the nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” And Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, “Hearken to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. According to all the deeds which they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you. Now then, hearken to their voice; only, you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”

The people wanted a king so they could be like “all the nations.” But God explains to Samuel what is really going on. The people are rejecting God; they don’t want God as their king, they want a regular king, like the other nations have. They want to be like everyone else. But God wants them to know how it will be when kings rule over them and instructs Samuel to warn them how things will be when they are ruled by kings. But the people insisted, they wanted a king. And as it turned out for the next five hundred years, most kings were a disaster – as human “kings” and presidents generally are.

God meant his people to be a light to the nations – not to be like the nations. No nation – without any exception – can be a light or a “city on a hill” as some national mythologies like to say. Only people and communities of people can be light to the world, to the nations, and to the nation. Israel failed in its calling because it wanted to be like the nations. The Christian Church has failed because it chose to become an apparatus of nations and kings.

There remains only the hope for people and communities of people to accept the radical calling of God to be LIGHT. The calling is a choice for every one of us and for every community of faith. Do we continue the tradition of cozying up to nations and their leaders, or do we strike out as men and women of resistance to what every one else cheers on? God does not force anyone. But God does lament when his own people choose to be like every one else. God is not like the kings of nations. God is not like anyone else! His leadership in our lives is unique and uniquely transformative. Where can you start today not to be like every one else?


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Lights of God rise in the darkness

Over a hundred years ago (in 1915, to be precise) the great German theologian wrote the following, in an essay called “The Righteousness of God”:

What is the use of all the preaching, baptising, confirming, bell-ringing, and organ-playing, of all the religious moods and modes, the counsels of ‘applied religion’….the efforts to enliven church singing, the unspeakably tame and stupid monthly church papers, and whatever else may belong to the equipment of modern ecclesiasticism? Will something different eventuate from all this in our relation to the righteousness of God?… Are we not rather hoping by our very activity to conceal in the most subtle way the fact that the critical event that ought to happen has not yet done so and probably never will?

Not exactly a feel-good passage for someone like me who is involved in “preaching…religious moods and modes, applied religion…monthly church papers” and other forms of “modern ecclesiasticism”! Am I and the people with me waiting for the “critical event that ought to happen” but “probably never will?” What is the “critical event”?

Elsewhere in this same essay, Barth wrote:

We make a veritable uproar with our morality and culture and religion. But we may presently be brought to silence, and with that will begin our true redemption.

In the reflection I posted early this morning about the Orthodox celebration of the Elevation of the Cross I ended by proposing a different form to the ritual of the elevation, a form that would shift the focus of the church from inward-looking to outward-looking. The Cross of Jesus Christ – of Jesus Christ, not something other that any of us might call “my cross”! – is the most perfect expression of God’s righteousness. And it is the Cross that we should present to the world, not the “uproar” of “our morality and culture and religion”! And the Cross does’t need an uproar or words and slogans. The Cross asks us to be silent, empty, in order for the Cross to reveal Christ to the world.

Barth wrote this essay over a hundred years ago, in the midst of the First World War. We today are not in the midst of a world war, but we are in a war nevertheless. Once again, I call upon Karl Barth from his European vantage point of 1915. Perhaps things are not much different. Only the guns of war have changed.

There seem to be no surer means of rescuing us from the alarm cry of conscience than religion and Christianity. Religion gives us the chance, beside and above the vexations of business, politics, and private and social life, to celebrate solemn hours of devotion – to take flight to Christianity as to an eternally green island in the grey sea of the everyday. There comes over us a wonderful sense of safety and security from the unrighteousness whose might we everywhere feel. It is a wonderful illusion, if we can comfort ourselves with it, that in our Europe – in the midst of capitalism, prostitution, the housing problem, alcoholism, tax evasion and militarism – the church’s preaching, the church’s morality, and the ‘religious life’ go their uninterrupted way…A wonderful illusion, but an illusion, a self-deception!

In the midst of the unrighteousness Barth names – and how contemporary they sound a hundred years later – the church takes comfort inside our walls, surrounded by our holy icons, repeating age-old rituals (while not even probing their spiritual meaning). As our pews empty, we take comfort that the ‘faithful’ still come. Meanwhile, hordes are leaving for other religious fixes. And then there are the ones in our midst who resent the changes going on in the church: they resent that the church today is not the church of their fathers and mothers! I hear that from men and women in their 40s and 50s.

How do we reach men and women in their 40s and 50s who want nothing else than the church to be the church they grew up in, when the church was little more than an ethnic club? I imagine that the words of Karl Barth are completely incomprehensible to people who live in an imaginary past, when America was GREAT, when the church was GREAT!

The Orthodox Church relies on its traditions and liturgical wealth to ensure its existence and durability. We baptise infants, we trust that the sacraments and sanctifying acts of the church will plant the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of our people. And I fully believe that we are right in making these claims. I believe that God acts in the lives of people through the sacraments and the various sanctifying acts of the church. God acts through the sermons that are preached with the sacraments. God acts through the community bonds that Christian fellowship engenders. But only if we allow the righteousness of God to be revealed; only when we don’t see our own righteousness as the measure of faith; only when we allow ourselves to be silent so God can speak.

We will not fill our pews with smarter programs and entertaining music and feel-good sermons. Mega churches do those things and pack them in by the thousands every Sunday. Good for them. Though they claim to be ‘evangelical’, Karl Barth would probably have a hard time recognising them as Christian. Programs, ‘relevance’ and ingenious efforts at Christian entertainment were prevalent a century ago when he wrote his essay “The Righteousness of God”, and they have been brought to new levels of ingenuity in our technological age. But they are not the mission of the church. Relevance is NOT the mission of the church! Relevance to what? Facebook, short attention spans, social media, materialism, the politics of race and division, our therapeutic fixations?

Barth’s magnum opus was his multi-volume Kirchliche Dogmatik (Church Dogmatics)

No, the church represents – or should represent – the presence of God’s righteousness, which is why I proposed that the Cross could be more appropriately elevated outward on Sept. 14th, so it could face outward from the church. The Cross of Jesus Christ is our emblem and we should live as the Cross teaches us. Then and only then can the church escape the dead ends of relevance and power. Let us face the world with the Cross of Christ – not as a trinket around our necks, but as the force that shows us how to live as the righteousness of God in the world. Is the Elevation of the Cross merely a ritual? Or does it bring us closer to the “critical event”?

I conclude with more words by Karl Barth:

In the midst of the old world of war and money and death…Lights of God rise in the darkness, and powers of God become real in weakness. Real love, real sincerity, real progress become possible; morality and culture, state and nation, even religion and the church now become possible – now for the first time! One is taken with the vision of an immortality or even of a future life here on earth in which the righteous will of God breaks forth, prevails, and is done as it is in heaven.

There is the “critical event” so far as I can make out without reading the entire essay. There is the “critical event” that has not happened yet and probably never will in Barth’s own words: When God’s righteousness prevails “and is done as it is in heaven”! But can we at least aim to be lights of God in the darkness? Can we rise from our lethargy and allow the Cross and the Holy Spirit to guide our walk through life, this life?

I don’t own a copy of Barth’s essay “The Righteousness of God”. All the above passages are as quoted in the book “Church as Moral Community – Karl Barth’s Vision of Christian Life, 1915-1922” by Michael D. O’Neil, published in 2013 by the Paternoster Press in England.


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A Simple Change in Symbolism

On September 14th the Orthodox Church celebrates the Elevation (or Exaltation) of the Holy Cross. In Byzantium this was more than a holy day. In some respects it was the national holiday of the Byzantine Empire! Consider the primary hymn of the day:

O Lord, save your people and bless your inheritance. Grant vict’ries to the kings over the barbarians, and by your Cross guard your commonwealth (politeuma).

Many Orthodox churches today have de-politicised this hymn with translations like the following:

O Lord, save your people and bless your inheritance. Grant vict’ries to the faithful over adversities (or, obstacles), and by your Cross guard your commonwealth (or, your people).

But once you move past the imperial context of this great feast, you are confronted by some strong theology. Consider the following hymn from the Vespers of the feast. It is sung/chanted, yet reads like a theological treatise.

Come, all you nations, let us worship the blessed tree, through which has come the eternal vindication. For he who deceived our forefather Adam by means of a tree is himself ensnared by the Cross. And he falls headlong tumbling down, who formerly held the royal master-work in tyranny. By the blood of God, the venom of the serpent is washed away, and the curse of the just sentence is lifted by the unjust sentence on the Righteous One who was condemned. For it was necessary to remedy the tree by a tree, and to put an end to the passions suffered by the condemned at the free by the Passion of the Lord. Glory to you O Christ King; glory to the awesome plan for our salvation, by which you saved everyone, as you are good and the lover of humankind. 

Note the references to the Cross as “tree”. This is classic terminology and serves to contrast the tree of the Cross to the tree in Eden which was the instrument for the fall of the first human beings. It is this contrast that the hymn articulates and celebrates.

The high-point of the feast observance occurs at the end of Matins. The Great Doxology is sung and at the concluding portion a slow procession of the Cross takes place. The Cross is decorated with basil in the Greek tradition. (Flowers are also used: in combination with basil, or alone in parts of the world where fresh basil is not common.) Basil is basilikos in Greek, “of the king”, so in one sense it reconnects us with the imperial history of the feast. But the true King is, of course, Jesus Christ – so Jesus is the true reference of the basil. The Cross of King Jesus is embedded in basil and carried in a solemn procession to the centre of the church where a unique ritual takes place.

The procession ends at a small table that has been set up in the centre of the church in front of the gathered congregation. The priest stands in front of this table, intones a short prayer and then slowly lowers the cross toward the floor while holding it above his head and then raises it back up again above his head – all this while the choir or the chanters repeat the words “Kyrie Eleison.” Then the priest moves to stand facing the right side of the table, and the lowering and elevation of the Cross is repeated. Then the priest stands facing the rear side of the table, then the left side, and finally back to the front. So a total five times the ritual of lowering and elevating the Cross takes place.

The symbolism is clear. The table represents the world, the inhabited earth (oecumene). The Cross is raised on each of the four points of the compass to bless and protect the entire world. The tree of the Cross recreates the entire world; it reverses the fall which happened at the tree of Eden. The entire world becomes a restored Eden. Of course the vision is eschatological, but in the Byzantine Empire the message was also one of hegemonic power.

It struck me last night as I celebrated the feast in our church that we need a different symbolism to complement the traditional understanding. Instead of the Cross being raised while facing the table, why not face outward from the table at the four points of the compass? Instead of representing the world being blessed/protected by the Cross, the table represents the Church! And the Church faces outward, proclaiming the Cross of Jesus Christ to the world!

The subtleties of Orthodox and Byzantine symbolism are lost on most Orthodox Christians today, and it is incumbent on clergy and lay teachers to open the treasure chest that we have inherited. Why boast of the “Treasures of Orthodoxy” if they remain meaningless rituals that don’t inspire and motivate the Church to spread the gospel of the Cross of Jesus Christ? And isn’t the visual message of looking outward instead of inward a needed corrective to the Orthodox tendency to look inward and live in the past?

(Unfortunately, no photos were taken of our vigil service, so the photos included here are from the Internet.)


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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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Stephen Hawking is now one with the Universe

No scientist since Albert Einstein has captured the public imagination and spotlight like Stephen Hawking. Diagnosed with ALS at the age of 21, doctors gave him two more years of life; he defied all odds and lived another 55 years, during which he transformed our understanding of the universe. He is now one with the universe that he roamed and explored with his mind.

 

It was close to midnight last night. I was working on some Bible Study notes with the TV playing in the background, on a so-called “news channel” that talked on and on about Rex Tillerson, Donald Trump and other such non-entities, when suddenly Brian Williams interrupted his own unimportance to announce that Stephen Hawking had died. I immediately went to my favourite source for news, The Guardian newspaper of London, and already there was a front page story on their website. It is well worth reading.

I referred to Stephen Hawking last Sunday in my sermon, which I also posted here. I referred to his search for a “theory of everything” with the hope that he and his fellow physicists will indeed discover such a theory. It will have to be other physicists who will continue the search. As a follower of Jesus Christ – I’m trying to avoid over-using the term “Christian” as it has become so defamed and trite in contemporary American society – I find the Cross at the heart of the universe. There is a spiritual heart to the universe that goes beyond the theories of physicists. Hawking, like Einstein before him, never achieved the dream of finding the “theory of everything”, but he is now one with that “everything”, and I bet he now sees the “cross” that is at the heart of everything.

Hawking was to all intents and purposes an atheist, and he cared nothing for what the Evangelical thought police would say about him. He roamed the universe with his brilliant mind and enabled us to roam with him. That was one of his greatest gifts to us: he opened our imagination to the infinite reaches of the cosmos. One famous Christian rebel of the 1960s coined the phrase, “Your God is Too Small.” Indeed, the Christian god had become too small for Stephen Hawking to believe in. Just think of the meanness and narrow-mindedness of the Evangelical god; or the Orthodox god whom we call upon to bless our ethnicities. Can I blame Stephen Hawking for rejecting what most “Christians” call “God”? I believe that now that he is one with the universe he finds there a God more worthy of his belief. The cross of Jesus Christ is an invitation to lay aside all our pre-conceptions of God and to throw off the mental shackles of religiosity.

Hawking had a beautiful mind. He stated what his own goal and purpose in life was: “My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.” His children quote him as saying, “It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.” Amen to that. He probed the universe with his intellectual powers, and beyond all the intricate mathematics that he worked with his brain he found love at the core of the universe’s meaning and purpose. That is the love that moves the stars. At the very end of the Divine Comedy, in Canto 33 of Paradiso, Dante wrote:

ma già volgeva il mio disio e ’l velle

sì come rota ch’igualmente è mossa,

l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle. (Par. 33.143-45)

but my desire and will were moved already—

like a wheel revolving uniformly—by

the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.

Dante, writing his massive 3-part “poem” 700 years ago, saw the unity in diversity that exists in the universe, a unity manifested and sustained by God. The universe is our home, and love is at the heart of the universe, the reason why the universe exists. Hawking saw that as he reflected on his own loved ones. God sees Love at the heart of the universe as He contemplates His Son and the Cross of His Son. There is mystery upon mystery… and beauty.

“Hawking was driven to Wagner, but not the bottle, when he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 1963 at the age of 21.” Nicely stated by the Guardian article. I love Richard Wagner’s operas more than any other music or any other intellectual pursuits, and it warms my heart to know that Hawking was a fellow Wagnerian. But the same man who loved Wagner also became a pop-culture star, appearing in a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, where he appeared in a holodeck poker game with Einstein and Isaac Newton, and several episodes of the sitcom The Big Bang Theory, where he enjoyed hilarious interactions with Sheldon Cooper and his nerd friends. He even appeared in animated form on The Simpsons. YouTube has a great compilation video of Hawking’s appearances in these shows. He lived according to his own motto: “Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny.”

Stephen Hawking with the cast of The Big Bang Theory

The Guardian website has a great collection of pictures to illustrate the life of Stephen Hawking: here.

And the official obituary in The Guardian today was written by a fellow great physicist, Roger Penrose: “Mind over matter

I conclude my own homage to Stephen Hawking with some of his memorable quotes:

  • “My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus”.
  • “People who boast about their IQ are losers.”
  • “I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first.”
  • “We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something very special.”
  • “Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”

Hawking lost his ability to speak and had to communicate through computerised voice synthesis. In an age such as ours where fewer and fewer people bother to communicate with coherent thought and sentences, Hawking was a master communicator, able to express the deepest mysteries of the universe in ways that even children could understand. At a time when talk has become cheap or is being replaced by social media and trivial texts and tweets and when people don’t talk but shout at each other from inside their political and religious bubbles, Hawking’s advice is more needed than ever:

  • “For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk and we learned to listen. Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible. Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn’t have to be like this. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.”

Rest in the Love that moves the stars, Stephen Hawking!


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An Ash Wednesday of Sin and Horror

Among the most poignant scenes from yesterday’s carnage in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School yesterday were grieving and anxious parents with ashes on their forehead. Yesterday, of course, was Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent for Roman Catholics and Episcopalians. This is how the website bibleinfo.com summarizes the meaning of Ash Wednesday: Roman Catholic churches of the Latin Rite use this service to prepare church members to better appreciate the death and resurrection of Christ through self-examination, repentance, prayer, fasting, and self-denial. Ashes from the burned palms of the preceding year’s Palm Sunday are blessed. With these ashes, the priest marks a cross on the foreheads of worshipers, saying, “Remember, man, that dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return” (Genesis 3:19 KJV). Besides showing sorrow for their sins, those who honor Ash Wednesday add an additional meaning; the need to prepare for a holy death.

Yesterday was indeed a day of huge sin and a horrible encounter with death. So many young lives, full of promise and energy, cut down by the bullets of one angry, hate-filled youth! The images of parents with ashes on their foreheads were a blunt reminder that we are very much a human race that is still sunk in sin, despite the salvation and grace that God poured upon us through the death and resurrection of his Son. Lent is the time in which we prepare to confront the death and resurrection of Christ every year. But Christ told us last Sunday that he is in every one of the least of his brothers and sisters, and what we do to the least of his brothers and sisters we do unto him. It was Christ who was murdered yesterday in those 17 lives. Not just a liturgical commemoration of his death this time; but an actual, dark reminder that we live in a death-culture society. Yes, I’m sorry if that strikes some of you as an exaggeration or unnecessarily pessimistic, but there is no other word for it that I can think of. We are a death-culture society!

Death has become a constant in our society: Gun deaths, terrorist deaths, drug-induced deaths, poverty-driven deaths, refugee deaths, unborn deaths, environmental death and deaths…and the death of morality, of civic responsibility, of communication, of accountable political leadership…Need I go on? Flags at half mast. Have you noticed how many times flags are at half mast every year? Yes, half mast. It doesn’t cost anything to fly flags at half mast. A sign of national humility? Perhaps. But the arrogance comes right back up a few days later. And the forgetfulness. We shrug our shoulders and move on – until the next round of bullets at a school or at a concert or a party or a troubled home. Nothing changes, except the statistics which become more brutal every year. Second Amendment they say. I can assure you that the Founding Fathers of this nation never envisaged a future such as ours or weapons such as ours in the hands of teenagers and people with mental problems.

Talk about gun deaths in this country and you’ll be criticised for now getting “political”. “Political” – a nice label people resort to when they don’t want to confront reality. I weep with those parents with ashes – and the many others without ashes – in Parkland, Florida. I wish the Orthodox Church had an Ash Wednesday to start Lent. Every year, it’s becoming more and more clear that there are forces that aim to foreshorten human life and to return us to dust and ashes prematurely. Let’s make this Lent a time not for self-improvement and weight loss, but a time for reaching out to this death culture to transform it in any small way we can. Make this Lent a time to reach out to anyone who is troubled, to someone who is alone and needs the human touch, a kind word, a positive vision of life. Although I’m pessimistic about the death culture around us, I’m very optimistic about our power to transform it. Let’s make this Lent a time of resurrection power in the midst of sin and death.

Agape and Shalom to you today.