under a threatening cloud of nuclear annihilation, a Christian prayer

nuclear cloud

O God, Your Apostle Paul hath testified that all authority, e’en that of the agents of governance of worldly principalities, flows from the Font of Your Power.[1]

With fervent faith, I pray, too, that Your Wisdom wend its way into the minds and hearts, souls and spirits of all leaders that they can and will build bridges of common care, paving paths of peace that all Your children of Your creation may dwell in safety.

For, today, on “this fragile earth, our island home”,[2] men – the “Leader of the Free World” and the “Supreme Leader” (though You both are alway and in all ways), with the ad hominem bombast of “Rocket Man”[3] and “dotard”[4] – wield weapons of hostile intent threatening decimation, each of the other, and of Your world.

Into this cauldron of roiling vanities, this hubris-stirred maelstrom of wounded honor-shame, pour Your balm of Gilead, the sweetness of Your solace;[5] that we may walk back from the dread precipice of war to face a future, though, yea, uncertain, that bears the possibility of continued existence and, dare I hope, armistice.

Let Us Beat Swords into Plowshares (1959), Evgeniy Viktorovich Vuchetich (1908-1974), United Nations Art Collection

And, O God, I pray, in the words of Your Prophet Isaiah, that You ceaselessly call us to come unto the mountain, the holy hill of Your Presence that we may learn of You, walking in Your paths, beating our swords into plowshares, our spears into pruning hooks, lifting no weapon against another, and learning war no more.[6]

All this, by the breath of the Holy Spirit in the Name of Jesus, I beseech You. Amen.

 

 

Illustration: Let Us Beat Swords into Plowshares (1959), Evgeniy Viktorovich Vuchetich (1908-1974), United Nations Art Collection

Footnotes:

[1] See Romans 13.1

[2] From The Holy Eucharist, Eucharistic Prayer C, The Book of Common Prayer, page 370

[3] Donald Trump’s derisive reference to Kim Jong Un, Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) or North Korea

[4] Kim Jong Un’s derisive reference, meaning a senile old person, to Donald Trump

[5] See Jeremiah 8.22, 46.11, 51.8

[6] A reference to Isaiah 2.3a, 4bc

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my intentional protests

On Friday, September 22, 2017, President Donald Trump spoke at a Huntsville, Alabama, campaign rally, ostensibly to support U.S. Senator-appointee pro tem Luther Strange, embroiled in a tight runoff election race to succeed U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Mr. Trump, already America’s Tweeter-in-Chief, at all hours freely firing off 140-character (in my view, insubstantial, thus, misfired) commentaries on matters great and varied, has fast become our national and self-styled Riffer-in-Chief known for his impromptu reflections on current events. At that rally, Mr. Trump offered this unscripted appraisal: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL[1] owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now! Out! He’s fired! He’s fired!’?”[2]

The reactions to the president’s comments have been swift and divergent. Senator Strange, surely speaking for many, said, “Our supporters are very deeply patriotic, they respect the values that the president represents and what he stood for at that rally…I think it was well received, I couldn’t agree with the president more.” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and others rebuked the president’s remarks as “divisive” and reaffirmed the rights of players to exercise free speech. At a number of yesterday’s NFL games, during the playing of the national anthem, many players knelt or locked arms and, in one or two cases, remained in the locker rooms, taking the field later.

Unsurprisingly and, for me, sadly, given, I think, our now über-polarized and politicized social climate, the attending issues have been amassed and molded, that is, misshapen and shrunken to a contest between patriotism and protest. These and all matters are complex and, I believe, incapable of being confined to, verily, defined by an either-or calculus.

All this said, I offer a couple of left-field, that is, off-the-point-of-the-raging-debate observations…

Though I disagree with much of Mr. Trump’s allegations of “fake news” and though I recognize that every news account or narrative has an inherent social slant and political perspective, I protest inaccuracy in reporting. Yesterday morning, listening to NPR,[3] Weekend Edition Sunday host Lulu Garcia-Navarro, in conversation with reporter Mara Liasson, said, “Let’s talk about football…following up on (President Trump’s) remarks calling NFL athletes to be fired for protesting racism during the national anthem…”[4] No. Mr. Trump criticized the demonstrations by athletes as unpatriotic acts of disrespect for flag and country. Whether I agree or disagree with Mr. Trump (or anyone!), I desire, in this case, his point to be reported correctly.

During the Alabama rally speech, Mr. Trump also opined on the NFL’s declining popularity owing to changes in the rules to promote player safety, which lessen the physical contact desired by the players and the fans.[5] Perhaps for some, but, for me, no. My decreased attention to the NFL[6] has to do with my protest against what I believe to be the League’s less than consistent, verily, far short of just efforts to address, among a number of issues, (1) domestic violence allegations against (indeed, acts of) players and other violations of personal conduct policies, (2) player safety concerns, particularly related to longstanding and irreversible post-career physical and mental deterioration, and (3) racial inequities in team ownership and upper echelon management positions.

 

Footnotes:

[1] National Football League

[2] Last year, Colin Kaepernick, then quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, refused to stand for the national anthem, saying, in part: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Kaepernick’s protest encouraged other athletes across the professional and amateur spectrums of sport to perform similar acts to illumine the disparity between our nation’s constitutional pledges of equality and characteriological practice of inequality. I wrote about Kaepernick’s protest in previous blog posts: September 3, 2016, The Star-Spangled battle? and September 30, 2016, where I stand on sitting & kneeling.

[3] National Public Radio

[4] My emphasis

[5] On this point, Mr. Trump said, in part: “…The NFL ratings are down massively…Because you know today if you hit too hard, fifteen yards (penalty)! Throw (the player) out of the game! They had that last week. I watched for a couple of minutes. Two guys (involved in) just (a) really beautiful tackle. Boom! Fifteen yards!…They’re ruining the game! They’re ruining the game. That’s what (the players) want to do. They want to hit! It is hurting the game…”

[6] I have not watched an entire NFL game since early fall 2014, coinciding with the League’s mishandling of the domestic violence case against Ray Rice, a former Baltimore Ravens player. (See my previous blog posts: September 8, 2014, the (p)rice is wrong and September 10, 2014, relationships – reason & irrationality)

equality

preaching-epiphany-laurens-1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 20.1-16, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, September 24, 2017

God asks, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” And we humans, alway, in our innate self-interest, wanting what we want when and how we want it, ifwhen we’re honest, answer testily, “No!”

God asks, “Are you envious because I am generous?” And we humans, chastened by the implication of the question, again, ifwhen we’re honest, answer quietly, “Yes.”

Jesus tells a parable, comparing God’s kingdom to a landowner who hires workers throughout the day from first light to an hour before dusk, literally the now proverbial “eleventh hour”. At day’s end, the landowner, summoning the workers in reverse order from the last to the first hired, perhaps to assure that all will see and know what’s up, pays all the same wage.

Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, Erasmus Quellinus the Younger (or Erasmus Quellinus II) (1607-1678)

I know of no human being, including me, who doesn’t take offense, however slight, more likely great, at the landowner’s munificence, which, in worldly terms, thus, for us, is injustice. For there is no human being who does not employ the worldly calculus of time and effort, sense of purpose and spirit of perseverance, ability and achievement to determine, surely, we believe, fairly, the measure of our deserving: “I had more, gave more, did more, therefore, I should get more!” Whatever the wage – financial remuneration, public recognition, and, yes, even personal attention and affection.

And how right we are. For we have a right, in the light of the way the world is, this world we inhabit, to our time-honored sense of what makes sense. Yet Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who” – with the inequality of his authority, possessing land and wealth, over and against day laborers who have nothing but the strength of arm and the sweat of brow to exchange for a daily wage – establishes equality for all.

And, by faith, dare we say, “Thanks be to God!” who, in the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, doesn’t pay us, but rather gives to us, each and all equally, not the wage, but rather the grace of salvation, which is ridiculously, unfathomably beyond our deserving.

Why does God do this? Because God loves us equally no matter who we are, no matter how much or how little we have, give, and do; all the while, hoping, praying that we will see and know what’s up, and then act toward one another accordingly.

 

Illustration: Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, Erasmus Quellinus the Younger (or Erasmus Quellinus II) (1607-1678)

renewal (or what I, as a Christian, have learned by honoring my religious Jewish roots)

Yesterday, at sundown, the sounding of the shofar signaled Rosh Hashanah, literally head of the year; to be followed, at sunset on Friday, September 29, by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The central themes of these annual High Holy Days of Judaism are repentance for the sins, personal and communal, of the past year and reconciliation with God, others, and one’s self.

As a Christian, I long have acknowledged my eternal debt to Judaism from whence cometh Jesus of Nazareth.[1] And, o’er the years, reflecting on the High Holy Days, I have become profoundly aware, perhaps even more than through the Christian penitential season of Lent, of my constant need for spiritual and ethical renewal so to love God, others, and myself more faithfully, freely, fully. Moreover, I have come to understand that renewal is elemental to all relationships and chiefly expressed in mutual responsibility, literally the response-ability to act benevolently one with another.

This came to mind during my morning’s Bible study. I’ve been rereading the Book of Exodus; today, one of many encounters between God and Moses.[2]

Moses at Mount Sinai (1655), Jacques de Létin (1597-1661)

For forty days and nights, Moses was on Mount Sinai listening to God and receiving the Commandments. The people, growing anxious in the absence of Moses, appealed to Aaron, Moses’ brother and spokesperson, to make a visible symbol of the divine presence to comfort them. A golden calf was fashioned.

The Adoration of the Golden Calf (1633-1634), Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)

How easily, I believe, humans become confused, attaching their affections to a symbol and not the reality to which it points. And God, in anger, disowned the people, referring to them in speaking to Moses as “your people”, and deciding to destroy them.

In this harrowing moment, the response-ability of God and Moses was mightily manifest. God, the Almighty Judge, didn’t act against the people without first telling Moses. Moses didn’t leave the mountain at God’s command, but remained as an attorney for the defense; yet neither explaining nor excusing the people’s actions, but rather reminding God of who God is: “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel…”

Moses reminded God that God, beginning with Abraham, made a people and when that people fell captive in Egypt, God sent Moses to save them and, in saving them, proving that God makes and keeps promises to God’s people. God, being reminded, recanted, revising the divine plan of action.

God and Moses, in their faithful exercise of mutual responsibility, were renewed; each and both. God in remembrance of the divine identity as Liberator and Moses in his re-awareness of his vocation as God’s instrument of liberation.

Taking this personally, I am led to see afresh how I, as human, oft, when anxious and confused, take my thoughts and feelings, my desires and needs and, making them supreme, fashion them into my gods. Not if, but whenever this happens I cannot fail to note how unbenevolent I become toward others, verily, toward my truest self, and, thus, need renewal – always and in all ways.

 

Illustrations:

Moses at Mount Sinai (1655), Jacques de Létin (1597-1661)

The Adoration of the Golden Calf (1633-1634), Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)

Footnotes:

[1] Without Judaism, there is no Christianity. For this reason, I believe that for a Christian to be anti-Semitic is a malevolent expression of self-hatred.

[2] Exodus 32.7-14 (my emphases): The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely. They have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them. They have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’” And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

at a time of tempest and tremor, a Christian prayer

O God, You who create all things, Your Earth is wroth; cyclonic winds overhead tear across the sea and seismic waves erupt beneath; destruction and death, though ne’er their conscious aim, alway their catastrophic end.

I pray You provide…

through Your illimitable Love, perfect peace for the dead, free forever from all fear;

though Your plenitude of Power, the strength of will to work for all those who labor to liberate all who are held captive, whether under the thrall of the wind and the sweep of the waves of newly-fashioned rivers or in newly-crafted dungeons of fallen bricks and beams, broken metal and mortar;

through Your succoring Spirit, consolation for all who mourn, foremost the loss of life and, too, health and happiness; and

through Your unfathomable font of Wisdom, teach us all deeply to respect the Earth as Your creation, ne’er our possession; that we, as Your faithful stewards, may exercise our dominion, which You graciously have granted unto us, in a sacred, selfless generosity that glorifies You and cares for all who live and for generations yet unborn;

All this, I ask, I beg You, my God, through Jesus Christ. Amen.

another word about forgiveness…

Note: At yesterday’s worship service at Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, following my sermon on forgiveness (September 17, 2017: the kingdom of heaven may be compared to…except when it can’t!), another thought occurred (always does!), leading me today to add…

Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting.

To forgive another who has committed a wrong against us, that is, as a willful act, making a conscious choice to harbor no anger against our offender, does not mean that we, paradoxically, equally consciously are to develop a case of existential-relational-amnesia, that is, forgetting the commission of the wrong (which, in any case, isn’t possible for us to do!).[1]

Indeed, remembering the offense, I believe, can be fairly, that is, justly useful. In this, I think of Jesus’ counsel about “binding and loosing”,[2] which I interpret here as the act of our establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries in our relationships.

To wit, there have been moments in my life when, having been hurt and angry, and then, usually after a time, forgiving, “loosing” the offender from the clutches of my hurt and anger (which also freed me from the fetters of bitterness!), I observed that the one I had forgiven continued to behave toward me in a way that resulted in my additional hurt (and anger!). In such instances, I have discerned that a charitable response was “to bind” that person, that is, within my power to choose in the day-to-day concrete interactions of our relationship, to impede that person from hurting me in the same way. In a word, the kindest thing I could for that person (and, under the heading of enlightened self-interest, for myself!) was to prevent the reoccurrence of the circumstances that resulted in my hurt and anger.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Now, if we consider “forgetting” metaphorically, meaning that we intend not to rehearse the wrong and, thus, nurse or nurture our hurt and anger (which, honesty compels the confession, I’m quite proficient at doing!), then OK.

[2] “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”(Matthew 18.15-18, my emphasis).

the kingdom of heaven may be compared to…except when it can’t!

preaching, 1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 18.21-35, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, September 17, 2017

To be human is to live in relationships. To live in relationships is to know the joys of love and acceptance and the sorrows of disagreement and disappointment, hurt and anger with others and with one’s self. To know sorrow is to face, at times, to fight with the need for forgiveness of others and of one’s self.

Peter raises (unbeknownst to him, on our behalf!) this life-essential issue of forgiveness with Jesus. He proposes a limit of seven times; a magnanimous act, doubling an ancient standard of three, adding one for good measure! Jesus, as we’ve grown to expect, takes the matter to another, supernatural level, expanding the economy of forgiveness beyond the bounds of human imagination: “Not seven times, but seventy-seven” (meaning infinite) “times.”

I visualize Peter’s face, perhaps ours, too, frozen in shock as he and we struggle to comprehend limitless forgiveness. Quickly we might object: “Jesus, are you crazy? The world, yours then and ours now, doesn’t work this way! Our relationships are built and balanced on scales of give and take and our judgments of right and wrong, and, frankly Jesus, some things are terrible and can’t be forgiven and, if so, only after a long time!” But before we can stammer out our protest, Jesus holds up a calming hand, saying, “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to…”

Jesus tells a parable of a king who forgives a pleading servant unable to pay a massive debt. That servant then condemns a fellow servant who owes, in comparison, a pittance. Other servants report this ingratitude to the king, who furiously reverses his decree of amnesty, sending that unmerciful servant to his doom.

Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (1556), Jan Sanders van Hemessen (1500-1579), University of Michigan Museum of Art

A traditional Christian interpretation considers this parable a symbol of God’s grace. The king represents God who, in the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, has forgiven our sinful debt of disobedience that we could not pay. Therefore, we are to share the kindness of God’s forgiveness with our fellow human beings, whose wrongs, no matter how great in human terms, from heaven’s standpoint, cannot compare.

However, there are problems with this view…

Chief among them, the king, in revoking his pardon of the unmerciful servant, implies that there are limits on God’s illimitable forgiveness, which, at best, is a conundrum and, at worst, a contradiction…

And even if we view the torture of the unmerciful servant through a psycho-existential lens, perceiving it as the ill of bitterness that we inflict on ourselves when we refuse to forgive (though I believe that’s true!), it remains a penalty initiated by the king, who, again, represents God…

And the parable is built on a foundation of earthly inequality of authority and power between the king and servant and between servant and servant…

And, from there, the parable progresses on a worldly arc of the injustice of servant to servant and the vengeance of the fellow servants, desiring punishment, reporting the misdeed to the king who, again, revokes his pardon, therefore, imitating the cruelty of the unmerciful servant.

Limited forgiveness, inequality, injustice, vengeance. No, no, no, no! This is not, cannot be a depiction of the God Jesus reveals. This is not an image of love. Therefore, as I believe the kingdom of heaven may not be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants, this parable is a correction, verily, a condemnation of a world, our world where we humans limit forgiveness and worse, when hurt and angry, oft fall prey to the temptation to make God in our image as one whose judgments are like ours, thus not set on a scale of gracious and merciful love. (How many times has someone done another wrong and the offended party or a sympathizer said words to the effect: “God has a day of reckoning in store for that person!” or more bluntly, “God’s going to get that person!”)

Yes, some things in this life are terrible. And when terrible things, especially when wrought by human hands, happen to others and to ourselves, we would do violence to the souls of others and ourselves to demand that forgiveness, theirs and ours, be swift and absolute. Sometimes forgiveness takes time. Yet forgiveness alway is our calling that we, as God, may live in unlimited liberty, unfettered by the bonds of bitterness.

 

Illustration: Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (1556), Jan Sanders van Hemessen (1500-1579), University of Michigan Museum of Art. Note: The painting depicts the moment in the parable when the king (on the left, pointing, his countenance creased in anger) scolds the unmerciful servant (on the right, gazing at the king, his brow furrowed, his hands clasped in a pleading gesture, his mouth partially open as if speaking, seeking to make his case): “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” (Matthew 18.32b-33). The two other figures in van Hemessen’s portrayal of the parable are the king’s record keepers; one counting coins piled on the table and the other, with pen in hand, looking to the king for direction. In the background, a man is being dragged into an underground chamber by soldiers, representing the soon to come fate of the unmerciful servant: In anger his lord handed him over to be tortured… (Matthew 18.34).