Hello from my study on the Acre,
It is hard to believe that Spring is here (and today certainly felt Spring-like) and we are almost a quarter of the way through this year. It seems like only a few weeks ago the semester began and the Christmas holidays were still visible in the rear-view mirror. When I was small, Christmas was certainly a time for dreams, and I do not think it is much different for children today, but as we plow our way through this incredibly unpredictable time the ability to dream, to hope is essential. I remember being much more of a dreamer when I was small. I am not sure of all the reasons for that, but I think it had much to do with wishing things were different. Perhaps not all that different from where we are now. We wonder and imagine what’s on the other side.Dreaming for me was always about options, possibilities, and as noted above, about hope. Hope is something I have referred to in past blogs. Though generally optimistic, I do have a melancholy bent to me. Moreover, I think this past year has been a time when optimism has probably been in short supply, even for the most polyannish of us. Sometimes lying awake, I wonder what the future will bring, not so much for me as someone who has lived a significant part of their life, but rather for many of my students. In our world of division, of profound changes, in a world where our understanding of faith (or perhaps more accurately, our appropriate practice of that faith) is decided by the few and questioned by many, or, more problematically and blindly followed by even many more, we are headed into the most apparent time of the Christian Church year for many, the time where many struggle to understand a faith that is based in love, a love demonstrated by the death of the Son of the Creator (and I realize some see Jesus as little more than a prototypical prophet, and not both human and divine). If the Christian understanding of Jesus as both/and is correct, there is an irony that many of our actions seem to destroy the very love that is foundational to Christian faith. Easter is a time where we are called to understand a God who seem determined to work against our legalities, our divisiveness, our frailty and reach into our brokenness and demonstrate an all encompassing love we too often fail to understand. What can we do to demonstrate that love? Perhaps when we choose to establish justice, practice acceptance, and provide care that goes beyond even our most fervent attempts? This Palm Sunday, I listened to two services, to two amazing sermons, and some incredible music. I thought profoundly about the idea of justice and acceptance in a world that seems too intent on mistreating the other, claiming their ways of boxing God in is the appropriate ways to believe or be faithful, and behaves in a manner that seems inherently contrary to loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and ones neighbor as ones self.
This morning, in this little town of 12,000 or so, I witnessed first hand as two dear friends, one a colleague and their spouse, were subjected to a racist rant on our Main Street as someone literally came across the street toward where a group of us where sitting. He screamed Asian-centric vitriol at our group, but more specifically at my colleague and their spouse. After a couple asked him to leave, the offensive person stepped a few yards away and began again. At that point, I stood up and faced the person and asked them to leave. The disturbed, shocked, and hurt look on my colleague’s face is something I will not soon forget. I was embarrassed for them. It stuns me that people can be so juvenile, hateful, ludicrous, and while I am pretty sure the individual probably had some mental issues, that did not make the experience anymore acceptable. It seems that more and more the overpowering actuality of our divided, screw-you-if-you-are-not-white, discriminatory actions are now beyond commonplace, more apparent than I have ever realized. I dream of a world where we will accept others for their intelligence, their character, their goodness, and support them when they are hurting, struggling, or floundering. I dream of a world where the few do not hijack the Gospel realizing that the Jesus of the New Testament, the Jesus of the prophets, or the Jesus of the world oppressed by the Romans understood and preached a Gospel of humility, a Gospel of a loving, forgiving God, a Gospel that confronted and called out the inequities of society, healed those forgotten by society, and chose disciples who were not blessed with status or wealth. If one carefully considers the Jesus of the Gospels, that Jesus will make most of us uncomfortable. When we try to co-opt Jesus or the Gospel, as we are all too ready to do, the Grace of God is cheapened. There was nothing cheap or easy about the path Jesus was destined to follow. Taking on the powers of the day, be it the Romans, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, or even his own disciples at time, Jesus was constantly trying to get them (and us) to see a world that was something very different than what it was. There is little changed today.
When the more conservative Americans want to pray for those who invaded the Capitol and call them Patriots, they distort the Gospel. Why might I argue this? While there are a multitude of reasons, I will suffice it to say this. You might remember the story where the Jewish Leaders came to Jesus and asked him whether or not it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. Jesus asked them for a coin, and when the coin was produced, he asked whose image was on the coin? They noted, accurately, Caesar’s. He responded, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s.” This is a pretty accurate quote of Matthew 22, though I did not look it up. Storming the Capitol and entering is not patriotic. It is breaking the law. For me, it is that simple. I realize there are others who disagree, but to claim God’s providence or support of that is an abomination of the Gospel, and I am willing to sit down and have coffee or something on my porch with anyone who wants to debate that, and I will fix the coffee free of charge. But come prepared, for I will probably be tough to convince of anything other. As I listened to the Reverend Heidi Peterson this morning, she noted this also, but took it ever further. If the greatest of the commandments is to love your neighbor, and this is my paraphrase of her preaching today, and it was spot on, then all the things we do to disenfranchise the other (be it voting, owning a house, walking down the street) is against this commandment. When we can decide who can love whom, when we believe those who identify differently then we do are somehow wrong or less of a person, we distort the Gospel. The Gospel is not a conservative cookie-cutter just-follow-this and you’re alright. The Gospel of Jesus was not cookie-cutter; in fact, it was precisely the opposite. The Gospel of Jesus (the Good News) was not always good news to those who believed they had it figured out. Jesus questioned the appropriateness of the religious scholars’ practice in worship. He questioned their interpretation of the law. He questioned their heart and how their practices disenfranchised others. Those who want to use Scripture as a yardstick misunderstand the basic message of that very Scripture. If you want to understand the Bible (Old Testament, Apocrypha, and New Testament) imagine it as an anthology that demonstrates an incredible love story between Creator and Created. What does it mean to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind? What does it mean to love one’s neighbor as themselves? It seems simple, but it is anything but. We find it so much harder to love than criticize. Our anger compels our emotional and physical response much more often than our love does. This is the truth. How many times does your love for the other (a caring or compassionate love), and one who is not a spouse, decide your actions? How often does your anger or frustration with the other (and you can include spouse or significant other here) decide your facial expression, your tone, your body language with some almost immediacy? If you are like most humans (and like me), we reveal our frustration and anger much more quickly than we respond out of love or care. When we do, we break this commandment. It is that straightforward.
Our own Protestant theology (for those who are not Roman or Orthodox) struggles with the idea of loving God with such totality. However that command to love God in such a way permeates the Old Testament. “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord, and therefore you shall love the Lord your God.” There is an all encompassing love that is necessary if you and God are to be one. It is a commitment that requires every ounce of who we are. Too often we forget the trinitarian aspect of this commandment. It requires both our mental and spiritual faculties be in the same place, and together this love cries out to our heart, our soul, and our mind. When they bind together in their own triune manner, we find out what it means to love and be loved. I dream of being such a loving person. As noted by Klaus Bockmuehl, a German theologian, too often we fail to understand the comprehensive requirement of such love. As he notes, the love we are affected by needs to be the love we have as an effect. It is both a verb and a noun. It is a state of being and a state of acting. Perhaps we too often (at least as Lutherans) believe in the grace of God, the forgiveness of God. But it reminds me of what I often asked by confirmation students once upon a time, or even my Bible as Literature students now. Do you do what you do so your parents will love you or because your parents love you? The same question could be asked, but instead of parent substitute the word God. We are dependent on the graciousness of God, but again, as Paul notes so well in Romans, we are also called to move beyond the evil we hate. We are to believe in the ideal that the love God gives is sufficient and we are called upon to love as God loves us. That does not mean it we are simply allowed to half-heartedly try, but instead we are called to love with all of our physical, mental, emotional, spiritual selves. That is much more work. And yet I dream of being that person.
Today’s experience with my friends, my colleagues, and with this sad, miserable, and, perhaps, mentally struggling person, reminded me of the pain that can occur when someone is treated in a manner that is discriminatory, a manner that is flat out hurtful, or a manner that demonstrates a profound lack of human respect. I wish that person no harm or ill will, but I am not sure I want to be in a position where I have to deal with that person again. I am grateful to my two female colleagues as well as one male colleague that asked him to leave. I am grateful for a call to the local police department and their response as they did find him down the street and probably had an interesting encounter of their own. I wish we could learn to be more accepting, more open, and simply try more intentionally to live that greatest of the commandments. I hope we can in this Holy Week try to be more intentionally holy, doing whatever that takes. I am reminded of the music of John Michael Talbot. I have used his work before, but I offer it again now. There are times I need to retreat to the quiet and think. There are times I need to believe in the possible. There are times I need to dream.
Thank you as always for reading and I wish you a blessed Holy Week. To my Jewish friends, chag kasher v’same’ach.