Friday, October 26, 2018



Every semester I show my students clips from a film called "Walking the Bible." In it, the narrator tries to walk in those places that one reads about in Scripture. It's a way for me to introduce my students to the idea of context. Those events recorded in Scripture have a geographical context. They didn't happen on the plains of South Dakota in the twenty first century. They have their own time and place. I believe it's important for my students to know the origins of the text.

In the same way, each of us as individuals has a context, an origin story. I remember one of my mentors, an African American minister, telling me the origin of his name. He didn't learn about it till his early thirties when he made a trip home. His name is Polk, after President Polk, as his forebears were slaves on the Polk plantation. As one of the President's slaves, you always took his last name. President Polk had plenty of slaves, even while in office. He tried to keep that knowledge from the public at the time, as anti-slavery ferment was slowly rising during his tenure.

Hearing this story from my mentor made me more curious about my own family history. So I drilled my parents. My father's parents came from Germany and settled in Pennsylvania in what was commonly known as Pennsylvania Dutch territory. His was a large family, with nine brothers. My mother's national origins are unknown, as she was adopted as an infant. When I first learned this I was frustrated. So I began to do some research. But adoption in those days was a very secretive operation and I had limited success. I was angry that here was a side of my family history I would never know. In later years I've considered it a blessing, as I claim anything and everything; Irish on St. Patrick's day and maybe even some Erie tribal blood.

     I was reading the other day about a Tunisian fisherman, Chamseddine Marzoug. He regularly finds bodies washing up on the beach near where he lives and works. People are desperate, fleeing war torn and economically chaotic places like Syria and braving the Mediterranean waters trying to reach Europe. Many don't make it. In 2017 alone, Chamseddine buried 81 corpses, believing every human deserves a decent burial. In one instance, he buried a mother and child side by side, believing they might be related, and placed a toy car and flowers on the mound. His graveyard has a sign in six languages, "Cemetery for Unknown."

There are 68 million forcibly displaced people in the world today, with over 25 million of them refugees. More than half of those are children. It's not uncommon for children fleeing violence and famine to wind up in watery graves, in cemeteries or detention camps, in one country or another. All this as the U.S. administration reduces the level of those admitted to this country to historic lows. Whereas the refugee resettlement agency has in place the infrastructure to care for 75,000 refugees, the ceiling was set at 45,000 for 2018, with less than half that number admitted so far. The ceiling for 2019 has been reduced even lower to 30,000. Why we would allow successful resettlement programs, like the one offered by Lutheran Social Services in South Dakota, to falter for want of refugees is shameful. 

     We are beginning to see the signs of displacement from climate change and environmental refugees in our own country. Hurricane Maria sent more than 100,000 fleeing their homes in Puerto Rico. One wonders if Mexico Beach, Florida will be rebuilt. Clearly, real estate on many beach fronts is beginning to take a climate hit. Realtors are looking to work with higher ground in Miami and insurance companies are finding many places un-insurable. Those seeking refuge around the globe are on the rise, along with the seas and human violence.

Those who profess Christianity should recognize that the faith is transparent. We are to welcome the stranger and the alien. The Hebrew Scriptures couldn't be clearer. Jesus also has a simple but explicit response to the question of, "who is my neighbor?" Think of the one most despised by some of your countrymen; that's the Good Samaritan. The way our neighbors to the south have been stereotyped, they might well be the Good Samaritan in a contemporary context.

So are we going to remember our context, our historical and national origins as refugees and immigrants? Can we move into a promising future without remembering who we are and where we have been and welcoming those we have often helped displace? Are we going to love and welcome the neighbor?

Carl Kline

Friday, October 19, 2018

All God's Creatures Great and Small

Think back to the last time you voluntarily killed a living creature. Perhaps it was an ant in your kitchen, or a spider in your bedroom, a squirrel that had gotten into your attic or a rat that had gotten into your compost. How did it feel to kill that creature? How do you feel now that you think back on it? Do you regret it? Would you do it again?

Prior to this week’s Torah portion, the Rabbis teach that humans were vegetarian. (Sanhedrin 59b) It would seem that, in this way, God valued all living creatures equally. Part of the perfection of the Garden of Eden is in this equality of all of God’s creation. Indeed, the Rabbis suggested that God created humans from the “upper” and “lower firmaments” so that there would be peace on earth without the upper or lower firmaments thinking one was greater than the other.   On the sixth day, God came to create man. Said God: “If I create him belonging to the celestial world, this will outnumber the terrestrial by one creation, and there will be no peace in the universe; while if he is of the terrestrial world it will be likewise. But lo! I will create him as partaking of both the celestial and the terrestrial worlds, for the sake of peace.” (Bereishit Rabbah 12:8)

At least for some of our sages in some periods of history, humans are considered united with, rather than above, all of creation.

This is so interesting when we consider that in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Noach, God destroyed all but two of each species that lived on the land or flew in the sky because “the earth had become corrupted.” (Genesis 6:11). We learn that this corruption was a result of human sin, mostly of a sexual or violent nature, but also having to do with theft and deception. (Rashi on Genesis 6:11) God created humans with the power to destroy the earth and all that is on it. Makes sense when you consider that we are in relationship with all of creation; one species’ actions can affect the whole system. Only Noah was righteous in his generation; only Noah took care of God’s creation as God intended it to be cared for. Only Noah saw himself as part of, rather than apart from, creation.

God’s gift after the flood to Noah, and by extension to us, is that we can now eat animals. The dominion over animals given to humans in Genesis 1:27, compared with the rabbis’ notion that humans were created equal to the rest of creation, is an example of God’s and our own ambivalence about being the stewards of every other plant and animal species. Noah’s care of the animals, taken in light of permission to eat them, seems to suggest that he owns them and can do what he wants with them. We, like God and our Sages, seem also to be ambivalent about our role as stewards of the rest of creation.

Modern consumerist culture perpetuates the position that we are in a hierarchical relationship with the rest of creation. For example, we measure the health of our economy by the production of new goods, such as the number of new homes built in a fiscal period. We don’t measure the concomitant destruction of creature or vegetative life. So a new home might also mean the extirpation of a grass or flower species or the extinction of a bug species. It might mean the further sectioning of a bird’s or fox’s feeding grounds, causing the bird to have to fly further, the fox to hunt longer for its food. That in turn can mean the eventual loss of a species to the area.

What would happen if we measured the health of our economy by the number of new saplings developing in a forest or the return of species to an area that has been environmentally rehabilitated? What would happen if we looked at our food, our homes, our clothing, our computers as gifts given to us by the earth, rather than as our right to take as the superior species in the hierarchy of species? The Potawatomi (indigenous people of the Upper Midwest and members of the Algonquian family) biologist Robin Wall Kimmer writes that “the essence of the gift is that it creates relationships. The currency of a gift economy is, at its root, reciprocity. In Western thinking, private land is understood to be a ‘bundle of rights,’ whereas in a gift economy property has a ‘bundle of responsibilities’ attached.” Kimmer knows what most of us are unaware of: that the pecan trees, for example, work as a community when growing their fruit. (From Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of the Plants.)

      Upon exiting the ark, Noah “built an altar to God and, taking of every pure animal and of every pure bird, offered burnt offerings on the altar. God smelled the pleasing odor, and God said to Himself, ‘Never again will I doom the earth because of humans…” (Genesis 8:20-21) Noah offered animals on his altar in an attempt to show gratitude and love to God who saved enough of creation so that creation could continue in spite of the human capacity to act immorally. The man who loved and cared for the animals also loved and cared for his God. He then planted a garden, perhaps suggesting to us that if we are to take from the earth and from the animals for our own sustenance, let us be sure that we are taking in a responsible way, only what we need, and ensuring conditions for the continuation of every species.

Rabbi Lori D. Shaller, guest blogger, is a community rabbi. She serves as a guest spiritual leader with various Jewish congregations and Unitarian Universalist churches; teaches and facilitates life cycle ceremonies; leads interfaith spiritual direction groups for clergy and sees private clients in spiritual direction; and is the chaplain for Hospice of Martha's Vineyard. Her blog originally appeared in "Torah From T'ruah:Noach"

Friday, October 12, 2018

Understanding A Rape Culture


            After watching Dr. Christine Blasey Ford's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, I found myself looking for a biblical story to help me understand what I had witnessed. Clearly the Republicans had no interest in hearing her statement. They went so far as to hire a prosecutor to interrogate her. Both parties, it seemed to me, were intent on using her witness for their political ends.   My first thought was to turn to the story of Daniel in the lion's den. Dr. Ford was clearly an embodiment of that ancient biblical story.
            But upon further reflection it seemed that the biblical story of David and Bathsheba is more fitting and revealing.  In the following I limit myself to the biblical story, inviting readers to draw parallels as you see fit. In the biblical account King David rises from his bed, perhaps a sleepless night or maybe he knew what he would see if he went up to the rooftop for a look around. In any case, he went and soon thereafter he saw Bathsheba and desired to be with her.            He invited her to dinner. The Bible says that after dinner he "went into her." Less gently, he raped her.
When he later learned that she was pregnant, the king arranged for her husband, Uriah, to be brought home from the front lines. David's plan was for Uriah to sleep with Bathsheba and thus cover his own crime. The plan failed.  Uriah was sent back to the front lines. Secretly David gave orders for Uriah to be placed in a spot where he would killed.  We can imagine the king arranging for Uriah's name to be inscribed on the wall commemorating the fallen. After an appropriate time of grieving, David married Bathsheba.

End of story--almost.

       At this point the biblical narrative takes a fairy tale turn. A member of the #MeToo movement shows up and challenges the king's version of events.         We have to ask why this warrior king listened to  the prophet, Nathan, of #MeToo movement?  According to the law, David had stolen Uriah's property. He had committed a crime, but power has it's privileges. Power brings with it a sense of permissive entitlement. David saw Bathsheba and followed the dictates of his desires. Later, feeling threatened, David used the instruments of power to defend himself and his position while destroying Uriah, and tacitly sending a message to Bathsheba: for the sake of the child he would take care of her if she did not bear witness against him. Uriah was dead. There would be no investigation. There would be no one to tell a different story.

             What can we learn from the ancient narrative? I suggest the following lessons: The violence of a rape culture is pervasive. It destroys families, men and women, and has unseen consequences for future generations. Social institutions are undermined. Public trust is eroded. Those in positions of power and privilege convince themselves and others that they are good people. Think about King David's illustrious reputation in mythology. There is no guarantee that the system will right itself. There is no assurance that those who speak will be heard.  There is no alternative. Without systems that create transparency and accountability there will be no change.

Rev. David Phillips Hansen
Author and contributor

Friday, October 5, 2018

Playing by The Rules

Last Sunday, the church school teacher engaged the children in a children’s sermon about rules.  She began by asking them if they had ever played “Hide and Seek”.  Most of them had.  Then she asked them about the rules for playing “Hide and Seek.”   Some said the “seeker” had to count to 100 while others said counting to 50 was the rule.  Each child had different ideas about the rule for establishing “out of bounds” and there were varying opinions about what the seeker needed to do if they caught a person before she reached “home free.”   The rules for “Hide and Seek” vary from place to place depending on the traditions of a neighborhood or group of kids.    Sometimes the rules are pretty simple.  At other times they may be more involved and complex in the curious way that rules for games evolve.   The church school teacher moved the discussion along by observing that it is confusing for us if the rules for playing a game are not clear or if they keep changing.

             She then segued into talking about Micah and  the text for the day: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”  (Micah 6:8 NRSV)   “Rules” - - principles to live by that do not change depending on the neighborhood tradition or the group of “kids” with whom I am playing.  While how I live them out may involve a complexity of thought and action, the principles themselves are straight forward - - fairness -kindness - humility in daily living and interactions.

I  continue to return to Christina Feldman’s book The Buddhist Path To Simplicity: Spiritual Practice For Everyday Life  and I’m currently re-reading her chapter on Integrity.  She writes: The exploration of integrity is the exploration of integrity and freedom.  It is integrity of heart that directly contributes to releasing us from the distress of guilt, regret, shame, and fear...Adherence to rules alone can disguise unethical sentiments of moral superiority, self righteousness, or fear. A truly ethical life is born of wisdom and contributes to wisdom, it is born of compassion and embodies compassion....our (spiritual) teachers have been met in the countless experiences of our lives that teach us the ways of generating complexity and confusion, and the ways of cultivating simplicity and peace.

As I listen to and read about the intense energy surrounding the seating of the next judge to the Supreme Court,  I can’t help reflecting on the way the complexity of the drama reflects the elements of guilt, shame, fear, regret - - and how the firm and unyielding embrace of a complex order of rules for the process serves to “disguise unethical sentiments of moral superiority, self righteousness or fear” rather than adding to the sum of wisdom and compassion required for a just and sane outcome.

Richard Rohr, of the Center For Action and Contemplation,writes in his daily meditation for today: Human history is in a time of great flux, of great cultural and spiritual change. The psyche doesn’t know what to do with so much information.....In light of today’s information overload, people are looking for a few clear certitudes by which to define themselves.

    Kids need clear and unambiguous rules in order to enjoy a satisfying game of hide and seek. In our  search for the truth in the midst of the lack of certitudes, in our desire for unambiguous guidelines for how to proceed in our discernment we might do well to sit with Micah a bit and perhaps feel in our bones what “the Lord requires” - - to do justice and act with fairness, to love kindness and act with mercy and compassion, to walk humbly with the Source of Being, and get our immense egos out of the way so that we can more clearly hear what is good and what is required.

The path Micah offers is one of relative simplicity.  We each hear “do justice, love kindness, walk humbly.....” with different ears and with different ways of responding, but the challenge offers a way to engender simplicity and peace rather than complexity and confusion in the midst of deeply trying times.

Vicky Hanjian