Friday, April 16, 2021

Broken and Blessed


An Inquiry into the Gospel of John 20:19-32

    In light of recent events I have started reading the above passage from the Gospel of John with new eyes. I now understand this passage as the conclusion of a training manual in nonviolence written for a community under extreme duress. The author of John’s gospel has placed two stories together, side by side, or better, the author of this gospel has put one story inside of another story. The first story is wrapped around the second story. This means that the stories are connected. One story interprets the other. The stories share a common theme. The capstone of this literary edifice is verse 32, where John tells us that he has written the text in this way so that we might believe that Jesus is the Christ, and believing in him might have new life in Christ.
    The first story is about the disciples gathering in a closed room because, “They were afraid of the Jews.” It wasn’t actually the Jews they were afraid of. They were afraid of the Romans. The Romans had launched a counter-insurgency operation against the Christians. Just a few days ago they had arrested and executed Jesus. Now the Romans were going to start pressuring the Jews to get them to identify Jesus’ followers. It wasn’t a question of “if” the Romans were going to do this. The only

question was how soon they would start the next round of arrests. Who would be next? That is the question that was on the mind of those who met behind closed doors.
    We can think of this meeting in the room behind closed doors as the first strategy meeting of the disciples following the crucifixion. The disciples had to figure out how they were going to respond to the next wave of violence that was about to sweep over them. Would they disband? Go underground? Or, would they organize some kind of nonviolent resistance?
    Let’s imagine. Feelings were running high and the fear was palpable, and then Jesus comes and stands in their midst. But Thomas is not there. He shows up in the second story. Verse 23 is the bridge that connects the first story and the second story.  It reads: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven, if you retain the sins of any they are retained.” The message is clear--human beings, people like you and me, have the power to forgive sins. But what exactly does this mean? What does this have to do with nonviolence?
    It is important to know what kind of “sin” we are talking about here. In our tradition there are at least four ways to understand sin. Perhaps the most common way we define sin today is in terms of morality. We have all heard that it’s a sin to tell a lie. Specific actions that violate a moral norm and are called sinful. That’s one understanding of sin. According to a second understanding, sin means “missing the mark.” It is a sin to love something so much that it takes control of your life. Think of the story of King Midas. His love for gold consumed his life and destroyed his family. That’s an example of this second meaning of sin.
    Paul Tillich gave us another insight into the meaning of sin when he defined sin as estrangement. Tillich’s definition is existentialist. For Tillich sin is not about being right or wrong, good or bad. Sin is a description of the human condition. We are estranged from the earth--we are experiencing a global pandemic and an environmental crisis. We are estranged from each other--think of the unaccompanied children coming across the border. How can this be happening? What in the world are we doing to each other? The Bible says that the little children will lead us, but are we willing to follow them, to learn from them? Are we so estranged even from ourselves that we are simply unable to accept responsibility for our own policies and actions that contribute to this situation?
  

 
The fourth definition of sin is “broken.” Like Tillich’s estrangement, here sin is not a moral judgement of guilt, but a candid recognition of the human condition. Leonard Cohen wrote a song entitled, “Anthem,” in which he said, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” That is what John is telling us in this passage. There is a crack in everything. We can go behind closed doors and curse the breakage and all that is wrong, or we can let the light in. We can educate, organize, and mobilize. “If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any they are retained.”
Let’s turn to verse 22, where we read that Jesus breathed on the disciples. How do you think he did that? How did he breathe on the disciples? Do you think that he got them all together as you would gather people for a group photo and then he blew on them, like you would blow if you were blowing out candles on a cake? I think there is more to the story.
When I lived in Hawaii, I learned that white people were call “haloes,” which means “a people without breath,” because when we, white people, greet each other we are polite. We don’t exchange our breath, we shake hands. We smile and say, “Nice to see you.” It is all very proper. The French greet each other cheek to cheek, which is a little more intimate. Among Native Hawaiians who greet one another in the traditional way, it is much more intimate.
    For a brief period of time I was privileged to be part of a Native Hawaiian community that greeted each other in the traditional way. When we exchanged greetings, we exchanged breath. Each person put a hand behind the head of the other person. We held each other close so that our foreheads and noses touched and we exchanged breath. We breathed on each other and into each other. Every time we met, we greeted each other in this way. Every person in the room greeted every other person in the room in the same way, and we did this every time we met.
     I think that this kind of greeting is what John is describing. I think that Jesus and the disciples had a similar ritual greeting. They exchanged breath with each other whenever they met each other. In the room saturated with fear, the disciples greeted each other in the tradition of Jesus. They breathed on each other.
This form of greeting reminds us of the story of creation found in the Second Chapter of Genesis, the sixth verse. Here we read that God scooped up dust from the ground and breathed into our nostrils and we became living beings. Biblically speaking this is when life begins--life begins when we take our first breath, and life ends when we breathe our last breathe. When the breath of life enters into us we become living beings, and when the breath of life departs from us we are no longer alive.
    Johngives us an image of the church as a new creation brought into being by the Spirit of the living God. In a trauma filled and broken world, the church is a community called into being to demonstrate what the Apostle Paul called the “more excellent way of love.” That is what this first story is about.
    In the second story, Thomas shows up. He was not in the room in the first story. Thomas represents the world. Thomas represents the people who want to know what kind of community this Jesus movement is. Do the followers of the way of Jesus walk the walk, or do they just talk the talk. Is this real, or just hot air? That’s what Thomas wanted to know. That’s what the world wants to know.
    I recently read Andrew Young’s book An Easy Burden.  He tells the story of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He describes how the SCLC educated, motivated, organized, and mobilized people to march against the forces of fear, intimidation and violence to bring an end to Jim Crow and win the right to vote. Even death could not stop this movement, which was grounded in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence. As Andrew Young tells the story, the SCLC was started by a small group of ten black pastors who knew the Gandhian principles of nonviolence and who were prepared to teach them to others. In the language of John, they breathed on each other, and with their breath they gave birth to a new creation--the SCLC and the Civil Rights Movement.
    I believe that we are living in a time of collective trauma--the environmental crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, the crisis of children on the border, the trauma of what President Biden called an “epidemic of gun violence,” and the trauma of police violence that is putting our communities and our nation on edge and on trial. One senator has gone on national television to encourage people to buy assault weapons in preparation for the coming battle. Gun sales in this country are literally and statistically a booming business. But can we really believe that preparing to kill each other is the way to build a better society?
      I believe that the Gospel of John teaches us that there is another way--a more excellent way. We must learn the philosophy and the methods of nonviolence. We need rituals that can bring us together in healing ways. We need rituals that restore our trust in each other and give us hope for the future. In his last book, Dr. King asked the crucial question that we have yet to answer. What will we choose, Chaos or Community? I want to borrow a phrase from our friends at Habitat for Humanity, and say that we need to “put love in mortar joints.” Dr. King said we need “strength to love” one another. Apostle Paul said, “Love bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” Which is just another way of saying there is always a need for love. Let’s get to work. 

Rev. David Hansen

Friday, April 9, 2021

Too much room in the elephant...


 If it wasn't clear before, it should be now. We're at a historical turning point in this country. We will either go forward into a new and inclusive future, or we will disintegrate into an exclusionary past, where White makes right. The confederate flag amidst the mob in our nation's capitol was the symbol of the divide. And the insurrectionists with the "Civil War" shirts, spoke more loudly with their visual than any words might have done. What was at stake in the continuation of a Trump presidency is White supremacy. Many refuse to admit this elephant in the room, but unfortunately, White supremacy has taken up way too much room in the elephant.

It wasn't so long ago the Republican party was on a mission to become more inclusive. There was a recognition, especially after the Obama election, that the country was changing, becoming more racially and religiously diverse. The message was that to be relevant as a political party, with opportunities to occupy the White House, the party would have to change too. A Black man, Michael Steele, became Chairperson of the Republican National Committee. That effort only lasted for two years, from 2009 to 2011. Apparently, one Black face at the top didn't mean much at the bottom, devoid of a meaningful

platform. Then the inclusive intention seemed to dissolve. Instead of inclusion, the party tried exclusion, with extensive gerrymandering and voter suppression. The crowning event for exclusion was the election of Donald Trump.

Trumps' intention was clear from the very beginning. We knew his history and he was open about his intentions. We knew he lied and spread misinformation, as he did his best to keep the Obama "birther" issue alive. And who could forget his "crooks and rapists" dog whistles, about our southern neighbors during the 2015 campaign.

Once in office: Muslims were banned; the wall was built; dreamers were threatened; refugees were limited; temporary protected status was diminished; Charlottesville had "good people" on both sides; and now, the former President "loves" those people who trashed our capitol, threatened the Vice President with lynching and Congress members with God knows what. Wherever he was able to limit the growth of a population of people of color or encourage White supremacists, he did it; even separating children from their parents and putting them in detention centers, a morally unspeakable act.


Trump, unable or unwilling to understand racial dynamics, continues to profess his love for Black people. "Well, my message is that I love the Black community and I've done more for the Black community than any other president, and I say with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln, and I mean that, with opportunity zones, and with criminal justice reform, with prison reform, with what we've done for historically Black universities, colleges, schools, what we've done. It's nobody's done more. Abraham Lincoln, let's give him the nod, but beyond that, nobody's done more. I love the Black community."

One wonders if the former President's love extends to George Floyd or Breonna Taylor, or any number of Black Lives Matter marchers? One wonders if he would ever kneel to honor the life of just one Black man? It wouldn't have to be for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. Just touching one knee to the floor like a Colin Kaepernick would do.

At the recent meeting of the Republican National Committee, Nikki Haley suggested the party might want to embrace "inclusion" in the future, given the drubbing the party took in Georgia. At the same meeting, Governor Noem said the recently elected Senators from Georgia were "communists." After the former President, the Republican party faces a choice and an uncertain future. But the choice is clear from the remarks of these women, inclusion or exclusion.

The other party facing a choice is the Christian church, one of the significant supports for the Trump presidency. If the church is not inclusive, it is not the church of Jesus Christ. How you can represent one of the most inclusive and welcoming persons in human history by remaining exclusive is beyond comprehension. If your church community is not racially diverse, welcoming of all sexual orientations, and open to dialogue and friendship with other faith communities, you shouldn't call yourself a "Christian" church. And it doesn't count to make excuses based on location or past  efforts. Change the racist or exclusive infrastructure of the community you are in!  The church's mission is to build the Kingdom, the beloved community. That includes all!

And please, don't ever tell us again an apostle of exclusion is sent to us by God. That's definitely using God's name in vain. 

Carl Kline

Friday, April 2, 2021

"Picture a Face"

 


Your phone rings in the middle of the night. As you reach blindly to answer, do you fear that someone you love has been in an accident? Has suddenly died?   For a time, early in my marriage to Jihong, such calls would often wake us. The phone was on Jihong’s side of the bed. He’d lift the receiver to his ear and mumble a dazed hello.

“Go back to Japan!” a loud male voice would yell, or something worse.  Jihong would hang up. We nestled in each other’s arms. You’re paying a sad price for living `in freedom,’ I said to him, in my mind.

Jihong was born in China, not Japan. He was among the very first students that the Chinese government allowed to study abroad after the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). He arrived at the University of Maryland in 1982, ill prepared to study chemistry there. He spoke very little English and was totally unfamiliar with Western culture. (“That’s an understatement,” he says, with a laugh.)

Then came the tragedy of Tiananmen Square. For months, students in China had occupied the Square, demanding democratic reforms in the government. On June 4, 1989, the volatile episode ended in a massacre perpetrated by the People’s Army. Estimates of the death toll ranged from the hundreds to several thousand.

After the massacre, President George H. W. Bush realized that the Chinese authorities would view any students returning home from the U.S. with extreme suspicion. The students might even be in danger. Thankfully, he removed from their visas the requirement that they leave the country upon graduation. He granted them eligibility for green cards.


That was Jihong’s first step toward becoming a U.S. citizen. He took it with gratitude, though it meant leaving his birth family behind.

I met him only a couple years later. By then, he spoke and wrote English better than most homegrown Americans. He worked hard. He paid his taxes. He was law abiding. He was a living definition of “a good man.”

After our marriage, when the crank calls were waking us in the night, we’d wonder: Did the caller pick our name out of the phone book? Or does he know us somehow?

Sometimes, as we strolled through our suburban neighborhood, I’d gaze at the houses. Do you live here? I asked the bully. Do you live there?

Whoever he was, he probably looked as white and “ordinary” as me. Heck, he was probably considered a “good person” by those who knew him best … just like the person who, on the eve of my wedding, called me a “racist” for expecting him to readily accept my marriage to a man born in China. Or like those in my family who just couldn’t seem to learn how to spell or pronounce Jihong’s name.

“It isn’t difficult,” I wanted to tell them. “J-I-H-O-N-G. You spelled much harder words in your first spelling bee. You say much harder names while reading your Bible or watching your ball game.”

For the last twenty-one years, Jihong has taught chemistry at South Dakota State University. Several students work in his laboratory. One (whom I’ll call Kendra) is African American.

Last week Kendra approached Jihong. “I’m aware,” she said, “of the increasing violence in the country against Asian Americans. Is there anything I can do to support you and others?”

What a kindness that was!

   


“Kung-flu,” “Chinese coronavirus,” “the Wuhan virus”… such horrible xenophobic language for Covid-19 has only inflamed anti-Asian sentiment that has long existed in the U.S. In 2020, as the number of hate crimes fell overall across the country, crimes against Asian Americans surged by nearly 150 percent. The actual number is likely much higher, but the victims (mostly women and elders) are reluctant to report.

The fact is, Asian Americans as a group are living through an especially traumatizing period in their history. Racism has long been a great stain on this country’s character. But the current level of bullying and violence against persons of Asian descent is new.

That Kendra, an African American woman, spoke up as she did, offering her active support to Jihong, is a bright ray of hope. Her concern moved him. Her questions opened a significant conversation between them.

Another ray of hope is the group Compassion in Oakland. Seven hundred volunteers from diverse races and backgrounds have organized to accompany and protect Asian American elders. They also offer translation services and technological expertise to Asians isolated by language differences and complicated information systems.

 

 
Now, I’d like to invite you to offer your own ray of hope. Right where you are.

Get comfortable. Close your eyes. Settle into the rhythm of your breathing.

When you’re ready, picture an Asian face, whether a stranger’s or someone you know. The face might even be yours.

What might that person be feeling in this time of unrest? Allow your body to share that emotion. Breathe in the unease, the fear, the anger, the helplessness, the betrayal, the grief …

Now, breathe out. On your exhalation, send that person the soft light of remedy: love, calm, healing, courage, resilience, hope …

Continue this cycle awhile, breathing in the pain, breathing out the peace.

Eventually, you might wish to deepen the practice by gradually including more people in your meditation: every person of Asian descent … every person of color … every person who has ever suffered trauma … every person who has ever done harm out of fear … all who are alive … all beings everywhere …

All.

Deep Peace,

Phyllis Cole-Dai


Friday, March 26, 2021

"When did we see you a stranger...?"

 When we were living in New York City at Union Theological Seminary, young and without much money, we found or invented inexpensive forms of entertainment. One was to take the subway to the tip of Manhattan and ride the Staten Island Ferry. Then we would exit with the crowd and turn around and get right back on again. Sometimes you could get the same seat and you’d be watching a different direction on the return.


If your eyes were open, which wasn’t true of everyone on the ferry, you would see the Statue of Liberty in the distance. Especially at night, lit up, it made one proud to be living in a country that welcomed “the tired and poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of the teeming shore, the homeless tempest tossed.” The lamp was lifted and lit, and said “bring them to me.” The golden door was open!

Seeing lady liberty made me wonder if she was there when my father’s father traveled from Germany to settle in Pennsylvania? Were my mother’s parents first generation homeless, tossed on the seas from some other land, finding a home here? Recalling those old pictures of the scenes on Ellis Island as refugees were processed, I wondered where they came from and what was chasing them.

I just finished reading The Beekeeper of Aleppo. It’s worth putting on your reading list. It’s a contemporary story of a husband and wife and the trials they encounter, as they flee the horrors of war in Syria. You meet other refugees, with their own stories to tell. Predators, police and politicians play their respective roles. Smugglers and volunteer service workers make their appearance and one begins to gain a troubling but true understanding of refugee life.

This is a work of fiction. But the writing emerges from an experience of reality. The author is Christy Lefteri, a child of Cypriot refugees. Christy was brought up in London after her parents fled there in 1974 after the Cyprus war. Knowing little of that story, she wanted to know more about that dark chapter in her family history. The novel is based on her experiences working as a volunteer at a refugee camp in Athens, Greece.

Reading about the beekeeper, his love for his apiaries, the care with which he went about his work, made me think of Mr. Knapp. He was from Estonia. He was a refugee. He was custodian at our church. I can picture him now, standing outside my father’s office, broom in hand, smile on his face. In the years I knew him, although his English was limited, his smile was always large. He was so grateful to be in a country where he and his family were safe and he was employed. His smile was manifested in the way he cleaned and cared for that church.

Having just finished the Beekeeper, I’m deciding whether I’m ready to read Separated: Inside an American Tragedy by Jacob Soboroff. There’s a Wall pictured on the cover. My sister sent the book to me. She keeps sending me non-fiction like this. I keep telling her I want fiction. There’s enough non-fiction in my day to trouble my sleep. I want fiction to read before bedtime to help me sleep. Although even fiction like Beekeeper required several minutes of pondering and prayer time before retiring, as the suffering and trauma of what millions of people are experiencing came home to me with force.

There are at least 79.5 million people who have been forced to flee their homes by war, violence, persecution and human rights violations. 26 million of them are refugees; half under the age of 18; living in generally squid conditions, sometimes for years; often with little hope of changing their situation.

Under the previous administration, the light on lady liberty went dark. In fiscal year 2016, some 84,000 refugees were admitted to the U.S. The following year it was around 50,000. The cap was set at 15,000 for 2020 by the former President and as of December of last year, fewer than 1,000 had been processed. The new administration is proposing a 125,000 cap for this next fiscal year.

Since the Refugee Act was passed in 1980, the U.S. was the leading nation in settling refugees in this country. In 2018 and 2019, we were surpassed by Canada, as social service agencies in the U.S. tasked with settling new comers, shut down all over the country. And walls went up!


  I just wish all my Christian brothers and sisters who continue to support the Wall Builder, would get out their Bibles once more and turn to Matthew 25. “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you? And the King will answer them, Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”

And I’m hopeful a new administration, with determination and hard work, can establish a new immigration policy that represents our core values as a country, and the light in Lady Liberty can blaze again!


 Carl Kline



Friday, March 19, 2021

Musings


 Have you ever sat for a formal photograph? When was the last time?  Did you do so by choice or at someone's request?  Did you enjoy it, or did you put up with it, like a root canal at the dentist? 

As an author, I'm advised to get new publicity photos every year, or at least before publishing every new book.  My last photo shoot was eight years and five book releases ago.  That tells you how much I am fond of getting my picture taken. (The phrase "photo shoot" aptly describes how I've always felt in front of a camera: stalked.)

For that last batch of publicity shots, my friend Ruby snapped me sitting on her backyard, out in the countryside.  Because we knew each other well and were in a comfortable summer setting, she got enough quality images to serve the purpose.

But now, eight years later, I wear glasses, and I have a few gray hairs.  I appear to be closer to sixty than fifty.  So I decided, with a collection of essays and poems coming out this spring, I'd better suck it up and freshen my shots.  If I did, maybe I wouldn't have to pose again for another decade. ("Pose."  Another revealing word.  In front of a camera I always felt like an impostor.)

This time, I couldn't ask Ruby to photograph me in her backyard.  We weren't about to dress up in arctic gear for a shivering session in the snow.


So I hired Tammie, a professional photographer. She proposed a socially distanced shoot in her studio, complete with stylist for my make-up and hair.  "Don't make me look like somebody I'm not," I begged, when booking the appointment by phone. "You'll be fine," she said with a laugh.  "Plan on about three hours."

Three hours? Ruby and I had wrapped up in less than thirty minutes.

Oh, how I dreaded that appointment!  Last Friday I arrived at the studio, steeling myself to be made up and shot. ("Made up" - another telltale phrase, as in "imagined" or "invented.")

Then a strange thing happened.  Tammie's stylist introduced herself as Rebecca, a lovely young woman of college age whom I'd known as a schoolgirl. I hadn't seen her in years.  She briefly lowered one side of her mask, showing her face.  I still didn't recognize her.  The child had vanished.

Rebecca told me she was attending the local university, studying leadership and nonprofit organizations.  "Cool," I said.  "What prompted your interest in that?"

  


Tears welled in her eyes. "I'm going to cry, telling you this," she said, a catch in her voice.  "It all started when you talked to my youth group about how you gave up your home to live awhile on the streets."  Her words stunned me.  I remember that talk, so long ago.  How nervous I'd been, huddling with that flock of kids, struggling to help them imagine "homelessness," for which they had no frame of reference...

"When I finished," I told Rebecca, "I thought that I'd failed you all.  What a gift you have given me now! Thank you so much for telling me."  Tammy, listening nearby, reached for a tissue. "This is making me cry too."     

That's when something inside me clicked like a camera shutter.  This portrait session, I realized, wasn't about publicity photos.  It wasn't about marketing my books.  It wasn't about me at all. It was about you, and everyone else I might ever meet, whether face to face like Rebecca or through the ripples of my work.

The photos that Tammie was about to take could be another way of saying, "I care about you."  Of saying "I invite you to share the journey with me." Of saying, "Let's talk. Let's listen to each other.  Let's change the world together."  The images could express all of this and more. If I let them.

But I had to get out of the way.  I had to wipe the slate clean of all the nonsense about how prying the camera was.  I had to erase all the negative self-talk about how I wasn't worthy enough to sit for a portrait.  Could I empty myself of all that bunk and just be present, as I had been with Rebecca and her group, so many years before?  Could I trust Tammie to bring forward from me a glimmer of light that someone else might need to see?

We began the shoot.  I tuned into Tammie and her camera.  I sensed my spirit pouring toward her lense, then through it, toward the unknown.  Not on every shot - I wasn't so capable as that.  But whenever I wasn't quite "there," Tammie noticed and summoned me further in.  Our three hours together became a sustained lesson in mindfulness, the boundary between self and not-self dropping away, rising up, dropping away again.

 

Two days later, I received an email message from Diane S., a StayingPower subscriber who lives in Texas.  "Eye smiles," she said, answering my question about what she wanted to carry forward from the pandemic.  "Never look anything but real."

Never look anything but real.  That's a pretty good motto for a photo shoot, don't you think?  And it's a pretty good motto for life.

Deep peace and health to you,

Phyllis Cole-Dai

Friday, March 5, 2021

Top Ten Positive Takeaways

 There is no question that the pandemic has caused enormous pain and suffering all around the world, especially in the U.S. We don't hear anyone yelling "U.S.A., U.S.A.," when it comes to our handling of this deadly disease. First in the world with Covid cases is hardly a reason for pride.

Watching a film of Morocco last evening, I wondered how this small, diverse country was surviving. The figures tell us they weren't doing so well in November but are doing better now. Their population is around 36 and 1/2 million. As of mid January this year, there had been 8,128 total deaths from Covid-19. More than twice that many died in New York City between March 1 and June 1 in 2020, with a total population in the city of 8 1/2 million. Pick any country! We are first in death and grief, waiting anxiously and fearfully for our turn in the long lines for a vaccine.


Given the enormous suffering, is there anything positive to be gained from this experience, for those of us living in what many call "the greatest country on earth?" I believe there are at least ten potentially positive takeaways from this time of pandemic. This is my top ten.

1. We have a new and simple way of expressing our love for the neighbor; wearing a mask!

2. If we have: a roof over our head where we can isolate; work we can do from home; local medical care; health insurance; a computer to zoom with family; possible delivery of groceries; heat in the winter; running water; we are amazingly privileged. Perhaps it will open our eyes of compassion for those less fortunate.


   3. We are gaining a new opportunity to appreciate those who serve us: the restaurant workers; the checker at the supermarket; the ambulance and truck drivers; the post office employees; the teachers of our children; the first responders; the nurses and doctors who care for us and hold the Facetime screen so we can say good bye to the dying.

4. There was a cartoon of Poof and Piglet on social media the other day. They were talking about the pandemic. Piglet mentioned that the thing he missed the most was "touch." Fist pumps, elbow bumps and high fives don't quite make it. Six feet between us can sometimes feel like six miles. If family therapist Virginia Satir is right, we're in trouble. “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.” Where we can, we should step up! Where we can't, we can at least verbalize.

5. Even those of us who are technical novices can be thankful for long distance vision. What a blessing it is to watch family open Christmas presents or a college present a choral concert when you can't actually be there.

6. A friend and I were talking the other day about how we were feeling. It seems to be a common conversation. When you ask, "How are you?," it has a covid question mark. We agreed that we were more in touch with our bodies these days; what they might be telling us. For men especially, this could be a positive takeaway.

7. Science has taken center stage and is teaching us (once again), there are some things we can know or learn, and some things we can't. We are offered a bit of pride with a vaccine and a dose of humility with new mutations. Science is once again a temper on human arrogance as well as an encouragement for human effort.

8. The world has become smaller. An unseen, previously unknown virus has connected us all in ways airplanes never could.

9. Perhaps our greatest human failing, especially in this country, is our outsized individualism. Somehow we have this idea we stand alone. We forget the air, earth and water that make life possible; the plants and animals that give us sustenance; the love and learning from those around us. Our connections are infinite and we are all related, sometimes in ways as small as a droplet of someone else's breath.

10. Faith! Perhaps the most important of the ten, faith is crucial in times of crisis like this. Faith in a good and loving God; faith in the basic goodness of the human community; faith that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice; faith that we will get through this pandemic a new and more resilient people. May it be so!

Carl Kline

Friday, February 26, 2021

A Late Winter Pause

 It’s the quietest week of the year on the Vineyard.  February is always subdued.  Seasonal residents are still in warm sunny places. This week the schools are closed and families who can take advantage of the “down-time”  scoop up the kids and head “off the rock” for a few days of family time together - even with the various Covid restrictions.  So - no school busses  and virtually no traffic at all.  A time to pause.

Last year at this time, we had just celebrated Purim with all the fun and joy that attends the holiday.  It is hard to believe that was the last time the community was together face to face.  Within days of that celebration the island was in lock down.  The streets, normally quiet anyway in February and March, had the eerie feeling that came with some of the scenes in the long ago movie “On The Beach” - - no

cars at all - no sounds except the familiar one of  seagulls scavenging for their breakfast.   

I was in the midst of rehab post knee surgery.  In the Physical Therapy department at the hospital staff and patients kept asking many unanswered questions.  Have you heard….? What does this mean for us here on an island?  Will we be protected by the waters around us?  Can we finish the recommended course of PT? And then abruptly, all services were closed down except for emergency interventions.  

And we plunged into unknown territory - uncertain about how to protect ourselves.  Masks? No masks?  Wear protective gloves everywhere?  Disinfect grocery store purchases before bringing them into the house?  What about safety when traveling in a car with someone else?  Stock up on toilet paper? Hand sanitizer?  Grocery store shelves were unaccustomedly empty of many basics.  Finding flour and sugar became a challenge.  The meat eaters among us veered toward vegetarianism as the meat and poultry departments struggled to meet the demand when food supply chains were interrupted.


Our college age grandchildren were summoned home when their spring semester was just getting underway.  Students around the country struggled and continue to struggle with remote learning and the precious continuity of their education, regardless of their ages, has been seriously and detrimentally disrupted.

 And here we are, one year later.  Various earlier anxieties have been augmented by questions about when the vaccines will be universally available.  The unheard of speed in the development of vaccines is offset by production and distribution challenges.  Questionable equitable distribution, long waits for appointments, mistrust of the vaccines themselves all keep the fear levels high.


A new administration is gradually taking hold in Washington.  The news from Dr. Fauci is cautionary, but generally hopeful.  We understand more about transmission and we know better what effective precautions to take to protect ourselves.  Running routine errands seems less fraught with the earlier fears.  Conversations drift in a subdued but celebratory direction as people compare experiences with getting the vaccine.

The past year has witnessed so much tragedy and violence, sickness and death, divisiveness and destruction - and yet, here we are, hopefully headed toward wholeness and well being on so many levels - medically, socially, politically.  I like to think that humankind is wrestling with how to live out an expanded consciousness now.  What will we do with the greater clarity of  awareness about the terrible racial inequities fully exposed by the pandemic?  How will we build trust in our political systems in the midst of the ongoing anger and violence that color relationships in both houses of congress post insurrection?

Our local PBS channel has been running a quote from James Baldwin: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”  That seems to be where we stand - - challenged to face into all that has been revealed of our violence, our darkness, our mistrust, our unwillingness to sacrifice,  our lack of regard for one another in the midst of crisis…

Perhaps hope lies in the awareness that the pandemic has cast a spotlight on all our brokenness - and when light shines in the darkness, the darkness cannot overcome it.    A quiet week on the Vineyard.  Time to pause and reflect.

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, February 19, 2021

"Let them make me a sanctuary..."

    


 Some words from the past from the pen of Walter Lippman in The Good Society (1937): “For there is no longer a general understanding among civilized (men): they cannot fall upon a common allegiance to assuage their partisanship; they have no consensus of accepted ideas.  Yet these things they must have if they are to restore civilized order.  There are no end of fashionable opinions.  But as against the convictions of those who are ready to kill or be killed to achieve their ends, the civilized arguments are subtle, complicated and effete.  In the epochal crisis of our time the cause of civilization is being defended by men who possess a great tradition that has become softened by easy living, by men who have forgotten the necessities in which their principles were wrought.”  While Lippmann was writing during the dynamics of the 2nd World War, he could have been writing about our current situation in the USA.
  

 
In our weekly encounter with Torah this week, our little study group read about the building of the mishkan (sanctuary, tabernacle) described in Exodus 25 and following.  The Divine imperative was “Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”  (Exodus 25:8)  Our conversation around this short verse led us in many directions until one member of the group cited Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ (of blessed memory) book The Home We Build Together.  Rabbi Sacks reviewed the early history of Israel from the time of their exit from Egypt.  The Biblical texts portray the Israelites as “a querulous, almost ungovernable group.”  Under Moses’ leadership they leave the constraints of slavery behind and almost immediately begin to complain about the conditions they encounter in their new freedom.  Rabbi Sacks writes: “Putting all this together (ie the exodus from Egypt, the complaining and yearning for the familiar predictability of slavery, the yearning for a god the people could see, as in the Golden Calf) we arrive at the boldest of all Exodus’ political statements.  A nation - at least the kind of nation the Israelites were called upon to become - is created through the act of creation itself…in commanding Moses to get the people to make the tabernacle (sanctuary), God was, in effect saying: To turn a group of individuals into a covenantal nation, they must build something together.”

I live on the island of Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Cape Cod.  Travel in almost any direction on the mainland involves crossing over the Cape Cod Canal via either the Bourne Bridge or the Sagamore Bridge - sister bridges built by the WPA circa 1935.  The Bourne Bridge is iconic for me.  When I am leaving the Cape, it rises out of the misty canal, visible a mile or so before I actually get there. To me it means access to “America” on my infrequent trips off island.  On the return trip, approaching the canal from the mainland, the Bourne Bridge comes into view with a great sigh of relief - - "I’m almost home."   It is ceaselessly amazing to me that this steel and concrete and asphalt structure, so often clogged with vehicular traffic that makes a trip daunting, can, nonetheless evoke powerful emotional responses.

The two bridges, Bourne and Sagamore, rose up to dominate the horizon on the Cape Cod Canal as a result of the labors of the WPA - - a product of the New Deal era in the run-up to WW 2.  At one time it employed as many as 8 million people working on infrastructure projects around the country.   The goal was to supply meaningful and well paid work for “the family breadwinner who had been out of work for a long period of time” - - work that would benefit the whole.
As our little group kept chewing on the the text from Exodus and Rabbi Sack’s commentary flung alongside the words of Walter Lippmann, we began to envision a country where, under enlightened leadership, we might collectively put our shoulders to the wheel and construct, build, create together an infrastructure that would draw us, as a nation, into a more harmonious identity - one built on productivity and creativity in the service of all.  Something we could all take pride in because we helped make it happen.

If, in our diverse culture, we are to be able to learn to live together with all our differences, politically, ideologically, spiritually, economically, perhaps we need a sense of common purpose, a sense of belonging, a sense of making an important contribution that comes with working through the process of creating something good and beautiful and useful to the whole.  

“…that I may dwell among them” - carries within a few words the inspiration of a vast vision - - a culture, a society, perhaps a world, in which the divine attributes of compassion and grace, kindness and faithfulness and forgiveness dwell in a spacious hospitality among us in a society that truly permits the Holy to  dwell among us.   

Can we, as diverse and “querulous and ungovernable” as we are, can we actually create and co-create by working together to rebuild the crumbling structures that bind us together?

 Vicky Hanjian


Friday, February 12, 2021

Side By Side


 While reading Krista Tippett’s book Speaking of Faith recently, I became reacquainted with Bruce Feiler’s book Walking The Bible.  Feiler’s narrative about his visit to Hebron brought back my own memories of walking one of the streets of that city perhaps 13 years ago.  My husband and I were with a study group under the leadership of Rabbis For Human Rights. (The organization’s name has since been changed to T’ruah )

Hebron is the traditional site of the burial place of the biblical patriarch, Abraham and his wife, Sarah.  It is a site revered by Jews, Muslims, and Christians.  It is also the site of some of the most hotly contested issues between Israel and Palestine.  We felt fortunate to be able to visit Hebron as tour groups are often directed away from the city because of hostilities.  The threat of violence was ever present and we were escorted by Israeli police who outnumbered our group by at least two to one. Our attempt to visit Machpelah, the ancient tomb of the patriarch, was aborted when our group was “invited” to re-board our bus and leave or risk arrest.  We never did get to view the tomb.

Feiler describes Machpelah this way: It’s this giant building that looks like a cross between a gymnasium and a castle…And I go into this tiny little room between Abraham and Sarah’s tomb.  All three faiths agree that this is where they’re buried. There’s a ramshackle synagogue with a chandelier hanging down with half the bulbs out, and it’s there that Abraham, at age 175, dies.


The great patriarch’s family was not without its pain and dysfunction.  Early on, Abraham at Sarah’s behest, turns his first born son, Ishmael, along with his slave mother, Hagar, out into the wilderness.  The family’s early traumas make it impossible for Isaac, the firstborn of Sarah, Abraham’s legitimate wife, and Ishmael ever to grow up as brothers.  They go their separate ways, each with a Divine promise that they will engender “a people.”

Feiler writes:In one of the most haunting and overlooked passages in the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 25:9)…Ishmael and Isaac - rivals since before they were born, estranged since childhood, leaders of opposing nations - come to stand side by side and bury their father.
 For a short space in time, Ishmael and Isaac are not rivals, not enemies. They are brothers, standing side by side doing the difficult work of honoring their father and laying him to rest.

     
Feiler continues:What I think is relevant here is that this (Machpelah) is also a Muslim shrine; it’s been a Muslim shrine for hundreds of years.  Muslims and Jews now divide the shrine.  In some ways the shrine is an awkward but really practical model for how you can get along…It ain’t pretty.  Jews and Muslims, they split the shrine and ten days each year each side gets unlimited access to it.  It ain’t pretty, but it does work. And maybe that’s the model here. But what’s important about the Biblical moment is that they stand side by side.  It doesn’t say they hugged.  It doesn’t say they had dinner.  It doesn’t say they moved in and sat down and said, you know, “Let’s forgive.”  And, remember, Abraham had tried to kill each of them.  To me, that is the  model.  And, again, the text seems to understand - predict, almost - where we’re going to be so many thousands of years later.  So the destination here is not some Esperanto mumbo jumbo of a giant religion. It’s standing side by side and respecting coexistence.

As I am writing, the impeachment trial is unfolding in the senate.  It seems, at least at the moment, that an acquittal is a foregone conclusion.  At the end of the day all the enmities will continue to exist as accusations about the success or failure of the Senate trial and its subsequent meaning continue to be parsed and argued.  It will be challenging to move on and for the Senate to be about the business of government when there is so much acrimony threaded through so many fractured relationships.  


I wonder if the story of Ishmael’s and Isaac’s brief reunion for the purpose of completing the most sacred task of their lives -that of attending to their father’s death and burial - might have any meaning for the people charged with governing this country.  I wonder if there is even a remote possibility that the gravity of the work that is ahead of us might cause any of the members of the House and Senate to at least come to the point of being able to stand side by side - - to come to some (even if grudging) respecting of coexistence.

As a father, Abraham was unskilled when it came to wise parenting.  His choices and decisions fed into the devastating rivalry between his two sons - a rivalry that exists today in the enmity between Palestine and Israel.  As a nation, we, too, have been subjected to unskillful leadership. It has fed our already existing divisions and played them into the full blown drama that unfolded in the Capitol on January 6.  It ain’t pretty.

I envision a beautiful poster decorating the halls of Congress - perhaps an image of  Ishmael and Isaac at Abraham’s graveside captioned this way:  Beloved, you don’t have to hug.  You don’t have to sit down to dinner with each other.  You don’t even have to say “Let’s forgive.”  Just stand side by side to face together the work at hand, honor one another’s right to exist and get to work.

It seems so basic, so fundamental - -simply mutual acknowledgement of the other’s right to exist - a foundation, perhaps, on which to build and re-build a functioning government that we might once again view with confidence and pride.

Vicky Hanjian


Friday, February 5, 2021

 Stanford University is the home of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. A volume of his letters and papers the University published has been sitting on my book shelf for several years. There are memorable pieces in it.




One of my favorite letters is one King writes home to his father during the summer of 1944. This is during his first excursion to the North, where he worked in the tobacco fields of Connecticut. Here he had his first experience of an integrated society and an integrated church. You can hear the surprise in his voice as he writes, "We go to any place we want to and sit any where we want to." King later traces his call to the ministry to this summer experience, when he was still a junior in high school and felt an "inescapable urge to serve society."

A later paper in this volume is one he wrote in Seminary on the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah. Knowing what we know now about Kings' life, and death, the paper is hauntingly prescient. He writes, "What is society's reaction to such men (prophets like Jeremiah)? It has reacted, and always will react, in the only way open to it. It destroys such men. Jeremiah died a martyr."

King preached six different times at the Riverside Church in New York City. Those recordings have recently been released by the Church and Stanford. It was a trip back in time for me to listen again to "A Knock at Midnight," a sermon I heard King give there in 1964, while I was a Seminary student across the street at Union Theological Seminary and working in the Riverside Youth Department.


In the parable a man is seeking three loaves of bread from his neighbor to feed an unexpected guest. The problem is he is knocking on the door at midnight and the neighbor is already in bed. For King, 1964 was midnight in the social order. He believed we needed to get out of bed and address the three social evils of the time: militarism (especially nuclear weapons and soon the war in Vietnam); racial dignity and racial justice; and materialism with its consequent poverty. With respect to the latter, he even believed: “We are saying that something is wrong with capitalism … there must be a better distribution of wealth in this country for all of God’s children and maybe America must move toward democratic socialism.” That conviction and broadcasting it, will surely make you a target in 2021 as well.

The loaves of bread King wanted were faith; faith in God, the neighbor and the future; hope and love. He worried that it was late, midnight, in the social order, the psychological and the moral order. He looked and prayed for the day when the neighbor would wake up, get out of bed, and provide the sustenance needed. He was especially hopeful the community that offered the "bread of life" every week, would lead the way.   Sitting in the first few rows with the Youth Department on that Sunday morning, gave us first chance to shake his hand after the service. I know for many of those young people it was a memorable and inspiring day. I needed to be reminded of the sermon content after all these years, but remember well his presence.



The A.J. Muste Memorial Institute publishes an Essay Series of Kings' work. It includes the sermon "Loving Your Enemies," his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," and his "Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam," the latter speech also given at Riverside Church. Copies will be distributed to my Peace and Justice class this semester. They would be good reading for everyone on a holiday that bears Kings' name. The Governor might want to add   the booklet to the history curriculum she's proposing.

Kings' last speech before his assassination in Memphis is available on the internet. He wasn't feeling well that day and didn't intend to address the gathering. But his colleagues convinced him the gathered crowd wouldn't leave till they heard him and told him he had to go to the auditorium. As always, his speech was laced with Biblical illustrations and allusions. Once again, he seemed prescient. He seemed to know his future. He said he'd been to the mountain top, seen the promised land, knew he might not get there himself, but that was enough. "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord." He had to be helped to his seat as the speech concluded. The next day he was dead!

King gets one day a year, a national holiday. Another prophet gets one day every week, plus a national holiday. One could hope that the prophet people worship every Sunday would help them multiply Kings' message and work by a hundred-fold, so they too might be able to see the glory of the coming of the Lord.

 
 


Carl Kline

Friday, January 29, 2021

Inclusion


 If it wasn't clear before, it should be now. We're at a historical turning point in this country. We will either go forward into a new and inclusive future, or we will disintegrate into an exclusionary past, where White makes right. The confederate flag amidst the mob in our nation's capitol was the symbol of the divide. And the insurrectionists with the "Civil War" shirts, spoke more loudly with their visual than any words might have done. What was at stake in the continuation of a Trump presidency is White supremacy. Many refuse to admit this elephant in the room, but unfortunately, White supremacy has taken up way too much room in the elephant.

It wasn't so long ago the Republican party was on a mission to become more inclusive. There was a recognition, especially after the Obama election, that the country was changing, becoming more racially and religiously diverse. The message was that to be relevant as a political party, with opportunities to occupy the White House, the party would have to change too. A Black man, Michael Steele, became Chairperson of the Republican National Committee. That effort only lasted for two years, from 2009 to 2011. Apparently, one Black face at the top didn't didn't mean much at the bottom, devoid of a meaningful platform. Then the inclusive intention seemed to dissolve. Instead of inclusion, the party tried exclusion, with extensive gerrymandering and voter suppression. The crowning event for exclusion was the election of Donald Trump.

Trumps' intention was clear from the very beginning. We knew his history and he was open about his intentions. We knew he lied and spread misinformation, as he did his best to keep the Obama "birther" issue alive. And who could forget his "crooks and rapists" dog whistles, about our southern neighbors during the 2015 campaign.

Once in office: Muslims were banned; the wall was built; dreamers were threatened; refugees were limited; temporary protected status was diminished; Charlottsville had "good people" on both sides; and now, the President "loves" those people who trashed our capitol, threatened the Vice President with lynching and Congress members with God knows what. Wherever he has been able to limit the growth of a population of people of color or encourage White supremacists, he has done it; even separating children from their parents and putting them in detention centers, a morally unspeakable act.



Trump, unable or unwilling to understand racial dynamics, continues to profess his love for Black people. "Well, my message is that I love the Black community and I've done more for the Black community than any other president, and I say with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln, and I mean that, with opportunity zones, and with criminal justice reform, with prison reform, with what we've done for historically Black universities, colleges, schools, what we've done. It's nobody's done more. Abraham Lincoln, let's give him the nod, but beyond that, nobody's done more. I love the Black community."

One wonders if the Presidents' love extends to George Floyd or Breonna Taylor, or any number of Black Lives Matter marchers? One wonders if he would ever kneel to honor the life of just one Black man? It wouldn't have to be for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. Just touching one knee to the floor like a Colin Kaepernick would do.


At the recent meeting of the Republican National Committee, Nikki Haley suggested the party might want to embrace "inclusion" in the future, given the drubbing the party took in Georgia. At the same meeting, Governor Noem said the recently elected Senators from Georgia were "communists." After this President, the Republican party faces a choice and and an uncertain future. But  the choice is clear from the remarks of these women, inclusion or exclusion.

The other party facing a choice is the Christian church, one of the significant supports for the Trump presidency. If the church is not inclusive, it is not the church of Jesus Christ. How you can represent one of the most inclusive and welcoming persons in human history by remaining exclusive is beyond comprehension. If your church community is not racially diverse, welcoming of all sexual orientations, and open to dialogue and friendship with other faith communities, you shouldn't call yourself a "Christian" church. And it doesn't count to make excuses based on location or past  efforts. Change the racist or exclusive infrastructure of the community you are in!  The church's mission is to build the Kingdom, the beloved community.
 

And please, don't ever tell us again an apostle of exclusion is sent to us by God. That's definitely using God's name in vain.   

Carl Kline


Friday, January 22, 2021

Imagine the Wilderness

 
The Gospel of Mark begins in this way:


 The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,
    Behold I send my messenger before thy face, who will prepare thy way;
    the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, and had a leather girdle around his waist, and ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, “After me comes he whose mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
 In those days Jesus Came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “Thou art my beloved Son, with thee I am well pleased.”
(Mk 1:1-11, RSV).
 

When we hear the word “wilderness” some of us may think about the pristine wilderness--an uncorrupted place we can go to on retreat. The wilderness is our own Walden Pond. It is a place set apart where we can go when we want to get away from it all. Others of us may have just the opposite image. We associate the wilderness with a wild and untamed place of danger. Both images have deep roots in our national mythology and storytelling. 


In the Bible the wilderness is a place where miracles happen. In the Hebrew Bible, refugees wander in the wilderness for forty years. When they are hungry manna falls from heaven. When they are thirsty water gushes forth from a rock. In the wilderness the refugees are led by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Miracles happen in the wilderness. It is a place where people come to a new experience of the presence of God in their lives.

Witness the opening verses of Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in times of trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.” (Ps.46:1-3, RSV). Clearly the people are in some kind of wilderness. The foundations of the earth are shaking. Everything is busting loose. But rather than asking, “Why is this happening to me?” to people reaffirm their confidence in God, who is in their midst, “We will not fear, thought the earth should change.”

In the Christian scriptures, Jesus is baptized in the wilderness. He did not go to the temple in Jerusalem. He did not ask a temple priest to baptize him. He went to the wilderness, and there he met a wild man named John who was wearing a coat made of camel’s hair and who ate locusts and wild honey. It is a wild scene, but it was not a riot. This is no picture of mob violence. Jesus is not encouraging people to storm the city of Jerusalem. He is not calling on his followers to attack the priests or march on the temple. He is in the wilderness.

It strikes me that Mark tells the story of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in this way because he wants to put us on notice. If we are going to follow this Jesus, if we plan to walk with this messiah, if we are going to be his disciples, we are going to have to leave the comfort and safety of our familiar routines and surroundings. Change is in the air; and the followers of Jesus are called to become agents of change. That is what it means to follow Jesus into the wilderness.

We have just come from our Christmas celebration. We read the Christmas story. We heard the good news of the gospel: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel (which means, God with us) (Mt: 1:23, RSV). This good news is more than an agreeable possibility, a pleasing thought. But cold reason is not easily seduced. If we are going to go into the wilderness, we want to choose the time and the place. Prudence--good judgment, common sense, a careful regard for one’s self-interest--this is how the dictionary defines prudence. Before you go into the wilderness be sure you are wearing clean underwear. Be practical.

I do not think that Mark is encouraging us to throw caution to the wind. But he does raise an important question for us when he tells us that Jesus went into the wilderness. How do we define the wilderness today? What is the wilderness that we face? How do we experience the presence of God? What does it mean to be baptized with the Holy Spirit?


 As I reflect on the meaning of the wilderness, I am thinking of the 370,000 plus people in this country who have died of Covid-19, and the families and loved ones who have been left behind, and who need to find a new way to live. I heard a story just this morning of a man who had a shoeshine business. He said since the outbreak of covid-19 his business has dried up. He has no customers. He is in the wilderness. He said that his new home as four wheels, for as long as he is able to keep his car. He is going to be evicted from his apartment, and he no place else to go. 

I think of people who are unemployed and underemployed going to food pantries and bread lines in this the richest country in the history of the world. We cannot afford to house our fellow citizens? We can’t give people a well-paying job? We can spend billions of dollars on the Defense Reauthorization Act, but we cannot help out people living in this country in their time of need? Where is the church in this wilderness? What does it mean to be baptized with the Holy Spirit?

In the service of baptism we make promises. We promise to resist oppression. We promise to seek justice, love mercy, and walk with compassion for others. We can renew our baptism every morning when we wash our face or step into the shower. How will I live in the power of the Holy Spirit today?   

Mark tells us that Jesus went to the Jordan River. He did not dip his toe into the water. He did not wade in the water. He went into the water. Thinking of this scene, my mind turns to the contrasting image of the disciples who locked themselves in a room because they were afraid. I wonder how long they would have stayed there if Jesus had not come and stood among them.

Mark says that John baptized with the water of repentance, but Jesus baptized with the Holy Spirit. John’s baptism signaled the end of one way of life; Jesus’ baptism marked that beginning of a new way of life. The poet W. H. Auden said that we live in the “Kingdom of Anxiety.” We are perpetually and forever worried about what is going to happen next. What is going to happen to us? What is going to happen to me?


When I see this image of Jesus going into the river Jordan, in my mind I contrast that image with the memory of people in Flint, Michigan, who were told that the drinking water was safe for them and for their children. The phrase that comes to mind is “water apartheid,” Ched Myers book coined this phrase in his book, Watershed Discipleship. Myers is a good theologian and a good writer with important things to say. If you are looking for a book to read, get a copy of Watershed Discipleship. If we don’t practice watershed discipleship, water will become the new dividing line between the have-gots and the have-nots, and we will have created a wilderness.


The poet Wendell Berry says in his poem: "What We Need Is Here," “We pray not for new earth and heaven, but to be quiet in heart and in eye clear. What we need is here.” Mark is telling us that what we need is here. He is also reminding us that there are others who are here with us. When Jesus was baptized people from the country side and people from the city were there that day. I can imagine that some people Mark is talking about probably carried others who were on stretchers. There in the wilderness a new community, a new society, began to take shape on the banks of the Jordan River. And it was a very good day. Today is a very good day for us as well, this is the promise of Jesus the Christ. 

 


Rev. David Hansen