Friday, January 27, 2023

Of Priests and Prophets


 It has been a quiet week on the island.  No unanticipated, bewildered migrant guests, no repeat of the bizarre bank robbery of a few weeks ago.  No terrible storms in spite of dire forecasts.  Just the mostly gray, soft, damp, chilly weather typical of January as we hunker down for the "dead of winter."  I've been enjoying the off season luxury of running errands without encountering summer irritability and traffic jams (although somehow the lines at the Post Office never seem to move any faster).  

All of this is to say that for a moment, time seems to have slowed down a bit and there are hours here and there for uninterrupted contemplation.  Also an off season luxury.     

I've been reflecting on Fr. Richard Rohr's (Center for Action and Contemplation) daily offerings, this year focused on the roles of priest and prophet in religious tradition.  He makes a pointed comment about the nature of evil:

The only way evil can succeed is to disguise itself as good. And one of the best disguises for evil is religion. Just pretend to love God, go to church every Sunday, recite the creed, and say all the right things. Someone can be racist, be against the poor, hate immigrants, and be totally concerned about making money and being a materialist, but still go to church each Sunday and be “justified” in the eyes of religion.

I recall, as a young teenager, being invited by a friend to attend a banquet event at which the keynote speaker was a popular evangelist at the time.  He was a powerful preacher and the culmination of the evening was an altar call - a highly emotionally charged invitation to come forward and confess "Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior."   I recall feeling pretty intimidated by all the emotional drama and decided to "sit this one out."  As my table mates, mostly middle aged, well be-jeweled, fur wearing  women returned from the altar  "saved,"  I overheard several critiques about what other women were wearing, about whether other people were sincere or not and so on.

The memory has stayed with me along with the lingering impression that the centrality of personal salvation was not a lasting thing.  I guess my skepticism about personal religion and salvation was seeded at that time as I watched and listened to a powerful preacher with whom everyone agreed and whom no one questioned. The money poured in to the velvet lined baskets that were passed among the banqueters following an impassioned urging to support the ministry of the evangelist.

Looking back, any reference to ministry with the poor was noticeably lacking. There was not a single person of color in the banquet room. Social justice was not on the menu.  Still, the preacher was a nationally popular figure. His impassioned sermons about the need to "come to Jesus," to confess whatever moral degradation people carried  and to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior drew large numbers to the altar at his events which, of course, resulted in well filled velvet lined offering baskets.

Fr. Rohr: Jesus is not too interested in moral purity because he knows that any preoccupation with repressing the shadow does not lead us into personal transformation, empathy, compassion, or patience, but invariably into denial or disguise, repression or hypocrisy. Isn’t that rather evident? Immature religion creates a high degree of cognitively rigid people or very hateful and attacking people—and often both. It is almost the public image of Christianity today, yet God’s goal is exactly the opposite.

I wish I had had the benefit of Fr. Rohr's thought and wisdom as a teenager.  It might have saved a lot of the spiritual wandering and puzzling I went through as a young adult, trying to discover for myself an authentic, life sustaining religious awareness.  But his wisdom is available now.  And it helps in the process of trying to bring some sense of order to the chaos that runs through our politics these days.  There is a disturbing disconnect between a kind of "christian" preoccupation with control of women's bodies, with seeing that migrants seeking asylum are punished rather than welcomed, with insistence on the safety provided by gun ownership, with the negation of the precious lives of so many human beings because they do not conform to a male or female notion of gender identity - -  a disturbing disconnect from the ancient teachings that call for welcoming the stranger, offering compassion instead of judgement - a tradition that over and over again invites humankind to "Fear not..."

So - - a question from those early and impressionable tenage years surfaces again: If it is true that  "Jesus saves" - - How does he do it???

I was struck by a recent reading of Matthew 4:12-23 - the scenario where Jesus calls his first disciples.  He didn't ask about whether they were worthy or not or if they had been "saved." He just needed help as he set out on his brief ministry - and the first thing he did was lead them into the lives of others with compassion, healing bodies and spirits, attending to the needs of the poor - - holding out a prophetic vision of a better way of doing human life. In the process, as those who followed him entered into his way of doing things, they were, indeed, transformed - - "saved" if  you will.  

As "priest" Jesus promised that he was not there to abolish the religious tradition that shaped him, but rather that he had come to fulfill the ancient law.  This required him to also fulfill the role of "prophet."

Fr. Rohr reminds us that prophets aren’t nearly as popular as priests. Priests keep repeating the party line, so there’s no reason to fight them. But prophets do both: they put together the best of the conservative with the best of the liberal, to use contemporary language. They honor the tradition, and they also say what’s phony about the tradition. That’s what fully spiritually mature people can do.

Still at the beginning of a relatively new year, I find myself attuning my ears to the voice of the prophet abroad, wondering where the voice will surface.  It is out there - sometimes in tiny rural churches, often in local synagogues and large metropolitan churches, whispering clearly in the silence of a sangha at meditation.  At its best, the prophetic voice finds its amplification in our own voices as we find grounding and order in our religious traditions while at the same time critiquing their shadowy sides - exposing them to the light - moving closer to that vision that unites a diverse humankind in the prophetic vision where we will not hurt or destroy in all God's holy mountain.

 Vicky Hanjian


Friday, January 20, 2023

Dreams Without Borders

Confession is good for the soul.  I stole the title for this reflection from the Dreamers. DACA, Deferred Action for Children Arrivals, is a federal program protecting certain people from the threat of deportation. Later Congress passed the Citizenship Act, which allowed DACA Dreams to apply for citizenship. But in its  peculiare wisdom, Congress labeled the Dreamers “aliens.” Many of us wondered what happened to the nation that once proudly held aloft a light to tell the world, “Give me your tired, your poor, your hunger, your huddled masses yearning to be free.” What happened to that dream? Today’s Dreamers are dreaming of a place to belong, to be accepted, a place beyond borders. So I have been thinking about the Dreamers.

Howard Thurman was a mystic, a leader in the civil rights movement, author, preacher, and an apostle of nonviolence.  He was pastor of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, in San Francisco. A congregation that is “a church dedicated to personal empowerment and social transformation through an ever deepening relationship with the Spirit of God in All Life.” Isn’t that a wonderful statement? It was the first intentionally interfaith and interracial congregation in the United States. Imagine that.

Dr. Thurman wrote a number of books, the best known being Jesus and the Disinherited. He also wrote a book called Deep is the Hunger, a collection of meditations on spirituals.  A third is a book of sermons called The Growing Edge. A line from the title sermon is “Look well to the growing edge.” As I recall now, in this sermon he challenges us to think about the edges, the borders, our experiences of finitude, not simply as limitations, but rather to consider these experiences and conditions as the growing edges. Look well to the growing edges. We often find ourselves in the sand traps of life, thinking “if only . . . “ Thurman says: instead of cursing the darkness, instead of thinking about what you don’t have or wish you did have, look to the growing edge.

Thinking about Howard Thurman’s idea of the growing edge, I'm also thinking about the recent elections, and Representative Raphael Warnock’s quote that was seen so often on the internet. He said, “A vote is a prayer about the kind of world we want to live in.” His quote continues, “Our prayers are stronger when we pray together. Make a plan to vote today.” And many of us did vote our prayers. We voted dreaming about the world not simply as it is, but dreaming about the world as it might be, as it could be and can be. Dreaming that another world is possible. The voting is done, but the praying has to go on.

I think that Jesus' teaching in Matthew 25 invite us to Dream about the kind of world we want. We often think of the familiar words as encouragement for pastoral ministry: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, visit the sick and those who are in prison. These are individual acts of kindness and mercy. But they are also a prayer. These words embody a vision of a world in which everyone’s basic needs for food, clothing, shelter, and safety are met and no one is left out, left behind, forgotten, or deemed unworthy because we are, each of us, made worthy by the love of God. God’s love creates worth. This is the good news.


Today there are eight billion of us passengers on this spaceship earth, trying to figure out how to live together. Matthew 25 is life’s little instruction book on how to live together. A description of an antithetical way of being is found in the Gospel of Luke, 12:13-21. Here Jesus tells the story of the man who needed to build bigger barns. Mr. Bigger Barns was preoccupied with the accumulation of what the comedian George Carlin affectionately called “stuff.” He never had enough “stuff.” Jesus says, what good does it do to gain the whole world and lose your soul? (Mark 8:36-37).

The good news is, we don’t have to live like fools. There is another way. The truth is that societies and individuals become what we value. What Matthew 25 teaches is that the true measure of any society is the well-being of the community. The text itself gives us markers: eliminate hunger, homelessness, poverty. Dr. King said: the great evils of our time are the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism.” He warned that these giants are incapable of being conquered without a revolution in values. With a revolution in values, he believed, we can remove the conditions of poverty, insecurity, and injustice. “Now, “ he said, “now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter–but beautiful–struggle for a new world.” This is our calling.

Rev. David Hansen

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Running With The Horses

 The chaos in the House of Representatives has both alarmed and amused me (in a weird way) over the last few weeks.  Perhaps the old cliche “the inmates are in charge of the asylum” fits rather well.  “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” comes to mind. Perhaps it is the strange and unsettling unreality of it all - - childish adult human beings playing with fire when it comes to the stable functioning of government - - all in the service of the desire for power. Once again I entertain the question “Where are the adults in the room?”   

Watching the machinations of the candidate for Speaker of the House has been nothing short of painful.  Fr. Richard Rohr drew my attention to Jeremiah 12:5 this morning.  While the new Speaker is no prophet and could not stand in the same room with Jeremiah, the words sound like a challenge to anyone who would become the leader of such an unruly and chaotic body as the House appears to be.

Rohr notes that Jeremiah was in a difficult situation “worn down by the opposition and absorbed in self-pity, he was about to capitulate to … a premature death…ready to abandon his unique calling in God and settle for being a Jerusalem statistic.” 

Then the Voice of the Holy challenged him: “If you have raced with men on foot, and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses? And if in a safe land you fall down, how will you do in the jungle of the Jordan?” (Jeremiah 12:5)   Jeremiah listened and heard and responded.  

Regrettably, the new Speaker does not hear or listen to the challenge to live courageously in the face of  the manipulative chaos that surrounds him.

Fr. Rohr introduces me to Biochemist Erwin Chargaff [1905–2022] who updates the questions: “What do you want to achieve? Greater riches? Cheaper chicken? A happier life, a longer life? Is it power over your neighbors that you are after? Are you only running away from your death? Or are you seeking greater wisdom, deeper piety?” [1]

My hunch is that our politicians probably don’t keep company with Jeremiah or if they brush up against him they back away pretty quickly. The pursuit of power in politics is so often a running away from a certain kind of death. It does not appear to be a search for deeper wisdom and piety.

So it is left to us to listen and hear what happens in Jeremiah's relationship with The Holy.  

Rev. Eugene Peterson imagines the conversation between God and prophet: 

Life is difficult, Jeremiah. Are you going to quit at the first wave of opposition? .… Are you going to live cautiously or courageously? I called you to live at your best, to pursue righteousness, to sustain a drive toward excellence. It is easier, I know, to be neurotic. It is easier to be parasitic. It is easier to relax in the embracing arms of The Average. Easier, but not better. Easier, but not more significant. Easier, but not more fulfilling. I called you to a life of purpose far beyond what you think yourself capable of living and promised you adequate strength to fulfill your destiny. Now at the first sign of difficulty you are ready to quit. If you are fatigued by this run-of-the-mill crowd of apathetic mediocrities, what will you do when the real race starts, the race with the swift and determined horses of excellence? What is it you really want, Jeremiah, do you want to shuffle along with this crowd, or run with the horses?

I confess to a deep and weary fatigue with the “crowd of apathetic mediocrities.”  The choice to live quietly, perhaps cautiously, is so seductive.  The call and the challenge to “pursue righteousness, to sustain a drive toward excellence” is exhausting at times in the face of the relentlessness of the opposition.  But Jeremiah hovers in the wings.

Eugene Peterson continues: It is unlikely, I think, that Jeremiah was spontaneous or quick in his reply to God’s question. The ecstatic ideals for a new life had been splattered with the world’s cynicism. The euphoric impetus of youthful enthusiasm no longer carried him. He weighed the options. He counted the cost. He tossed and turned in hesitation. The response when it came was not verbal but biographical. His life became his answer, “I’ll run with the horses.”[2]

So, on a gray and cold rainy day in early January, there’s the challenge - do I mentally and emotionally and intellectually crawl under a warm and wooly afghan with a good book - - or “tack up” and get on the horse?

Vicky Hanjian

 [1] Erwin Chargaff, Heraclitean Fire: Sketches from a Life before Nature (New York: Rockefeller University Press, 1978), 122.

[2] Eugene H. Peterson, Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at Its Best (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983), 16, 17–19.

Friday, January 6, 2023

Boldness In A Broken World

The theme of Psalm 84 is “”Boldness in a Broken World.” How do we experience the presence of God, the holy, the mystery, whatever word you want to use, the central question is: How do we experience the presence of God in this fractured, broken, world? And, how do we respond to this presence? 

I saw two stories in the news just this morning that brought this into sharp relief for me. One story was about a woman who is running for a national office. She wants to be a member of Congress. According to the story she is running as a “Christian nationalist.” That was the banner that I saw on the screen. This candidate said: “The government should not tell the church what to do; the church should tell the government what to do.” 

That is Christian nationalism. It is what I would call a top down image of God. God is the ruler, God has anointed or appointed certain people to rule in God’s name, and as a matter of faithful obedience to God, those chosen ones have a mandate to impose their beliefs and ethics on others. The church should run the government. That’s the platform that this candidate for the United States Congress is running on. Let’s call this form of government a theocracy–a political state run by the church. 

Contrast that with another image in the news this morning. It was the story of women in Iran who are today protesting in the streets against a theocracy. They are cutting their hair and burning their hijabs in defiance of the law and at the risk of their lives and arrest.

Think of these two stories in a theological context. What is the understanding of God? What is the meaning of faith? One is a “top down” theology and the other is a “bottom up” theology. Top down theology imposes itself on others by decree. Bottom up theology comes from the life of the people and the community. In our broken, fractured, world, where do we experience God, the holy? How is God manifested in the presence of struggle? 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a member of the Confessing Church–a Christian movement that resisted Nazi Germany and the German Evangelical Church. The German Evangelical Church, was a nationalist church formed in 1933 that supported the Nazi regime. The Confessing Church said that as a matter of faith it had to oppose the Nazi government and its policies.  The conflict between the Evangelical Church and the Confessing Church was a conflict between two types of faith–a top down theocracy and a bottom up theology.

Recently Public Television has been showing Ken Burn’s documentary on the Holocaust–the persecution of the Jews. On Gay Pride weekend we remember that the first groups targeted by the Nazi’s were the handicapped and the homosexuals. Jews had to wear the Star of David. Homosexuals had to wear the Pink Triangle as a badge of shame and identification.  Now, the Pink Triangle has become a symbol of resistance. 

There is a Pink Triangle Park in the Castro District in San Francisco, commemorating the thousands of  homosexuals, trangender and bisexual victims of Hitler’s regime. The organizers of the park said that it is “a physical reminder of how the persecution of any individual or single group of people damages all humanity.”  It is not the only memorial. There is the Matthew Shepard Human Rights triangle in West Hollywood.  The Pulse Memorial and Museum in Orlando, Florida, is scheduled to open this year.  There are several parks and memorials in New York, and a mural in Portland, Oregon called, “Never Look Away.” There are other memorials in other countries around the world.

I think of this tradition of "boldness in a fractured world" when I read these words from Leslie’s translation of Psalm 84: “Lord, look with loving mercy upon those who have yielded their destinies to you.” We take the actions we do not to impose our will or sense of morality on others, but to affirm the dignity of everyone. That’s the meaning of a “bottom up” theology.

I cannot separate the violence and lack of civility we see in our society and close at home. I am thinking of recent events in one of our high schools. I do not know the details so I am not commenting on the specifics but on the level of violence in our fractured world, I cannot separate this violence from the politics of our government and specifically the doctrine of perpetual war, which one recent administration called a “doctrine of preemptive war.”  We are in a difficult situation. I think the psalmist is asking us to begin with our understanding of the holy. Where do we place our trust? 


Common sense tells us that the first rule of ethics is not to harm, and the second rule is the right of self-defense. In a fractured world, in the fog of war, understandably self-defense moves to the center of the argument. The fog of war makes it  not only possible but necessary to adopt  life-affirming and life-negating values at the same time. Howard Thurman describes our predicament in his book, Jesus and the Disinherited. He says that our life-affirming ethic draws us toward one community, and becomes compensation for our life-negating attitude toward another community. In this way, hatred comes to serve a creative purpose. 

On the surface it is too difficult to love our enemy. It seems like a betrayal of our own moral code and of our community. Writing about racial segregation in the US, Thurman reminds us that White Christians convinced themselves that Black people preferred segregation, and so, for centures and even to this day,  removed themselves from the struggle for civil righs. The same pattern of thinking applies elsewhere. It is safer to assume that “they,” whoever “they” are, prefer the status quo, than it is to enter the arena of struggle. Thurman acknowledges that there is a moral social hazard in deciding to actually love our neighbor. It can be dangerous to believe that we actually share a common humanity with our enemy and act like we mean it. Once we acknowledge our common humanity, we can begin to address our common problems. 

Rev. David Hansen