IT SHOULD COME AS NO SURPRISE that Donald Trump, fearful of defeat in the upcoming November election, would seek to emulate Adolf Hitler’s strong-arm tactics which swept over Germany during the 1930s.
While considerable differences pertain between Hitler’s campaign of national socialism and Trump’s present Republican rule, at their core the two personalities bear an essential likeness — as pathological authoritarians.
Trump is the sociopathic bully who having been bullied in childhood by a sociopathic father now bullies his way across America, taking his cues from “strongmen” like Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, and the long shadow of Hitler who bullied his way across the Rhineland and Europe.
The late Austrian-American psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut wrote of Hitler’s pathology: “The core of the self, except for one nucleus of infantile grandiosity, is lost. . . It never acquires the capacity for modulated empathy with others. Such a personality is characterized by a near-total absence of compassion, except where total identification is concerned, when the ‘other’ is totally experienced as part of the self.”¹
Kohut continued: “Narcissistic leader figures of this type experience the social surroundings as a part of themselves. The mere fact that other groups, nationalities, or races are different from themselves and do not react as they expect them to react is a deep personal afront, a frightening, inimical disturbance of their solipsistic universe. The situation can only be remedied by wiping out those who dare to be different.”²
Hitler’s attempt at a core cure for his severely diseased and hollow inner self was to turn his infantile grandiosity outwardly into that of a predator who bolstered his tormented, fragmented, and fragile ego by inflicting pain, suffering, and destruction upon the world. This is what dangerous sociopaths do when exercising undeterred power that becomes the face of evil. They take delight in declaring, as Trump repeatedly did in his own notorious words, “You’re fired!”
It is apparent that Trump’s currently militarized political strategy represents more of the same pathology, yet to a greater degree. To further empower his decrepit ego, he is now saying, in effect: You’re fired upon!
Literally so. Witness the recent onslaught of his version of Hitler’s storm troops in DC’s Lafayette Square, and once again their surreptitious appearance on the streets of Portland, Oregon, firing upon, rounding up, and secretly whisking people away.
The archetypal sociopath, being incapable of empathic up-building of the social order, tears down and destroys it under the pretense of quelling violence by begetting violence. He projects his own internal weakness upon the body politic by ramping up his paranoid culture war into a hot war foisted upon his perceived enemies, which makes him feel strong.
Trump’s enemies are immigrants, people of color, ethnic minorities, Democratic governors and mayors, administrative officials standing up to him by testifying to his malfeasance in office, and those he can self-servingly, even fictitiously classify as “anarchists.” To the latter he can assign blame for civil protest as the occasion to justify imposing draconian measures upon citizen and politician alike who dare to oppose him.
Beneath Trump’s conscious surface, the slogan “make America great again” is really about Trump’s lifelong escapade to make an enfeebled Trump feel great again. It is about his vaunted “Trump Tower” persona and his grandiose struggle against the inner demons of nothingness that for decades have possessed his soul.
Under the banner of law and order, he takes aim at his foes as “criminals” while flagrantly flaunting the powers of the presidency as one who himself deigns to act lawlessly. This fits Hitler’s ploy “to a T.”
In the Führer’s malicious mind, the downward spiral commenced with the branding of Jews as unfit for Germany. In Trump’s demented thinking, the perilous descent began with targeting refugees and asylum-seekers as “illegals”, many of whom now languish in detention camps. The consequence is that citizens and non-citizens of diverse stripe and color have already paid a steep price for Trump’s perfidy.
As Trump unleashes his dark forces upon people gathered in the streets of American cities, exercising their constitutional right to peaceful assembly, he singles out the relative few who turn to violence and looting as his ruse for taking aim at all who raise their voices in protest.
Parenthetically, as reported, his campaign ads now employ neo-Nazi symbols, including the red triangle with which Hitler stigmatized communists, socialists, trade unionists, and various political prisoners for extinction in Hitler’s concentration camps. As William Faulkner correctly said in “Requiem for a Nun,” “The past is never dead. It is not even past.”
The “surge of federal law enforcement” into cities like Portland, Chicago, and Albuquerque reveals a silhouette. It is the visage of Hitler’s “Sturm and Drang” appearing in the shadow of Trump’s strike forces. Whenever uninvited secret agents and storm troops swarm the landscape of a democracy, they spell not its preservation but its desecration and destruction. Such is the initial phase of Trump’s undeclared declaration of his civil war, with which he seeks to save his presidency.
Not to be overlooked is the pathetic feebleness of the obsequious Republican Party mirroring Trump’s diseased self and ennobling his sociopathology. Dictators cannot dictate apart from the dictator’s willing accomplices. Their complicity, voiced or silent, grants permission.
The consequence? America has reached a tipping point that calls, throughout all segments of society, for non-violent resistance to the strong-arm antics that Trump instinctually crafts from Hitler’s playbook. The nation’s houses of worship, alongside the general populace, must summon the prophetic courage to take their stand as the vanguard of an unflinching resolve to resist the wiles of this devil in our midst, lest the impenetrable night come when it is too late.
The German journalist Sebastian Haffner, who lived through Hitler’s reign of terror and escaped in the nick of time to write about it, put it succinctly: “The devil has many nets, crude ones for crude souls, finer ones for finer souls.”³ Those who cling to the denial that something so terrible cannot happen in America have one foot already ensnared in the webbing while others willingly carry the nets.
¹Heinz Kohut, Self Psychology and the Humanities (New York: W. W. Norton, 1985), 90–2.
³Sebastian Haffner, Defying Hitler: A Memoir (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000), 200.
This essay was published in Vox Populi on August 2, 2020.
JUST BEFORE HE STAGED a Napoleonic act of political grandstandingfor a photo op in front of historic St. John’s Church in the nation’s capitol, Donald Trump harangued the nation’s governors about the demonstrators in their streets.
“You have to dominate,” he chided. “If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time. They’re going to run all over you, you’ll look like a bunch of jerks. You have to dominate, and you have to arrest people, and you have to try people and they have to go to jail for long periods of time.
“So I say that and the word is dominate. If you don’t dominate your city and your state, they’re gonna walk away with you. And we’re doing it in Washington, in DC, we’re going to do something that people haven’t seen before. But we’re going to have total domination.”*
What Trump thoroughly lacked the ability to comprehend was just how foolish he appeared when he then marched forth to pose in a domineering stance before a church named for a Christian saint — and a church whose people serve the One who is not Donald Trump, yet who long ago had a consummate word to say about all the Trumps of the world.
As written in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus of Nazareth declared to his followers: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (10:42-44).
Could the stark contrast possibly be greater between Trump’s will to dominate and Jesus’s commandment to serve? On the one hand: a rambling and ranting president who in self-admiring arrogance sets about to belittle, to divide, to diminish, and to oppress with the wanton use of brute force. On the other: the humble, self-forgetting Jesus who with great empathy takes up the cause of the oppressed and comes to the aid of the downtrodden, the exploited, and the destitute, and who died as a result of doing so.
These two ways of life are irreconcilable. Unholy tyranny and holy love are mutually exclusive. Despotism is begotten of hostility, disdain, and loathing in search of destruction. Servanthood is born of love offering understanding, mercy, compassion, and redemption.
While hoisting the Bible midair in front of St. John’s Church, as he did on June first, Donald Trump profaned the holy scriptures by weaponizing them to “justify the ways of Trump to God” and Trump’s followers. Simultaneously he unleashed abysmal brutality upon peaceful demonstrators, making mockery of the holy ways of love to which the very scriptures he held in his hand bear witness.
The apostle John wrote in his first epistle: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”
This is true whether in the Oval Office, the west wing of the White House, the Department of Justice, the center of Lafayette Square, or on the sidewalk in front of St. John’s Church.
The most fundamental and crippling failure of Donald Trump as president is that he does not know the language of love. What he deploys is the language of fear, animosity, discord, bigotry, intimidation, cruelty, and violence as the utensils of authoritarian domination. And his minions, some helplessly gullible and others consciously culpable, have fallen right behind him into the abyss of his abomination.
Thus, truth is supplanted by the big lie, verifiable fact by paranoid conspiracy theory, and democratic governance by the iron fist of a bully whose handwritten signature conveys the dictator’s will to dominate. All this because love, empathy, and compassion are swept beneath the floodwaters of a growing tide of twenty-first century American fascism foisted upon the people by Donald Trump and aided and abetted by the menacing cheers as well as toxic silence of his allies.
This is an immeasurable iniquity and tragedy in which we are all implicated when our knees knuckle under because we possess no moral spine, when our necks shrivel up because we obtain no virtuous footing, and when our consciences wither and die because we acquire no nerve for righteousness, justice, truth, and love, above all else.
The people of the United States must choose leadership that is far superior to what we have endured for these nearly four years, lest the nation’s light be snuffed out by the darkness of tyranny, and lest its transcendent goodness, rooted in love, perish from the face of the earth.
The eleventh hour is upon us.
*From the transcript of President Trump’s conversation https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/01/politics/wh-governors-call-protests/index.html
This essay was published in Vox Populi on June 21, 2020
YOU MIGHT SAY that at its inception St. Valentine’s Day was born of the order of a lover’s “blizzard.” For, as legend has it, Saint Valentine, a third century Christian priest, selflessly ministered to his fellow Christians during the blizzard of persecution instigated by the Roman emperor Claudius. He did so by deliberately defying the emperor’s summons for more soldiers to fight his wars. Saint Valentine, brooking no enamorment of imperial power, proceeded to marry young lovers so that the newly wed husbands could remain home with their wives instead of marching off to battle.
As the legend goes, the gracious and lovingly kind Valentine was met by the wrath of the emperor’s henchmen who ceremoniously beheaded the priest on the 14th of February. From this act of ultimate sacrifice, Valentine became known as the revered patron saint of lovers far and wide. During the subsequent annual commemorations of his holy feast day, it was said that the birds of the air joyfully sang their songs of seasonal mating. Thus “The Day of Wine and Roses,” now dedicated to the romancing of the hearts of lovers, was granted its nativity in the fire and ice of martyrdom.
As the liturgical season of Lent ushers in its deep consciousness of human sin and suffering, with Ash Wednesday’s imposition of ashes culminating in Good Friday’s draping of the cross in black, the Christian calendar traces yet another straight line back through time, from the unsaintly decapitation of Saint Valentine to the gruesome cruciform hanging of Jesus of Nazareth. The secular mind, if it notices at all, may deem these two events to possess little more than remote likeness, a confluence of historical similarity by now having morphed unrecognizably into the marketable flavor of Godiva chocolates presented with a glass of Champaign wine and a dozen red roses, all very sweet to the scent and taste of postmodern love.
Yet, for the cognizant Christian, with respect to the ancient martyrdom that first took place as a solemn oblation before God—commemorated as Valentine’s Day—such an inauspicious “Saint’s Day” was not to be the unexpected consequence of the bloody sacrifice that preceded it on Good Friday. In both instances human slaughter was exacted at the brutal behest of imperial power. It was concerning just such things that Jesus called his followers to a different way of life: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you.”*
This is not to say that February’s “Day of Wine and Roses” should consist of anything less than the most amorous of glorious celebrations, with rosebuds in hand and grapes of affection adorning the lips. But it is to say that a Hallmark card does not begin to tell the whole story. February the 14th, as we have come to know it, is little more than a gloved hand resting upon a slender shoulder, in contrast to the heavy hand laid upon the head of Saint Valentine, which for the average lover is still hidden from view of the camera.
So, how would it be if we who are Christian were to commemorate February the 14th as a day for true love in the same spirit that Saint Valentine celebrated his defiance of Emperor Claudius in front of the lovers who stood before him, consummated as a martyr’s marriage of fire and ice? What if true lovers everywhere were to join hands and hearts in resistance to imperial edicts that make not for love but for tyranny and war?
How might this change the picture on little red Valentine cards laced with white cutouts presented with tiny pink, heart-shaped candies, soliciting “Be My Valentine”?The reliquary remains at the Shrine of Saint Valentine offer a sobering clue.
When self-absorbed autocrats induce the flame and smoke of repression and war, then the taste of profoundly sacrificial love, which is true to God’s love rather than Caesar’s hunger for power and conquest, is anything but sweet bliss. And when this is so, Caesar invariably takes note.
True love always defies the unjust and unloving ways of bullies and tyrants who by their flagrant abuses of power prey upon the lives and liberties of common folk whose love for one another makes them the true saints.
DICK, STEPHEN, CHARITY, AND LUCY were their given names — these beloved “Negroes.” They were the propertied slaves owned by my fourth great grandfather at the time of his death in the year 1810. At the top of the inventory of all of Philemon Davidson’s worldly possessions, the court appraised Dick at 120 pounds sterling, Stephen at 100, Charity at 20, and Lucy at 90. Together they comprised more than half the pecuniary sum of the entire estate lumped together, down to and including five axes, a grindstone, two handsaws, a pair of spectacles, and one “woman saddle.” It does not take a microscope to discern whose fingerprints fell upon the axe, the grindstone, and the handsaw.
Given the irrecoverable distance of the ancestral past from which these sons and daughters of Africa had come into an unforeseen and splintered destiny in America, they and their fellow slaves passed through a myriad of predictable and unpredictable daily dangers to life and limb, including torture and lynching, as they trudged their beleaguered path toward the Promised Land. From the vantage point of the auction block as slavery’s narrow vista and constricted view of the future — “I’m here today and gone tomorrow” — these children of God were promised nothing remotely akin to a realized eschatology. Short of stumbling through the gates of heaven, theirs was a stumbling block into repeated disaster.
Shamefully and disgracefully, by legal decree if not divine dictate, due to the theological falsehoods of many preachers and the economic egotism of numerous slaveholders, the likes of Dick, Stephen, Charity, and Lucy were deemed, if not ultimately doomed, to the lot of mere mortal chattel. In an ethos of white supremacy wedded to the wealth of landed aristocracy and entitled gentry, this human “capital” was numbered among any “moveable…article of tangible property other than land, buildings, and other things annexed to the land.”
In truth, every slave in the Old Dominion was affixed to an entire system of which the appurtenances included blistering hot rows of tobacco leaf baking beneath the scorching sun, outbuildings consisting of one-room shanties that housed and slept an entire family, and the bricks and mortar mixed with the sweat of the brow that built and sustained the Big House. Therein the white master and missus partook of daily morsels of dough kneaded by black mammies whose bruised feet stood atop packed earth while their gnarled fingers baked the loaves of the white man’s freedom upon the iron griddles of oppression.
In that respect and with regard to the fate of the black man, I lament the awful truth about one of my not so greatly esteemed ancestors. Opposite the branch of the family tree bearing my surname there is a line that gave me my middle name, Nuckols. Philemon Davidson’s great-great-grandson, my grandfather Clarence, married a dear and sweet woman, my grandmother Susie Nuckols. Her paternal grandfather, Joseph Nuckols, being large of stature but small of heart, bore his strength in such a way that with his one hand high in the air he lifted his slave-man upside down by the feet, and with the knuckles of his other hand beat his slave-man’s rump into stinging raw meat.
Thus, when the hopes and dreams of slaves sprang up like lilies in a scorched field, theirs were the songs and dances of a faith-vision that fashioned a cry: “O, come, sweet Jesus, deliver us!” Nothing else, not anyone else, sufficed to assuage the morning dread and to curb the evening hunger. The underground rail to freedom for those who made it through thickets of woods to safe harbors hidden behind plaster walls and beneath knotty pine floors was as tumultuous and turbulent as the waters of the Red Sea. Only Jesus as Living Water could quench the thirst of souls whose bodies lay wilted in the heat of the noonday pestilence and whose spirits grew weary and faint from the hunt of the midnight rider.
Dreams and visions, not of an actualized fulfillment but of imaginings with the scope of an unflinching mind’s eye and pining heart’s desire peering over the horizon, propelled these wayfarers to see beyond the brutal and bitter plague of their captivity. In a land flowing with milk and honey, the only true, wise, just, righteous and loving Master of All would someday, on the far side of the Jordan, blessedly grant a better way of life than the crack of the whip and the curse of the hoe.
Think of it this way. Since none can see far down the line of vision, we can only trust past the point at which we do see. Dick, Stephen, Charity, and Lucy, plus countless others who endured the horrors of slavery in this unfair and unjust land, bequeathed us a gift of faith that defies the sight of everyday comprehension and ignites the power of astonishing hope. To dream dreams and see visions, in life and death, is to dare to believe the impossible beyond the familiar. It is to picture that what has happened thus far along the way, some of it lovely and too much of it dreadful, simply cannot add up to the culmination of what life is about. To our world-fatigued eyes there is yet more to enter our line of vision than what has narrowed our vista and constricted our view. There is even far more of goodness itself still to come than, caged in the darkness, we can possibly imagine being true.
Today, beloved children of Africa, you ache with the torment of fire in your bones, miserably attached to your shackles, hopelessly bound to your chains. Tomorrow — surprise! — in defiance of all that appears inexorable, you spring loose into the cool, fresh air of freedom. Your bruised feet and jagged toes leap from the soil with elation. Your scarred hands and crippled fingers touch the tips of the clouds in ecstasy. Your dry lungs and parched lips burst forth upon the firmament with praise. Halleluiah!
Dick, Stephen, Charity, and Lucy — this outlandish event called Resurrection is yours not by chance but by Providence. Hooray for you as the last become first while the first become last! Seen through the eyes of your long-suffering faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” this marvelous turnabout through God’s everlasting mercy is the one thing, the only saving thing, for a saint to believe in. To trust courageously against entire odds the line of vision your hearts most desire, like the craving of sight by a blind person whose glass eyes eclipse the sun, in the end is not so preposterous after all in the new Jerusalem.
“O, come, sweet Jesus, deliver us!”
The featured photo (top) is of “Slaves Waiting for Sale” by Eyre Crowe, Richmond, Virginia, 1853
THERE ARE STORIES PASSED DOWN about my grandfather Clarence, who died several years before I was born, to the effect that he could take quickly to the stern edge of his character and at times be brusque, impatient and demanding. While he was an industrious and productive Virginia farmer who certainly knew the meaning of hard work, with prosperous farmlands and fruit orchards to show for it, he now and again failed to notice that others worked equally as hard as he, and for far lower wages. One such person was a long-time faithful farmhand by the name of Elijah, who by this time had become an old man, as had my grandfather.
As always, the toil fell to Elijah to till the ground. With his hand faithfully to the plow one sultry summer afternoon, he struggled to keep his usual pace behind the mule as from a distance my grandfather assumed the inherited posture of one whose job it was to oversee. It was not uncommon that Papa, as his children affectionately called him, might unconsciously overlook the fact that the sweltering humidity had drawn beads of perspiration down Elijah’s dark brown cheeks. For a split instant as the mule turned in its path, the two old men stood side by side at the corner of the field.
“Mr. Davisson, would y’ mine takin’ holt of the plow whilst I go relieve myself?”
It not only had been ages since Clarence had taken hold of anyone’s plow including his own, but for many years Elijah had accumulated a debt of more than just a few greenbacks that he still owed my grandfather. Circumstances being what they were during the Depression, coupled to the customary social, economic and political arrangement, such debt hung overhead like an iron cleaver. It precluded the chance that a poor and aged black man would ever have hours enough in a lifetime, much less in a matter of months, to earn what it took to erase a debt that was part of a system of duties and obligations that kept one particular class of people subservient to another. Elijah, a descendant of slaves, had spoken nothing of such obligations on this particular day; nor had my grandfather, a descendant of slave owners.
Having obliged himself to do Elijah a small favor as the afternoon sun bore down upon the sweaty back of Elijah’s trusty old mule, Grandfather took hold of the reins and plow handles as beneath the pummeling heat he jostled with the soil up one row and down the other. When Elijah eventually returned from his errand, Grandfather spoke the first word.
“You know, Elijah, it’s been a long time since I’ve walked behind a plow. Mighty hard work, I’d forgotten just how!”
Not many months thereafter, early on a cold, blustery Sunday morn in January 1941, for causes I have never fully known nor fully understood, concerning the extent of all that burdened him and made him a prisoner within himself, my grandfather Clarence went to the basement of his house and put a shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger.
The irony of what otherwise appeared to be a largely successful life, despite the share of human foible and failure to which all are entitled, was that Grandfather Clarence at age sixty-five, having forgiven the $5,000 owed him by Elijah, could not for whatever personal reason forgive the “debt” he owed himself. Perhaps that, too, was debt in the form of a deficit long ago transmitted. My guess is that it had already begun to accumulate when at an early age he lost his mother to death’s dark door. Being told that he was somewhat unmanageable, he was soon shuffled off by his father to live with a relative. The rage that more than once manifested itself outwardly eventually turned its way inwardly upon the self.
Sometimes it is necessary to invert Jesus’ maxim, “As you wish that people would do to you, do so to them,” in order to say, “As people wish that you would do to them, do so to yourself.”
Of all the besetting sins of an increasingly narcissistic age of emptiness and brokenness, the failure to love oneself may be a root sin that is perpetuated down the cycles of the generations. In keeping with the Christ-like virtue of losing oneself in order to love another, not to love oneself at all makes it virtually impossible to love someone else. Yes, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” For, only as grace is received can grace be given.
Grandfather in a brief moment of grace walked in Elijah’s shoes. I do not know, nor can I know, precisely what that meant. Perhaps there dawned upon Grandfather the extent of sacrifice Elijah for so many years had made for him, which in turn made it possible in a system that had wounded them both for the one man to extend grace and the other to receive it.
Whatever may have been the case then, or soon thereafter upon that cold, blustery January morn, I believe by the eternal mercies of Christ that Papa Clarence has come at last, with Elijah, as shall we all, to receive the full measure of grace that shows itself upon the ever loving face of God.
“Father, forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
BEING MOTHER OR FATHER TO YOUR OWN LIFE’S WORK is like the stone-deaf Beethoven birthing the Ninth Symphony’s Ode to Joy. The craft of creativity is far more formidable than comprehensible. We become infinitely more dependent upon what we do not know than upon what we know.
Who knows for sure whether this score will ever make sense or sound? — as Beethoven most certainly must have plagued himself in fruitful self-doubt while laboring over a multitude of musical phrases.
We, intensely and deeply stirred by the sound and sense of Beethoven’s muse, must ask a question. Are we the sole proprietors of our works? Unlike clocks ticking in a hushed universe, are we swept along by something far more compelling than the ill-fated motions of hands and faces gradually winding down? How do we, being at times so mortally hard of hearing, like Beethoven, become at other times acutely attuned to the sounds of silence that strangely disrupt our imperviousness to grace?
What comedy amid tragedy! Here is Beethoven arranging the musical harmony of one of the most sublime moments of his life—an entire symphony. Yet he’s composing the riches of a majestic melody to the dread, awful contradiction of absolute, mute silence.
Henry van Dyke sought words for the Ode: “Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee, God of glory, Lord of love.” And Beethoven, it is ascribed, also composed seven measures of a chant for an offertory response. “All things come of Thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given Thee.”
Enter upon the scene. You, music lover, take a deliberate glance at the deeply entranced Beethoven. By fits and starts he is sitting with his muse. His “time” has caught up with him. The years immediately preceding have been overwhelmed with anxiety and grief, his output brief. But now comes one of those “given” instants, some would say, of brilliance. The master musician is composing his Joy in eerily deafened silence, yet the moon and the tides are waxing eloquently. Is unbridled faith able to muffle the world’s screaming dissonance long enough for anyone to listen and know that it is none other than God who speaks? Ludwig, alone but not alone, “hears” the music of the spheres as the presence of None Other. Are we surprised?
Mundane explanations aside, is it not forever true that “of thine own have we given Thee”? Did Beethoven love God all the more for not being able to hear the chanting cardinals and warbling snowbirds awaken him in the morning? Did their sound waves inaudibly split the air of his silent universe, mysteriously entering the marrow of his bones that he might declare in song, “O God!”?
The rest of us, being uninspired mimics of the world’s misfortunes, are less than attentive. We possess all our faculties, save one. We in the digital age, perhaps permanently, have lost the quiet composure of staying still long enough first to dream and imagine, then to sing the joyous melody close in for one solitary split second. The world of immediate bellow and clamor has dulled our inner senses. Our spirits have sprung loose like frayed violin strings. If only our lost souls were to commit the art of our living to the deaf side of our being, we might be surprised at what we hear when silenced like stone.
One day, early on, before his ears were hardened to the vibrations of audible melody, the young Ludwig was handed the task of learning to play the piano. What if there had been no piano? Would an “enthused” Ludwig have had the presence of heart, like an oyster, to take up pearl making? Mark Twain once quipped, “It is a world of surprises. They fall, too, where one is least expecting them.”
Consider the child Mozart. Full of gift, full of surprise, his “lyrics” were like pure “liquid sunshine,” as Karl Barth exclaimed. Yet Mozart’s ordinary life remained tumultuous. What, then, explained his music? In the midst of Wolfgang’s gathering storm, how on Earth was he able to compose such implausible reverberations of grace? Was it by lunacy that he achieved ethereal heights? To what end? Only so that he could be cast into an unmarked pauper’s grave, his lot thrown in with the rest of us? O “liquid sunshine,” like that yellow ball of fire in the sky, how quickly you fade to the west, wearing out your heart in the fever of darkness!
Mozart exhausted his song. His song exhausted Mozart. In his thirty-fifth year the virtuoso perished, not having completed his life’s last measure of mirth. Had he lived yet a few more, then what? Maybe not nearly so much. For what is life when measured by years? Among the last words that Amadeus, “lover of God,” penned to his unfinished Requiem were these: “Make them pass from death to life.”
Truth is, each day is a divine-human “passage.” In “a world of surprises” belonging first to God before being found of us in ways we least expect, each day is passage “from death to life.” Come, close your eyes and see. Come, close your ears and hear. Like chanting cardinal and warbling snowbird, come open your heart and sing — with whatever song you are given grace to say thanks. Ω
LOOK WITH YOUR COMPASSIONATE HEART squarely into the faces of these boys and girls snatched from their parents and siblings. Give your undistracted concentration to their terrified, disbelieving gazes.
Bear witness to their utter humiliation as they are handcuffed by strangers in armed uniforms and secreted off in unmarked vehicles to undisclosed locations.
Pause yet again, giving your rapt attention to the emotional torture they suffer while watching their parents being booked as criminals and hauled away to prison.
Observe with deepest empathy their tender youth—some barely of age beyond toddlers and infants—incarcerated behind locked doors, barricaded within overcrowded warehouse walls sealed shut with blackened windows, crammed into wire cages, off-limits to public and parental inspection.
Approach them, not from the president’s, the attorney general’s, or ICE’s totalitarian point of view, which is demonstrably antithetical to their personal wellbeing. Rather, let your benevolent mind’s eye see them from their own simple, delicate, fragile perspectives. Let your earnest glances grace them as kindly as you would the faces of your very own children.
Imagine yourself as though you were the one to be confined to their palpable predicament. If by good fortune you are a parent, grandparent, or guardian, then for heaven’s sake, for a single clear-eyed minute’s sake, for the children’s sake, please! paint the faces of these latch-cage kids into your own children’s and grandchildren’s faces.
Do you grasp the foreboding and fear in the torrents of tears streaming down their cheeks?
Do you catch their feverish eyes searching frantically for familiar faces, just one familiar face, within their cold, concrete, unfamiliar spaces?
Do you notice their arms, hands, fingers—entire bodies—desperately longing to be held within their mothers’ and fathers’ warm, comforting embraces?
Are you seeing them now?
Are you hearing what their ears are straining to hear? Will you reach out to let them cup your ears with their hands?
Will you do so, lest any remaining deafness to their plight fail to reach beyond the clamor of the clanking steel encasements to which their universe is abruptly crashing in?
Are you listening to them now?
Oh? you say—
Isn’t it better to be temporarily boxed-in a converted Walmart Super Store than facing the mortal dangers of those pitiless desert trails their feet have trod, only to reach the end from which they began and to which they’re deathly afraid they’ll be forced to return again?
Are you seeing them now? Are you moving yet?
Are you seized by their frenzied screams, their panicked sobs, their sunless morning groans, their midnight whimpers? Do you feel the knots gnawing at their stomachs, the tremors wracking their bones?
Are you listening to them now? Are you moving yet?
From where they lie flat, bivouacked upon cement-hardened floors where once stood shelves of teddy bears and little girls’ fancy dolls and little boys’ play plastic pistols, is there anyone from afar who can be trusted to know exactly where they are?
Speaking no English, with no one around to translate what’s impossible to understand without taking hold of Mommy’s or Daddy’s consoling hand, they have no earthly idea either where they are, or possibly or likely what shall become of them.
Are you seeing them now? Are you moving yet?
Caught like a fish flailing in the Orwellian night-troller’s dragnet, how shall they escape the captor’s merciless grip?
Is there an interlocutor of sure and certain voice, of undeterred demeanor, refusing to take no for an answer, standing erect before the oppressor, demanding release, demanding justice where there is no mercy, and mercy where there is no justice?
In a crisis of such colossal proportion, indubitably the courtiers of power and captains of commerce would attune their ears, would they not, and not only to the routine reciprocities and perquisites they grant one another?
Might they even go so far as to align themselves with the prophet’s call to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted?
Indeed, moved of conscience by the poor Lazaruses of the world begging at their doors, hammering at their souls, asking but for a tiny morsel of the opulence that pledges the liberty of the CEO, the senator, the congressman to fly over mountainous terrains and scorching desert borders to land upon sea-island paradises, where to be famished is to be without scruples, docked in a 90-foot yacht, drinking the last twilight martini until breakfast is served.
The fact is—the ancient prophet Isaiah has more yet to say today by way of deliverance of the captives, of the migrants crawling across the margins of our beneficence, than all the king’s men lumped together, prostrating themselves, bodies and souls, before the king’s tower and before the king’s power.
Are you listening now? Are you moving yet?
“Can the prey be taken from the mighty, or the captives of a tyrant be rescued?” asks the prophet Isaiah.
“Surely, thus says the Lord: Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken, and the prey of the tyrant be rescued, for I will contend with those who contend with you, and I will save your children” (Isaiah 49:25).
Are you listening now? Are you moving yet?
Let your eyes shine light upon those distraught, downcast, delirious mothers and fathers of lost progeny. Curry the favor of your understanding of the meaning of their furrowed brows buried in hands whose palms and fingers are bled raw of grief from grasping at dreams as elusive as mirages in the Chihuahuan desert sands.
Observe their dry lungs heaving with the unquenchable thirst of lament. Place your ears against their pounding hearts gripped by the paralyzing thought that they may never, ever again see their very own flesh and blood.
Are you listening now? Are you moving yet?
Will those of us, free as we are, situated in relative security where we are, sit idly by as though we are spectators of a Fox News gladiatorial media event in a postmodern Roman coliseum?
Or, for that matter, bystanders along the route of an imperial military parade marching down Constitution Avenue in tribute to a postmodern Caesar?
Is this how the great white whale promises to make America great again?
Are you listening now? Are you moving yet?
Will we lift our voices opposite to silencing them, to declare that as a people of faith worthy of being called faithful to those among us treated unfaithfully, we shall rise to address this appalling nightmare and mobilize ourselves forthrightly?
If this matter be entirely too thorny, or complex, or fearful in which to imagine yourself, then permit yourself to imagine this.
Imagine it is your cry for refuge from pestilence and persecution that is summarily cast behind iron prison bars.
Imagine it is your dream for freedom-at-last dressed up in orange penal garb.
Imagine it is your God-given dignity that is standing naked before judges who are obliged, not first of all to honor and serve your sacred humanity but rather to enforce repressive laws devised by the privileged and powerful to trammel upon your very existence, because they see themselves to be superior to you, and you inferior to them.
Are you listening now? Are you moving yet?
Are we, descendants of those who once sailed by ship and sea as stranger and alien into the ports and passageways of the soil we inhabit in order to cross these borders, willing to envision the plight of the strangers and aliens among us now, not only as their plight but ours as well?
If so, it is we then who are being summoned to move.
It is we who shall go to our pastors, priests, rabbis, and imams to support them as the voices of prophets speaking truth to power.
It is we who shall camp at the doorsteps of legislators until they relinquish the yokes of burden they have meted out upon the necks of the powerless and the backs of the poor.
It is we who shall summon the chiefs of police and insist that they extend the right hand of earnest friendship, without carrying left-handed judicial orders, for building reparative relationships with communities of immigrants who are terrified by squad cars, uniforms, badges, billy clubs, stun guns, and arrest warrants.
It is we who shall show up at ICE raids, bearing witness to official deeds of darkness upon which the light of justice must be shed in order to prevent victims of gross injustices from becoming skeletons of the deported and the dead.
It is we who shall intervene on behalf of those whom the principalities and powers have brought low, herding them into detention centers and prisoners’ dens by the shove of the oppressor’s hand and stroke of the oppressor’s pen.
It is we who shall rely on the strength and power of God’s saving hand, with which the oppressor assuredly will contend, gathering ourselves to pray for the courage to be sustained and the resolve to uplift by freeing, reuniting, and protecting them in God’s holy name.
For as we rise together in acts of mercy and loving kindness, on behalf of these precious ones whom the Beatitudes call blesséd, we look unto The One who redeems the oppressed in every near and distant place, in whose hearing we now call out—
“Here am I, Lord. Send me.”
From “A Summons to a Nationwide Citizens’ Mobilization to Free and Unite Migrant Children and Families” Published in Vox Populion June 19, 2018
FOR LITURGICAL AND OTHER USES BY FAITH COMMUNITIES RESPONDING TO THE CRISIS AT THE BORDERS, NO PERMISSION IS REQUIRED FOR FULL OR ABBREVIATED VERSIONS
(SEE BELOW FOR RE-PUBLICATION PERMISSION)
The author grants permission to faith communities, religious and civil rights organizations, broadcast networks, newspapers, print and online magazines and journals to re-publish this piece in full and unedited form. Abbreviated versions must first have written approval of the author, although quotations, appropriately attributed, are allowed as part of larger works. The author requests to be informed of the essay’s re-publication. Credit should be given to Vox Populi as having first published it. Vox Populi has first-rights but not exclusive rights. Social media postings linked from Vox Populi or from this website are encouraged and require no permission.
Charles Davidson is a member of Western North Carolina Faith Communities Organizing for Sanctuary. A retired Presbyterian Church (USA) minister, psychotherapist, and professor of pastoral theology, care, and counseling, he is the author of Bone Dead, and Rising: Vincent van Gogh and the Self Before God (Cascade Books, Wipf and Stock Publishers).
IT WAS THE SUNNY SUNDAY MORNING of June 23rd, not unlike other days when the sky is painted blue and gentle breezes waft through the cruciform-flowered dogwoods and stalwart-standing oaks of western North Carolina. Nothing was ostensibly different — not the flow of traffic into the parking lot or the flight of songbirds flitting from tree to tree — that is, except for one thing.
There was deep trouble in the land.
During her sermon on the second Lord’s Day after Pentecost at New Hope Presbyterian Church, Pastor Kim Wells strode past the milepost marking the home stretch on the long Easter road to just where, nobody could say. Where might a sermon series entitled “Peter, Paul, and Mary: Resurrection Tour 2019” eventually take us?
As she noted with a twist of humor, “Our Peter, Paul, and Mary song for the day is ‘Leavin’ on a Jet Plane.’”
Had she prompted us to sing it aloud just before the benediction, the lyrics alone would have induced sure-fire attacks of apoplexy.
All my bags are packed I’m ready to go
I’m standin’ here outside your door
I hate to wake you up to say goodbye
But the dawn is breakin’ it’s early morn
The taxi’s waitin’ he’s blowin’ his horn.
Whose bags? Packed to go where? Who’s this standin’ outside the door, hatin’ to wake us? Sayin’ goodbye? Are we leavin’ on the journey or stayin’ behind? If his taxi’s waitin’ and he’s blowin’ his horn — oh, please, for just a minute — we need to sit back down to check our pulses. Did we hear him say correctly, “the dawn is breakin’”?
The pre-announced sermon topic had already tipped us off to a dubitable aim for the next long leg of the journey: “Paul: Into the Interior Regions.” Moreover, the focal text as printed in the bulletin set forth an improbable destination:“While Apollo was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus . . .”
We are not a congregation of race horses. With a gathering of worshipers composed largely of 60s- and 70s-somethings, with a Methuselah or two —sentries — waving their flags from the bushes, how might a preacher stir an army of aging turtles to move off the log and start trekking?
Paul had once written to the Ephesians: “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you . . . and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, not only in this age but also in the age to come” (Eph. 1:15-21).
What if Christ were to put his power to work in us? — we who “were dead through the trespasses and sins in which” we “once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient” (2:1-2)?
Would it take a brass bell striking like flint to throw enough “spark” in all directions to get things rolling?
Among the myriad of solitary hours the preacher spends within the silent sanctum of her pastoral study, pondering the sacred texts of Scripture, she listens, she asks, she wonders, she waits . . . and sometimes broods . . . to hear the voice of God.
Possessing a meditative heart channeling the Spirit, she practices the contemplative life for spiritual direction. Reflective retreat is not only for refuge in the reigning darkness; it is for being broken open to the approaching light of day.
So, to what possible end might the heavenly hosts be summoning God’s people to the Lord-of-Light’s present calling this day?
To be sure, the opening sentence of the nineteenth chapter of the Lucan book of Acts is unlikely to set off a shower of fireworks for the preacher or anyone else. Yet, for a mysterious reason its words stopped Kim Wells alive in her tracks. Perhaps because Luke, their author, had something specific in mind to say. And not only Luke, but the Spirit of the Living One who can lift a text straight off the page and placard it squarely in front of your eyes.
“While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples.”
If we, the listeners, had wished to obtain the sights and sounds of that screeching, screaming city of Ephesus with its ghettoes, ghouls, goblins, and gibberish, how might we have prepared for the journey through the “interior regions” of Asia Minor?
Completing the reading of the first seven verses, Pastor Kim closed the book of Acts, paused, and spoke.
“So, my question for you this morning is — What if we just stopped after preparing? What if we just stopped after preparing without actually doing whatever it was that we were preparing for?”
Clear the throat.
“Twelve years ago,” she explained, “I took a two-week backpacking course in Alaska. On the first day of the course, we prepared for our backpacking trip by learning how to pack our packs. We went to a park in Fairbanks and spread out all our stuff underneath a large pavilion. Then we learned how to distribute the weight of all that stuff in our packs not only vertically within the pack, but also from the small of your back outwards. We learned how to stuff our packs tightly and make sure that every last air pocket was used. And we learned how to pack in the order in which we would need things — our tents and sleeping bags at the very bottom, since we wouldn’t need those until the end of the day, and things like snacks and handkerchiefs and rain jackets easily accessible so that we could pull them out quickly.”
“So, once we had packed our packs and then exploded our packs and repacked them again until we had gotten comfortable with the process, we were finally ready to actually go back packing. We got into a van and drove further north, further and further north, way up into the Arctic Circle, until we got to Alaska’s northernmost mountain range, called the Brooks Range.
“Eventually the van pulled over by the side of the road, and our sense of anticipation heightened. We got out of the van and put those packs on, and then we left the side of the road behind, and without any trail to guide us forward, we simply turned in — into the interior, into the Alaskan wilderness. Over the next two weeks, we backpacked through all the contours of that wilderness, through tundra that was teeming with ripe blueberries. We hiked up huge mountains and along their ridge tops, we looked down on sweeping river valleys, we slept on dry river beds in the light of the Alaskan midnight sunshine, we clambered over boulder fields, we crossed rivers in I-formation knee deep in the rushing water, we fished for Alaskan trout that we cooked over the fire and ate fresh right then and there, we saw caribou and moose and even a few bears from a distance, and we watched the flora and fauna turn from the shades of summer to the shades of fall.”
“But what if we had just stopped after preparing? What if we had just stopped after learning how to pack our packs? What if we had spent all that time in the pavilion at the park in Fairbanks and then just said, ‘Wow, that was great. See ya! Got to get back to the airport!’”
Peter, Paul, and Mary — “leavin’ on a jet plane” — are they?
“What if we spent all that time preparing but then never went on the journey we’d been preparing for? Well, I can tell you that one of the consequences would have been that I never would have had two of the most amazing weeks of my entire life.”
Paul had arrived in the city of Ephesus, the seat of the Great Temple of Artemis, the moon goddess and protector of women.
Finding there “a number of converts,” he asked, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” “They replied, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’”
“Into what then were you baptized?”
“Into John’s baptism,” they said.
Must Paul explain that John’s baptism was with the water of repentance in preparation for Jesus, the one who came after him, whose sandals John deemed himself unworthy to untie? . . . and that John’s converts would now be baptized in Jesus’s name and receive the Holy Spirit in order to speak in tongues and prophesy? For Luke, to speak in tongues is to make prophetic utterances in more than one language.
There was in Israel — like a rat trap tucked behind a dog bone — a Deuteronomic “sandal strap” law that said, should a man be unwilling to fulfill the obligation to marry the widow of his deceased brother, then the man should be summoned before “the elders of the town” who were to put the question to him: Will you marry her, or will you not?
If he says, “I have no desire to marry her,” then the widow — who otherwise would remain penniless since the money followed the patriarchal line of descent — yes, the widow “shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, pull his sandal off his foot, spit in his face, and declare, ‘This is what is done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house’” (Deut. 25:8-9).
For John the Baptist — whose head was soon to be gruesomely served up on a platter to King Herod — what would it have meant to unloose the thongs of Jesus’s sandals? To disparage him? Repudiate him? Abandon him? Mock him? Spit in his face?
Instead, John baptized Jesus in the River Jordan — that same body of holy water into which Joshua and the twelve tribes of Israel had stepped in order to cross over into the Promised Land after all those tortuous years of baking and bemoaning in bondage, first as slaves kowtowing to the Pharaoh with his sleazy fleshpots in the “interior regions” of Egypt, and for forty more years of suffering cold nights and the blazing hot sun in the wilderness sands of the Sinai desert.
Sunday Baptism in many a reputable churchly tradition has evolved like slow-growing moss on a stone in the forest. It has become the routine ritual-blessing of newborns as well as teenage adults and, sometimes, adult teenagers — by pouring the water, repeating the words, signing the cross, offering the blessing, saying the prayer, lifting the infant mid-air, smiling while the baby “coos,” releasing some ripples of laughter, snapping a photo of the adoring parents and frowning older siblings, and returning to our seats.
Come Monday, we go back to doing what we were doing, exactly the way we were doing it last Friday.
The apostle Paul wrote in his letter “to the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Colossae,” saying of their baptism in the Way of the Crucified One, “when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses . . . God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it” (Col. 2:12-15).
Jesus had bluntly asked his apostles James and John (another John), the sons of Zebedee, the hard question: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized” (Mark 10:30)?
By repeating in the Gospel of Luke the words of John the Baptist, Luke reiterated what the Baptist had said to his own disciples: “I baptize you with water; but the one who is more powerful than I is coming . . . He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (3:16).
“It seems,” said Pastor Kim, speaking of John’s converts, “that their journey had been stopped as soon as they had prepared for it.”
Prepared for what? Prepared for fire?
John had baptized with the waters of repentance. Defining “repentance” — metanoia — by its Greek New Testament meaning has the potential to become a revolutionary act. As Pastor Kim noted, it translates “to turn around.”
She added, “Turning away from the things in our lives that cause us and others harm and turning toward the God who longs to heal us from that harm and to restore us” is what the word “repentance” is all about.
Not, she concluded, “not that initial repentance, that initial turning back to God as a conversion experience, and that once that conversion has happened, that’s all there is to it. Home free! My pack is packed! Time to kick back in the pavilion!”
It is only when Christ’s people receive their “fire-power” from the Holy Spirit that the mere thought of being “fired-upon” by the principalities and powers of this world is no longer a disincentive to discipleship. Lacking fire from the Spirit, we are already dead in our tracks. For when there is no burning fire-in-the-belly there is no incentive to leave the safety and comfort of the pavilion.
“Pavilion” Christianity’s footprint in the world is comparable to being parked in the yellow “instrumental landing strip critical area” of an airport’s runway when we’re set to lift off in a jet plane.
How so? Because we’re sitting in the danger zone facing the approaching aircraft.
If we’re stalled there, it’s only because we’ve started down the wrong runway for having imbibed too many pre-resurrection, pre-baptism martinis consumed on the rocks of theological constipation. So, if consequently we’re about to be hit straight-on in the fog of night by a careening Boeing 737 Max 8, then the cost to human life will be astronomical. We will have gained nothing for having lost everything from a misguided, underpowered, and thereby failed post-Easter take-off. And, worse still, we will have left the passengers at the other end of our flight-path stranded in the “interior regions” without benefit of up-lift.
Risk has its reward, and risk-aversion its unrequited recompense. Sitting stalled in one of the world’s “critical areas” is not exactly what Paul had in mind when he left Jerusalem and headed out for Ephesus.
So, for those “critical areas” of life surrounding us near and far, nothing short of gospel-power will usher us more swiftly into the “interior regions” of the mission field. If the mission field happens to be in a place like the capital city of Ephesus, or even a tiny hamlet along the way, we can bet our last denarius that God is calling us to something far more important than a month’s luxury vacation stay at a thousand-year-old marble villa overlooking the banks of the River Cayster.
If as a Roman citizen in ancient Ephesus you had coveted empire, or, as a diaspora Jew miles and miles away from Mother Jerusalem you had sought refuge from ethnophobia and flagrant anti-Semitic disdain, then for now at least you might have to make-do in this seaport city on the rim of the Aegean Sea.
If after a while the wheels in Ephesus were to get rusty, and for commercial reasons you needed to travel west, you could board a ship and sail to Rome, then sail back again to Ephesus. Or if you coveted travel for more pernicious purposes, you could catch the ox cart or ass that led eastward to the whore of Babylon. Athenian brothels, too, might have tempted you.
Yet, prostitution being the world-wide industry it was, and concubinage an alternative to divorce, with slave labor in the unenviable position of keeping one knee down with the other propped up and ready to run, only to be caught again, odds are you might just as well have chosen to stay put. For if you looked for where none of these terribly fretful things could ever again surround you, then you’d probably be lying face-up and palms down in terra-cotta earthenware, or as they say, six feet beneath the ground.
Be aware, too, that in both Ephesus and Jerusalem Caesar’s armies were an ever-moving, ever-imposing colossus. They marched in lock-step and galloped through the city in formidable formation, mounted on horseback.
About two generations before Paul arrived on the Ephesian scene, the Romans, having permeated all of Asia Minor, sought to do as all imperialists do: adjudicate local disputes between rival kings and rascally kingdoms.
When Mithridates, the great king of the local kingdom of Pontus, finally got sick and tired of Caesar’s messing in his porridge, he set about to accomplish the killing of all Romans within catchment distance. Some 80,000 Roman citizens simultaneously perished within six cities stretching across the entire region, including Ephesus.
The blood bath set off another hundred years of warring madness across the Aegean world. That’s when the Latin tongue began its infertile decline as a dead language, for if you were caught speaking it, no doubt, you knew exactly what would happen to you next. Historians later labeled these pogroms the “Asiatic Vespers.” When evil men do reprehensible things, they cover their dastardly deeds with the camouflage of impious euphemisms.
It’s like calling a concentration camp a child protection center where children are forced to care for other children while huddling together in wire cages on concrete floors under glaring lights for weeks on end with no water for baths and only uncooked frozen foods for snacks — because there are no “adults” in the palaces of power.
So, on any given day, including the 23rd of June, life affords plenty of reason to cry when you enter the sanctuary of New Hope Presbyterian Church in Asheville, North Carolina. You want to hear a saving word spoken by the living God.
That’s why, when the preacher lifts up the prayers of the people and opens Bible passages that proclaim the Good News of the Lord Jesus Christ as the “dwelling place of God in the Spirit,” you gather up for yourself every good thing you can set your heart upon, like angels’ wings, to provide you with what you will need for your journey till the end of your days.
The same is true for those Ephesian disciples who welcomed Paul into their midst. And, if the truth be known, the pagans roaming about the crime-ridden, poverty-stricken, and power-oppressed streets of the city of Ephesus were no less desirous of the same fruits of life that Paul had declared to the newly baptized: “Each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift: Therefore it is said, ‘When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive'” (Eph. 4:7-8).
“Captivity” is a killing word. “Resurrection” and “ascension” — saving words.
Incendiary kings and flammable emperors, preoccupied with “insurrections” and “dissensions” that threaten their vested interests and cause them loss of face, don’t particularly countenance “resurrection” and “ascension” when those winds of good fortune are not directed toward their prideful pretensions.
When the Roman tetrarch Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, received reports of Jesus’s whereabouts in Galilee, Herod immediately suspected that John the Baptist, whom he had recently arrested and beheaded, had “been raised from the dead.”
Political paranoia is a form of demon possession that perennially fears its own demise. No provincial Roman ruler was spared its tentacles. In Herod Antipas’s case it was not so much the Jews or Christians he needed to fear, but rather his own reigning emperor Caligula who eventually did him in by sending him packing off to permanent exile in Gaul.
On the contrary, when some of the Pharisees came to Jesus, warning him that Herod Antipas was out to kill him, Jesus spoke with his characteristic fearlessness: “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course’” (Luke 13:32).
It’s the Small-fries acting like Big-fries that never seem to get the message that provoking fear by exploiting the vulnerable cannot save kingdoms any more than fear as a tool of oppression can save itself from its own self-poisoning perversions.
The First Epistle of John, the Beloved Disciple, professed the only antidote to fear. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” (4:18).
On an excursion into the “interior regions” of ancient Ephesus we moderns do well to pass by the ruins of the great Ephesian Amphitheater just off the edge of what in Paul’s time was called Harbor Street. We might be gratified to think that we were not among the company of those citizens who in the year A.D. 52 sat inside the arena chomping on their crisp red apples. That is to say — glad not to be among the pavilion people. Though, if we had been, we might have been afforded the surprise of being “singled out” when Paul sauntered over toward us as he made his way through the crowd.
Is it not fair to say that we who are no longer pavilion people need not go around lamenting the passage of troubling events with little more than uneasy smiles on our faces? Since pessimism builds no future wherever optimism breeds naiveté, what redemptive stance must we take when entering the “interior regions” of a world increasingly reminiscent of the age of the Caesars?
What when our “liturgy,” from the Greek leitourgia denoting public service relief-work at one’s own expense, consists of rugged treks through wilderness terrain? What when our work calls us “over boulder fields” . . . sleeping in “dry river beds” . . . stepping into our boots like “blocks of ice . . . frozen solid in the night,” during a sojourn wherein “there’s nothing like doing a face-plant in the mud when your pack is forty-five percent of your body weight and comes right down . . . on top of you”?
Thank you, Kim Wells, for the realism since we’re going to have some days like that.
Just because we stumble over roots and rocks, including some of our own stumbling blocks, not to mention the high walls that principalities and powers erect as border fencing to fend off their deepest fears of being the biggest of losers, this doesn’t mean we remain “fenced in” by their dictates or cease hiking to the sunlit heights that promise relief from their beclouded deeds of darkness.
Remember, we are “resurrection” people. We are not pavilion people.
Oh, yes, as things otherwise normally go, we might occasionally slip into the good company of those who ritually inhabit the exclusive regions of cities like Asheville, aflush with their plush green carpet-lawns such as dues-paying golf courses, with putter in hand, and thereby stay sufficiently well acquainted with the trappings of affluence so as to become trapped by them ourselves.
Many of us have done so.
We might carefreely traipse up and down the same teeming downtown “beer city” sidewalks as do the in-town hordes of fun-loving tourists. Then go blithely driving our crossover SUVs as passers-by of the cross-town trailer parks cut out of aluminum sheet metal stacked on top of cinder blocks that define the transient state of “migrant people.”
Most of us have done so.
These are among the familiar highways and byways that pavilion people grow accustomed to.
Yet there are things, happenings, that sometimes disturb — and perturb — pavilion people, let alone resurrection people — not only within geographic regions but also within the “interior regions” of heart, mind, and soul.
And when this happens, often within the off-moments of our inattention, as Pastor Kim says, “The Holy Spirit takes us beyond preparing and nudges us out of the van and helps us get our packs on and then takes us in — deep into the interior regions of both our inner landscape and God’s.”
To wit —
Unlike guests at the local country club ordering Johnnie-on-the-rocks (iced) Scotch, when a Latina mother in the trailer park hears the word “ice,” she’s not dreaming of leaving for a sight-seeing expedition on a cruise ship lapping about the melting ice-caps north of Baffin Bay in the Arctic Circle. She’s having nightmares about the circular handcuffs locked around her husband’s wrists the early morning that ICE knocked on the door to freeze her heart to stone at the sight of deportation papers, as she watched her beloved whisked off in front of the children, not to be seen again.
One of Caesar’s favorite ploys is to freeze-people-out when he can’t find warmth in his heart to welcome them in. His politics crystalize as ice in his veins.
Contemptuously labeling them “illegals” is Caesar’s first measure for deep-freezing their identity.
Detaining them lengthily with or without due process is Caesar’s second measure for deep-freezing their dignity.
Casting them overboard from the ship of state is Caesar’s final measure for deep-freezing their humanity by ridding himself of them for good, but not for their own good.
Yet — to resurrection people, to Christ’s people, the persons whom Caesar’s hardened heart discards as the offscouring of the earth are to be re-claimed as brothers and sisters also bearing the loving name of Christ.
Resurrection people offer them food when they’re hungry, water when they’re thirsty, clothing when they’re naked, and visit them when they’re sick and in prison.
Resurrection people bear witness to what Jesus declared of the dispossessed: “Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Mt. 25:40).
Paul wrote to his beloved in Ephesus:
“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two . . .” (Eph. 2:13-15).
The past and present threads of history are closely woven.
If city-dwellers in Ephesus could have answered the longings of the fainthearted and disinherited among them, to which temple might they have pointed them?
Artemis reigned not only as moon goddess and protector of women, but also as deity of the wilderness, the hunt, and wild animals. Her veneration extended far beyond the peripheral bounds of the metropolis. Pilgrims carried to home and hearth the smelted tokens signifying her ostensible powers. Her temple stood as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It contained great works of art and throngs of travelers from every corner of civilized earth.
The book of Acts states that pandemonium fell upon Ephesus when “God did extraordinary miracles by the hand of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were carried away from his body to the sick, and diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.” And, as “this became known to all residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks; and fear fell upon them all; and the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled,” then suddenly pandemonium turned to ridicule which lent itself to persecutions of the followers of Jesus because great sums of money were involved.
“About that time there arose no little stir concerning the Way. For a man named Demetrius, a silver-smith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the craftsmen. These he gathered together, with the workmen of like occupation, and said, ‘Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. And you see and hear that not only at Ephesus but almost throughout all Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a considerable company of people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods.” So, “When they heard this they were enraged, and cried out, ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’” (Eph. 19:23ff).
What about the gods of wealth that fashion their profits from keeping concentration camps filled with children separated miles and miles from the unknown whereabouts of parents and loved ones? What shall become of those whose temples profiteer from the captivity of “innocents”?
Romans and Greeks across the empire eventually did not overlook the fact that two-hundred and thirty-some years after the life of Christ, due to the ruthless raids and attacks of eastern Germanic peoples called the Goths, the Temple of Queen Artemis was leveled to the ground, never to rise again.
Adolf Hitler was not the least or last among descendants of the Germanic Goths, and their likes, to employ storm troops to demolish sacred temples. Many of the “sanctified ones” through the centuries — whether as Romans or non-Romans, Greeks or non-Greeks, whether as the crippled or lame or blind laying wreathes and supplicant prayers at the feet of Artemis, or the hosts upon hosts of faithful Jews, Christians, and Muslims weeping while worshiping the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus — were not spared any dispensation when it came to Caesar’s brandishing his credo, “Caesar is Lord.”
That credo “Caesar is Lord” is etched upon the currency and enshrined within the dirty deeds of every tin-pot dictator. It is plastered upon the legacy of every mendacious king or president who has perpetrated bald-faced lies about his fellow human beings in order to justify killing them as enemies.
But, not so for Christians for whom their earliest profession was “Christ is Lord.” And thereby also for Paul hobbling steadfastly toward Ephesus, for whom there was no such thing as ungodly godlikeness. There was only the foolish joy of walking in The Way of incarnate love that comes, as he said, “with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death.”
“Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches” (II Cor. 11:25-28).
“. . . If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (11:30).
We shall never hear such words of humble admission fall from the lips of many a Caesar. Yet they held true for Paul until his dying day when Caesar’s axe fell squarely upon his head.
“When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure. When slandered we speak kindly,” he said. “We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day” (I Cor. 4:12a-13).
“I appeal to you, then, be imitators of me” (4:16).
Unlike Paul, we are “established” Presbyterians. We are aged like softened, cleanly sliced cuts of ripened Dunsyre blue cheese ready for crumbling in Caesar’s salad.
We are gathered this morning on the 23rd of June in Asheville, as the faithful sheep we seek to be, grazing for holy sustenance beneath the motherly embrace of these Blue Ridge Mountains, visible in all their majestic splendor through the clear glass window that frames the open vista beyond the cross and communion table. We can see as far as the Spirit ferries our imaginations.
Pastor Kim’s reading of the Scripture and her sermon from Acts have led us, with Paul, into the “interior regions.” We are still some miles from the clamor and travail of the city of Ephesus. We are soon to receive the benediction after singing the morning’s closing hymn:
Spirit, spirit of gentleness.
Blow through the wilderness, calling and free.
Spirit, spirit of restlessness. Stir me from placidness.
Wind, wind on the sea.
You moved on the waters, You called to the deep,
Then You coaxed up the mountains. From the valley of sheep,
And over the eons You called to each thing,
“Awake from your slumbers and rise on your wings.”
You swept through the dessert, You stung with the sand,
And You gifted your people with a law and a land,
And when they were blinded with their idols and lies,
Then You spoke through your prophets to open their eyes.
For us Presbyterians of the Protestant Reformed tradition it is a rare thing to have what Pastor Kim calls a “Quaker moment.” But on this particular occasion the “Spirit within” is calling.
Could there ever be a more propitious time for one of the retired shepherds from within the flock to be moved to speak before the congregation simply because not to speak would be to leave the Spirit churning and breathless among us?
“Friends, dear ones, fellow members of the body of Christ, beloved —
“I have not slept well all this past week. I was awakened by the nightmare of seeing myself barricaded along with these children within the walls and wired cages of that concentration camp in the desert sands of Clint, Texas. You know the story. You’ve heard and seen the news.
“I simply cannot sit silently any longer. I will not stand idly by.
“I can’t tell you when I’ve been so thoroughly outraged as when seeing what is happening to these dear children in the camp. Not enough water. Not enough food. Unsanitary conditions. Barred from medical care. Crowded next to one another in standing room only for weeks on end. Ceiling lights glaring down upon their faces twenty-four hours around the clock. Sleeping on concrete. No windows through which to see beyond their perilous plight to plead for help. No one to comfort their cries in the dead of night or dispel their fears in the fever of day.
“For heaven’s sake and for theirs, what are you and I going to do for them?
“Yesterday I contacted the offices of Governor Gregg Abbott of Texas, and Senators Cruz and Cornyn, as well as Governor Cooper of North Carolina. Tomorrow I will be calling others.
“I want to ask you. I want to ask you to do whatever you can. Write. Email. Pick up your phone. Make calls to politicians in Texas and other parts of the land. Make calls to your friends. Make calls to anyone you know who can bring influence to bear upon the situation. Aim as high as you possibly can. For until these children receive immediate relief, they remain at grave risk of dying within this concentration camp.
“Let’s get going. Let’s get going together into the ‘interior regions.’
“But before Kim offers the benediction, let’s bow our heads in silence and prayer for these children . . . God’s children, our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters in Christ.”
In her benediction Kim charged the congregation to go forth and act boldly.
New Hope Presbyterian Church of Asheville, North Carolina, has a justice and reconciliation team of congregational members including a public defender working locally with other congregations and public entities to address the crises and needs of documented and undocumented immigrant persons and families in the community.
AMONG THE PURPORTED BLESSINGS OF LIFE in the countryside is nature’s primordial gift of tranquility. This is reason enough to take the wilderness trail that rambles toward Eden.
To a human actor too long accustomed to the raucous rattle of the internal combustion engine in its endless procession over miles of concrete freeways, the world-stage of woods and stream with its hushed panorama of starlit nights and morning mists on the distant mountain is welcome respite for a pilgrim seeking solace for the soul.
This is not to say that nature is well endowed with silence as it once was in that time-before-time when the Earth was a prehistoric habitat, minus creation’s crowning achievement known as homo sapiens (the “wise guy”) whose penchant for disrupting the reigning tranquility with all manner of congestion and noise is among the least admirable of his achievements. The presence of the human actor, on any stage, changes the disposition of the blue bird and the outlook of the fox, to say nothing of the godly lay of the land.
Believe it or not, but here in Campbell County, Va., those who have “generationed” among these rolling hills and farmlands are quite accustomed to the still-to-be-reckoned-with sound of the yelping foxhound driven by a drove of hungry hunters trotting around on horseback. Eager packs of dogs with their noses to the ground, numbering in the dozens, chase passionately through field and forest in unyielding pursuit of the forever sly but increasingly helpless old fox.
The sputter of the four-wheeled tractor and the screech of the earth-moving bulldozer have long since disturbed the fox’s peace as routinely as any natural four-legged enemy ever did in the wild. Thus the fox by day, which once preyed upon the chicken as sport by night, can hardly find a lively henhouse anywhere that does not belong to the game of agribusiness, which in the free market system has virtually eliminated the free reign of the chicken. In such diminished rural splendor, with beer can and wine bottle flung into nearly every roadside ditch, there is nevertheless, if but for a time, ample supply of the foxhound. It keeps the fox dizzily on the run from the hunter at its back, while losing the battle against urban sprawl at its front.
My yellow Lab, Buddy, and I were on our early morning walk the other day in witness to the spring sunrise that was breaking over the horizon when we spotted the sleek gray form of a fox heading south down the tarmac road in front of us. Its head turned back, glaring, and with little wonder, it was checking to see whether its symptomatic paranoia and depression were sufficient to warrant the fox doctor’s diagnosis of a clinical disorder.
If I were the fox instead of the therapist, I would have prayed that the man and his dog keep the Prozac to themselves. Heaven forbid the day when pharmaceuticals find their way into the drinking water! For the last thing a fox needs is to be drugged into a state of euphoria in which all lingering anxiety about the devastating wiles of the human family system into which the fox has been endlessly hounded and gunned down should suddenly dissipate. It is bad enough that the fox’s collective unconscious is no longer able to remember a primordial age that was decidedly pre-human. It will be even worse when the fox’s best defense against extinction, its capacity to produce a birth rate higher than its death rate, no longer works in its favor. To be sure, utter disaster will prevail when the residual effect of “the morning after pill” in the drinking water puts an end to the fox’s survival forever. No wonder the old fellow instinctively turns its head over its shoulder to see what is coming at it from behind. Yesterday it was the foxhound, today polluted rivers and streams.
Likewise, within the greater scheme of nature’s changing state of tranquility, the rumble of the logging truck comes thudding and blundering round the bend in the road where I live, destined for chopping up and spitting out what’s left of a pulp and paper economy in which the fast-growing pine supplants the slow-growing oak and maple. The driver of the Big Mack, with its friction decibels increasing in loud crescendo, careens his way down the same road that the fox takes in search of a safe crossing to the obscurity of shrubs and trees in which to hide its bewilderment.
Subsequent to the Fall, the road from Eden was first a fox alley, then a Native footpath, then a horse-and-buggy mud track, then a trail blazed in gravel for the Model-T, and then, at last, a drag-strip for the after-school racings of Generation Y in its red sports car going nowhere faster than it can go everywhere, which is halfway across the world via television and the Internet to every other place of like kind that is short on tranquility and high on discharging energy.
Yes, I thank God for every vestige of quiet that prevails here within this oasis of “New Concord.” At the moment there is nothing stirring other than a gentle breeze fanning the white pedals of the dogwood and the rustling leaf of the magnolia. Neither a cow moans in the distance, nor a cloud billows with lightning and thunder over the mountain. There is deep silence….
Well, I should say, there was deep silence. For the carillon inside the white clapboard tower beneath the church steeple is abruptly blasting forth a hymn of glory. Its bells are ripping through the silence like a rocket taking off into outer space. Dog Buddy, his nose to the sky, is howling for all he’s worth, in tune with the mighty Glory. “Nearer, my God, to Thee, Nearer to Thee!” Though like the wanderer, The sun gone down, Darkness be over me, My rest a stone: Yet in my dreams I’d be Nearer, my God, to Thee… wrote Sarah Adams in 1841, six years after this faithful congregation was founded.
“Nearer, my God, to Thee”? We pray Thee all, yes, may it be so.
And if so, then like the fox and the bluebird, who for the most part maintain their silence through all that is spinning around them, we draw our silence before God in the midst of the tumult by standing apart from it. For this is how God draws near to us, first apart, then close at hand.
Wherever we are on this rambling wilderness trail in our return to Eden, given as we are but a fleeting acquaintance with the primordial gift of tranquility, when we pause long enough to listen — to listen deeply — we hear below the surface-noise a holy silence that is solace for the soul.
The secret is in the vigil of watching and listening — listening to what is stirring down under, not only in nature, but at the very heart of nature, that is to say, to what is rousing from the depths of every living creature whom God knows by name and calls by name. Even the fox on the run that falls to the hunter, and the bluebird on the fly that does not return to the nest, and the generations of the human species who fling their anxieties like empty beer cans and broken wine bottles into the far ditch as though there were no tomorrow over which to fret.
We know that we too will observe our silence in due time, when the Spirit is right, when at last the eye is able to see and the ear is able to hear – O, Holy Silence.
IT IS TRUE. An oyster would have better concocted this beloved mother-of-pearl than I, the pearl-maker, who is left holding nothing but the encrusted shell of a mollusk. What on Earth, I ask, has happened to the luxurious nacre within? My fond creation, all six pages of it, like pearls on a strand, broke loose this past Sunday morning at precisely eleven-thirty o’clock and scattered asunder in every possible direction – I know not which way to the good. O Lord, how humbling for such laudable intention to come to naught.
I’m going quietly. I’m going to take these poor, wretched and wrinkled remains to the garden that I have coined Lost Eden and where in solemn retreat I shall find a plot to give them decent burial. The spent fruits of my labor will lie fallow amid decaying limbs and decomposing leaves. My preacher’s bent at this point is simply to be relieved of the perilous burden of wandering futilely farther down a dead-end path into a spiritual desert. This sermon, at last, is finished. I say therefore, “Unto the mercy of Almighty God, I commend the soul of the departed…earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection.”
I have come to make it my custom to dispose of all my deceased sermons in rich dark loam. When the proclamation of the preacher holds forth no promise whatsoever, the addition of humus to homiletical word-rot increases the chance of supernal growth. Despite its appearance, humus is holy. It is requisite for regeneration. Someday when I’m suckering tomatoes, if I’m lucky and my eyes don’t dim, I’ll look beneath these weeds and see fresh words sprouting.
“When you find them, nurture them with the sanctity of profound emotion!” chuckled the woodchuck, wobbling its way out of the brush and into the grass. I was taken aback by this slovenly creature’s sudden display of empathy. I took it to mean, “Laugh now. You will have ample opportunity to cry again later.”
“Well, you too, old Wobbles!” I blurted out while pondering what tangle of briars a woodchuck must nibble through to earn a day’s wage. “Wood and branch must be to you as paper to me,” I wagered. “We seem to bear our fibers in common. Chew them up and what do we get but a mouth full of pasty splinters! I don’t know about yours, but my congregation deserves better.”
“Yes, true. So does mine,” she retorted. “Yet remember, dead words, like dead works, can come to life. Rejoice when they do, and cart them back to your stump and digest them. Don’t neglect to eat good fiber if you ever hope to have any substance to your preaching.” “Thanks, my friend,” I chortled. “I’ll do exactly as you say.”
“And watch out for your shadow, too,” she snickered, “especially round about the beastly month of February!”
Given the peculiar speech to which our “profession” is devoted, and as token of the woodchuck’s good faith in the ability of the preacher’s words to come to life, I cheerfully elected to name my study The Writing Burrow and my prayer stump The Brooding Bench. That’s right. No more trifling diversions, and no more temptation to unworthy pursuits, like paying the bills, revising the calendar, or rearranging the desktop. Strictly writing when in The Writing Burrow and praying when on The Brooding Bench! I must do what the ophthalmologist chirped to my young daughter while he sought to focus her vision upon the figure on the wall as he shined a bright light into her eyes. “Keep your eye on the birdie, dear!”
“And don’t tarry long over what you just did with your grubbing hoe either, preacher,” exclaimed the woodchuck. “You had to bury the lousy things. It was of divine necessity! So pack them down and leave your totally depraved pages to the earthworms. Go back now to your burrow and start composing again.”
“Oh, what does a woodchuck know about composing?” I coughed back. “I say there, the important thing is proof-texting! Every whole-witted woodchuck knows that composing a sermon is only one-third of the job. The other two-thirds consist of proof-texting.”
Before I could even think of a verse to quote in justification of my argument, she set forth another homily. “If the Spirit inspires something new and original and assigns it to you to speak, like the Spirit so moved Moses and Ruth and Jesus, you will want to test the Spirit to ascertain that it has declared absolutely nothing that can be construed as contradicting what the Scriptures have already said on the subject. Beware especially of those portions of the Scriptures that contradict other portions.”
“By golly, Woodie, you do seem to know that certain proof texts are a mighty necessity and others a nasty nuisance!”
“Yes, for example, you must never say, ‘You have heard it said, but, lo, I say unto you!’ That would be tampering with sacred portions of the Scriptures, not to mention holy pearls of human tradition.”
Woodie-Chuck, as I sometimes affectionately call her, taught me precisely how to refine the retail art of proof-texting, that is to say, how to foolproof my sermon for public consumption by settling a weighty theological issue once and forever with all the authority granted me on Earth as it is in Heaven. Here’s how I do it. I set myself down somewhere other than vertically upon the bumpy tree stump that beatifies my monkish posture for the Brooding Bench, or in the hardback rocker that puritanizes my worldly thought in the Writing Burrow. What I do instead is stretch myself out horizontally in a comfortable Lazyboy next to a roaring fireplace in a dimly lit room, preferably with the received text of His Majesty, King James (who, I’m told, is still considered by some to be the long-lost brother of Jesus) opened upon my lap. The poesy of the king, if not the flaming fire at my feet, will surely inveigh against any flimsy interpretation that may unwittingly arise from my own mythological invention.
With proper proof-texting as the easy-chair method of settling difficult theological matters without having to bother with the quarrelsome details, my sermons shall demonstrate incontrovertibly that God has chosen me to unveil, in an instant, everything concealed but waiting to be revealed to all who yet don’t know. That includes a direct word to every Aunt Gurtie and Uncle Gusty who, given lukewarm piety or none at all, need to know finally how to “get” saved. Salvation, surely, is to be “gotten.” But rest assured it will never be gotten by wading verse-by-verse through all the troubling waters churned up by the scandalizing words of Jesus, especially those outlandish things he said about God’s unconditional grace. Who needs infinite grace when infinite judgment will do? With the right proof-texts we can all join forces with Jerry Falwell to erect a modern Massada high atop Candler Mountain, hole up as the party of the elect killing time while waiting for the impending Rapture, and avoid the choppy seas of sin and sickness altogether.
Well, now. Now that my proof-texts have been properly lifted from the Bible and placed where they rightfully belong, I move steadily toward the completion of the “revised version.” Rule number one from The Book of Homiletical Proverbs, like rule number one from The Proven Means of Investing, is to “cut your losses.” According to Saint Homileticus, “After you’re done mining (please, don’t say “minding”) the Text, and have sufficiently butchered the Text to suit your own purposes, you’ll need to wash the sediment out of your sermon.”
In that respect, the most proven way I’ve found yet to improve my sentences is to stand stark naked in the shower with my manuscript in hand. To eliminate extraneous theologizing, I do so in the midst of falling water. Not only does ink disappear miraculously from the page and speedily race down the drain, but as a wet-behind-the-ears theologian I am far less likely to catch my socks on fire while proof-texting, fall asleep while daydreaming, or allow the sunshine to wrinkle my skin into the leathery look of premature wisdom during a long summer’s absence of meaning at the beach.
Should I instead choose home-rest for vacation, I will take a deliberate stroll into Lost Eden, defiantly shake at the sky my left hand wielding the manuscript, and, with all the strength I can muster from the right hand, yank from the soil every last weed I can lay my eyes upon!
“Notwithstanding Jesus’ parable about the danger of uprooting the weeds from the wheat,” I said to Woodie, “if there should ever be discovered an abundant lack of wheat in my sermon, the congregation will have no choice but to ingest weeds. A day later the hearers will recall not a single word of what I said that was worth repeating, since I did not say it to begin with. They shall remember every last word, however, of what I did say that was not worth repeating, which shall be the telltale sign that I failed to take Jesus seriously at his word because I feared I’d fail miserably at mine. On giving second thought to that non-divisive parable, I reluctantly admit that the most useless sort of preacher is the one who cuts a path straight and wide through the middle of the congregation on a Sunday morning just like a wild weed-eater. In answer to my critics, what good is salvation, pray tell, if it kills every single living soul?”
“None whatsoever!” cried Woodie. “But rest assured. Dead words, like dead works, can come to life again after they have found their way to the graveyard! The best sermon, like the best prayer and best word of counsel, is the one born less of loud telling than of quiet listening. The distinction between the former and the latter is the difference between a garden choked with weeds and a field brimming with wheat.”
On my next morning walk around the outskirts of Lost Eden I overheard Woodie-Chuck mumbling, “As the wheat grows, the weeds wither.”
“Yes,” I replied. “And I must do as the good doctor chirped. I must keep my eye on the birdie.”
Woodie-Chuck chuckled, “Keep your nose to the ground, and rejoice over newfound fibers that ascend from the ‘soil.’”
MINISTRY IS LIKE SPORTS. It is subject to the pointless competition of the steeplechase, the serious injuries of boxing (with shadows), and the deadly leisure of line drives aimed straight at the preacher—absent the benefit of recreational drugs (religion alone is dangerous enough as opiate). It is like golf minus the combat compensation of seaside, sand dune, and sunshine for golfers in pastel pants and Polo shirts devoting entire careers to sinking itsy bitsy balls into trophy-size cups half the size of the human brain. I’ve never seen the average poor preacher, without brain, suddenly get converted to being a rich athlete with brain, and I’ve never seen the average rich athlete, with brain, suddenly get converted to being a poor preacher without brain until after making the first million on the sports field.
So, what does this say about candidates for ordination in the fields of ministry who take the vows of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience, whether they frame it so or not? From the start it’s almost guaranteed that at least one of these three hallowed promises-to-do-good will not make it to the finish line. For in the end zone we meet not only the unfulfilled and once immortal dreams of undaunted youth but side-by-side with them the old-beyond-their-years handicaps of washed up wealthy athletes, and yes, poor preachers among other creatures with arthritic backs and bunions on their feet. At the close of day, Grace knows not the difference between a poor preacher and a rich athlete, or, for that matter, between rich and poor anything. For, as Jesus said, God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45).
As a pastor and therapist I have seen rich and poor in roughly equal numbers, though they seldom view themselves as equal. Illusions aside, rich and poor are ultimately cursed with the same blessings of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience that eventually befall all. Yet it’s especially the poor preacher who is supposed to know that these three earthly things are what you will “take with you” when your turn comes to “shuffle off this mortal coil.” So, why put off until tomorrow what you can enjoy today?
Take your end-of-life vows now with the best of intentions and good will. Become ordained to subsidiary things like Sunday sermons and bedside prayers since those who habitually chase footballs, baseballs, golf balls, and race cars, are more than glad to leave the incidental stuff to poor preachers while they, the super heroes, attend to the World Series and the Super Bowl. Keep the faith that routine sermons and sequestered prayers, while promised no earthly reward for attempting to lure sports celebrities and big league players away from life’s feigned center of worship, the winner’s circle, will eventually hit home like Babe Ruth swinging all out for the bleachers.
We are to remember but one thing as we take our solemn oaths. When the “last words” are spoken it’s the poor preacher, not the overpaid athlete, who gets to say those final words over the grave where Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience (unto death) are the superstars.
So indeed why put off until tomorrow what you can enjoy today? Take your heavenly vows knowing that today’s pastel pants and Polo shirts are about as flattering to a corpse in a casket as steroids are to the athlete who breaks all sports records in order to land himself in jail.
Find a church where the steeple overlooks the cemetery. If you catch yourself boxing at shadows, take a walk in the cemetery. If you catch yourself taking the lumps of ricocheting line drives while others hammer their hearts out at home runs, take a walk in the cemetery. If on your day off you catch yourself spending too much time and money chipping and putting life away on the golf course, and watering more than the grass on the “nineteenth” hole, take a walk in the cemetery.
When all is said and done, poor preachers ask themselves just who, including the preacher, knows or even cares what the score was on the tenth and eleventh holes of Sand Castle Links. For when you’re standing up or kneeling down, doing a poor preacher’s job of either preaching or praying, with one eye on the text and the other peering out the window, not at the high steeple but at the low cemetery, you’re suddenly aware of the sacred claim of your calling.
Preacher, go preach, if you believe in such a thing as Grace. Hers is the gentle wind blowing across the faces of small people jockeying big horses for bigger purses, heavyweights trading anything but lightweight punches for golden glove awards, hard hitting swingers amassing the motions of muscular bodies and atrophied souls aimed at fast balls attached to multi-million dollar contracts, and the least likely pro hookers and slicers in the world driving down the fairway of life to become nothing less than number one on the grand tour.
It’s not unlike busted Barry Bonds staring down at his cracked baseball bat, realizing that his last pitch has already been hit hard with steroids, and the grand tally of the all-time highest number of balls slammed over the fence is destined now for the baseball Hall of Shame. There is left only the one inescapable and final “home run” that neither a bat-out-of-hell nor a bawl-out-from-heaven will snatch from the jaws of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience. So where’s the wisdom in this?
At the end of the fiscal year, see that there is slightly more cash remaining in the cemetery fund than in the church’s general coffers. Momento mori – remember you will die. It is worth keeping that forward memory alive by perpetually preventing the grass and weeds from overtaking the tombstones lest they become invisible to human eyes.
Only the humble and the humbled have the last word, the very last being God’s, which is a reversal of the usual order of things and in line with what Jesus said about the first becoming last and the last first, for those who care a hoot about what Jesus said. And that is why poor preachers and ex-bona fide sports champions do well to take long walks in cemeteries in contrast to too many dry martinis consumed at the country club.
There in the cemetery everybody who’s ever done anything, or nothing at all, eventually finds out what it means to be poor, chaste, and obedient. At the least, poor in spirit, chaste of heart, and obedient unto something other than chasing steeples, boxing shadows, hacking rawhide over the deck and out of the park by less than pure prowess, and clubbing for huge corporate hand-outs in exchange for having peddled the least number of strokes aimed at hooking and slicing the biggest profits for the benefit of none other than those who need them the least, and “all these things” through the most ephemeral of media—thin air. So where’s the wisdom in this?
When you preach, aim low. When you pray, remain at a whisper. Keep one eye on the cemetery, the other on the widow with the widow’s mite in hand. Her name is Grace. Her face is the visage of the back row mourner standing next to the stone slab etched with a simple cross and first, middle, and last name, date of birth and date of death. Hidden from vanity, veiled in modesty, she is weeping with the gentle wind of Spirit at her back. Her Poverty of body is her Chastity of soul, and her Chastity of soul is her Obedience unto death. She has met and become acquainted with all three persons of the trinity of goodness standing guard against the ranting and raving legions of “dyed” in the wool sports fans filling the pavilions of self-indulgence. And yet it has never so much as crossed her mind, and never shall, that she, Grace, is filthy poor in anything while all the rest are smutty rich in everything. With head bowed and eyes pressed shut she knows what’s coming. In her frail and feeble hand she holds the key to what’s as true for her as for anyone and everyone.
Death spares not the fact that the tiniest mite suffers the same fate as the tallest miter—to be taken away or given away.
This is the point in time where stewards of ministry, true to their vows, part company with the icons of mass entertainment and all other “sporting” events of war and greed played for higher and higher stakes, as though all manner of pleasurable mammon were simply waiting to be acquired for fame and fortune and nothing ever lost.
Jesus said, Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you (Matt. 6:33).
Was Jesus not pressing his point? All these things shall be added? At the end of the day, when all is said and done, what else is there to be added if, like Grace, you’ve already found the Kingdom?