When no one shows up

cute-puppy-pictures-nobody-came-birt.jpgI’m going to keep this brief, as I don’t want to write something I’ll regret.

No one showed up to the event today. The social justice director of the BCP arrived in time to console me. We had lovely hugs and she is my BFF.

But I’m devastated and tired and I frankly don’t want to do this anymore.

Of course, I don’t really mean that; I do, but just for right now. I feel like a fucking idiot. I have poured much time and money into this project, the programming of which was based on numerous conversations and promises of collaboration, and now I have to pivot and prepare myself for the possibility that no one really wants to do this work.

I understand everyone is busy. I get it. But of all the areas in which I do work, the fact that not a single person from Antioch, the church, or the community was there is difficult to swallow.

Just in case you’re thinking of writing a response: I know. It is a Saturday. There are lots of things going on. People are tired. I know, as there are lots of things I miss that I want to attend because life is complicated and filled. I know that this isn’t personal but it feels that way.

For right now, I just need to feel bummed and a little hurt. I’ll get over it. I believe in a God who doesn’t allow overly-long pity parties. But I need to process this before I try to write tomorrow’s sermon.

I’m going to go off Facebook until…I dunno. For the rest of the day, at least.

I’ll catch y’all on the flip-flop/.

 

“What if no one shows up?” On priorities and planning

We’re less than twenty-four hours away from the first of three events that have been years in the making. I’ve written a lot about the “Refugee 101” event in various publications. I imagine you might be a little sick of me at this point.

When I first started the work that eventually resulted in the Beloved Community Project (BCP), I far too often gauged “success” by the number of people who attended an action or event. Anyone who has done organizing and planning work has to get out of that mindset pretty quickly, especially within a community like Yellow Springs in which there are almost always happenings, especially on Saturdays.

But don’t get me wrong, though: I am terrified that no one will show up! Alas, I now release the event into the universe and trust that those who are meant to participate will be present.

If you are not able to make the event, you can still fill out a NEW survey.

Finally, watch this and marvel how easy it is to use iMovie.

Facebook is Failing: Blood Curse, Blood Libel, and Trump’s America

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Background

While the newest manifestation of white supremacism has traded hoods and burning crosses for khakis and tiki torches, the tropes and mendacity they utilize go back to the 3rd century C.E. As organized Christianity continued its stumbled towards Rome and away from Jerusalem, followers of Jesus did all that they could to separate themselves from Judaism. This included developing the so-called blood curse, an interpretation of Matthew 27:25 that lays perpetual “guilt” upon the whole of the Jewish people for killing Jesus.

This is a faulty interpretation for a wide variety of reasons, but it remains potent to this day. Early in Christian history, there is a connection between the Jewish people and Christian blood, which eventually manifests in the so-called blood libel. This outlandish contention held that Jews collected blood, particularly that of children, for Passover ceremonies. Interestingly, during the Middle Ages, these same sorts of stories were levied against Christian groups that dared step outside the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. It was a propaganda tool meant to incite the passions of people who were largely ignorant of Jewish law and practice.

I first learned about antisemitism from an episode of Little House on the Prairie called “The Craftsman,” in which Albert Ingalls thought the kindly Jewish craftsman named Isaac wore a hat because he has horns on his head. Of course, Albert is shown that such is not the case, intimating that neither do the Jews who live around the present viewership. My senior year in high school, I was in a production of Diary of Anne Frank as Mr. Van Damm, who steals food from the children. We also went to hear Elie Wiesel speak, which led to me taking classes on Judaism when I was at Kalamazoo College.

Fast forward about 8 years. When I was in graduate school, I took a course called “Healing Deadly Memories.” It focused on perceived antisemitism in the Christian scriptures and traced the misuse of biblical traditions to justify horrific violence against the Jewish people. James Carroll’s incredible book, Constantine’s Sword, was our main text for a six-week intensive. The class changed my life, in that I have since never remained silent about the ridiculousness of both the blood curse and the blood libel.

Why I Wrote This

I recently helped put out the call to report the FB page pictured above because even a cursory glance at the posts revealed the recycling of debunked, outlandish, fantastical stories about ritual murders of Christian children. The posts present themselves as researched and documented, offering readers an insider’s view of horrific atrocities. But they are malicious fictions, repackaged and presented to new audiences who wish only for supposed proof of their tribalistic assumptions and prejudices.

Facebook did not agree.

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Too many people continue to think that stories such as those on this page are harmless. It is simply a new iteration of a very old tale. The Protocols of the Elder of Zion are a perfect example. Each generation it reappears, often regarded as truth by people will considerable influence, like Henry Ford.  And the most recent propagators seem intent on crying freedom of speech, even though history shows, again and again, that tolerating claptrap such as that peddled on the aforementioned FB page has a direct link to lives and communities being destroyed.

Facebook has made it clear they don’t care about two millennia of antisemitic malarkey has a well-documented kill list. As a society, we have devalued the expert so much that all opinions must be respected; we’re told to agree to disagree about facts.

I say bullshit.

What We Can Do

Our culture has fallen into the shorthand of using the term “snowflakes” to disparage people who need safe spaces. It is difficult to find a single comments section on a public page–even if the topic is grooming Siamese cats underwater on the full moon–that won’t have at least one angry white dude picking the wrong homonyms to insult anyone who does not accept the claim that he’s the victim of cultural genocide. They dismiss real history–such as I write about here–pertaining to the actual genocide of the First Nations and the centuries of inhuman enslavement perpetrated upon Africans. They’ll instead arrogantly argue that anyone who does “research,” which as someone with going on five advanced degrees I can say would not have passed muster when I taught research writing, will know that Africans enslaved one another much more than did Europeans. This is demonstrably false. Also false is the claim that Irish were enslaved in the colonies.

They do this with impunity, and it’s dangerous because the internet allows nonsense to be presented as “truth” that the communist, Nazi (right? like, how does that work?) lib-ruhls are trying to destroy in order to exterminate the white man. It is read and believed by more and more khakis-wearing kids who think they are tough until their faces are posted all over the internet.

We are not going to make one iota of difference if we do not take serious steps to address the myriad and egregious historical wrongs that have been perpetrated in the last 500 years. We are a terribly racist country. The “live and let live” philosophy cannot prevail, as we can not tolerate speech that has literally two thousand years of violent history. We know how this story goes. “Never again” doesn’t start at the ovens, it ends there.

Please, continue to report pages such as the one under discussion. If you see people posting antisemitic memes or articles, please take the time to link to this blog or one of the sources embedded herein. I know that we are all fatigued, that there are endless battles, and this might seem small, but as a pastor who has written books on World War !! and the Holocaust. I can assure you it does not end small.

 

The Fabled Eclipse

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Brother Sun has been seeking Sister Moon since before the arrival of the First Ones.

He sends out ceaseless light, stretching extensions of himself to the outer reaches of Creation.

Sister Moon takes in his light, which she feels as love. She reflects it back to him, hoping to infuse the children of the First Ones with that which they cultivate effortlessly.

The powers of the underworld fall each day, according to the crude reckonings of those who depend on Brother Sun and Sister Moon. But to them, merely seconds transpire before they catch glimpse of one another again.

Sister moon runs to him, runs to him, runs to him.

And on auspicious days she catches him. What others see as darkness they see only as splendid light.

Brother Son shines only so that he will be seen by Sister Moon.

So in the brief shadows cast and glimpsed, cultivate the light of love. And shine forth with Brother Son and Sister Moon, transformed by love into timeless beings who chase only the source of all light.

The Revelation Usurpation

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The Bible contains some really odd stuff, which becomes downright outlandish when a literal reading is demanded. As I’ve written before, people tend to avoid the text for a variety of reasons, and too often those attracted to it claim a special understanding they wield as to whack asunder all those who dare question. Revelation 4 is Exhibit A.

A running motif of popular Revelation exegesis is the notion that God is intending to destroy the created order. Last week we looked at the various meanings of the word ἀποκάλυψις, apocalypsis. As a literature type, apocalypses often contain a scene in which an individual is given presence–generally through a vision or being filled with the Spirit, as is the case in Revelation 4–to the heavenly council. The earliest canonical appearance of such an event is Isaiah 6, then Ezekiel 1, and then Daniel 7. Like in Revelation, there is a door to heaven that is opened, enabling each realm to see the other. Or, more specifically germane, allowing the one chosen, in this case, John of Patmos, to behold the celestial council.

We’re likely familiar with the stairway to heaven and the highway to hell, but this doorway to heaven might throw us a bit. Yet, the idea begins in paganism and stretches into our own day. The notion of portals begins not with science but with mythology and mysticism. In the New Testament, at Jesus’ baptism the heavens open and there is an axis mundi created, a place in which the earthly and the heavenly conjoin. We see this in Judaism with the theophany on Mt. Sinai, with attendant thunder and lightning, in Islam with the Dome of the Rock, and in Buddhism with the Bodhi Tree. Christianity has yet one more with Golgotha, again with an accompanying earthquake and darkness. In Orthodox Judaism, women lighting the shabbos candles are believed to have the heavens opened for them as a direct pipeline to God.

If we attempt to understand this only with our rational minds, we will miss the mark, the literal meaning of the Hebrew and Greek words for sin. John looks into the heavens and he hears a voice like a trumpet; the text is attempting to engage our senses. The biblical usage of the trumpet is nuanced, but here it is utilized as a simile to describe the voice of the one speaking. This, of course, is Christ on the throne; but we should not think of the corporeal Jesus, but rather of the spiritual logos. The word of God sounds forth a warning, a blast that will bring down the walls of human evil much like those of Jericho.

Notice that when John describes what he sees upon the throne, he does not give tell of a Zeus or an Appollo. There is no anthropomorphism here. Instead, once he’s in the spirit–that is, existing with the use of his senses, not of his capacity for reason–he sees one like jasper (in biblical times, this was a translucent gem) and carnelian (of a fiery red color) that tells him of what is happening and what will happen in the future. John is being given insight into God’s plans for humanity and is to return and tell others. This, dearly beloved, is the very definition of a prophet, literally “mouthpiece for God.” Surrounding the throne is a rainbow, a sign of covenant since the time of Noah.

God is to be sensed, to be experienced; the texts that feature God’s heavenly court gave genesis to Merkaba mysticism, those who gathered around these stories as instruction manuals for how to themselves gain access to the divine. The use of numbers is deliberate: seven signifies completeness; four, the corners of the earth and the four winds (in Greek, Ἄνεμοι). Each of the creatures comprises a corner of the throne–a similar image was on the Ark of the Covenant–and in turn represent the completion of creation: a wild lion, a domesticated ox, a human being, and a bird of the air. If we go back to the image of the throne, we will recall the smooth crystal that may likely be meant to remind us of how God calmed the chaotic waters with breath (ר֫וּחַ, ruach). The Word of God, the logos,  once again seeks to bring order out of pandemonium. 

All of creation gives honor to God, as do the twenty-four robe-clad figures. There have been a great number of interpretations of this, but the one I greatly appreciate put forth by Ian Boxall, is that the twelve patriarchs and the twelve apostles are together in the holy chamber. We cannot have one without the other, it seems to say. While I would not deliver such a message to my Jewish siblings in Abraham, I do think it is an important message to Christians: we are only here because of God’s work with the Chosen People.

Here is where the text gets a bit subversive. All of these figures, accorded honors and respect in heaven and on earth, throw asunder their crowns and worship the one true God. Imagine reading this amidst the brutal rule of Rome, especially in the Year of the Four Emperors. As human leaders come and go, leaving in their wake suffering and destruction, the wise person will remain ever-fixed upon God.

I totally get when people roll their eyes over stuff like this; it can, without question, come across as trite, empty rhetoric that does little to nothing to address the real problems of people here and now. But let us recall that God’s message to us is pretty simple. We have the charge of how to love in Deuteronomy 6:4. We have Micah’s call to justice, kindness, and humbleness. And we have Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbors, to pray for those who persecute us, and to avoid the altar of God when we have animosity in our hearts and on our lips.

The world gives us false promises that happiness will come with the right body shape or the biggest bank account. We chase after the procurement of things, trying to fill holes that require spiritual answers, not materialism and mendacity. This enigmatic text, like the ones before and after it, let us know that true perfection cannot be found here. It cannot even be approached except through understanding that God has given us all we need in order to live authentic lives. We need not believe the culture that tells us we need a new car or a smaller waist.

Yes, there is suffering. Egreigious suffering that makes little to no sense. In my town, an incandescently brilliant philosopher died suddenly, in front of the love of his life, at the age of 47. An aneurysm cut him down in a matter of seconds. There are no comforting words or platitudes to speak, except to say that God has given us what we need in order to cope.

Surprise! It’s us.

 

Jesus v. Trump: The Church Must Render a Verdict

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Sarah Pulliam Bailey has an article in today’s Post about yet another controversy around Robert Jeffress, about whom this blog has previously voiced disdain Alas, it appears that the time has come again in which I must I denounce, in the strongest possible terms, Jeffress’ public theology. Here is the latest from the megachurch pastor: “When it comes to how we should deal with evildoers, the Bible, in the book of Romans, is very clear: God has endowed rulers full power to use whatever means necessary — including war — to stop evil. In the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un.” Oy vey.

Jeffress has credentials that are undeniable. He has legitimate degrees from legitimate institutions, albeit ones within the Southern Baptist Convention and with emphases on dispensationalism. He is not one with only a passing understanding of the bible. That’s one of the reasons that he is particularly dangerous. And he is Trump’s go-to pastor for biblical justification of unbiblical things. This blog has featured many, many, many, many, manymany, many entries on Trump, many focusing on religion but not all. I object bigly to any claims that God has anointed Trump a holy instrument.

Jeffress came to prominence with Trump after the two dined on Wendy’s hamburgers. The pastor said that God was going to place Trump in the White House. Trump’s shocking victory gave the minister all the credence he needed; Jeffress–and other pastors, to be fair–is complicit in presenting as a true Christian the man who claims he has never needed to repent for anything. As a pastor myself, I try to steer well-clear of judging the sins of anyone else, which is one of the reasons I am so open about my own shortcomings. I still have an oak tree in my own eye, so there is no need to point out the splinter in someone else’s.

However, I do have the obligation as an Ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament to speak out when I feel that the bible is being used in irresponsible ways. Jeffress maintains that Romans 13 gives “the government … the authority to do whatever, whether it’s assassination, capital punishment or evil punishment to quell the actions of evildoers like Kim Jong Un.” He then goes on to argue that objections raised by the previous contextual chapter (Romans 12) only refer to how Christians treat one another. That’s right. Christians only have to love other Christians. You see, the good reverend does not want a president who will follow the Sermon on the Mount. I’ll say it once again: oy vey.

Romans 13 has been written about a lot. I mean, a lot. I had heated, but respectful debates in seminary about the chapter. The definitive work was done by my fellow Finn, Vilho Riekkinen (I strongly recommend Romans: A Commentary by Robert Jewett, although it is very expensive, so thank God for Logos). These are the main sources of information, along with my not insignificant education. When Paul was writing Romans, Nero was in power. However, it was not yet the batshit crazy Nero, so things were peaceful. Paul was already receiving major pushback from Jews and Jesus-followers, so the last thing that he wanted to do was put another target on his back. Further, as Riekkinen argues in his doctoral dissertation, Paul was trying to negotiate incredibly complex power dynamics. More recent German scholars have argued that Romans 13 refers to Christian relationships with the Roman civic cult. This also helps to situate the whole Matthew 22 “render unto Caesar what is Caesar” advice. Recall that Jesus is holding a Roman coin with the image of Caesar. Said coin would not be allowed in the Temple, so Jesus is saying, the coin has Caesar’s picture, so give it back to him. But you belong to God. 

The notion that Paul was referring to the unholy, unrepentant, arrogant, sophomoric walking id that occupies the Oval Office in-between rounds of golf and bilking the American taxpayer is insulting to any person who takes the scripture seriously. Further, the argument is that Christians are to give respect to those offices and persons who are worthy of respect. The Tanakh is filled with examples of God raising up foreign powers to chasten the people. I can make the argument biblically that God could be using Kim Jong Un. I wouldn’t, though, because I know that is not how scripture works.

Jeffress maintains pastors like me are the problem. Again, according to the Post article,  “It’s antithetical to some of the mushy rhetoric you hear from some circles today. Frankly, it’s because they are not well taught in the scriptures.” Okay, pastor. I’m game.

How about Proverbs 29:2? “When the righteous increase, the people rejoice, But when a wicked man rules, people groan.” Or Proverbs 28:15? “Like a roaring lion and a rushing bear is a wicked ruler over a poor people.” The first verse of Isaiah 10, perhaps? “Woe to those who enact evil statutes And to those who constantly record unjust decisions.” The prophet Micah said a lot about the sort of financial malfeasance of the current president: “Concerning evil, both hands do it well The prince asks, also the judge, for a bribe, And a great man speaks the desire of his soul; So they weave it together” (7:3). I could go on.

Jeffress pastors a church that boasts nearly 4,000 in worship each week. This is not a place that allows for theological exploration or variety. What is even more frightening, is that Jeffress is filling delusional Trump with talk of being God’s agent, and I imagine there has been talk of ushering in an apocalypse. I’ll be covering that in a series of blogs over the next month. But let we in the Church who understand the damaging and errant words and work of Jeffress and his ilk not be complacent. These megachurches are all around us, luring people in with their coffee bars and promises of a guaranteed place in heaven. Churches that vest authority in the personalities and whims of the pastors, limiting who deserves love and expanding who deserves damnation.

If this is the Christianity that is to remain, the faith needs to die. It pains me deeply each time I say it, but the sort of Christianity that would cozy up to Trump and empower white supremacists has nothing to do with Jesus.

And I love me some Jesus.

 

Before the Sermon: The Revelation Evaluation

 

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I have long held that not resting an hour after binging on the Revelation buffet before diving into the world-pool gives the Body of Christ a cramp. I have never preached on the Book of Revelation and for the past eight years of my sermon-giving life, I’ve maintained that I never will. Said declaration can now join “I’ll never be a pastor,” “I’ll never work with youth,” “I’ll never take a pulpit in my hometown,” and “I’m not going to earn a D.Min. from United Theological Seminary” in the Oh, really now? section of God’s file on me. 

First, let’s discuss why I have been so resistant to the Book of Revelation,* hereby referred to as Revelation. I have reasons three.

  1. Almost invariably, Revelation is ripped from its historical context, interpreted literally, and applied to situations that have literally–meant in the true sense of the word–nothing to do with a text written 2,000 years ago. The most painful part of this is the literal interpretation. As we’ll discuss in the next entry of the series, apocalyptic literature is a genre of which there can be some degree of divergence, but by definition utilizes simile, metaphor, cognitive dissonance, appositives, and wordplay lost in English translations. I had someone call me on 9/11 to say that the events were prophesied in Revelation. No, they were not. The writings might help us understand acts of violence and destruction, but we don’t often remember that God’s consistent word has been, “Bad s*** happens when you don’t take care of people around you.”    

  2. Revelation has been used inordinately by those wishing to control, persecute, torture, vilify, imprison, and judge others. Once the text has been ripped from its historical context, it most often is used as a cudgel and sword to strike into submission those seen as sinners. We joke about bible thumpers, but those blows turn into beatings. Revelation has been used to frighten people with the specter of a brutal judgment followed by eternal banishment to Hell’s brimstone bowels. I’ve never heard Revelation used in love by a Christian to a non-Christian. Just look at Westboro Baptist Church. 

  3. Revelation lends itself too easily to hucksterism. Because the text is enigmatic–as we’ll discuss, even early Christians were like WTF?–but filled with fantastical images that strike the fancy of pathos, much of Christendom has been witness to charlatans promising entry into heaven or protection from demons for the low, low price of just enough to keep you hungry and dependant upon the Church. To wit, Revelation is oft-quoted by pastors looking to get themselves a bigger jet. 

A stalwart member of the congregation has told me that one of the reasons she has felt so comfortable at the church is because I pledged to not preach from Revelation. So making this decision is not something I take lightly. I often say that our community is the last stop for some people before they give up on God or church entirely. I try to be acutely aware of problematic texts, hymns, liturgical language, etc., and to preside over a safe, inviting, affirming spiritual space. Revelation rightly makes many people want to head toward the door. 

So why the change of heart?

  1. One frequent criticism of Progressive Christians is that we “pick and choose” what to follow in Scripture. First, let’s admit that Progressive Christianity (PC) is a catch-all term for an incredibly diverse array of thoughts and hermeneutics. There is no single theology or interpretative lens through which we can look at PC. Second, let’s admit that everybody picks and chooses. Do you follow all 613 commandments in the Torah? No, you don’t, because many of them apply to the Temple and are unfulfillable. Wanna argue that Jesus has canceled the debt and the Law is no longer relevant? Then you can’t quote from Leviticus or Numbers to justify the prejudice de jour. But to the crux of the criticism: we must confront everything in our tradition honestly and with a heart that can accept the errors contained therein.

  2. I have feared that I am not intelligent enough, not educated sufficiently in the nuances of apocalyptic literature, or, more to the point, will be unable to situate the text appropriately and still hear an affirming word from God. I listed above many of the things I have said “never” about, only to end up doing them and learning a tremendous amount. I am not meant to be a youth pastor, but children’s sermons at First Presby are beloved by kids and parents alike. My tenure at the church has been rocky at times, but also one of the most significant and inspiring spiritual experiences of my life. It is where God has led me and I never want to serve anywhere else. And being in the original cohort for the MLK Beloved Community Scholars is a true honor. When I face my fears, God works mightily.

  3. I feel a responsibility to the congregation and to those who read my writing to lay bare my concerns, be honest about the challenges, and then walk publicly through a four-week series. I’ve mentioned before that writing is a compulsion for me. I process through the written word, so this will not just be a sermon series. It will be a journey together through a text that has lots of landmines, but we pray for God to show us that which might empower our walk with Christ.
  4. Finally, I feel a responsibility to non-Christians to help craft understandings of the text that can, at least for a moment or two, trip up those who wish to use the Scripture as a shillelagh. If Christians who are tired of being misrepresented want to affect change, we can’t hide from that which is difficult. 

My hope is that you will join me on this odyssey; it’ll be a lot shorter than Homer’s version, but not nearly as good. 

*Please note the singular. Let’s promote biblical literacy; there is no plural, only Zuul.