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December 2007
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Six Years of Shame

Today, January 11th, 2008, marks the six year anniversary of the arrival of the first men held at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. If I didn't have another long-standing commitment to my writing partner today, I hope that I would have the nerve to join in the long line of people, dressed in orange jumpsuits, who will process to the steps of the Supreme Court in protest of the inhumane treatment of these fellow human beings, held in violation of U.S. law and in an ill-advised evasion of the Geneva Conventions.

If you've allowed yourself to forget what's being done by our country here's a quick summary from the Witness Torture.org website:

On January 11th, 2002, twenty hooded and shackled men shuffled off a plane from Afghanistan, arriving at the U.S. prison at Guantánamo. In an attempt to sidestep the Geneva Convention protections for prisoners of war, the Bush administration created a new category of "enemy combatant" for these men captured in the "war on terror."

Since that time, more than one thousand men and boys have been imprisoned at Guantánamo. Accounts of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment have been condemned by the United Nations, Human Rights Watch and other reputable bodies. The prisoners have resorted to hunger strikes as a way of protesting their treatment. Many have attempted suicide; three men allegedly killed themselves on June 10, 2006; a fourth died on May 30, 2007. Desperation, fear and frustration mark their confinement.

Six years later, not a single prisoner has been charged, tried or convicted of terrorism. Many have been released because no evidence has been found against them, but more than 380 men remain in indefinite detention without hope of release. The United States has abandoned law and justice.

Yesterday, in the course of looking for something else on the web, I came across yet another tirade against the "moral relativism" which characterizes "postmodern culture", written by a Christian minister who claimed that the work of the church was to call the world around back to the moral foundation on which this country was built. And while I used to argue with this kind of diagnosis of the world's problems, these days I find myself wishing that we would reclaim a moral baseline--a way to say to the world, there are some things we just won't do. I have tried to do that in my own life, even as I navigate the sometimes choppy waters of postmodernism. I used to think I lived in a country that had a moral bottom line, but Guantanamo and Abu Grahib have made me realize that there really is a kind of moral relativism that is deeply threatening to our world.

If you, like me, want the powers that be to stop torturing people in your name, there are a number of websites with suggestions of how to make your objection heard.

And, there are glimmers of hope. Code Pink pointed out an amazing story from the British press of a small garden that several Guantanamo prisoners have been tending, planted with seeds recovered from their food, dug with plastic spoons. That amazes me--and also confirms for me that the Holy Spirit will continue to call us to hope, even when the outward conditions of our lives give us only reason to despair.


Puzzle Masters Needed

Over winter vacation, I managed to avoid seeing "Alvin and the Chipmunks" but I did see just about every other kid movie that is currently out. In fact, I've seen probably 75% of all kids movies released over the past 4 or 5 years. I'm not whining about this either, although some of them have been truly terrible. I do occasionally look around the theater at these movies and wonder at the adults who seem to have willinging gone to a kids' movie without any kids with them. But who knows, I may be one of them in a few years, because even when these movies have weak plots and mediocre acting, they often address important personal and social issues in creative, accessible ways.

I've been impressed, in particular, by how many of these movies deal with questions around the use of force and the potential for creative problem solving. I was absolutely entralled with the Fantasic Four sequel out this past summer, Rise of the Silver Surfer, and talked about it to anyone who would listen to the great embarrassment of my kids (who still haven't forgiven me for asking the people near me in the theater if they wanted to talk about the theological questions raised by Batman Begins ). Over Christmas break I completely enjoyed "National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets" in large part because of the message it communicated about our failed strategy in Iraq.

Okay, I know this sounds like a stretch. But hear me out. Throughout this movie, Nicholas Cage is trying to solve a puzzle in order to prove to the world that his grandfather was not involved with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. In the course of following a series of really obscure clues which only he could trace, he realizes that he is being followed by a bad guy who wants the treasure at the end of his search. The bad guy has a gun, unlike Nicholas Cage, and whenever things get confusing or difficult, he resorts to violence or the treat of violence to solve the problem. But in this movie, violence only ever gets in the way of solving the problem. In fact, in ends up causing many more problems. Why? Because the problem is, in the end, a puzzle, and puzzles can't be solved with a gun. Threats don't help solve them, and fear gets in the way. A puzzle-solver has no use for violence.

I thought of this lesson again this morining as I was listening to another segment of NPR's series on the troop surge in Iraq, one year later. Today's story included interviews with U.S. army officers who are trying to untangle the political puzzle in Iraq. One officer was trying to open three hospitals, and he sounded almost on the verge of tears as he described his fruitless efforts to meet with an Iraqi health administrator. My heart went out to this man who knows better than most of us the limits of what can be solved with force and the threat of violence.

Clearly, what Iraq needs is a Nicolas Cage-style puzzle solver--someone who has the depth of knowledge of history and relationships and the personal delicacy and the doggedness it takes to solve a really complex puzzles. My guess is that person would be an Iraqi, but perhaps he or she would benefit from a partnership with an international team of puzzle solvers. Maybe there are kids now who will grow up to be those puzzle masters--but they will need a lot more nudges, a lot more coaching than one entertaining movie can provide.


Baptism of Jesus

This second week of Epiphany week we remember the Baptism of Jesus. It is difficult (maybe impossible) to try and apply any sort of chronological coherence to the lectionary readings—last week Jesus was a toddler and in three weeks he begins his journey toward Jerusalem and his crucifixion! Nevertheless, this week we find John Baptizing Jesus.

Now, you don’t need us to emphasize that this is an Important Moment. As we read the scripture in Matthew (and even if we compare it to how the story unfolds in the other gospels) we can see that this is the event that propels Jesus in to his official public ministry. Before this all we really know of him through the scripture is that (assuming you were listening to Heather’s Story for All Ages last Sunday) Jesus was growing up and had been found in the temple impressing rabbis. His Baptism is the moment that it all begins. Before there was a lot of rumor and assumption and conjecture, but this is where Jesus is Affirmed and Named and Ordained by God.

There is a lot of potency in this moment.

Even within this scene of Baptism expectation continues to mount as the water rushes by John and Jesus (and whomever else might be standing around).

John had been publicly talking and dreaming about Jesus. He had been laying the path for Jesus--Preparing the Way. Today the Eastern Orthodox Church still refers to John as St. John the Forerunner  —he was the one who came before the One who was to come. We do not know from this text if Jesus and John knew one another before hand. It is fun to assume that they did since their mothers were relatives and both boys were the result of some Divine Intervetion. It is fun to assume they grew up together and learned Torah together and knew which one ran the fastest and which one sung the best.

But when Jesus shows up at the Jordan where crowds from Jerusalem have gathered for Baptism John protests. John is Baptizing for Repentance, an important concept in the return to covenant relationship with Yahweh. John seems to believe he is not worthy to Baptize Jesus or that Jesus does not need this Baptism of Repentence. He seems to believe there is something in Jesus that is more holy or more worthy or more important than he is and he (John) should not participate and need not facilitate it. 

Why would he think this? What was he expecting? Well, as we look at the passages this week in Isaiah and the Psalm we are reminded of the high standards and expectations folks had for what qualities and abilities the messiah would possess.

In Isaiah, we see described a leader that brings justice to the nations, has great endurance to accomplish these tasks, and is gentle and humble as he accomplishes these things.

In response to John’s protest, Jesus even answers, “Let it be so for now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness (NRSV).” Isaiah describes a just leader, one whom God has called in righteousness.

And what else is special about this moment in the river? After the Baptism the Heavens Opened and the Spirit of God descended on him and a Voice from Heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Again, this is not a Small Moment.

In our culture it is easy for us to become calloused to hearing accounts of people with whom God has spoken. Any of us can quickly find a book or a television show where someone relates a personal interaction with God. And this causes a primary difficulty in our understanding of scripture today. In our view, we have become too familiar and friendly and flippant about God and our possible interaction with the Creator of All that Is.

In Matthew it says the Spirit of God descended on Jesus and a Voice from Heaven claimed Jesus as The Beloved.

Wow. 

Look at the respect for God that is shown in Isaiah. Look at the respect for God shown in the Psalm this week. We see the Lord described as powerful and glorious and full of majesty and ruling over the waters and breaking the cedars and flashing forth fire and shaking the wilderness and stripping the forest bare and ruling over the flood and ruling as king forever. Throughout the Hebrew scripture and the New Testament, God’s appearances are accompanied by lighting, thunder, wind, and earthquakes. 

This is no Small God.

The Acts passage reinforces the importance of God’s presence and intention in Jesus’ ministry. Because God ordained Jesus, because God chose certain people to witness the resurrection, those people are charged with going and teaching about Jesus’ purpose, “that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” This sort of turns John’s Baptism of Repentance on its ear…forgiveness is through Jesus and his teachings and is available to anyone (not just the Jews) who believe in him--covenant is recovered and restored and made whole through Jesus.

Those who stood in the river and witnessed this Baptism Witnessed a Sea Change.

Jesus was called, responded, was baptized, was blessed / ordained, and then went forward with his ministry from that place. To our knowledge, he did not have to finish a class or fill out a workbook to qualify to be Baptized. To our knowledge, he did not have to fill out any sort of form guaranteeing what he would accomplish after his Baptism. He was Called and he Responded.

At his response he was affirmed in who he was and what he was doing. Then he launched out in to the world to do the work that he felt called to do. Did he know that after this he would be sent in to the wilderness and tempted? Did he know at this time that it would all end up in brutal death and crucifixion? According to scripture there is no way we can be certain. However, we do know that he felt a Calling on his life, he Responded, and his Response was met with Love and Affirmation.

+As Ada asked us in worship this past Sunday, what event or moment in time did you know you were Loved by God?

+What call has God placed on your life? How have you received that call?

+Where are you met with love and affirmation? How do you respond?

“MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

- Thomas Merton, "Thoughts in Solitude"
© Abbey of Gethsemani


Hope for Kenya

Last year at this time, news of a botched election and inter-tribal violence in Kenya would have been just another sad headline for me. Now, after meeting a number of Kenya church leaders at the Amahoro-Africa gathering I attended in Uganda this past May, this is news that has a human face for me. But Edward Simiyu, one of the Kenyan pastors I met, has given me a reason to do more than worry. He's given me a chance to hope that this conflict might not devolve into the Rwandan-style worse-case-scenarios that some have predicted. I'll attach his most recent email below, and I hope you'll consider writing to him some words of support.

Dear Amahoro Friends,

The last week has been filled with tragedy, confusion, chaos, anger, and disappointment for people across Kenya. Tens of thousands have been displaced, hundreds have lost their lives, and millions have been affected in innumerable ways. The rapid descent into chaos has shocked Kenya to the core. Seeing widespread ethic killings and the ghosts of the Rwandan genocide occurring within the Kenyan boarders is not something that we had ever dreamed possible.

We know many of you have been closely following the story in the media if you have not been living it here inside Kenya's borders. Thankfully, both of us and our families are safe. We want to thank all of you have sent words of encouragement and expressions of concern in this difficult time. Unfortunately, many people were not as lucky.

We believe that it is times like these that people across Kenya need to know that they are loved by others outside of their ethnic groups. They need to be reminded that the love of Jesus knows no boundaries.

What we would like to propose is that a caravan of vehicles drive from Nairobi to Eldoret, which has seen some of the most extreme violence and division, to deliver crucial aid of food stuffs, blankets, clothes and medicine. On the trip, we plan to stop and spend time with youth manning checkpoints on the roads who are looking for people of the opposing ethnic groups on which to take revenge. We would like to remind these youths that they are loved and that there are better ways to respond to this crisis. The two of us have committed to each driving a vehicle for the 5-7 day trip.

To have the greatest impact for people in Eldoret, we need your help. We are looking for:
People willing to make the trip with us or join/support us along the way
4WD vehicles (preferably White Land Cruisers that are known to be used in humanitarian aid responses)
Foodstuffs
Clothing
Blankets
Money
Prayers
We believe that this activity is just the sort of practical intervention that the church should be making at this crucial time and very much along the lines of our discussions at the last Amahoro gathering.

If you have any of those items that you would like to contribute to this mission, please contact either of us as soon as possible.

Your brothers in Christ,

Edward Simiyu (mwenduti@yahoo.com) & Aaron Sundsmo (asundsmo@gmail.com)


What Shall I Give Him, Poor As I Am?

A number of years ago, I actually got a free haircut as a result of the hymn, "In the Bleak Midwinter". That beautiful song (with an admittedly grim title) concludes "What shall I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a wise man, I would do my part. Yet what I can I'll give him--give my heart." After a worship service during which we sang that song, a woman in my congregation in Massachusetts who was a beautician approached me and said, "Well, I'm no shepherd either, but I'd also like to give what I can, and I could give you a lot better haircut than the one you have." Needless to say I took her up on her offer. She even waxed my eyebrows--all as a gift to Jesus, of course.

This Sunday is Epiphany, the Sunday when we retell and of course elaborate on the story of the visit the magi paid to baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph. The kings came with gifts, and my meditations on this week's scripture has allowed me to continue (and I hope deepen a bit) my reflections about gift-giving which have occupied a fair portion of my brain since mid-December.

I can vaguely remember enjoying giving Christmas presents back when Dan and I were first dating, back before our finances were combined and before Christmas became so expensive with kids and travel. Now, I've come to resent the commercial take-over of the holiday and the over-abundance of stuff in my kids bedrooms so much that I don't really enjoy the gift-giving part of Christmas. In general, I think there's more blessing to be found in reflecting on what you have received, how richly you've been blessed, than in reflecting on how much you've given to the world and the people around you. I think this is especially true around Christmas when churches tend to boast about all the toys, gloves, mittens and money they've given to the poor and needy without ever commenting on what they've received from those same people.

But this year, I had such a powerful experience of gift-giving in mid-December that I've had to rethink my "it's better to receive than give" attitude. We had our first-ever Jazz Worship service at KC on December 16th, the culmination of about five months of planning with a team of musicians and many years of dreaming on my own. I had a deep, gut-level feeling that it would be good, but I felt almost superstitious about talking the service with other people beforehand.

And then, a truly wonderful thing happened. We had a run-through on the Wednesday before the service, and the music was EVEN BETTER than I had imagined. As someone who constantly has to downscale my expectations in order to be okay with reality, I was almost beside myself with delight. I decided that I had to rise to the occasion myself, and not just offer a business-as-usual sermon. So on the Saturday before the Sunday evening service, I got up at 6:30 am to drive to Baltimore to run in an 8K race with my twin sons and a friend. We got back around noon, and at 1:00 pm I sat down at my computer and wrote my best attempt at a poetry-slam style sermon. It took me less than an hour to write, and when I was done, I called my friend Nancy and read it to her. Her response was, "Wow." I made a couple changes, closed the file, and then my kids and I made about five dozen cookies for a reception before the concert.

On Sunday, we only had time to run through the music briefly and then I asked the bass player and the drummer to kind of back me up during my poem/sermon. They were completely un-phased by my request, as if playing back up for a sermon like that is something they do every day. And while they did a great job at the rehearsal, during the performance they were beyond fantastic. It was as if they were reading my mind, talking right along with me in their own musical language. The ten minutes I took to give that reflection were perhaps ten of the most wonderful minutes of my life.

Why? Well, in describing the service to a friend of mine the next day, I found myself saying that I had my "Babette's Feast" moment. At the end of that wonderful story, Isak Dineson writes, "Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me leave to do my utmost." I felt that on the night of the Jazz service, I did my best. I don't think it was perfect, but I felt like I really gave my best self to the evening.

I have been proud of other things I've been a part of at KC, but this was different. It wasn't a community effort. It was really my vision, combined with the talents of the musicians. There's part of me that feels a little guilty about this. It's not, after all, really the way we do things at KC. My job title is "Enabling Minister", and mostly I am called on to facilitate other people in the community bringing forth their gifts, in worship and in the world. And don't get me wrong--I really like that work. But the Jazz service was different. The satisfaction came from me giving my own gifts to God--in the presence of an appreciative community.

I have told the story of a dream that helped me understand my call to ministry several times at KC, and I will only summarize it here. In the dream, I'm standing in a long line of people who are going to give gifts to the Pope (who I realize is my stand-in for God. I know, go figure.) While other people are giving the pope useful items like blenders and toasters, I give the pope a photo album of all my ancestors. And the pope tells me that all of the useful gifts will be given to the poor, but the photo album is something that he will keep himself.

That's what my goal in life is, in a nutshell. I want to give my whole self to God. At times, that dream has helped me to remember that I need to give God the bad and ugly parts of myself as well as the beautiful parts. But ever since the Jazz service, I've been thinking. Maybe the call to give yourself wholly to God also is a call to find ways to do your very, very best. To offer God not just a solid days work or a decent attempt, but to offer God the gold, the frankincense and myrrh, the shiniest, most fragrant and most exquisite work you can muster.


Poem

        When the song of the angels is stilled,
        When the star in the sky is gone,
        When the kings and princes are home,
        When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
        The work of Christmas begins:

                    To find the lost,
                    To heal the broken,
                    To feed the hungry,
                    To release the prisoner,
                    To rebuild the nations,
                    To bring peace among brothers,
                    To make music in the heart.

from a Poem by Howard Thurman Submitted by Allan Lohaus


Epiphany

We don'€™t know about the rest of you, but we have both experienced darkness in our lives that seemed like it might not end.  For both of us 2007 began by ending marriages that were doing more damage than good, finding different places to work, and beginning the struggle of finding a new community.  2007 began with four or five months of Inky Darkness.

Have you known Darkness? It sits heavy on your chest and makes it tough to breathe, it pins you down in your bed (in a bad way), it causes tastes and smells and colors to not have depth and vibrance.  Sometimes life goes so Dark it is difficult to remember what light looks like. 

However, the great thing about being God'€™s creation is that there are also moments when everything is full of Life and Light and blue streams and green pastures and the world is full of Potential.

This week we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany.  On the twelfth day after Christmas the ancient church celebrated the Incarnation of Christ (bringing light to the world), the Baptism of Jesus (washing away darkness), the Visitation of the Wise Men (following the Light in the sky), and the miracle of the Wedding at Cana (making a potentially dark evening a night full of joy).  Epiphany was a big day in the early church.  Still today we look toward this festival with excitement and expectation as we recognize and remember the Life and Light that bubbles in each of us.  The questions of how and why are not as important on this day - the focus is on the Excitement of Potential.

Even among the darkness this year contained for both of us new jobs, the development and growth of relationship, finding a new community, and understanding in new ways (possibly for the first time) the meaning of compassion, love, forgiveness, grace, and commitment.

There are days when, after spending a Great While in a Deep Darkness, a Light Shines and drives the darkness away. Some days, after spending time in a Heavy Thirst, there is a Cool Drink of Water that offers greater refreshment that could have imagined. Every once in a while, after breathing nothing but Polluted Air, a Fresh Clean Breeze blows and the green leaves sing.

This week the writers are all dreaming of and living toward the place of All Light. They are dreaming of how wonderful the world could be when everything is Just Right. They are appreciating...they are wallowing around in the Presence of God. They are dreaming of the potential of the Kingdom.

It continues to be important to look at the context of scripture so we can understand the magnitude of what is being said, felt, and experienced in order to consider the same magnitude in our own context.

This week's reading from Isaiah continues to wax poetic about what Jerusalem will look like when everything is restored.  The prophet is envisioning a time and space when the Temple is restored and surrounding nations honor Jerusalem.  These verses depict a vision of Jerusalem as the victor and the dominant power within its cultural sphere.

The Psalmist asks God to bestow every good thing on their King.  Again, it is a beautiful picture that is painted of what the perfect leader could or might look like.  The writer also envisions the society built and maintained by this ideal leader - one where justice reigns and the poor and needy are lifted up.  Like the prophet Isaiah, the Psalmist writes from a place and time where there is little division between faith, economics and politics.  And, also like Isaiah, the Psalmist dreams of a day when Light will again reign over Darkness.

A world with no divisions among people is Paul'€™s Dream of Light.  He proclaims that God, through Jesus Christ, reaches out to all people--Jews and Gentiles together.  He expands the vision past faith, economic and political spheres.  He is not talking about the Temple in Jerusalem - he is talking about a nation without the drag of ethnic or political boundaries.

And specifically in Matthew 2.10 we see the Magi, the Wise Men, overwhelmed with joy because they are experiencing God in flesh and they see nothing but potential.  These men are not Jews, and they are paying homage to the new "King."  The context of Israel's historic expectation is being redefined, stretched and expanded.

The word €chiaroscuro refers to the use of light and dark in art. Many people who have spent time painting have learned that sometimes to make a light space really bright, it has to be placed right next to a dark space. Sometimes we need the darkness to appreciate and see and understand the light.

In our lives, the dark times not only make the light seem brighter - time in darkness draws out details and offers changed perspective.  The times we feel all alone and separated from God give us the chance to appreciate the times of light and joy.  The moments of light help us have a different understanding of the dark days.

Times of darkness make us able to appreciate subtle moments of joy when they are present. Because light shines in the darkness and darkness has not overcome it, we can live confidently knowing that our lives (individually and as a community of followers) are made up of both.

This past year, we've walked at times in deep, seemingly Impenetrable Darkness; and, this past year, we've seen a Great Light.

+What do you know/observe/remember/experience during dark times?
+What do you know/observe/remember/experience during light times?
+How is God present in your light times and your dark times?
+What do you learn from times of lightness and darkness?

"Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses' arms.  Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you."