Pastor Dave talks about how the Gospel of Mathew 9:35-10:8 shapes our view of protesting, oppression, and things happening in our communities right now.
Living in an apartment, gardening takes shape in the form of a variety of pots and planters on my balcony. I have a nice little collection of plants, some herbs, strawberries, a small raspberry plant I had gotten from a friend to see if it might grow in a large pot, a cherry tomato, and some small cucumbers. So I confess my “little collection” seems to keep growing and now is close to filling the perimeter of my balcony. My balcony garden started last spring when I bought a few strawberry plants and herbs at a garden club sale. I got a long rectangular planter for the strawberries so they could be spaced out and happy. I planted them and set them out on my balcony with my few other herbs and lavender. I was very excited to think that I would have some fresh strawberries growing soon. This excitement however was short lived because the next day I looked out my window and the strawberry plants all seemed to be missing. I went out to investigate and almost all five plants seemed to be eaten down to the dirt. One seemed to have the shoot of a new leaf that survived. My guess came to be that birds had eaten, or at least taken for their nests, the strawberry plants. I think they liked the plants being up at tree level for their taking.
I brought the planter inside to try to protect the one surviving plant and come up with a plan of what to do next. I did some research and learned about using netting to protect plants from birds and I acquired some netting from some friends. I gave the little plant some time to grow and when it seemed it would survive I took the planter back outside and got it set up with the bird netting to protect it and some of my other outdoor plants. Later in the summer I noticed runners coming from the lone strawberry plant and within a few weeks there were multiple new little plants growing. Over time it produced more plants than would fit in the planter! I was so amazed at the strength of this little plant. When given care and protection it was able to flourish and produce more plants. Even though I didn’t end up with any strawberries, I was very thankful to have more plants.
My excitement about the strawberries returned this spring at the beginning of April when I noticed buds and flowers on the strawberry plants! And I had my first few ripe strawberries by about the second week of May. Most of the little berries were funky shaped and rather small, but it was still so exciting to have fruit compared to where we started. This excitement continued as my raspberry plant grew two new plant shoots, and as other plants began to flower and grow.
In the midst of the pandemic and isolating at home it has been so nice to have my little balcony garden to watch life grow, to see flowers turn to produce! There is something therapeutic about working in the dirt and watching something grow, whether from a planted seed, or a small shoot, into a full out flowering/producing plant. Whether it is by growing a garden or through another means, I hope you are all finding creative and refreshing ways to bring some new life into your days.
It’s time for our weekly round of theology and art! This week Rosanna Cartwright is back with a color drawing that’s wonderfully appropriate for the early part of the Pentecost season. It’s called “Spirit Moves Us”.
The beautiful thing about this drawing to me is the motion. The central flames rise, as flames will. Even then, they’re not straight and direct. They curve, often expanding and contracting. This mirrors the course of our lives. Strands of circumstance and choice twine around us. We don’t know in a given moment whether we’ll be going left or right, feeling full or thin and reedy. Sometimes it changes day by day. All we know is our general direction, upward and onward, warming the world while rising to something new and unknown.
The swirls around the outside of the fire are striking. They twist, running in looping circles before rising along with the central flames. They remind us that the fire affects the world around it. It gathers up the air, moving it in the dance.
Remember also that the Biblical words for “Spirit” translate to “air” and “breath”. In a blaze of light and heat, God’s central combustion sweeps up the Spirit, converting it into energy and motion around us. This is holy ground, indeed.
The brilliant, glowing colors form the last element of the picture. They leap out at us, even from a background of white. Normally you’d expect to see nighttime darkness around a fire. This one appears to be lighting everything in the universe, every other place we can see. What a comfort that upward is not the only place we need to look to see the effect of the flame. We don’t even have to look directly at the flame to see its effects. It’s shining all around!
This is an amazing image of Pentecost and the inspiration of the Spirit. Thanks, as always, to Rosanna for sharing it! You can find her Facebook page at www.facebook.com/rosanna.cartwright.3. Be sure to come back next week for more discussion of theology through art!
Ep. 76 - What's it like being a pastor? Justin and Dave share some of the joys and tribulations of the calling and how it connects to our everyday lives.
The Geek and Greek podcast is a show where two reverends talk honestly and clearly about faith, Christianity, scripture, and life.
Follow us at GeekAndGreek.com!
Chances are if you’ve dipped your hand into political streams lately, your fingers have come out of the waters feeling a little slimy. Political discourse has shifted over the last two decades. Few think the change has been for the better. It’s not just that stances have evolved; that happens between all generations. Our political conversations themselves have bent. Where once leaders united, rallying people to a common cause, they now divide, rallying people to themselves. Points of view stand less on merit than on vitriol against an opposing camp. There are still plenty of good things to stand up for. We just seem at a loss how to do it.
It might surprise you to hear a pastor say this, but much of the polarization and unfairness we experience on a regular basis started in the halls of faith. Supposedly pure Christians have been knee deep in these waters, either directly, seeking advantage, or by complicit silence in the name of “our side” winning. In the process, we’ve provided part of the playbook in use today among self-interested, often unscrupulous, civil leaders.
If you’ve ever heard someone speak and then asked, “How can anyone from a church support that person?”, well, surprise! Part of the reason it’s easy to support icky people doing icky things is that we were doing them first.
Here are some of the ways in which shady faith practices have seeped into our political/social life. See if you recognize any of them.
Scripture is amazing. It offers a lifetime of insight to readers and hearers. Scripture is also relational. Touching our lives, its words are subject to interpretation through our eyes and ears.
In the cosmic view, scripture is more powerful than any of our perceptions. In a given moment, though, what we see or hear in it depends on what we’re looking for. Churches have long taken advantage of this, pulling out passages favorable to their goals and points of view.
Few lay people have studied the Bible extensively. Genesis and Exodus are fine, but once people hit Leviticus, they head to the Cliffs Notes. Those are often provided by pastors, who interpret words and their meaning for the congregation. Oddly enough, the Bible usually ends up saying what the pastor in question wants it to say.
The Bible is a big book, a library. Its ramifications are as complex as the universe itself. Every time you’re certain it makes one assertion, you’ll find a countering one. You only find that out if you bother to look. Most don’t. Most of us seek convenient answers. Pastors are more than happy to provide them.
As preachers rush to tell you what they want you to hear—often what you want to hear as well—entire lines of reasoning get left by the wayside. No matter, though! Should anyone bring up a conflicting piece of scripture, somehow that passage always means something else or applies to someone different. With so much field to play in and so much of the ground nebulous, we always find a way to squirm out. Far from challenging or guiding us, our founding documents confirm everything we want to say anyway.
Political documents are also complex. They’re meant to be the foundations upon which we build collectively, providing communal goals to which we aspire. Somewhere along the way it feels like we’ve lost both of those purposes. We treat our documents like we treat scripture, reading them in ways that advantage us and discredit those opposing us. Should someone bring up a counter, even one from the foundational texts themselves, somehow that doesn’t apply in this instance. We see what we want to see, and what we want to see is mostly ourselves.
It’s hard to avoid whiplash watching people who campaigned for years for states’ rights and small government suddenly bless the power of the federal government and the biggest deficits in history when their side is in power. It’s weird to hear people constantly campaign for the sanctity of all human beings, who also find it easy to dismiss others without listening to them.
Then again, you consider people who constantly claim that they’re saved by God’s grace suddenly turning against this or that kind of person because of their different works and beliefs, and you begin to understand this isn’t an isolated phenomenon.
One of the most painful evolutions in modern politics has been the need to create enemies out of others in order to justify the self. The most recent evolution started with the war on communism in the 1950’s. That impulse flourished powerfully throughout the Cold War. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the U.S. won a victory, but also lost the symbolic adversary against which it had been united.
Though other, very real enemies have popped up since, none had the endurance and world-spanning gravity of the U.S.S.R. We found that, by one means or another, we could dispatch most of them. We could not so easily absolve ourselves of the need to fight someone in order to retain our identity.
Lacking obvious enemies, we began to create them, forming new unities over old prejudices.
How much of our current political discourse is based on “us vs them” thinking? People at the borders, people from certain streets and neighborhoods, people from the other political party. Intellectually we probably understand that 95% of those people are just people, fairly normal. That narrative doesn’t fulfill our need to be seen as superior, inside, and chosen. So we rally support by defining “them” as outsiders, a threat to everything that’s ours, everything we are.
This script should be anathema to all people of faith. Here’s a dirty little secret: churches were using it script long before it became standard fare across cable news channels.
Even the best congregations have trouble defining themselves in ways that transcend their own walls. We advance God by conversion, by getting people to join our group and asking them to think like us. Even relatively harmless, peaceful congregations define success by growth in numbers, objectifying others to make ourselves feel good. (Who’s really out there? We don’t know. We just know they’re supposed to come in here!) Bad congregations add motivation, demonizing outsiders and sanctifying insiders. They speak of battles between the sinful world and the holy church. They categories the world into two groups: believers versus unbelievers, saved versus condemned. The kinder-hearted among them are encouraged to get out there and “save souls” from the enemy. Less-charitable members are whipped up to fight against evil, godless forces.
Somewhere along the line, our identity stops being defined by the God we serve and the graceful spirit we share in the world. Instead we are defined by the opposition. How can we know how saintly we are unless we clearly identify how sinful our neighbors are? When we can’t find any overt examples, we’ll invent them. Without an enemy, we have no identity.
Defining the Institution as Its Own Good
Churches are supposed to do good things. Most do! But who gets to define “good” and who is the good for? Inevitably, when we hold the reins of power, we end up defining good in the way we wish to see it. That usually ends up being “good for us”.
Churches have long been in the practice of defining goodness by their own priorities. You can hear it in every appeal made at annual meetings that people give “to keep the doors open and the lights on”. This implies that existing is its own justification. As long as we continue, goodness continues. If we stop, so will the goodness.
We further buttress the argument by attributing both the building and its functions to the divine. “This is God’s house.” God does not walk with us in our daily lives. God does not dwell in our homes. God is here, in this large building with the fancy decorations. God’s power lies in the church and is evidenced through church missions. If we don’t exist, how will God ever be known?
Making these claims, we invert the absolutely true statement, “Churches exist to do good, godly things” into the much less savory, “If a church does it, it IS good and godly [because the church is doing it].” The first implies service, sharing power, valuing all people. The second reserves power for the institution itself, setting it as the foundation upon which goodness and God rest.
We hear this same rhetoric when people talk about the power of the state. It’s presumed that--give or take extracting taxes, which nobody likes—any power exercised by those in authority is justifiable simply because it’s exercised on behalf of the authority. Self-interest and institutional interest replace those initial questions of, “What is good?” and, “Who is this good for?” When this happens, people suffer.
Quelling Protest by Invoking the Divine
For years, church folks have sidestepped questions about their own systems by saying, “It’s not me, but God!” Calling out a church person, let alone a church leader, is likened to fighting against the very Founder of the Universe.
Hiding behind institutional power, interpretations of scripture, and the robes of Jesus, church people have taken unassailable positions, wolves among sheep. Should their convictions ever become assailable, the church person is quick to respond with slippery-slope horror stories of what would happen should faith and the divine cease to exist.
We don’t talk about whether we’re doing things ethically because we’re too busy jumping to the supposed End of the Universe should our aims be thwarted.
Unsurprisingly, abuse thrives in this kind of environment. It’s one of the saddest side-effects of our mindset, and as we’re finding out, not at all uncommon.
One doesn’t have to go too far to see parallels in our political/social life. Accusations of injustice are interpreted as attempts to tear down the whole system of power. Protests are met with counter-calls about patriotism and the need for order, enforced, if necessary, by armed might. Questioning one thing—even an isolated event that is obviously unjust—supposedly threatens everything. “It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”
We’re offered opposing poles of unquestioned authority or end-of-the-world anarchy, with no discussion possible in between. Since anarchy is much scarier (and less desirable) than the status quo, this becomes a convenient way to preserve the power of those already in authority, also to preserve them from prying eyes or questioning. Under these conditions, abuse thrives in the civil world as much as it does in the church environment.
Appealing to the 5%
Most everything we’ve talked about up until now has been as old as the hills. This last element, though, is relatively new in our national politics. It’s come directly from the church world as surely as an IV injected into the veins.
You may have wondered how a televangelist can look into a camera and tell people with a straight face that God told him he needs a new, multi-million-dollar private jet in order to fulfill his ministry. You’ve probably laughed out loud at the thought of anyone falling for it.
Here’s the thing. “Anybody” doesn’t have to fall for it. 95% of people will do just what you’ve done: shake their heads and walk away. The 5% remaining, though? That’s still a lot of people with a lot of money…enough for that shiny jet and more. A stump preacher can thrive more gloriously off of a fanatical 5% of the population than they can off of a reasonable 50%.
Political talk radio hosts were among the first to discover this truth. Measured by total number of listeners compared to national population, none of them are really that popular. But a small slice of the country, fanatically devoted, is still an enormous audience. Polarizing hosts fared much better than even-handed colleagues. You’ll have a hard time finding “even handed” behind a microphone anymore.
Talk radio came into its own in the 1980’s. Almost 40 years later, the medium has become a touchstone for the politically-inclined and politicians themselves. They can’t quite operate on a strict 5% principle. They need more than that to get elected. But elections are swung on a firm base, plus undecideds.
In the televangelist/talk-radio era, politicians who have struggled to sway undecided voters have taken the opposite tack, enlarging their base by polarizing the populace, effectively eliminating the middle ground. Like the preacher wanting his jet, they don’t care about appearing reasonable to everybody, but appearing unreasonably right to enough people to get the job done. Casualties aren’t to be avoided, they’re an intrinsic part of the process. Fanaticism is less enemy than virtue, a sign of conviction and strength. Instead of defusing and building coalitions, these leaders escalate crises, hoping to profit from the debris.
Admittedly, all these examples are overdrawn and oversimplified, but the core truth remains. Most of the things we lament about politics, we did first—or at least alongside—as people of faith. Some of these things we’re still doing, consciously or as part of a system we take for granted.
We may not be able to change the world, but we sure as heck can take a better look at our own behavior, methods, and assumptions. The old approach hasn’t led us anywhere good. The “faith” in the admittedly-provocative title of this article isn’t what faith is really supposed to be, but what we’ve chosen for our convenience and advantage. Whatever else we decide it’s time for in this turbulent era, it’s certainly time to change that.
It’s not too late to chart a new course. We’re going to rebound from these things. The question is, what will we rebound into? Here’s hoping and praying it’s something better.
Some of you may know that over the course of my time working at Shepherd of the Valley I have been completing my training to become a Deaconess (and was supposed to have my consecration back in March). One of the things I completed while here was my final project. The final project can be anything from a short research paper to a piece of artwork. For my final project I was blessed to be able to work with Edie Martin and build a stained-glass window. I spent many days last summer working on this project to complete it by my final approval interview last October.
I quickly learned that this was going to be quite a project that would take much time and dedication. I drew parallels between the process of making my window and my formation as a deaconess. Each piece of glass is cut, ground, and sanded to its exact shape--but sometimes a piece would not break correctly along the score line and I would have to adjust and recut it. If I was off the traced line with the score mark and break, a lot of grinding was required to get the correct shape. It was important to shape each piece to fit into its spot or the whole image would be affected. The whole window could “grow” if the pieces were too big. This process made me think about community and how we are each formed and shaped along our journey, but in different ways and to serve different purposes. Just as each piece of glass has its own place in the puzzle as part of the whole image, every member plays a role in community to make it complete.
After all the glass was cut, the leading process began, which entailed fitting each piece together with the lead pieces that hold them together. Sometimes pieces needed more grinding to fit into their spot correctly--and other pieces had been ground a little too much and were a loose fit. Eventually though, every piece was wrapped and put into place, and all the pieces became a whole.
Next, I had to solder all the joints so they would hold the piece together, solidifying the connections and giving the window strength. Finally, came the cementing and cleaning processes, filling in the spaces between the glass and lead, firmly holding everything in place. This represents the ways we as a community support and strengthen each other when we are together. We are often stronger as a whole than as individuals.
The image consists of two pine trees in the foreground with a lake in the bottom right corner. The background shows three hills and a rising/setting sun and the sky. There are two rows of border glass that tie into the brighter colors from the inner image. The central image is a representation of me and my growth through my time as a deaconess student. The two pine trees are significant for several reasons. First, because I grew up under two large pine trees, so they represent where I came from. Second, the trees with nearby lake represent the camp where I first discerned a call to youth/outdoor ministry.
It was at camp where I first found community and a place where I could fully be myself. Finally, hidden within the branches of the trees is the shape of the Tao Rho, which represents how I have been shaped and formed by my diaconal community and into my diaconal identity--a sometimes subtle identity that has always been a part of who I am. Because of my student formation, I now have words to help me express it. The trees are my story and show how I have grown into who I am through the communities around me who have supported and challenged me along my journey to where I am now.
This project tells the story of my journey--from my beginnings, to my sense of call, to being shaped and formed by diaconal community. And now, the journey has given me the courage to move to Idaho and live into my calling of diaconal ministry. When I started the window I wasn’t thinking about these things, it was after it was completed as I began to reflect on the image that I began to see how much meaning was really wrapped up in it! The Spirit works in amazing ways.
Ep. 75 - Forgiveness! Does it mean what we've been taught it means? Justin and Dave suggest some ways we can look at forgiveness that bring about more goodness and less harm to ourselves and the vulnerable among us.
The Geek and Greek podcast is a show where two reverends talk honestly and clearly about faith, Christianity, scripture, and life.
Follow us at GeekAndGreek.com!
This week in our Faith and Art series, we have another wonderful stained glass work by Shepherd of the Valley artist Edie Martin. Last week Edie’s subject was the lion lying down with the lamb in Isaiah. This week she portrays a couple stories from the gospels: Jesus Feeding the 5000 and the assurance not to worry, that God watches out for even the lilies of the field.
As usual with Edie’s work, the joy comes in the details, how subtly they match together. The first thing I noticed about this piece was not the central figure, but the crowd of people looking over his shoulder. They’re juxtaposed with the flowers in the lower left, creating a frame. They’re related by color. The clothes of the people pick up the same hues as the blossoms. We remember that God says he’ll care for the flowers. We also remember that God cares for us in the same way. We become the flowers, blooming and growing, clothed in love.
Interestingly enough, other bits of the crowd’s clothing matches the colors of the food in the center. As we’re loved, we’re also meant to nourish others, both physically and with the same care God grants us. Whether we’re flowers being nurtured or food for nourishing others, we’re part of the process.
Though several colors populate the piece, red-orange stands out most to me. After seeing it connects people and flowers, we notice it also shines forth in the sun, representing warmth and light from the sky. The things that define us and bring us life also bind us to the deepest parts of the universe. We glow with God’s grace, united to each other and to the divine.
The figure in the middle brings all of these things together in a single moment of resolve. “Are you hungry? Be fed.” For a moment, all the connections between us, the universe, and God coalesce in a plate of bread and fish, into the most basic human transaction: eating. This ordinary thing becomes extraordinary and cosmically relevant. Our simplest acts of kindness and community care connect us to each other and the world in the most powerful way possible.
You don’t have to create a perfect system of government or write a philosophical treatise to change the world. Share food with your neighbor who is hungry. You’ve now done an act as powerful as any king of old, as deep as the world itself.
The child holding the food has that same red-orange hair. The power of God and all the universe shows through him. Is he a child, or is he Jesus? When we look into the frame watching, are we standing in the sandals of the Savior, looking down at food offered by a young person, ready to receive and distribute? Or are we a recipient, being fed? Do these distinctions even matter anymore? As the meal is shared, we, God, and all the people around us become one. Those sharing the food, those partaking, and God are wrapped together, united in a single act of love.
What a lovely moment. What a striking depiction.
You can find Edie on Facebook @ediemartinglass and see more of her artwork at www.ediemartinglass.com.
Come back next week to find more artwork from your friends and neighbors and more clues about how our lives relate to God’s!
Yesterday the President of the United States held a conference call with State Governors, followed by a speech at the White House. During these conversations he called upon state governors to “control the battlefield” and “dominate” their communities in response to protests and riots over racial unrest. In his speech, he also claimed that if governors did not do so, he would deploy the U.S. military against citizens in the streets.
Following this speech, police cleared the area of a peaceful protest, using tear gas, so the President could walk across the street to St. John’s Episcopal Church, stand in front of it, and lift a Bible in his hand for a photo opportunity. The diocese governing that church has condemned this action forcefully. Today, stories have come out that church staff and other volunteers were serving at St. John’s at the time. They were also driven out by the tear gas.
We are living through uncertain, volatile times. We’ve seen acts more horrific than making a few threats and walking across the street. We are free to speak of and condemn these things as we see fit, personally and as congregations. We have the ability to operate within the rights and laws our nation sets out for us.
When a government official makes threats of violence against fellow human beings, then lifts the Bible in front of a church to justify the action, that official makes an incorrect claim about God. When church workers are driven from places of worship and sanctuary so their building can be used as a prop, it calls into question the purpose and power of the church itself.
We should not remain silent in the face of injustice anywhere. Our calling as people of faith is to protect the vulnerable and lift up the marginalized. We must not remain silent when God and God’s Word are used as tools to do just the opposite.
The Bible that the President lifted in his photo opportunity includes these words:
13 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends.
As we seek to uphold the law, it says this:
34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
When we are tempted to divide the world into “good people” and “bad people”, creating a division between “us” and “them”, it says this:
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Even if we believed the rhetoric that is being put before us, even if we feared for our self-interests as we are being encouraged to do, we are commanded to react differently than the President did yesterday. The witness given by that action was wrong, the words and implications incongruent with the book he held in his hands and the church he stood in front of to justify himself.
The people in St. John’s Episcopal church giving aid belonged there. The President did not. His words did not live up to the inspiration of the book he used in order to justify them.
Faith does not oppress.
Love does not dominate.
Our communities are not a battlefield to be conquered, our neighbors are not enemies.
God is not a symbol, a prop, or a tool. Neither is scripture. Neither is the church.
To these things, people of faith say no. On behalf of neighbors who have no voice, or whose voices are being silenced, the people of God rise up and say no. In the face of violence, threats to control or eradicate, being called enemies of order or progress or safety, the church says NO.
We will speak for love, now and always, in every time and place. We will not be used. We will not give up. We will not be silenced or driven out. We do not live or die to ourselves, but to the God we serve…the God who embraces all children, especially the most vulnerable, for the sake of goodness.
Here, and everywhere, we will stand… stand in faith, stand for love, stand together.
Responding faithfully in times of injustice and tension.