The Cross and the Lynching Tree — Throwback Thursday Books

“Two Italians were lynched in Florida. The Italian Government protested, but it was found that they were naturalized Americans. The inalienable right of every free American citizen to be lynched without tiresome investigation and penalties is one which the families of the lately deceased doubtless deeply appreciate.” — The Crisis, Volume I, Number 1 (November, 1910).

In its first issue, The Crisis, official publication of the NAACP (launched by W. E. B. DuBois and associates) published the bloody but wry notice of a Florida lynching. Since Italian immigrants had not yet approximated or achieved Whiteness in the United States, they were still subject to the same extra-judicial executions as Black people in this country. This was the only mention of lynching in the inaugural issue.

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By the fourth issue of the newspaper, “Lynching” had become a regular heading and a steady report of the ongoing terrorism against Black individuals and communities in America. It was included in the “Opinion” section of the paper. In that February 1911 issue, the publishers quoted an editorial from the Sioux City (Iowa!) Herald opinion page. Please remember that this is the same part of the country that a century later would produce the election of Steve King to the U. S. House of Representatives.

“The Sioux City Herald has an editorial pointing out how little the laws of the country protect black men,” The Crisis reports. “‘The record of the year 1910,’ it says, ‘is tainted by the stories of mob rule and murder of black people in the South. “Eight Negroes lynched in Alabama, eight in Arkansas, eight in Florida, ten in Georgia, five in Mississippi, three in Missouri, one in North Carolina, one in Oklahoma, one in South Carolina, two in Tennessee and four in Texas. A national scandal, a race crime. Besides these 52 black men, five whites
were lynched, four of them in the South and one in Ohio. There were 75 lynchings in the United States in 1909 and 65 in 1908.”

The publishers were playing a bit of “catch up” in their reporting of this ongoing horror. They would continue the collection of reports, rumors, photos, and outrages for the next several decades. These reports served as one of the many precursors for the comprehensive work of the Equal Justice Initiative, both in its own reports, and in its memorial and museum on the grounds of the EJI dedicated to remembering and reporting the American history of white lynching of black people. These reports are part of the data set which will inform several of my posts leading up to Holy Week 2021.

Today I reflect on a book that I have read several times — James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree. This is not an “old” book, having first been published in 2011. But it represents a culminating summary of Cone’s work in the theology of Black (and therefore of human) liberation over the previous five decades. I return to this text as we approach Holy Week and Good Friday, and I will refer to it in a number of posts next week in preparation for preaching and teaching on the Passion of Jesus the Messiah.

“Despite the obvious similarities between Jesus’ death on a cross and the death of thousands of black men and women strung up to die on a lamppost or tree,” Cone writes, “relatively few people, apart from black poets, novelists, and other reality-seeing artists, have explored the symbolic connections. Yet,” he continues, “I believe this is a challenge we must face” (page xiii). Reading Cone’s text is a searing and gut-wrenching experience for those of us who live in the community of and in continuity with the perpetrators of such crimes. But without this sort of historical, personal, and theological reckoning, we can never begin to think about the repentance, repair, and rehabilitation which must precede any move toward racial reconciliation.

Cone brings personal passion and theological precision to the work. I ask myself over and over, “How did I not know this? Why did I not read Cone’s work during my own theological training?” Cone wonders the same thing — although he knows the answer to the question. “How could any theologian explain the meaning of Christian identity in America and fail to engage white supremacy, its primary negation?” (page xvii).

This question has some real bite for me as an adherent of Martin Luther’s theology of the cross. “That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened,” Luther writes in his theses for the 1518 Heidelberg Disputation, “he deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.”

I can no longer think about Luther’s theology of the cross without taking Cone’s work into account. I find any discussion of that theology which ignores Cone’s work to be incomplete. Cone states his basic question as this: “how to reconcile the gospel message of liberation with the reality of black oppression” (pages xv to xvi). That failure makes white American theologians what Martin Luther calls “theologians of glory.” Luther writes in thesis 21, “A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.” White supremacy is Exhibit A in the American case against a theology of glory.

Cone’s questions are even more pointed and pertinent now in the era of Black Lives Matter, the Derek Chauvin murder trial, the clear racism of white American churches and denominations, the growing “Leave Out Loud” movement of Black evangelicals away from white evangelical institutions, and the inevitable “whitelash” of even mainline (ELCA Lutheran) white male theologians trying to tell Black people how they ought to theologize in such a time as this.

“How could whites confess and live the Christian faith,” Cone asks, “and also impose three-and-a-half centuries of slavery and segregation upon black people?” The answer is quite plain and simple. “Self-interest and power corrupted their understanding of the Christian gospel” (pages xvii-xviii). If only the past tense of those verbs were accurate! Little has changed in the decade since Cone wrote those words. Again, Luther would nod, I think, and note the theology of glory still at work.

As I read The Cross and the Lynching Tree, I see similarities to Luther’s framework in many places. For example, Cone highlights the paradoxical nature of the cross. Luther would note that God’s grace and mercy are always hidden under the form of their opposites — judgment and condemnation. “The cross is a paradoxical religious symbol,” Cone writes, because it inverts the world’s value system with the news that hope comes by way of defeat, that suffering and death do not have the last word, that the last shall be first and the first last” (page 2). He expands that observation on page 18 as he notes the life-giving power of Christ’s death on the cross for African Americans in their suffering.

Cone taps into the theme of the hiddenness of God which informs Luther’s theology at such a deep level. Luther asserts that the invisible things of God can only become visible by looking through the lens of the cross. Cone quotes one of Luther’s favorite passages in this regard, Isaiah 45:15. He then expands on this divine “inscrutability.”

“Nowhere is that paradox, that ‘inscrutability,’ more evident than in the cross. A symbol of death and defeat, God turned it into a sign of liberation and new life. The cross is the most empowering symbol of Gods loving solidarity with the ‘least of these,’ the unwanted in society who suffer daily from great injustices. Christians must face the cross as the terrible tragedy it was and discover in it, through faith and repentance, the liberating joy of eternal salvation” (page 156). Perhaps we Lutherans have been silent on this “cross connection” because we have resisted the obvious political implications of Jesus’ crucifixion for those of us who live in and benefit from the system of white male supremacy.

The intimate connection between the crucifixion of Jesus and the lynching of Black people in America is not new, and Cone claims no novel insight in this regard. The December 1919 issue of The Crisis has two stories relating Black life to the Christian gospel of the cross. First, there is “The Gospel according to Mary Brown.” The story of Jesus is told as that of a Black impoverished mother. Her son, Joshua (another name for Jesus) is lynched. But he returns to his grieving mother as Jesus risen from the dead. She dies in the joy of the gospel rather than in the despair of hell.

The other connection in this issue flies in the opposite direction. On page 61 you will find a gruesome picture captioned “The Crucifixion of Omaha.” It is one of a number of photographs of the September 1919 lynching of Will Brown in the streets of Omaha, Nebraska. Brown’s charred remains appear in the form of a crucified victim, and the parallels were not lost on the publishers. The accompanying article detailed the white criminal and political interests that were served by the riot and murder. The picture was theology enough.

Cone comments on this lynching and the accompanying photo. “The contradictions between the gospel message and the reality of lynching,” he writes, “or more precisely, the relation between what white Christians did to blacks and what the Romans did to Jesus — was reflected in a photo…of a burned victim, with a throng of white men observing their handiwork.” (pages 103-104).

I have found the caption to that photograph compelling and convicting. It was not the crucifixion “in” Omaha, or “at” Omaha that was depicted. The editors named it the crucifixion “of” Omaha. It was not, in the end, Will Brown who has crucified for the sins of the city. Instead, the sins of the city were exposed for all to see. The cross was used to make the “invisible” things visible — starting with the leering faces of those who took such pleasure in this atrocity. The photograph continues to crucify white Omaha, a city that did not acknowledge this horror until a hundred years later and which has not placed a permanent marker to remember the event.

“The lynching tree is a metaphor for white America’s crucifixion of black people,” Cone writes to end his book. “It is a window that best reveals the religious meaning of the cross in our land. In this sense,” he continues, “black people are Christ figures, not because they wanted to suffer but because they had no choice.” It is only in the making visible those things we white Americans wish to keep hidden and in reckoning with our past and ongoing white male supremacy that repentance, rehabilitation, and repair can happen. “If America has the courage to confront the great sin and ongoing legacy of white supremacy with repentance and reparation,” Cone concludes, “there is hope ‘beyond tragedy'” (page 166).

Perhaps that is a theme for Holy Week 2021 — hope beyond tragedy. We shall see…

Nicodemus (First Person Sermon) — Throwback Thursday Books

This is a first-person sermon I wrote several years ago, based on John 3:1-17, and the story of Nicodemus. It could readily be used for as the message for March 14, 2021. This sermon and other first person sermons can be found in my little book, The Half-Blind Mumbler (available as e-book or paperback). You can purchase this book by going to my “Books for Sale” page.

(Nicodemus enters, stretching and rubbing a very sore back): A hundred pounds of spices! A hundred pounds—just thinking about lifting that load is enough to make my back ache. But I had to carry that bundle over a mile, in the dark, and on my own. I have not done that much physical work in many a year. But I certainly couldn’t have any of my servants carry it for me. 

All of it had to be done in secret and under the cover of darkness. After all, I certainly don’t want to end up like him…

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I am Nicodemus. I am a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, the chief legal body in Judea. For that reason, I am known as a ruler of the Jews. I have a reputation for being one of the chief teachers of our faith here in Jerusalem. I am quite certain now that I don’t deserve that reputation. 

Let me tell you why.

We have just laid Jesus’ body to rest. I am sure you have heard all about Jesus of Nazareth. Many of us had great hopes for him. My good friend, Joseph of Arimathea, had even become one of his disciples. Of course, Joseph could not be open about his allegiance. That might have been fatal for Joseph.

So Joseph went to the procurator, Pilate, in the middle of the night. He asked for Jesus’ body so that it would not hang on that cross to be defiled by the wild animals. Pilate agreed. My part in this little plot was to bring the linen cloths and the spices to prepare and preserve the body. Joseph has a family tomb in a secluded garden. No one saw us. We are safe.

Safe. That always seems to be my path.

My name in Greek means “conqueror of the people.” That sounds impressive, does it not? Conqueror of the people! Please do not be impressed. At most, I have conquered a difficult piece of Hebrew or a large jar of wine. My conquests extend no farther.

We buried Jesus in the dark. That is how I came to him the first time as well—under the cover of darkness and secrecy. 

It was just before Passover in Jerusalem. We were having our annual Sanhedrin conference. We debated the usual issues—taxes, purity laws, too many Gentiles in Jerusalem, and the upkeep of the Temple. As we discussed the Temple, a messenger burst into our session.

“Some lunatic is causing a riot in the Temple courtyard! He made a whip of cords and started beating the merchants and moneychangers. Tables are thrown all over. Money is scattered in every corner. The livestock is running wild in the streets. And he keeps shouting, ‘Stop making my Father’s house a market place!’”

 We all ran into the courtyard and saw him—Jesus of Nazareth. He was covered in sweat, gasping for breath. “What is the meaning of this?” the chief priest screamed. “What sign can you show us for doing this?”

Jesus raised his chin in defiance. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

“Are you mad?” the chief priest laughed. “It has taken Herod forty-six years to build the Temple, and it is not finished yet. How will you do the job in three days!” The Sanhedrin members were sure Jesus was a crazy fool. We went back to our debating.

His words, however, would not leave me. For some reason, I needed to know more. Many in the crowd shared that view and encouraged me to seek him out. I was unwilling to risk a public conversation. So I found out where he was staying. We met under the cover of darkness—secret, and safe.

I am a Pharisee. No matter what you might think, I was not opposed to Jesus. I want God’s kingdom to come as much as anyone. I heard about Jesus’ power and his teaching. Perhaps there was something to it all. I had to know. “Teacher,” I said with the greatest respect, “we know you have come from God. After all, no one can do these signs as you have apart from God’s presence.”

I treated Jesus with honor. In return, I received a challenge. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” The word Jesus used was very complicated. Did he mean “born from above” or “born again” or “born anew”? It could have been any of those meanings. I didn’t understand him at all.

“How can these things be?” I asked. Jesus was blunt. “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” I did not hear many of his words after that. I now know what he did. He used mysterious phrases because he didn’t know me. And he did not know my motives. For all Jesus knew, I might have come to trap him into an arrest. He evaded precisely such traps many times in his life.

What hurt the most was how right he was about me. “‘Very truly, I tell you,’ he said to me, ‘we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.’”

That was it. I did understand, but I did not like what I heard. Jesus talked about a whole new way of living in God’s kingdom. For centuries we had been trying to find our way to God. Now Jesus said that God was coming to us. And God was coming to us through him!

I came to Jesus in the darkness. And that was the problem. I did not hear many of his words, but these words have stuck with me. “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” I was safe in the dark. I was afraid to come into the light. I was afraid to change my mind.

After that, I left. But I was not the same.

Some months later, Jesus came to Jerusalem again. It was the Festival of Booths, the time when we Jews celebrate the gift of God’s law to Moses. In the middle of the festival, Jesus began teaching in the Temple. The crowd debated whether he was from God or not. He was persuading large numbers of people that he was right.

I was becoming more and more convinced.

The Sanhedrin debated the issue briefly. Then a vote was taken. The council sent the temple guard to arrest Jesus for blasphemy. The guards, however, took some time to listen to Jesus. They hesitated. They returned to the authorities empty-handed. 

“Why did you not arrest him?” the authorities demanded. 

“Never has anyone spoken like this!” the officers of the guard replied. The authorities scoffed. They described the crowd as ignorant of the law and cursed by God. I was not ready to take a public stand on Jesus. But I could not let this terrible process continue. 

I stood up before the council and raised a point of order. “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” I asked. 

The president of the council responded with an insult. “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you?” he sneered. “Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.” 

I was publicly humiliated. But at least I bought Jesus some time. He was gone before they could send the guards back to the temple.

This last time, however, he did not escape. He came once again for the Passover. This time the chief priests had an inside contact. They bought off one of his disciples. They arrested him in the Garden of Gethsemane. 

The trial was quick—merely a formality. I could have spoken in his defense, but it would have made no difference. All that would have happened is that I would have ended up dead alongside him. And courage is not my strong suit, remember?

The Romans crucified him at the Place of the Skull. He was one more failed messiah, humiliated and broken by the might of the Roman eagle.

Joseph decided that Jesus had endured enough. That is when he asked to be allowed to bury the body. I may be short on courage, but I have plenty of money. So I bought the spices and the sheets. If only a strong backbone could be so easily purchased.

I sought him out in the dark. But I know that I cannot remain in that darkness. I remember now some of his words from that first encounter. “But those who do what is true come to the light,” he said, and he looked closely at me, “so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

I have lived in the darkness long enough. Now he is buried with respect and honor. Tomorrow is the Sabbath. On the third, I will go to the Sanhedrin speak the truth that I have heard from him. That will be the first day of the week. 

Who knows what might happen after sunrise that day!

My Go to References: Throwback Thursday Books

I doubt if today’s post will set off protests (or dancing) in the streets. As I think about books I’ve returned to and relied upon over the past thirty to forty years, I have to lift up my favorite reference works.

These are the books I go to for inspiration and insight, the books I pull out in researcher’s doubt or despair. Rarely do these books get quoted in a sermon or newsletter article, but they are often in the background. I don’t have to remember everything in these books. I just have to remember to look.

As you read, I hope you might think about your go to references for your vocation and/or hobbies. I’d be interested to hear what you find to be your reliable friends in print. I’m only going to get to one of my “go to’s” in this post, so I’ll come back to this topic in future TBT Books posts.

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When I started my seminary training, I first bought the state-of-the-art study Bible recommended by the faculty, The Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha. Then I purchased my Greek New Testament and translation tools. Next on the recommended list was Joachim Jeremias’ thick book, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. I suspect I have referred to Jeremias’ work at least once a month whenever I have served as a weekly preacher.

Jeremias was a German Lutheran theologian who was in 1900. He died just a few days after I began my first seminary semester. I learned to value his work on the parables of Jesus, the Sermon on the Mount and on the Lord’s Prayer. Jeremias had a gift for making his scholarly insights accessible in popular works – something struggling seminarians appreciate. He was active in trying to establish firmly the Jewishness of Jesus and the importance of understanding Jesus’ actual, lived context for useful interpretation of the Gospels.

It’s easy to take that last sentence for granted these days, when the Jewishness of Jesus is no longer politically or socially controversial. But Jeremias was a German Lutheran theologian who did his work following the Second World War. The Jewishness of Jesus had been regarded as heresy in the German Christian churches in the century leading up to the Nazi regime. There was an immense amount of recovery and repair required in Biblical studies and theology in the aftermath of the war.

Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus is a detailed description of real life in and around the central city of Jewish reality. The subtitle of the book is “An Investigation into Economic and Social Conditions during the New Testament Period.” But that subtitle is a bit modest. Jeremias does give detailed descriptions of the industries, commerce, and trade relations that made Jerusalem tick economically. He describes the economic status of the various members of the city’s population as well.

Jeremias has no formal introduction to his work. There is one paragraph before he launches into the details. I think it’s worth quoting here. “In order to obtain a complete picture of the economic life of an ancient oriental city we must enquire into the nature of its industries, its commerce, and its traffic. Further, if the character of the city is to emerge from this enquiry, when we have established the existing conditions, we must then examine the causes which have brought them about” (page 2).

Jeremias stands in the tradition of what might be called a social science approach to the New Testament. He understands the value of data for accurate descriptions and the need for interpretation of that data to make the real human connections. He set me on that path as a preacher and student of the Bible forty years ago. I think that path has served the church and me well. I write today in part to express gratitude for that gift of direction and discernment.

Jeremias builds out from that economic assessment to offer a detailed map of social relationships and realities. He describes with authority the four main groups within first-century Judaism, as they are mentioned in the New Testament texts. He concludes with a large section on the “maintenance of racial purity.” In that section he delineates the various levels of the inside and outside dynamics of the Israelite community, ending with a discussion of the social position of women in that community.

I would think that even considering the phrase “the maintenance of racial purity” produced some stress for Jeremias. It does for me whenever I read that in the table of contents. But it was a social, economic, and religious reality in first-century Judah, and Jeremias offers a clear description of what he sees in the research.

How is this book useful? Most recently, for example, I have been thinking about and writing about the so-called “Cleansing of the Temple,” as recorded in the Gospel of John, chapter two. If you are interested in the details of that thinking and writing, you can read my text study posts that will be up on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of next week.

There is no shortage of scholarly work and reflection on the text and its background. But I knew that I needed to review Jeremias on this one, since that’s where all the work begins. Jeremias has eighteen entries in his index under the subject of “Temple.” In particular, he has a section that describes the “industries connected with the Temple.” That’s been most helpful in my review, since it impinges on Jesus’ actions in John 2.

It’s all about back story and motivation. Jesus didn’t have to study how the Temple system worked. He lived it and critiqued it. But I don’t live in first-century Jerusalem, so I need help with the cultural translation. Jeremias is an important source for making that translation.

This goes to the heart of what it means to do scriptural interpretation. I find that many lay Christians wish the Bible would work like a daily newspaper. You read it for information that can be immediately put to work in your life here and now. That may be guidance on how to live or make decisions. That may be inspiration to get you through a difficult time. It may simply be entertainment or irritation. But we don’t expect to do cultural translation in order to put the daily news “to work” for us.

The Christian Bible, and in particular the New Testament, does not work for us in that way. If we seek to take what we read or hear in the New Testament and simply apply it uncritically to our modern context, we do violence to the text. In classic Lutheran terms, we end up ruling God’s Word instead of being subject to God’s Word. Seeking as clear an understanding as possible of the text in front of me before I apply it is a way of being subject to that text. Attempting some measure of cultural translation is a way to be humble in the presence of the Divine revelation.

Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus was not a “final word” about anything. It was the state of research and conclusions of the time. There is much in that work which has been updated. There is much in that work which has been contradicted or refuted. And there is much in the work of Jeremias that remains useful and serves as a foundation for further exploration and reflection. I suspect that’s precisely what he might have hoped.

Reference works are not glamorous or provocative. They don’t get much notice or review outside of scholarly journals. All of the older reference works must be seen through the critical eyes of gender, race, class, orientation, and political history. The work of Jeremias is no exception. It is a place where I begin many times (never where I end up), and that fulcrum has been a stable point for me for an adult lifetime.

Let me ask again, just to reinforce my desire to know. What basic references have you found important in your vocation and/or avocation? What are your go to foundations as you begin a project, line of thought, or argument? I invite you to offer up some small thoughts of gratitude for the giants on whose shoulders we often casually stand.

Throwback Thursday Books — A Simple Way to Pray by Martin Luther

“How Not to Pray”

In his little book called A Simple Way to Pray, Martin Luther remembers an old joke about a pastor who was praying one thing but thinking another. Luther says the pastor’s prayer went something like this.

“O God, intend Your ear to me (Hired hand, have you lashed the horse to the wagon?).”

“Make haste to deliver me, O Lord (Young lady, go milk the cow).”

“Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit (Get cracking, you rascal or the plague take you!).”

Luther notes that the pastor illustrates an old Latin proverb: “a person engaged in various pursuits, minds none of them well.” “A true prayer,” Luther concludes, “meditates on all the words and thoughts of the prayer from beginning to end” (Kindle Location 188).

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Many people would define prayer as “talking to God.” That’s true, but it’s a very limited definition. Talking to God puts the emphasis on what I have to say. It puts me in charge of the conversation. Worst of all, prayer as talking to God leaves no room for listening! One of the problems with the prayers Jesus describes in Matthew six is that there is so much talking and so little listening.

Prayer that makes a difference is rooted in listening. Listening happens in silence. “Silence,” writes Kallistos Ware, “is not merely negative—a pause between words, a temporary cessation of speech—but, properly understood, it is highly positive: an attitude of attentive alertness, of vigilance, and above all of listening.” (The Power of the Name, Kindle Location 27).

Bishop Theophan the Recluse put it this way: “the principal thing is to stand before God with the mind in the heart, and to go on standing before Him unceasingly day and night until the end of life.” To stand before God with the mind in the heart—that is a deep definition of prayer. That is what it means to store up treasures in heaven—to stand before God with the mind in the heart.

Prayer is not merely request. Prayer is relationship. “Prayer,” writes Anne Lamott, “means that, in some unique way, we believe we’re invited into a relationship with someone who hears us when we speak in silence.” (Help, Thanks, Wow, page 4).

Prayer does not begin with me. It begins with God. Prayer is not primarily something I do. Rather prayer is something God does in me and to me and through me. “True inner prayer,” Kallistos Ware concludes, “is to stop talking and to listen to the wordless voice of God within our heart; it is to cease doing things on our own, and to enter into the action of God.”

Praying restores us to our full humanity. The function of prayer is to place us in the presence of God. This was God’s intention from the beginning. In the garden, God strolled with the humans in the cool of the evening. They were always in his presence and happy to be there. That is the way we are made. We are restless, irritable and discontent when we separate ourselves from God.

Is it any wonder that Jesus criticizes the actions of the religious leaders of his day? What they did were not bad things in and of themselves, Alms, prayer and fasting are helpful disciplines at any time, and especially during the Lenten season. But who is the focus of these actions? If it is me, I have already gotten what I want. If the focus is God, then that’s how I need to act.

Humility is the doorway to holiness. So there is no real prayer without humility. Anne Lamott reminds us of an old riddle. “What’s the difference between you and God? God never thinks he’s you.” Those who advertised their alms, prayers and fasting indeed got their rewards. What they wanted was public applause, and that’s what they got. Arrogance leads toward applause and away from God. Humility precedes holiness and leads us toward God.

Humility is the doorway to holiness. Holiness is the real goal of being human. We were made to stand in the presence of God, to walk with God as friends in the cool of the evening.

C. S. Lewis wrote: “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me.” God already knows what we need better than we know ourselves.

Matthew 6 is the longest instruction Jesus gives about praying. So we should probably pay attention.  At the center of these texts is the confidence that God is our Father. We can approach God with confidence. We don’t have to prove our value in advance. Our Father sees our secret places and stays with us. So we can come to receive the ashes, knowing they are not the end. We go from the ashes to the altar. We remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. Then we remember Jesus in his body and blood, given and shed for us and for the life of the world.

Your Father who is in the secret place–this is God is waiting in the hidden depths of our hearts to speak to us. Real prayer springs us from the trap of showing off before God and others. God knows who we are better than we know ourselves. So we can be honest. We can be real people. In prayer, we can be free to be who we truly are and who we truly are created to be. “Talk to God,” says Rowan Williams, “as if you are Jesus.” That’s a startling statement, but that’s exactly right.

We were prepared for that relationship by the words of the Prayer of the Day this past Sunday. We prayed that God will “transform us into the likeness of your Son, who renewed our humanity so that we may share in his divinity…” We can pray as if we are Jesus because that’s what God intends us to be–more and more like Jesus.

After some good listening, then perhaps we are better equipped to speak. One of the challenges is simply learning how to pray in a helpful way. In 1535 Luther’s barber, Peter Beskendorf, asked Luther for some instructions and training on how to pray. Luther wrote a letter, which became a booklet, describing Luther’s personal prayer practice. I like to summarize that practice with the acronym “ITCH.”

“I” stands for Intercession — first lifting up the needs and concerns of our neighbors before God. “T” stands for Thanksgiving. God is the Giver of all good things and deserves our thanksgiving and praise for such grace, mercy and love. “C” stands for Confession. We come before God in our brokenness and lack of faith, and God heals us in the honesty of our self-disclosure. “H” stands for Help. Whoever we call on in life and in death, Luther notes in the Large Catechism, that one is our God. We are encouraged to call upon God in every time of need and to never be bashful in our requests.

Much of the book is specific examples of how Luther uses this and other methods to pray his way through the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments and the Creed. But this little book also has nuggets that are precious to me. For example, Luther urges concentration in our prayer and suggests that we refrain from multi-tasking while we pray.

“Just as a good and diligent barber must keep his thoughts and eyes precisely on the razor and the hair and not forget where he is while cutting hair,” Luther writes to Besekendorf the barber, “even though he may be chatting a great deal, he will be concentrating carefully, so that he keeps a close eye on where the razor is so he doesn’t cut somebody’s nose, or mouth, or even slice somebody’s throat.” Perhaps Luther had some mixed experiences with barbers! But his concrete illustration makes the point.

Luther encourages us to regard prayer as a necessary form of spiritual nourishment. “To this day, I nurse on the Lord’s Prayer like a little child,” he writes, “and like an old man now, I eat and drink from it, but never get my fill.” Again, Luther’s imagery is earthy and precise — one of the many things I value about his writing.

I have taught and used Luther’s prayer method for years and rely on it whenever I find myself at a prayer road block. That is especially the case when I find myself, as Luther did, under some kind of spiritual assault. Luther was convinced that these moments of “Anfechtungen” were not times to have to make up prayers on the fly and off the cuff. Instead, at such moments a tried and true discipline can be useful to allow the Spirit to haul us out of the depths and into the light.

I look forward to re-engaging with this prayer discipline in the season of Lent 2021.

The Cross in the Middle of Everywhere — Throwback Thursday Books

The Superbowl ad sponsored by Jeep© and featuring Bruce Springsteen has generated thousands of words of commentary in its wake. Some have applauded it as a signpost on the path toward national reunion in the United States. Many have rightly pointed to its affinities with and symbolization of “Christian Nationalism.” The use of an overtly Christian worship space with a cross and heart nailed to a map of the United States is a pretty clear deployment of the iconography of Christian Nationalism.

The critiques are merited and well-taken. My question is this. How did the writers, producers, and owners of this ad miss the obvious subtext? Was it a case of creative tunnel vision, of being so excited about the “trees” of the ad that those responsible missed the “forest” of deeper meaning? I wish it would be that simple and naïve, but I don’t think so.

Photo by Felix Mittermeier on

It’s not that garden variety Christian Nationalism was slipped in under the radar in some insidious plot. Rather, the ideology of Christian Nationalism has been so taken for granted in the United States for so long that it is simply part of the expected background. The innovation is not that someone slipped in a narrow set of symbols to trumpet White Nationalist Cultural Christian Republicans. The novelty is that any white people noticed and complained.

This brings me to my Throwback Thursday book for this week. I want to lift up The Cross in Our Context, by Douglas John Hall. I have read and reread this book so many times that my highlighting has underlining, and my underlining has highlighting – all surrounded by marginal notes and questions in various colors of ink.

In this book Hall continues his project, begun in 1979 in Lighten Our Darkness, to uncover and describe an “indigenous theology of the cross” for Christians in North America. The book is a summary companion to his three-volume work on “Christian Theology in a North American Context.” The chapters were originally lectures delivered at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in 2002. They have that snappy and immediate character of oral presentation and Hall’s passion for the topic.

In this post, I want to focus on the unifying theme of the book and of Hall’s work. I think his work is one resource in understanding why the “Middle” Superbowl ad could slide so easily into mainstream awareness with nothing more than an approving smile and a small tear in our eyes. Christian Nationalism is, I would propose, nothing more or less than a militant expression of the dominant and underlying cultural framework for white Americans on this continent since the first colonialists set foot on its shores. No great revelation, but there it is.

The ideological heart of the North American project is cultural, political, economic, military, and ideological triumphalism. It has gone by several names over the centuries – the Monroe Doctrine, Manifest Destiny, The White Man’s Burden, American Exceptionalism, The Christian Century, Make America Great Again. In all these expressions there is the toxic combination of white male supremacy, Christian supersessionism and triumphalism, and western colonizing imperialism.

If one benefits from the privileges of that wicked cocktail (as I do), life is good indeed. If one lives outside that system, the consequences can be fatal. Hall writes, “the association of the Christian religion with white Western/Northern economic, military, and cultural imperialism constitutes possibly the single most insidious cause of global peril” (page 4). Before we recoil in disbelief, let us recall the role of the West in nuclear proliferation, climate change, debt colonization, proxy wars, covert assassinations, and global white supremacy. I’m sorry, Bruce, but that’s what the “Middle” looks like if you’re a person who lives on the Edge.

Western (primarily Calvinist Protestant) Christianity has served as the underlying ideological framework for the “Middle.” We live in a time when that ideology is being identified, outed, and challenged. That’s absolutely necessary for the long-term credibility, health, and even survival of Christianity in the West. “In short,” Hall writes, “it is the theological triumphalism of Christendom that must be altered if the Christian faith is to exist in the world of today and tomorrow as a force for life and not death” (page 5).

What the “Middle” really did was to center those systems which are killing us. We saw a lone, isolated, individual man in his pickup truck in the wide-open spaces. All that was missing from the image was the gun rack in the window and steel testicles hanging from the trailer hitch.

“Even for those who will never don a cowboy hat, the idea of a white man going it alone against the world has stuck,” writes Ijeoma Iluo in Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America. “It is one of the strongest identifiers of American culture and politics, where cooperation is weakness and others are the enemy–to be stolen from or conquered. The devastation that the mythological cowboy of the West has wreaked did not stop with the extermination of the buffalo,” she observes. “It may not stop until it has destroyed everything” (page 45).

The chapel at the heart of this triumphalist universe is not the home of an existing flesh and blood congregation but is a geographic landmark – the center of “everything.” It is not, however, even the center of the whole United States but rather only of the “lower 48.” So, it does not take into account people of color in Alaska and Hawaii, much less those in Puerto Rico or Guam. But then, why should it? And why bother with some messy and cantankerous congregation? After all, the American Middle is an ideal and ideology, not an actual community. What is to be centered is not an existing land but rather a conquering culture.

One of my points is that the creators, writers, producers, sponsors (and actor) may have missed the problem because triumphalist Christianity (in its most visible incarnation as Christian nationalism) is not a “bug” in the system. It is the system itself. And that is the problem. “So long as Christian faith is unable to distinguish itself at the level of foundational belief from the Western imperial peoples with which it has been inextricably linked,” Hall writes, “its actions and ethical claims will be ambiguous, even when they are inspired by apparently Christian motives” (page 4).

One would think that Hall had seen the “Middle” ad as he was writing his book. Of course, it antedates the commercial by twenty years. The ad is beautifully constructed and filmed. It hits all the right emotional buttons. There are values which one could admire – unity, empathy, compassion, community. But these values are so diluted by and polluted with the centering of white, male, evangelical, American Christianity, and so associated with the imperialist, colonialist, supremacist ideology of the West that the good stuff is drowning in the powers of death.

No matter how well-intentioned the ad might have been (for the sake of construing my neighbor’s actions in the kindest possible way), its actual message was counterproductive and contradictory at best. The ad’s association with the dominant ideology (which is, after the Ideology of Domination) conditions every element of the overt communication. That Ideology of Domination is readily associated with numerous causes and perspectives that reflect the Middle and reject the Edges.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez addresses this association at length in her award-winning book, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. I quote her at length:

Christian nationalism—the belief that America is God’s chosen nation and must be defended as such—serves as a powerful predictor of intolerance toward immigrants, racial minorities, and non-Christians. It is linked to opposition to gay rights and gun control, to support for harsher punishments for criminals, to justifications for the use of excessive force against black Americans in law enforcement situations, and to traditionalist gender ideology. (page 4).

This triumphalist ideology is so tightly stitched into most of the American Christian fabric that one hardly notices it any longer. And removing that lining from the American Christian garment is and will be difficult and painful.

I would plead, at least, that those of us who are heirs of the “theology of the cross” (aka historic Lutherans) might become familiar with what Hall and his colleagues describe as the “thin tradition.” It was Jurgen Moltmann who noted that this theology was known by at least some Christians but never much loved. After all, who wants to be part of a movement that embraces the sin and suffering, the despair and death, the frailties and failings of human beings – embraces all that with self-giving love and a trust that God works through our brokenness to give real life?

Obviously, not many –not even many Lutherans. “Historical Christianity – Christendom – has steadfastly avoided the theologia crucis because such a theology could only call into question the whole imperialistic bent of Christendom,” Hall writes. As long as triumphalist, imperialist, colonialist white Western Christianity was calling the shots, there was no need to change or even notice. Now is a time, Hall suggests, for a profound reconsideration.

“But now the possibility of such a reconsideration has become a grave necessity for there is no place in a world on the brink of self-destruction for a religion that is driven,” Hall concludes, “by the quest for power and glory, or even for survival” (page 7). Perhaps we Lutherans could become part of the solution rather than part of the problem by embracing this thin and little-loved tradition.

That means losing. That means relinquishing our privileged positions in the middle of everything. That means relinquishing power and property to those who have been cheated and robbed for so long (aka reparations). That means the cross is a real vocation rather than a cultural and political symbol. That means, Hall says, “the only way of saying yes to life in such a context is to discover, somehow, the courage that is needed to confront the culture’s repressed and therefore highly effective no. The theology of the cross is for Christians,” he asserts, “the most reliable expression of the Source of that courage.”

Sorry, Boss. The cross in the middle of everything isn’t in Kansas. It’s on a hill outside Jerusalem, in the hearts of people who love, and in the heart of the Creator of all.

Throwback Thursday Books – The Penguin Principles

In 1985 Lyle Schaller wrote that “one of the most urgent problems facing Christianity on the North American continent is the product of a severe imbalance in the population.” Not biblical illiteracy. Not theological incompetence. Not good old-fashioned mendacity, greed, and lust for power. No, Schaller wrote, the population is out of whack.

“Our culture includes an excessive number of people who enjoy making others feel guilty and too few adults who can laugh at themselves and their foibles,” Schaller continued. “The most highly visible dimension of this imbalance,” he concludes, “is the overabundance of adults who gain considerable pleasure out of a huge variety of efforts to make their pastor feel guilty about being less than perfect.”

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Thus Schaller begins his introduction to one of my all-time favorite books, The Penguin Principles: A Survival Manual for Clergy Seeking Maturity in Ministry. David Belasic and Paul Schmidt published this hilarious, wise, and insightful little gem in 1986.

I was ordained and began serving a parish in 1984. So, the book came out just at the time I was experiencing the first of numerous cycles of disillusionment with pastoral ministry, with the congregation, and with myself as a pastor. One of my seminary professors recommended the book to recent graduates as a salve for our pastoral souls, a needed infusion of humor, and a plea for perspective from pastors who take themselves all too seriously.

“Perhaps the audience that will benefit most from the wisdom contained in this volume,” Schaller wrote, “will be the recent seminary graduates who have the opportunity to study it during that journey between departure from seminary and arrival in the first pastorate.” I got my prescription for this vocational medicine a little later than that but certainly early enough in the process for it to do me a world of good. It’s easy to read the little book at one sitting, and I did that – each year for nearly every year of my active parish ministry.

Now, I come back to it from a perspective I could not appreciate earlier. “Another audience for this book,” Schaller continues, “is composed of ministers nearing retirement, who, as they look back over their years of faithful and devoted service, are still puzzled over why so often things did not turn out as anticipated.” Once again, I’m a bit behind on the calendar, but not fatally so. “The book will enable them to reflect on their pilgrimage,” Schaller assures the reader,” with insight, laughter, and new satisfactions.”

Quite right.

But why, the authors ask in their opening pages, the “Penguin” principles? “Penguins seem to have that unique dignity that many people expect of the pastor. Yet,” they write, “as dignified as penguins seem to be, they look so ridiculous as they waddle around on the ice.” Belasic and Schmidt note that penguins are sensitive to heat. They have very treacherous enemies. They are relatively small and defenseless beings. They have a powerful homing instinct. And “No matter what happens to penguins, they keep their heads high.” Pastoral penguins, the authors suggest, have an “alien dignity” from God.

It is worth noting the Penguin Principles here. While you can get the gist of the book in five minutes, the stories, insights, and self-deprecating humor are worth the full read. The principles are:

The Five Percent Principle: “Despite the pious things we say, at any given time, less than five percent of any group of people in the church is operating with purely Christian motivation. The other ninety-five percent is asking, ‘What’s in it for me?’”

The Inverse Insight Principle: “Most of the time, in the world of the church, things are not what they appear to be.”

The Ecclesiastical Friction Principle: “There is a friction in the church that burns up enormous energy, consumes endless hours, smothers creativity, impedes progress and often creates quite a little heat!”

The Creative Ignorance Principle: “In the ministry it is better not to know some things, even if you have to forget them forcefully.”

The Tweaking Principle: “They’ll only do it to you if you let ‘em.”

The Pastor Principle: “The ultimate principle for pastors is a ‘tough love’ that looks beyond the irritation of the moment and in the strength of Christ loves people as they are.”

These principles are a clever compilation of wisdom from our theology, psychology, and sociology of church life. We church folks do not check our sin at the door on Sundays or any other day of the week. People are complicated and often don’t even know their own real motives for doing what they do. It’s easier to say no than yes, and once a position is assumed it will usually be defended to the death. With knowledge comes responsibility. Good boundaries make healthy people, healthy pastors, and healthy parishes. Following Jesus and pleasing people rarely take the same path. When those paths diverge, following Jesus is the path less traveled but the one we must take.

Even if you know all the principles by heart and have had them pounded into your head by hard experience, the book is so worth the one-liners. Some are painful proverbs from the public domain. For example, “if the temptation to give advice is irresistible, the ability to ignore it is universal.” Or the classic from Luther – the one “who desires the public’s ear must endure the public’s mouth.” Never in human history has that been truer than now.

Pastoral penguins flourish when we accept the genuine humanity of our parishes and people, when the “ideal church” is not understood as the adversary of the “real church.” We do best when we look in the mirror daily and embrace the humility enforced on us by the mysteries of the human heart, human community, and God’s grace. We will survive better if we make allowances for self-delusion (ours and that of others), conflict, sloth, and all the other of the seven deadly sins. We are best served if we hold our desires for success and approval lightly and our trust in Jesus tightly.

I have often reminded myself of the words of Winston Churchill in this regard. Following World War II, someone was commending him on his success and the marvelous turnouts for his speeches and other events. Churchill noted drily that whenever he was impressed with his own popularity, he remembered that approximately twice as many people would likely show up for his hanging! That’s the spirit of the Penguin Principles.

Each principle gets a chapter of wry observations and rueful stories of pastoral adventure and misadventure. The chapters conclude with Items for Reflection/Study/Action.” In these sections, the writers take their tongues out of their cheeks and invite the readers into some serious vocation work, rooted in biblical witness and solid theology.

I hope you will not conclude that this is nothing but a cute little book filled with snarky sniping and dark inside jokes for parish professionals. Each of the Penguin Principles has its “law” side (in good Lutheran theological categories) and its “gospel” side.

For example, as we reflect on the Five Percent Principle, thank God for the five percent! The Inverse Insight Principle trusts in the guidance of the Holy Spirit because our own understanding is often wrong. The Friction Principle is not absolute but allows us to see growth in the midst of the struggle. The Creative Ignorance Principle depends on and reinforces the vocation of the Priesthood of All Believers. The Tweaking Principle reminds us that “even a mighty oak was once only a nut that held [its] ground.” The Pastor Principle reminds me that God is God, and I am not – and that’s the good news!

The book is written from the perspective of two white, male, mainline pastors who served in congregations when Christendom was far less frayed and fragmented than it is now in the United States. So, it has numerous cultural limitations. It is written from a clear Lutheran framework in theological terms, although it doesn’t make a big deal of that. That doesn’t make it irrelevant to other traditions, but it is a reality in the book. The matrix for the principles is an established, old-line Protestant congregation which for the most part no longer exists or is on life-support. That’s all true.

Yet, much of the wisdom in this little book still “works” for me. I was the target audience for the book, so that’s not surprising. And as Schaller noted in his introduction, I’m still the target audience as I reflect on four decades of life in professional church leadership. Much of that journey is shrouded in the mists of memory and the mysteries of human interactions. In retrospect, I wonder how anything productive ever got accomplished along the way.

“Precisely!” Belasic and Schmidt would say, I believe. “Remember the Penguin Principles,” they conclude, “and waddle off into the fray!” Fair advice for life in any time, place, or vocation.

Throwback Thursday Books: Hitler’s Willing Executioners

The white supremacist crowd at the insurrection and attempted lynching at the United States capitol on January 6, 2021, displayed a variety of anti-Semitic symbols and slogans. Those included the “Camp Auschwitz” t-shirt worn prominently and proudly by one of the terrorists. We could also see the 6MWE acronym – “Six million wasn’t enough” – on shirts and placards. These disgusting demonstrations illustrate once again the clear connection between white supremacy and anti-Semitism. These moral and spiritual cancers grow from the same tissue and offer mutual nourishment one to the other.

These images were troubling but not surprising. I had already planned this Throwback Thursday Book Review prior to January 6. That event simply confirmed my intuition. Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, is an exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) examination of the role of nondescript German people in the extermination of six million Jews and millions of other victims regarded as burdensome and/or less than human. Since I first read this book in 1998, I have returned to it often as an interpretive tool and a cautionary tale regarding the capacity for evil in every human heart.

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Goldhagen studies three topics in his work: who carried out the Holocaust, the worldview of German anti-Semitism that made this national crime an individual possibility, and the reality of German society during the Nazi period. He summarizes the third subject in these words.

The Holocaust was the defining aspect of Nazism, but not only of Nazism. It was also the defining feature of German society during its Nazi period. No significant aspect of German society was untouched by anti-Jewish policy; from the economy, to society, to politics, to culture, from cattle farmers, to merchants, to the organization of small towns, to lawyers, doctors, physicists, and professors. No analysis of German society, no understanding or characterization of it, can be made without placing the persecution and extermination of the Jews at its center. (page 8).

The Holocaust was not perpetrated by a small subset of German society. The persecution, hunting, torture, enslavement, and murder of Jews was not a contradiction of the larger German culture. It was not carried out by a criminal element, by a complement of fanatic true believers. It was not a heavy lift intellectually, morally, theologically, legally, or politically. The Holocaust portrays the “banality of evil” as Hannah Arendt put it. But it is more than that, as Goldhagen reports. The Holocaust was not merely banal. It was, in the German context, normal and even the expected result of five hundred years of anti-Semitic vitriol.

As I have re-read the book in the last few weeks, I have been reminded of and burdened by the parallels and interconnections between German anti-Semitism and American white male supremacy. Let me hasten to add that anti-Semitism is not, of course, an exclusively German phenomenon. It is a potent force wherever western Christianity has made an imprint. But it took particular hold in German society to horrific effect (a reality that fills me with periodic shame as a German-American).

That being said, I wondered what would lead a large number of people on January 6 to find an insurrection and attempted lynching to be a credible, reasonable, and coherent set of actions, worthy of extended reflection and planning.

There is no escape into a facile and false “bad apple” theory, either for the Holocaust or for the January 6 sedition. It is not helpful to regard either the perpetrators of the Holocaust or the perpetrators of the insurrection as deranged or demonic (although those characteristics are factors for some of the participants). Rather, we must ask ourselves what it is in a given setting that renders hatred as a reasonable response and murder as the acceptable outcome.

We are still spilling ink on trying to understand the nature of the so-called Trump voters and followers. I am as disgusted by that over-focus as many others. However, I think it is worthwhile to spend enough time on the topic to debunk the self-serving and self-excusing myths that provide cover for the criminals. Goldhagen offers a similar description in his book.

Not economic hardship, not the coercive means of a totalitarian state, not social psychological pressure, not invariable psychological propensities, but ideas about Jews that were pervasive in Germany, and had been for decades, induced ordinary Germans to kill unarmed, defenseless Jewish men, women, and children by the thousands, systematically and without pity. (page 9).

We could write a similar analysis of those who stormed the United States capitol two weeks ago. It is clear that they were not suffering from economic hardship. No one held a gun to their heads, forcing them into criminal behavior. Instead, the foundations of white male supremacy and its evil twin, anti-Semitism, made this behavior normal and even required.

In his book, Goldhagen lays out with chilling clarity the fundamental role anti-Semitism played in German culture, self-understanding, intellectual assumptions, political life, and religious rules. This hatred of Jews was bone-deep for the Germans, just as white male supremacy is bone-deep for historic white American culture.

Many of us were surprised that the insurrectionists expected to carry out their coup and then return to their homes, families, jobs, churches, and neighborhoods without consequence or comment. We should not have been surprised.

Goldhagen describes how the ordinary Germans of Police Battalion 101, for example, brought their wives with them to the killing fields of Poland. Some of their spouses witnessed and offered approval for the wholesale and gruesome slaughter of hundreds and thousands of Jewish men, women, and children, often in the most inhuman and degrading of methods. After work, they went bowling, attended the theater, had picnics, and discussed great literature.

“Simply put,” Goldhagen writes, “the perpetrators, having consulted their own convictions and morality and having judged the mass annihilation of Jews to be right, did not want to say ‘no’” (page 14). If they had wanted to say “no,” they could have done so with no penalty. Goldhagen demonstrates with extensive documentation that when ordinary Germans demurred from the slaughter, they were able to do so with no adverse outcomes.

With almost no exceptions, however, those refusals were not based on moral scruples. Rather, the reluctance was typically tied to a bit of squeamishness that passed after a while. The command structure allowed perpetrators to opt out if they wished because the commanders wanted to protect their good Germans from the negative effects of committing thousands of murders. But hardly anyone passed on the opportunity. Nor did they moderate the cruelty and torture they inflicted on their victims. Rather they participated willingly and often celebrated the salutary results of their slaughter.

I was struck by the celebratory atmosphere of the insurrectionists as they cheered, took selfies, collected souvenirs, and congratulated each other – all while looking to commit mayhem, assault, and murder. The similarities between those images and the images of ordinary Germans as they hunted, tortured, and murdered thousands of Jewish men, women, and children were haunting and terrifying.

What went into the cultural worldview that fueled the gleeful participation of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust? Jews were regarded as a race of subhumans who could be used and abused, tortured and murdered, without scruple or consequence. They were of less value and importance than bugs to be squashed under a boot heel. But there was far more than dehumanization at work. Jews were regarded as the root of all evil in German society. They were thieves and thugs, parasites and pariahs, a malign infection in the body politic that could not be tolerated. “The Jews are our misfortune,” was a German byword of this perspective.

Given that understanding, the only reasonable response to the infection was eradication. The Nazi program, completely consistent with five centuries of cultural development (including, I am ashamed to say, the hateful words of Martin Luther), was “radical eliminationism.” This was carried out, not merely in the ovens and crematoria of the camps, but in the daily activities of ordinary Germans who were sure they served the greater good with their murderous efficiency.

Is there an analogous set of cultural assumptions at work in America? It is called white male supremacy, and it is four centuries in the making so far. Otherwise rational and intelligent people believe the QAnon mythology. They study the Turner diaries (and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion for good measure). Timothy McVeigh put a truck bomb in front of the Murrah office building, and we can draw a straight line from that terrorism to the events of January 6 (and back to Emmett Till). White male supremacy, underneath all the obfuscation, is also ultimately a radically eliminationist program.

Some of us would like to think that anti-Semitism and white male supremacy are the aberrations, and that tolerance is the norm. But let us not be so naïve. Tolerance is the innovation in human culture. White supremacy is the historic norm in American culture, and a movement toward civil rights is the innovation. Remember that just yesterday, our outgoing secretary of state asserted that multiculturalism is not who America is. Offensive as that assertion is, he is right in a disturbing way. Multiculturalism is who America can be, but only through ongoing and specific policy decisions, cultural changes, and personal repentance.

Embracing the other in love is the innovation. And it is when we are most human.

“The inescapable truth,” Goldhagen concludes, “is that, regarding Jews, German political culture had evolved to the point where an enormous number of ordinary, representative Germans became—and most of the rest of their fellow Germans were fit to be—Hitler’s willing executioners” (p. 454). The book is a painful analysis, a cautionary tale, and a contemporary lens. I rejoice that some measure of anti-racist, anti-supremacist, anti-eliminationist progress is being made today. Tomorrow there will be just as much work to do.

Goldhagen, Daniel Jonah. Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Throwback Thursday Books: Forgiveness, Pardon and Reconciliation Distinguished

Current events reveal once again our cultural and theological confusions regarding confession and repentance, forgiveness and pardon, reconciliation and gaslighting. The current rush to reconciliation on the part of some in the wake of the attempted lynching in our nation’s capitol on January 6th is a symptom of this confusion. So, on this Throwback Thursday, I want to share an excerpt from my own book, Forgiveness: The Road Home. You can find that title on my “Books for Sale” page on this site. Or you can go here.

On October 2nd, 2006, Charles Carl Roberts IV entered a one-room Amish schoolhouse with a nine-millimeter semi-automatic handgun.  He removed all the boys from the building.  After a few students and a teacher escaped to get help, Roberts nailed the doors of the building shut.  During the standoff with police, Roberts shot and killed five of the girls, the oldest of which was thirteen.  He wounded five more before turning the gun on himself. 

While the tragedy was shocking in and of itself, reporters were soon focusing on how the Amish community of Nickel Mines was forgiving the gunman and caring for his family.  The outside world could not comprehend how forgiveness was possible in such a situation.

The authors of Amish Grace explore a number of factors that made such forgiveness possible.  First, they point to “the habit of forgiveness” that forms so much of Amish life and faith.  The capacity to forgive did not spring out of the moment.  It was not manufactured for its public relations value.  The forgiveness the Amish expressed as a natural outgrowth of their life together, their faith in Christ, and their understanding of the Gospel. 

In a very real sense, they had prepared for this moment for the five hundred years of their existence as the Amish faith community.  Miroslav Volf describes the power of a forgiving community this way, referring not to the Amish community but to his own parents: “They forgave because they were part of a community that followed Christ and for whom Scripture wasn’t an old religious book, but the life-shaping word of the living God…Do you want to become a forgiving person?  Seek the company of forgiven forgivers!” (Free of Charge, pages 213-214).

Because the Amish make forgiveness a central part of their Christian walk, they have had to think long and hard about the nature of forgiving itself.  They distinguish between forgiveness, pardon, and reconciliation.  These are related but separate processes.  We often confuse the three in our thinking.  This confusion often then makes it impossible for us to consider any of the three processes.  So, it is worth exploring what might be meant by each of these processes. 

Forgiving is unconditional, or it is not forgiving.  Pardon, in distinction from forgiveness, is completely conditional.  Pardon means that the wrongdoer has been declared free from suffering any discipline or other consequences as a result of his or her actions.  The Amish Christians are very careful about dispensing pardons.  When it comes to breaking civil law, they do not protest the operations of secular law enforcement agencies. 

They may plead for leniency in many cases based on their understanding of forgiveness and their rejection of the pursuit of revenge.  The Amish of Nickel Mines and elsewhere have often visited in prison those who have done wrong by them.  They supported the family of the Nickel Mines gunman.  They do not, however, believe that damaging actions should go without response.

As Jesus hung dying on a cross, the man next to him made a clear confession.  We are worthy of our punishment, he told his colleague in banditry, but this man has done nothing deserving of such a death.  Then he asked Jesus to “remember him” in his kingdom. 

Jesus offers words of pardon in response to that clear and repentant confession— “Today you will be with me in paradise.”  It is interesting that Jesus did not relieve the immediate consequences of the man’s actions.  The man still died for his crimes.  Those crimes, however, did not have a permanent reality.  The man was pardoned.

Pardon requires a clear identification of the wrong done.  It requires an acknowledgement of that wrong on the part of the wrong-doer.  Pardon requires a request on the part of the wrong-doer for forgiveness.  It may still entail real consequences for the wrongs done.  But when those consequences are carried out, the record is wiped clean.  As our Amish sisters and brothers know, pardon is also a process that is most likely to happen in a community where forgiving is a regular practice; a practice deeply seated in the story of God’s forgiving us.

Pardon can only be given if the offending partner seeks it.  The offender must confess her/his wrong(s)—preferably in the presence of a trusted third party so that there is both clarity and accountability.  That confession must be honest and specific.  The offender must express genuine remorse and the desire to repent—to turn away from the offending behavior and the roots of that behavior.  The offender must also be willing to endure whatever reasonable consequences result from the wrongdoing.  All of this can happen more often in a place and among a people who know about being forgiven and forgiving.

Reconciliation is the restoring of the relationship after it has been broken.  None of this erases the wrong that has been done.  The question is, rather, “How do we live in health and hope even though such a wrong has been done?”  Desmond Tutu describes this in profound and passionate words.  “To work for reconciliation is to want to realize God’s dream for humanity—when we will know that we are indeed members of one family, bound together in a delicate network of interdependence” (Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness, page 274). 

Reconciliation requires a commitment to a future “beyond me and the moment.”  At some point we will choose the embrace the future or to remain locked in the past.  As forgivers, we will choose at some point to re-narrate our lives to include the offense and the forgiveness, or we will choose to remain locked in the broken narrative where only the offense exists.

Reconciliation is an essential feature of Christian ministry and mission.  Let’s remember Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:17-21—“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation…”

Our ministry of reconciliation is rooted in God’s mission to us.  If we think for a moment, we can see that God has taken the path I am describing here.  “God will forgive; and with that forgiveness,” N. T. Wright says, “God will not only release the world from its burden of guilt but will also, so to speak, release himself from the burden of always having to be angry with a world gone wrong” (N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, page 156).  Even God is released by forgiving!

God’s forgiveness to us is unconditional.  It is an act of pure grace in Christ.  The consequences of our wrongdoing remain and must be pardoned.  This is the “new-making” power of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  God enters into relationship with us as healed, renewed, and forgiven sinners.  God takes us with utter seriousness but will not allow our sin to destroy the loving relationship between God and us— “that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself,* not counting their trespasses against them…”

We who are forgiven, pardoned, and reconciled then become missionaries of that reconciling love to a whole world in need of God’s healing.  This is our calling, to be royal representatives of the Lord of Divine Love— “…and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So, we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

This means we can and must exercise some care in this process of forgiveness, pardon, and reconciliation.  Volf has some powerful words for us here.  “Forgiveness places us on a boundary between enmity and friendship, between exclusion and embrace.  It tears down the wall of hostility that wrongdoing erects, but it doesn’t take us into the territory of friendship.  Should those who forgive stay in this neutral zone?” (Free of Charge, page 188).  At some point a forgiver decides to move out of that neutral zone.  Otherwise, the process of forgiveness, pardon and reconciliation is stillborn. 

Reconciliation is the final destination — not the beginning of the journey.  “Forgiveness between human beings is one crucial step in a larger process,” Volf writes, “whose final goal is the embrace of former enemies in a community of love” (Free of Charge, page 189).  When we read Matthew 18:15-20, we need to back up one paragraph, to verses ten through fourteen.  What you read in those verses may sound familiar.  It is the parable of the one and the ninety-nine.  In Luke we find that parable as one of the three “lost and found” stories, the third of which is the lost son, or the parable of the prodigal.  Matthew places it in the context of conflict and reconciliation.

The punch line of the parable is crystal clear: “So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.”  This section of Matthew’s gospel is about including all in God’s reign, about seeking and saving the lost, about holding the “little ones” close, about releasing one another from sin and debt.  To use Matthew 18:15-20 as a lever by which we would exclude people from our lives or from our churches is to abuse Scripture for our own purposes. 

Can you hear the words of the father in Luke 15— “my son was lost and is found, was dead and is alive again”?  That is the goal of the forgiving process, that not one of these little ones should be lost.  Forgiving begins the process.  Pardon makes it possible for the offender to accept the gift of forgiving.  Reconciliation means the restoration, to whatever degree possible, of the loving community for which our God creates us, redeems us, and sustains us.

Reconciliation may happen at some point, although it may be incomplete and halting in this life.  There will come a time when the wronged spouse, for example, will need to make a decision.  I have been asked so many times, “When will I ever be able to trust her/him again?”  The short answer is, “When you decide to give that trust.” 

I have no desire to be flippant here.  That decision can only come after long thought and prayer, and after the offender has demonstrated some long-term and good faith changes in behavior.  At some point, however, the person who was wronged will need to decide if reconciliation is prudent and/or desirable.  That decision can be assisted if a trusted third party is called upon to help both partners remain accountable in healthy ways.  Sometimes, however, reconciliation will simply not be possible in this life.  Then the partners must go their separate ways.  Sometimes that is the case in conflicted congregations as well.

What if the other either refuses to forgive or to accept forgiveness?  In church fights, for example, some folks will choose to hang on to their hurts as a way put a roadblock in the way of any move forward in the life of the community.  Wright describes this as “a position of peculiar power…to exercise in perpetuity a veto on the triumph of grace.”  Congregations cannot and should not grant such veto power to anyone. 

If forgiveness is asked for or offered, and the other party can demonstrate no good reason for moving forward, then the community must move forward without them.  This is not a happy time for anyone.  It is a failure in the process and a concession to our still-powerful sinful desires.  But this may be the best that we can do as forgivers if the recipient cannot accept both the exclusion and the embrace, both the judgment and the reconciliation, that forgiving entails.

Let us be clear at this moment.  The community is not excluding those who refuse to participate.  L. Gregory Jones notes that “those unwilling to engage truthfully in this practice exclude themselves form the communal life of those seeking to live ‘in truth.’  Such exclusion, however, ought to be seen only as temporary and always in the context of the hope that those subject to it will return to the fellowship” (Jones, Embodying Forgiveness, page 183).

This refusal to engage in the process must be observed, of course, by other members of the church acting in good faith in steps two and three of the process outlined in Matthew 18:15-20.  Wright gives this council.  “Thus, just as when we offer genuine forgiveness to someone else we are no longer conditioned by the evil that they have done—even if they refuse to accept this forgiveness and so continue in a state of enmity—so when God offers genuine forgiveness to his sinful creatures he is no longer conditioned by the evil they have done, even if they refuse to accept his forgiveness.  Otherwise the grouch, the sulker, the prodigal son’s older brother, occupies the implicit moral high ground forever” (N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, page 141).

“In the act of forgiveness we are declaring our faith in the future of a relationship and in the capacity of the wrongdoer to make a new beginning on a course that will be different from the one that caused us the wrong” (Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness, page 273).  Without forgiveness, pardon and reconciliation, I can never truthfully move “beyond me and the moment.”  With forgiveness, pardon and reconciliation, I can re-narrate my story in such a way that truth is told, life is celebrated, and new community is possible.

I conclude that the necessity of prosecuting and penalizing those who attempted a lynching in our nation’s capitol is unquestionable and must move forward.

Throwback Thursday Books: Following Jesus in A Culture of Fear

The 1993 film, So I Married an Axe Murderer, is the story of Charlie MacKenzie and his paranoid fantasies about every girl he dates. MacKenzie, played by Mike Meyers, is protesting to his friend, Tony Giardino, that his fears are justified. Tony says, “Every time you meet a nice girl you can get close to, you always break up with them for paranoid reasons.” Charlie shakes his head. “That’s not true. I broke up with those girls for very good reasons.” Tony is unconvinced. “Oh really?”

“Yes,” Charlie insists. Tony is undeterred. “Oh really? What about Jill?” With a straight face Charlie replies, “She was in the Mafia.” Tony persists. “What about Pam?” Charlie stays the course. “She smelled like soup.” But then, Charlie meets Harriet, and it seems that love might overcome his fears.

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Until he discovers a bit more evidence. And it begins to look like Harriet might actually be a serial killer who dispatches spouses in creative ways and then moves on to the next target. If you haven’t seen the film, I won’t spoil it. But I mention it as one of my favorite explorations of the power of fear in our lives and in our culture. “Just because you’re paranoid,” Joseph Heller writes in Catch 22, “doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”

Heller’s slogan is the tagline for life in twenty-first century America. That’s why my Throwback Thursday book is Scott Bader-Saye’s 2007 work entitled Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear (Brazos Press). “Fear is not evil,” Bader-Saye writes. “It is not a vice. It is not wrong to fear, but excessive or disordered fear can tempt us to vices such as cowardice, sloth, rage, and violence. It can also inhibit,” he continues, “virtuous actions such as hospitality, peacemaking, and generosity” (page 26). Bader-Saye writes in the tradition of Catholic virtue ethics in response to the American political, cultural and religious response to the 9/11 attacks.

Of course, he could easily have written his book yesterday. “In the culture of fear,” he notes, “Fear becomes the ambient background to our lives rather than a proper response to a concrete and passing threat” (page 27). Even though we live in the grips of an ever-deepening societal anxiety, we are really experiencing the latest installment in a serial drama that stretches back at least to the McCarthy hearings in the 1950’s. “Fear tempts us to make safety and self-preservation our highest goals,” he notes, “and when we do so our moral focus becomes the protections of our lives and health. Security becomes the new idol,” Bader-Saye concludes, “before whom all other gods must bow” (page 28).

Fear is better than sex, he says — at least in terms of marketing. It drives industries as diverse as parenting products, security systems, and software. We know that fear is better than hope — at least in terms of marketing campaigns. We’ve come a long way from the Willie Horton ads. Now tens of millions of terrified voters are certain that their election, their livelihood, and their way of life is being stolen by nameless hordes of black and brown interlopers who should go back to where they came from — whether that’s servitude or Central America, doesn’t really matter to the terrified totalitarians.

Fear is better than most things in terms of power because we are wired to be more threat-averse than opportunity-seeking. A common enemy gives us “a temporary, though artificial solution to our moral fragmentation,” he writes (page 29). Fear gives us a reason to reject strangers and imprison immigrants. Fear encourages us to keep our stuff for ourselves and to blame others for their lack. It drives some of us to a faux fearlessness fueled by Fascist ideology and armed to the teeth. This faux fearlessness is one symptom of what the author calls “the pursuit of invulnerability.” He suggests that the shock of 09/11/2000 was so great that ever since we have sought ways to guarantee that such a disaster would never happen again.

That pursuit may be costing us our economy, our democracy, our Christianity, and ultimately, our humanity — if current trends continue. For those with a sci-fi bent, you will enjoy Bader-Saye’s use of the Star Wars franchise as a parable of fear for our time. “The story teaches us,” he writes, “that evil is not just the object of fear but it is the temptation that arises from fear.” That probably sounds better when Yoda says it in his backward speaking.

Bader-Saye urges us to “put fear in its place.” He notes again, “Fear itself is not evil, but it can become such. Excessive or disordered fear,” he continues, “can drain the joy out of life, can constrict our vision and feed our hatreds. Fear can cause us to love less because we fear to much the seeds of sorrow that inhabit every love,” he says. We find our way back to Charlie MacKenzie for a moment. “Excessive fear can rob our lives of playfulness, exploration, and adventure. Fear can be a gift,” he concludes, “But it can also be a poison” (page 52).

Bader-Saye explores how we can know the difference and how we can “put fear in its place.” The rest of the book offers further analysis of the issue and points to resources for the task.

I find it deeply troubling that this book is as current and useful as it was fourteen years ago. It is now a prophetic text, describing the trends that have only accelerated since it was written. We have become far more adept at manufacturing and manipulating fear in the last two decades. We elected Donald Trump on that basis and rewarded him for his ham-fisted expertise. He has spent four years demonstrating just how effective fear continues to be as a basis for ruling (not for governing, of course). I fear that others have learned his lessons well and will continue to improve both the theory and the techniques.

The opposite of fear, according to Bader-Saye, is not courage but rather faith. In fact, he says, courage is rooted in a faith dedicated to something more than ourselves. “Courage is the capacity to do what is right and good,” he says, “in the face of fear. We become courageous,” he concludes, “when we learn to live for something that is more important than our own safety” (page 67). That capacity is best nurtured in communities of faithfulness, such as Christian congregations. “There can be no solution to the problem of fear,” he writes, “without the existence of communities capable of bearing fear together” (page 73).

I have observed and been part of congregations that have at least flickers of that fear-bearing capacity. We white American Christians haven’t been called on much at all to bear fear. Instead, we have often inflicted it on others. But we can certainly look to congregations filled with Black and Brown bodies for examples of fear-bearing communities of courage. As some of us seek to reject and abandon our bastions of privilege and embrace real life under the cross of Christ, we will need to continue our instruction by courageous Christians of color for whom this territory is quite familiar.

I suppose that’s one of the things that is most missing in the book from this vantage point. The more privileged we are, the more likely we are to succumb to the fear of losing our privilege. We white dominant folks have so little practice and stamina in this regard. And that is painfully obvious in the current time. Bader-Saye’s book is a good read as we build our resistance, but we have miles to go after that.

I’m reminded of a little poem by Gerhard Frost. I want to paraphrase a few lines as I end. “Yes, [fear] does gnaw at my faith, but faith gnaws, too, and faith has better teeth!” It’s an important reminder as we walk forward in this culture of fear.

Throwback Thursday Books — An Altar in the World

An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor; HarperOne, 2009.

One of the most disorienting experiences for church people during The Pandemic has been displacement from church buildings. I’ve never been a fan of such places, and I know that puts me in the extreme minority among my colleagues. I appreciate a good worship space for its spiritual utility, but I can never really develop the sort of emotional attachment to such a space that I observe in other long-time Christians. For some, this attachment has become a kind of madness, as people have risked the health of whole communities to gather in the safe and stable spaces they call sanctuaries.

I suppose it has something to do with my difficulties in finding a home anywhere. And it certainly has something to do with having served in a variety of such spaces over the years. As a relatively itinerant church person (and someone who leaves more easily than he stays), I find that this deep devotion to a church building and worship center is not part of my ecclesial wiring.

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White clapboard or ancient stone, low ceilings or tall steeples, Gothic choir or industrial warehouse – I’m happier in my study with a good book. I find my church most readily in a classroom or study group with some other curious and bright adults. It’s an unhelpful disability for a parish pastor, but I’ve made do with it over the years.

So, it’s no surprise that I have returned repeatedly to Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World. Taylor is one of those writers whose journey I have tracked with my own. From sermons and columns in The Christian Century to her first acclaim as one of America’s best preachers to Leaving Church, and far beyond, I have watched and read. Because Taylor is a brilliant and beautiful word wrangler and sculptor of similes, and because she has worked out much of her struggle on the pages of her books, it has been possible to follow along, and in many ways to be a fellow traveler of sorts.

An Altar in the World is an interesting re-read during The Pandemic. If there has been a time to rediscover the “altars” in ordinary life, this has been such a time. In the early pages of the book, she describes one of the epiphanies that led to writing the book and to the others that have followed.

As she walked a trail on the big island of Hawaii, Taylor “wondered how I had forgotten that the whole world is the House of God. Who had persuaded me that God preferred four walls and a roof to wide-open space? When had I made the subtle switch myself,” she mused, “becoming convinced that church bodies and buildings were the safest and most reliable places to encounter the living God?” (page 4). In this book, Taylor explores all the places and practices beyond church bodies and buildings where we might find “more” – not more church, but rather more God.

She describes that longing well. “We wanted More. We wanted a deeper sense of purpose. We wanted a stronger sense of God’s presence. We wanted more reliable ways both to seek and to stay in that presence,” she declared, “not for an hour on Sunday morning or Wednesday afternoon but for as much time as we could stand” (page 6). During The Pandemic we have been forced to find the More outside the walls of our handmade homes for God. It’s been a fraught, exhilarating, uncharted, and unregulated experience. I’ve enjoyed that aspect of the journey immensely.

This enforced sabbatical from sanctioned sacred spaces has stoked the anxiety of many who inhabit and tend those spaces (aka pastors, religious professionals and church boards). What if no one comes back? What if people have discovered that they don’t need such home bases to anchor their spiritual journeys?

I don’t think that will be the case for the majority of conventional church people. But I do think a sizable minority have asked such questions and experienced minor and major epiphanies along the way. As Church, we won’t turn back the clock on that one. We will need to explore how to build on the gifts and strengths our people have discovered along the way.

In December, one of the Hebrew scripture readings in Advent was the prophecy to King David that his “house” would last forever. David had wanted to build a temple for his God commensurate with his God’s glory and his own stature as a king. God reminded David that God was doing just fine without such a structure. It wasn’t God who needed the building; it was David. In fact, what God promised to build was not a temple but rather a people – a messianic people who could carry God’s promise and presence to a world in need of real altars.

It was a dangerous text in a time of disconnection from our own “temples.” I didn’t hear any sermons pointing that out. Rather, I think, that topic was studiously avoided.

The Pandemic didn’t cause any of this anxiety. It only exacerbated and accelerated it. The real Christian Church (not that neo-gnostic bullshit that makes love to fascists and calls anti-racists communists) is being pushed out of Egypt and into the wilderness. We long for the fleshpots and the familiarity, but there is something new ahead of us. Perhaps we need more tabernacle and less temple at this point. “For years and years,” Taylor writes, “the Divine Presence was content with a tent…which was not where God lived full-time but where God camped out with people who were also on the move” (page 8).

I don’t know what that looks like any more than you do. But I know it’s different. And I know it reflects something about God’s essential way of being with us in the world. After all, in John 1 we read that the Word became flesh and (in a literal translation) pitched a tent in our midst. A pilgrim God with a pilgrim people – that’s where we are now.

The healthy learning for church people coming out of The Pandemic must be, I am convinced, that we need buildings and to be built up, that the altars in our sanctuaries are doorways to the altars in the world – not substitutes or replacements for them.

In practical terms for example, congregations that think online worship was a temporary expedient now to be replaced by “normal” worship experiences – such congregations will have wasted the opportunity The Pandemic offered. In this exile from edifices, we have had chances to rediscover and explore the altars in our homes, in our walks, in our communities, and in the flicker of screens. We don’t have to choose one item off that menu, nor should we.

One of those altars in the world for me, during the last several months, has been an online book group we formed to study how to be anti-racists. We’ll be at that work for a lifetime, but it’s a place that is giving me life and hope. It’s a place where I feel the Spirit of God at work in a community and in the hearts of individual participants, including me. It’s a place where repentance, change, and growth happen in the midst of vulnerability and pain. It’s an altar in the world that moves me to action. We won’t give that up when the buildings re-open.

Perhaps you have discovered other new altars in your life and experience. I’d love to hear about those places, what they mean to you, and how you will maintain them in the coming months and years. Thanks for reading!