Archive for February, 2013

It’s Go Time

Posted in Uncategorized on February 25, 2013 by yhcreligiouslife

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!” Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.
Matthew 7:24-29

I remember, years ago, when I first started my postgraduate degree at St. Andrews, all postgraduates were encouraged to take a course in research methods and writing. The professor tasked with leading us through the course, Daphne Hampson, began by reminding us that at some point in our research we needed to start writing, so, she suggested, we might as well begin that day. She offered that rather terse and seemingly premature advice following a discussion on the topic of research, data collection, and information cataloguing.

After years of her own research and writing, she recognized that sometimes the greatest hindrance to the writer is simply starting. Especially after having compiled stacks of research and having surveyed a wide field of study, she knew all researchers, particularly new ones like us, faced a potentially crippling dilemma: Where to start? With so much material covered and possibilities to pursue and just enough exposure to a discipline to know how much there was to know, all writers face the danger of not wanting to start for fear of starting in the wrong place or heading off in the wrong direction. From personal experience, she knew the ossifying potential that comes from knowing you need to start but not knowing where that place is.

So, she offered this simple advice to new scholars. Just start.

Knowing lots of information and reflecting on lots of information were great. But, they were not everything. Knowing and doing are not exactly the same thing. You need both. She wanted us to merge the two together . . . and to start them simultaneously. Now, of course, we would certainly not always start in the right place. But, at a minimum, we would have started.

At least, if we started researching and writing and found ourselves wandering down a blind alley or reaching a dead end or chasing theories into a perplexing rabbit’s warren, we would have done something and would be in a position to start editing and correcting and revising and jettisoning. And, all along, we would have been writing and working and moving. We would not be fixed in one place either because of a lack of direction or motivation or certainty. We would have just gotten on with the work of being scholars and writers, refining our theories, our research, our craft, and ourselves throughout the process.

I have always appreciated her advice.

And, after reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s reflections on the concluding remarks from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, I could not help but remember that brisk autumn afternoon’s lesson. Both Professors Bonhoeffer and Hampson seem to have come to the same conclusion: When the work before us seems so large and looming, sometimes we just need to get started.

As you may recall, this section from Matthew’s gospel coined the Sermon on the Mount was proceeded by Jesus calling his first sets of disciples after he has begun his ministry. We are told in each instance that the disciples are working, Jesus walks by, speaks to them, calls them, and they “immediately” follow. Then, having gathered these disciples who dropped everything, Jesus takes them (and others who are straggling along) to a mountaintop to deliver his law for this expanded kingdom that his ministry inaugurates. The fact that the disciples’ response is recorded in the text and is in such close proximity to Jesus’ substantive and lengthily ministry’s inaugural address is no accident. The immediacy of the disciples’ response sets the tone and underscores the energy implicit in the Sermon on the Mount.

For as quickly as Jesus called his disciples, delivered his protracted discourse on the work and character of the life of discipleship to which he has just called these responsive men (and others), Jesus ends the discourse, astounds the crowds, and returns to the work of kingdom living. Moving right into the work of that kingdom seems to be the only way to manage it.

All of the descriptions and expectations that Jesus has just outlined for his disciples have the distinct possibility to overwhelm even the most seasoned follower. And, Jesus is dealing with anything but seasoned followers. Here, Jesus is working with those who hours before were casting nets and gutting fish. Now, they are being called to live into the high and rigorous demands of discipleship and kingdom-making.

There is so much to be done, so many places to start, so much material to review, so many assessments to be made. Yet, the kingdom that Jesus offers does not seem to wait for such deliberate and calculated movements. Rather, the kingdom Jesus offers seems suited to those who can think on their feet, readily and nimbly adjusting as they get on with the work of loving God and the world. Discipleship and kingdom work, it seems, requires on the job training. That type of training might be for the best because to wait for all parts of Jesus’ kingdom manifesto to be in place, analyzed, and systematically arranged would stagnate the work, if not perpetually postpone its inception. And, as we learn over and over again throughout Christian scriptures, God seems less interested in perfect, prepared followers than in willful, responsive participants.

Lives of faith—for most any faith—is about a willing readiness to share in the journey of faithful living and not to serve only as a spectator or evaluator or naysayer. This need to get on with the work of living into the reality of the vision cast seems all too necessary.

Consider Jesus’ story conveyed at the end of the Sermon on the Mount of the two men, each building a house on a different foundation. Both build. It does not work out for both men. Some might see this story as a warning, a cautionary tale, suggesting that careful assessment and calculated planning appear critical to a successful project. And both are. Yet, I take a slightly different lesson from this story. The “successful” builder has a house the stands because he did two things: (1) he chose a good material and (2) decided to get on with the work. The “unsuccessful” builder is unsuccessful not because he chose to build but because he chose to build with the wrong materials. His error was not in building. In fact, building seems to be what both men did correctly.

A life of faith, it appears as outlined in the story told in Matthew’s gospel, has an indispensible characteristic of action linked to something else. Doing the work of faith is not in doubt. Recognizing the importance of living intentionally faithfully is what both men get right.

Now, this lesson is certainly not the only lesson we can take from this parable in Matthew’s text, but it is an important lesson. Sometimes, we just need to get on with it.

So, over the coming weeks, whether you are at work or home or school or on vacation or with family or with friends or alone or wherever and with whomever, get on with the work of loving. That call to action seems to be the essence of Jesus’ manifesto and Matthew’s story.

It’s go time! A whole world is waiting.

“Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”
—Matthew 4:20

Have a great week. See you along the way.



Posted in Uncategorized on February 18, 2013 by yhcreligiouslife

As the Christian calendar turns from the post-Christmas season to the season of preparation for Easter, as season called Lent, I am turning back a page in my iChapel catalogue to an iChapel from three years ago, an iChapel reminding us all—Christian or non-Christian, persons of faith or no faith—that for any journey to build toward something it must sometimes first take something apart.

Have a great week. See you along the way.

I love the fact that the word humus—the decayed vegetable matter that feeds the roots of plants—comes from the same root that gives rise to the word humility. It is a blessed etymology.
—Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak

Walking through the woods this weekend as the snow fell, I heard the brittle branches of last summer’s undergrowth crackle underfoot. Each step’s snap sank twigs and leaves deeper into the earth that they were becoming. I found myself amongst those trees looking for suitable wooden arms, selecting the right shaped stick, stripping off the excess to prepare my find for its place on our snowman.

To make a well-shaped body, preparations are necessary. Changes are needed.

Similar to how a blanket of snow temporarily transforms our tired winter landscape into a quiet, fresh stillness; last Wednesday we entered another temporary yet transformative time. Wednesday was Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is the start of a 40-day journey of introspection and transformation.

In the early church, catechumens—those preparing for membership in the church—started a 40-day period of preparation and change, preparing for initiation into the church through a change in habits, perspective, and faith. These 40 days of preparation and change is called Lent. Echoing Jesus’ 40-days of preparation as he initiated his ministry, these soon-to-be members would prepare themselves during Lent by stripping away those unnecessary parts of their lives, reshaping themselves into the broken down, refined form that will be their essential addition to the ever-changing body of Christ.

Fallen leaves, dried undergrowth, snapped twigs become something new. Leaves, undergrowth, and twigs mix with damp dirt. They breakdown. The greens of summer become the yellows, oranges, and reds of autumn that become beiges, browns, and blacks of winter. This decaying layer forms the top of the soil called humus.

Humus is an essential layer, replenishing the dirt’s nutrients lost during the previous spring and summer. It is the layer that makes possible the promised explosion of new life that comes with spring. It is the gift from the forest back to the earth, offering thanks for another year of shared existence. Humus, as Parker Palmer reminds us above, is also the source of our English word humility.

Humility is that posture of willfully lowering ourselves to be broken down, making us available to be used for some greater purpose. Like leaves broken down to be used for the next spring’s rebirth, so too, we must willingly prepare to be broken down so that we might be used to make something greater than ourselves when our shared spring arrives. For the church, that shared spring begins with Lent.

Our word Lent comes from an Anglo-Saxon word lecten, meaning spring. Over the years, this Lenten time of stripping away and introspective change has expanded to include not just those catechumens but all those within the church. Lent is a time for us all to step back from who we are and consider what must change within us to enable us to be who we must become. That change of the larger body begins first (and uniquely) within each of us.

As we enter this Lenten season, I am reminded that for me to help foster what might be possible among us, first, I must be willing to be broken down. I must regularly remind myself that I cannot assume that I bring with me all that is necessary to make ministry happen, to make this place or any place into what it needs to be. I cannot assume that I have all the answers to every unanswered question. I cannot assume that I know what is best or better. If the vital and vibrant Beloved Community is to be cultivated and propagated, first, preparatory, humbling work must take place. Like those leaves, I must change and risk dying to myself and my expectations and my assumptions if a new spring of possibilities is to come.

In Matthew’s discourse on discipleship, Jesus challenges his disciples to engage in such an act of self-humility. There, Jesus declares, “. . . ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” (Matthew 16:24b-26).

Jesus’ challenge is for his disciples to break away from past expectations about themselves, their world, and their God. This is no easy task, but it is an essential task.

It is my prayer that during this Lenten season of preparation and transformation that as individuals and as a community we are willing to risk letting go and being broken down, being made ready for what is to come. It is my hope that out of the humus of our lives something divine may come in this place as in heaven. As all Lents end at a tomb’s door promising new life , may our journey together this Lenten season arrive at the door of our new life, a new life of new possibilities for this college, this community, this country, and this world.

So be it.

What’s Love Got to Do with It?

Posted in Uncategorized on February 13, 2013 by yhcreligiouslife

‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. . . . ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

Matthew 7:1-12

This week is just one of those weeks, one of those weeks when lots of events and celebrations pile upon each other. Tomorrow, it is Mardi Gras (i.e., Fat Tuesday . . . or Shrove Tuesday for those of Anglican origins). Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and our fourth annual Appalachian Chapel Service. Thursday is Valentine’s Day and the day that four YHC students travel to Chicago to attend a student religious life conference at the University of Chicago called “Coming Together 6.” Now, that is just my week. Others’ weeks certainly will fill and be marked by both the significant and mundane, noting both the passing of important events and the inexorable march of time. In an attempt at theological handicraft, I wonder if we might be able to sew all of these events together with the same defining thread, a tread of love.

In this week’s passage from Matthew’s gospel that Dietrich Bonhoeffer ponders, he considers that final chapter of the Sermon on the Mount, that chapter that holds, among many others, these dual admonitions: (1) do not judge and (2) do to others as you would have them do to you.

In asking his disciples not to judge and not to treat others badly, Bonhoeffer does not assume that Jesus asks his disciples to be without options or that his disciples will never mistreat another person. Rather, what Jesus seems to be doing is reminding his followers that the life of faith, as we have discovered before, is about keeping life in its proper order and remembering what our different conceptual boxes hold, i.e., people belong in the subject box to be in relationship with while stuff belongs in the object box to be used and appreciated.

Recalling our reflection on the Sermon on Mount from two weeks ago, there, Jesus seems to be saying that when it comes to how we relate to material things we should never understand those things as the goal but as a way that we might connect with others. Or, to use a phrase often attributed to Will Rogers: “Never love things and use people, but use things and love people.” In that previous passage, Jesus’ reference to the manna from heaven in the Exodus story illustrates the importance of seeing heavenly food as a way to love God and not to see God as a way to love heavenly food . . . what is at issue is the proper ordering and of keeping things and people in their appropriate conceptual boxes.

This week, in this chapter, we get the other side of the coin. Rather than addressing how properly to understand our lives as they intersect with stuff, this passage from the Sermon on the Mount is an instruction on how properly to understand our lives as they intersect with people. This time, the issue of how to order our relationships is about remembering what it is that holds these relationships together.

Objects may be observed, pondered, manipulated, classified, held, and used. Objects are detached from us. Objects remain separate. One a very surface level, we come to “know” something about objects. Subjects, i.e., people, however, may be engaged, enjoyed, shared, appreciated, and cherished. Subjects are somehow different from us principally in how they are attached to us. Subjects are distinct but not separate. One a different level, we come to “know” something about subjects in a significantly deeper and dissimilar way. Said another way, we know things about objects. Subjects are known to us. The first category is fact-based. The second category is relationship-based.

Central to the writer’s point, people are not objects to be had but subjects to be known. When considering objects, Bonhoeffer understands that objects may be used to connect us with others. For example, phones connect us to each other; food connects us to the earth and the farmer and chef. It is this order of us connected to others through things that explains why we feel used when we become the thing that connects someone to something else. In that instance, we become an object. We are objectified. We are moved from a relational category to a material one.

When we are admonished not to judge, the gospel writer is intimating that judgment is problematic only on the occasion that judgment becomes the goal with the person being judged is transferred from the subject of our relating to the object of our observation and adjudication. In this relational equation, what connects us to others is our capacity to convert and use them as an object that links us to our own self-righteousness and correctness. Similarly, Jesus’ advancement of the Golden Rule is but a reminder that we do not appreciate being converted by others into objects any more than they do. So, by keeping that rule before us, we are more likely to resist the temptation to convert others into objects.

Yet, how do we relate or connect when objects are not in the social equation? What holds use directly to each other? The answer to these two questions is what this week’s passage from Matthew’s gospel is attempting to describe. Matthew is describing the bond of love.

Love—in this instance is embodied in the person of Christ—willfully becomes the means of our connection, linking person to person and securing that both retain their humanity. When judgment is offered, love serves as the mediator reminding us that the one being judged is not solely an object for us to consider but a person to whom we are connected. When we begin interactions with another, we anticipate how we might relate to them reminding ourselves that love is what connects us and not their social status or ability to aid us or the access that they have or role they fill. People are not a means to an end but the end that we seek. Love becomes the binding conduit to make that connection happen.

(Bonhoeffer draws some interesting conclusions from his idea of resisting making others our objects and our efforts at evangelism. Evangelism in his articulation is not about conversation but about care because conversion, as a goal, presents the temptation to treat the persons being pursued as an object to be acted upon rather than a subject to be treasured in and of themselves. Love demands that we love them and not love what they might become after our holy work. However, that is a topic for another day.)

So, if love is at the heart of what underlies this week’s reading, then love becomes that thread that binds each of the week’s many events together. Mardi Gras originated as a party of eating and drinking for a community because the next day that community would willfully enter into a time of fasting (or refraining from much eating and drinking) because the community wished to be in solidarity with those amongst them preparing to enter a life of faith as new members of the same religious community. Only those entering the community for the first time were asked to fast. Yet, Mardi Gras emerged as a community-wide effort to walk through a difficult time of fasting and spiritual preparation together. It was an act of cooperate love.

Ash Wednesday is that moment in the life of the church when the faithful are reminded of a need to walk away from some practices that are destructive to the life of the community and to walk toward those habits that build and bind, that correct and connect. Love becomes the motivation to leave some habits behind, and love becomes the means to press a people forward. Our Appalachian Chapel service is a celebration of the community where we are, reminding us that what we celebrate is more than just a locale but mainly the people who define this place. It is people and our love for them, their love for this place, and their love for each other that defines “Appalachia.”

Thursday is Valentine’s Day, a day on which we celebrate love, a tradition emerging from a day set aside to commemorate the life of Valentinus. Valentinus, according to legend, was an early Christian who was imprisoned and martyred because he performed weddings for lovers who were forbidden to marry. Also, on Thursday, at YHC we will celebrate those from our campus willing to travel to a conference interested in expanding dialogue and knowledge of other faith traditions and remembering that we engage with each other not as a means to another end, i.e., conversation, but that the engagement itself is the purpose.

So, what’s love got to do with it? Love seems to have everything to do with it. Love in this instance, if not never instance, is the most significant part.

Have a great week and see you along the way.

A Winter’s Stillness

Posted in Uncategorized on February 13, 2013 by yhcreligiouslife

Given the gift of snow, a gift that not only revives the six year old living deep in my heart but, also, a gift that invites rest that would otherwise have been neglected, I pause for a moment from our weekly walk through the gospel of Matthew with Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Like a day spent in sweatpants and flannels while consuming more hot chocolate than is reasonable, that unexpected space created by this frosted sabbatical requires filling with something unplanned yet appropriately welcomed.

Here, I offer an article by Bob Greene I read yesterday on CNN’s website, reflecting on national Four Chaplains Day. Enjoy the read, the pause, and the beginning to the week.

See you along the way.

“Real Heroes: Four Died so Others Might Live”

By the end of the Super Bowl on Sunday night, one or more professional football players will be hailed for their valor, for their guts, for their devotion to their teammates. They will be called heroes.

And more than 100 million people will be watching.

But because, predictably, those laudatory words will be thrown around so casually on Sunday, perhaps we can take a few minutes here to address an act of genuine valor that happened exactly 70 years ago today.

It wasn’t televised. There were no sponsors.

On February 3, 1943, an Army transport ship called the Dorchester, carrying American soldiers through the icy North Atlantic on their way to serve in World War II, was about 100 miles off the coast of Greenland in rough sea. More than 900 people were on board.

Many of them were little more than boys — young soldiers and sailors who had never been so far from home. The journey had been arduous already, with the men crammed into claustrophobic, all-but-airless sleeping quarters below deck, constantly ill from the violent lurching of the ship.

In the blackness of night, a German submarine fired torpedoes at the Dorchester. One of the torpedoes hit the middle of the ship. There was pandemonium on board. The Dorchester swiftly began to sink.
The soldiers and sailors, many of them wakened from sleep by the attack, searched desperately in the dark for life jackets and lifeboats and a route to safety. With them on the ship were four military chaplains, from four disparate religions.

They were Father John Washington, born in Newark, New Jersey, who was Catholic; the Rev. Clark Poling, born in Columbus, Ohio, who was ordained in the Reformed Church in America; Rabbi Alexander Goode, born in Brooklyn, New York, who was Jewish; and the Rev. George Fox, born in Lewistown, Pennsylvania, who was Methodist.

In the chaos onboard, according to multiple accounts by survivors of the attack, the four men tried to calm the soldiers and sailors and lead them to evacuation points. The chaplains were doing what chaplains do: providing comfort and guidance and hope. “I could hear men crying, pleading, praying,” a soldier named William B. Bednar would later recall. “I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage. Their voices were the only thing that kept me going.”

With the Dorchester rapidly taking on water, there were not enough life jackets readily available for every man on the ship.

So, when the life jackets ran out, the four chaplains removed their own, and handed them to soldiers who didn’t have them.

More than 600 men died that night in the frigid seas, but some 230 were rescued. And some of the survivors, in official accounts given to the Army, and in interviews after the war, reported what they saw as the ship went down: Those four chaplains, men of different faiths but believing in the same God, their arms linked, standing on the deck together in prayer. They had willingly given up their futures, their lives, to try to help the men who had been placed by the Army in their care.

The U.S. Army War College has in its records a narrative of what happened that night. One of the men who survived the sinking of the Dorchester, a Navy officer named John J. Mahoney, is quoted as recalling that before heading for the lifeboats, he hurried in the direction of his quarters.

Rabbi Goode, seeing him, asked where he was going. Mahoney said he had forgotten his gloves, and wanted to retrieve them before being dropped into the cold sea.

Rabbi Goode said that Mahoney should not waste fleeting time, and offered Mahoney his own gloves.

When Mahoney said he couldn’t deprive Rabbi Goode of his gloves, the rabbi said it was all right, he had two pairs. Only later, according to military historians, did Mahoney realize that of course, Rabbi Goode was not carrying an extra pair of gloves. He had already decided that he was going down with the ship.

According to the Army War College account, another survivor of the Dorchester, John Ladd, said of the four chaplains’ selfless act: “It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven.”
The story of the four chaplains was quite well known in America for a while; in 1948 a first-class 3-cent postage stamp was issued bearing their likenesses. There are still stained glass windows in some chapels across the U.S. that pay tribute to the four men, including at the Pentagon. But the national memory is short, and they are no longer much discussed. February 3 was, years ago, designated by Congress to be set aside annually as Four Chaplains Day, but it is not widely commemorated.

This Super Bowl Sunday, with its football heroes whose televised exploits are bracketed by commercials for beer and corn chips, will be no exception. The nation’s attention, this February 3, will be focused on the game.

But perhaps, at some point in the day, we can pause for a moment to reflect upon what valor and courage and sacrifice really mean. How rare they truly are.

And to recall the four men who remain, in the words with which their grateful and humbled country honored them on the front of that long-ago postage stamp, “these immortal chaplains.”

The Simplicity of the Carefree Life

Posted in Uncategorized on February 13, 2013 by yhcreligiouslife

‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. ‘The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! ‘No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

—Matthew 6:19-24

As we continue to walk through Matthew’s gospel with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we experience a shift at verse 19 in chapter six. At that verse, we leave behind the text’s three explicit declarations on how to act as a disciple and move toward a subtle commendation on how to love as a disciple.

Let me explain.

In the first part of chapter six, Matthew’s Jesus continues to deliver his Sermon on the Mount, reflecting on the nature of discipleship. Initially, Jesus lists three practices useful yet potentially perilous for the positive shaping of discipleship: giving money to the poor, praying, and fasting. All three are positive when the disciple remembers that these disciplines are meant to focus our lives and others toward God and never toward ourselves. If directed towards God, then each practice shapes a life well, drawing a sharp focus on the presence of God and God’s in-breaking kingdom. If directed towards ourselves, then each practice misshapes a life, drawing focus away from God and upon ourselves as the “celebrated” practitioners and “pious followers” of God. Such a misshapen life forms our hearts into our own image rather than God’s and repeats the failure caricatured in the story of the fall and original sin, i.e., we become the center of our world instead of God.

Taking this warning on how to practice right practices rightly, Matthew moves from how to live to how to love by reminding his readers of another time when followers of God were in need of retraining if they were to make it through their journey of faith. Recall the words from the gospel cited above: “‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal . . . .” In other words, the readers of Matthew’s gospel remember Israel’s own journey of faith when Israel fled Egypt, relying on the food provided from heaven, a food that would “rust.”

In the story of the flight from Egypt in Exodus, God sends bread each day to be collected for that day’s meals. Any bread that is stored for the next day turns to worms (or more specifically is consumed by worms and spoils), i.e., it “rusts” or is “eaten away” as the original Greek might more literally read. The story of Exodus 16 is a story about a people in danger who learn to trust God’s enduring presence and certain provision despite evidence to the contrary and all the obstacles in place.

In the Exodus story, as long as Israel trusted, loved God, then Israel continued its journey toward the Promised Land. When Israel trusted, loved things, i.e., bread or idols or fear, then Israel’s journey stalled, strayed, or stopped. That is, the story of the Exodus and its manna from heaven is a story—in part—about training how to love rightly and what to love when many alternative loves are available to us.

Bonhoeffer correctly identifies what seems to be pivotal verse in this particular lesson from the Sermon on the Mount. Zeroing in on verse 24 and that verse’s warning about not serving two masters, Bonhoeffer concludes that the declaration that all lives require additional resources to continue is the heartbeat of this particular passage.

We are not self-sufficient creatures. We require external aid, i.e., water, food, wisdom, society, rules, friends, etc. With the inevitable need to choose some aid before us, the question for a disciple is not whether to choose but which to choose. Will we choose—i.e., love—mammon (or things) and wealth as the missing ingredient necessary to make our lives successful and prosperous? Or, like the disciples following Moses across the wilderness of Sinai, will we choose—on our best days—the supplier of the mammon as the missing ingredient necessary to make our lives and journey possible?

Things and stuff, as it turns out, are important for the journey, but the supplier of these things and stuff is most important because things supplied are a manifest evidence of the love of the one offering the gifts. The things are not that love itself nor to be loved, but the things represent that love and the one loving. Therefore, having the necessities of life are important. However, those necessities only serve as a reminder that a provider’s love offers these gifts and it is the provider who enters into a loving relationship with us . . . not the things. In other words, if we love what is provided rather than the provider, we have come up one-step short and ended our love too soon, focusing on the gift rather than the giver.

Such a life loving the thing rather than the provider inverts the roles of provider and provision, seeing what is given as the final object to be pursued and the giver of the gift as the means to be exploited if we are to get to our gifts. Or, to summarize this perversion as others have done, this inverted life loves things and uses people rather than loves people and uses things.

This warning by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel might seem patent and trite. Yet, its message is rarely outdated or unneeded.

Life, including the life of faith, requires something beyond us to succeed. That something includes things and others. What Jesus in Matthew is reminding us is that while a life will involve a mixture of others and stuff, such a life has room for only one love. We may either love others and use the stuff or love the stuff and use others. There does not seem to be room for much else.

In a world where phones and tablets seem to become precious identity statements and where sporting events are defined as much by what is sold during them as by what happens on the field and where people may be converted into poverty and crime statistics and dismissed as quickly and trivially as a segue to a conversation about a new hair style and where my hardest decision of the day sometimes is deciding which tie to wear with which slacks when others would happily trade their homes to live in what I call my walk-in-closet, sometimes we need to be reminded of the simplest things.

Life, it turns out, is not defined by possessions or by being convinced to buy more possessions or by the comforting ease offered in dehumanizing people by making them numbers to be manipulated and managed or by the conversion in my head of a want into a need that elevates the import of matching ties to slacks as a necessary task.

Life is full of necessities. I, we, just need to be reminded what they are.

Thanks, Matthew, for the reminder.

Have a great week.

See you along the way.


Posted in Uncategorized on February 13, 2013 by yhcreligiouslife

Given that this week our nation pauses to remember the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr., I have decided to pause from our standard iChapel theme, offering an excerpt from one of King’s sermons rather than a commentary on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s reflection on the life of discipleship. That being said, mentioning King and Bonhoeffer in the same sentence and iChapel seems only appropriate given the admiration that King had for the life and witness of Bonhoeffer. So, here, I have included part of the sermon “A Knock at Midnight” originally published in King’s 1963 Strength to Love.

Have a great week and remember to come to the Inter-Religious Council’s and Student Government Association’s Martin Luther King, Jr. speaker this Tuesday, January 22, as we welcome Lisa Borders to our campus addressing the issue of “Faith, Politics, and Civil Rights: Then and Now.”

Have a great week and you along the way.

“A Knock at Midnight”

Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him”?
—Luke 11:5-6, RSV

Although this parable is concerned with the power of persistent prayer, it may also serve as a basis for our thought concerning many contemporary problems and the role of the church in grappling with them. It is midnight in the parable; it is also midnight in our world, and the darkness is so deep that we can hardly see which way to turn.

It is midnight within the social order. On the international horizon nations are engaged in a colossal and bitter contest for supremacy. Two world wars have been fought within a generation, and the clouds of another war are dangerously low. Man now has atomic and nuclear weapons that could within seconds completely destroy the major cities of the world. Yet the arms race continues and nuclear tests still explode in the atmosphere, with the grim prospect that the very air we breathe will be poisoned by radioactive fallout. Will these circumstances and weapons bring the annihilation of the human race?
When confronted by midnight in the social order we have in the past turned to science for help. And little wonder! On so many occasions science has saved us. When we were in the midnight of physical limitation and material inconvenience, science lifted us to the bright morning of physical and material comfort. When we were in the midnight of crippling ignorance and superstition, science brought us to the daybreak of the free and open mind. When we were in the midnight of dread plagues and diseases, science, through surgery, sanitation, and the wonder drugs, ushered in the bright day of physical health, thereby prolonging our lives and making for greater security and physical well-being. How naturally we turn to science in a day when the problems of the world are so ghastly and ominous.

But alas! science cannot now rescue us, for even the scientist is lost in the terrible midnight of our age. Indeed, science gave us the very instruments that threaten to bring universal suicide. So modern man faces a dreary and frightening midnight in the social order.

This midnight in man’s external collective is paralleled by midnight in his internal individual life. It is midnight within the psychological order. Everywhere paralyzing fears harrow people by day and haunt them by night. Deep clouds of anxiety and depression are suspended in our mental skies. More people are emotionally disturbed today than at any other time of human history. The psychopathic wards of our hospitals are crowded, and the most popular psychologists today are the psychoanalysts. Bestsellers in psychology are books such as Man Against Himself, The Neurotic Personality of Our Times, and Modern Man in Search of a Soul. Bestsellers in religion are such books as Peace of Mind and Peace of Soul. The popular clergyman preaches soothing sermons on “How to Be Happy” and “How to Relax.” Some have been tempted to revise Jesus’ command to read, “Go ye into all the world, keep your blood pressure down, and, lo, I will make you a well-adjusted personality.” All of this is indicative that it is midnight within the inner lives of men and women.

It is also midnight within the moral order. At midnight colors lose their distinctiveness and become a sullen shade of grey. Moral principles have lost their distinctiveness. For modern man, absolute right and wrong are a matter of what the majority is doing. Right and wrong are relative to likes and dislikes and the customs of a particular community. We have unconsciously applied Einstein’s theory of relativity, which properly described the physical universe, to the moral and ethical realm.

Midnight is the hour when men desperately seek to obey the eleventh commandment, “Thou shalt not get caught.” According to the ethic of midnight, the cardinal sin is to be caught and the cardinal virtue is to get by. It is all right to lie, but one must lie with real finesse. It is all right to steal, if one is so dignified that, if caught, the charge becomes embezzlement, not robbery. It is permissible even to hate, if one so dresses his hating in the garments of love that hating appears to be loving. The Darwinian concept of the survival of the fittest has been substituted by a philosophy of the survival of the slickest. This mentality has brought a tragic breakdown of moral standards, and the midnight of moral degeneration deepens.

As in the parable, so in our world today, the deep darkness of midnight is interrupted by the sound of a knock. . . . the many who come and knock are desperately seeking a little bread to tide them over.
The traveller asks for three loaves of bread. He wants the bread of faith. . . . There is also a deep longing for the bread of hope. In the early years of this century many people did not hunger for this bread. The days of the first telephones, automobiles, and aeroplanes gave them a radiant optimism. They worshipped at the shrine of inevitable progress. They believed that every new scientific achievement lifted man to higher levels of perfection. . . . And there is the deep longing for the bread of love. Everybody wishes to love and be loved. He who feels that he is not loved feels that he does not count. Much has happened in the modern world to make men feel that they do not belong. Living in a world which has become oppressively impersonal, many of us have come to feel that we are little more than numbers. . . .

When the man in the parable knocked on his friend’s door and asked for the three loaves of bread, he received the impatient retort, “Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.” How often have men experienced a similar disappointment when at midnight they knock on the door of the church. Millions of Africans, patiently knocking on the door of the Christian church where they seek the bread of social justice, have either been altogether ignored or told to wait until later, which almost always means never. Millions of American Negroes, starving for the want of the bread of freedom, have knocked again and again on the door of so-called white churches, but they have usually been greeted by a cold indifference or a blatant hypocrisy. Even the white religious leaders, who have a heartfelt desire to open the door and provide the bread, are often more cautious than courageous and more prone to follow the expedient than the ethical path. One of the shameful tragedies of history is that the very institution which should remove man from the midnight of racial segregation participates in creating and perpetuating the midnight.

In the terrible midnight of war men have knocked on the door of the church to ask for the bread of peace, but the church has often disappointed them. What more pathetically reveals the irrelevancy of the church in present-day world affairs than its witness regarding war? In a world gone mad with arms buildups, chauvinistic passions, and imperialistic exploitation, the church has either endorsed these activities or remained appallingly silent. During the last two world wars, national churches even functioned as the ready lackeys of the state, sprinkling holy water upon the battleships and joining the mighty armies in singing, “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.” A weary world, pleading desperately for peace, has often found the church morally sanctioning war.

And those who have gone to the church to seek the bread of economic justice have been left in the frustrating midnight of economic privation. In many instances the church has so aligned itself with the privileged classes and so defended the status quo that it has been unwilling to answer the knock at midnight. . . . But if the church will free itself from the shackles of a deadening status quo, and, recovering its great historic mission, will speak and act fearlessly and insistently in terms of justice and peace, it will enkindle the imagination of mankind and fire the souls of men, imbuing them with a glowing and ardent love for truth, justice, and peace. Men far and near will know the church as a great fellowship of love that provides light and bread for lonely travellers at midnight. . . .

In the parable we notice that after the man’s initial disappointment, he continued to knock on his friend’s door. Because of his importunity—his persistence—he finally persuaded his friend to open the door. Many men continue to knock on the door of the church at midnight, even after the church has so bitterly disappointed them, because they know the bread of life is there. The church today is challenged to proclaim God’s Son, Jesus Christ, to be the hope of men in all of their complex personal and social problems. Many will continue to come in quest of answers to life’s problems. Many young people who knock on the door are perplexed by the uncertainties of life, confused by daily disappointments, and disillusioned by the ambiguities of history. Some who come have been taken from their schools and careers and cast in the role of soldiers. We must provide them with the fresh bread of hope and imbue them with the conviction that God has the power to bring good out of evil. Some who come are tortured by a nagging guilt resulting from their wandering in the midnight of ethical relativism and their surrender to the doctrine of self-expression. We must lead them to Christ who will offer them the fresh bread of forgiveness. Some who knock are tormented by the fear of death as they move toward the evening of life. We must provide them with the bread of faith in immortality, so that they may realize that this earthly life is merely an embryonic prelude to a new awakening.

Midnight is a confusing hour when it is difficult to be faithful. The most inspiring word that the church must speak is that no midnight long remains. The weary traveller by midnight who asks for bread is really seeking the dawn. Our eternal message of hope is that dawn will come. Our slave foreparents realized this. They were never unmindful of the fact of midnight, for always there was the rawhide whip of the overseer and the auction block where families were torn asunder to remind them of its reality.

When they thought of the agonizing darkness of midnight, they sang:

Oh, nobody knows de trouble I’ve seen,
Glory Hallelujah!
Sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down,
Oh, yes, Lord,
Sometimes I’m almost to de groun’,
Oh, yes, Lord,
Oh, nobody knows de trouble I’ve seen,
Glory Hallelujah!

Encompassed by a staggering midnight but believing that morning would come, they sang:

I’m so glad trouble don’t last alway.
O my Lord, O my Lord, what shall I do?

Their positive belief in the dawn was the growing edge of hope that kept the slaves faithful amid the most barren and tragic circumstances.

Faith in the dawn arises from the faith that God is good and just. When one believes this, he knows that the contradictions of life are neither final nor ultimate. He can walk through the dark night with the radiant conviction that all things work together for good for those that love God. Even the most starless midnight may herald the dawn of some great fulfillment. . . .

The dawn will come. Disappointment, sorrow, and despair are born at midnight, but morning follows. “Weeping may endure for a night,” says the Psalmist, “but joy cometh in the morning.” This faith adjourns the assemblies of hopelessness and brings new light into the dark chambers of pessimism.