Sunday, November 25, 2012

Advent in Time

The season of Advent – a time of preparation and waiting for the baby Jesus - begins Sunday December 2 in most Christian churches.

This is hardly surprising. We’ve seen signs of the season since early September when the tinsel began to appear in stores, although in retail settings the emphasis is on Christmas profligacy rather than prophecy.

Be that as it may, it’s hard to dislike a season that professes giving and love and brings Bing Crosby and Nat Cole back to life to croon beloved carols. The weather outside is frightful, but in our hearts, the fire is so delightful.

Many of us will go to church this Sunday expecting familiar Christmas hymns, although many pastors will be loathe to provide them so far ahead of the actual Nativity celebration.

And many of us will search worship bulletins for favorite scriptures and prophecies that portend the coming of the Christ child:

“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The Mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6, Authorized Version)

But no. This week’s Revised Common Lectionary takes us to the opposite end of the story: not to the coming of the babe in the manger, but to the second coming of Jesus at the climax of history.

The scripture for the first Sunday in Advent is like a cinematic spoiler that skips the opening scenes and transports us directly to the stirring conclusion:

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” Luke 21:25-36

What’s this? Not the birth of a baby but the end of life as we know it?

Of course, this end-of-the-world stuff is not new. Many cultures predicted it long before the Mayans thought of it.

If you had to ask why the Mayans, you probably don’t have internet access. The Mayan calendar ends at 11:11 coordinated universal time on December 21, 2012. Some bloggers and blockbuster movie producers speculate the Mayans detected a galactic realignment of planets and black holes that would create a geomagnetic reversal of the earth’s poles and cause the planet to self-destruct four shopping days before Christmas.

Few have taken the Mayans seriously enough to do their holiday shopping early, although the National Aeronautic and Space Administration thought it prudent to announce they could find no planets or black holes moving into such unholy alignment. Apparently so many major programs have been cut from NASA’s budget that the agency now has time to study mythical apocalypses. Or perhaps midlevel bureaucrats have decided to bring government closer to the people, as when the Center of Disease Control issued a statement that zombies probably don’t exist but the Center was prepared to deal with a zombie apocalypse. See

But Mayans and zombies aside, it still seems odd that scripture for the first Sunday of Advent begins at end of the story, long after the nativity, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus. Doesn’t knowing the ending take some exhilaration away from the plot? I keep thinking of a beloved nephew who HATES spoilers and plugs his ears and loudly hums the theme from Game of Thrones when he thinks I may reveal some crucial plot twist he doesn’t know, like, the beautiful call girl in The Crying Game is a dude. (Oops.)

Of course, many Christians are already so familiar with the Jesus story that it probably doesn’t matter at which point it begins. It’s all there in the Apostle’s creed:

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.

And even Baptists, who don’t do creeds, know the full story.

But some Baptists don’t do Advent, either, and they may not know that the church has traditionally marked the season both to prepare for Jesus’ birth while being ever alert to the imminence of his second coming.

So here we are at the beginning of another Advent, reading the words of Jesus as he prepares his disciples for his post resurrection reprise. If it seems a little out of sequence to us, it’s good to remember that both the first and second coming of Jesus make the same point: God has intervened into the wretchedness of human history to rescue us from suffering and death, and that is worth celebrating any time of the year.

But I also like this juxtaposition of beginning the story at the end because it makes us think a little harder about an essential element of God’s nature: that is, God is not captive to the limitations of time as are we. God is time. God is as present in the past and future as he is today. The ancient Jews knew his name but never pronounced it because it was deemed too holy to utter: Yahweh. I AM

is eternally present at the creation, is present at the birth of Jesus, is present at the rise and fall of the Caesars, is present at the rise (and, yes, the decline) of the United States of America, is present this very moment, and is present at the return of Jesus.

Our brains are not wired to comprehend the eternal continuum of being where there is no yesterday, today, or tomorrow, only now; where there is no I was, I am, I will be, but only I am.

Only the God who has the creative power to call the earth, planets and stars into being has the unfathomable ability to remain present – I AM– in all those events, including those we think are gone forever or may never happen. God is eternally there.

No wonder Jesus’ listeners choked on their tongues when Jesus associated himself with that unimaginable presence: “Before Abraham was, I AM.” (John 8:58). The revelation must have been a thunderclap, a slap in the face of those who knew the awesome meaning of the words.

The notion of I AM is so deep, so heaped in heaviosity (as my generation used to say) that it is exhausting to contemplate it. It’s a little like trying to explain Einstein’s Relativity to ourselves as we struggle to grasp the curvature of time-space that enables Superman to fly faster than time so he can rescue Lois Lane from an untimely death.

H.G. Wells, Gene Roddenbury, and Stephen King have made time travel seem an entertaining prospect. Isaac Asimov flatly rejected the possibility of time travel, noting it was illogical to suggest he could travel back in time to kill his grandfather because – ergo – that would effectively eliminate the chain of sperm that would have sired Isaac’s father or Isaac himself.

But perhaps it is not so illogical to imagine Dr. Asimov could have been an unseen observer in his grandfather’s dacha – assuming, of course, he had godlike powers to exist simultaneously at two points in the continuum of time.

That doesn’t seem likely, although it is not necessarily illogical that humans who play their appointed roles in God’s circular drama of existence might catch the occasional sideways glimpse of other players in earlier – or later – dramas.

One of the unusual attractions when I lived in England in the mid-1960s was the frequent manifestation of ghosts – or what appeared to be departed spirits of the formerly living. In High Wycombe, just west of London, there was an abandoned monastery supposed to be haunted by the ghosts of monks dispatched 500 years earlier by King Henry VIII. Late at night on certain high holy days, witnesses imagine – as did I in 1967 – they can hear the dead monks chanting mournful dirges.

Not far from RAF Bentwaters in Suffolk, where I was stationed for three years, there is an old castle erected by the Saxons to keep an eye out for the Normans. The bastion, billed as “the second oldest” in England, doesn’t attract a lot of tourists. But residents say that on moonlit nights they occasionally catch glimpses of a company of medieval soldiers dressed in chainmail marching silently toward the turret gate. When a cloud covers the moon, the soldiers disappear.

According to credible witnesses, Abraham Lincoln’s visage has been glimpsed at the White House years after his death. Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, a guest of President Roosevelt after the Nazis overwhelmed her native Holland, reportedly heard a knock on the door of her White House bedroom. She opened the door, found herself staring into Lincoln’s eyes, and fainted. Winston Churchill, another White House guest, said he emerged from a bath and as he stood naked in his White House bedroom he saw Lincoln sitting in a chair beside the bed.

I do not for a moment claim credence for any of these stories, although they are nothing if not Dickensian. Most psychics describe such events as ghostly visitations of departed souls, not unlike the three specters who visited Ebenezer Scrooge.

But I like to think that ghosts are not always what they appear to be. Sometimes, I’m guessing wildly, they could be sideways glimpses of living persons still performing their roles at other points in the time-space continuum: chanting monks, soldiers marching in 11th century England, or the very much alive President Lincoln pacing the White House corridors as he struggles with very contemporary issues in 1863. I love to imagine that we are sometimes treated to glimpses of real events that are, to us, long past, but continue to unfold in the eye of the great I AM.

I don’t claim credence for that flight of fancy either, but I regard it as an entertaining metaphor to remind us that when our earthly lives are over we will be liberated from the bondages of time and enter into the presence of the God I AM.

Perhaps a bonus of eternal life will be the privilege of glimpsing history’s saints and sinners, medieval soldiers, and Abraham Lincoln, through the eyes of God, in their own times and places.

I know that wouldn’t work for everyone but, as an amateur historian, it would be heaven enough for me.

And for me, Advent is the perfect time to allow our imaginations free range. C.S. Lewis wrote that he never ceased trying to imagine Heaven, and his metaphor was The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Dante imagined celestial spheres. Others imagine a dwelling place with mansions and angels and God on a throne. Johnny Cash sang of a beach on the far side of Jordan where he would sit drawing pictures in the sand. Alice Sebold, in her novel, The Lovely Bones, imagined heaven as a magical place you could modify in accordance with our own concepts of beauty and peace, and where your beloved dog would join you.

Of course none of us will know the whole truth until we get there. But Advent is that time of year when we can let our imaginations run wild and contemplate a wonderful place where we shall spend eternity.

That, after all, is the gift God gave us when God entered human history at a time the great I AM knew was perfect. In the fullness of time the Christ child was born and in the fullness of time the Christ will return.

And part of our preparation for Advent is to keep in mind that whatever God I AM does and whenever God I AM does it, the timing will be perfect.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Turkeys and the flaws

Thanksgiving is coming up. Apart from all the other virtues of a national day of thanks, this is a great holiday for history buffs.

You can’t really understand Thanksgiving without knowing history. Most of us heard the tales before we started kindergarten: pilgrims dressed in black clothes and buckled shoes, John Alden and Pricilla “Speak for Yourself” Mullins, the harsh wintry coast of Massachusetts Bay in 1621, the mystifying graciousness of the displaced Wampanoag, the original turkey banquet …

What treasured national memories!

And each year the president of the United States ungratefully dismisses the gift of a free turkey from the National Ungainly Fowl Association and condemns the hapless bird to life in a cage without parole.

No one knows why presidents think this merciful act is good politics, because God knows the turkey lobby is hell bent on dispatching as many of the birds as possible.

Only former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin exposed the true national sentiment toward turkeys in a pre-Thanksgiving television interview following her party’s defeat in the 2008 election. With an eye to her political future, Palin stood in front of an automatic turkey decapitator and chatted amiably about American greatness. As she smiled obliviously, the camera recorded a gruesome drama taking place behind her. Several large birds in succession were thrust headfirst into a funnel like contraption. Turkey screams were abruptly snuffed out by the violent thudding of the machine as soon-to-be drumsticks kicked violently in the crisp Alaskan air. Gobble, gobble, gob …

Historically, Thanksgiving is a feel-good holiday festooned with turkey shaped hand prints pressed by darling children on orange and brown construction paper, pint-sized pilgrims in black paper hats, wicker cornucopias filled with apples and walnuts, and wholesome Norman Rockwell bacchanalias in every home. Well, maybe not in every home, but you get the picture.

These are wonderful and cherished images. With luck, most of us will get through Thanksgiving without noticing that most of them, according to historian James Baker, are “marvelous nonsense.”

But that’s the thing about history. You can never quite trust it. Perhaps the most accurate historical marker in New York State is in the drive way of an otherwise charming bed and breakfast house in Oneonta: “Nothing of historical significance happened on this spot.”

One of the reasons I love history is that the truth is often more entertaining than the story in our textbooks. (Read Lies My Teacher Told Me, Everything Your High School History Textbook Got Wrong, by James W. Loewen,

For example, one of my favorite historical puzzles involves the capture of Fort Ticonderoga by Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys in 1775. Our textbooks report than Ethan and 83 of the boys stormed the fort on May 9 and demanded its surrender.

Wikipedia asserts: “(British) Lieutenant Jocelyn Feltham, assistant to Captain William Delaplace, was awakened by the noise, and called to wake the captain. Stalling for time, Feltham demanded to know by what authority the fort was being entered. Allen … replied, ‘In the name of the Great Jehovah the Continental Congress!’ Delaplace finally emerged from his chambers, fully dressed, and surrendered his sword.”

Actually, neither the Brits nor the Mountain Boys heard Allen’s theatrical demand in the name of God and Congress. According to Richard Shenkman in his illuminating Legends, Lies and Cherished Myths of American History(
most witnesses remembered Allen shouting, “Come out of there, you damned old rat!” I like it better. It has the ring of truth.

Anecdotes like this should make us slightly more skeptical about the legends, lies, and cherished myths of Thanksgiving.

Valerie Strauss, writing in “The Answer Page” of the Washington Post, points out that venison, not turkey, topped the menu at the original Thanksgiving feast in 1621. Pilgrim men and women, traditionally depicted wearing subdued puritan black and white clothes, actually dressed in a wide variety of colors, according to Strauss. Even more shocking, the men did not wear buckles on their shoes.

I grew up hearing several versions of how Thanksgiving became a national holiday. According to one of my teachers, President Lincoln was the first to declare a day of national Thanksgiving, although looking back it seems an inscrutible proclamation to a nation self-disemboweled in a fratricidal bloodbath.

But actually, President Washington was the first to issue such a decree. Mr. Lincoln was the first to establish the holiday as an annual event. Originally he ordered the holiday be observed on the fourth Tuesday in November. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving to the third Thursday in November, ostensibly to improve the national economy by extending the Christmas shopping season.

Lincoln is also credited with pardoning the first White House Thanksgiving turkey, although Valerie Strauss reports the story can be traced back no further than 1989 when President George H.W. Bush told it to a White House gathering. There is a possibly apocryphal story that Lincoln’s son Tad begged his father to save a turkey given to the White House. But even if the story is true, is involves a Christmas turkey.

But trappings aside, the nature of the pilgrims themselves could use a closer examination. They were puritans, a diverse 17th century religious group that included Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England from 1653 to 1658. Some historians believe Cromwell planned to join the Mayflower pilgrimage to the New World in 1620 but missed the boat. History would certainly have been different if he had disappeared in America; Cromwell was a leader of two English civil wars that led to the execution of King Charles I in 1649 and he led a bloody massacre of thousands of Scot royalists and Irish Catholics from 1649 to 1650. Cromwell is anecdotal evidence that not all the puritans were humble Christian pacifists who fled to America to escape religious persecution.

To many – including Baptists – the puritans are remembered as the persecutors.

As soon as they were established in Boston in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the puritans showed little toleration for other religions. There is a famous – and documented – story of a Baptist leader named Obadiah Holmes who was imprisoned by the puritan establishment in Boston in 1651. His only crime was being Baptist, and following a harsh imprisonment he was brutally flogged in the public square.

According to historian William Cathcart in The Baptist Encyclopedia, Holmes torture inspired him to long-winded eloquence:   “As the strokes fell upon me I had such a spiritual manifestation of God's presence as the like thereof I never had nor felt, nor can with fleshly tongue express; and the outward pain was so removed from me that indeed I am not able to declare it to you; it was so easy to me that I could well bear it, yea, and in a manner felt it not, although it was grievous, as the spectators said, the man striking with all his strength (yea, spitting in his hand three times, as many affirmed) with a three-corded whip, giving me there with thirty strokes.”

Holmes accepted his flogging as if it was a beatific experience, but the news of his suffering was received with horror elsewhere in the colonies.

One powerful voice that spoke out against puritan persecution was Deputy Governor Joseph Jenks of the Rhode Island and Providence Plantations Colony. Jenks (my ancestor), who became the 19th royal governor of the colony in 1727, was also a Baptist who presided over the colony Roger Williams founded as the world’s first geopolitical entity based on religious freedom. He was the un-puritan, and years later he wrote the tale of the persecution of Holmes into the official record:

“Mr. Holmes was whipped thirty stripes, and in such an unmerciful manner that in many days, if not some weeks, he could take no rest, but as he lay upon his knees and elbows, not being able to suffer any part of his body to touch the bed whereon he lay.”

There are other anecdotes about Grandpa Joe that Jenkses hold in their hearts. According to family lore, the governor was six and a half feet tall – freakish in the mid 18th century – and he had difficulty finding clothes that fit. The family claims he once sent a handwritten order to England for a “six foot, six inch cloak” to wear in public ceremonies. Months later he received from England a six foot, six inch clock.

Perhaps his handwriting left something to be desired, but Governor Jenks stood for religious freedom. And he stood tall.

I have no forensic evidence that the tale is true, and of course it should be regarded with the same skepticism as any other historic claim.

And I would even go so far as to assert that these uncertainties and vagaries of history are among the many things for which I give thanks.

Did the pilgrims not dress in black, wear buckles on their shoes, eat turkey, or extend loving acceptance to Baptists, Catholics, and Wampanoags?

Perhaps not. Perhaps, even, the pilgrim reality is more interesting than the myth as we consider their fierce intolerance of anyone outside their community. The gentle folks we imagine sharing God’s blessings with their indigenous hosts in 1621 are, after all, the same folks who seven decades later executed 28 accused witches in Salem.

What can we say? No doubt a lot of pilgrims were nice, Christian folks. But it was clearly not unanimous.

But as Thanksgiving approaches, it is almost reassuring that the legends, lies and cherished myths associated with the holiday encourage us to seek greater substance in the things for which we are truly grateful.

Many of us will, after all, approach this feast with anxieties, uncertainties, and doubts that go far beyond our suspicions about what the pilgrims wore and what they did.
Even so, there are so many things for which we can be thankful.

And those things were never better described than in Jesus thanksgiving sermon on the mountain so long ago:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?

“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing?

“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you--you of little faith?

“Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
(Matthew 6:25-33).

What greater blessings could we possibly imagine?

Whether the pilgrims knew it or not, our gratitude and thanksgiving to God this holiday and every day should be boundless.


Friday, November 9, 2012

The Mighty Mite

The modern Book of Common Prayer offers a holy entreaty that could not have been anticipated by the BCP’s 16th century author, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer.

The little prayer is about elections, and Cranmer – who both prospered and burned advocating the divine right of royals – never heard of this bizarre political process.

And even if he had, it was the sort of thing up with which he would not put. As it turned out, Cranmer was fried at the poles on March 21, 1556 by Queen Mary “Bloody” Tudor, who also never heard of popular elections.

Five hundred years later, the Book of Common Prayer includes this democratic supplication:

Almighty God, to whom we must account for all our powers and privileges: Guide the people of the United States in the election of officials and representatives; that, by faithful administration and wise laws, the rights of all may be protected and our nation be enabled to fulfill your purposes; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Episcopalians may well have prayed those words through last Tuesday, when the interminable presidential and congressional campaign came to a merciful end.

And even now as I leaf with declining digital dexterity through my copy of the BCP, I find other prayers that would have shocked Cromwell and his princes, including entreaties for social justice, social service, education, labor, peace, church conventions, and church unity.

But in my view there is an important prayer missing from this list, and – with all respect to His Grace Thomas – I offer it now. It is a prayer for the day after the election.

Almighty God, we offer deepest thanks that you have enabled us to survive the campaign. Purge our hearts and minds of the speeches, the debates, the negative commercials, the robocalls, the billboards, and the lawn posters that have been inflicted upon us by candidates. And not just the candidates! Forgive and silence our own spurious and puerile tweets, memes, Facebook updates, email appeals, TXT messages, disputes with reactionary aunties and uncles over Sunday meals, coffee break schisms at the office, cold  blooded threats to disinherit our clueless children, and other normal facets of political discourse that have filled our days and nights for, lo! these many months. We thank you, God, that election day came before we could think of a way of voting against everybody, and we pray most solemnly that you would smite with stinging fury any pundit, blogger or politician who declareth that it is not too early to develop talking points for the 2016 debates. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, who had no place to lay his head and no hat to throw into the ring. Amen.

Regardless of who you and I voted for, the factor that brings us together again is gratitude that it is over – OVER.

Thank God for that.

It’s not that elections aren’t good. They are, of course, the hallmark of American stature. My heart swelled with prideful agreement when Alan Sorkin, in his HBO series, The News Room, had a character say the reason the U.S. is a great country is that “Every two years we drive to the fire station and overthrow the government.”

At the same time, the divisiveness of election 2012 reminded me of Winston Churchill’s observation that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

For many of us, election 2012 made us wonder if those other forms of government could be so bad. The presidential election of 2012 cost a reported $2.5 billion, perhaps the costliest in our history.

And what do we have to show for it?

Well, not a damn thing, according to Professor Davis Logsdon of the University of Minnesota.

“Four years ago, Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, and that is still the case,” said Professor Logsdon in a news analysis by the Borowitz Report. “The only difference is that we as a nation are out $2.5 billion.”
(See )

The issue of campaign finance reform is too big to discuss here, and unfortunately it was not the topic President Obama had in mind in his victory speech early Wednesday when he inserted the afterthought, “By the way, we’ve got to fix that.”

But the topic of money – who has it, who doesn’t, and what people do to acquire it – is central to Jesus’ thinking in the passage highlighted in this week’s Revised Common Lectionary.

As the story unfolds in Mark 12:38-44, Jesus is sitting outside the treasury of the temple, watching as people passed by to satisfy their financial obligations to their house of worship. Jesus watched silently as several persons dropped large sums into the till. But when a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins that have become known in Sunday school lore as widow’s mites, he called his followers together.

“Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury,” he told them. “For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Jesus made a theological comment based on elementary math. I’m tempted to construct a flawed proof text demonstrating that God thinks millionaire Mitt Romney’s tax rate of 14 percent is unfair to me and working stiffs whose percentage is much higher. But I will resist the temptation, in part because I think Jesus had something else in mind besides percentages.

And to be fair about it, both Governor Romney and President Obama are on record as wanting to support poor widows and others who slip below the poverty line.

Last September, candidates Obama and Romney accepted an invitation by the Circle of Protection to go on the record about their intentions for dealing with poverty. Their video statements be viewed at

The Circle of Protection is composed of more than 65 heads of denominations, relief and development agencies, and other Christian organizations representing a wide array of churches in the U.S. The National Council of Churches is a founding member of the Circle.

The Circle, a unique amalgam of evangelical, ecumenical, Roman Catholic and Christian Orthodox churches and groups, came together in 2011 to protect essential poverty programs from being cut from the federal budget.

The church leaders told the candidates, “We believe that this presidential campaign should include a clear focus on what each candidate proposes to do to provide help and opportunity for hungry and poor people in the United States and around the world.”

They stressed that God holds nations accountable for the treatment of those Jesus called "the least of these" (Matthew 24:45).

The Circle of Protection leaders said they were disturbed by poverty figures which show that more than one in seven Americans – 46.2 million people – live in poverty, more than 16 million children.

These sad figures pale in comparison to poverty levels around the world, where millions live in daily squalor so crushing it threatens their ability to stay alive each day.
I’m sure both major candidates in the recent and blessedly extinct election campaign are good men of faith who can quote Matthew 24:45 as easily as a bunch of preachers.

But in their feverish campaign for middle class votes, neither candidate gave evidence they were equally concerned about Americans so poor they and their kids live in their cars and fall asleep hungry every night. And neither seemed in the least bit apologetic that the $2.5 billion they raised for manipulative and often dissembling campaign ads rather never brought food to the tables of starving children.

Granted, it’s difficult for U.S. politicians – and preachers, for that matter – to criticize those who are good at raising money and making profits. That kind of preaching shrinks congregations as quickly as poll numbers.

And some money making schemes are commendably clever. When I was researching the history of the widow’s mite, I came across web pages – and – that sell facsimiles of the bronze lepton and prutah coins the poor widow may have used, embedded in necklaces and jewelry ranging in price from $420 to $25.

The sales pitch seeks to persuade affluent buyers they are investment partners with the poor widow:

“This virtuous woman had demonstrated true Christian faith in God,” the spiel goes. “She could not know from where her next meal would come, but she believed that He would provide for her.”

That’s a heavy message to carry in a $420 bauble dangling from your neck. The poor widow never knew what a bonanza she was carrying around with her.

Even apart from the way she is represented by retailers, there is little question that the poor widow was a virtuous woman who – after she visited the Temple treasury – didn’t have two leptons to rub together.

That, I think, is what brought Jesus to his feet. Many scholars are convinced that Jesus had no intention of using the woman as an example of simple trust and faith.

More likely, he was thinking of the sons of vipers who made it necessary for the woman to give away all she had, and vastly out of proportion to others who supported the temple.

Only minutes before he sat down to watch the widow pass by the treasury, this is what Jesus had on his mind:

“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces,” he grumbled to his followers as he accelerated to a rant. “And to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” (Mark 12:38-40).

Bob Lotich, who blogs financial advice for Christians (, is one of many observers who believes Jesus was not praising the widow’s generous spirit but condemning the scribes who insisted she give everything she had left to maintain her good standing in the synagogue.

The widow’s mite is not an example of how to give,” Lotich writes. “It’s an example of how the scribes were ‘devouring widows’ houses’.”

Lotich continues:

“Scripture repeatedly reveals God’s care for the widow, the poor, the fatherless and the stranger, and also reveals His anger at those who deprive them of what they need to live. If we have read all of our Bible, the story of the widow’s mites, given in context of Jesus’ condemnation of the religious leaders, should make us cringe. The story reveals the repetition of their abuses and consequential inevitable judgment.”

At first glance, it seems a bit of a stretch from the widow’s mite to the economic issues of 2012. But there are similar issues at hand.

One of the political debates that dominated the campaign was the question of whether rich folks (also known as high net worth individuals to church bureaucrats who wish not to offend them when they beg for their financial support) should pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes. On that issue I vote yea, not only because it seems more just but because I don’t understand the math that says when rich people keep more of their money the lot of poor people improves.

But another question, raised by the Circle of Protection campaign, is whether it makes moral sense to balance the federal budget by cutting such federal programs as food stamps, free and reduced-price school meals, low-income child care and early education, low income health care, Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Program, shelter and homelessness programs, child maltreatment prevention programs, refugee assistance and more.

What would Jesus do as he watched the rich keep more of their money while poor widows lost more of their needed support?

My guess is that he would do what he did in Mark’s gospel: go on a rant against those “devour widow’s houses” while protecting their own fortunes.

As the debate over the federal budget continues in post-election Washington, let us pray that politicians of both parties pay heed to the injustices that make Jesus angry.

No one, after all, wants to face Jesus on Judgment Day and realize that we have met the sons of vipers he condemned. And they are us.


Saturday, November 3, 2012

Frankenstorm and Lazarus

There have been worst storms north of Cape Hatteras, but most of us will remember Hurricane Sandy as the storm of the century.

In the Lower Hudson Valley, including Port Chester, tens of thousands of homes and major businesses were without power and heat most of last week. At the height of the storm, trees snapped and toppled onto homes and cars, many of them pulling live electrical lines, writhing and sparking, to the muddy ground.

The Atlantic Cities website pulled together some sobering statistics about last week’s storm:

At least 50 persons died in the U.S. as a result of the storm; 8 million people lost power from South Carolina to Maine; water surged to 13.88 feet above normal at the Battery in New York Harbor; seven New York subway tunnels were flooded; 15,000 flights were cancelled Monday and Tuesday at area airports; and 4.7 million children spent a hurricane holiday week away from school.

Ironically, Hurricane Sandy was an ominous precursor to Halloween, which led many forecasters to dub it “Frankenstorm.”

Many parents reckon Halloween to be one their kids’ favorite holidays, second only to their own birthdays or Christmas.

Alas, in Port Chester and neighboring communities, Halloween trick-or-treating was cancelled last week because dead streetlights and downed wires and trees made it dangerous to prowl in the dark.

But Halloween – literally All Hallow’s Eve, the eve prior to All Saints Day – is also an important day in the Christian calendar. All Souls Day, commemorating all the dead in the “other” category, whether they are saintly or not, follows a day later.

It’s no surprise that a church feast focusing on the dead would lead to nocturnal visions of ghosts, witches, and goblins. Some legends suggest medieval people started disguising themselves in weird get-ups so the souls of their deceased relatives, free to roam the night under a special All Souls dispensation, would fail to recognize them.

The annual masquerades continued into the current era, although space aliens and slasher filmstars seem more prevalent now than witches and ghosts. It’s getting harder and harder for departed ancestors to recognize their costumed kin.

It used to be that Halloween was a North American holiday, but in the years between 1995 and 2003 when I was on the staff of the World Council of Churches, Europeans re-discovered the enormous profit margins of Halloweening.

One October the streets of Geneva, Switzerland were so clogged with masked marauders and slouching zombies that one of my disgusted colleagues – a New Zealand clergyman – blamed it all on me. “Halloween is a bloody imposition of the CIA,” he growled, raising the unspoken but obvious question of what the CIA might have to gain from such a black op.

Actually, much of what we know of Halloween can be traced back to the pagan Celts who turned pumpkins into jack-o-lanterns and turnips into turnip lanterns. Perhaps some of my Welsh ancestors are indeed to blame.

The Revised Common Lectionary Gospel lesson prescribed for All Soul’s Day has enormous potential for this kind of costumed creepiness, although I doubt that’s the effect planned by the Gospel writer, John.

The raising of Lazarus is no doubt intended to celebrate the power of Jesus to raise the dead, which is no mean parlor trick. Water to wine, sight to the blind, new life to lepers, new legs to the lame – these are all impressive undertakings indeed. But restoring life to dead people? Isn’t that going a bit too far?

There are other instances in the Gospels in which Jesus raised to life people who were pronounced dead. In Mark 5:41, he raised Jairus’ daughter after the know-it-all neighbors said she was dead, but Jesus said the child was “not dead but sleeping.”

Death was far more convincing in the case of Lazarus who had been dead for four days and whose entombed body, in the plain words of the Authorized Version, had commenced to “stinketh.”

But Jesus was not deterred by this seemingly insurmountable fact, and he stood at the entrance to the tomb and shouted, “Lazarus, come forth!”

John reports, “The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’” (John 11:44)

But from that point on, Lazarus disappears from the bible. It is left entirely to our imagination what Lazarus did or what he looked like after the grave cloths were removed.

Many artists have tried to imagine it, including one illustrator who drew the story of Jesus for a Sunday school comic book when I was a kid. Lazarus is portrayed emerging zombie-like from the tomb, his India-inked face a study in sadness and puzzlement. This cartooned Lazarus did not look in the least bit pleased to snatched from his eternal rest and forced back into the unblinking light of day.

Indeed, why would he?

Death is at the top of most lists of things we fear, far ahead of hurricanes and lightning and root canals. We spend much of our lives pondering death’s mysteries and worrying about the pain and terror that may accompany it. The horrifying chasm is always before us, and we deal with death by putting it out of our minds and hoping it will be a long time before we have to face it.

But face it we will. And what a relief it must be to get beyond that abyss once and for all, to whatever lies beyond it. Our faith teaches us that what lies on the other side is bliss and peace and closeness to God’s love. And once we are there, why on earth would we want to return to life, only to face death all over again?

Was Jesus thinking about Lazarus’ feelings when he snatched him back to life?

According to the Gospel writer, Jesus was thinking about his audience.

“Jesus said to Martha, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’” (John 11:40-42)

There are two basic points of view about what happened after Lazarus came forth.

One, by Nikos Kazantzakis in The Last Temptation of Christ, is horrifying. I remember reading the passage as a high school student – in fact, I’ll never forget the dismay and revulsion I felt.

Fatigued and reticent, Lazarus sat in the darkest corner of the house, for light bothered him. His legs, arms and belly were swollen and green, like those of a four-day corpse. His bloated face was cracked all over and it exuded a yellowish-white liquid which soiled the white shroud which he continued to wear: it had stuck to his body and could not be removed. In the beginning he had stunk terribly, and those who came close held their noses; but little by little the stench had decreased, until now he smelled only of earth and incense. From time to time he shifted his hand and removed the grass which had become tangled in his hair and beard. His sisters Martha and Mary were cleansing him of the soil and of the small earthworms which had attached themselves to him. A sympathetic neighbor had brought him a chicken, and old Salome, squatting by the fireplace, was at present boiling it so that the resurrected man could drink the broth and regain his strength.

This, of course, is not the image John intended to convey. But it is an image that seems realistic enough if one considers something more terrible than death: that is, to die, and inexplicably re-live, and die again.

The bible is silent about all this, leaving it to church tradition to fill in the gaps.

As far as the Orthodox Christian tradition goes, Lazarus lived 30 years after his resurrection but never smiled because of his memory of all the unredeemed souls he had met in Hades. Missionaries Paul and Barnabas named him bishop of Kition, present day Larnaka on Cyprus. The Church of St. Lazarus is erected over what is believed to be his second and last tomb.

According to Roman Catholic tradition, Lazarus, Mary, and Martha were forced into a rudderless floating vessel by anti-Christian Jews and ended up in Provence, France. Lazarus is said to have become the Bishop of Marseille, where his beheading prompted his second death. A skull believed to be is severed head is venerated by the faithful in Marseilles.

There is even a church tradition that Lazarus is the author of the fourth Gospel, which he wrote under the pseudonym of John, the “disciple Jesus loved,” who was well known to Lazarus.

Regardless of which tradition – if any – you choose, it’s hard to dismiss the question of whether Lazarus could have been better off finishing his life among sisters and family and friends who loved him. He was, after all, high on the short list of persons Jesus knew and loved on earth, and it’s hard to imagine a more successful life than that; and even harder to think of a good reason for re-crossing the abyss to gamble on a new life that could improve on the old one.

Throughout the centuries, Christians have exuded an odd fixation with death and the remains of the dead. Roman Catholics who grew up venerating relics of saints may not fully appreciate the extent to which Protestant and agnostics are bewildered by the practice. To many in that non-Catholic contingency The Onion describes as “the hell-bound,” the relics seem inconsonant with the idea that the soul advances to glory as the body decays into worthless dust. As a young chaplain’s assistant in the Air Force, I would touch the sliver of saint’s bone or tooth embedded in altar cloths and shudder. It seemed more macabre to me than life affirming.

I had the same feeling visiting ancient cathedrals in Europe that hosted the bodies of “The Incorruptibles,” dead saints so honored by God that their bodies never decay.

When Father McMannis explained the phenomenon to me, I entered the crypts expecting to see rosy cheeks and moist lips. The Incorruptibles looked like ordinary mummies to me, and I would listen with lonely perplexity as Catholic friends expressed awe at what they saw: unblemished preservation. Why was I so blind? I concluded you had to be Catholic to see it.

Those old memories of the Incorruptibles flash through my waking dreams each Halloween, and this year the juxtapositions have intensified them: Frankenstorm, the dark, cold nights in our electricity-less house, the apparition of malodorous Lazarus wandering haplessly out of his tomb – could Halloween be more perfect?

But now as electricity returns to most of the households and businesses in our area, as furnaces are restarted and living rooms are warmed, as the aroma of home cooking returns to stoves, and as the sun rises in the sky, it feels good to turn our attention to the point Jesus was making when he raised Lazarus. Indeed, it’s the same point that should be foremost in our minds when touching saintly relicts or contemplating the discarded bodies that once held saintly souls: death is not the end of the story.

As Martha stood before Jesus, weeping because her brother had died, Jesus made the point even clearer. Death is not the end of the story.

“Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.’” (John 11:23-27)

At Halloween 2012, we were surrounded by winds and rains and threats beyond our control, and as Frankenstorm departs many of us will be digging out from its effects for weeks.

With a smidgeon of faith, though, Frankenstorm and the Halloween 2012 will be the perfect reminder that as fascinated as we may be by the images of death that enfold us, death is not the end of the story.