I have been profoundly affected by the image I saw a couple of weeks ago of ISIS fighters about to execute 21 Coptic Christians. The scene was horrific in its staging; the victims on their knees, behind each one of them his executioner, with a sword at the throat. I have struggled to make sense of this and other horrific acts of religious violence over the last weeks and months, struggled to understand the interplay of religion and politics, the effects of twelve years of the global war on terror, struggled to make sense of the inhumanity of human beings. Continue reading
The New York Times has a remarkable story today about a death-row inmate in Georgia who has completed a certificate in Theological Studies and has corresponded with and met the great German theologian Juergen Moltmann. She is scheduled to be executed on Monday after her final clemency appeal was rejected by the state board.
There’s more to the story. Bethany Foster of Mercy Junction in Chattanooga provide a deeper portrait of Kelly Gissendaner:
It’s a story of grace and humanity in the midst of horror. Gissendaner has been in solitary confinement for eighteen years but the women who served time with her speak of her care and compassion. Read it all here: Former inmates say fight to save Gissendaner is only the beginning.
I do not know Governor Walker. I have never met him; I don’t know that I’ve ever actually seen him in person although Grace Episcopal Church, of which I am Rector, stands opposite the State Capitol of Wisconsin, and over the last four years I have been an eyewitness of the effects of his slash and burn politics.
With re-election in hand and a successful debut on the Iowa Republican stage, Governor Walker now seems to be a legitimate candidate for the Republican nomination for president. He has made some mis-steps, including fumbling responses to questions about evolution and President Obama’s faith on the national and international stage. But today he took it one step further.
In a speech at CPAC, he compared his success at pushing his agenda past 100,000 protestors to his ability to fight ISIS and other terrorists. His campaign quickly tried to make the best of his remark, but it reveals a sad truth in American politics, and in Governor Walker’s worldview. For Walker, and too many American politicians (and their supporters), one’s opponents are not people of good will who look on the world differently and come to different conclusions about what is best for a city, state, or nation. One’s opponents are inveterate evil, savages, barbarians, incapable of rational thought. While these views are present on both left and right, and too often I have heard educated Wisconsinites dismiss Walker as ignorant and evil, such ideas seem to be more prevalent on the right than on the left. One need only to cite Rudy Giuliani’s recent remarks concerning President Obama’s patriotism as evidence.
Still, for Governor Walker to compare, even in passing, Wisconsin’s protestors with ISIS fighters is revealing. To my knowledge, he never attempted to engage protestors, or even Democratic members of the Assembly or Senate in conversation about what might be best for Wisconsin. This weeks developments concerning Right-to-Work legislation is a perfect example. He said while campaigning that such legislation wasn’t a priority, but now, once introduced, he’s ready to sign it. He picks his targets, fires, and worries not about who is directly affected by it nor by what collateral damage might be inflicted. And for him, in some way, the image of ISIS fighters executing Coptic Christians is comparable to Wisconsin teachers protesting budget cuts, and presumably, the same teachers are as evil as ISIS fighters.
Throughout the last four years, I have consistently tried to make a case that Wisconsin, and our nation, needs to create ways of coming together to work toward the greater good of the community. We face significant issues. The racial disparities in our state and county are mind-boggling; the economy continues to create deeper inequalities. These are issues that can only be solved when the whole community, the state, the nation, comes together to develop solutions, and recognizes that individual sacrifices may be necessary to advance the common good. But from what I can tell, Governor Walker, and too many other politicians, are only interested in consolidating their power. They want to divide and conquer.
But when our governor, now a leading Presidential candidate, reveals that his worldview sees his opponents as somehow equivalent to terrorists and ISIS executioners, I despair. I think of all those who came into Grace Church four years ago seeking warmth and solace during the protests–black and white, mothers and fathers from across the state, children, teens, college students, worried about their jobs, worried about their communities, worried about their futures. I wonder whether Governor Walker ever talked to any of them, ever tried to see the face of Jesus Christ in them. I wonder whether he has spoken with UW faculty, administrators, or students, who wonder whether their livelihoods or futures are secure, wonder whether Wisconsin will be a place where they can make a home and a life for themselves. I wonder whether he thinks they are equivalent to terrorists.
Don’t misunderstand me. I think the Democrats in Wisconsin have consistently misplayed their hand. They have underestimated Walker’s political skills; they have underestimated the depth of the disaffection among many voters; and they have been unable to articulate a compelling alternate vision of our state’s future. The protests this week were pathetic–not because their goal was wrong, but because they were a faint echo of the protests four years ago; protests that for all their power and energy, failed to prevent Walker’s agenda.
I fear for our nation. We have seen the relentless attacks on President Obama’s patriotism, his faith, his character. We seem to be more deeply divided than ever. While members of Congress have not taken to pistol-whipping each other on the floor of the house as they did in the years running up to the Civil War, we are in a very dark place. And although we are a year away from the presidential election, I despair about the potential candidates in both parties. I doubt any of them have the ability to unite the people of our nation around common goals and purpose. Instead, I expect the demonization will only continue, the hatred among us only intensify.
Of all the things we do liturgically, I sometimes think that the Season of Lent presents us in the twenty-first century with the greatest distance from our contemporary world. Lent is a season of repentance and self-examination that flies in the face of our consumerist culture and values. Lent challenges us to focus, when what we want is distraction. Lent is somber when we want to be happy. Lent invites us to self-denial and fasting when we crave self-indulgence. Continue reading
I finally made it over to the Chazen Art Museum to take in the current exhibition featuring illuminations and text from the St. John’s Bible. Surprisingly, seeing the text of the New Revised Standard Version in beautiful calligraphy had a more profound effect on me than the many remarkable illuminations. Seeing familiar words in a radically different form on a very different medium was strange, powerful, and revelatory.
As I wandered through the exhibition, reading Psalms and other texts I know by heart, texts I’ve preached, study, taught, the text became holy again, sacralized by the vellum, the years of work and craftsmanship, the beauty on the page. As I wandered and paused to read familiar passages, I realized how very different this encounter with scripture was from my normal experience of it.
I rarely read the text of the Bible on a printed page. When I read scripture, whether it’s studying in preparation for a sermon or the personal devotion of the daily office, the text I read is digital, on a computer screen or ipad. There are sound reasons for this. Access is much quicker and easier. I can call up the text I want in my web browser or my daily office app. I can manipulate the font size to make it easier to read; I can easily cut and paste the verses I want into the text I’m working on. All of that instrumentalizes the text. Even when I’m praying the psalms or using lectio divina, I’m approaching the text of scripture using the same techniques and technology that I use when I’m browsing the web or reading online. The text serves me; it’s at my beck and call.
One of the most disorienting things about the St. John’s Bible is that it is the New Revised Standard Version—the version I use when preaching; the version I used when I taught Bible. It’s the version I know; the version I’ve instrumentalized. Even more shocking is that the calligraphers included the footnotes from the NRSV, the textual variants or alternative translations that complicate the text. To see even this minimal scholarly apparatus in beautiful calligraphy, at the bottom of beautiful pages is jarring.
The exhibition includes items related to the production of the Bible. At the very end are several examples of early printed bibles, a leaf from one of the first editions of the Authorized Version (King James Version) from the collection of the Hill Monastic Library at St. John’s University, and two 17th-century editions of the same version from the University of Wisconsin Library. The inclusion of the two latter bibles in the exhibition invites reflection about the different role of scripture in print and Protestant culture as opposed to its role in Medieval Christianity. The Protestant Reformation was shaped by the new technology of printing and Protestant culture was shaped by printing as well. The possibility of cheap, mass-produced bibles was unthinkable in the fifteenth century. While printing made the text accessible to anyone who could read (or hear), it also began a process of transformation that has only been accelerated by the arrival of the computer. The introduction of versification led to the extraction of the text from its literary context, just as my ability to call up the verse I want on the internet permits me to ignore the same literary context. That, along with the reproduction of the text on cheap paper and in cheap bindings, appearing visually very much like any other text we might encounter, allows us to approach the text, to read it even, less deferentially. What we have gained in accessibility over the last five hundred years we may have lost in sacrality.
More information on The St. John’s Bible is available here: http://www.saintjohnsbible.org
Yesterday, as I burned last year’s leftover palms from Palm Sunday and ground them into ashes, I reflected on the strangeness of my actions and the strangeness of Ash Wednesday. I thought about ashes.
There was a time in human history and culture when ashes were ubiquitous. Indeed, from the very beginning of human civilization, ashes have been present. Ever since humans discovered how to make fire, our lives, our homes, our culture, has been surrounded by ashes. There are many places in the world where that is still the case, but not in twenty-first century America. Ever since the arrival of electricity and central heating, ashes have increasingly vanished from our ordinary experience. Think about it. How often have you encountered, touched, ashes in the last year? If you have a woodburning fireplace or wood stove, if you use a charcoal grill, if you go camping and build a campfire, you have to deal with ashes. But otherwise, they simply don’t enter into our daily lives and consciousness.
How different that is from what lives must have been like 150 years ago, or still are, in less-developed countries. For nineteenth century American housewives, ashes were probably one of the great enemies, threatening chaos and dirt throughout the house and yard. London used to have the nickname “The Smoke” because of the blanket of soot and ash that covered the city. Ashes were everywhere.
As a priest, in addition to preparing ashes for Ash Wednesday and making the sign of the cross on your forehead in ash, there is one other way in which I encounter and experience ashes. That is when I place the ashes of a deceased person in an urn before placing it in our columbarium, or when I pour someone’s ashes directly into the ground. For me there is no more intimate, no more holy, no more priestly act than that. And it probably explains why I took the time last week to drive down to Chicago to inter the ashes of one of our members in a Chicago cemetery.
As we placed her urn in the ground, I said,
Thou only art immortal, the creator and maker of manknd; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and unto earth shall we return. For so thou didst ordain when thou created me, saying, “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
When I attend to the ashes of a dead person, I am caring for her as Christians have cared for the dead for two thousand years. I am ministering to the body of someone who lived, loved, had all of the emotions and experiences humans do, suffered and struggled, wept and rejoiced. I am preparing her body for the next stage of her journey, a stage that will end when she is raised from the dead, body and soul reunited, and she becomes a new creation, a new being fully alive in the presence of God.
I know, too, how powerful the words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.” I had a chance conversation with a parishioner yesterday who told me about the first Ash Wednesday service he attended, when he was in boot camp and the Catholic Chaplain, aided by an enlisted assistant, imposed ashes on the recruits. I remember as a layperson, hearing those words and receiving the ashes on my forehead. I remember the power of the words, as well as the awkwardness of that smudge of ash.
I know, too, how powerful and intimate it is to put my thumb on your foreheads, brushing aside your hair, and saying, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”
I know the temptation to make Ash Wednesday all about us, about our humanity and mortality, about our sin. There is something powerfully individualistic about it all, something that turns us in on ourselves, to focus on our sin, our venality, our failures, our brokenness; to think about God’s judgment on us. There’s a temptation even to wallow in it, to beat our breasts.
What makes it worse is that our lessons, especially the reading from Isaiah and the gospel, call into question our motives and actions today. “Beware of practicing your piety before others, to be seen by them…” We’re told to fast and pray in private, not to let our left hand know what our right hand is doing, then we come forward, have ashes smeared on our foreheads and go from this place about our daily business. What’s more ostentatious, more obviously pious than to walk around all day with a smudge of ashes on our foreheads? Isn’t that sort of behavior just what Jesus seems to be criticizing here?
Some of us might want to wipe the ashes off of our foreheads as soon as we leave the church; some of us might struggle with our motives for receiving and wearing ashes. How you respond to these issues has a great deal to do with how this day and this rite have affected you in the past, how comfortable you are with odd stares from passers-by, and whether you imagine that wearing an ashen cross is more about you than it is about God.
For all the self-reflection and self-examination of this day and the season of Lent, for all the focus on our sins and shortcomings, however appropriate such things might be, appropriate, and necessary. Ash Wednesday and Lent are not just about us; they are also, and primarily, about God.
I don’t know if you noticed the verses in the psalm we just read that gets at this point and puts everything we do today in proper perspective:
For as the heavens are high above the earth, *
so is his mercy great upon those who fear him.
As far as the east is from the west, *
so far has he removed our sins from us.
As a father cares for his children, *
so does the LORD care for those who fear him.
For he himself knows whereof we are made; *
he remembers that we are but dust.
He himself knows whereof we are made; he remembers we are dust. What comforting, what gracious words! They take us back to the very act of creation. We are told in Genesis 2 that God fashioned us from the dust of the ground. God knows what we are and who we are. God knows us more intimately and more completely than we know ourselves. And what’s most remarkable, the fact that God knows this is evidence of God’s love and care for us. The ashes are a sign to us and to the world of God’s care and love for us and for all human beings.
For it’s not just a smudge of ash on our foreheads. I mark your foreheads with my thumb, using the very same gesture I use when I make the sign of the cross with oil during baptism. Then I say, “You are sealed with the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”
You carry that sign of the cross on your forehead every day of your life, even if it is invisible. For one day a year, perhaps only for a few minutes, you have on your forehead a visible sign of the cross, marked in ash. It’s a reminder of our humanity and morality. It’s also a reminder of our origins, in God’s creative love. It’s a reminder to us, of God’s love for us and for the world and an opportunity to share the knowledge of that love with everyone we meet. Thanks be to God!
A remarkable collection of readings for the forty days of Lent. I think I’ve found one of my lenten disciplines!
Compiled by Nick Ripatrazone who writes:
Lent is the most literary season of the liturgical year. The Lenten narrative is marked by violence, suffering, anticipation, and finally, joy. Jesus Christ’s 40 days of fasting in the desert are the spiritual and dramatic origin for the season that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday.
There are some old familiar pieces here and many that I don’t know and look forward to exploring.