Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Another King Named Jesus

Lydia by Maria Elkins

The Lectionary suggests the account of Paul’s coming to Philippi of Macedonia from Acts 16:9-15. I was intrigued by Lydia’s invitation to host Paul and his group in her home, and that they accepted. (v. 15) Nothing is said about Lydia’s marital status. Whether she had a husband, was widowed or single, she clearly seems to have been a business woman of independent means sufficient to own a home large enough to host an itinerant group. Nothing in the text indicates any hesitation about her hosting men or concern about the reactions of her neighbors.

Apparently in places far from Israel that did not have enough Jews to form a synagogue with ten adult men, the Jews who were there would gather for Sabbath prayer by a river or other body of water. This group in Philippi was apparently all women. We can only speculate about the absence of men. Were these Jewish women all married to Gentile men? In a Roman colony, were the Jewish men required to work on Sabbath? As seems typical in some contexts, were the women the ones keeping the religious fervor alive while the men followed their own pursuits? Lydia was apparently not Jewish but had attached herself to this group as a “worshipper of God” (literally “God fearer”). This expression was used for Gentiles who did not go through formal conversion to Judaism but learned from Jews to pray to and worship the God of Abraham. Whether she had become a somewhat informal leader of this group, she did respond to the teaching about Jesus from Paul’s company and put this new faith into prompt action through her hospitality. Again with no direct indication of this in the text, Lydia may have been more receptive to the Gospel of Jesus by being somewhat of an outsider to both the Jewish group and the Roman culture, by virtue of her pursuit of the God of Israel. To me this seems consistent with the Gospel’s particular appeal to those who don’t quite fit in, which is an extension of those to whom Jesus was especially attractive. 

This set me to speculating on the size of the group and who it might have included. In Acts 15:36-41, Paul and Barnabas to their separate ways, and Silas joins Paul seemingly in Jerusalem. Timothy joins them in Lystra (16:1-3). Up to this point the movements of Paul have been described in the third person (“they”). Then in 16:9-10 Paul has his vision of the man from Macedonia urging them to come over to Macedonia. The departure from Troas for Philippi in Macedonia is described in the first person plural (“we” and “us”). This might suggest that Luke joined the party at that point. The narrative continues in the first person plural in Acts 20, 21, 27, and 28). Might Luke even have been the man from Macedonia Paul saw in his vision?

In any case, this suggests the possibility that Lydia hosted a group of at least four men in her home. The text says nothing about any women in the group, and I suppose that for women to have been traveling with Paul would have been unusual. Nevertheless, the group with Paul clearly engaged with a group of women who met by the river to pray on the Sabbath (v. 13). Without getting into a whole discursive on Pauline attitudes about women, suffice it to say that women played some important roles in his endeavors, here without any hint of scandal or offense to propriety.

As I scanned ahead in Acts to explore the shifts between third and first person in the narrative, I saw in Acts 17:7 that the powers in Thessalonica were outraged because they understood the Gospel proclaimed by Paul and Silas as "saying that there is another king named Jesus." We can blow this off by saying that they misunderstood that Jesus' kingdom was "not of this world" (John 18:36). Nevertheless, those of us who render supreme and sole allegiance to Jesus will always be a threat to human authorities. With their confidence of sharing in Jesus' resurrection, the Roman Empire could not control the early Christians, even with torture and death. The Romans knew that the Emperor had no power over the Christians' "king." Even modern democracies such as the US will tolerate and even welcome a generic, diluted Christianity (Judeo-Christian Civil Religion), but they will always be uncomfortable with those who follow Jesus without reservation or exception.

Indeed, the accusation of treason is only raised after the complaint about the economic loss by delivering the slave girl from the spirit of divination by which her owners made a great deal of money by her fortune-telling. Just like today, economics drives both politics and religion. Reflecting on this, thought about the parallel to the sex trafficking that has become such a high-profile blight in our time. A lot of finger pointing and tongue wagging focuses on other countries and the US border with Mexico, but plenty of it is entirely domestic in the US. Are girls lured into sex trade in the US really any different than the slave girl in Philippi? Sex trafficking persists because it is profitable, being paid for by those who have the money for such indulgences, and the means to keep it from sullying their respectability.

The text tells us nothing about what happened to the slave girl after being freed from the spirit of divination. Was she still held as a slave, now relegated to the lowest position since she was no longer a source of income? Was she set free to find her way in the hustling streets of Philippi? When the group with Paul left Lydia’s home, did Lydia, the jailer’s family, and the nascent church in Philippi take her in to support and guide her into a new life? This could be a model for today’s church in the US to challenge “king money” and proclaim another king named Jesus.

Open the Welcome Gates

Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5 is in the place of the Epistle lesson suggested by the Lectionary for next Sunday. It is from the vision of the New Heaven and New Earth and the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. Reflecting on this, I also looked at the spectacular imagery of the city walls (21:12-21). I have seen some folk suggesting these walls as a justification for boarder walls, which strikes me as tantamount to blasphemy. Then in 21:25 I read that the gates in those walls will never be shut by day – and there will be no night there, so the gates will always be open. These are gates of welcome, not exclusion. Yes, nothing unclean will enter, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood (21:27). The point is God’s home with people, and God will wipe away every tear; and death, mourning, crying, and pain will be no more. These gates welcome suffering people to God’s home of peace and healing. I will acknowledge that if the walls of the New Jerusalem are not a suitable analogy for boarder walls, neither are the gates a guide to contemporary immigration policy. Nevertheless, I do believe this whole metaphor is a glorious climax to the consistent call of the Mosaic Law and the Hebrew Prophets to welcome outsiders, the weak, the widows, the orphans, the poor with compassion and justice, with Jesus’ consistent welcome and mercy for the rejected people of his day as well as the early church’s open welcome to people regardless of status, race, ethnicity, class. Whatever the policy this or any other nation, churches can begin now to celebrate and live into the glory of welcome gates that never close.

Saturday, May 18, 2019


I came of age in the Vietnam War/Civil Rights era. My assessment is that the US was at least as divided then as today. If you doubt that, just talk with some folk who were personally affected by either or both. I believe those wounds that never actually healed are intentionally being ripped open and inflamed today. I am also convinced that the propensity to blame those of a different political persuasion is a clear symptom that present fragmentation and polarization is an extension of not addressing the past.

I believe changing this trajectory will be radically counter-cultural. It will require relinquishing assigning blame to others and one’s self. Instead it will require a cultural consensus of community accountability. It will require relinquishing strategies that can be reduced to a series of steps or formulas, especially for someone else to take or apply. Instead it will require an unprecedented transformation of interior attitudes and relationship transactions. It will require relinquishing every evasion and avoidance of distress. Instead it will require gazing into the wounds with an unflinching gaze.

In his 1973 book The Velvet Covered Brick (Harper and Row) Howard Butt presents this eloquently. “Find the spot where life hurts you and let your weight down on it. Don’t lean away from hour pain, lean into it.” (p. 62) Every time we retreat from significant pain without dealing with it, it will cycle back with a vengeance. That is what I think US society is experiencing right now. I am sure these evaded wounds go back even farther, but we are now experiencing the consequences of not leaning into the pains of the fragmentation of the Vietnam War/Civil Rights era.

What is required is far deeper than “can’t we all just get along” or “we agree to disagree.” We must come to the place where we understand why something that seems reprehensible to us seems reasonable to someone else, and conversely why someone else regards what I see as reasonable as reprehensible. That does not mean we agree to injustice or abuse, only that we get in touch with what brings people to such sharply contrary opinions without writing them off as stupid or evil. This is hard enough between our fellow citizens who hold different political, social, and religious ideas. This power is unleashed when extended to those who consider themselves to be our sworn enemies.

The subtitle of Howard Butt’s book is “Christian Leadership in an Age of Rebellion.” I have not reread it for a very long time and am sure I would find plenty to reconsider today. However, just as Howard Butt wrote from his perspective as a Christian, I also come at this as one who trusts and aspires to seriously follow Jesus. I have no illusions of nor ambitions for the US to become a “Christian nation.” But I do come to the crisis of fragmentation and polarization in the society in which I live with my worldview as a disciple of Jesus.

As a society we are highly individualistic and are loathe to acknowledge communal and generational responsibility. Yet, that permeates the values of the Hebrew Scriptures, such as expressed in Psalm 106:6 “Both we and our ancestors have sinned.” It is the core of Daniel’s prayer in Daniel 9:3-19 I which he confessed and repented of sins in which he never personally participated, though he sees himself included with all the people of Judah. I believe that if biblical people, both Jews and Christians, began to live into this principle, we could be a healing voice for our society and lead the way past the present fragmentation.

As an intentional disciple of Jesus, I recognize his journey to the cross as the quintessential leaning into the pain by which he leads us on the path of reconciliation. We, too, have been given what the Apostle Paul called “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18) that breaks down the dividing wall of hostility, not just between humans and God, but between people. (Ephesians 2:14) I yearn for Christian congregations to become living laboratories and models of the kind of reconciliation that our society so desperately needs. Such reconciliation must of necessity include race, ethnicity, class, economics, education, political and even theological differences. I would go so far as to say that we who say we follow Jesus can and should be leading the way in healthy ways to relate to people who not only don’t follow Jesus but may even oppose him.

I am not interested in a generic, cultural “Christianity” that blurs all distinctions. Rather, I am talking about a discipleship vigorous enough for authentic dialog about differences and disagreements and for leaning into the pain of addressing our present paralyzing fragmentation. I have no expectation of a sweeping cultural revival. Rather, I envision the powerful influence of a small amount of yeast leavening the entire loaf. (Matthew 13:33; Luke 13:21; 1 Corinthians 5:8; Galatians 5:9)

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Reflections on Rereading My Fiction

In the last couple of weeks I have reread my four unpublished novels back to back to back. I had previously read each of them at least once after completing my final revisions, but I had not taken them in together as a chronological corpus. I started writing in 2011 as I embarked on my “retirement” as pastor of Central Christian Church of Dallas, Texas. I completed them in 2017 not long after my wife Candy’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. We had come to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to share a duplex with our son David, his wife Rachel and their children Sam and Elizabeth.
I found fiction was a helpful tool with which I could process a retrospective on my pastoral career and the forces, people, and events that shaped me over nearly a half century. I wouldn’t say that this is a closed canon, but no other urges are simmering within me pleading to take shape in narrative. Now with about two years out of my active congregational career and into the Alzheimer’s caregiver journey with Candy, I am finding a new equilibrium. As I reread my novels as a body, I found a different perspective on them and on myself has emerged in this interval of life transition.
I was actually a bit surprised to discover a certain objectivity as I read. This was not in terms of evaluating the quality of what I had written. Rather, I found my focus had shifted from the issues I was working on when I wrote them to empathy with the characters. I suppose that the writing had enabled me to get some perspective on my career and the meaning of retiring from the role that had defined me for most of my adult life. Now that I was with Candy basically around the clock those issues, while perhaps not fully resolved, were no longer tugging at me. Instead, in the role of caregiver (though Candy is doing well enough that it is not yet arduous), my attention was drawn into the experiences of these characters. Interestingly, though I knew they were fictional, and though I knew I had created them in my imagination, I found myself drawn into their joys and struggles much more intensely than when I wrote. A few times I even caught myself choking back tears.
Right now my publishing focus is on promotion of my non-fiction story collection Ripples. I suppose that if Ripples gained a suitable readership, I might consider adding from my fiction, though the novels are substantially different. Here is a brief description of each of the novels.
The first half of Sure and Certain follows a pastor’s (Ben Davis) journey with a woman of the church from hospice to funeral, along the way with some hints of his health concerns. After her funeral he gets his own pancreatic cancer terminal diagnosis and the second half follows him through his funeral. The story is told through conversations with his spiritual director (Steve) and adult skeptic son (Phil) in alternating chapters. The last 2 chapters are the reflections of the spiritual director and the son on his funeral, and the son makes an appointment to talk with the spiritual director.

What Comes After the Best Day of My Life?­ tells the story of a first year high school English teacher (Greg Lewis) through the eyes of his unintentional mentor (Dr. Robert Morgan) whose classroom is across the hall. The new teacher has been a children’s magazine editor before teaching. Besides standard English classes, he teaches journalism and is the faculty advisor to the student newspaper and yearbook. The veteran English teacher teaches literature classes and is the faculty advisor to the poetry club and the student literary magazine. Each chapter covers a month of the school year, September through June. The two teachers interact about the ambitions, failures, conflicts, loves, triumphs and tragedies of high school students, including a student death.

The Ghosts of Mystic Hills Cemetery tells the story of the once small town of Mystic Hills that is eventually surrounded by suburbs. The debate over how to balance the history and future of the cemetery mirrors the issues for the town. The story is told through ten first person narratives. Five of whom are contemporary adults living in the town, and five of whom are their grandparents who are now interred in Mystic Hills Cemetery. A Story Teller (Peter Hultgren) introduces Mystic Hills with the story of his grandparents homesteading in the Mystic Hills before the town came. In between each of the first person chapters, he tells a folk story, fairy tale, local legend to illuminate the human and generational experience with mystical connections. In the last chapter the Story Teller passes the role to his grandson and new wife who announces her pregnancy.

Standing Outside the Door is the spiritual journal entries of Steve Shepherd, spiritual director and pastor, basically from Ash Wednesday through Epiphany of the year that Lynne Carter, a woman in his congregation, comes to him to confess having had an affair with his clergy colleague and friend Ron Beckmann. Steve is on the denomination’s committee on ministry, responsible for discipline of clergy at the time, so is in the conflicted center of his relationship with a parishioner, a friend, and his official responsibility. During that same time, families from another congregation bring to the committee on ministry a complaint of sexual abuse of children to by their pastor, Henry Nelson. Steve is doing a retrospective on how this affected him as he begins his retirement a dozen years later.
Ripples, however, is readily available now. Learn about it and order at

Monday, March 25, 2019

My Response to Mueller Report Conclusions

So the Russians may not have needed to collude with the Trump campaign to get what they were after: a Trump presidency, undermining public confidence in US elections, and paralyzed the US in two years of turmoil that is unlikely to end anytime soon. Somehow an echo of Judges 14:18, “If you had not plowed with my heifer, you would not have found out my riddle.”

For all of the rhetoric attacking Mueller’s integrity, he seems to have produced a fair, objective report and not a political hatchet job. While not directly connected with collusion with the Russians, Mueller’s investigation certainly has brought to light considerable disgusting slime in the highest levels of power. How this plays out will be interesting as I speculated when the Mueller report was completed before anything was released, in the post below.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

My First Reaction to the Completion of the Mueller Report

Whether the Trump campaign or the Clinton campaign colluded with the Russians, or perhaps the Russians were shrewd enough to manipulate both campaigns for their own purposes, which may (or may not) have included getting Donald Trump elected, the Russians have succeeded in one thing much in their interest – effectively undermining the confidence of the US citizenry in the integrity of their elections.

Regardless of how much, if any, of the Mueller Report is released to whom and how it is redacted, we can expect a long ordeal of innuendo and denial, accusations and evasions, claims of exoneration and calls for consequences, leaks and cover-ups, from all along the political spectrum, perhaps simultaneously among political adversaries and allies alike. This is not to say the Mueller Report will be meaningless, but conflicting meanings will be assigned and debated for decades to come.

My own opinion is that these observations of mine are not causing the fragmentation and polarization of US society. They are symptoms of much deeper issues that orbit around relentless demands for “getting what I want for me and people who are like me,” and an intentional repudiation of concern for the common good and for "those who I think are not congruent with me."

Monday, February 18, 2019

Illusions of Safety and Security

On Saturday, February 16, 2019, I posted this quote from Walter Brueggemann and commented that “One of the great challenges of this perspective is that what seem to me to be harmful illusions are believed as truth by so many.” It elicited several affirmative responses on Facebook from people who I know have conflicting ideas of what is truth and what is illusion. As often seems to happen, the morning I awoke well before the chime called me to Lauds. I did review my entire Psalm index, though was interrupted several times by thoughts about illusion and truth. These interruptions were so persistent that I couldn’t discern whether this was part of my interior life or an exterior distraction. So I am writing here to get the thoughts out and relinquish them but do not at this point intend to link to Facebook or Twitter. After Vespers and during Compline ideas for another short story told by Rebekah Dahlberg Anderson began to percolate and also seemed to brew before Lauds this morning. I hope that writing this essay frees my mind to develop at least that story, and perhaps one for Daniel today and tomorrow as we have no outside activities scheduled. After another snow, we have beautiful sunshine today, which should be conducive to forming at least one story.
My observation is that some of the greatest and most common illusions that obscure truth have to do with safety and security. We humans seem irresistibly drawn to the false security that we believe we create and depend on by and for ourselves. Nothing new here. The Hebrew Scriptures are replete with warnings about false security.
Between the time of settling in the Promised Land and the establishment of the monarchy, Israel did not have a standing army. In the time of the Judges, when an enemy threatened as discipline for failure of faithfulness to God, when they cried for help, God would raise up a Judge who would rally a temporary militia to address the threat. Eventually the Israelites prevailed upon Samuel to appoint a king to go before them and fight their battles (1 Samuel 8:20). Samuel warned of the great cost of a king raising a standing army (1 Samuel 8:11-12).
The Psalmists recognized that this military force was a false source of security and safety.
·         Psalm 33:16-17 A king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength. The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save.
·         Psalm 44:6 Not in my bow do I trust, nor can my sword save me.
In rejecting these illusions, the Psalmists were clear that safety and security are found only in God.
·         Psalm 4:8 I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.
·         Psalm 20:7 Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses, but our pride is in the name of the Lord our God.
In our own time the nations, including the US, depend on the illusion that military power keeps them safe. I am convinced that military power is a great risk to safety and security. Having a standing military makes using it to respond to fear and threat an almost irresistible political and popular temptation. A standing military, especially when it’s power is invoked as a supposed deterrent, easily provokes other nations who feel threatened to mobilize their military. Slight and even accidental provocations easily launch violent conflict.
Among the classic principles of Just War Ethics are limited objectives and means, proportionality. Amassed military might makes that almost impossible. I lived through the Vietnam War era and found a visit to the Memorial Wall with our sons to be emotionally challenging. The magnitude of the nearly 60,000 names of US personnel killed in that war is visually overwhelming. What it doesn’t recognize that 3,000,000 other people were killed in that war (South and North Vietnamese, US allies, civilians, etc.). Fifty walls of the same size would be required to list all of those names. Nor does this account for drug, PTSD, or Agent Orange deaths that have persisted since the end of that war. Preventing a communist takeover was the rationale for all of this death. Ironically, after propping up corrupt regimes in South Vietnam, since the feared communists have taken over, the US exchanges remarkably free trade and tourism with Vietnam.
The popular and political reaction to the 3,000 deaths on September 11, 2001 has justified years of military action. Brown University's Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, put the death toll between 480,000 and 507,000 killed in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. Interestingly, though those attackers had Saudi ties, the US has not responded militarily to Saudi Arabia. More US personnel have been killed in these wars than the original 3,000 on September 11. I am not making any excuses for the September 11 attackers or suggesting not responding. I am questioning the nature and proportionality of the response.
I believe the same confusion between illusion and truth comes to personal pursuit of safety and security. From automobiles to firearms, we want 100% airtight security and safety. While we as a society and individually do need to be smart and prudent about safety and security, such an absolute guarantee is illusory. I am not at all suggesting a ban on all firearms or even handguns or semi-automatic weapons. My point is that thinking of personal firearms in terms of safety and security is an illusion. Statistically the truth is that a handgun in the home is more likely to wound or kill a friend or family member than an intruder or attacker, whether intentionally or accidentally. Yes, if you choose to have firearms in your home, smart and prudent training and safety procedures are essential, but thinking that they protect your safety and security is an illusion.
When Babylon invaded Judah, the people trusted that the Temple of the Lord would insure their safety and security. Though they had basically been pushed from the countryside into the environs of Jerusalem, they believed God would never let the Temple be violated or destroyed. The Temple became a religious symbol of illusory safety and security. But the prophet Jeremiah warned them. “Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’” The truth was that the Temple was destroyed, and its contents and the people were carried off to captivity in Babylon.
Symbols of security and safety are not new, and those with religious meanings are often particularly enticing. To suggest that posting The Ten Commandments in schools would deter mass shooters or bombers is just such an illusion. That is not to suggest anything wrong with The Ten Commandments, only that those bent on such violence are not paying attention to them. Seeking security and safety in such symbols too often interferes with clear thinking about how to address the things that drive some people to violence.
While not directly endowed with religious significance, the proposed wall along the US border with Mexico is just such an illusory symbol of security and safety. I know some have attempted to assign religious significance to it by comparing it to Nehemiah’s wall at the resettling of Jerusalem. Such exegesis verges on silliness and misses that the point of Nehemiah’s wall was not so much safety and security as a sign of Jerusalem’s renaissance. Nevertheless, on both popular and political levels, the proposed border wall is clearly a symbol of the craving for safety and security in a time when fear seems to abound.
The threats of drugs, crime, and human trafficking fuel the illusion of safety and security envisioned in the wall. The truth is that very little drugs and other illegal and immoral traffic come with those trekking individually or in small groups on foot through the desert regions. Tunnels already go underneath stretches where walls are in place. Much comes in through established entry points hidden in legitimate cargo. Light aircraft and drones make drops over the border, wall or no wall. Many of those who are counted as illegal immigrants entered the country with legitimate and legal visas and just stayed when those expired.
I am not suggesting open borders or even a position on building or not building the wall. What I do believe, however, is that like the Jerusalem Temple, the wall is a symbol that promises an illusion of safety and security it cannot deliver.
I know that plenty of people in my family, friends, and social circle believe that what I consider to be illusions are truth. I also know that I am neither able nor responsible to convince them otherwise. In keeping with my intention of the last several months, I have written this so that the thoughts that have been churning in me, interrupting my Psalm index this morning, and distracting me from focusing on my inner life have been set in order and can be relinquished. When disturbing input comes to me, I can let it pass, knowing that I have clarified my thoughts between me and God. If I am wrong, as I certainly may be, I do trust that the Holy Spirit with nudge me from illusion to truth through Scripture and prayer. I have decided to post this in my Writing Workshop rather than Pilgrim Path as it seems more analytical than formative. If someone stumbles on it, so be it.