Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Jesus, John and Daniel Striped Tiger

The following is the text of a message delivered during worship by ESR student Travis Etling on September 22, 2015. 

(Daniel and Travis)

Part I.
Description of Cornville
I want to start this morning with a story.  And before I tell the story, I want to give you the context for the story – because I was paying attention in my biblical studies classes and I know that context is everything!  I also want to minimize or at least contextualize my own questionable behavior in this story. 
     The context for this story is a sheep ranch in Cornville Arizona circa 1984; which is where I grew up - from early grade school through early high school.  Let me paint a quick picture for you.  First of all, there is no corn in Cornville.  Local legend has it that the founders of the town were named Coen.  When the clerk recorded the name of the town over the phone, she assumed the Coen’s were saying “corn” with a southern accent.  This is a highly dubious explanation I know, but that’s the story.
     Cornville is in the high desert.  There are rugged mountains, scrubby trees like mesquite and juniper.  Cornville is in the Verde Valley, which means “green valley” in Spanish so it’s not your typical desert scene – no sand dunes or saguaro cacti – its actually quite green depending on the year.  There is quite a bit of surface water.  Our property was sandwiched between an irrigation ditch along the top of the ten acre pasture and the Oak Creek river which ran along the bottom of our ranch.  The pasture was actually flood irrigated - which is why there is no more water in the Western United States.  Actually the golf courses in Nevada and Phoenix probably have more to do with that.  Anyway, you have a sense of the physical landscape – rugged but also lots of room to run and play and grow gardens and raise sheep – really very idyllic. 
The Culture of Cornville
     Now for the cultural landscape.  Cornville was tiny – there were two corner stores where you could buy milk or gasoline.  BUT, also available for purchase in Cornville, at the local survivalist store, one could buy an Uzi assault rifle.  If you chose to buy the Uzi, you could also buy a kit to convert the legal semi-automatic weapon into an illegal fully automatic weapon at the same store. 
     If you have been anywhere near the Verde Valley, you’ll know about Sedona, situated among gorgeous red, yellow and orange cliffs and mesas.  Sedona has been a center for New Age Spirituality for decades.  This Verde Valley region is somehow really representative of Arizona culture in general – a strong interest in New Age and Native American spirituality paired with a wild, frontier mentality - an interesting mix of New Age belief and 2nd amendment activism.  Cornville Arizona was truly a magical place to grow up – surreal and a little creepy perhaps, but also magical.  I’m just providing you with some cultural reference points – not that this excuses what I’m about to tell you next – but it provides some context.  Basically, in 1984, Cornville Arizona was physically and culturally still the Wild West.
4-H Family
     What we did in Cornville was 4-H.  Cornville was a 4-H kind of town and my family was a 4-H kind of family.  I can still say the 4-H pledge.  Anyway, I was very involved in 4-H, I participated in gardening and raising livestock including sheep and swine.  I also did entomology, conservation and for a very brief time, trapping.
     Trapping is as bad as it sounds, it’s truly awful.  Trapping involves setting steel leg traps for animals like raccoons, muskrats, and coyotes and then walking the trap line with a gun and shooting whatever poor animal may be stuck in the trap.  I know, it’s awful – I can’t believe my parents allowed me to do this.  But they did.  Before I go any further with this part of the story though, I need to tell you about my cat Daniel.
Daniel Striped Tiger
     Before we lived in Cornville, we lived in Tucson.  My cat Daniel was born in Tucson several years prior to the events in this story.  Daniel was the only orange striped cat born to a cat named Tabby Abby.  Tabby Abby had a litter of kittens that were all white – all except Daniel who was orange striped.  I begged my mom to let me keep the orange kitten and she finally agreed.  My favorite TV show at the time was Mr. Rogers Neighborhood - because I was in preschool.  If you know Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, you know that there is a character who is an orange cat, a puppet and his name is Daniel Striped Tiger.  Daniel Striped Tiger is one of many puppets who live in The Land of Make Believe.  Some of the other characters are King Friday, Queen Saturday, Prince Tuesday and Lady Elaine.  Daniel Striped Tiger was one of my favorite characters from Mr. Rogers, so, I named my orange cat Daniel.
Daniel was a Really Amazing Cat
     Daniel was a really cool cat – he behaved more like a dog that a cat.  He would come when you called him, he would accompany me on my various exploits and missions out in the desert – or fishing down at the creek.  Daniel survived the harsh Arizona landscape – and we went through a lot of cats – the coyotes and rattlesnakes were really hard on the cats!  I have a picture of my college graduation in State College Pennsylvania and Daniel is there in the background – so he survived to a ripe old age and lived his final years as a mostly indoor cat, in the civil and much milder landscape of Pennsylvania.
Trapping Daniel
     Anyway, long story short, I took my traps down to the Oak Creek that ran along the bottom of the pasture and set a couple of traps baited with tuna.  This was the very first time I ever trapped.  The next morning, I got up and checked my traps.  I was excited.  I had my .22 rifle.  As I approached the first trap, I could tell there was something caught and thrashing around in the underbrush.  I moved forward quickly through the brush, my heart pumping like crazy – and you can probably guess what or more precisely who was thrashing around in the trap.  Daniel. 
     Daniel was obviously in distress, his right foreleg caught in the trap and he was kind of limping around in a circle, yowling.  The rest of the memory is kind of a blur. I lay down the rifle, went to Daniel and released him from the trap.  Tears were streaming down my face.  Daniel didn’t try to bite me or scratch me while I pried open the heavy steel jaws of the trap.  He was relatively calm.  I carried Daniel as quickly as I could across the pasture and up to our house where my mom promptly drove us to the animal hospital. He had this ridiculous cast on his leg that went all the way to his shoulder – but eventually, after a few weeks, his leg healed and he was back out following me toward adventure out in the desert.
Theological Hints
     This experience gave me a lot to think about.  I never even considered whether or not to continue trapping.  I never gave it a second thought.  I gave the traps to the 4-H leader in charge of that club and I quit the club.  I was done with trapping.  Though I wouldn’t have expressed it this way at the time, my experience of Daniel’s suffering led me to have compassion for other animals.  I didn’t want anything to suffer like Daniel, so I stopped trapping. Of course, I also didn’t want to catch Daniel again either.  In my experience of Daniel’s suffering, I had a window into suffering in general.  It was an enlightenment moment, it was a salvation moment, a moment with depth, a moment touched by the mystery of God.  In my experience of Daniels suffering, I was opened to a deep experience of compassion, empathy and responsibility.  
Part II
     In A Near Sympathy: The Timeless Quaker Wisdom of John Woolman, Michael Birkel writes:

The issue of suffering is central to all systems of religious thought.  In Hebrew Scriptures, the Book of Job stands out as an extended meditation on the meaning of suffering.  In Christianity, reflection on suffering often focuses on the meaning of the cross – the suffering of Jesus – because Christian belief holds that God through Jesus entered into human history and took on human suffering.  What is more, the suffering and death of Jesus are understood and experienced to be redemptive.
     John Woolman’s reflections on the cross are profound because they grow out of his inward experience of participating in the sufferings of Christ… Woolman felt led to enter, with the greatest respect and sympathy, into the suffering of the oppressed in order to participate in the ongoing process of redeeming the world.”[1]  

     John Woolman’s story is fascinating and inspiring to me for a variety of reasons. He was both a contemplative and an activist, both a mystic and a prophet.  He was grounded in his experience of the love and presence of God – a presence that lured him out beyond himself and his particular tradition to witness prophetically to the broader society.  I appreciate Woolman because he lived actively and authentically in the space between loving God and loving neighbor – a space which Jesus identifies as the mystery at the very heart of his teaching and tradition. 
     Woolman’s love for neighbor led him to expose himself to suffering in a variety of ways.  He traveled throughout the country in order to witness to slaveholders - to share his concern with slaveholders about the immorality of the practice.  Woolman however was not just trying to liberate slaves but also trying to liberate slaveholders.  He recognized the damage being caused not only to the slaves but also to the souls of the slaveholders.  Woolman’s religious imagination was rich – it allowed him to recognize that this category “neighbor” is broad and inclusive – that it includes both slave and slaveholder.
     Woolman understood that slave keeping “depraves the mind in like manner and with as great certainty as prevailing cold congeals water” and therefore can “shut up the mind against the gentle movings of uncreated purity.”  He seems to understand intuitively and spiritually what we know to be true today based on neuroscience:  when we practice empathy, when we open ourselves to compassion, we become better at it.[2]   Compassion is a skill.  But, we don’t just improve our behavior through the practice of this skill, we actually change the structure of our brains as we practice compassion.  The neural connections that fire when we open ourselves to empathy are reinforced and strengthened.  When we resist or shelter ourselves from the experience of suffering, compassion and empathy, we gradually lose some of our ability to be empathetic – those neural connections are physically weakened.  George Lakoff is one of the cognitive neuro-scientists who writes about this.  If you are interested, his books are very readable and non-technical.  They are fascinating. 
     While sailing to England, Woolman chose to ride in “steerage” rather than the more comfortable and expensive cabins.  Woolman wanted to experience the conditions that people suffered in steerage.  Woolman even expressed gratitude for this desire to understand suffering:
Desires were now renewed in me to embrace every opportunity of being inwardly acquainted with the hardships and difficulties of my fellow creatures and to labor in his love for the spreading of pure universal righteousness in the earth.[3]
Part III
     In each of the synoptic gospels, Mark, Mathew and Luke, Jesus describes the project that is at the very heart of the Christian tradition.  In Mark and Matthew, this teaching is identified as the “most important commandment.” In Luke, this teaching is described as the thing that will allow you to experience eternal life.  Here is the version from Matthew 22:34-40:
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.  “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”  He said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it:  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (NRSV)

What is most striking to me about the great commandment is its tone.  Jesus’ teaching is passionate, excessive and even hyperbolic.  “All your heart, all your soul and all your mind.”  This project that involves loving God and neighbor doesn’t seem to be a peripheral concern, not something we do on the side or on the weekend but rather the central reality around which we organize our whole lives.  Surely this includes our material practices, our personal choices, how we organize our time and our political commitments?  What is most striking to me when I read this teaching is that I’m not even close to approaching the mark.
     The other thing that strikes me about this passage is just how tricky it is  – clear, maybe but also very tricky. What does it mean to love God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind? 
     In the version of the great commandment that we read in the book of Luke, the lawyer asks Jesus to clarify: who precisely is my neighbor?  Jesus replies by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan.  In the parable, you remember that a man is beaten and left for dead by bandits.  The first person to come upon the victim is a priest – someone who should have been a good guy.  Yet the Priest shelters himself from the suffering Samaritan – he walks over to the other side of the road where he doesn’t have to experience the suffering, he doesn’t have to look the man in the eye, or see his blood, or hear his groaning.  The next person to come down the road is a Levite – again someone who by external standards should have been sympathetic to the man.  Yet the Levite does the same thing as the priest, he insulates himself from the suffering of the victim.  He looks the other way.  And the next person to come by is the last person we would expect to be helpful – a Samaritan, someone we would want to deport, or identify as an evildoer.  So this foreigner, this sketchy, Samaritan “comes near him; and when he sees him, he is moved with pity.”  He sees the blood, the torn skin.  He gets close enough to hear the ragged, labored breathing.  The Samaritan allows himself to be exposed to this particular suffering and is moved with empathy and compassion to take responsibility for the man in need.
*          *          *
     Many, though not all, Christians throughout history have understood that Jesus’ suffering is somehow redemptive. I also think that when suffering is experienced by people who are able to respond with empathy and responsibility, suffering can be redemptive because it allows us to participate in the ongoing redemption of the world.  Maybe Jesus’ suffering somehow shows us that we are at one with all creation.  Maybe Jesus’ suffering somehow mirrors for us all the suffering in the world.  I’m convinced that how precisely Jesus reconciles us with God is a profound mystery rather than a simple formula.  Christians should approach this mystery with imagination and contemplation and allow the images and to speak to our condition, to interpret us.  This isn’t a problem to solve with our rational, empirical understanding, not a puzzle for constructive theology to work out but rather a depth into which we are called to descend.
     It seems that both Jesus and John Woolman were inhabited by the Spirit of God.  To be inhabited by the Spirit of God is to be with and for those who suffer because God is with and for those who suffer.  To be inhabited by the Spirit of God is to be in solidarity with those who suffer.  To be inhabited by the Spirit of God is to be willing to be exposed to suffering, because we are grounded in the mystery and compassion of God.
*        *          *
     I wonder how often we organize our lives in ways that shield us from suffering because it can be uncomfortable – and this gets to the trickiness of the great commandment.  The kingdom of God involves risk.  I don’t want to make anybody feel bad about the ways that we live our lives, its natural and rational to avoid trouble and suffering.  It’s natural and rational to avoid the sketchy part of town or the individual who might take advantage of us.  Maybe though we should periodically and deliberately disrupt this habit of security in small ways in order to be exposed to opportunities to participate in the redemption of the world. 

Travis Etling is a residential student in Earlham School of Religion’s Master of Divinity program. You can read more from Travis on his blog,

[1] Michael Birkel, A Near Sympathy: The Timeless Quaker Wisdom of John Woolman (Richmond IN:  Friends United Press, 2003), 57-58.
[2] George Lakoff, The All New Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2014), Kindle location 137.
[3] John Woolman. John Woolman’s Journal, p. 172.  Quoted in Birkel in A Near Sympathy p. 65

Friday, September 25, 2015

God’s Holy Presence

ESR student Deb Geiger shared the following message during ESR worship on September 8, 2015.
(A picture of the group, with Deb second from the left on the bottom row)

My name is Deb Geiger, for those of you who don’t know me. I am from Michigan where I attend the First Congregational United Church of Christ in a small farming community. We have been going on mission trips to Appalachia for the last 5 years. It has been a great pleasure and we now have many friends down there with whom we enjoy connecting year after year. We believe that prayer and time spent opening up to what God has for us on this trip, as well as working on self -awareness prior to heading off, leaves us open and tender to God’s presence. Thus we spend a lot of time preparing to leave, which we believe is crucial to the success of our trips. We pray ahead of time for who will be able to join us. As the group begins to form we ask them to pray for one another and the journey itself, as well as the people we will be working with when we get to Tennessee. This includes the Morgan Scott Project through whom we work in addition to the homes and hearts we repair. Our congregation is also praying for us as we go on this journey, then they too are part of the mission trip – we remain connected through prayer. I think that one of the reasons we particularly felt covered in God’s Holy presence this trip was the addition of my Call and Discernment class praying while we were gone.

We have two preparation meetings before we leave where we begin our time of bonding, as we connect with one another and with God. We read scripture, pray and work on self awareness – in particular about being non-judgmental guests in a culture that is different from ours. (Although truthfully we find Deer Lodge, Tennessee to be very similar to the small farming community where we all live) By naming our judgments, as well as judgments we think they might possibly have of us, we own them and then work toward decreasing them so that we can do a better job of bridging any gaps between them and us. We also learn what we can about the area and poverty, which also helps decrease our judgments – knowledge is good for that. We talk about what it looks like to be a good guest and ways that we can be respectful and flexible. This helps us open our minds and our hearts to God, as well as the people we will serve and the wonderful opportunities God has in store for us. It benefits all of us because this rubs off on how we treat each other within our group. Also in the pre-meetings we focus on scripture about being hospitable to strangers and how God wants us to love neighbor as self. All these activities help us become more aware of who we are, what we are thinking and how we can be more open so that we can find God to a greater degree and love everyone equally. We also worship every night during the trip where we re-visit our day, talking about where we saw God in addition to worshiping this God we love and adore. We had another fabulous mission trip, filled beyond imagining.

I want to focus first on the words from Paul in the scripture that you just heard this morning – “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” Saints refers to everyone, which refers to you too - hopefully when you hear that about yourself it makes you stretch up a bit and try to fill those shoes. Yet in this passage Paul is referring to strangers – people we don’t know. These are words that we need to live by, but it is not an easy task. Going on a mission trip is not an easy task, loving strangers is not an easy task. But we know that when we place our lives and renew our minds in God, we have more courage to step out and do those things that God is asking us to do. We Practice our faith and we grow in faith when we extend hospitality to strangers – sometimes we are on the receiving end of this and sometimes we are the givers. But in doing either, everyone reaps the benefits of a stronger faith in God as we love neighbor and stranger alike. By welcoming the stranger we make a statement that all are made in the image of God.

Repeatedly when we go to Tennessee we meet strangers: the people on whose homes we work and often new crew members and leaders, in addition to others. On our trip we extended hospitality to others and we also experienced people extending hospitality to us.

Opal was our biggest saint on this trip. We had the pleasure once again of watching someone blossom under love, respect and care. She changed from someone who distrusted us to someone who loves us and now misses us. To watch what can happen in the intensity of 5 short days is nothing short of amazing. But, our God is all about miracles.

Often we think of hospitality as someone who is good at welcoming people into their homes – I’m sure you can think of people who are good at that type of hospitality. But here our hospitality is extended in someone else’s home. The dictionary definition of hospitality is: given to generous and cordial reception of guests and welcoming spirit…offering a pleasant or sustaining environment. Sounds life giving doesn’t it? This can be challenging in someone else’s house because it requires getting our judgments and ourselves out of the way so that we can do the work God has asked us to do. In Opal’s house, we worked to be respectful, gentle and kind with her belongings and with her. We worked absolutely as hard as we could, sweat dripping from our faces in 96 degree temperatures. We wanted to make her house safer and more beautiful for her. We wanted Opal to know that she was loved and cared for with nothing attached. She was the person God gave to us for the week and so we gave our all to her. We sawed, drilled, hammered, measured, cut paneling, threw out tons of bent nails that wouldn’t go into that blasted hard wood, (and brainstormed a better way!) ripped down wallpaper, put together beds, moved furniture, placed flooring down, lovingly removed, washed and replaced ALL her 210 angel figurines, painted outdoor furniture, purchased cushions for the outdoor glider and chair, ripped up the old porch and then created a new porch complete with banisters, handrail and an amazing new gate. WHEW! All in 5 days! What a pleasure it was.

As I’ve said, the connection between Opal and us grew as the week went on. We got so we laughed and told jokes with her – we really enjoyed getting to know her and she enjoyed getting to know us. The Spirit of God is felt in connections. Opal one day said to Amber, “why do people like you come to help people like me?” We pondered this at worship that night – sorry that anyone even thinks people like me and people like you. But we hope that we were able to bridge that gap to a degree with the grace and love of God. 

(Deb on bottom left, with Opal above directing the work)

As far as being on the receiving end of hospitality - one night the Presbyterian Church near Deer Lodge, Tennessee served us a spaghetti supper. They didn’t know us, but because they were thankful that we were in their town and serving their people, they wanted to do this for us – to show their gratitude to complete strangers. We were blessed.

Another night we invited our Deer Lodge friends (who 5 years ago were strangers to us) to eat supper with us – enjoying laughter and chatter for a few hours. We wanted to feed these saints for whom we are thankful and to demonstrate our gratitude.

My pastor and I sat in the living room and chatted with a family for whom we rehabbed their entire home in 2011. They invited us once again into their home to enjoy a few moments of reminiscing. It was wonderful to see them again, in addition to the work that we completed on their home when they too were strangers. But because our lives connected in 2011, as we extended the hospitality of God – we are no longer strangers.

In addition to hospitality moments, we had a number of great God’s Holy Presence moments on this trip. We were laying Luan down on the uneven floor as a subflooring in Opal’s bedroom. We measured very carefully and then measured again, before we cut. But when they all fit seamlessly - we rejoiced – it was such a Holy moment. God was present because we could not have done that alone. We felt the help of the Spirit of the Lord. This happened over and over again. Just after that I needed a 27” piece to fit into the closet space and so I went outside in search of a scrap of Luan. What did I find? But a 27” piece of Luan that fit perfectly into the closet. All for Opal. The people in our group that were out front working on the porch had similar experiences. Only they were dealing with stacks of cement blocks that needed to be level and straight and they kept fitting perfectly. We were blessed. Our focus was Opal – we wanted it to be good for her.

We also learned a lot about God’s Grace on this trip. Another stranger in our midst, if only for the first morning… was a gentleman named John. He was one of our crew leaders at Opal’s home. He works for Morgan Scott Project through Americorps, which means he has an income, but not much of one. He also works in the evening at a horse farm in an attempt to make ends meet. He talked often and proudly of his 17-year-old daughter and his wife whom he supports. We began feeling connected with him as many of us have children as well and we know all about the desire to take care of them. Eric, one of our group members, enjoyed talking with him while ripping down the old and building up the new porch. He learned that John had a bad tire, which he couldn’t afford to repair. Then later we all learned that John was currently homeless – we were all shocked with this news. Eric began thinking that he would purchase a new tire for John so that getting back and forth to work was not a problem for him. (One less thing to worry about) When Eric ran this by the head of Morgan Scott, he learned some things about John that weren’t so good – of times when he wasn’t very responsible or even downright irresponsible. Eric began questioning whether buying him the tire was the right thing to do? He shared this w our group one night and so we all wrestled with this issue. In the end, we all got o the point of saying, have we not all been there? Have we been perfect on our earthly walk? And anyway, what would Jesus do? Why, just because he has made some bad decisions does he not deserve this particular gift of grace? After that we decided to pool our money so Eric could buy him 4 new tires for his vehicle, which is really what he needed. He took John on Thurs afternoon to get these on his car – the trip was fraught with difficulties, such as those that people in poverty deal with on a regular basis. The car didn’t’ have all the lug nuts and so they wouldn’t put on the new tires until he had those. So off they went somewhere else to purchase the lug nuts he needed. Eventually, after a long fashion, John had all the tires on his car. This would enable him to get to work as needed. One of my friends stated, we are building more than just ramps and porches, we are building hope.

When we complete a mission trip we are intentional about doing God’s work and being God’s people. Believing that God lives in each of us and that God loves everyone exactly the same. Unconditional love, grace, hospitality to strangers and being intentional in God becomes much harder in every day life. Life sometimes gets in the way, we are busy, and as humans it is hard to maintain that intentional focus. But still we must try every day as we work to know God more intimately in prayer, worship and staying open to God and what God has for us each day. On the mission trip we grew in our faith as we loved and were mindful of others. We grew in faith as we experienced God’s Holy presence and gave grace where it was needed.

As people of God we are called to do things that aren’t necessarily in our comfort zones…things that are challenging – journeys that stretch and grow us. Going on mission trips can be challenging and risky. Loving strangers can be challenging and risky. Letting go of our judgments and letting God open our hearts can be challenging and risky. But at the end of the day, the nitty-gritty, blazing hot, sweaty, extremely hard work is completely satisfying. That is the presence of God. In the end we all benefit from contributing to the needs of the saints and extending hospitality and grace to strangers. By doing this, the kingdom of God on earth grows a little bit more. God Bless each of us as we work to find this God of the universe more and more deeply in each of our lives and in the lives of one another. And continue to serve and be “doers” of the Word, to the best of our abilities. 

Friday, September 11, 2015

Why Social Conditions Matter to the Pope

Below is an excerpt from an article co-authored by ESR Associate Professor of Theological Studies Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Rev. Jesse Jackson that originally appeared on The Huffington Post

We Christians tend to focus on personal piety. When dealing with others, we become legalistic and concentrate on dos and the don'ts, mostly of other people. We delight in creating 11th commandments like, "thou shall not drink nor smoke" instead of treating each of these as a medical issue, which they are.
Piety and expressions of personal holiness are important. We praise piety but piety is personal, not communal. Piety did not free the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. They had to convincingly plead genuine hardship and demand freedom before they could march out of slavery.
God is not only concerned about personal piety but with the social condition in which we find ourselves. During the prosperous kingdoms of Judah and Israel, the prophetic message to the people of Israel who had gone astray was not to increase their piety. It was a call to eschew luxury (Amos 6:4-6) do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. Indeed the prophets routinely criticized the people for putting personal piety ahead of addressing oppression and doing justice.
Jesus preached piety, but only when it was rightly connected with right behavior, as taught by the Torah. His ministry, described in the gospels, focused on the social conditions in which many people found themselves. His concern centered on people who were poor, hungry, and cast out. He sought to meet their needs and to critique the systems which ignored their needs.
We see similarities to Jesus in the latest actions of Pope Francis. He has preached changes to the discourse of Christianity by challenging the idolatry of symbols, material wealth. He has preached a concern for those in need and those who are oppressed. Many are familiar with his radical acts of compassion that are symbolic and tangible. In one striking example, the Pope washed the feet of 12 prisoners, men and women from different parts of the world on Maundy Thursday.
The Pope is not concerned about the status quo. He challenges the status quo.
In his statements and actions, Pope Francis reveals a commitment to emulate the earthly ministry of Jesus. This is particularly clear in the Pope's focus not only on the condition of humanity's inner selves, but even more so on the conditions in which so much of humanity lives.
To read more, please visit the original article here. You can find more articles from Grace at her Huffington Post archive page here

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

ESR's Steve Angell reviews "Go Set a Watchman"

A Review of
Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman (Harper Collins Publishers, 2015)
By Stephen W. Angell

Harper Lee's new book, "Go Set a Watchman" (the title is from Isaiah 21:6), is her second published novel.  Her first novel, the highly acclaimed “To Kill A Mockingbird,” was published in 1960, some fifty-five years earlier.  “Go Set a Watchman” is set in the same fictional Alabama town as its predecessor, and it presents the lives of its characters twenty years later. However, “Go Set a Watchman” was completed as a manuscript some years before “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Lee’s editor at Lippincott, Tay Hohoff, a Quaker by upbringing and education, was most impressed by the flashback scenes in “Watchman” and convinced Lee to expand them into a novel focusing on the earlier period in the characters’ lives, the result being “Mockingbird.”  There was never any discussion at the time, or indeed during Hohoff’s lifetime, of publishing “Watchman” too.

From this historian's viewpoint, “Watchman” contains a penetrating and accurate portrait of the American South in the mid 1950s. It illuminates the important role of the Citizens' Councils (a more genteel version of the Ku Klux Klan) in the venomous segregationist backlash against the 1954 Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision. It has a visceral immediacy in its portrayal of the white backlash to the Supreme Court (and to the Montgomery bus boycott of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr.) that is not to be missed. Andrew Manis in "Southern Civil Religions inContext" has this to say about the Citizens' Councils: "The most extreme response of the white South [to Brown v. Board] ... was the rise and growth of the Citizens Councils. Founded in the summer of 1954 in Yazoo City, Mississippi, the Councils expanded into an areawide apparatus claiming 300,000 members. It propagated its message through a newspaper, regional television and radio shows, and large numbers of speakers..... The Citizens Councils contributed greatly to the South's growing alienation from the rest of the nation, ... [as] many Southerners came to refer to the 'government in Washington' as they would have spoken of a foreign power." (p. 24)

Lee's book also illuminates the fear that many white Southerners had about the NAACP. She implies rather strongly that one reason that racial moderates like (the fictional) Atticus Finch became Citizens Council members was because of their fear of the NAACP. In fact, her reference to the Montgomery Bus boycott is set in this context: Jean Louise (the grown-up Scout of "Mockingbird") says, "I thought that Montgomery crowd spent most of their meeting time in church praying." A local Maycomb, Alabama, resident, Hester, responds, "Oh my child don't you know that was just to get sympathy up in the East? That's the oldest trick known to mankind." Both as a form of inspiration and a cause of fear, historians of this period have often remarked on the close ties between religion and politics among both whites and blacks in the South. It is commonly said, for example, that in the mid-twentieth century South, the black church was the NAACP on its knees.

We know in retrospect that this novel, based on a manuscript completed in 1957, was looking forward over a series of events that became known to us as the Civil Rights Movement. Lee's characters have another name for these events that are unfolding, an apt and revealing one. They call it a second "Reconstruction." This refers to the time after the Civil War when an interracial group of legislators gained power through the electoral process in many Southern states and introduced many reforms, but which was violently ended by a campaign of assassinations and targeted violence by the Ku Klux Klan and other similar white supremacist forces against African Americans, especially politicians and teachers, and white Republican politicians. Jean Louise's uncle, Dr. Finch, says at one point, "I hope to God it'll be a comparatively bloodless Reconstruction this time." A few dozen people gave their lives for the fuller realization of freedom that came out of the Civil Rights Movement, or the Second Reconstruction: four young Baptist girls in Birmingham, Alabama; three civil rights workers in Mississippi; Medgar Evers; Martin Luther King, Jr.; and others. But most historians, including myself, think that there could have been a much higher level of violence, and we are very thankful that these momentous changes were not accompanied by a higher level of violence. So, one could say, that Dr. Finch's, and Harper Lee's, hopes were largely realized.

I highly recommend this book. In some respects, it may not be up to the literary standards of its blockbuster predecessor, "To Kill a Mockingbird." But I have been writing here about the historical dimensions of the work, and I'll let others comment on the comparative literary dimensions. There is a vividness, a complexity, of presentation in this work that can provide us with a good deal of insight into some very important times, roughly sixty years ago. That reason alone is enough reason to read this book. In this work, we get to see literary characters change their views in response to real events. We may not always admire the ways that they change; the narrator certainly does not admire much of the change she sees. But an interesting part of the novel occurs when one of the other characters stimulates the narrator to reflect on her own changes in the aftermath of the 1954 US Supreme Court decision. So she is not the constant pole around which others are shifting; we are all responding to the events, small or momentous, that we experience around us.

Stephen W. Angell is Earlham School of Religion's Geraldine Leatherock Professor of Quaker Studies. His most recent book, Early Quakers and their Theological Thought: 1647-1723, is available here

Monday, July 13, 2015

Reflections on Intermountain Yearly Meeting 2015

ESR student Tracy Davis of Durango Friends Meeting shares her thoughts about Intermountain Yearly Meeting's 2015 Annual Gathering in Haiku form:

Again, at Ghost Ranch
Intermountain had Meeting
joyous gathering

ESR alums
Now functioning as leaders
present together

Bible worship share
photography, metaphor . . .
Weighty Rob Pierson 

Peter, Caroline
and Rosalee Anderson
Young Friends inspired

Trayce Peterson
invited Friends of color 
sharing at table

About our dear school
providing information
Tracy did her best

Staying connected
prayer and celebration
desert heaven sent

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Gift of Blessing

ESR Dean Jay Marshall delivered the following message during Earlham School of Religion Worship on April 29, 2015:

Many years back as I was sorting out what committed faithfulness looked like and what a call to ministry might involve, a group of charismatic Quakers were making their way around North Carolina, including the meeting where I was raised. Some good came from the affiliation, but theology, in part around the theme of blessing, ultimately caused me to seek elsewhere.
During an evening prayer session where one of the leaders was teaching about God’s love and abundance, she talked at length about how God wanted to bless us all. We had to be willing to stand on his Word and claim those blessings. Just that week, the devil had tempted her to unfaithfulness. In her recent prayers she had prayed for the new car she needed. Not just any car, but a Mercedes. (‘Cause nobody appreciates a sick ride like Jesus!) Maybe she had overdosed on Janis Joplin! That week she had seen a Mercedes that could have been hers and she was about to claim it as her own when she remembered --- she had wished for a red Mercedes, and this one was blue. Clearly this was a test of her trust in God to bless her with what she had requested.
I like songs with a bit of energy to them, which means when it comes to religious songs, I often like some of what comes out of the African-American Gospel tradition. Sometimes though, even when I like the rhythm I have to chuckle at the theology. One that is on my playlist currently is titled, “God’s Got a Blessing with your Name Written on it.” I don’t mind that sentiment. I even hope it is true. But one live recording I’ve heard includes the singer talking over an instrumental refrain and describing that blessing as tall, dark and handsome, about 6’4” to be exact.  I guess the heart wants what the heart wants!

I share these two anecdotes to illustrate that there is a personal dimension to blessing, and it frequently is tied to what we desire or what we lack. The provision of those things is one way that some individuals, both ancient and contemporary, interpret confirmation that God loves them and has blessed them. I’ve got to admit that some biblical passages encourage that thinking.  God’s blessing of creation in Genesis may focus on goodness, life, and new beginnings, but when God covenants with Abram, the visible parts of that blessing are offspring, land, a great name, plus blessing his good relations and cursing of his enemies. Land and children. Signs of wealth. As simply as that, blessing as the accumulation of things one desires to have a full life—not to mention status—is born. In the next generations mothers will scheme to position their sons to receive that blessing; brothers will deceive one another and even wrestle with the Divine in an effort to obtain what the other has. There is power in the blessing.
The beatitudes offer a corrective to the idea of blessing as excessive abundance by claiming that happiness exists in many of the conditions we ordinarily seek to avoid. Mourning, weeping, hunger. Those don’t typically make our bucket list of things to do before we die, though we seldom escape all of them.  But the NT also feeds this fascination with blessing as abundance. When Paul urges the Corinthians to give cheerfully, part of his persuasion is the assertion that “. . . God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.” (2Co 9:8 NRS) That sets the bar high for God to provide and for us to share.
High bar or not, I am a fan of the concept of blessing, but I acknowledge that thinking about it with so many variations is complicated -- particularly as we try to detach from consumerism and struggle with the realities of inequality.
          It is important not to hijack the idea of blessing to justify divine endorsement of our petty whims or excesses or to permit the lack of stuff to convince us that we must not measure up in God’s eyes. However, blessing is virtually inseparable from the idea of favor, protection, and provision whether in the story or proclamation. But with a bit reframing, even that doesn’t have to appear overly egocentric. Indeed, blessings are deeply intertwined with ideas like affirmation, courage, and hope—all of which fortify us as we undertake the journeys to which God is calling us.
When I reframe blessing, I start at the beginning of the biblical story where God paused, took a look at creation and said, “Now this is good.” I am pulled further into the story as it introduces the idea that God creates humanity in the image of the Divine. Whatever exactly that may mean, it suggests that blessing begins with being. Being made, and being in resemblance to God. All of us can be, because each of us is! I intentionally opt for “being made” rather than “being chosen,” as often happens in OT conversations. It dawned on me one day that even though Esau was duped of the blessing, when he and Jacob meet again years later, Esau, too, has received his own abundance in the form of what God promised Abraham and Sarah—he too was blessed. What a wonderful thing to realize that God’s care and provision can’t be corralled or monopolized by a select group. God’s blessing belongs to no one exclusively to withhold from others. Rather, it is woven into creation and being.
When blessing begins with being rather than the accumulation of things, it is no longer limited to or governed by wealth or material abundance. We are blessed because we are, for such is the gift of life itself. And what we are is part of this greater menagerie of Divine creativity, which presents us myriad possibilities of how to be, to relate, to contribute to the grand design. That is to say, in being blessed we are to become part of the blessing.

That was part of the message to Abram, as I read Genesis 12. He himself was not only a recipient of blessing, but he was to be a blessing so that others were blessed through him. So if blessing begins with being it continues as disposition. That is to say, blessing affects how we are in the world. It influences our posture toward the rest of creation. It affects how we choose to encounter it.  That has been brought home to me repeatedly by travel and conversation with persons in Central America. Initially it is difficult not to be shocked by the poverty one witnesses, but I was quickly, equally, struck by the joy so many possessed—their confidence in God’s care for them, their persistent hope, and the hospitality they demonstrated during my stay in their homes. They may pray for their next meal rather than a Mercedes, but they feel no less blessed and loved by God. God’s blessing is not responsible for creating the categories of have and have nots, but our sharing of the blessing is.

I consider blessing to be a subversive act. The disposition that chooses to encounter the other with affirmation and hope, instilling courage, is, in its own way, a subversive act. It challenges and interrupts an established system of inauthenticity, of detachment, of greed, and numerous other manifestations of a broken world in need of redemption. It intentionally seeks to inject goodwill, kindness, and hospitality into daily encounters. It doesn’t pretend that nothing is wrong; it maintains that what is doesn’t have to continue unchanged. That may sound minor, but it is a significant deviation from the norm that so many routinely experience. That disposition is a gift of blessing and it is one that you and I can offer to each other and to the world.
Over time, this disposition of blessing will assume the appearance of commitment, as our habitual blessing of others through the offering of our gifts, our words, our kindnesses, ourselves, invests and reinvests into the ongoing work of the Spirit that constantly moves among us. In words and in witness, in the affirmation we offer, in the hope we instill, our blessing one another conveys power that can break open both giver and receiver in surprising ways to the presence and accompaniment of God as these encounters touch the deep places of our lives.
There is a story in Acts 3 where daily a lame man is laid by the Beautiful Gate to ask for money. One day Peter and John pass by and the lame man makes his usual request for alms. Peter responds "Silver and gold I do not have, but such as I have I give to you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk." (Acts 3:6, NRS). That is the secret of the blessed life. We are not disabled by what we lack nor are we expected to give what we don’t have; rather, we must dare to bless one another with what is in our power to share.

The worship service concluded with Jay and the whole ESR community offering a blessing to graduating student Simon Thiongo (center) for his continued ministry and his new memoir, "An Amazing Journey of Survival."

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Sabbath Timeliness

Bethany Theological Seminary and Earlham School of Religion's Seminaries Librarian Jane Pinzino delivered the following message in ESR worship on Tuesday, February 3, 2015: 

Early one Friday evening, when I was a graduate student living in Philadelphia, I was walking home from the pub with Lana, a classmate in the program. As we strolled across the Walnut Street bridge, I was discussing in detail my views about a class in medieval paleography that Lana and were enrolled in. I was verbally processing the work of the week now done, continuing the trajectory from our Happy Hour conversation.  As daylight waned Lana became more and more quiet, apparently distracted, and finally visibly concerned.  Lana turned to me and politely asked whether we might move along more quickly, and I often remember her explanation, “The sun is going down and when it does, I put down my backpack.” I looked at her backpack and I looked at the sinking sun, and we picked up the pace.

We proceeded in silence while I digested this unexpected information about Lana’s way of life. Lana then shared with me, “And this is why I don’t normally go to Happy Hour on Friday with all our friends in the program; it’s not because I don’t want to be with all of you; it’s because I celebrate the Sabbath.” Lana rested at home from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. In  a bit confusion on that Friday, I offered to Lana that I would carry her backpack myself, but that idea was unrealistic since I was also carrying a backpack heavy with books. And in fact, Lana preferred carrying her own load, she simply wanted to reach home to put her own backpack down in her place, and begin the Sabbath celebration, lighting candles and enjoying rest at the end of the school week.  As we now walked along Walnut more briskly, Lana went on to describe how she observed the Sabbath in her home by refraining from schoolwork and spending a day that celebrated, received and reflected. Lana loved graduate school and the creative processes that she engaged in all week long through her writing, presenting, discussing, organizing, teaching; all of which she lay down every Friday evening for a full 24 hour period. My walk home with Lana that day started my own journey of claiming Sabbath rest as a vital part of a productive, industrious, full and rich life.
As your librarian I recommend four books, all of which I draw upon for my own spirituality and for this message: 1) the classic work by Abraham Heschel, entitled “The Sabbath,” 2) a work by Wayne Muller, “Sabbath: Finding, Rest, Renewal and Delight in our Busy Lives,” 3) Wendell Berry’s, “This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems,” and 4) a book from self-improvement literature by Neil Fiore, “The Now Habit: A Strategic Programfor Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play.” Through my practice, I learned years later one of the things that Lana was calling me to, on that Friday--what is called in Jewish tradition “Sabbath of the tongue,” which means not talking about work all the time. Rather, talk about the sunset, talk about wine, candles and flowers, share joys, abstain from grievances, and don’t talk at all, invite silence. In the Sabbath we consider not the results of our creation, but the mystery of creation itself.

We live in a culture that not only overworks, but may be unclear about what it means to rest. After the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt, they wandered their way to Mt. Sinai where the Lord delivered the Ten Commandments in their hearing.  And they distinctly heard God say, in the context of their new precious freedom, you are no longer slaves, celebrate the Sabbath Day and keep it precious.  We probably don’t need reminding that we should rest, but we may need support knowing understanding what rest might look or feel like.  From Abraham Heschel: “People of our time are losing the power of celebration. Instead of celebrating we seek to be amused or entertained. Celebration is an active state, an act of expressing reverence or appreciation. To be entertained is a passive state--it is to receive pleasure afforded by an amusing act or a spectacle . . . celebration is an encounter, giving attention to the transcendent meaning of one’s actions.”
Lana, as member of a Jewish community both local and global, had extensive law and literature to drawn upon to define work and rest.  While I have figured out a Sabbath practice for myself, centered in my home, it is mostly independent from a practicing community. A couple, or a couple with children, who relax together on the weekend may have a unique Sabbath celebration, even if they do not use the word “Sabbath,” but what I am unsure of, and remain unsure of, and ask your response about is, “While we may all agree that it is important to observe some semblance of Sabbath; is it important to observe the Sabbath, or to observe it all together?” The Orthodox Jewish community is in it together in ways and with a level of mutual support that really precludes the possibility of violating the Sabbath.  I have read articles and stories about Jews coming together for Shabbat who were otherwise complete strangers—in an airport--but in the Sabbath practice they became family. “The soul cannot celebrate alone,” Heschel says.
What about pastors and ministers whose work it is to lead worship on Saturday and Sunday? Really, when do they celebrate the Sabbath?  As you know, to be a professional minister, or an amateur one, or even an active church member, you work on the Sabbath.  Preparing sermons, teaching Sunday School, leading monthly meeting for business, building community; this is all work.  Ironically, it seems, those who may be most attuned to the spirituality of rest, are ones who may often find it lacking in their lives.
In the Pentateuch, according to Numbers 28:9, the Levite priests offered

two sacrifices every Sabbath, which doubled their regular daily workload of a

sacrifice each day; and according to Leviticus 24:8 the priests also refreshed the

altar bread on every Sabbath. Now the Levite priests did not own a parcel of

land in Canaan like the other tribes of Israel; their inheritance was God; ideally

they did not work the land like their fellow Israelites; they took care of the

Temple and worship. The priesthood in ancient Israel had their own set of rules.

And pastors today help to provide a Sabbath day for others, and may be left to

figure out on their own their Sabbath rest.

In my personal practice, on Friday evening, I come in the front door and I place my keys in the Shabbos box.  This is my Shabbos box that I brought in from home. A Shabbos box is something that Jewish families often have, and at the outset of the Sabbath they put in it whatever represents work; for me it’s my keys; some people put in their cell phones, or a list of work responsibilities that they will not do on Shabbat.  At the conclusion of Shabbat, you take the items out of the box, and work now resumes. I place my keys in the Shabbos box every day when I come home, and in addition to never losing my keys anymore, I leave the work day behind and frame my mind for rest.

Questions arise in our time and place: How do I rest at home when I work out of my home? How do we define our “home”?  How do we define our “family”? And how long to celebrate the Sabbath each week? Sundown Friday to sundown Saturday? One Jewish family told me, “We would, we really would, but the kids have all their music lessons and sports practices on Saturday. We can’t deprive the kids of their activities; the kids want to be involved with everything that goes along with Saturdays in the U.S.” So I follow the simple lead of this family, the Kasimow family: Friday evenings are sacred.  I spend them at home.  When I lived near the Kasimows, I often celebrated Shabbat with them.  My friends here, mostly non-Jewish, no longer expect me to do anything outside the home on Friday evenings; my response is “Shabbat Shalom.”
I bear witness for my household: if housecats were theologians, my two kitties would be sure to claim, “All of life is a Sabbath.” My family on Friday evenings are my loved ones, including those in heaven above, my ancestors, angels and saints with whom I have shared love.  I do refrain from my occupational work on Saturdays, though on Saturday I am not quiet in the way I embrace silence on Friday evenings.
Beyond Friday evening, we may cultivate Sabbath moments throughout the week. I celebrate the Sabbath and receive rest most powerfully through gardening. I grow flowers; I lose track of time when I dig and plant my flowers, when I enter into the processes of nature, watering and feeding, watching the buds come to life, the unfolding of petals.  I meet God in the garden. My favorite of the resurrection narratives is that found in John, where Mary Magdalene finds Jesus walking among the flowers, so at ease and present that she mistakes him for a gardener. Wendell Berry talks about that experience of Sabbath time, when time stretches to its fullest within us: “There is a day when the road neither comes nor goes, and the way is not a way but a place.” That place is home, where we celebrate the Sabbath.
          God knows however, I’m not fond of weeding, although it may be necessary for the health of the garden.  I procrastinate on the weeding.  Weeding is work, and not gratifying work, as far as I can tell. I dislike weeding, and I can’t even find someone to pay to do the weeding. When I weed my garden, I am conscious that I am working. My back hurts, my brow sweats, my labors don’t resolve anything; there are always more weeds. I console myself, I will just weed for 15 minutes each day; 15 minutes feels like an hour. When I water and walk among my flowers however, my heart is at rest.  That is a Sabbath moment. For Berry, “In time we are present only by forgetting time.”  Heschel defines Sabbath time in this way: “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.”
And for all of us who are procrastinators, one of the gifts of taking time off weekly, punctually and without feeling guilty, i.e. without judging oneself to be a slacker--to take time not to do, but simply to be--is that it builds within a subconscious urge to work.  I anticipate with pleasure the return to work. Work, the return to work, the conclusion of the Sabbath, releases energy—I get my keys and list out of the Shabbos box, ready now to do what now needs to be done to sustain daily life. Berry offers it as an allegory of a turtle:
“Every afternoon the old turtle crawls up out of the river along the trunk of a drowned tree that slants out of the watery dark into the sun and the wind. In the wind and the sun he dries and ceases to shine. He grows warm. He looks slowly this way and that way. He thinks slowly, and his thought passes from satiety to hunger. And so he lets himself sink back down out of the air and light.”
In the deep of winter, most plants, flowers and trees, the soil itself goes through a dormancy period in order to flower and bear fruit in their time. The dormancy period of rest is one in which nutrients come together and penetrate the plant’s internal systems towards renewed productivity.  When a gardener plants bulbs in the fall, tulips, daffodils, crocuses, she must do so in a timing that ensures that the bulb has sufficient dormancy time in freezing weather before sending forth its green shoots to bloom in the spring.  We too require periods of lying fallow, resting and coalescing energies within, cultivating inner spaces where we find the energies of heart and the powers of peace.  The more we engage in unrelenting busyness, the more brittle and shallow our roots may become.

At this time of year, when the garden is frozen, I tend to the outdoor creatures that visit my yard in winter; this year I have even more birds on these cold days than I did any day over the warm and green summer.
A poem from Wendell Berry:
“The sounds of engines leave the air. The Sunday morning silence comes at last. At last I know the presence of the world made without hands, the creatures that have come to be out of their absence. Calls of flicker and jay fill the clear air. Titmice and chickadees feed among the green and the dying leaves. Gratitude for the gifts of all the living and the unliving, gratitude which is the greatest gift, quietest of all, passes to me through the trees.”
I am full of anticipation for the arrival of spring and the planting season. Anticipation for the Sabbath is one of the things that makes the whole six days worth it. Sabbath time is a taste of eternal time. “Eternity is not infinity. It is not a long time. It does not begin at the end of time. It does not run parallel to time. In its entirety it always was. In its entirety it will always be. It is entirely present always.” Shabbat Shalom. Let us lift up our hearts in open worship.