Community of Christ

From time to time at Plymouth we sing the hymn Community of Christ, which appears on page 502 of our hymnal. It begins:

Community of Christ, who make the cross your own,
live out your creed and risk your life for God alone:
the God who wears your face, to whom all worlds belong,
whose children are of every race and every song.

The poet of this text, prolific hymn writer Shirley Erena Murray, passed away on January 25, 2020. Born in 1931 in Cockroft, New Zealand, she wrote hymns that have been translated into many languages, are sung around the world, and which have appeared in more than 140 hymnal collections. The hymn continues:

Community of Christ, look past the church’s door
and see the homeless, see the hungry, and the poor.
Take hands with the oppressed, the jobless in your street,
take towel and water, that you wash your neighbor’s feet.

Shirley was passionate about social justice. It is totally characteristic that Shirley’s published obituary stated, “In lieu of flowers, donations please to Amnesty International or the Christian World Service.”

I never met Shirley Erena Murray, though she was a great friend of the Hymn Society and was named a Fellow of that organization several years ago, but her work continues to influence mine. Her down-to-earth language and clear vision of the world around her repeatedly challenges us to live out our faith. Yet she could be whimsical: her text Upside Down Christmas reminds us that while we, in the northern hemisphere, may be celebrating Christmas “in the bleak mid-winter,” half of the world is celebrating the nativity under the summer sun.

Carol our Christmas, an upside down Christmas:
snow is not falling and trees are not bare.
Carol the summer and welcome the Christ Child,
warm in our sunshine and sweetness of air.

Sing of the gold and the green and the sparkle,
water and river and lure of the beach.
Sing in the happiness of open spaces,
sing a nativity summer can reach!

Another one of her widely sung hymns is For Everyone Born, written in 1998, with its acknowledgement of God’s equal love for all.

For everyone born, a place at the table,
for everyone born, clean water and bread,
a shelter, a space, a safe place for growing,
for everyone born, a star overhead,
and God will delight when we are creators
of justice and joy, compassion and peace…

In subsequent verses, she goes on to call for a place at the table “For women and men…”, “For young and for old…”, “For just and for unjust…”, “For gay and for straight…” – Shirley challenges us to think beyond conventional wisdom.

The next time we sing Community of Christ at Plymouth, give a thought for the lovely Kiwi lady who wrote it, and whose voice for social justice will be in our ears for many years to come. The final verse of Community of Christ reads:

When menace melts away, so shall God’s will be done,
the climate of the world be peace and Christ its Sun;
our currency be love and kindliness our law,
our food and faith be shared as one forevermore.

Rest in peace, Shirley Erena Murray.

Community of Christ, © 1992 Hope Publishing Company
For Everyone Born, © 1998 Hope Publishing Company
Carol Our Christmas © 1992 Hope Publishing Company

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The year in review for thoughtful Christians (you might have missed something)

2019

You thought you were paying attention, but you may have missed a few things in 2019. While CNN’s “Year in Review” will catch you up on the major news stories, it will not tell you how thoughtful Christians responded to those stories. If you consider yourself a thoughtful Christian, then this is the Year in Review for you.

January 1
The Netflix series Tidying Up with Marie Kondo prescribed an order for moving through a household and deciding what to keep: clothes, books, papers, sentimental items, miscellaneous items. This is the tidying up list for churches: ancient pageant costumes, old hymnals, business meeting minutes, untunable upright pianos, church directories from the 1990s.

January 3
The year started with a partial government shutdown. President Donald Trump wanted $5.6 billion for a wall to keep refugees out. The Democrats gave him money for border security. The person wiping the tears off the Statue of Liberty worked without pay.

January 3
Pope Francis sent a letter to United States bishops pointing out that they handled the recent sex abuse scandals poorly. He said that blaming each other and covering up is not helpful. Some blamed the pope for blaming the bishops.

January 8
A report came out that the United States’ carbon dioxide emissions in 2018 had the biggest increase in eight years. The U.S. is getting literal heat for leaving the Paris climate agreement. Several church staff meetings included this conversation:
“We need to do something in worship about climate change. When is Earth Day?”
“It’s the day after Easter.”
“Maybe next year.”

January 8
A report said that millions of Americans think they have food allergies, but do not. The number of churches serving the “gluten-free body of Christ” continues to increase.

January 16
Jilmar Ramos-Gomez was born in Grand Rapids and fought in Afghanistan, but the local sheriff’s office turned him over to ICE. Conservative ministers continued looking for Bible verses opposing immigration, but did not find any.

January 23
A new report stated that Islam is on track to surpass Christianity as the world’s biggest religion. This news led evangelicals to a greater appreciation for the Catholic approach to birth control.

January 28
After a Fox & Friends report that lawmakers in six states had introduced measures to permit public school children to study the Bible, unemployed seminary graduates who used to believe in the separation of church and state updated their resumes.

January 31
According to the Pew Research Center, religious people are more likely to exercise, but are not more likely to have a healthy body mass index. Religious people exercise more and are fatter than regular people. Further research is needed on the effects of church picnics, sitting in pews, and on the percentage of church people who lie about exercising.

February 22
Tim Tebow made Run the Race “the Christian movie he always wanted to see.” Sixty percent of the critics on “Rotten Tomatoes” said it was a Christian movie they did not want to see.

February 26
The United Methodist Church voted against allowing LGBT clergy and same-sex marriage. The “Traditional Plan” upholds and expands the church’s 1972 stance that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The “Traditional Plan” does not mention the tradition of polygamy found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.

March 1
For more than a decade, the interfaith group “No More Deaths” has been placing food, clothing and water in the Sonoran Desert to help migrants who have crossed into Arizona from Mexico. They cite Jesus’ command to give water to the thirsty. A federal judge found volunteers guilty of entering a national refuge without a permit and abandonment of property. He sentenced them to 15 months unsupervised probation and fined each $250. The judge did not mention Jesus during sentencing.

March 7
David Brooks’ column “The Case for Reparations: A Slow Convert to the Cause” made many white people think seriously about their feelings for David Brooks.

March 11
Barbara Brown Taylor’s Holy Envy called readers to a greater appreciation of world religions. Someone somewhere began working on Holy Arrogance, which calls readers to a greater appreciation of what they already thought.

March 11
Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, sent a letter to Congress indicating that she wants religious schools to be eligible for federal funding and grants. This clears the way for Americans who would never give money to Oral Roberts, Bob Jones or Brigham Young to contribute to Oral Roberts, Bob Jones and Brigham Young.

March 13
Researchers warned that religious self-flagellation poses a cancer risk. Scientists argue, “It is likely that either sharing blood-stained blades, contact of infected blood with open wounds, or with infected medical equipment resulted in (the cancer’s) transmission.” Some questioned whether those who practice self-flagellation were likely to read the report in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Emerging Infectious Diseases Journal.

March 18
After 50 people were killed in terror attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declared, “Within ten days of this horrific act we will have announced reforms which will, I believe, make our community safer.” She drew a comparison to Australia, which moved rapidly to enact strict gun laws after its own mass shooting in 1996. Lawmakers in the United States had no response because they were on spring break.

March 25
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said discrimination in adoption services, even for religious objections, “is illegal, no matter the rationale.” Discrimination in religious services continues to be legal, no matter how stupid the rationale.

March 26
North Dakota Gov. Burgum lifted the ban on Sunday morning shopping. Under the old “blue laws,” businesses could not open until noon. Ministers in North Dakota know blue laws are goofy, but do not really need the competition from Target.

March 29
The San Antonio City Council voted to prevent Chick-fil-A from opening in the city’s airport. The Council did not like Chick-fil-A’s donations to groups opposing same sex marriages, but most voters in Texas love Chick-fil-A’s spicy deluxe sandwich and do not care for couples that are spicy in the wrong way. Youth ministers in San Antonio were disappointed that their chicken sandwiches were once again a question of faith.

April 4
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints repealed its 2015 ruling that banned baptisms for children of gay parents until they were 18. The religious world was shocked to learn that there are gay Mormon parents.

April 15
A disastrous fire broke out at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, causing widespread damage. In the United States, church building and grounds committees added “check the fire extinguishers” to their agenda.

April 17
Mahavir Jayanti, the most important holiday for followers of Jainism, was observed in India. Lord Mahavira, the last of the 24 Jain deities, was born on April 17. Americans who disparage this holiday need to remember that in the United States April 17 is – you can look this up – National Cheeseball Day, Nothing Like a Dame Day and Blah Blah Blah Day.

April 18
According to a Gallup poll, millennials are the least likely generation to belong to a religious institution. The number of people who thought this was news was also at an all-time low.

April 19
The bees living on the roof of Notre Dame Cathedral survived the fire. The beekeeper called it “a miracle.” The priests at the Cathedral would have preferred a different “miracle.”

May 5
Pete Buttigieg went to Sunday school with former President Jimmy Carter at Maranatha Baptist Church. It seems possible that Buttigieg is the first gay, Episcopalian, Harvard graduate, Indiana mayor, navy veteran to attend a Baptist church in Plains, Georgia.

May 9
Pope Francis released new Vatican laws requiring clergy members to report allegations of sexual abuse and attempted cover-ups. The document is titled “Vos estis lux mundi,” meaning “You are the light of the world.” The laws did not include the phrase “potius sero quam numquam,” meaning “better late than never.”

May 15
The International Day of Families promoted awareness of issues relating to families. In nations around the world, people explored the 2019 theme of “Families and Climate Action.” In the U.S., Christian families spent the day drinking bottled water, driving everywhere and cranking up the AC.

May 18
500 million Buddhists celebrated Buddha’s birthday. What did Christians give one another for Buddha’s birthday? Nothing, which was appropriate.

May 28
In 2018 the Southern Baptist Convention recorded the fewest baptisms in a year since World War II. The record for baptisms was set in 1972. That year – which included the re-election of Richard Nixon and the Christmas bombing of North Vietnam – must have been the most spiritual year in U.S. history.

June 4
Muslims broke their fast at the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Fasting is a spiritual ritual when people reconnect with God, engage in prayer and study the Quran. Some Christian parents explained Ramadan to their children as a month of Vacation Bible School without Oreos.

June 6
Medical debt has become a target for church philanthropy. Pathway Church in Wichita, Kansas, spent $22,000 to wipe out $2.2 million in debt for 1,600 people. A church member somewhere feared this kind of compassion will keep his church from getting a new sprinkler system.

June 10
The Vatican announced that gender cannot be changed. People whose gender has been changed announced that the Vatican cannot be changed.

June 17
In an effort to strengthen the church in remote Amazon regions where clergy members are scarce, the Vatican is considering allowing older married men to be ordained and assigned there. Many of the women married to men who want to be priests assigned to remote Amazon regions feel that they can serve as single men.

June 19
According to an international survey, roughly 7 in 10 people say they trust scientists and want to learn more about science and health. Roughly 3 in 10 people should not be surveyed on anything of importance.

June 20
The Supreme Court reversed a lower-court ruling that the 40-foot Maryland Peace Cross, erected to honor fallen soldiers in World War I, is unconstitutional. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote the dissenting opinion, pointed out, “The cross was never perceived as an appropriate headstone or memorial for Jewish soldiers.” Jewish soldiers who fought in World War I were unavailable for comment.

July 8
The Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem has long been a source of tension between the Christian churches sharing it. The leaders of the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox churches signed an agreement to renovate the church’s sewage system. Some observers consider this a sign of growing cooperation, but custodians do not consider broken toilets a partisan issue.

July 25
During a phone call between President Trump and Ukraine’s president, Trump seemed to urge Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son for corruption. On July 28, some clever minister prayed, “God, investigate our hearts for corruption. May your Spirit be our whistleblower.”

August 21
President Trump thanked a conspiracy theorist for saying Jews in Israel love the president “like he’s the King of Israel” and accused Jewish voters of disloyalty if they vote for Democrats. The King of Israel did not respond.

September 1
A Mississippi venue cancelled a couple’s wedding plans after discovering the couple was a black man and a white woman. A spokesperson explained, “We don’t do gay or mixed race weddings because of our Christian race – I mean, our Christian belief.” Reporters failed to ask what they would have said to Moses and his Ethiopian bride.

September 1
The mayor of Odessa, Texas, blamed video games for the most recent mass shooting. The mayor did not explain why other countries with video games do not have mass shootings.

September 4
Someone drew a circle on a National Hurricane Center map to include Alabama so the president would not have to admit he was wrong. The makers of Sharpies thought this was a good idea.

September 4
Marianne Williamson said, “Millions of people today are praying that (hurricane) Dorian turn away from land, and treating those people with mockery or condescension because they believe it could help is part of how the overly secularized Left has lost lots of voters.” Lots of voters continued to treat Marianne Williamson with mockery or condescension.

September 15
The patriarch of the Maronite Church declared 34 couples “husbands and wives” in Bkerke, Lebanon. The mass ceremony minimized the cost of weddings. In massive numbers, fathers of prospective brides across the United States googled “Maronite Church” and “cost of mass weddings.”

September 27
Kanye West released “Jesus is King” to the befuddlement of many. West’s portrayal of himself as Jesus with a crown of thorns on the cover of Rolling Stone would seem problematic for white evangelicals. His embrace of President Trump makes the African American community skeptical. His self-absorbed persona makes those who care for the marginalized confused. But West has struck up a friendship with Jerry Falwell Jr., so this could work.

September 27
Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress used the Bible to debunk the science of climate change saying, “Somebody needs to read poor Greta (Thunberg) Genesis Chapter 9 and tell her next time she worries about global warming just look at a rainbow. That’s God’s promise that the polar ice caps aren’t going to melt and flood the world again.” The polar ice caps continued to melt.

October 3
Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin encouraged students to participate in “Bring Your Bible to School Day.” In 2017, he signed legislation making Kentucky the first state to allow public schools to offer Bible literacy classes. Sarcastic Ohioans suggested Kentucky observe “Read a Book at School Day” and allow public schools to offer literacy classes.

October 11
Abuse survivor and victims’ advocate Rachael Denhollander pointed out that David raped Bathsheba. This surprised many Christians who were unfamiliar with the Bible.

October 15
The Democratic Primary Debate lasted three hours and exceeded 30,000 words, almost none of them about religion. Elizabeth Warren, a Methodist, has repeatedly reflected on her past as a teacher, but does not mention that she taught Sunday school. Pete Buttigieg seems to be the most willing to mention religion on the campaign trail. Southern evangelicals wish someone other than the gay Yankee would acknowledge the importance of faith.

October 23
The Beyoncé Mass, which features black women singers, dancers and ministers, is a complete church service with a sermon, scripture readings and the Lord’s Supper. White ministers are considering The Bruce Springsteen Mass, The Taylor Swift Mass and The Garth Brooks Mass.

November 25
Lawyers for cannabis churches argue that marijuana is a sacrament, but The Sacramental Life Church of Redondo Beach found itself in trouble with the deputy city attorney who said: “In the city’s opinion this isn’t a sacrament of the church. This is clearly a marijuana dispensary. The Catholic church doesn’t charge you to drink the wine.” Young evangelicals were shocked to learn Catholics get real wine.

December 3
Ministers looked forward to the year that Giving Tuesday falls on a Sunday.

December 4
North Korea warned the U.S. of a possible “Christmas gift” if it doesn’t meet an end-of-year deadline for concessions. North Korea understands what a real “War on Christmas” would look like.

December 10
House Democrats unveiled two articles of impeachment against President Trump. Trump had two words for all of this: “witch hunt.” Trump continues to poll poorly among witches.

As this year draws to a close, what can we expect in 2020? Liberal Christians will continue to vote for Democrats who do not like Christians. Conservative Christians will continue to vote for Republicans who do not think like Christians. The religious movement to address climate change will remain smaller than the religious movement to ignore climate change.

Thoughtful Christians will try to make sense of it all. They will keep trying to be the church, and that should be news.

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Remembering 9/11 and Making Meaning of It

September 11 is a hard day for religious people.  Christians pray for God to stop suffering.

In the sixteenth century, Teresa of Avila sold everything she had to build an orphanage for needy children.  A flood came and destroyed the orphanage.  She rebuilt it.  A storm destroyed it a second time.  She rebuilt it.  Then a fire burned the orphanage.

Teresa prayed, “God, if this is how you treat your friends it’s no wonder that you have so few.”

We try to be God’s friends.  We know from painful experience that God does not protect us from all harm.  We share our sorrow.  Sometimes we need to cry.  We cried when we saw the plane slamming into the second tower as smoke poured from the first; the buildings vanishing in a gray cloud; survivors stumbling through the streets covered with ashes.  We will never be the same as we were before that day.  We have scars.  We have wounds that will not heal.

There is a story in the Gospel of Luke about a tower falling and killing innocent people.  Jesus’ followers are upset.  They come and ask Jesus, “Why did this happen?”

I wish Jesus would put his arms around them and comfort them, but he does not.  Instead he says, “We’re all going to die.  You need to take care of the days you’ve been given.”

The disciples remembered Jesus’ words because they are not what we expect.  Instead of comfort, Jesus offers a warning.  Instead of reassurance, Jesus turns the question on its head.

When 9-11 happened we asked, “What does it mean when tragedy strikes?”  For many of us, years have to pass before we can ask “What does it means when tragedy doesn’t come?  Why do we receive these ordinary days?”

Feeling the frailty of our lives on September 11, on this holy day, helps us hear God invite us to see that no day is to be taken for granted.

In 2011, Candy Chang, an artist in New Orleans, lost someone she loved and fell into depression.  As a way of dealing with her grief, she used chalkboard paint on the side of an abandoned house.  She stenciled a grid with the beginning of a sentence, “Before I die I want to ______.”   Fifty times.

Anybody walking by could pick up a piece of chalk and share a dream.  By the next day, the wall was full of responses.  Before I die I want to . . . Play the piano.  Sail around the world.  Plant a tree.  Swim without holding my nose.  Eat more of everything.

Over one thousand Before I Die walls have been created in 35 languages and 70 countries.  I stood in front of one of those walls and thought about the people whose goal before they die is nothing more than to . . . Do a cartwheel.  Swim in a pool of golden retriever puppies.  Go to a World Series game at Wrigley Field.  Proudly wear a bikini.  Get my picture in The New York Post.

Those answers are interesting, but because we remember the pain of 9-11, because we live in a world filled with tragedy, we should do better.  Before I die I want to . . .  Care for my family.  Care for someone else’s family.  Work for justice.  Remember those who grieve.  Comfort the broken-hearted.  Love someone enough to weep when they weep.  Show someone who has almost given up how to hope again.  Give God my sorrows and my dreams.

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How Churches Contribute to Anti-Semitism

The shooter in the synagogue in Poway, California, in April turned out to be a member of an Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  The church released a statement: “We are wounded to the core that such an evil could have gone out from our community.  Such hatred has no place in any part of our beliefs and practices, for we seek to shape our whole lives according to the love and gospel of Jesus Christ.”

“Wounded to the core” is a good start, but where is the word of repentance?  Where is the self-examination that leads to change and different outcomes?  Churches do not often think about how they encourage anti-Semitism.

Harassment of Jews is increasing worldwide.  The U.K. has recorded its highest number of anti-Semitic attacks in each of the last three years.  In the U.S. more than half of religious hate crimes are aimed at Jews, even though Jews represent less than 2% of the population.

The church has contributed a particularly ugly strain of anti-Semitism.  In the twelfth century, Christians came up with the horrible idea of blood libel.  This lie was that Jews murdered Christian children to use their blood for ritual purposes.  On as many as a hundred occasions Christians massacred Jews in response to the disappearance of a child.

Martin Luther, who may be the most important figure in the last 500 years of Christian history, was anti-Semitic.  He wrote a treatise, The Jews and Their Lies, which includes the line “we are at fault in not slaying them.”  Historians tend to say that Luther was great except for his anti-Semitism—which is embarrassing for the historians.  You cannot be great and anti-Semitic.

A line can be drawn from Martin Luther’s influence to the Holocaust.  Centuries of Christian anti-Semitism made Hitler possible.  In 1936, the Baptist World Alliance met in Berlin under the banner of the swastika and received greetings from Hitler.  Baptists returned to the United States to report on the wonderful things happening in Germany.

The Catholic Church played a role in the rise of Nazism.  John Cornwall’s biography of Pius 12 was titled Hitler’s Pope.  The church has not just been on the wrong side of history, but on the wrong side of Christianity.

Most churches do not think they are anti-Semitic, but allow small attacks on Judaism that make larger attacks more likely.  Churches should ask, “Would an anti-Semitic person be uncomfortable in our congregation?” because every person in the church should know that anti-Semitism is antithetical to Christianity.

The names “Old Testament” and “New Testament” are themselves unfair, but some Christian preachers suggest the God of the Old Testament is different from the God of the New Testament, that the Old Testament God is angry while the New Testament God is merciful.  This is not true to Judaism or Christianity.

Christians often fail to recognize that the Gospels describe arguments within Judaism and not arguments between Judaism and Christianity—which did not yet exist.  Jesus is often set in opposition to first century Judaism as though Jesus was the only one who valued women or worked for the oppressed.  Jesus learned to value women and care for the poor from his Jewish context.  When Jesus said, “Love God” and “Love your neighbor,” he was quoting the Hebrew Scriptures.  Putting down Judaism to make Jesus look good makes no sense.

Christians need to see what is at stake.  Anti-Semitism is by definition a repudiation of Christianity as well as of Judaism, and an enemy of pluralism and democracy.  Religious intolerance breeds greater intolerance.

A Christian youth minister takes her middle schoolers to a service at a Jewish synagogue.  Afterwards a fourteen-year-old says, “They do what we do.  They sing.  They read the Bible.  They pray.  They stole our stuff.”

Churches can start with the simple step of remembering that Jesus was Jewish.  Christians should encourage an appreciation for Judaism, because the best Christian values are Jewish.

On most Sundays a few Jewish people worship with Plymouth Church.  You might think that would not change anything, but it does.  I show a greater respect for our Jewish heritage, quote more Jewish scholars, and speak out more often on incidents of anti-Semitism.  I have learned that I need to preach as though there are always Jewish people present.  Congregations need to listen as though there are always Jewish people present.

Last month I preached at Brooklyn Heights Synagogue on a Friday evening and Rabbi Serge Lippe preached at our church on a Sunday morning.  We did this because we need to learn more about and from each other.  I need this to be more Christian.

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Hungering for a Christian response to Mississippi’s veggie burger ban

Right now someone in Mississippi typing on the keyboard an announcement about the church cookout is being forced to take a controversial stand. Does the church follow the new state law or continue to serve “veggie burgers”?

How many churches will have the courage to throw a shroom burger on the grill? How many congregations will be torn apart by this divisive issue?

Mississippi lawmakers recently ended their long, statewide nightmare by banning the marketing of “veggie burgers.” They say the law will put an end to the unfortunate incidents that have ruined the lives of carnivorous consumers who have accidentally tasted tofu. Their argument centers on the thought-provoking question: Why do the makers of these “burgers” become vegan if the first thing they do is make them look and taste like meat?

Lawsuits from vegetarian-friendly groups are trying to overturn the restrictions on the use of meat-related terms for plant-based foods. The lawsuit denounces “meat label censorship” and claims, “The ban serves only to create consumer confusion where none previously existed.”

It is no longer enough for a label to say “100% vegan.” The law, which was passed in March and took effect on July 1, protects meat products (like hamburgers) from being mistaken for plant-based alternatives (like veggie burgers) by barring the use of the term “burger” to refer to veggie burgers. Perpetrators can go to prison – taken away in a patty wagon – for printing the words “veggie burger.”

Prisoner 1: “I robbed a bank. What are you in for?”
Carl Jr.: “I called a burger a Veg-It Thickburger.”

You might wonder if this is a real problem. Is the phrase “veggie burger” unclear? Haven’t we been calling them veggie, vegan and tofu burgers for decades?

Are people going to grocery stores, picking up veggie burgers without reading the label, throwing them on the grill, and biting into them before realizing they are eating vegan fare? God forbid a Mississippi resident should unwittingly taste a plant-based burger thinking they are eating highly processed meat filled with cancer causing nitrates. No one wants to be tricked into a healthier option.

This is complicated. What happens when food scientists come up with cell-based meat products which are identical to meat from animals but grown from stem cells in a factory? Will Jon Hamm and Kevin Bacon have to change their names? Did they consider going further and saying the term “burger” can only be applied to a grilled patty sandwich made in the traditional method within the Hamburg region of Germany? What about calling it a “plantwich” or “planturger”? Or, as a nod to presidential spelling, “hamberder”?

burgerDo people who buy a burger labeled “veggie burger” thinking it comes from a cow have a right to feel misled? Are reasonable consumers deceived by “meatless steaks” and “vegan jerky?” This law raises difficult questions for legislators concerned that hamburgers are not ham, hot dogs are not dogs, circus peanuts are not peanuts, Buffalo wings are not buffalo, and refried beans are not fried twice. What about almond milk?

A cynical person might think the meat industry wants to stifle competition. The Mississippi Cattlemen’s Association, which pushed for the new law, seems to have more political influence than vegans in Mississippi. The state is run by the party of small government, but being a vegetarian is as un-American as reducing gun violence.

Churches afraid to bite into the veggie burger issue could divert attention by pointing out a long list of problems bigger than lentil burgers that Mississippi lawmakers might have addressed. The state is ranked near the bottom in terms of poverty, high school graduation rates, infant mortality, racial conflict and obesity (which makes the new law ironic as well as silly). Arguing over what to call a plant-based burger should not be a legislative priority.

The church should see this as an opportunity to be courageous. Christians could protect the marginalized by defending “meatless meatballs,” “vegan bacon” and “beefless burgers.” How amazing would it be if Mississippi prisons were overrun with church people who put “veggie burgers” on the Wednesday night supper menu? How surprising would it be if a church put “Vegetarians are welcome” on the marquee?

Or maybe this story is a total nothingburger. Can I say that?

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The Power of Story

The headline on the Guardian website caught my eye:  Bread is Practically Sacred: How the Taste of Home Sustained My Refugee Parents.” The article that followed was an edited extract from the book My Parents: An Introduction/This Does Not Belong to You by Aleksandar Hemon. On the topic of bread being sacred there are many ways to go so I followed the link. As it turns out, this piece is a moving and often humorous account of how his parents approached food in their homeland of Bosnia and how food sustained them when they fled Bosnia to live in Canada.

But while the subject of sacred bread drew me into the article, there was a particular paragraph that jumped out at me in a totally different context. Mr. Hemon brings his narrative to a conclusion with an effort to explain a process that is almost impossible to comprehend for those who have never experienced it. Ordinary words failing him, he illustrates this difficult point with a story, which he introduces in this way:

“This idea is best expressed in a story I heard in Sarajevo from someone who had heard it from someone else, who, in turn, knew the person who knew the person to whom all this happened. In short, the story is true as can be, even if I fact-checked none of it, because it accumulated relevant experiences and value while passing through other people.”

He then goes on to tell a brief story, the events of which are plausible; they probably never happened exactly as written, and yet they probably happen all the time. The story line has been enriched through multiple re-tellings which added layers of meaning. By the end of Mr. Hemon’s  story, we have a clear visual image, and certainly understand more fully the futility of immigrants’ quest to recreate the food of their homeland in their new land. Score one for the power of story.

The Gospels were written anywhere from 50 to 70 years after the death of Jesus. Over the years, when I have envisioned the Gospels being written, I have imagined that there were four wise sages who carried the stories of Jesus in their heads as oral history. At some point, they went off in a room by themselves, they took out a pen and scroll, dumped their recollections onto the papyrus and sent it off to the publisher.

Modern Biblical scholarship says that the gospels, while attributed to one person, were probably written by and for particular communities of Christians. Those communities may have included a couple of people who had personally encountered Jesus of Nazareth, along with many others who had encountered the risen Christ. And there was probably a healthy collection of folks who knew someone who knew someone who had heard the stories from someone else who knew the person who was there when it happened. To this wonderful mix, you add the movement of the Spirit in these communities and literary skills of the writer collecting the stories. What comes to us are stories of events that are enriched by personal experience and deepening faith. The stories are not only true, but they are packed with layer upon layer of even larger truth. They are more than true.

I like to imagine these communities gathering by oil lamps discussing over and over their own accounts of, for instance, the feeding of the 5,000. Everyone in the room remembers the story differently, with different details and nuances of meaning. Mark’s community remembers the event one way, and later the communities of Matthew, Luke, and John add their own details and nuances. They were writing by and for their own communities, but their story is so much richer  “because it accumulated relevant experiences and value while passing through other people,” and as such it more than enriches us today.

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Noah’s lawsuit: Is God trying to say something?

The headline reads like a punchline: “Owners of Noah’s Ark sue over rain damage.” Does God have a sense of humor or what? In the case of Irony v. This Has to Be a Joke, Ark Encounter in Williamstown, Kentucky, is suing its insurance carriers.

 

The administrators of the life-sized replica of Noah’s Ark, 300 cubits/510 feet long, claim that heavy rains, while not reaching biblical proportions, caused a landslide on their access road. The ark itself was not damaged by the flood, nor did the park close; but for a time it looked like people who wanted to get into the ark could not because of the water, just like in the Bible.

 

The 77-page lawsuit seeks not only compensatory damages, but punitive damages, presumably because someone made fun of Ark Encounter – which also happened to Noah. The suit asks for a jury trial. They will need to find 12 people with no sense of humor.

 

Ark Encounter is rumored to have cost $100 million. It opened on July 7, 2016, a date (7/7) that was selected because of Genesis 7:7, “Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives entered the ark to escape the waters of the flood.”

 

They claim to have 1 million visitors a year. Tickets cost between $15 and $48. Imagine how much money Noah could have made selling tickets.

 

This story is why Twitter was invented:

 

“The Onion has gone too far.”

 

“Thoughts and prayers!”

 

“Now I believe in God.”

 

“All right . . . who prayed for rain?”

 

“I hope the penguins who walked from Antarctica are safe!”

 

“Looks like God doesn’t want anybody to go see it.”

 

“And on the eighth day God created tort reform.”

 

Oh, there’s more:

 

“Seriously, shouldn’t Yahweh have prevented this?”

 

“Noah’s replica will have to start an http://godfund.me.”

 

“So biblical . . . just like in Genesis when Noah sued the Lord God for the flood damage to the Earth.”

 

“Mitch McConnell’s state. Go figure. Shocker.”

 

“It only carried a 40-day warranty.”

 

“God’s will.”

 

If this is a publicity stunt, it is genius. Aren’t you tempted to visit? You could be the person who asks too many questions:

 

Where are the dinosaurs?

 

How did they fit that many animals in a space that is not big enough for that many animals?

 

How could there be enough water to cover the whole world?

 

How did the dogs and cats get along, or the mice and the elephants?

 

Why didn’t the lions eat the bunnies?

 

Were the bunnies still creating other bunnies?

 

Were the animals in a coma?

 

After a month did Noah wish he was in a coma?

 

Do you consider the recent rainfall an act of God?

 

Did you think about suing God and not the insurance company?

 

How did a story about the annihilation of most of the world’s population – men, women and children drowning, heads bobbing up and down in the water – become an amusement park?

 

Do you think you might be missing the point?

 

Noah’s ark is not a children’s story, a funny story or even a story concerned with history.  This story is true even if it never happened.

 

If you get past the strangeness, it sounds like recent events. Terrible things are happening to God’s good creation. Violence is rampant. Terrorism is on the rise. War is considered a solution. Politicians refuse to listen to their enemies. Hungry children are starving.

 

We understand their situation. We have had 13 school shootings this year. We have gotten used to walking past the homeless. Innocent teenagers die in our prisons.

 

How will God deal with the brokenness of the world? God responds not as an angry architect whose building has been ruined, but as a grieving parent whose heart has been broken.

 

God sees the violence in the world and decides to turn away, to forget the whole experience, and walk away. God decides to return creation to the chaos from which God called creation. God will let the waters cover the earth.

 

But there is one person whom God cannot forget. God’s love for Noah changes the plan. The story which up to now is all darkness takes a turn to the light.

 

The grieving God decides to save the world. God will stay with creation, notwithstanding the sorry state of humankind.

 

After the rain has stopped, God points to the rainbow in the sky and promises never to give up on us. God says, “I take my warrior’s bow and restring it not as a weapon, but with the colors of creation.”

 

We travel through waters that threaten to engulf us, but none of the suffering we know comes from God’s displeasure. God is doing everything God can do to offer hope, end our heartaches and bring us home.

 

That is no joke.

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I Have Other Feet to Wash

Here I am,
Judas,
with a towel and a basin of water
to wash your feet.
You.
Among the twelve.

I called you to me.
You stood beside me with your passion and your zeal
day after day.
I trusted you
then.
Someone must betray me
but why is it you?

When I said love your enemies
I did not know
it would be you
someone I already loved.

I cannot be any more vulnerable to you than I am right now
and you sit
calm? coiled?
silent
distant
while I pour water over your travel-worn feet.

You are disappointed.
I am not who you wanted me to be.
Why punish me for that?
Why not just say “your way is not my way”
and continue your search for God’s chosen one?

Think again think again think again
I beg you to think again –
think of everything I have said and done
and try again to find truth in it
for there is truth.

What you are about to do should never be done
and yet it must be done –
on this evil act hangs my next step.

It is not too late to change.
You could give me a few more months
weeks
even
even days.

Look into my eyes
and then
look into your heart.
No?
No.
So be it.
If not you someone else.

I could stop you –
block the door,
they would help.
But your choice is made and
I
choose
not to stop you.
The door stays open.
Evil will have its way
for now.

You will betray.
Others will deny,
flee,
go into hiding.
You are not alone in blindness.
I know I will be alone.
There will be regrets,
perhaps –
little good can come of regrets.

I have other feet to wash.

I sensed early on that it would be you.
I thought I could reach you.
I hoped.
But
if not you
someone else.

Perhaps I am wrong –
but I think not.

Your feet are dry now
and I move on
for I have other feet to wash.

The water in the basin is murky,
clouded with sand ashes and dust
accumulated on the long road to Jerusalem.

And I have other feet to wash.

Go now and do what you must do.
I will forgive you from the cross
but not before.
No
I forgive you now.

I have other feet to wash.

Don’t go yet.
Wait for me at the table.
I have bread and wine for you
before you go
to nourish you
on your way.

Wait a few moments more
for I have other
feet
to wash
before I serve you.

Before we part.

Before you go.

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Looking Jesus in the Eye

The first century Jew that we know as Jesus of Nazareth was undoubtedly a charismatic presence. People flocked to him. They listened to him. They put their lives on hold and at risk to follow him. What made them do that? Certainly there were many factors, but I like to think his eyes were very important.

In my imagination, when Jesus of Nazareth looked someone in the eye, that person knew they were dealing with something they had never encountered before. They knew that this man was an enigma, and they knew that they felt his look in their bones. But his was not a look that was alarming or painful, but rather was one which was determined, wise, compassionate, and stubborn.

As far as I know, the Gospels are silent on whether or not Jesus looked people directly in the eye, but I have a couple of favorite scriptures where I like to think that was what happened. One of them is in the scripture lesson from Sunday, March 17 – Luke 5:1-11.

When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break.

This scripture always makes me smile. Luke leaves us to imagine what might have transpired between Peter’s words “… but have caught nothing” and “yet if you say so….”.  Something important happens in that moment, yet we find a big yawning gap in Luke’s narrative. If I was writing this as a script I would write it as follows:

Jesus:          Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.

Simon:        (exhausted, not really paying attention) Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. (Simon looks at Jesus in exasperation. Jesus looks Simon in the eye and holds his gaze. There is a pause. Simon fidgets. Looks at his feet. Looks at the others. Looks back at Jesus. Sighs.) Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.

Moments later, the nets are full of fish and Simon is on the ground at Jesus’s feet. Luke records, “But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees…” Simon saw in the nets what he had failed to see in the eyes of Jesus.

It is easy to believe that there was authority in the gaze of this mysterious yet approachable man. We can imagine that his eyes demonstrated a power that did not subvert free will, but rather invited the seer into a new way of thinking, into a new kind of trust, and then invited the seer to come along on a journey. Simon had a choice, and the script could have gone another way. But Jesus – and his riveting, compelling gaze – did not give up easily.  At the beginning of this narrative, the fisherman is called Simon. While crumpled at Jesus’s feet Luke calls him Simon Peter. A few verses later in chapter 6, he is called “Simon, whom he named Peter.”  Simon the fisherman has become Peter the rock, almost before our eyes.

I like to think that when Jesus looked people in the eye, he also smiled – knowingly, lovingly, and with wry amusement – otherwise his look, alive with his passion, drive, and commitment, might have been too much to bear. As a matter of fact, I can imagine that Jesus chuckled as he spoke to the man at his feet. “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” And so, as the story continues, “When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.”

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Penitential Pancakes: Sin Soaked in Syrup

Pancake Day at Plymouth ChurchMy paper plate was not designed to hold syrup, but I covered it with fluffy golden layers drenched in melted butter and soaked in a sweet amber river of maple deliciousness.  Whoever decided overeating should be the prelude to penitence was a genius. Why didn’t the churches of my youth know about this? Those churches excelled at food-centered faith, but somehow missed out on the spiritual implications of pancakes.

Who wouldn’t want to belong to a church that confesses sins by eating copious quantities of sugar? How much different would my faith be if I had grown up with a full-blown pancake racing tradition? How much fuller would my experience of repentance be if I had learned to run while flipping hotcakes? How would it improve the reputation of Christians if every church had these wonderful, ridiculous events? Who wouldn’t want to join a group of people running around a gym in their Sunday best with flapjack-laden skillets?

I have attended three years of Pancake Races at Plymouth. Our races, which take place on the Sunday before Lent, include hairnets, oven mitts, spatulas and aprons. The early races were not particularly competitive. Women ran in heels.  But by 2017 the decision was made to slow down the children’s races by having participants run backwards. This rules change was reversed one race later.

Pancake Day at Plymouth ChurchIn 2018, a few elbows flew.  There were casualties.  Some questioned whether one winner’s pancake was flipped the requisite number of times.

At this year’s extravaganza, we limited the carnage and the chicanery. We made it clear there would be no hiding pancakes in pockets to replace dropped pancakes. We let spectators know that gambling would not be allowed.  We treated the races with the respect they deserve. The competition was fierce, but there were no injuries. There were accusation of PEDs, but no proof.  One gridiron gladiator hid the others’ aprons, but felt bad about it afterwards.  The runners ran with dignity.

Six centuries ago churches in England began having pancake lunches on the day before Lent to use up the butter, milk, eggs, sugar and fat that were forbidden during Lent. On Pancake Tuesday in 1445 a woman in Olney, England – whose name was lost to history but whose influence was not – was so intent on making pancakes that she did not notice the time until she heard the church bell ring. She raced out of the house and down the street to the church still wearing her apron, pancakes still in her frying pan, tossing them to prevent burning.

Women were soon racing through the streets flipping pancakes. The first woman to complete the course, arrive at the church, serve her pancake to the bell ringer and be kissed by him was declared the winner.

There is not much biblical precedent for pancake races. Cakes were offered in the temple (Exodus 29:2), but cakes offered to the “queen of heaven” were idolatrous (Jeremiah 7:18). Well-intentioned interpreters who look for theological meaning in the ingredients are on shaky ground. Some see eggs as a symbol for creation, flour as the staff of life, salt as wholesomeness and milk as purity. These commentators are trying way too hard.

Experts in dream interpretation say pancakes are spiritual in nature. Dreams of serving pancakes indicate a longing for joy. Dreams of eating pancakes suggest the desire for a closer family. Some associate pancakes with belonging, because their grandparents made blueberry buttermilk pancakes.

March 5 was the day of preparation for Lent this year. Shrove Tuesday is more fun than it sounds. “Shrove” means to hear the confession of sins, assure forgiveness and give spiritual advice. This does not sound like a party, but Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras does suggest “Let the good times roll!” In Iceland, Pancake Day is known as Bursting Day – an apt name for a day of stuffing ourselves.

The point of Pancake Day is not to get the partying out of our system before Lent begins. Feast days remind us to live in gratitude. Celebration, reveling in the pleasures of life, helps us pay attention. We need to thank God for the laughter of a good church, the joy of forgiveness and the taste of pancakes soaked in syrup.

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