Is it time to refresh our Constitutionally challenged minds?

Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

My winter’s read between Christmas and New Year’s has been Robert Nelson’s intriguing God? Very Probably (Cascade, 2015). Nelson is a professor at the University of Maryland. His focus has been on implicit worldviews active in the worlds of the sciences. The subtitle is: Five Rational Ways to Think about the Question of God. No, he’s not going down Aristotle’s proofs for God track. He rather strolls out into the ring as an economist/mathematician and an uber well read student of the Neo-Darwinians/Atheists. He takes the intellectual fight to their own scientific backyards.

If you are looking for some defense of classical theism or creationism you will not find it here. Neither will you find a mindless defense of what has come to be called the Darwinian synthesis. Nelson exposes the conspicuous lack of considering new evidence and screening out of inconvenient facts regardless of the camp in which they live.

For example, creationists screen out a fossil record of millions of of years because they need a creation that took place 6,000 years ago. Neo-Darwinians screen out the fact that almost all paleontologists in the field who examine their core stratigraphy records note that nothing like a gradual evolution of the species takes place; dramatic ruptures in the process are more often the norm and individual species change very little over very long periods of time. As a matter of fact, there is more novelty that takes place through cross-fertilization than within individual species.

Nelson explores the miracle of Mathematical order, Darwinism as a secular religion, scientifically unexplainable human consciousness, divine agency in recorded history and the intersections of secular religions with Christianity and modernity.

Each of these chapters merits a book in and of itself. Nelson gathers them all in one, which is no small achievement. This is not an easy read, but it is written as a popularizing of arguments that have formerly been highly academic. But for the motivated, this is a great winter’s read. Dare you.

It’s not easy to be poor; it’s that simple. A puff of wind pushes you this way or that and you fall off the high wire you’ve been walking. Life is hand to mouth. And if you are a part of the peasant class like Joseph, Mary and their young child, Jesus, you’ll never get out of it. There is no social mobility. It’s not that wages are just stagnant; they are unpredictable. And since a foreign government occupies your land you are heavily taxed to underwrite the cost of the wealthy elite, vast building projects and the empire. Everything is rigged to benefit those in power. Their affluence is funded from the broad bottom. The money runs uphill, the trickle up theory. And that’s where the peasant class lives and dies, on the bottom.

Life is precarious for Mary and Joseph and Jesus, because that is where they live. So the idea of taking a mandatory journey to Bethlehem was no small matter. They could barely afford to live day-to-day.

Living off the charity of extended family and friends in Bethlehem, they couch surf; the manger being that crib, the livestock pen the spare bedroom. That’s what you do when you’re at the bottom, like most the people they knew.

Among other things, that is the absolutely stunning and mind-blowing realization; God chooses to enter the drama through a hatch in the bottom of the stage. It wasn’t the first time, of course. A doomed baby named Moses floated in a basket down the river to a destiny that would change his people. The youngest of Jesse’s sons, David, the one exiled to sheep herding, was anointed to become the king of Israel. And here, again, in the fullness of time and in the basement of history, the Son of David sleeps among the livestock.

I wish I could tell you that it got easier. But I can’t tell you that.

In time, and like a scene from Star Wars or The Hunger Games, the Empire becomes aware of a rebel arising out in one of the distant outposts or districts. In fact, some wandering holy men are escorted by security forces in to have an audience with the monarch of the region, one of the puppet client kings of Rome, Herod. Like most fascist despots this ruler lied and feigned sympathy to locate this rising star. But the wise men are discerning; they intuit the false pretense, the lying, and the posturing. So when Herod releases them – wanting them to find the One for him so that he, too, can pay tribute to him – they know he is not to be trusted. Deeply spiritual people sense the duplicity in those who lust for absolute power. They know that absolute power cannot tolerate a rival. They know he will kill the opposition in one disingenuous way or another.

As a part of a dream fest, the true intentions and situation of threat is revealed to two groups of people. The first is this group of Magi, wise ones, and rather than return through Jerusalem to inform Herod where the star child is they return home by another route. When Herod discovers that his informants have disappeared he is enraged and goes about a campaign of ethnic cleansing to liquidate his supposed rival. He throws a broad net of death over any children who might be in the range of this rival King. The swords flash.

In the meantime, the second group, also informed by means of a sacred dream, has been forewarned. Joseph is shown in a dream that he must flee for the lives of his family. If you thought it was bad to be a peasant, if you thought it bad to be a peasant in an occupied land, if you thought it bad that they had to take the time and resources to travel out of town for an enrollment, it has now become worse.

Mary, Joseph and Jesus have become political refugees. They are not economic migrants moving for better opportunity. No, they are fleeing the threat of death, leaving their homeland that has become a death trap and crossing the border into another land as refugees. Now they are even more vulnerable and depend on the generosity, hospitality and compassion of people they don’t know and that don’t know them. Like their ancestors they have become exiles, strangers in a strange land.

Like his ancestor Joseph of the coat of many colors and his brothers who fled famine in Canaan and crossed into Egypt, so Joseph the father of Jesus headed across the same border but not because of famine. This time he crossed the border to escape the empire’s security apparatus and death squads. The little refugee family hopes the border is open. They hope there is a way to exist in another land. They hope people will take them in.

syrian-refugeesLike this Syrian refugee family fleeing the ancient war-torn city of Aleppo, the sounds of war barely behind them, they hope that someone will take them in. They hope that the doors of Turkey, Jordan, Europe or the United States will be open. The powers and principalities of this world have done their very best to bomb them into oblivion and they flee for their lives, often on foot, by boat, by donkey.

Joseph, Mary and Jesus were just such a refugee family.

If you are wondering how and where God enters the world, here it is. God comes by way of the margins, through the basement and undercroft of history, in the faces of the least of these, in ways that confound the places and people of power. The ways of God are found on the other side of violence and hate, through the hallways of hospitality.

If you wonder where Jesus is today, wonder no longer. Jesus is where oppression is at its worst, in the dark little corners of the forgotten world, abiding in hearts of all who are pursued yet remain courageous. Jesus is born and travels ever at the edge and may be found wherever the wise follow and evil attempts to destroy. There you will find him. Not in the conventional religious places that may automatically come to mind. But rather in the surprising places where the God of downward mobility chooses to show up, a trickle-up movement that confounds the world even as it gives unexpected hope. And when you sing the carols of this season it is for the sake of this Jesus and not another that you lift up your voice.

When the 16th century reformer Martin Luther said of the Christmas story that he would rather be one of the shepherds than any Pope, he was not only casting aspersions on the papacy. He was making a statement about the way God works in the world, where God shows up and how.

What Luther was saying then and we can say now is that God defies all expectations. God does not show up where expected, in the places necessarily valued by the culture. God does not show up in the political halls of power and empire. God does not show up in the temple or among religious structures. God does not show up on Wall Street and centers of commerce. God does not show up where news crews assume it’s happening. God does not show up in the great centers of learning. God does not show up according to our time tables and schedules. God does not show up by force or coercion. However one might expect it, God shows up in none of these places.

No, in this story God shows up in the most unlikely of places. God shows up among shepherds. And the first thing we must ask ourselves is just where the shepherds were located.

Shepherds were living outside urban areas, far from the centers of power. Within their own agrarian peasant class they were at the bottom of the social ladder, a place often reserved for the very young or very poor. They lived where they worked which was wherever the flock needed to be. They lived in the fields. They were often migrants, shifting with the seasons to different grazing lands, without permanent home. In every respect they lived on the edge of everything.

And why, you might be wondering, do the angels make their appearance there and to them? Why is so much revealed far from the center of presumed power, enterprise, attention and religious virtue?

And what is this carefully crafted message from angels for shepherds in the fields?

What are they expected to hear through their terror, hear and pass on? What they hear is that they should not be afraid. In fact, the message is for them. What they hear is a sacred song luring them from the edge all the way to a baby who barely has a toehold in this world. Why in the world would such a message be entrusted to such as these? Why would Luther rather be one of these shepherds than every priest, pope or king who ever lived?

The answer is disarmingly simple: If the good news of great joy is going to make it to all the people it will have to start at the edge and work toward the center. It never works the other way around. Herod won’t pass it on. Neither will the High Priest. All those who broker such things will inevitably keep and use and hoard them. This is the human inclination to territory, to self-serving control.

Thankfully, God never uses a trickle-down approach. Against all expectations, God employs a different divine economy, a trickle up plan.

The good news of great joy that causes the heavenly host to sing “glory to God in the highest” starts with shepherds at the farthest edge and works toward all the people from there. It is to these unsuspecting and shocked shepherds that the good news is entrusted, not by virtue of any status, power, wealth or learning. They have been entrusted with the precious news because they have nothing to lose; because they are the least inclined to misuse and distort it for their own purposes. They run with empty hands toward Bethlehem, no agenda other than delivering the news.

You can only imagine the difference this makes to the holy family, these peasants who have traveled far for the census. The news is born by those on the edge, shepherds with nothing to defend or claim as their own. They come wanting to see for themselves what has been told them. And so they do.

When someone on the edge, out of nowhere, with no discernible agenda appears, there is epiphany.

So it was for the young mother of the baby and her husband and all the Bethlehem family gathered in the courtyard of the house, because there was no guest room available. They, too, were on the edge of everything, God’s preferred revelation locale.

It was a peasant-to-peasant call they made that night, and everyone – from the shepherds to the family – were stunned by the way the Spirit was working everything out. There was no rule book. No star performers. And yet God was starkly, palpably, purposefully present.

Of course, that dramatic contrast between the edge and the center, the contrast set in the beginning of the story, would stay that way until the end. God just kept showing up at every edge life contained until off the edge the world decided to throw him.

Whenever we wonder why our sense of the Presence of God has grown stale or cold we might consider that we may have grown much too comfortable with the center of life as we know it.

We may need to go to the edge of the known to find what is hidden. We may need to look for God out beyond the expected and familiar and orthodox. We may need to go out with the shepherds, with those who claim nothing for themselves in order that we might receive much.

Angels still sing for those who will listen. But we will never hear them with hearts tuned to the frequency adopted by the world. Rather, we will hear when our hearts are open to the wide open spaces beyond our control, out at the edge where God still chooses to come, baffling all those who continue to predict how and where and when it will happen next.

Run, shepherds, from field to town, from town to room, from room to manger, from edge to edge. Take us with you. It’s time to leave this place and bow down at the simplest, most beautiful altar on the edge of the world.

Then the Stillness

Posted: December 19, 2016 in Uncategorized

Except for harm and injury, most of us crave the kind of natural forces that bring life grinding to a halt. Ice and snow will do nicely. What kid isn’t thrilled with the news that school has been cancelled? Imagine, the free and clear gift of a day. And adults are not much different.

That is true unless you are one of those tireless civil servants for whom work increases when snow comes or the ones who go in to the hospital or power plant or care center for a long shift. For the rest of us the stopping of the expected schedule is a gift. If you are warm, if you have provisions, if you don’t need to go anywhere, the pause is something to be relished.

Two cardinals are perched on the neighbor’s deck, feeding on sunflower seeds. They are effervescent against the background of evergreen and white snow. It is the most most simple of things; the act of finding, eating, resting. Fly, nest, observe. Wait, whistle, roost.

In my seeing I share in that. In my knowing I am one with that. In my smiling I fly with the flock, flashing red against white, the frosted world beneath rosy wings.

They just didn’t know it yet

Posted: December 13, 2016 in Uncategorized

My friend Steve Cranford died last week following a massive stroke he had while they were visiting in Atlanta. I will miss him in so many ways. Steve was one of my early mentors as he served as Regional Minister for the Mid-America Region. He presided at our wedding. And I often spoke with him about his time serving on the Faith and Order division of the World Council of Churches. Steve went on to provide leadership in interfaith concerns in Tulsa.

In the early part of November Steve and Myrna took a swing through Missouri visiting friends and by chance were able to attend one of our Bluegrass services. That night I told a story about Desmond Tutu, the retired Archbishop from South Africa and world Christian leader. When Steve was serving on Faith and Order Tutu was on the commission – before he became bishop. And Steve thanked me for mentioning him and then told a Tutu story of his own.

The story came from the terrible time of apartheid in South Africa. People had begun to rise up and protest that racist and oppressive system and the church and its leaders were giving moral voice to oppose the injustice. Steve said that as they were meeting in Geneva one time Desmond Tutu told a story from the streets of Capetown.

As he walked along the street and spoke with the throngs of protesters, he watched a soldier force through the crowd and elbowed a diminutive little elderly African woman, knocking her to the ground. And Tutu turned to Steve and said, “What the soldier didn’t know was that she was going to prevail; they just didn’t know it yet.”

Let there be no doubt – injustice, evil and oppression have their day. The impossible and terrible does happen. And it often seems to go on forever. But in the long arc of history justice and truth prevail. In the land of deep darkness light shines. There is weeping for the night, but joy comes in the morning. The fist of Rome smashes all dissent, but the quiet appearance of a baby in the night wins the heart of the world.

Force, intimidation, brutality and rampant discrimination still haunt our world. Little old ladies get tossed to the ground. But ruthless power has a shelf life. Now is not forever. It’s just that they don’t know it yet.

Thank you Desmond. Thank you Steve. Thanks be to God.

I have just finished reading Philip Short’s long but concise history of the rise of Mao and the great Chinese revolution of the last century, Mao: A Life (Henry Holt, 1999). The revolution arose like so many others of its time throughout the world – Spain, Russia, Germany. And many of the same elements are present excepting the cultural setting and history leading to it. What begins under the banner of a freedom movement comes to resemble fascism more than anything else.

In the case of Mao and the Red Army much of the preexisting power vested in national government or culture itself had to be destroyed. That included not only battle against national military power but actual governmental authorities, past cultural signs of authority like religion, and especially the educated. It is the last category – the intelligentsia or intellectuals – that fascinates me the most.

To assure their absolute dominance Mao and his movement had to socially belittle, exile, imprison and kill any semblance of intellectuals who could think for themselves or raise educated objections to the regime. It was essential to cut at the root of the tree, to remove educated resistance.

This was also the model used in other iterations of Maoist revolutions, such as in Cambodia and its killing fields. The educated elite were marginalized and sent to “reeducation camps” which were camps of hard labor. The former teachers, scholars, artists and journalists were separated so they could not influence the proletariat, the working classes (who were really dominated by the revolutionary elites, like Mao). Their voices were silenced so that Mao’s propaganda could not be contradicted by other opinion. Then they were quietly murdered.

In terms of Mao’s priorities on the way to securing absolute power he had to first smash the military, then the governing powers, and then the intellectual elites. All had to be vanquished.

When we consider what it takes to create and secure a vital, free and democratic society, we find the elements of protection ensconced in our Constitution and Bill of Rights. Freedom of speech and assembly assure that a variety of voices will be heard. Laws prohibit the cavalier disposal of those who differ with the regime. And even when anti-intellectualism rules the land, we have safeguards in place that insure a free and continuing  voice of reason, thoughtfulness and intelligence. That is protected.

We don’t read history so much as it reads us. Every time we hear strains of a new anti-intellectualism in our time, when we hear someone or some group disparage our intellectuals, artists, writers, journalists, and prophetic religious voices, it may behoove us to bring the picture of Mao’s reeducation camps to mind. Purging the educated by labeling them troublesome elites may feel good for the moment. But it is like the body chopping off its own head to make a point. Headless bodies don’t navigate well, at least not for long.


The mocking of the educated