Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Biblical Thanksgiving and the American National Holiday



Biblical Thanksgiving and the American National Holiday

 Rev. Dr. Douglas Olds

November 25, 2020

Lincoln initiated a communal day of Thanksgiving during the pit of the Civil War to interrupt the nation’s lament at the carnage and destruction. He called for a day of gratitude and communal renewal for the people to put aside its focus on national catastrophe and its sense of communal dispersion resulting from defeats. In this, Lincoln enacted a program from the Thanksgiving Psalms, including Pss. 44:9–11 and 106:47.

תּוֹדָה tôḏâ is the Hebrew word for a sacrificial confession of thanksgiving that subordinates individual initiative to that of God’s mighty deeds:

Praise is actually expressed in the tôḏâ (Neh. 12:27; Ps. 26:7; 42:5[4]; 69:31[30]; 95:2; 100:1, 4; 147:7; Isa. 51:3; Jer. 30:19; Jon. 2:10[9]). It is a joyful song in which exultation over God’s mercy makes itself heard (Ps. 42:5[4]); it is among the messages of rejoicing that will be heard concerning the “new salvation,” the renewed favor of God. It can have the sense of:

(1) praise or thanksgiving, offering of praise or thanksgiving, the choir (that sings the hymn of praise); (2) confession.

A vow of praise concludes individual [and communal] laments (Pss. 7:17; 28:7; 35:18; 42:6, 12[5, 11]; 43:4f.; 52:11[9]; 54:8[6]; 57:10; 71:22; 86:12; 109:30; 119:7)

--Mayer, G., Bergman, J., & von Soden, W. (1986). ידה. G. J. Botterweck & H. Ringgren (Eds.), D. E. Green (Trans.), Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (Revised Edition, Vol. 5, p. 428-32). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Connecting these two senses is the Thanksgiving Psalms’ sacrifice of praise, the sung confession of God’s goodness and power to renew the community.

Repetition of expressions of Thanksgiving—the tôḏâ of scripture—can build the virtues of recollection of God’s victory over death and displacement, and of gratitude which incarnates the attitude of praise and reliance on something far greater than self. Faith holds that expressions, prayers, and virtues of gratitude and thanksgiving can bring about the cessation of crisis and distress by honoring God and by influencing and tempering neighboring onlookers. Sung confessional thanksgiving is a form of evangelism in the churches and at the Dinner Table.

The cultivation of virtues makes one the captain of one’s excellence, authenticating self-control of the narrative of one’s spiritual maturation & achievements. Congruently, virtuous behavior serves the common good by influencing others, bringing about shalom through positive social mimesis (cf. Prov. 27.19). Not only are virtues ends in themselves, their cultivation takes time so that they also are *means for being* embedded with the teleology of becoming. By this, individual excellence is encompassed by time & collective human space to realize the ever-emerging Kingdom of God.

Praise cannot be a private matter involving only those who praise and are praised. The imperative hôḏâ is addressed to all and sundry. There is a summons to tell others, or the worshipper suggests such a summons by announcing his intention to speak (Ps. 9:2[1]; 79:13). He describes those who will hear as the “godly” (Ps. 52:11[9]), the company of the upright, a congregation of indefinite size (Ps. 111:1). It comprises many (Ps. 109:30), appears as a great congregation and a mighty throng (Ps. 35:18). Ultimately it includes the entire world. The peoples and nations are to experience the praise (Ibid., 435).

Here are some expressions of Thanksgiving taken from the Psalms:

Ps 118:19–21, 28-29: Open to me the gates of righteousness,

that I may enter through them

and give thanks to the LORD.

20 This is the gate of the LORD;

the righteous shall enter through it.

21 I thank you that you have answered me

and have become my salvation…

28 You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;

you are my God, I will extol you.

29 O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,

for his steadfast love endures forever.

Ps 75:1: We give thanks to you, O God;

we give thanks; your name is near.

People tell of your wondrous deeds.

Ps 107:8–9,21-22: Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love,

for his wonderful works to humankind.

9 For he satisfies the thirsty,

and the hungry he fills with good things...

21 Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love,

for his wonderful works to humankind.

22 And let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices,

and tell of his deeds with songs of joy.

Ps 30:11–12: You have turned my mourning into dancing;

you have taken off my sackcloth

and clothed me with joy,

12 so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.

O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever.

As the American national holiday, Thanksgiving originally was intended to transform private lament into collective praise of the Creator. For me, it has not yet been coopted like Armistice Day by Veterans’ Day to become a celebration of nationalism. For me, American Thanksgiving dispenses with the idolatrous narratives of regionalism and national supremacy instead to focus outside oneself and one’s tribe for the blessings and endowments we all share in neighborliness inside God’s good creation.

@BrianZahnd notes: ”When the gospel is reduced from an overarching metanarrative to a formula for postmortem salvation, Christians reach for some other Big Story to interpret the world. This opens the door for the myths of religious nationalism to displace fidelity to Christ and his kingdom."

Religious nationalism has created an environment for the deranged and intellectually unvirtuous to gorge on and shovel insults, lies, and incitements to violence. The vices of nationalism include claims of racial superiority and insensitivity to privation and need. Counter to these vices are the virtues of thanksgiving which this day of celebration and commemoration should be more in evidence than all others. This year's challenges can make celebration feel alienating. Quiet gratitude and comprehensive recollection can serve the reinvigoration of sociality.

Among other things, Thanksgiving has a mythic connotation of hospitality extended by Wampanoag to pilgrims, calendrically leads into the Christian season of Advent, and legislatively commemorates of our nation's gratitude for turning back the coup of Confederate slavedrivers. It thus is involved in the ongoing Exodus of the indigenous, the expectant Palestinian peasant, and the enslaved.
I cannot envision how I make thanksgiving without turning toward compassion for the oppressed, deprived, and brutalized. These thoughts guide my table prayers.

The American holiday of Thanksgiving does well to relate the sense of thanksgiving in the Bible to renewing and re-invigorating praise and confession of God and bring about inside us the virtuous commitment to God’s purposes. Enacting the virtues of Thanksgiving in gratitude and recollection, we can move from being people who respond self-interestedly to the wealth and competitive *merits* of our fellow humans to those who instead respond to others' authentic *needs,* singing to Creation rather than calculating within as we go. Matching God’s willingness to meet us with our willingness to meet God is how thanksgiving and compassionate love relate in the intended nature of nations in God’s good earth.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Notes from an Uncoiled Life


Notes from an Uncoiled Life

Douglas Olds

16 November 2020

Your body is constantly replacing its cells so much so that, every 10 years your entire body has replaced itself. -AsapScience

 "So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.-2 Corinthians 4:16


Conscience is the tide of the soul: it fluxes in times of stress and ebbs in times of satisfaction. Its pangs prolong in times like these. Conscience is a spur to the virtue of recollection wherein we strive to connect the details of our past with hope that it is makes sense of the whole. And that the whole is decent, and if not, recollection spurs us to repent and take steps. 

Because humans are both embodied and ensouled, we may display our relationship with spirit and soul in a new cellular pattern of muscle memories and metabolic rhythms every decade, giving the (auto-)biographical impression not of an arrow's progress, but rather of a double-helical coiling of maturation--of body at a mirrored remove from soul, but in flux and sympathy with it. [1] What follows is a biographical sketch of how a body consisting of cellular matter manifests its linked polarities and kinematics with soul in decade-spanning, accretive processions. It is not the body that is continuous, but rather it is the soul, though we may be unaware of it.  

At 10, I was proficient with snow skiing. The whooshing wind was my companion. I rocked my knees and ankles while I sang silently in the pull of the slopes. At 20, I swung tennis rackets matched with the thwops of never-perfectly hit balls and imaged internally through my muscle memory of team sports as I sat in large, state-university bleachers. At 30, I became a fairly adept swimmer which set my neck--where ancient Israelites located the soul--rotating in helical space to enable my gasps. At that point of my life, my body was not in harmony with my soul. As I huffed in the shoulder and neck helices of solitary distance swimming, my mind was diverted by the blur of problem solving interrupted by grievances.

My life in the body, which I thought was the only reality, dispensed with the desire of the soul, which to me, as for C. S. Lewis, “were in the sharpest conflict... Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless.” 

My discovery of Christianity revealed the reality of the soul, so that I began to harmonize its expressions with the experience of my body. I found both a place to stand (forth) and a story to understand myself. My onset at 40 of Christian spirituality and discovery was accompanied by a newly developed skill with partner dancing honed on a boat, its micro-balancing married to the wake of my swimmer shoulders and skier knees and ankles so that I began to be conscious of that double helix of body and soul. I communicated to partners through dance the music that bridged the beating of our hearts. Through dance, I soon synchronized hearts with the mother of my children who then added new and gratifying rhythms to my life: trembling fingers wearily grasping post-midnight bottles; to-and-fro lifting and securing of infants in and out of car seats; the gentle exertions of equalizing my efforts with my children’s furrowed-brow initiations of competitiveness. My son would dribble by me for a layup, and I would offer a delayed scale of resistance appropriate to showing what was difficult without squelching his drive. 

At 50, I settled into a pattern of hiking through forests and river lands, matching my steps to the plinking, like from a Javanese gamelan, of copper-colored stones percussing under gently rushing currents. As I walked in this music, I felt near to God.  

At 60, I’ve become introverted--and in these troubled times where God's judgment seems close--increasingly and tidally conscious of causing offense to God's favored. I have retired more and more to the cold beaches of northern California, experiencing from my chair in the damp sand the zipper surf caused by the kinematics of shore topography and back and forth angles of incoming and backwashing currents--waves that express my inner life of fear and joy in God: sounding now muffled and fizzing at the shoreline, now booming against the rocks jutting from the headlands.

Family built a new world for my soul and body. I began finally to perceive a deeper reality. The body in this "mortal coil" begins, gets lost, gets found, returns to God, and repeats anew this cycle lurching  forward in time. In the process, it discovers and develops and strengthens the soul while solidifying a loving relationship with the Spirit.

Each decade’s uncoiling of my body’s facilities keeps a connection with my soul's history--with what has gone previous, a transition with continuity--to which is added a corresponding integration of perception and appreciation.  As my stamina and vigor slow, I grow in gratitude for my life in the body, the partner of my soul soon to be disrupted.  I hope that the recoil of its powers will not be matched with an unwinding of my soul's awareness or virtue.  But if unwind I must as I peer toward my 70s, let it be by returning to a childlike docility and gentleness—a body’s trust in the fecund beauty and goodness of the Living God's  pulsing and enveloping sea, land, and sky.


[1] [Christian anthropology connects body and soul in a linked and eschatologically realized [at the culmination of history] whole (as Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 15.44 and as the gospels claim of the resurrected spiritual body of Jesus that came forth from the tomb on Easter). In Christ is the meeting place of soul and body, heaven and earth, God and human. This anthropology of the interlinked and intertwined moiety of soul and matter constituting the Christian self is unlike classical paganism's gnostic philosophy of the incorruptibility and eternity of soul versus the corruption and eventual cessation of the material.]


Sunday, June 7, 2020

The Combustion Economy as Idolatrous

The Combustion Economy as Idolatrous

Rev. Dr. Douglas Olds
June 2020

Transactional Failure: The Negative Ethic of (Stipulation Against) Idolatry
It is sometimes implied (Moe-Lobeda 2013; 2017; Jenkins 2013, 2-8;[1] 2014, Jenkins, et al. 2018) that there is no direct Biblical message or historical analogy to apply to the issue of Global Warming and Climate Change so that secular ethical foundations must be developed. A canonical approach to the theological condemnation of idolatry in Deutero-Isaiah may offer a productive pastoral and proclamatory approach. Isaiah 44.9-20 is centrally occupied with the use of combustible resources--the unbounded and unsustainable scale of exploitation of which is at the root of the Greenhouse Effect. In my research, I have yet to find this passage linked with Global Climate Change. Yet, in the parodic account of Deutero-Isaiah (Watts 2005, Holter 1995, Baltzer 2001), the idol maker is charged with diverting combustible resources away from their existential, intended function--instrumental sufficiency for personal warming and cooking--toward the creation of idols in the vain pursuit of self-created transcendence.

Isaiah 44.9 All who make idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit; their witnesses neither see nor know. And so they will be put to shame. 10 Who would fashion a god or cast an image that can do no good? 11 Look, all its devotees shall be put to shame; the artisans too are merely human. Let them all assemble, let them stand up; they shall be terrified, they shall all be put to shame.
12 The ironsmith fashions it and works it over the coals, shaping it with hammers, and forging it with his strong arm; he becomes hungry and his strength fails, he drinks no water and is faint. 13 The carpenter stretches a line, marks it out with a stylus, fashions it with planes, and marks it with a compass; he makes it in human form, with human beauty, to be set up in a shrine. 14 He cuts down cedars or chooses a holm tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. 15 Then it can be used as fuel. Part of it he takes and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Then he makes a god and worships it, makes it a carved image and bows down before it. 16 Half of it he burns in the fire; over this half he roasts meat, eats it and is satisfied. He also warms himself and says, “Ah, I am warm, I can feel the fire!” 17 The rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, bows down to it and worships it; he prays to it and says, “Save me, for you are my god!”
18 They do not know, nor do they comprehend; for their eyes are shut, so that they cannot see, and their minds as well, so that they cannot understand. 19 No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, “Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals, I roasted meat and have eaten. Now shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?” 20 He feeds on ashes; a deluded mind has led him astray, and he cannot save himself or say, “Is not this thing in my right hand a fraud?”

The fabricators of idols become conformed to them (Ps. 115.8), taking on their unhearing, unseeing, senseless impotence (vv. 5-7). In addition to parodying vanity in idol fabricators’ death-dealing frauds during Isaiah’s time, Isa. 44.9-20, interpreted with contrition, suggests that feeding on ashes is foreshadowing--an ironically proleptic metaphor for--the Anthropocene political economy of combustion heedless of Creation’s limits. In the idolater’s identification with wood, he craves association with physical fire.[2] On fire, the idolater structures his “life” (βίος: means of subsistence) beyond warming and cooking, accelerating his vain (empty תֹ֙הוּ֙ ) pursuit of self-creation and -determination in materialism.

While I am proposing a heuristic, reconstructive alternative reading of this text, I discern in this passage the diversion of carbon combustible resources from subsistence needs into an idol-making process applicable to the ethical and Biblical evaluation of the contemporary carbon combustion-intensive political economy.

Because God’s primary commandment (Exod. 20:3) and protological curse (Deut. 27:15) concern idolatry, and because Deutero-Isaiah 45 involves a creation account set inside a critique of empire, a theological foundation of concern for nature affected by the misuse of carbon combustible resources may derive from the ethic of trusteeship promoted earlier. If the charge of idolatry holds, a society heedless of the misuse of combustible fuels might be recognized as engaging in a foundational sin against the Creator, one that assaults God’s atmospheric mover (Gen.1:2), the רוּחַ rûaḥ.
Trusteeship of nature by humanity requires something to motivate the execution of its fiduciary duties. To that end, we turn to God’s judgment of idolatry. 

Canonical Arc of Condemnation of Idolatry from Prophets to Revelation 18

Deutero-Isaiah’s condemnation of idolatry arose during the Persian period of Israel's exile; it was applied, in part, to calling for the return to Jerusalem of the offspring of exiled Judahites who were continuing to find employment and residence in Babylon. Many of these were craftsmen employed in the Babylon religious establishment. Yet the context of (Deutero-) Isaiah 40-55 may include more general condemnation of Babylonian society than the particular (esp. Isa. 47.8ff). Read intertextually with Revelation 17-19, the entire Babylonian economy may have been seen by early Christian readers as by “Persian Isaiah” as idolatrous,[3] and the prophet’s charge of idol fabrication might be applied to all exiled Judahites participating in the Babylonian economy, whatever their occupation or sector.

                Other prophets condemn Israel’s idolatry, which they characterize as “adultery,” the fundamental disloyalty of Israel to its partner YHWH. Hosea (4:12-13), Jeremiah (9:2), and Ezekiel (16:36) join Isaiah (57:7-8) in naming idolatry as adultery. This characterization is significant because the charge of adultery is applied to encompass Babylon’s society in Revelation 18. That charge of adultery is linked to and envisions a political economy idolatrous in the production and conspicuous accumulation of luxuries, a diversion of resources from subsistence needs to the vanities of the rich:

Rev. 18:1 After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority; and the earth was made bright with his splendor. 2 He called out with a mighty voice,
  “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!
  It has become a dwelling place of demons,
  a haunt of every foul spirit,
  a haunt of every foul bird,
  a haunt of every foul and hateful beast.
  3For all the nations have drunk
  of the wine of the wrath of her fornication,
  and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her,
  and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxury…
9 And the kings of the earth, who committed fornication and lived in luxury with her, will weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning; 10 they will stand far off, in fear of her torment, and say,
  “Alas, alas, the great city,
  Babylon, the mighty city!
  For in one hour your judgment has come.”
11 And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore, 12 cargo of gold, silver, jewels and pearls, fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet, all kinds of scented wood, all articles of ivory, all articles of costly wood, bronze, iron, and marble, 13 cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, olive oil, choice flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, slaves—and human lives.
  14“The fruit for which your soul longed
  has gone from you,
  and all your dainties and your splendor
  are lost to you,
  never to be found again!”
15 The merchants of these wares, who gained wealth from her, will stand far off, in fear of her torment, weeping and mourning aloud,
  16“Alas, alas, the great city,
  clothed in fine linen,
  in purple and scarlet,
  adorned with gold,
  with jewels, and with pearls!
  17For in one hour all this wealth has been laid waste!”
And all shipmasters and seafarers, sailors and all whose trade is on the sea, stood far off 18 and cried out as they saw the smoke of her burning,
  “What city was like the great city?”
  19And they threw dust on their heads, as they wept and mourned, crying out,
  “Alas, alas, the great city,
  where all who had ships at sea
  grew rich by her wealth!
  For in one hour she has been laid waste.
  20Rejoice over her, O heaven,
  you saints and apostles and prophets!
  For God has given judgment for you against her.”

Adultery is linked in this passage with the luxury production by idol fabricators. This vision, which is meant to be applied to Rome of New Testament times, picks up on the Old Testament’s condemnation of Babylon’s society during the exile of Judah there during the time of Deutero-Isaiah. This condemnation of the resource-diverting—especially combustible resource-diverting—economic society has ready application to this day and age when a carbon-intensive economy degrades the atmosphere and does not provide sufficient subsistence opportunities to the poor, future generations, and other species.[4]

--This essay is excerpted from Praxis for Care of the Atmosphere in Times of Climate Change: Analysis, Quantitative Methods, and Ecclesial Development" which also includes the bibliographic citations noted.

[1] “As philosopher Hans Jonas puts it, ‘the qualitatively novel nature of certain of our actions has opened up a whole new dimension of ethical relevance for which there is no precedent in the standards and canons of ethics…’ Ethics seems overwhelmed by climate change. None of our inherited moral traditions anticipate practical responsibilities for managing the sky, nor construct institutions of justice to discipline power across cultures and generations, nor imagine harming and loving neighbors through diffuse ecological flows. Adequate responses to climate change elude us in part because atmospheric powers outstrip the capacities of our inherited traditions for interpreting them.” (Jenkins 2013).
[2] Prov. 30.15b-16 on the rapacity and insatiability of economies of fire and the appetites it stimulates, both of which never say “enough.”  “Ashes” is metonymy for the idolatrous appetite for physical fire, including the vain wish for vaporous oblivion, in contrast with the Created desire for the Burning Bush that is not consumed.
      Illustrating its vain political economy and fraudulent spirit, European settlers of pre-Colonial New England, in addition to other resource-extractive practices that altered the terrain, cleared forests, setting the fallen timber ablaze with no instrumental purpose other than stoking huge bonfires (Cronon 2003) in rituals of domination of the land and the festive production of ashes. Their market economy and Lockean ideas of property intruding into Native American ecosystems forced the acceleration of ecological degradation absent the virtues of thrift and self-restraint and the responsibilities of trusteeship. They mistook temporal gifts of nature for an eschatological, eternal bounty in their conceit of a new promised land. They actualized this religious conceit by rolling depletion and expanding into the putative, boundless frontier. ''And in the long run, that was impossible…the [fanatics] of plenty were a people of waste" (ibid.).
Ironically, idolatry has become limited not by combustible stocks, but by the capacity of the atmosphere to act as a sink for the scale of carbon dumped into it (see Ch. 1), human idolatry overflowing Creation’s limits. Not all humanity may be complicit: “The richest 10 percent of people are responsible for up to 43 percent of destructive global environmental impacts. In contrast, the poorest 10 percent in the world are responsible just around 5 percent of these environmental impacts.” -- https://medium.com/insurge-intelligence/capitalism-is-eroding-safe-operating-space-for-humanity-warn-scientists-6e469132dbba  For this reason, Lynch (2020) prefers the term “Capitalocene” to “Anthropocene” for the recent epoch of human disruption of natural systems. This terminology avoids laying responsibility for climate disruption on the entirety of human societies and histories.

For a 2nd Temple textual tradition that links combustible elements with idol worship, cf. Pseudo-philo, On Samson and on Jonah, 52. 6-7:
The Ninevites too were once infertile in piety; they did not know the fruit of Divine Justice and gave the honor of the Creator to this world. But now they do not give thanks to the fruits of labor and do not worship the heating elements [glossator: “their handmade idols”], but they confess to honor the Fruit giver instead of the fruits and have started to worship the Craftsman instead of the world (Muradyan and Topchyan 2013, emph. added.).
Muradyan, G., & Topchyan, A. (2013). Pseudo-philo, on Samson and on Jonah. In L. H. Feldman, J. L. Kugel, & L. H. Schiffman (Eds.), Outside the Bible: Ancient Jewish Writings Related to Scripture: Translation (Vol. 1, p. 800). Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society.
[3]This verse prophesies that idolatrous societies exemplified by Babylonian arrogance and materialism will suffer ironic reversal: shame, insecurity and material privation. They “will experience widowhood and barrenness. To be a widow meant to be without any material provision, and to have neither legal rights nor protection. To be childless counted as shameful. It too was a threat to a woman’s material security and protection... In ‘the city as mother,’ the loss of children can also mean the loss of ‘daughter’ or satellite cities. In a polytheistic environment, ‘widowhood’ means that a city’s tutelary god has left [been removed from] the goddess representing the city” (Baltzer 2001, 276).
[4] “Merchants are [in Rev. 18] mourning the fall of Babylon. We have oracles against Babylon in 18:1–19:8, and the OT allusions are not only to prophecies against Babylon but also to prophecies against Tyre in Ezek 26–28. Tyre also was portrayed as a prostitute in Isa 23:15–17” (Keener 2016).

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Unbolting the Door at Pentecost

Unbolting the Door at Pentecost

May 31, 2020
Rockville Presbyterian Fellowship, Fairfield CA
Rev. Dr. Douglas Olds

Our Sermon text is the  Gospel of John 20:19-23.

Let’s listen for God’s word to us, today:

20:19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jew[ish leaders], Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you."

20:20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

20:21 Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you."

20:22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit.

20:23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."

(We celebrate the Living Word of Scripture.)

Let us pray: Open the door of Heaven to us, O Spirit of Pentecost.
According to the prophet, your word is like a fire, like a hammer that breaks rock into pieces.
Help us to hear your word as a hammer through the concrete of our wounds and egotism.
Send your Holy Fire to anneal and temper our faith.
Melt away our concerns and soften our hearts toward our enemies.
Raise us in gratitude for your grace and guidance. In Jesus’ name, AMEN.

Jesus on a Zoom call seems to me to sum up our current situation as a church.  This graphic also shows the disciples in a kind of “upper room” where, in our reading this morning, John has them sheltering-in-place after the crucifixion.
Huddling together there behind bolted doors in their cage of fear of the authorities who had put Jesus to death, the disciples struggle to take in the strange report from Mary Magdalene of an empty tomb. Peter and the disciple Jesus loved ran and saw that Jesus’ tomb was empty, but they did not understand.
Then suddenly, Jesus is there among them!—Jesus is alive! Jesus the healer is himself healed of death. and his first message to the fearing disciples is, “Peace be with you.”
He does NOT say to the disciples, “You are safe.”
Jesus’ greeting of peace is not a wish or a prayer but rather a statement of fact. It may be more appropriately translated as “Peace to you,” or “Peace is upon you.”
When they finally recognized Jesus and heard him repeat, “Peace is for you” (20:20b), they began to understand he was a living reality.
John writes of the experience of a world that he knew. His first message from our reading this morning is that we cannot escape our fears except by knowing we have peace with God. Jesus comes to us for peace.  No longer need disciples remain huddled in fear.
Jesus then breathes on his disciples, incorporating them into the Spirit in the sky.  I want to explore through this story a Pentecost message of breath and stillness, rather than the more familiar story of Acts chapter 2 where Pentecost loosens tongues as by fire come down from afar.
The Holy Spirit in John’s Gospel story is silent breath conveyed through proximity with the resurrected messiah.  In that breath, the door between heaven and earth opens to a world of new exoduses from lives bogged down by sin and ignorance.
What was divided is now united. The Resurrected One breathes—and by that He involves us in the sanctified atmosphere, the abode of the Holy Spirit in non-violent Creation. By this we become his living, breathing body as the non-violent, unlocked Church.
So a Cage of Fear is Not Our Home - The Breathing Spirit lifts us upward to home in ministry to the Father's love. As Jim Wallis notes, “To create a new future, a small number of people have to believe a door into the new exists; then, they have to [step] thru that door; when a few walk, a few more walk.” But you can’t leave the cage if you can’t find the door.
“I am the door,” Jesus had twice said earlier, and in this passage his Spirit opens it.
So that “by where we go others [may] learn that there is something on the other side." [1].
To move into new life with the rhythms and pace of Christ is challenging. To walk with courage breathes of the presence of Godly Hope—the kind delivered to the defeated and the ground down.
This morning, I will look for company on this path of mostly silent hope by recounting a story about courage in the Spirit—a courage that endured first in stillness of presence, and only later, after recollection, given the maturity and power of voice.
To begin my story, let me pose this question: Would you willingly break into a Nazi death camp?
I met a man who did.
In the early 1980s, Jan Karski was a neighbor of mine, an old-world, courtly figure who taught history at Georgetown University.
In middle age, he had married the renowned modern dancer Pola Nirenska, a Polish Jew who had escaped the Holocaust yet whose entire family disappeared in the prison camps.
Now an older man, Jan told me of his past.
In…1940 [as a Polish Catholic, he] began [as] a courier … [between] … the Polish underground [and] the Polish Government in Exile [in London] …
During one such mission in July 1940 he was arrested by the Gestapo in Slovakia [and s]everely tortured. He managed to escape.
In 1942 Karski was…twice smuggled by Jewish underground leaders into the Warsaw Ghetto for the purpose of directly observing what was happening to Polish Jews.
Also, disguised as an Estonian camp guard, he visited a sorting and transit point for the Bełżec [buw-zhets] death camp.
Karski then met with Polish politicians in exile and the British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, giving a detailed statement on what he had seen.
In 1943 he traveled to the United States, meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Oval Office, telling him about the situation in Poland and becoming the first eyewitness to tell him about the Jewish Holocaust.
He also described the Holocaust to Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter.
Frankfurter, [a Jew himself, sat politely through] Karski's report [2].
Recollecting, Karski told me that Frankfurter said, "I cannot believe you of what’s happening to the Jews in Poland. I do not say that you are lying, I am saying that I CAN NOT believe you” [3].
If FDR had acted immediately to stem the atrocity by bombing the gas and incineration complexes in the death camps, perhaps 2 Million Jews could have been saved from destruction.
By the time the Allies did act against the camps, Karski’s efforts were estimated to have saved ¼ million Jews, making him their most effective savior during the war.
Karski volunteered to go silently to the voiceless.  Getting physically out of these ventures proved the easy part; much harder would be getting that hell-on-earth out of his psyche. Karski lived with the knowledge that perhaps ten times more could have been saved, IF ONLY. If only he had found the voice to convince FDR to act immediately.
Karski, who had trained for the diplomatic corps, strained every diplomatic muscle in trying to find words to persuade the Brits and Americans. In his appeal, he even extravagantly addressed FDR as “Lord of Humanity.” [4]
Karski also struggled with words around the prisoners: their condition almost rendered him mute. He recognized he was in the midst of the struggle of good and evil.  In that struggle, there were moments of irrepressible holiness by the prisoners straining every sinew of their being to help each other stay alive.
Karski recognized these were stories of fierce love inside inexpressible struggle, trauma, and horror.
My second message this morning is that the doors of history are opened to us by the Holy Spirit, and we, like Jan Karski, must go through them. We enter the portals of history to witness to God who makes all things new in the face of the evil. Evil which is striving to halt history and slam the door shut on God’s Kingdom’s progress and promise. Our witness, though, may initially reveal itself in a mute, stunned presence--
and that may be enough for the moment.
          In 1985, the French Film Director Claude Lanzmann released a 9-1/2 hour documentary series Shoah which documented the living witnesses of the Holocaust.  I committed four afternoons of a winter week in early 1986 to viewing Shoah at the Key Theater in Georgetown of Washington, DC.
During the second installment, Jan Karski appeared on-screen discussing the conditions he had found of the Jews confined in the Warsaw Ghetto, and he wept. Then I was moved to tears in the dark and flickering theater by his descriptions of what he saw and what he experienced in the conditions at the Bełżec Death Camp. 
I left the theater that gloomy Tuesday emotionally spent and got on the bus. It was raining. I sat down and focused internally on my memories of the moving witness to the Holocaust in the documentary. I then became aware of a disturbance at the front of the bus.
It was my friend Jan Karski, whom I had just seen on screen, off from his shift as a professor at Georgetown University. He was having difficulty putting away his umbrella while trying, in flustered English, to secure his senior citizen bus discount. The bus passengers were surly at the delay, and hearing his accent, they cast their anger frontward at him:
Some shouted, “Down in Front!” and “Go Back to where you came from!”
Carried by instinct, I got up from my seat and went to the front and embraced Karski, giving him my arm for support as I almost carried him to a seat. At our seat, I told him of my emotion at having just then seen him in Shoah.
          “Yes,” he said, “Lanzmann has made an important document of that terrible time. Pola can’t watch it, it’s too painful for her.” /
Since that bus ride, I’ve often wondered if I should have addressed the surly passengers on the bus—shamed them, perhaps with the words, “this is a great man, people!”
But in the presence of holiness, my voice failed.
I sat a mostly quiet vigil with Karski during the bus ride back to the Maryland suburbs. I had nothing profound to say, and the moment seemed to require something moving and deep and profound that I couldn’t utter. 
I was stuck outside the door of understanding. /
I used to envy the quick-witted opportunism of people who are quick with a retort that puts others down. I was wrong. It seems to me now that vocal zeal can be a crude rudder of justice. I have come to believe that the meaningful episodes of our past are developed into spiritual maturity by the virtues of patience and silence that allow others to go on their own way, without putdowns.
Silences such as mine on that bus bolted the immediacy of my angry protest. My silence, I later recollected, inadvertently discovered that holiness—that ordinary, unobtrusive love-- is not found in boldly rebuking the mob, but rather in companionship and chaplaincy with an elderly man on a rainy evening as he struggled with his umbrella and the hostility of the crowd. Recollecting, I have concluded that zeal takes a back seat to hospitality.
Which brings me to the implication of these memories: Brash boldness is not the same as courage. Being slow to speak allows for a wiser, more enduring, more joy inducing voice. The church has an opportunity to be truly countercultural in regard to selective silence. This may be a time for the church to listen and to learn, especially to the African American community undergoing so much pain and fury right now.

      In our society, profane boldness is a mask of self-affirmation that bluffs indifference to danger founded on being armed to the teeth. It’s too easy to go scorched earth when everything is framed as a battle. Yet Jesus didn’t say, "Follow me, and I will make you fighters of men."
Sacred courage, on the other hand, is not a mask, but rather courage is a mirror—an imaging of the humble Spirit that establishes solidarity with the suffering and which trusts, contagiously, in God. Courage breathes peace whether it can speak comfort or safety. Courage is humbly aware that we are not in control and chooses to be present in the world.//
As I prepared this sermon on Jesus’s gift of breath and the virtue of silence, this past Monday in Minneapolis our Christian brother George Floyd took a cop’s knee on his neck for 8 minutes. “Please, please, sir, I can’t breathe,” Floyd repeatedly pleaded, but the knee stayed. Witnesses begged the white officer to get off the black man's neck, but the knee stayed.
The man went unconscious, but the knee stayed. George Floyd later died. 'I can't breathe': the same words gasped by Eric Garner in NY in 2015, put in a deadly chokehold by police for selling cigarettes on the street. America's twisted racial knot is that the knees stay until breath ceases because there is no fear or love to keep it off in the first place. “I can’t breathe” is an assault on the spirit that Jesus gives at Pentecost.
George Floyd should be alive today. We must be alert for anybody saying, "I can't breathe," to recognize the truth bolted behind oppression of the Holy Spirit. I had thought to contrast a picture of kneeling athletes with that of the cop’s knee pressing on George Floyd’s neck. Because we are faced with a choice: One knee for a brutal social order that vilifies non-whites and takes away their breath, the other knee that silently expresses a breathing symbol for justice. I don’t think there’s a middle ground.
I express my deep sorrow that it continues to be open season on African personhood. One thing we can do--when we see police approach Black and Brown men-- is commit to slowing down and standing witness to the interaction. And be ready to challenge as Christ’s witnesses against every act of oppression--every knee that crushes breath instead of kneeling in repentance.
An empire founded on slavery and theft of land lacks understanding that violence is done against a person’s body, not against property. We do well to recollect that in times of unrest, Jesus overturned tables. To make a cosmic point about holiness and justice, Jesus interrupted business.//
In this season of public closings and unrest, we recollect the lessons of Pentecost. That God can bring even out of our confinements and silences—our communicative nothingness--a new narrative, a new history, a new symbolic world, a new virtue, a new collective commitment to goodness. 
Pentecost can happen to and through us as we re-emerge into society ripe for change. Our task as disciples is to make breath—our Spiritual force-- transcend its confinement even as we cultivate all people’s relationship with abundant life.
The Holy Spirit sends us through that unbolted door of death’s cave from whence Christ released his Breath in new life for all.  This is the new door of Pentecost: let us go through with our hearts ringing and prayerfully prepared. --
Help others from the knees of their oppressors, help others to keep on breathing. Bring community out of chaos. Unlock prison doors and unlock knees. Because we are people of the raising. 

[1] Henri Nouwen.
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Karski accessed on 6 August 2015.
[3] Pers. Comm.
[4] The documentary Karski and the Lords of Humanity is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Earth Day 2020: Ecological Trusteeship in the Psalms and Baptism

Earth Day 2020: 

Ecological Trusteeship in the Psalms and Baptism

An excerpt from

Analysis, Quantitative Methods, and Ecclesial Development.” Dissertation. San Francisco Theological Seminary/Graduate School of Theology at the University of Redlands, 2020.

The fiduciary principle (derived from a harmonization of Gen. 1.28 and 2.15) directs an agent of the state to “preserve and enhance the assets of [a] trust”—in this case, the natural environment (for humanity specifically, its resource base) as God’s Creation—"keeping always in mind the good of the beneficiaries” (Brown 1994, 71). Beneficiaries include future generations of all species. 
“The general duties of trustees are to act out of loyalty in the best interests of the beneficiary, not those of the trustee…to make the trust property productive” (ibid.). The fiduciary principle recognizes the “direct duty” of the trustee to “serve and enhance the well-being of all” not limited to the current generation.
            Additionally, the fiduciary principle for trustees requires the public governor or administrator of the natural estate to be impartial and deliberative, to respect human rights and be accountable to those rights, and to apply the Golden Rule for structuring its obligations (Brown 1994, 73-4). God entrusts humanity to act as God’s representative in administering our natural estate on behalf of all conceivable generations--the perpetuity condition—treating all beneficiaries as we ourselves would want to be treated.
            The fiduciary principle of trusteeship imposes two duties on each generation. One is the duty of “conserving options so that future generations can survive and pursue their own visions of the good life [sustainability principle]…so that we leave our descendants as many choices with respect to resources [and opportunities, ecosystem richness, and beauty] as we have had…The second duty is the conservation of quality, an obligation we discharge by conserving natural resources and investing in substitutes [like renewable sources so that they neither rise in price nor become depleted] (Brown 1994, 74-5).
              We may recognize the principle of trusteeship in other Near Eastern monotheistic religions. Rabbi David Gordis (2001, 1369) derives the principle of human trusteeship for the natural world from Torah without (as I have done) an excursion into the New Testament. Additionally, the Koran (II:29-30) links Creation with human trusteeship of the earth:

29. He made for you all that lies within the earth, then turning to the firmament He proportioned several skies: He has knowledge of everything.
30. Remember, when your Lord said to the angels: "I have to place a trustee on the earth" (Al-Qur'an 2001).

           As in Genesis 1 and 2, God’s creating activity is linked by the Koran with the need for designating and deriving a trustee in the Creation. In all three religions, humanity is designated the trustee by decree founded in the Creation account itself.
Human trusteeship of God’s created natural estate implies a respect for the beneficiary: the people of God and the Lord Jesus Christ as well as other elements lifted up by Scripture. Jesus instructed, “Let the children come to me.” By our appreciation of this message, we understand that Jesus has an interest in future generations and their opportunities to thrive and live meaningful lives within the renewing covenant of creation. Moreover, Psalm 104 (cf. Deut. 5. 14; Prov. 12.10a) incorporates other species into God’s provident care and commonwealth:

  Psalm 104: 1Bless the LORD, O my soul.
  O LORD my God, you are very great.
  You are clothed with honor and majesty…
    10You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
  they flow between the hills,
  11giving drink to every wild animal;
  the wild asses quench their thirst.
  12By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation;
  they sing among the branches.
  13From your lofty abode you water the mountains;
  the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.
  14 You cause the grass to grow for the cattle,
  and plants for people to use,
  to bring forth food from the earth,
  15and wine to gladden the human heart,
  oil to make the face shine,
  and bread to strengthen the human heart.
  16The trees of the LORD are watered abundantly,
  the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
  17In them the birds build their nests;
  the stork has its home in the fir trees.
  18The high mountains are for the wild goats;
  the rocks are a refuge for the coneys….
    27These all look to you
  to give them their food in due season;
  28when you give to them, they gather it up;
  when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.

Psalm 104 envisions the intentional and interdependent ecosystem—with the non-human species participants in the gracious provision of nature. Psalm 148 incorporates non-human species into the worshiping community, recognizing their intrinsic—non-instrumental--value. Yet humanity has likely caused a massed extinction event of wildlife since 1970 as 60% of fauna, fish, reptile, and bird species have been entirely extinguished. Moreover, human idolatry—greed and failure of trusteeship—has disrupted authentic and covenanted worship of God by the full community of Creation detailed in Psalm 148:
  Psalm 148:1 Praise the LORD!
  Praise the LORD from the heavens;
  praise him in the heights!
  2Praise him, all his angels;
  praise him, all his host!
  3Praise him, sun and moon;
  praise him, all you shining stars!
  4Praise him, you highest heavens,
  and you waters above the heavens!
  5Let them praise the name of the LORD,
  for he commanded and they were created.
  6He established them forever and ever;
  he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.
  7Praise the LORD from the earth,
  you sea monsters and all deeps,
  8fire and hail, snow and frost,
  stormy wind fulfilling his command!
  9Mountains and all hills,
  fruit trees and all cedars!
  10Wild animals and all cattle,
  creeping things and flying birds!
  11Kings of the earth and all peoples,
  princes and all rulers of the earth!
  12Young men and women alike,
  old and young together!
  13Let them praise the name of the LORD,
  for his name alone is exalted;
  his glory is above earth and heaven.
  14He has raised up a horn for his people,
  praise for all his faithful,
  for the people of Israel who are close to him.
Praise the LORD!
The totality of the created community is tasked by these two Psalms with praising God.[3] Trusteeship not only involves managing the resource base, it involves preserving the opportunities for a good life for all created beings, including non-human species. The Biblical texts that we have used to determine a narrative of human “dominion” also tell us that animals were also drawn from the soil and filled with the breath of life in common with humanity.[4] Ensouled flesh, they are companions to humanity in the atmospheric processes and similarly endowed with usufruct rights to the garden. Animals are existentially beloved of God and integral to God’s proper worship as citizens of God’s ecosystem and natural commonwealth. To the extent humanity has failed its trusteeship of the natural, created estate, it disrupts the intrinsic value of worship for and by those species gone extinct or are under environmental stress. Humanity brings about a vitiated and debased worship of the Creator when it reduces the biodiversity and integrity of ecosystems for its own self-centered needs. Such self-centeredness is humanity’s idolatrous, contravention of the call to trusteeship.

Baptismal Praxis of Ecological Trusteeship
The awareness of atmospheric trusteeship may be promoted by ritual or in a prayerful attitude of the sacred. Dahill (2015) proposes moving church rituals and sacraments outdoors from the confines of the built sanctuary into the cathedral of the sky.
Human alienation from nature may be countered by a Christian spirituality of biocentric re-immersion into reality, cultivating loyalty to the genius of place and planet. “Rewilding” is a Christian spiritual practice for the Anthropocene. Perceiving the disconnection of contemporary human life from its ecological foundation reveals the link between spiritless consumerism and hasty, combustion-fueled materialism on the horizontal plane. Human obsession with the horizontal plane of the ephemeral obstructs the awareness of eternity which integrates verticality and horizontality in the living rhythms and harmonious inclinations of the animated world inside well-ordered nature. Perpendicularity recognizes the Sky’s punctuated sustenance of nature in rain, air, storm, the intimacy of plant and animal respiration—and our own--inside landscaped moieties of human artifice and wild naturalness. As a corrective of human alienation from nature, Dahill (2005) proposes the liturgical renewal of and venue shift for baptism:
Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth—our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese. To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn these other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence…Out in contact and conviviality [with open-aired nature is] an astonishing fullness of the baptismal life, a much wilder immersion.
Christian practice has moved from the early understanding which involved relishing, drowning in, and enjoying the water of life. The baptismal river became a pool; [then a] cistern; [then] a barrel; [then] a font; [then] a birdbath; [then a] bowl; [then a] fingerbowl…[losing experience with] the transforming symbolic power of full immersion in baptism, and construction of fonts with the sounds of running water and immersive capacity [now] in indoor rituals more or less fully cut off from the actual biological life of the larger watersheds in which such communities are located.
I want to…restore the practice of Christian baptism into the uncontrolled, dangerous, transforming waters of a community’s watershed . . .[to] shape belief, habitus, worldview…powerfully [by] the form of baptismal experience—shap[ing] in formative ways participants’ spontaneous, untutored articulation of what their baptism means[---A] radical spiritual/ecological immersion into the actual local [open-air] watershed and the largest life of Earth that we need today.
It is after immersion in water that Jesus re-emerges into air to meet the Spirit “coming as a dove” (Mt. 3:16). These processive images through water and air recapitulate the sequence of Gen. 1:1-4, with the immersion of God’s incarnate Son at the historical point of border entry by the people into the promised Land, a people sent within the covenantal dispensation of obedience as agents of conquest in the land suffering the cosmic effects of the fall. Jesus emerges by biological necessity to meet with the sent Spirit in the Sky, for the restoration of the ontology of shalom, beauty, and freedom.
Baptism liturgically incarnates the wild death-in-birth and birth-in-death experience of a liminal, refugee mother in labor suffocating under the threat of social eviction and extinction (cf. Romans 8) and released by joy. Rather than inert backdrops of a solely spiritualized drama, the water (cf. Hab. 2:14) and atmosphere have agency in the transmission of the energies of the Trinity manifested by the voice from heaven, the airborne kinematics of the dove, and the baptismal washing and anointing that returns forth (in an extension of divine missio) a new family into the wider cosmos of land and nature. Just as social outsiders and animals were participants in the messiah’s birthing into the land that was promised, all of intended Creation becomes incorporated into the promised renewal dramatized in baptism, intimate agents in the salvific renewal of Eden on this earth. The cosmos is reaffirmed in both its materiality and infused spiritual essence flowing from both the Godhead (in union) and now the presence of the new family of anointed trustees (in communion). God’s new superintendence of gracious love manifests as maternal and not dominating, ever steadfast in loyalty and care (hesed). The wails of the newly delivered give way at the mother’s joy—her shouting and singing at the astounding punctuation of being and history—to become the beneficiary of a new earth. Christ becomes all-in-all, the Spirit diffuses forth through Creation as the Creator intended, bringing what is elected in the cosmos home in adoption and purification, the glorious summation of physical quickening revealed in ringing eternal praise and shining, theophoric bliss.
For you shall go out in joy,
  and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
  shall burst into song,
  and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands
(--Isa. 55:12; cf. Ps. 65:13; Zech. 2:14).

Ali, Ahmed, trans. 2001. Al-Qur’an (The Koran): A Contemporary Translation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 
Brown, Peter G. 1994. Restoring the Public Trust: A Fresh Vision for Progressive Government in America. Boston: Beacon Press. 
Dahill, Lisa E. 2015. “Into Local Waters: Rewilding the Study of Christian Spirituality.” Presidential Address (Fall) to the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. Manuscript.
Gordis, David M. 2001. “Ecology.” In Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary, 1369–72. New York: The Rabbinical Assembly.

[3] Cf. Isa. 43: 19–20b:
19 I am about to do a new thing;
  now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
  I will make a way in the wilderness
  and rivers in the desert.
  20The wild animals will honor me,
  the jackals and the ostriches;
  for I give water in the wilderness,
  rivers in the desert.
[4] Cf. esp. Eccl. 3.19:
“For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other.
They all have the same breath (רוּחַ rûaḥ),
and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity (הֶבֶל hebhel)).”