Memorial Day is a day of gratitude, memory, and faith.
The first Memorial Day was a day when freed slaves in South Carolina exhumed bodies of Union soldiers from a mass grave to bury them individually. It was an act of respect and thanks. Black hands executed an ancient African spiritual imperative to honor the dead, to decorate their graves, to remember their names and deeds. Theirs was a cosmology and a definition of community that survived the unspeakable horror of the Middle Passage and the dehumanizing intent of slavery, an understanding that the community is composed of the not-yet-born, the living, and the dead remembered. When the work of reburial was done, the occasion was made sacred with sermons, singing, and a picnic.
Today Memorial Day is one of the high holy days of the American civil religion. We pause to honor, with gratitude and with memory, those who have given their lives in service to their country. And, along with the solemn ceremonies, we fire-up our family grills, making offering of worship and devotion to the gods. Lady Liberty, Blind Justice, the Goddess Columbia, Nature and Nature’s God enjoy the sweet savor of meat and fish and a variety of vegetables cooking over smoke and flame. We gather with friends and family to eat and drink, to tell tall tales, to enjoy each other’s company and to celebrate the de-facto beginning of summer. Some of us who live near the ocean will go “down the shore” to keep traditions of summer fun alive.
The gods of the nation are pleased. Their favor, however, is a dangerous idolatrous thing because they require blood sacrifice, or at least they live because women and men are willing to sacrifice themselves and their children for the sake of the nation. Idols require blood and tears because they have none of their own. Warriors die for love of country, but the country cannot love them back. Only human beings can love other human beings in return. Only a God that is Divine Love itself can love in return.
Since Easter, we have worked with the great challenge of our times, the news that climate change will bring no more normal now – that everything will change, and we must change. Our species has no experience with demands so implacable. Our whole world view – religious, philosophical and political – along with all other world views, evolved on a hospitable planet and presumes such. But that simple presumption of earth’s hospitality has been shattered by our own actions, however unwittingly. Therefore, our religion faces a test unlike any previous: Is our faith able to help us adapt and adopt a world view and habits adequate to a world waiting to be born? Why, just yesterday, Columbia Univ. professor James Hanson, retired head of NASA’s Goddard Institute, was speaking to lawmakers in London. He told them that if the tar sands in Canada and other lands are exploited “to a significant extent,” then the problem of climate change will be “unsolvable.” Yet like an alcoholic, the nations belly up to the barrel and tell the baron of oil, “Break open another!” If in this crisis, our religion is not part of the solution, then what we do each Sunday is part of the addiction.
Certainly, religious life has been key in crises before. We could tell the stories for hours, but let Moses speak for them all. “I call hot heaven and a warming earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” But before the faithful get to work on themselves and their situation, the people must first confront the basic predicament of society. We just don’t agree. Unlike the animals, we come to our crises with separate consciences and separate aims, which cannot be coerced; with separate fears and separate gifts for living with our fears.
Ten years ago, when we were starting a little community in Durham, NC, that wanted to take Jesus and justice seriously, we went every year to the annual conference of the Christian Community Development Association. Back then, a long weekend with two thousand people who were walking the same journey felt like an oasis. We never missed it.
About that time, Charles Marsh, a great theologian and historian at the University of Virginia, published his book The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice from the Civil Rights Movement to Today. With good research and compelling story-telling, Marsh connected the dots between Martin Luther King, Koinonia Farm, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and CCDA. What happened to the civil rights movement after 1968, Marsh asked? It didn’t die. It went underground, off the radar, and continued doing the long hard work that thousands of faithful souls had been doing before 1955.
A film from 2010 by Danish director Lars von Trier received little notice then, but I hear of it more and more now. It is called Melancholia. A heavenly body – far bigger than an asteroid – has appeared in the night sky. It seems more beautiful than the moon – but is it moving? How? Will it fly by Earth? Will it . . . ? Can people deny the evidence of its approach? The film’s sole subject is a wealthy family living on an elegant country estate, reacting to this approaching orb, one in this way, another in that.
It would be too small to say the film is about global warming. Rather, the film evokes silence for a question of absolute urgency: How do we meet the news that there is no more normal now – that everything will change, that we must change; not just our person, but our civilization must change; and with it every connection, every living system? How to meet that news?
When the subject is climate change, some of us wonder, Why worry about a far-off threat that doesn’t affect us where we live? Has the preacher already forgotten about mass incarceration and stop+frisk? About immigration abuses and the need for education and health care delivery right here in this community? Others of us feel overwhelmed. Climate change is just too big – like that planet coming in the skies of Melancholia. It is news we can’t use in the pews! What can we do? These responses are normal.
by: Stephen Phelps on April 23rd, 2013 | Comments Off
Nothing is as beautiful as union and unity of mind. Nothing compares with being one – provided each individual is honored and respected. Each individual! Inside that little word, you can hear the matchless value it declares – undividable, must-not-be-broken, I am somebody, an individual. Yet individuals long to be not set apart. We seek unity, community, love, peace – a new heaven and a new earth. The matchless value in the hearts of all peoples in all times is that we may be one. E pluribus unum, reads the Great Seal of the USA: “Out of many, one.” To preserve the integrity of each and the unity of the one – this is hard. It is what makes life hard in our very imperfect nation. It is what makes life hard in our very imperfect church – hard for the one deep reason, that we long to be our self, and we long to be together. And we want both now, because time is short. Every love song, every national anthem, every hymn to God, every I have a dream! is woven from the wondrous deep wish that each one be one, and that all may be one. All the promises of God revealed to us through our faith aim for peace along this path. Christians call it the way of the Cross.
But we cannot get to unity through our longings. We are too disordered by our own worries. Therefore, profound experiences of joined humanity usually come only in the face of mortal danger. We have seen it in Boston these last days, both in the vast cooperation of the citizenry to apprehend the bombers and in the sudden joy spilling into the streets to thank the authorities after the manhunt was over. When the murderous mayhem at Newtown still stunned our spirits, we experienced a depth of unity – but last week, disunity and party spirit ruled in Washington as the power of the people to join in unified action against gun violence was shattered. In the aftermath of natural disasters like Sandy, the beauty of community builds up. If a terrible war ends, the victors, though not the vanquished, join in joy. Thus danger and release from danger unify those who see the same danger.
Last Tuesday, on Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day), I debated an American supporter of Likud in front of 200 students at the Kushner Academy yeshiva high school in Livingston, New Jersey. Everyone — including my opponent — was polite and friendly, and the teachers repeatedly exhorted the students to be civil and open to hearing a view they may disagree with. Three boys came up to me after to shake my hand and tell me that they were perhaps the only “liberals” in the school.
Although personable, my opponent was loose in his interpretations and misinformed on relevant events in Palestinian-Israeli relations. He even referred to the Boston Marathon bombing of the previous day, before we knew anything about the perpetrators, as if this were relevant to our debate. I don’t recall his exact words, but he insinuated that it proved how violent and undependable “they” are — by which he must have meant Muslims, Arabs and/or Palestinians.
Such generalizations are wrong, of course, but the extremist Jihadi script is out there; sadly, this constitutes a distinct behavioral model for disaffected and maladjusted individuals to embrace for meaning in their lives. From what we know of the Tsarnaev brothers, this seems to be true of the older brother, with the younger pushed along by the overpowering force of the older’s personality. I’m impressed with J. J. Goldberg’s thoughtful piece on this in The Forward, “The Deadly Identity Crisis Along Islam’s Borders.”
by: Stephen Phelps on April 16th, 2013 | Comments Off
The poet who wrote the lyric for that hymn, Rev. Thomas Troeger, teaches at Yale Divinity School, my alma mater. When I attend a conference there, Tom Troeger is often addressing the assembly, so I have developed a feeling for his sharp mind and great heart. For that reason, when I see how long ago Troeger penned these words – almost thirty years – I can’t help but imagine that he would be the first to say that his verse has suffered a reverse at the hands of climate change. God did not mark a line and tell the sea anything, or else the sea wasn’t listening. Ask Sandy. Ask Irene. Ask Katrina. Surf’s up, people, in the worst way. Either God never had a word with the sea . . . or God’s order is out of order.
Today, we are going to think hard about what Christian faith has to do with caring for the earth. We are going to return to the question next week, and the week after, April 28th, when Bill McKibben, the world’s foremost earth care activist, will bring our morning sermon. Now, our preaching, including Mr. McKibben’s, will certainly be preaching. Proclaiming the good news of the gospel is the heart of our message. But we are not going to change the subject.
“Remember those who are in prison as if you are in prison with them.”Hebrews 13:3
Every Thursday afternoon, for years now, a group of Women in Black and their male allies gather at the freeway overpass in my home town, Nevada City, California. Women in Black is a “world-wide network of women committed to peace with justice and actively opposed to injustice, war, militarism and other forms of violence.”
On Thursday, April 11, we joined these friends with our “Torture is a Moral Issue” banner and our signs to “Close Guantanamo.” This local action was one of many taking place around the country on the National Day of Action to Close Guantanamo and End Indefinite Detention, sponsored by Witness Against Torture and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.
Salvation. A word I view with suspicion. When I hear “accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior,” I have to hold back a wave of revulsion. Though I know some people’s lives have been transformed for the good at revival meetings, for me, “getting saved” (which I did three times in different churches) brings up bitter anger at the adults around me and disappointment in myself. Each time, my “salvation” meant a child collapsing under intense fear, pressure, and manipulation, abandoning her true self in order to conform and be accepted. My real salvation came through therapy and therapeutic groups.
Lita's cat, Mimi, at her new home. Credit: Lita Kurth
So when the writers’ group at the church I attend gave the prompt, “salvation,” I was stuck. Finally, I decided to write about literal salvation, saving someone from a fire, from an oncoming truck, from death.
The Salvation Story
Ironically, it was a Sunday. We sat on the concrete benches under a dead tree watching the daisies and finding snails until ten o’clock when the shelter doors opened.
The woman behind the desk discussed the cat selection. One prize beast displayed in a prominent glass box was double-priced, highly desirable, and it would go quickly. We glanced. Too large. And walked on.
Pope Francis with Foreign Diplomats, Credit REUTERS/Tony Gentile
The news out of the Vatican seems to be getting more and more fascinating every day. An avid researcher of all religions – and especially interested in all things Catholic because of my educational ties with convents – I have been following the abdication of Pope Benedict and the election of Pope Francis, and all that’s happened in between these two major events, with great interest. When Benedict resigned, I felt a moment or two of incredulity, because it’s practically unheard of. Then I followed the whole voting process, including the betting, with bated breath. And I haven’t been disappointed, for Pope Francis is proving to be an absolute gem in so many ways. As I said, fascinating news… even though I’m a Muslim.