We are back to normal – at least our children are. On this cold and icy start to March I went to walk at a local mall on my lunch hour. Very young children, accompanied by parents, were nearly as numerous as the un-shepherded teens. Belatedly, I remembered that most of the local schools were closed. Anxious parents, unaccustomed to entertaining overactive, bored children, wrapped them in coats and boots and mufflers and whisked the whole family off to shop. America at its most American. American Girl and Build-A-Bear Workshop were packed tighter than Verizon Center’s kiosks at half-time. Young teenage girls prowled in groups, swinging shopping bags like pom-poms. America’s sport.

The shopping bags tell the story. The last several years have been unkind to the retail industry. Saturday afternoons saw shopping-center crowds with few purchases in hand. People are buying again. The deep recession has eased to the point that Americans are confident enough to return to the big department-stores with earnest money in hand. There is more than a little room for thanksgiving. The economic downturn hurt. It hurt the poor and the middle-class, and it scared the wealthy.

But there is another not so benign side to the recovery. It can be seen on the faces and in the giddy laughter of teens heading for the dressing rooms, arms wrapped around mountains of clothes – all of them in the latest styles, designed to make a statement about its wearer. Retail sales may be the engine that drives the economy, but it is all too often the engine that drives a shallow culture. In a letter to Adlai Stevenson, John Steinbeck observed: “What a strange species we are. We can stand anything God and Nature can throw at us save only plenty. If I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much, and I would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy and sick.”

Things in themselves have no power, neither power to enhance nor power to corrupt. But the habitual striving for the new and fashionable, everywhere visible in the American marketplace, is symptomatic of a deeper discontent. Disconnected from the life around us, from the natural world we experience only in well-manicured parks; disconnected from the communities we live in, lonely in a crowd of millions; disconnected from ourselves, unable to bear the doubts that come unbidden when we are alone; we run, directionless, seeking only distraction.

Into this world we are called to offer the alternative of the Gospel, as Paul writes to the Corinthian Christians: to know and proclaim Christ crucified. It is a foolish proclamation to those who are “miserable, greedy, and sick,” but to those hungry for meaning, it is a message of hope and promise. All too often, Christians, in despair, retreat inward into their faith-communities, complaining that the world has changed and is no longer receptive to the Gospel message. “We live in a post-Christian age!” is the cry of the defeated.

If we believe with the great creeds of the church that Jesus is the God-Man, risen from the dead, and seated at the right-hand of the Father, there can be no post-Christian era. Furthermore, the materialistic culture of today is neither new nor immune to the call of Christ. Anthony Thiselton writes in his commentary on the Greek text of 1 Corinthians of the Apostle Paul’s struggles with the Greco-Roman culture of his day. He describes the Corinthians as being immersed in “the self-sufficient, self-congratulatory culture of Corinth coupled with an obsession about peer-group prestige, success in competition, their devaluing of tradition and universals, and near contempt for those without standing in some chosen value system.”[Italics in the original]

Thiselton goes on to note that 1Corinthians “stands in a distinctive position of relevance to our own times.” (Again, italics in the original.)The world of the New Testament was not different from our own. The message of hope in Christ, the message of grace and love is as powerful as it always was. The Gospel penetrated to the heart of the ancient world and has never ceased to draw the seekers who feel deeply in their souls that there must be more to life than the “miserable, greedy, and sick” offer. We are not called to change the world, we are called in Corinth and in Washington, in Athens and New York to proclaim Christ and Him Crucified.

All the Rest is Commentary

Some years ago, researching transportation law for a contract, I settled in at Georgetown Law Library, yellow pad at the ready, and began reading federal statutes. I awoke an hour later with my forehead resting softly on the pages of a book I don’t remember opening. I determined right then to buy a complete set of the United States Statues at Large; you never know which volume might be needed on a sleepless night. Judging from the traffic in the library, lawyers and law clerks must find the Statutes fascinating, but I can’t see much value in them beyond their soft pages. They just don’t seem to connect with my life

There comes a time in most of our lives when we need a lawyer to help us navigate the complexities of the law, whether it be wills or trusts or powers of attorney. But for most of our days, how many laws does a person need? Jesus answered that question: two. “He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

If we are honest with ourselves, most of us have problems determining just how those two commandments apply to our daily lives, much like the problem with those Statutes at Large. In a famous sermon, Harry Emerson Fosdick, pastor of Riverside Church of New York City, suggested six ways to tell right from wrong; that is, what loving God and neighbor might look like if we put them into practice. The first is simply common sense. At a deep level, you and I know the difference between right and wrong. It’s not the same as the dictates of conscience; it’s simply to engage our brains before we act. Secondly, if we apply the principles of sportsmanship, we won’t break the rules or take special privileges because we expect a level playing field and we should be willing to extend that to others. Thirdly, in the deepest level of that place we call “self,” there is in all of us something that is good and noble – something opposed to the careless, vulgar, greedy self. It takes practice to call this higher self into conscious conversation and to follow its leadings. In fourth place is the Facebook test. What if everybody knew what I was doing? How many “likes” would the selfie of my thoughts and motives get? Fosdick cites Bishop Phillips Brooks: keep clear of concealment and the need for concealment, and “do nothing which he might not do out in the middle of Boston Common at noonday.” Fifthly, what would your most admired personality do in a similar situation? Put another way, what would Jesus do? That simple question would stop us in our tracks more often than we care to admit. Lastly, and perhaps most practically, where will this lead? Foresight is not just for the prophet. Some courses of action lead to outcomes impossible to predict but most consequences are clearly visible from the beginning. As Fosdick said, “Every man who picks up one end of a stick picks up the other. Aye! Every man who chooses one end of a road is choosing the other.”

How would my life look if I applied these six, simple principals? I suspect it would look a lot more like someone who loved God and neighbor, and if we believed Jesus, in those two laws are contained all the statutes we could print. All the rest is commentary.


Every Who

Down in Who-ville

Liked Christmas a lot …

But the Grinch,

Who lived just north of Who-ville,

Did NOT!

With a heart two sizes too small, the Grinch is not only unable to join in the Who’s Christmas joy, he is incapable of understanding either the nature of Christmas or the reason for the holiday. He thinks that without the presents and the decorations and the Who-roast-beast there will be no Christmas. But in the end he finds he hasn’t stopped Christmas at all as hand-in-hand the Who’s joyfully sing “Without any presents at all!” Like Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge, Dr. Seuss’ Grinch finds that there is something more going on here, and like Charles Dickens, Ted Seuss Geisel has written a classic tale that reminds us that buried beneath the weight of the Christmas industry there is something worth recovering.

Ted Geisel was fifty-three when he wrote How the Grinch Stole Christmas. In the book there is a self-reference that expresses his frustration with what Christmas had become and his own struggle against the commercialization that by 1957 had all but obscured the true meaning of the season.

And the more the Grinch thought of this Who-Christmas-Sing, the more the Grinch thought, “I must stop this whole thing!

“Why, for fifty-three years I’ve put up with it now!

“I MUST stop this Christmas from coming!

… But HOW?”

We cannot stop this whole thing nor can we reverse the tide that has brought us here. The trouble is within us. Writing about the commercialization of Christmas has become hackneyed, and worse yet, misses the point. Our material culture exists because we want it. The mad rush to buy and sell, transforming what was once the second most sacred holiday in Christendom into an orgy of over-consumption, is the symptom of a greater malady. We have lost the ability to value the quiet, the sacred, the eternal that is our true self – the self-that walked with God in the cool of the day. (Gen. 3:8) And like our first parents we are found to be hiding, hiding from God and ourselves, for we dare not be found naked.

Yet it is the naked soul and only the naked soul that experiences true peace. The soul that seeks to shroud itself in robes spun from its own fancy can never be satisfied. This is the song of the world. Hurry! Hustle! Run! Quickly now, you mustn’t fall behind! The true song of the soul is heard in quietness and rest, and as Isaiah says, there is your true salvation. There is the music of the universe to soothe the soul. In Sand and Foam, Kahlil Gibran wrote, “How narrow is the vision that exalts the busyness of the ant above the singing of the grasshopper.” Have we lost the ability to appreciate the music of sheer play for play’s sake? How priceless are our days? Gibran went on to write,

They deem me mad because I will not sell my days for gold;

And I deem them mad because they think my days have a price.

It is wonderful to give and to receive at Christmas, but it is tragic to lose ourselves in that giving and getting. It is only the one whose days have no price that can joyfully join hands in Who-ville and sing, without any presents at all. And that is the message of the angels, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” That’s you in your soul’s most nakedness. This season: give with abandonment, receive without restraint, share without measure, and love unconditionally. Such is the love of Jesus, and the meaning of Christmas.

We can continue to live as if our hearts were two sizes too small, but wouldn’t it be better to live our days without a price, dancing to the music of God?

The Moral Compass

I have early morning coffee twice weekly with an informal group in a local restaurant. The coffee is always accompanied by lively conversation. One man is fond of finding obscure Bible passages and seeming contradictions and seeing if he can stump the pastor. It’s a game we have been playing for several years. I don’t mind. It at least introduces the Bible into an otherwise secular conversation and often leads beyond the often trivial verse to deeper, more important subjects.

Recently I remained behind after the last of the group had left with the idea of spending some uninterrupted time with my laptop. It wasn’t long before a young man sitting nearby edged his chair closer to my table and asked if I were a pastor and if those were members of my congregation. I said yes and no. I am a pastor but only two of the group are active in a congregation and it isn’t one I serve. He was silent for a moment, then asked, “How can you be sure this stuff is real?” By stuff I took it that he meant Jesus and the Bible. I responded that there is a great deal of evidence to support the New Testament narrative from sources outside of the Bible, but ultimately, it is a matter of faith based on experience. No one will get very far in the Christian life if his faith is based only on the knowledge of a millennia-old book no matter how much of it he memorizes.

He seemed to struggle with that for a moment, then asked, “Why should I have to be told by a book what I can and can’t do?” I’ve learned after many years of pastoral care-giving not to push people to share beyond what they are ready to disclose, but it was obvious that something was troubling him. I said, simply, “Most often, the Bible just reinforces what we already know. There is very little in the Bible regarding behavior that is either new or novel. We know the difference between right and wrong without being told.” To borrow a phrased from the Gospels, “He went away sorrowful.”

I’ll never know what his specific dilemma was, but I have been at this long enough to know that he didn’t need me to tell him what to do. His struggle arose out of an internal conflict between desire and conscience. The Apostle Paul reminds us that if we listen our conscience will sometimes accuse and sometimes excuse us, but it will rarely be silenced. And that is because we share a built-in moral compass. As Moses spoke to the people of Israel as they approached the Jordan River:

Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us that we may obey it?” No, the word is very near you; Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so that we may obey it?” No, the word is very near you, it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it. (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)

To freely paraphrase Harry Emerson Fosdick: No one stays awake at night worrying about what happened to the Jebusites. Who hasn’t spent a sleepless night worrying about what we’ve said and done? No, we don’t need a book to tell us what to do and how to behave, but those old stories tell us a lot about how we as people behave and what the consequences of our actions are likely to be. Those stories also tell us about a God who can be experienced in the here and now. What happened to the Jebusites is interesting to some of us, but of more interest is the God those stories reveal, the God waiting to be discovered in our daily lives. Do I believe what I teach others? Yeah, I do. And I find, like Moses, that it’s not too hard or too far away. I think Immanuel Kant said it best: “Two things fill my mind with ever increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind of thought is drawn to them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within me.”

The most conscientious healthcare worker will make a mistake. Two Ebola cases in Dallas put an exclamation point behind the old adage that protocols (why can’t we just call them what they are: procedures?) are never failsafe. Yet, we continue to believe that with a little foresight and a lot of technology we can handle any situation. That is why we believed the CDC when they pronounced that Ebola could never enter the USA; when they pronounced that our healthcare system would be able to recognize and isolate anyone with suspicious symptoms and travel history; and when they pronounced that infected individuals – hypothetical of course because Ebola could never penetrate our borders – would be cared for at minimal risk to our hospital staff and communities. That’s why Nina Pham and Amber Vinson have to be blamed for contracting the disease. The alternative, that we really can’t guarantee the safety of everyone from these all but invisible predators, can never be mentioned. Instead we attempt to reassure ourselves and others with bold pronouncements and declare an expertise that we do not have. Healthcare workers make mistakes, travelers evade screening, and Ebola, once a world away, came to a suburban Dallas neighborhood.

It only took one. A man who declared on his exit form that he had had no contact with an Ebola victim. Something we now know to be false. But would airport screening have made a difference? No. Thomas Eric Duncan was asymptomatic. No amount of questioning or infrared temperature probes would have led to his denial of entry or his isolation. With a twenty-one day incubation period, Ebola will continue to evade detection in all but the sickest individuals, and therein lies the problem. Having traveled to Liberia often in the 1980s, I know there are many paths from West Africa to the United States. The CDC admits that screening at five major airports will cover only ninety-five percent of travelers from the infected zone. As that zone continues to expand, so will the number of unscreened passengers arriving from European, Asian, and Canadian airports.

The answer, of course, is to isolate the zone of infection – the old fashioned public health standby: quarantine. The explanations for not doing so ring hollow. There is no medical reason that isolating foci of infection won’t contain the disease. Then why aren’t we taking these historically effective measures? Complex geopolitical concerns. No one wants to further destabilize Africa. Most of the involved nations are barely able to function in the best of times. In these worst of times they face intractable poverty, struggling economies, political unrest, and militant Islamic forces ready to capitalize on any government failure. Propping up these governments is the tradeoff that is being made.

This tiny, strangely beautiful, filamentous organism has contributed to a perfect storm. More than a decade of war in the Middle East, the continuing success of ISIL, the collapse of the coalition government in Iraq, and the moribund world economy have made western governments impotent. Into this geopolitical mixing pot of crises steps a hemorrhagic fever so potent it kills seventy percent of its victims. The West was simply unprepared to acknowledge the threat until it came home to a suburban Dallas neighborhood.

In St. John’s Revelation, the vision proper begins with the unleashing of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Far from a vision of the future, the horsemen represent the ever present forces of war, famine, pestilence, and death. Until we acknowledge our role in these powers of destruction that threaten us we will forever be at their mercy, whether they present as fanatical soldiers or filamentous viruses. The first step with Eblola is to acknowledge that this virus is far more contagious than our laboratory experiments and limited field experience have indicated. The second step is a pragmatic assessment of what we can reasonably do to contain it. The time for hubris and arrogance is past. The time for prayer and prudent action is now and always. This is a wake up call even if we avoid a pandemic.

Some years ago I had the opportunity to attend a “technical dress-rehearsal” for an opera at the Kennedy Center. The actors and orchestra were ready; opening night was two days away. All that remained was for the technicians to program the lighting and curtain calls. For several hours I watched as the technicians’ fine-tuned placement and program so that each movement on the stage was accompanied by the seamless rising and dimming of lights that changed color with the mood on the stage. Ebola in Dallas has been our technical dress-rehearsal, and we have failed miserably. We failed to recognize what in hindsight seems to have been an obvious infection; the CDC gave permission for one of Thomas Eric Duncan’s primary caregivers to travel on an airplane after she had developed a fever, resulting in eight-hundred additional people being placed on a watch list; and we are being told that the situation is under control. No, it isn’t.

We don’t know how these two young professional nurses contracted this disease. I do know this much. I worked for more than a decade as a chaplain in healthcare facilities around virulently contagious diseases. Nurses are not cavalier about safety measures, and every nurse I ever worked with knew and followed proper protocol for donning and removing protective equipment. The more dangerous the pathogen, the more care taken. There is something amiss here, and it isn’t sloppy nursing. Either this disease is no longer playing by the rules or we don’t know what the rules are.

It is time for decisive action. That action includes an honest reassessment of this disease, including all of our assumptions and preconceived notions. So far, the Administration’s response is to tell us we are overreacting and to appoint a political activist as Ebola Czar. We need doctors not politicos. We need good medicine not spin. There are huge geopolitical ramifications associated with this outbreak and we need to fight this epidemic on multiple fronts. Yes, we need to assist the Africans, but we also need a transparent medical response, one that inspires public trust. Right now we’re getting neither. This may not become a global pandemic, but the Four Horsemen are at large, and all we are getting is an object lesson: politics and public health are dangerous bedfellows.

Broad leaf lettuce, vine ripened tomatoes, and purple sweet potatoes caught my eye. Arranged like an artist’s palette, the tomatoes, lettuce and an assortment of pole beans and radishes framed the sweet potatoes – Stokes Purple. They have been commercially available since 2006, but are not widespread in our super markets. These were huge by any standard, and any two, picked at random, would make a delicious lavender casserole. Such is the greeting you receive when you ascend the few brick steps to Alexandria, Virginia’s Market Square on a Saturday morning. For over 260 years, local farmers, along with artists and artisans and bakers and butchers, have brought their goods for sale in the square. There is an apocryphal story that local farmer George Washington gave the land to the city for just this purpose. When the market was established in 1749, Washington was a magistrate for the local court and a trustee of the city. He was among those who approved and oversaw the construction of the new city hall and courthouse in 1752 and argued for the continuance of Market Square – the place where he sent his own farm products for sale.

The farmers market had fallen on hard times by the 1970s. Fortunately the city’s commitment to maintain the market as a local tradition was strong enough to ensure its survival, even though only a few venders set up their stalls on Saturday mornings for a handful of local residents. The 1980s saw resurging interest in healthy food choices and in locally grown produce. The city responded with new rules for the market intended to bolster its popularity and to ensure that the market tradition would remain strong. Today, the Alexandria Farm Market, held every Saturday morning throughout the year, is the oldest continuous farm market in the country, a delight for residents and tourists alike. There were no purple sweet potatoes in 1749, but I’m sure that their pale-yellow cousins were arranged just as artfully; business is, after all, business.

The outcome could have been different. Reduced popularity and support by local residents could have spelled the end of the market. There are many readily available alternatives. But these alternatives lack two essential elements – history and tradition. Such connections with the past speak to our need for both meaning and stability, assuring us that we are part of something of enduring value. Innovation and modernization ensure that we are not mired in the past, but agents of change need not abandon the core essentials that define organizations and enterprises.

There is a movement within American Christianity to redefine what it means to do church. Groups like “Fresh Expressions” are open to new ways of expressing religious faith in the public square. These non-traditional “churches” experiment with different modes of worship, different worship venues, and different organizational structures, and within both mainstream and evangelical churches there are calls for radical rethinking about all aspects of worship and discipleship. All of this is in the cause of modernization and the perceived need to make church relevant. Much of it is singularly ineffective.

What is missing is a vision of the future that includes a deep and abiding connection with the past, with those who have gone before us in the faith. It is not only possible, it is imperative that we modernize the church. At the same time, it is a terrible mistake to think that we can do so by severing ties with tradition. When Isaac returns from the lands of the Philistines to the land of his father Abraham, the writer of Genesis tells us: “Isaac dug again the wells of water that had been dug in the days of his father Abraham; for the Philistines had stopped them up after the death of Abraham; and he gave them the names that his father had given them.” [Genesis 26:18] It is again time to re-dig the old wells. The traditions of the church – traditions in hymnody, traditions in preaching, and traditions of liturgy – are rich wells that can be dug again in every generation. They bear the names our fathers have given them for a reason. They present the timeless truths of the Christian faith that remain relevant for every generation.

There were no Purple Stokes sweet potatoes on market shelves in 1749, but there were sweet potatoes. Lavender or pale yellow, they make the same casserole.


Harperella Hunting

Saturday was hot. One of those humid, sulphurous, late-Summer days that turns an ordinary walk through Allegheny bottom lands into something to be borne, never enjoyed. Deep in the woods, beside the river, the smell of mold and decay mixed with the sulphur that made the region a haven for those Nineteenth-Century Americans “seeking the cure.” Slapping mosquitos and paying little attention to what lay ahead, I stumbled into a spider web, rising from my knees to my above my head, spanning the trail. As I swatted my way through, a fist-sized spider rushed toward me along the last remaining upper support. Just short of my nose, she abandoned her attack, disengaged, and floated gracefully on a barely visible lifeline to the leaves below. I lost sight of her as I tried to clear web fragments from my eyes, nose, and ears. I do not dislike spiders, but I hate the feeling of invisible silk strands clinging to my face. For the next hour I had the sensation of being crawled upon – a feeling made more intense with every imagined bug and tick that proved to be real.

I had left the house in good spirits, angling through the woods toward the river on my annual Harperella nodosum survey. Harperella is a small aquatic plant found in very few places, and although native to the Cacapon River, it has been rendered nearly extinct by a succession of hundred-year floods. I suppose it is of no particular importance, at least not in terms of property value, but I hold out hope that some isolated plants might have established a freehold along the little piece of riverfront I claim. So I continue to look on the cobble-margins of the river for a thin, small plant with wet feet, its tiny white flowers opening to the full sun, testifying to the resilience of life. But I found more spiders than Harperella, more ticks than white flowers.

We often overlook the fact that in the Genesis creation story mankind was created on the same day as all of the other animals, and God declares the whole creation good, not just our part of it. Some things, like harperella, are worth finding and protecting just because they exist. In the case of harperella, the task is made easier because they are delicate and beautiful. James reminds us that we are all too ready to embrace the beautiful, the powerful, and the important at the expense of those less fortunate.  A walk down any city street should remind us that not many of us are special. But we are all part of that sixth day that God declared was “indeed, very good.” Take that walk, even in the midst of recession and war, there is much to celebrate in the people we meet and there is much to be done if we are truly to love our neighbor as ourselves.

As I walked back to the house I stepped off of the trail to avoid a new, large spider web. Along its margin a fist-sized spider worked quickly attaching new strands, rebuilding what I had destroyed. Resilient creature, that spider. Perhaps we are all more resilient than we give ourselves credit for being, but it doesn’t hurt to have a little help and a little love from our neighbors now again.


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