If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Insubstantial: a poem by Leo Hartshorn

Light streams
through my lazy window
shafts of white
residue of incense smoke
mixed with sunshine
As real as
the wooden legs
that hold up my desk
or the jacket draped over
my morning shoulders

But I cannot put weight
upon smoke or light
or wear them to town
as insubstantial clothing

These luminous intruders
into my atmosphere
are just there to
the glittering specks of dust
floating in the frail air

I can only hold these
luminous objects
in the palm of
my insubstantial mind
and give them the momentary
of ink on paper
before they pass away
like my desk
my coat
my mind
my self

Friday, January 30, 2009

Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA

Today I went out in the snowy weather and visited the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I had recently read the book The Religious Art of Andy Warhol by Jane Dillenger (see my review in this blog) and wanted to come to Pittsburgh, where Warhol grew up, and visit the Warhol Museum (http://www.warhol.org/museum_info/index.html). It was worth the trip.

The museum as six floors of galleries, memorabilia, and archives. I began at the sixth floor and worked my way down. Several works among the collection stood out for me. First, the silk screens of a series of skulls. On viewing the skulls one is immediately overwhelmed by their sheer size. One huge canvas fills a whole wall. They are stark reminders of our mortality. But, painted in Warhol's brilliant colors these skulls take on life. Not only the color but in the shadow of the skulls you can see the shadow of a baby, represented new life. In the shadow of one skull I saw the outline of a spermatozoa, again representing new life.

There are many interpretations of Warhol's repetition of images. I was curious to read one interpretation next to a a series of repeated images of Elvis on a silver canvas by a Rabbi Mark N. Staitman of Rodef Shalom Congregation:

In Prayer, I speak to God. In study, God speaks to me. Judaism is a religion of text. We see Torah as a gift of God. The first century rabbi ben Bag Bag said, “Turn it and turn it, for everything of value is in it.” For 2000 years we have studied Torah, looking for God’s word to us. It is not uncommon that Torah seemingly repeats itself. Often the seeming repetition has a slight variation, but always a variation in context. While some may see this as redundancy, Judaism sees each statement as having different meaning.

God would not be redundant. The task of the student of Torah is to find the distinct meaning in each variation of the text. Though each image in the painting starts with the same picture, each can be seen to have a different meaning, each meaning to contribute to a whole; meanings and meaning which, we the viewers, the generations, discover within.

As with repetition and meaning in West African drumming (see my blog article on polyrhythmic preaching), repitition in Warhol's art is interconnected with meaning. And repetition in Warhol's works takes on many meanings depending upon the subject matter, mood, color, etc. Repetition becomes an element of artistic hermeneutics.

As I descended the floors of silkscreens of animals, celebrities, and common objects, like product boxes, I was hoping to ascend a little upon viewing one of Warhol's last series of paintings of Da Vinci's Last Supper. When I got to the first floor I saw it. It was a huge, double image of Da Vinci's Last Supper . And in bright pink! Really Warhol made the print from a cheap copy of Da Vinci's famous fresco. Still, there is a visual impact in viewing the painting that makes it a totally new interpretation of Da Vinci.

As an artist who has been drawn (no pun intended) to realism, I was surprised by a new appreciation of the pop art of Warhol.

The Curse of Whiteness: a sermon on white racism from Numbers 12

Whiteness is a curse. If you don’t believe me, read again the twelfth chapter of the book of Numbers. Miriam is cursed when God turns her skin “white as snow.” You might say Miriam was the original “Snow White.” In her case, white skin was a curse. I’m aware of a long history of black skin being considered a curse of God, but never white skin. I wonder why? “Whoop, there it is!” right smack in the Holy Bible. Whiteness is a curse.

Now, before some of us white people go and get our noses all bent out of shape, let’s take a closer look at the biblical story itself. It’s a highly problematic text for a number of reasons. But I hope to “tease out” from this ambiguous text, and how we read it, some themes that might assist us in coming to terms with the insidious nature of white racism.

The biblical story starts off with Miriam and Aaron, Moses’ sister and brother, speaking out against him for marrying a Cushite. Who is she? Is this Zipporah, the daughter of the Midianite priest that Moses married after fleeing Egypt (Exodus 2:15-22)? She doesn’t appear to be the same woman. She is from Cush, the name given to one of Noah’s grandsons, a son of Ham. Where do we find the descendants of Cush? Cushites are believed to be from Ethiopia. The Septuagint, an ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, indicates that the woman was from Africa. So, in our text Miriam and Aaron have a complaint against Moses for marrying a black African woman. And God has a problem with their attitude toward this black woman. How do we know? Because, in an act of “poetic justice” God curses Miriam with white skin.

On the face of the text we might immediately think that this story is about racism, and particularly interracial marriage. At first glance the issue seems to be about Miriam and Aaron’s racial prejudice against Moses’ black wife. Reading the “skin” of the text through a white lens we might assume that Moses is a white man. Well, Moses was white, wasn’t he? Just take a look in your illustrated Bible or on the walls of most Sunday School rooms. Moses was a white man, just like Jesus was a white man. Jesus must have been white, because I have even seen pictures of him in paintings, stained glass windows, and even in my Bible. And, Holy Moses, he’s as white as yours truly! And while we’re trying to figure out the race of Moses and Jesus, what’s the race of God? If you look at the Michelangelo’s painting of the creation of Adam in the Sistine chapel, both God and Adam are white men! But, maybe God is a liberal white man, because he’s okay with Moses marrying a black African woman. You see, the color of the lens through which we read texts may be indicative of our larger predicament that causes us to read people according to their skin color.

We might have assumed that Miriam and Aaron were racially prejudiced, since they don’t want their brother marrying a black African woman. But, the Semitic tribes were probably a mixed stock of Afro-Asiatic peoples, which simply means Moses was no white man. So, this text is not about an interracial marriage. Neither is it about racism. As a matter of fact, there is no such thing as race in the Bible. That’s because race is a modern invention.

What? Race is an invention? You’re kidding, right? You mean to tell me that those boxes you’re supposed to check on the census form are all made up? Caucasoid, Negroid, Mongoloid, and all those other “oids”----they’re all modern, made up human categories. And if Moses and his wife had to fill out one of those forms, they would have been scratching their heads for days. It’s not that they couldn’t see any differences in human skin color. It’s just that in ancient times people didn’t classify themselves using racial categories. In the Bible, and in many cultures today, differences are marked by class, tribe, and nationality.

People weren’t judged to be superior or inferior based upon race. Biblical scholar Randall Bailey even proposes that the African woman was considered to be of a higher social status than Moses. What presidential candidate John Kerry recently said during the debates fits Moses, “I married up.” That’s the issue behind the complaints of Aaron and Miriam. According to Bailey, their complaint is that Moses has gained status before God because of his marriage to the Ethiopian woman. That’s why they believed God spoke to Moses. But, God’s rebuke to Miriam and Aaron indicates that Moses was not a prophet because of his social status, but simply because God chose to speak to Moses one-on-one. There is the recognition of higher and lower social status in this story, but it is based in class and nationality, not race.

Class, tribe, and nationality have created a politics of difference in many cultures throughout the ancient and modern worlds. Recently I was in a meeting in Chicago with the antiracism team of Mennonite Mission Network. We started off our first meeting by sharing our experiences of racism. One by one we went around the room and talked about how we experienced race and racism growing up in America. There were differences of experience, particularly depending upon whether we grew up white or black. One member, Gilberto Flores, who grew up in Guatemala, had a totally different story. He talked about prejudices in his society that were not based upon race. The indigenous people in Guatemala were treated badly because they were considered lower class. As a middle-class Latino, Gilberto had to decide to set aside his status and work for the liberation of the poorer class.

Sometimes racism in the United States is difficult for people of color from other countries to grasp because their experience of prejudice has more to do with class and nationality. Class-based prejudices are closer to the social context of Aaron and Miriam. They had problems with Moses’ Ethiopian wife because of her class and nationality. The politics of difference has always been operative within the world in many forms. In Western culture it has taken the particular form of racism.

Race is a modern human invention. It was created to justify and reinforce inequality. More specifically, race was invented to support white supremacy. Race is a creation of Western culture during the period of European conquest, which was justified by Western religion, politics, and science. Ironically, the earliest reflections on race in the U.S. came from the man who penned the words of the Declaration of Independence, “all men are created equal.” That man was Thomas Jefferson, who owned about 200 slaves. In his writing Notes on the State of Virginia Jefferson spoke of the inferiority of the African slaves he called “blacks.” The concept of the inferiority of “blacks,” and on the other hand the superiority of whites, came into being in America out of a need to justify the institution of slavery. If all men were created equal, then how could one justify that some were slaves? Well, Africans had to be innately inferior. So, “blackness” became a racial category, invented for social, economic, and political reasons. “Blackness” became an identifier of social inferiority. In the U.S. race was an invention created to justify slavery, and to deny equality of social status and American citizenship to those of African ancestry.

In America whiteness was constructed to unify a variety of ethnic groups into a single “race” with special privileges. Whiteness defined what it meant to be an American. Wait a minute. What about America, the great “melting pot”? I thought this grand experiment was meant to boil down our differences and create one common people we call “Americans.” America became a melting pot only in the sense that diverse European ethnic groups became identified as “white” over against Africans, Indians, Asians, and Mexicans. The original American race was the white race. To this day whiteness is still understood by many U.S. residents to mean “American.” In the 2000 census two-thirds of the foreign-born residents identified themselves as white. Almost half of Latinos checked the “white” box in the census. Why would those we might consider “people of color” want to be identified as “white”? Not only because they see “white” as meaning “American,” but in the U.S. social and economic discrimination based upon race is a powerful incentive to identify as white.

Noel Ignatiev has written a fascinating book entitled How the Irish Became White. It may sound strange to us to talk about “becoming white.” Ignatiev describes the process of how Europeans became white using the example of Irish immigrants. The Irish, who were considered an inferior class of people by the English, came to America and experienced much of the same discrimination in the new land that they faced under the British. In America they occupied a social position only slightly above blacks. Becoming white give the Irish an economic advantage in their competition with freed slaves for jobs in the North. Whiteness was a historical, social, economic, and political construction, an ideology invented to unify and justify the pre-eminence, privilege, and power of one group over others. That is the “curse of whiteness”----the racial classification of people for the purpose of supporting superiority and subjugation.

I suspect that some of us may have had a visceral reaction to the opening of my sermon, when I said “whiteness is a curse.” In some audiences that might have gotten a few “amens!” I suspect that a lot of us have difficulty identifying ourselves as “white.” One reason some of us have difficulty thinking of ourselves as white is because we don’t view ourselves as one racial group among many. Whites usually don’t think of themselves as being part of a race. Usually when whites talk about racial groups, we mean other people. To identify ourselves as white sets us over against blacks and other racial groups. We don’t like that. But this was the original reason for the invention of race---to distinguish ourselves from others for purposes of privilege.

That’s another reason we have difficulty identifying ourselves as white. Whiteness implies access to power and privilege, which most whites don’t want to acknowledge, including Mennonites. “I’m not white. I’m Mennonite!” That could be our new slogan. White Mennonites would prefer to think of themselves as still being a persecuted minority, different from other whites. This is a delusion we haven’t yet gotten over. Consciously or unconsciously Mennonites participate in the same benefits as other whites. Whites have power and privileges that we take for granted. I participate in those invisible privileges. If I want to move I can be fairly sure I won’t have problems getting housing I can afford. I can go shopping without being eyed or harassed by store clerks. I know that when my children are given curriculum in school my race will be represented. If I’m walking down the street at night I don’t have to worry about being stopped by the police who are suspicious of me because of my race, like my son. I’m never asked to speak for everyone in my race. I can make a presentation without hearing that I’m articulate or a credit to my race. As a white person, I have a built in form of affirmative action when I look for a job or go to a school. And on and on the list of privileges goes. To identify ourselves as white is to begin to acknowledge that we are part of a racist social system that grants us plenty of power and a preponderance of privileges. And we don’t like to recognize that fact.

So, even though I can say I don’t wear a white hood, don’t use the “N” word, or tell racial jokes, even though I may have black friends, live in a neighborhood that is populated mostly by African-Americans and Puerto Ricans, and work on an antiracism team, it has nothing to do with the clout I have and the favoritism I receive because I am part of a society shaped by white supremacy. Living within that kind of society, it’s not always easy to acknowledge whiteness.

One more reason we have a problem recognizing our whiteness is because it’s often invisible. It’s not something white people can easily see or state. It’s like asking a fish to describe water. Whiteness is the sea we swim in. Whites don’t notice it. People of color do. When was the last time you identified yourself as being white? “Hello. I’m calling about renting the apartment. U-huh. Yes. But, first, I should let you know. I’m white.” For most of my life I don’t recall ever having to think about being white. It was not something I noticed or needed to acknowledge or affirm. “Say it loud! I’m white…and I’m proud?” The reason whiteness is invisible is because it’s considered normal and natural, the standard. If you don’t believe me, go to the store and buy flesh colored band aids. White is not a separate race, one among many. It is the norm. And as the norm we don’t notice or necessarily have to identify whiteness.

Most if us don’t talk about white Christians, white churches, white preaching, white theology, white music, white food, white history, white politics, white culture. White, white, white, white, white….We don’t use “white” to describe things associated with our race. We do use race to describe things associated with other racial groups. “Did you know it’s black history month?” “He’s pastor of a Hispanic church.” “Let’s order Chinese food.” Here’s something you will never hear----“Why don’t you come over Saturday tonight. We can study for our white history exam, order some white food, and go to a white church on Sunday.” We don’t recognize whiteness, because it is understood as being normal. But, when we don’t recognize whiteness, when we think of whiteness as natural, we miss understanding the power relations that are embedded in this invented category.

During a workshop on racism Paul wanted to divide the group into a caucus group of people of color and another of white people so each group could have more in-depth discussion. Immediately some of the white people said, “But I’m not white.” They were distressed about being identified as “white.” A white woman stood up and said, “I’m not white because I’m not part of the white male power structure that perpetuates racism.” A white man from a working class family said, “I have it just as hard as any person of color.” Another white man said, “I’m not white, I’m Italian.” By then, an African-American co-worker of Paul turned to him and said, “Where are all the white people who were here just a minute ago?” Tongue-in-cheek, Paul replied, “Don’t ask me, I’m not white, I’m Jewish!”

In the biblical story we read earlier, white skin was a curse laid upon Miriam as a result of looking down on someone because of social status. In their social context Aaron and Miriam appear to have discriminated against Moses’ African wife because of her class and nationality. Though her dark skin is not the primary issue, it does identify her nationality. Let’s not get into why Miriam was cursed with leprosy and not Aaron. But she was plagued with white skin, an affliction from God for speaking against Moses and his black wife. It was as if God were saying, “You have a problem with this black woman? Well, then, Poof! Hello, whitey!” God judges the one who judges another based on class and nationality. White skin was Miriam’s curse.

Whiteness is our curse. Not white skin, but whiteness as an ideology of white superiority. Whiteness is a vast system of affirmative action for whites. Whiteness is a social and political construction of domination and subjugation. That is our affliction. It is a curse we have brought upon ourselves and continue to perpetuate. First of all, it is a curse because it harms people of color. Bell Hooks once wrote, “All black people in the United States, irrespective of their class status or politics, live with the possibility that they will be terrorized by whiteness.” But, secondly, whiteness is a curse because it is also harmful to whites. It robs us of our unique identities, our ethnic histories, our distinctive cultures. I grew up wanting to leave behind my embarrassing identity rooted in a lower-class, tenant farmer family, post-Grapes-of-Wrath-Okies-in-California. My aspirations were fit in with my white, middle-class, suburban friends. Whiteness strips us of our distinctive cultural roots.

Whiteness also alienates us from our essential connectedness as children of God. Like a sword, it slices the body of Christ into pieces. It can even alienate us from other whites, if we work to acknowledge the privileges associated with whiteness and work to dismantle white racism. We need to be healed of whiteness as a domination system.

God is no respecter of persons. God does not affirm our human categories that create hierarchical systems of gender, race, class, or nationality. In our biblical text God doesn’t see the African woman’s skin color as a problem. The problem is with Aaron and Miriam who buy into a politics of difference. God does not discriminate based upon our human boxes. God didn’t chose to speak through Moses because of an elevated social status from marrying an African woman. God doesn’t make those kinds of distinctions. With God there is no Jew or Gentile, black or white, slave or free, male or female, American or Iraqi. Those who affirm God’s vision of a world without division seek to disrupt and dismantle hierarchies of gender, race, class, tribe, and nationality. As the story in Acts 10 clearly states---God is no respecter of persons. It took a vision from God for the Peter, a Jew, to recognize Cornelius, a Gentile, as his brother. It took a vision for Peter to see that God shows no partiality.

We need a vision like Peter’s to heal us. We need a vision from God to be cured of the curse of whiteness and healed of our discrimination against people of color, which is embedded in our society. We need a vision that unveils white power and privilege for all to see clearly. We need a vision of whiteness that is not based upon domination and discrimination. We need a vision and practice of being white that is truly mutual, life-giving, aware, informative, and transformative. We need whites and people of color who, like Moses, are willing to plead to God for our healing. Our healing will take a new vision that spiritually empowers us for the hard work of transforming the church into a truly multicultural body. We need a vision that can affirm and support the work of antiracism teams within the MCUSA and local churches for challenging us to be the church God envisions. We need to use our eyes and voices and hands and feet within the church and world to become conduits of the Spirit for the transformation of our lives and our institutions, like Paul, Peter, and other visionaries in the early church who stood up and spoke up for a church inclusive of Jew and Gentile. We need visionaries who will stand up and speak out against racism and proclaim the hope of a church undivided by gender, race, class, and nationality.

Our healing will require the vision of a new world, where all peoples and places, tribes and tongues, races and regions stand on equal footing before God and one another. I have seen such a vision, literally on a video my wife brought back Australia of a “gathering of the tribes.” I was amazed to see with my own eyes indigenous Christian peoples coming together from around he world to witness in body and soul against the racism that had robbed them of their culture. I saw them celebrate in body and soul their Christian faith through their own cultural lens. My eyes were bathed in light as I saw Native Americans, Maori, Hawaiians, aboriginal Australians in the own native dress and using their own native language, along with white Americans, dancing and praising God together with abandonment. It reminded me of another healing vision. In the book of Revelation John the Seer was allowed to look at humanity through divine eyes. John’s eyes were bathed with a vision of a healed humanity, where every tribe, tongue, people, and nation stood before the one true God, who is no respecter of persons. Wash our eyes in this vision, O God!

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count,
From every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages,standing before God and the Lamb with palm branches in their hands.They cried out in a loud voice,
Salvation (transformation, healing, and hope) belongs to our God.
(Revelation 7:9)

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Creation through Aspiration: a poem by Leo Hartshorn

solitary clay corpse lies on its face
damp mud flung on an orb in space
solitude's request
from potter's fingers at rest
without quivering tongue
from gasping lung

O Holy Aspirator, take deep breath
exhale life on this creature of earth
fill this vessel with wind
come, ascend
the windy peaks of Hebron's height
bring back a blast of might

valley of clay bones on desert floor
stark white fingers poke through the dusty drawer
O Son of Humanity, what do you see?
death and misery
what silent voices echo in desert lair
from bone and hair?

'tis the laughter of motherland ground to dust
prophesy to the wind if you must
Adam's fallen children wait to dance
if perchance
that be a gust of wind over there
that caused the quiver of a hair

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Underworld: Rise of the Hebrews?

This past weekend I went to see Underworld: Rise of the Lycans. This film reveals the origins of the blood feud between the clans of vampires and werewolves or lycans. It is a prequel to the first two movies in the trilogy; Underworld and Underworld: Evolution. While watching the movie I couldn't help but be struck by parallels between this story and an older, more familiar and prototypical story....the story of Moses!

The elite race of vampires (Pharoah and the Egyptians) had enslaved the race of lycans (Hebrews). They were put to hard labor serving and protecting their masters. Victor, the leader of the vampires (Pharoah) rules with absolute authority.The first true lycan, Lucian (Moses), is born human to a captive werewolf mother (born Egyptian to a Hebrew mother?). Viktor spares the life of Lucian and raises him with certain privileges and limited freedoms among the vampires (Moses in Pharoah's court in Cecil B. Demille's Ten Commandments). He still must wear a collar that reminds him of who he is (In DeMille, Moses has a Hebrew blanket from his mother that reminds him who he is). But, in one scene Lucian takes off his collar and becomes fully a Lycan (In Demille Moses removes his Egyptian gold collar when he identifies himself with the Hebrew people).

Lucian falls in love with the Pharoah's, I mean, Viktor's daughter, Sonja (In DeMille Moses falls for Pharoah's daughter). Others have noted similarities between this film and Romeo and Juliet. A tension develops between his love for Sonja and his identification with his people (In De Mille Moses choses his people over his love for Pharoah's daughter).Lucian plots to free his people from their slavery (Go Down, Moses). Lucian saves Raze, who also helps lead the lycans (In DeMille Moses saves Joshua, who helps lead the Hebrews). There are no ten plagues, but the lycans are finally freed to the distress of Pharoah, uh Viktor. In a final confrontation between Lucian and Viktor, Viktor is drown in water, or so it appears (Pharoah and his armies are covered with the waters of the Red Sea).

The parallels may only be coincidental, but having been raised on movies and Bible stories I couldn't help but leave the theatre singing to myself....Go Down, Lucian.

Mark Lewis Taylor

I have appreciated the writing of Mark Lewis Taylor, Maxwell M. Upson Professor of Theology and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary, especially his books Remembering Esperanza: A Cultural-Political Theology for North American Praxis and The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in Lockdown America.

In Religion, Politics, and the Christian Right Taylor continues his probing and insightful reflections on America as Empire. This time he exposes the dangers of the Christian Right, as well as Liberal Left, and presents us with the model of a prophetic spirit for engagement in public life.

Taylor speaks of 9/11 as a symbolic event or a "mythic moment" that galvanized U.S. citizens of diverse stripes in support of an unending "war on terror." The targets of the 9/11 attacks were symbolic centers of the American Empire -- the U.S. military (the Pentagon) and global economic power (the World Trade Center). The reaction to the events of 9/11 was a collective surge of nationalism with American flags flying everywhere and overwhelming support for war with Afghanistan and Iraq from both right and left.

For Taylor, the upsurge in nationalism connected to the events of 9/11 and the war on terror is being expressed out of the ideologies of American Romanticism and what he calls "contractual liberalism." American Romanticism is rooted in an idealistic vision of the nation's origins and destiny, which tends to forget its own history of terrorism and oppression, and sees the nation as exceptional within the world. The secular, political neo-conservative platform is an expression of American Romanticism, while Christian Right is a religio-political version.

According to Taylor, the civic nationalism of contractual liberalism is rooted in an ideology that anticipates progress and future growth. The spread of "democracy and freedom" through military power, globalization of market economy that benefits the wealthy, and various forms of neo-colonialism are expressions of contractual liberalism. American Romanticism and contractual liberalism have served to reinforce the hegemony of American power.

In contrast to these political ideologies, which are endangering the republic, global humanity, and the ecosphere, Taylor presents an alternative tradition of the prophetic spirit, a radical liberalism. The prophetic spirit is a spiritual, cultural, and political vision for creating justice and peace for the weak, marginalized and oppressed.

Taylor points to diverse agents of this prophetic spirit, such as advocates for the imprisoned, activists in the reparations movement, immigrants seeking justice, leaders of indigenous peoples, and environmental groups, to name just a few. Although most of Taylor's examples are secular, for him the gospel of Jesus Christ is itself born and nurtured by the prophetic spirit.

Taylor offers some handles by which to better understand the governing political ideologies of our day beyond simple right and left, conservative and liberal labeling. His analysis assists us in considering the ideological frameworks that caused alliances of right and left in supporting the post-9/11 goals of America as an empire.

Monday, January 26, 2009

A Peaceable Mission: a sermon on John 20:19-22

At first it sounds like a simple greeting. Shlamaa. The Aramaic word was used as a greeting among the Jews, kind of like good day or God bless you. Shlamaa would have been heard as Jews greeted one another on the dusty streets or in the crowded marketplace. Shlamaa. But, coming from the lips of the risen Christ, who bears in his resurrection body the wounds of crucifixion, this greeting takes on a deeper meaning. With this word Shlamaa still ringing in their ears the disciples are sent out into the world by the risen Christ.

The sun has just set behind the purple hills. It’s the first day of the week. The disciples cringe behind the wooden door of a whitewashed house. It’s locked up tight like a sealed tomb. The lock that holds the door shut has a name---Fear. You can see fear reflected in the wide eyes of the disciples. Their shadows dance on the walls from the light of the oil lamp. The disciples fear what lies outside that wooden door. Outside that locked door are those who had a hand in crucifying Jesus. Those same hands could just as easily grab them by the scruff of the neck and haul them off to the cold stone halls of a Roman court. The sun could arise on a new day with each of the disciples nailed to a wooden pole. The world outside that locked door has become a dangerous place.

The locked door is no barrier for the risen Christ. Christ appears in the midst of the disciples. The first word from his lips is meant to calm their fears. Shlamaa. Peace be with you. Then, Christ shows the disciples his hands and his side, wounds from his enemies. These wounds aren’t just signs that Jesus isn’t just some apparition. They’re signs of a strange kind of shlamaa. The piercings mark the risen Christ as the same person who had endured the cross without retaliating. He could have called down the armies of heaven against the Romans. Instead, his last words were the salve of forgiveness.

The disciples leap and shout for joy when they recognize Jesus. Then, Jesus speaks again. He repeats his greeting, Shlamaa, as if it meant more than good evening. Coming from the crucified-and-living, peaceful-and-forgiving Christ the word Shlamaa is far more than a mere greeting. His greeting sparks memories in the disciples. Before his crucifixion Jesus had promised the disciples that they wouldn’t be left like orphans. They had no need to fear. Jesus would send them the Holy Spirit. He promised, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:27). Jesus went on to say, “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace” (John 16:33). Jesus had promised to leave them with his Spirit of peace. Now, the risen Christ has come to the fearful disciples to keep his promise.

Christ’s promise of peace isn’t just to calm their unsettled hearts. It’s the key that unlocks the door bolted by fear and leads the disciples out into the world as apostles, sent ones. Following his greeting of peace Jesus sends the disciples forth: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” This is Christ’s missionary charge to the disciples. As God had sent Jesus to speak the prophetic word and the good news, as God had sent Jesus to heal and forgive, as God had sent Jesus to show the way to new life and shalom, so Christ sent the disciples into the world. Then, Christ breathed on the disciples his very Spirit with the commission to be a forgiving people.

The risen Christ speaks words of peace and mission to his disciples---Shlamaa, I send you. If Christ has no problem living and speaking of peace and mission with the very same breath, why has the church separated the two? Why does the church speak out of two sides of its mouth in order to address peace and mission? Peace and mission were united in the one risen body of Christ. They came from the one breath of Christ’s Spirit. Why, then, is there such a divide in the church over peace and mission?

To be honest, there is a sharp division in the church between peace and mission. It is a real, but unnecessary division. Peace and mission have become two polar opposites, creating separate camps within the church. Somewhere along the line the church has divided itself into subcultures of peace-and-justice-people and mission- and evangelism-people. And the division between these groups tends to feed off stereotypes of one another. You know these stereotypes. The stereotype of the Christian involved in peace and justice sounds like this. Those peace people are just a bunch of bleeding heart liberals. They’re just too worldly. They’re more concerned about changing society than serving Christ and saving souls. They distort the Bible or ignore it altogether. They put peace issues above God. I can just hear them groaning when mission and evangelism are even mentioned.

On the other hand, the stereotype of mission-people sounds something like this. Those people who get all fired up about mission and evangelism could care less about the state of our world. They’re just a bunch of bible-thumping, narrow-minded conservatives, who think they have a corner on the truth. I can just hear them sneering at the very mention of peace and justice.

Peace and justice aren’t simply liberal causes. They’re integral to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Mission and evangelism aren’t simply practices for conservative Christians. They express God’s heart for the world. Stereotypes only serve to label, denigrate, and place others at a distance from us. They create a pseudo sense of detachment from critical issues the church must engage in together.

Peace and mission have been separated to the detriment of both. Without peace and justice the work of mission and evangelism can easily become a form of spiritual escapism from the world’s problems, personal salvation without social transformation, saving the soul but not the embodied lives of the people themselves. The church has a dark legacy of mission and evangelism practiced without concern for issues of peace and justice. The religious underpinnings of founding of America and the heyday of the worldwide mission movement of the 1800’s were clearly tied to the concept of “manifest destiny” within Western culture. Manifest destiny began as a worldview that understood white, Europeans to be the most advanced and civilized of the peoples of the earth. White Europeans felt they had been called by God to save the souls of savages and impart their culture to uncivilized peoples. Missionaries often followed the military conquest and colonization of nations. They brought with them a Westernized version of Christianity. Christianity and conquest joined hands.

It’s this problematic legacy of mission that seems to have been forgotten by some evangelical Christians who see the military occupation of Iraq by the United States as “open season” for going over and converting Muslims. It smacks of the old alliances of church and state. Let the state conquer their land and control their bodies. We’ll convert their souls. This is mission and evangelism separated from peace and justice.

At the same time, without mission and evangelism the work of peace and justice can become simply another form of secular humanism, social change grounded in human effort, detached from the good news of God’s grace and coming reign. Some forms of liberal Christian peace and justice work lose the connection between spirituality and activism. Some liberal Christians present peacemaking in terms of partisan politics, rather than grounding it in God’s mission to the world. Peace and mission need each other to form a more holistic and authentic gospel.

There have been those instances when peace and justice were wedded to mission and evangelism. The period of the Great Awakenings in England in the 1700’s was both intensely missionary, evangelistic, and concerned about addressing social injustices. There was a fervor to “preach the gospel to every creature.” At the same time, Evangelicals established orphanages, hospitals, famine relief, soup kitchens, and worked for prison reform. It’s important to remember that the church institution of Sunday School, created by Robert Raikes in Gloucester, England, was started during this period not only with a deep concern to teach the Bible, but also to care for the needs of impoverished children. Sunday School was held on a day when they were not working in the factories.

Today, Evangelicals for Social Action, seeks to bring together the gospel with peace and social justice. This organization witnesses to Evangelicals of the vital link between social responsibility and evangelism. The Maryknoll sisters, a Catholic missionary order, stands at the forefront of linking mission to peace and justice around the world. Orbis Press, a publication of Maryknoll, publishes some of the most progressive thought on interfaith dialogue and radical peace and justice. Peace and mission can be reconciled within the church.

Even with this hope, I recognize that reconciliation is not always an easy matter. It is hard bringing together people who are at odds with one another. Even though the risen Christ commissioned the disciples to be a forgiving people and sent them forth into the world, forgiveness was not going to be easy. There was a fearful and dangerous world beyond those doors. And there was always the potential for anger and violence between the disciples and those who had crucified their beloved leader. The mission of forgiveness and reconciliation between opposing groups is not always an easy road to take. Even between peace-people and mission-people.

I am reminded of the difficulty involved in reconciling estranged peoples in a story of Lawrence Hart, Cheyenne peace chief and Mennonite pastor. Lawrence’s role model is White Antelope, a Cheyenne peace chief from the 1800’s. White Antelope followed the teachings of Sweet Medicine who said that chiefs are to be peacemakers. “They are not to engage in controversy or use any violence. And peace chiefs are to do that no matter what the cost.” White Antelope was one of the first to be shot at the massacre of Sand Creek in the Colorado Territory in 1860 along with innocent women, children, and infants. Parts of their bodies were paraded through Denver. Lawrence bears the wounds of his ancestors. One way he works to heal these wounds has been to obtain the remains of his ancestors and other tribes on display in museums and to return them to their people for burial. The project is called Return to the Earth.

Bearing the wounds of this violent history of whites against Native Americans Lawrence tells the story of an incident in which reconciliation was particularly difficult. It was on a day when a tragedy was being re-enacted. The massacre at Washita River took place at dawn in November of 1868. Colonel Custer and 800 troops from the 7th U.S. Cavalry attacked the peaceful Cheyenne village on the banks of the Washita. The people of Cheyenne planned a centennial observance of their town’s history and wanted the Cheyenne people to play a part in a re-enactment. The Cheyenne agreed to participate, if the bones of a Cheyenne victim on display in their museum would be properly buried as part of the commemoration.

As the bugle sounded, Lawrence heard some commotion to his right. When he looked over he saw a small detachment of troops. It turned out that they were members of the Grand Army of the Republic, the grandsons of the 7th Calvary. He hadn’t known they were coming. They were dressed in authentic 7th Calvary uniforms, on horses, and firing blank cartridges from their rifles. He detested their presence. And he didn’t appreciate that they were shooting at his people, once again, 100 years later, and especially shooting at his own biological children. When the re-enactment ended it was time to bury the bones of the Cheyenne killed in the original battle. The soldiers saluted the coffin. Hart was furious. “How dare they do that? How dare they salute one that their grandfathers had killed.” Then, one of the Cheyenne women, following tradition, took a beautiful blanket from her shoulders and placed it on the coffin.

It was also tradition to give a coffin covering to someone at the burial. The chiefs consulted and told Hart who they wanted to receive the blanket----the captain of the regiment. “Why are they doing this?” thought Hart. He obeyed his elders. Lawrence called the captain forward and placed the blanket on the shoulders of a grandson of the original soldiers from the massacre at the Washita.

Later the captain thanked Lawrence and took off an oval pin from his uniform, a pin worn originally by members of the 7th Calvary. It was a “Garryowen pin.” “Garryowen was the name of the music played to signal an attack. It was played that morning 100 years ago. The captain told Lawrence, “I want you to take this pin on behalf of the Cheyenne people, with the assurance that never again will your people hear Garryowen.”

Can you hear the wind of the Spirit blowing across the Washita River? Listen. The Spirit of Christ still breathes the word…. “peace.”

With the marks of a nonviolent struggle on his hands and feet, Christ breathed his peaceable Spirit upon his disciples. Christ blew his sweet breath, the presence of his Holy Spirit upon them, like God breathed upon the first human, as a new creation. This was the Pentecost of John’s gospel, whereby the disciples were sent into the world as missionaries. Christ’s breath, the same breath that breathed the words of peace, empowered a new community and sent them out into the world, breaking through the doors locked by fear. Peace and mission come to us from the same source, the same breath of the risen Christ.

We, who have heard Christ’s words of peace and have felt the breath of his Spirit in our gatherings, have been sent into the world. We have been sent just as Jesus was sent with the Spirit of peace, reconciliation, and forgiveness. We go forth with more than a greeting, more than an inner peace to calm our fears. We go forth with an empowerment by Christ’s fiery Spirit. We go forth to share God’s healing, forgiving grace, and to be a new community on a peaceable mission to divided and violent world.

M.U.S.I.C.: Musicians Undermining Social Injustice Creatively

Here is my latest scratchboard I did of Marvin Gaye for my series of drawings entitled with the acronym M.U.S.I.C.: Musicians Undermining Social Justice Creatively. The series can be downloaded for free at: http://peace.mennolink.org/musicposters.html

Sunday, January 25, 2009

An Eye for an Eye: a poem and illustration by Leo Hartshorn

an eye for and eye
a tooth for a tooth
violence leads to violence
it's the God's honest truth

your the apple of mine
said the stepfather to the child
and the secret kept for years
has made the young man wild

The neighbors didn't bat one
and I don't mean a ball
when the man beat his wife
and the police were never called

for your two only
said the general to his assistant
showing pictures of the torture
of one who was resistant

pull the wool over ours
is what our leaders did
when they couldn't find the WMDs
and claimed that they were hid

a speck in someone else's
but you may not see
that you have one inside your own
that's bigger than a tree

the window of the soul
so people say
unless the shades are drawn
and the landlord's gone away

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Breeze of the Spirit: a poem by Leo Hartshorn

come, holy wind
blow air on desert still dry bone
rattle skeleton song
dance toward home
windchimes sing
hear it?
the breeze of the spirit

lonely church
with praying hands
sits silent within
waiting room
waiting womb
stainglass tomb
sleepy arms stretch
toward the fifth wind
o, daughters and sons
of the elusive wind's firstborn
come, be born again

hear the sight
unfurl spirit sail
spread eagle wing and tail
prepare for flight
listen, hear it?
the breeze of the spirit

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Unfortunate Cookie: cracks me up

Here is part of a humorous book I have been working on and hope to get published in the near future (Any interested publishers out there?):


I love Chinese food. Well, at least the Americanized version. When my family lived in Houston, Texas we made a regular habit of going out to eat with our close friends at a Hunan Chef Chinese restaurant. At the end of a great meal we would always get a fortune cookie, along with orange slices. I would crack open the fortune cookie and read something like, “You will meet a stranger who will change your life.” And I thought, “Yeah, Charles Manson.” I wondered to myself, “Why don’t these fortunes tell it like it really it is?” Or at least how my warped mind sees things.

The fortunes in the Chinese cookies reminded me of the astrology columns in newspapers that only say flattering things about those aligned under a certain constellation of planets. Where were the descriptions of all the jerks, the pain-in-the…necks and lunatics (from lunar, as in “moon madness”) that I ran into on the freeway or saw on the 6 o’clock news? I should expect to read, “Today, as a Taurus, the alignment of Mars with Uranus will cause you to get fired, come home, and kick the cat out the window!” There is a dark side of the earth and the human species. And, as you read these misfortunes, also a dark sense of humor.

So, being the cheerful and optimistic kind of guy that I am, I started to add my own lines at the end of the fortunes that might add a dose of reality, and sick twist, to the fortunes of those fortunate enough to be eating Chinese food with me. Over the years I continued to add my quirky lines to the fortunes after meals with family and friends. Many of these unfortunate fortunes were written after moving to Pennsylvania and finding Tony Wang’s, the best Chinese restaurant in Lancaster.

Finishing the fortunes has become a ritual when eating Chinese…no, not the people! The meal isn’t complete until everyone has given me their fortunes to add my revisionist twist to these all-too-optimistic pieces of wisdom. Even my children have on occasion taken up the practice of “finishing” the fortunes when eating at Tony Wang’s when I’m out of town. Now, some friends know of my weird habit and pass Chinese fortunes on to me.

It’s nice to be optimistic and to look on the sunny side of life. I offer these samples of unfortunate fortunes in various categories as a reality check on overly optimistic fortunes and as a bit of sick humor to those who look at life askew.

Italics- my twisted addition

Looks can be deceiving...
or just butt ugly.

In youth and beauty, wisdom is rare.
No, I meant to say, in you beauty and wisdom are rare.

Many admire your social and physical appearance.
Particularly horror film directors.

The face of nature reflects all of life’s ups and downs.
Your face reflects life’s cruelty.

Nuts anyone?

You are going to have a very comfortable retirement.
In a padded cell.

Your success will astonish everyone.
You will break loose from your strait jacket.

Blood is thicker than catsup

A well-aimed spear is worth three.
A well-aimed shot gun is worth a son-in-law.

Put some old business behind you today.
Go out and get a young man.

Wanted: Village idiot

Learn to be flexible and amazing opportunities reveal themselves.
WANTED: Contortionist for the Barnum and Bailey circus!

You are talented in many ways.
Just not in the ones that pay the rent.

Good bakers always make plenty of dough.
Firefighters always kick lots of ash.

I think therefore I is

Our first love and our last love is…Self-love
Said Narcissus to his reflection.

There is no security in life, only opportunity.
Yeah, opportunity to feel more insecure.

Where there is a will, there is a way.
To get your name on the will.

Actions speak louder than stupidity

Do you know that the busiest person has the largest amount of time?
You have so little time you can’t put down the chips and turn off the TV.

Your good deeds are never forgotten.
On the other hand, you are.

Anything worth doing can be done.
Some other day.

Character Floss

It is not your character to give up.
It is your character to give in.

It is hard for an empty bag to stand up right.
Especially when she’s drunk.

Helping a friend is like helping yourself.
Especially when you are helping yourself to what is your friend’s.

One who admires you greatly is hidden from your eyes.
Charles Manson.

A word to the not-so-wise

Physician heals, nature makes well.
Doctor sends bill.

When you speak honestly and openly, others truly listen to you.
What did you say?

Compromise is always wrong if it means sacrificing a principle.
Or a goat.

The future is behind us

You will have a close encounter of a surprising kind.
E.T. with an attitude.

You will meet a short, dark stranger
Gary Coleman.

Pleasures await you by the seashore.
And crabs.

Folks...I got a million of 'em...hot..cha...cha!

A Speck on the Glasses of God: a poem by Leo Hartshorn

floating in space
I look back at the blue orb of earth
hanging in space like a marble
out of body
in a space suit of my imagination
soaring in the still blue moment
the earth but a mustard seed
practically unnoticed
a speck on the glasses of God

an inner voice
hums an ancient verse
I learned as a child
in bare feet
and naked innocence
it is a word
that creates sacred space
births eco-passion
I hear
for God so loved the world…
tiny speck that it is

Thursday, January 22, 2009

God is Our Ever Present Help: a sermon on Psalm 46

Ein feste burg is unser Gott. A Mighty Fortress is our God. In 1529, when the Protestant cause of the Reformation was wavering in the balance, Martin Luther wrote the hymn A Mighty Fortress is our God. His song was based upon Psalm 46, a hymn of God's enduring power. This psalm has provided assurance and comfort for many from generation to generation who have faced crises and struggles. It is a psalm I have often read to people when they are in the hospital enduring sickness or facing death. In powerful poetic images the psalm extols confidence in God, our refuge and strength in times of trouble. Luther has captured well the psalm's image of God as a mighty fortress.

Psalm 46 is a psalm of Zion, the city where it was believed that God dwelt and from where God rule. It was the place of the temple and Israel's military stronghold. But, this Psalm of Zion does not extol the security and strength of the city itself. The psalm reminds us that it is God in the city and not the king in the palace, nor the priests in the temple, who brings security, order, and peace to the world. Neither church nor state is our refuge and strength. God alone is our ever present help.

The psalm is structured in three parts. Verses 1-3 assure us not to fear, even when all of creation is collapsing around us. Verses 4-7 proclaim God's presence in Zion's midst, even when surrounded by conflict and catastrophe. In verses 8,11 God calls for peace among the nations. Each section of the psalm contains a confession of confidence in God, a reassuring refrain reminding us that God is with us and is our refuge and our strength.

God is our power when the world quakes. Psalm 46 opens with the assurance that God is our refuge and our strength, an everpresent help in times of trouble. There is no need to fear, even in the midst of cosmic cataclysm. The psalmist seems to paint a graphic picture of a catastrophic earthquake. Earthquakes are so powerful they would cause anyone to fear. I was scared out of my wits during the big earthquake in California in 1971. It measured 7.1 on the Richter scale. One morning I woke to a deep rumbling in the earth. My bed was bouncing across the wood floor. I could hear the house was creaking and moaning. Books were flying off the shelf. My mother was banging on my bedroom yelling at me to get out of the house. It was like waking to a nightmare. I prayed to God in fear. It literally felt like the end of the world.

There are times when the ground beneath us shakes and quakes and it feels like the end of our world. Figuratively speaking, the ground on which we stand may be understood as those things which provide us with what appears to be unshakable “security," our impenetrable nation, our clean bill of health, our steady job, our home sweet home, our friends and family, our social security payments, our retirement fund. These things make us feel safe and secure in the world. Then, something happens unexpectedly, like September 11 and we feel the insecurity that so many nations have felt under our military power and our own terrorism through nuclear threat. Or what happens to us to shake our security may not be something that can be measured on the Richter scale, but it may feel like a 7.1 quake in the soul. In a serious tone your child's teacher says, "I caught your child cheating on the exam." The boss calls you into the office and with eyes to the floor says, "I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to lay you off." The letter reads, "Your Medicare benefits have been cut." The doctor walks into the room with a file and some x-rays and states rather stoically, "The test says its a malignant tumor.” Dark clouds gather overhead and we shiver. Waves of mortality and breakers of insecurity crash on our shore and we tremble. The mountains of our strength rock and reel and we shake in fear.

Sometimes the shaking of our securities may occur through a loss or change which may on the surface seem common or insignificant. It doesn't always take a major crisis to cause the ground beneath us to quake. One of the earliest memories of renowned theologian Teilhard de Chardin was of his hair being cut by his mother in front of the fireplace. The young Teilhard watched in horror as a lock of his hair fell into the fire, blackened and burned. To him, a part of himself had turned into nothing. For the first time in his life he understood that he was not indestructible. His young mind needed something permanent and imperishable to provide him with a refuge from the transitoriness of life. So he fixed his attention on iron. He soon discovered iron would rust. So, he turned to rocks, something stable. As Teilhard matured he realized there was no imperishable substance which offered a refuge from a world which decays and crumbles. This was the beginning of a spiritual pilgrimage for Teilhard to search for that Rock and Refuge which stands strong in a world which shakes and falls apart.

The psalmist assures us that God is our refuge and our strength. God is everpresent when our bodies fail us, our years pass into nothingness, and the vibrancy of life fades into faint memories. God is a mighty fortress where we can flee when our faith is being attacked by the swords of doubt and spears of misfortune. God is the Rock upon which we stand when the quicksand of human troubles would pull us under. God is our strength when life has wrung from us the last drop of energy we need just to make it through another day. God is with us. God is our refuge and our strength, an everpresent help in times of trouble.

God is our presence when cities and nations rage. The psalmist pictures the nations round about Zion as being in an uproar. Kingdoms totter. The earth melts like a wax candle. The world of politics and policies, of economics and ecology is teetering on the brink of disaster. You don't have to live in ancient land of Jerusalem to understand what this is like. Those of us old enough to have lived through a World War and the Depression know how nations and economies can stagger like drunken men.
We have seen rulers deposed and assassinated and allied countries in conflict. We have watched as the rule of presidents, congressional leaders, and even church leaders have stumbled and fallen. Many of us have watched the slow decay of our inner cities. White flight to the suburbs, segregation of races, unemployment, gangs, and violence flow like sewage through the streets and alleys. We have tasted the bitter waters of pollution from industry without conscience and smelled the fumes of a world burning up its resources without limits. Gazing at a world melting into oblivion we long for the city of God, whose foundations are sure.

It was St. Augustine who so eloquently wrote of The City of God, which he contrasted to the earthly city of humanity. For the psalmist the city of God is both the present earthly Jerusalem and the ideal, heavenly Jerusalem. In contrast to the world, where the "waters roar and foam," a peaceful river makes glad the city of God. God is in the midst of the city. It is God who makes its streets secure. When all we see are cul de sacs of injustice and dead end streets of beaurocracy, the vision of the city of God opens our eyes to God's presence on the highways and byways of our earthly cities.

To look at our world, our nations, our cities, with an eye only on the earthly, human city is to overlook the presence of God in the world. It can only lead to despair. We can catch glimpses of the city of God within our earthly cities. The city of God is where justice weighs heavy in the scales, righteousness rules the city council, the weak are made strong, the wounded are healed, the hungry are given their just desserts, and persons are not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. The city of God is governed by what Michael Lerner calls the "politics of meaning, II a reconstruction of "the world in a way which takes seriously the uniqueness and preciousness of every human being and our connection to a higher ethical and spiritual purpose that gives meaning to our lives." A river of life flows in the midst of this city. It quenches the thirst of those panting for purpose and joy in living.

The spires of God's city reach into the heavens, while its foundation is rooted in the earth. God is its maker and builder. Each new day which dawns illuminates the presence of God within this city, who roams its streets with sleeves rolled up and is hard at work securing its unstable walls, filling in the potholes of inequity, and checking the flow of its lifegiving waters. God is working at building a new Jerusalem, a new Dallas. So, even though the nations rage and the cities seem to be crumbling around us, God is with us. God is our refuge and our strength, an everpresent help in times of trouble.

God is our peace when strife and warfare blares its noise. In the final section of the psalm the poet invites us to come and see the things God has done upon the earth while the nations rage and their cities crumble. Ashes as Ground zero in New York City, the flames of the L.A. riots, the smoldering ruins of Sarajevo, the bomb infested fields of Southeast Asia tell the tale of human folly. Our flood of handguns, stockpiles of nuclear weapons, and reliance upon military security bears witness to our insecurity and our trust in human power to save us. Across the silent fields of Vietnam, through the ruins of Kosovo, beyond the sands of Kuwait, throughout the noisy halls of the Pentagon, God is shouting, "Be still and know that I am God! It is my reign of peace which shall rule the nations. I will be exalted above the earth and it is my kingdom which is to come on earth as in heaven.”

We have often taken the words "Be still and know that I am God" out of context and used it as a call to quiet meditation. Rather, it is God's command to cease war, to stop the violence and destruction. "Stop the wars, then you will know I am God." To know God is to end our strife and warfare. For God is the one who makes wars to cease to the ends of the earth. God snaps the M-1 rifle in two. God smashes the scud missile. God sets fire to the armored tanks. "Be still," says God. "Stop your fighting and know I am God."

The cry for a world without war and violence is not just the yelling of some radical protesters with their signs waving or the whispering of a minority of Mennonites. It is the roar of God above the raging nations. Be still! Stop the war and violence! You have heard this voice crying out, haven It you? You have heard it in the words of the prophets Isaiah and Micah, who proclaimed a day when swords will be beaten into plowshares, nation will not lift up sword against nation, nor will they learn war any more (Isaiah 2:4, Micah 4:3). God's voice echoed in words of Hosea who spoke of a day when weapons and war will be abolished from the land (Hosea 2: 18). The advent angels chime in at the birth of the Prince of Peace, "Peace on earth. Good will to all." You have heard this same cry in the voice of Jesus, who said, "Blessed are the peacemakers," and "Love your enemies." God's voice continued to ring in the words of Anabaptist Conrad Grebel, who reminded us that the sword and killing had ceased with the true Christian. The call for peace could be heard in the words of A.J. Muste when he said, "There is no way to peace. Peace is the way" or Mahatma Ghandi, who said, "My religion is based on truth and non-violence. Truth is my God and non~violence is the means to reach God." God still cries out to a warring world, "Be still, stop the war and violence, and know that I am God."

Even when creation trembles, foundations shake, nations rage, kingdoms totter, cities crumble, warfare blares, God is with us. God is our refuge and our strength, an everpresent help in times of trouble. This truth is worth singing. The psalmist proclaimed this truth in a song. Martin Luther penned a hymn so the truth of this psalm would ring from the rafters. Let us sing with our lives the truth of God, a mighty fortress, our refuge and our strength, an everpresent help in times of trouble.

A New Psalm 46
written by Leo Hartshorn

We need not be afraid,
though oil spills blacken the seas
and volcanoes spit ash into the skies,
though the ground beneath our lives
shakes and cracks,
though tornadoes of tragedy
rip up the roots of our world,
though the seas of chaos
engulf us beneath their waves.

God is our everpresent help.
God is our refuge and our strength.

The peaceful streams of God's presence
water the roots of our spirits
and flood the streets of our cities with joy.
God is always with us,
and comes to us in hours of darkness
as the dawning of a new day. Presidents and kings may cause
their petty skirmishes.
Dictators and regimes may topple
to the ground. But, when God speaks with hot breath the icy world melts.

God is our everpresent help.
God is our refuge and our strength.

Take a good look
off into God's future
and see the new world
made by divine hands.
That ol’ Peacemaker
has called a halt to all wars.
See, the rifles snap over God's knee.
Behold, God smashes
stockpiles of nuclear weapons with a mighty fist
and puts the match to a fleet of stealth bombers.
God shouts over the noise of battle,
“ Stop the fighting!
When the world obeys,
they will know me
as the God I am,
Lover of justice and peace.
When the world finally ceases
its warring ways,
then they will know,
I am their refuge and their strength.
I will be exalted
over all the earth.

God is our everpresent help.
God is our refuge and our strength.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Winter Meditation: a poem by Leo Hartshorn

snow lies on the ground
like a soft cotton blanket
you hate to walk through it
and disturb its pristine beauty
with offending foot prints

I sit listening
to a guitar winterlude
notes float like snowflakes
upon my ears
the silence outside
could crack the ice

the cold cotton blanket
causes me to dream
of a frozen past
wrapped in winter’s stillness
of a Dickens Christmas
and carriages and candles
of old Victorian houses
and wassail waiting
of chilled travelers
coming to the house
to warm themselves
while I dream
beneath the blanket
of silence

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

God's Reign is for the Birds: a sermon on Matthew 13:31-35

The meaning of the parable of the mustard seed seems apparent. What begins as the tiniest of seeds grows into a tree large enough to house the birds. The reign of God is like that. Small beginning. Big ending. A handful of disciples become a worldwide church. A few fishermen and women grow into a Christian empire. We are the world! Kind of makes your chest swell, doesn't it? Makes you feel important to be at the center of such a glorious, expanding kingdom. Well, that kind of triumphant kingdom is a world away from what this parable is all about. If we scratch beneath the surface of this parable, we will discover that God's reign is for the birds.

The odd thing about the parable of the mustard seed is Jesus' portrayal of God's reign as a tree. In Matthew Jesus doesn't say the mustard seed grows into a tall bush, which is what a mustard seed grows into, but rather a tree in which the birds make their nests. The mustard bush can reach a height of 8 to 12 feet, but it is still not a tree by any stretch of the imagination. So, why call the mustard bush a tree? In several places in the Old Testament the prophets spoke of kings and empires as being like trees. King Nebuchadnezzer had a dream of a growing tree, whose branches reached the heavens and upon whose branches the birds made their nests (Daniel 4). The prophet Daniel interpreted the tree as being the Assyrian king and his empire extending its sovereignty to the ends of the earth. The Assyrian empire grew through brutal violence and domination, forcing Israel into economic and political patronage. Israel was one of the birds nesting under Assyria's tree!

The prophet Ezekiel uses the image of a growing cedar with the birds nesting under its branches as a satire of the empire of Egypt, which fell like a chopped down tree and "upon its ruin dwell all the birds of the air" (Ezekiel 31). Ezekiel also told a parable of a twig which grows into a noble cedar and the birds nest in its shade. It has the same wording found in Mark's version of the parable of the mustard seed (Ezekiel 17). It would appear that Jesus is drawing his images of God's reign from these visions of mighty empires, particularly Ezekiel's parable of Israel as a mighty cedar growing to such a height as to provide a nesting place for the birds. The birds most likely represent the Gentiles, the nations, those not of the house of Israel; outsiders, heathens, pagans, people not like us God-fearing believers. What we have in the prophets is an end time vision of Israel growing into a powerful empire, which is benefactor to the nations of the earth. What a triumphant vision! And you can understand why Israel hoped to be a mighty cedar overshadowing the nations, when you remember how they had for so long been trampled under the feet of the nations. The kingdom of Israel dominating all the nations of the earth! What a hopeful vision!

A mighty tree growing big enough to shade the birds. That would appear to be a more appropriate image of a powerful kingdom than a mustard bush. A mighty tree would fit Western civilization's vision of becoming a powerful empire. Europeans have viewed the expansion of their cultures and empires as being of benefit to other peoples. On the other hand, those other peoples have experienced Western growth as imperialism, colonialism, and paternalism. The seed of our nation's beginnings grew into a tree and expanded its branches through violence and oppression of a people who were already native to this land. I remember reading a book entitled Missionary Conquest written by a Cherokee/Osage seminary professor. It details the exploits of Father Junipero Serra, among other early missionaries to the Americas. People in California know Father Serra as the Franciscan priest who in the 1700's scattered his missions like seeds across the landscape of California. I grew up near Mission San Buena Ventura and Mission Santa Barbara, two missions founded by Padre Serra.

In order for Christianity to grow into a mighty cedar early mission expansion in the Americas often took the form of forced conversions, physical violence, slave labor conditions, and cultural genocide. Father Serra's mission system was no exception. Native Americans were the birds who nested precariously in the shade of Spain's colonial expansion supported by the roots of the church's missionary work. The sad truth is that we still view Native Americans as the birds who should nest in the shade of our nation's branches, or should I say live on our nation's reservations. The triumphal image of a growing tree which shades the nesting birds is sadly reflected in the scenes of an African-American with lash marks on his back picking cotton on the plantation, an American sailor exploiting a young Philippino girl near the naval base, and a Christian missionary trying to expand the kingdom by passing off European customs and culture as the gospel truth. This sad parable of our kingdoms growing into strong cedars that overshadow other peoples and nations is for the birds!

What are we to make of Jesus parable about a mustard seed growing into a big bush for the birds? Jesus' image of God's reign is not of a mighty cedar, but a mustard bush. Get it? It's a joke! Really. It is a joke, a jab, a satire of Israel's triumphalistic visions of the kingdom, in the style of the prophet Ezekiel's satire of the kingdom of Egypt. Jesus compares the reign of God with the tiny mustard seed, which grows into a bush for the birds. The kingdom of God like a mustard seed? Not like a mighty cedar of Lebanon. A mustard seed becomes a pesky weed! The kingdom of God is like a weed?

It's a joke, a parody, a parable. Jesus is poking fun at the arrogance of the vision of God's kingdom as being a powerful, conquering empire. Jesus is transforming the lens through which we view God's reign. The haughty kingdom of force, violence, imperialism, and growth through dominance is not Christ's empire. It's not how Jesus revealed God's reign. Jesus revealed God's reign as being like a mustard seed that grew into a big bush for the birds. Mustard seeds and bushes are strange images for God's reign. As we have seen, a mighty cedar would have been a more appropriate image, or should I say what was expected. Then again, speaking of God's reign as being like a woman who puts a small amount of leaven in her dough was just as strange. Within Judaism leaven was a symbol of evil, something unclean which was purged from one's house. Leaven, like the mustard bush, is an odd image for Jesus to use of God's reign. What Jesus is doing in the parable of the mustard seed is subverting the expected vision of God's reign as an exclusive, triumphant kingdom with our people on the top in the end. In the same way, Jesus own life and mission were subversive of the hope of a coming kingdom of power and domination.

Jesus' life is itself a paradoxical mustard seed parable. The Messiah, ruler of all nations, comes to us as a tiny, vulnerable baby in a nesting place for chickens and cows. He gathers around himself a small rag tag group of misfits. His idea of growing a kingdom is by telling quirky little stories. Jesus expands God's reign by eating with Roman collaborators and sinners. The branches of Christ's kingdom are spread by blessing children and lifting up the weak. People look into Jesus' mustard seed face and say, "Is this the Messiah?" Like a baker woman, Jesus mixes into God's dough the unclean and those cast out of the house. The destitute, women, Samaritans, Gentiles, lepers, misfits, outsiders and enemies nest in the shadow of Jesus' compassion. The birds flock to the branches of Christ's kingdom!

Jesus' mission turns away from the hope of becoming a mighty cedar and grows into a bush for birds. On a desert mountain Jesus refuses the devil's vision of ruling the kingdoms of this world. Through the gates of Jerusalem he rides not on the snorting stead of a conquering king, but the lowly donkey of peace. The disciples look down at Jesus washing their toes and wonder, "Is this the Messiah? Is this the cedar of Lebanon?" Jesus gathers no Zealot army to overthrow Rome, but a small band who gather to pray in a garden, where he tells them to put away the sword. Jesus is nailed on a splintery tree to die a shameful death, crowned with royal thorns as an enemy of the state. And in the end one dirty bird nailed on a cross next to him pleads, "Remember me Jesus. Let me nest under the shadow of your tree."

Jesus reveals to us the reign of God in mustard seeds, bushes, and birds. It is a kingdom which begins with the small and insignificant, the forgotten and forsaken, and grows into a big bush for the birds, for outsiders, the left out, the other, for the multicolored robins and finches beyond the borders of our comfort zones. Jesus reveals to us a kingdom for the birds.

There was once a church nesting on the borders of our imagination. It was a little country church on the edge of town. The steeple stood tall and proud and the bushes were neatly trimmed to proper size. The outside of the church was whitewashed, and you might say the inside was also whitewashed. In a front pew sits Johnny next to his mother, Mrs. Lee. Both are first time visitors. Johnny is picking his nose and wiping it on his jeans. Mrs., Lee is nervously fiddling with her bulletin. Johnny is thirty five years old. His tongue is thick and his speech childlike. He looks out at the world through almond eyes and a fresh innocence as if seeing life for the first time. There were well-meaning family members and neighbors who said, "You should find someplace to put Johnny." They probably said that because they were uncomfortable being around Johnny, particularly that snorting laugh or saying things that didn't make any sense. It was these kinds of attitudes that brought Mrs. Lee and little Johnny to this new church to find some friends.

The church they visited on that first Sunday was a bit uncomfortable, at first. With broken smiles the members would greet Mrs. Lee and Johnny. After that they didn't know what to say. Some members were annoyed when Johnny would snort at the preacher's feeble attempt at a joke. They stared when Johnny said something bizarre to a visitor, a potential member. But, after Mrs. Lee and Johnny had come to church a few times, he seemed to blend in with all the rest of the people in church who were a little different----the elderly woman who just had to give you every gory detail about her goiter operation, the well dressed company president who wanted his name on a plaque for every gift he gave to the church, the twice-divorced woman with way too much make-up, the man who thought he could sing but hit sour notes on all the hymns, and all those members who were handicapped by their fear of newcomers and outsiders.

But...Mrs. Lee and Johnny kept coming back to that little church. It wasn't long before the people welcomed Mrs. Lee and Johnny as if they were just another member of this quirky church family. Later a bi-racial family who lived next door to Mrs. Lee and little Johnny came to visit after they heard about this odd little church. An African-American family was there on the day they repainted the church and had the fellowship meal. There was even that family that started attending with the son who was into, who knows what, with that god-awful purple hair and a nose ring. Oh, and I can't forget mention the impeccably dressed single guy who volunteered to go around and fix the wigs and do the make up of the women at the local cancer center.

Over the years the small church grew. Not in size or budget or building projects, or prestige in the community, for sure not in prestige. The little church grew from its small awkward beginnings as an exclusive enclave of people cut from the same cloth into an open community, which simply and unconditionally welcomed and loved, the best they knew how, whoever God sent their way. It didn't become a megachurch, an empire, a mighty cedar. Just a signpost along the way of something new..... like....a whole a new world. In the end that little church nestled on the edge of town became a nesting place for the birds.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero

Today we celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Most of us celebrate a convenient, domesticated Martin Luther King. As a nation we readily embrace the I-have-a-dream-King who envisioned a day when black and white children would hold hands in unity. We can rally around a King who was a great orator, a dreamer of racial harmony, a national leader that even Ronald Reagan could support in signing a bill for his birthday to become a national holiday, even though he opposed the kind of legislation for which King fought and died.

Vincent Harding, in his book Martin Luther King; The Inconvenient Hero, points us to the post-1963 King, who was more troublesome and dangerous. This King railed against the three great evils of militarism, materialism, and racism. This King opposed the Vietnam War. This King fought for the rights of the poor. This King critiqued the privileged minority in the world and the inequitable distribution of resources. This King challenged white power and privilege.

This is the inconvenient hero that we so readily praise on his birthday (80th today), but find difficult to follow in today's social and political contexts. Like the radical Jesus who challenged the oppressive systems of his day, we have domesticated both Jesus and King into more palatable figures who remain distant from the enormous gap between the rich and poor, the gutting of social welfare and domestic programs, continuing systemic racism, unchecked greed and consumerism, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, billions of dollars spent on the military-industrial complex, and the establishment of thousands of U.S. military bases around the world to protect U.S. interests. These are the realities that go unchallenged by an America who celebrates King's birthday today. This is the inconvenient hero who we can sigh over, name streets after, and name a national holiday after now that he is gone. Everyone can sing the praises of a dead prophet!

In 1969, following King's assassination, poet Carl Wendell Himes, Jr. penned these most appropriate words that we should keep in mind on this day of the inconvenient hero:

Now that he safely dead
Let us praise him
build monuments to his glory
sing hosannas to his name.
Dead men make
such convenient heroes: They
cannot rise
to challenge the images
we fashion from their lives
And besides,
it is easier to build monuments
than to make a better world.
So, now that he is safely dead
we with eased consciences
will teach our children
that he was a great man...knowing
that the cause for which he lived
is still a cause
and the dream for which he died
is still a dream,
a dead man's dream.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Madonna of the Stars: a poem and painting by Leo Hartshorn

into the tohu emptiness
She swirled her spangled dress
covering the blushing face
of squalling space

silverdusted Medusa hair
cuts the black air
orange dawn cracks
daylight through her back

earth a lightbulb thought
floats above what She has wrought
El Shaddai, God of mountains, of breasts
She creates the world, then rests

spinning on brown toes She whirled
flinging off a new world
into Copernican dance
with metered chance

O moonfaced maiden sweet
we fall at thy wet feet
prostrate under thy jeweled hair
raven black and satin fair

Friday, January 16, 2009

Andrew Wyeth, American Painter, Dies

Last night America lost one of its most beloved artists---Andrew Wyeth. He died Thursday evening, January 15, 2009 at the age of 91 at his birthplace, Chadd's Ford, Pennsylvania. I thought of Wyeth a little after noon today, before I heard of his death, as I passed the Brandywine River Museum in Chadd's Ford on my way home from the Philadelphia International Airport. I have visited the museum several times to see his work. The museum houses numerous paintings of Andrew Wyeth, his father N.C. Wyeth, who was a well known book illustrator, and Jamie Wyeth, his son. Wyeth has been a favorite realist artist ever since I saw his most famous painting "Christina's World" in one of my art history classes in 1968.

"Christina's World" (1948) is a painting of Christina Olson, a neighbor whose deteriorating muscles paralyzed her lower body. It resides in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Strangely enough, Christina was not Wyeth's model for the painting, but rather his wife Betsy. It is one of the most recognizable pieces of American art.

As one who has always been drawn to realist art Andrew Wyeth's egg tempera and water color paintings fascinated me. This was not the case with many art critics who were enamored by abstract painting and pop art. For some Wyeth was simply another illustrator.

For me his realism was at times photographic and his colors and textures seemed to capture the look, feel, and age of the Pennsylvania landscape, as well as that of his other residence in Cushing, Maine. I loved his paintings of people, barns, stone houses, snowy landscapes, and common objects that all had the distinctive Wyeth signature in their color, drybrush texture, and sparing composition. And yet, his art was more than copying reality. He was able to create a sense of mystery, wonder, solitude, and deep feeling in his paintings.

I remember the publicity, and scandal, surrounding the unveiling of his series of Helga pictures (247) that came to public attention in 1986, but which were painted over a 15 year period. Part of the controversy was that these intimate paintings and drawings, many of which were nude figures, were even unknown to Wyeth's wife and Helga's husband.

In death his paintings will live on for many generations to come in the tangible expressions of his heart, soul, and creative spirit.