Month: February 2021

The way we were

The 2020 United Methodist General Conference has been postponed yet again, now scheduled for August 29-September 6, 2022. The Conference intends, among other things, to design a way out of a briar patch of disagreement about LGBTQ inclusion.

Robert Redford (84) and Barbra Streisand (78) starred in the 1973 movie The Way We Were, a romance set in the 1930s-1950s. It’s now an old movie about even older by-gone days. I thought of this flick when I read about the postponement.

Some Conference delegates want us to be the way we were, or the way they think we were. Some delegates want a future different from the past. After this pandemic hiatus, in which so much has happened, it may be difficult for some delegates to accurately assess the way we are now.

Peggy Noonan wrote last week about how the pandemic “changed everything” in New York, but “we have yet to absorb fully everything that means.” It may take decades, especially to gauge its impact on children.

Can it be that it was all so simple then
Or has time rewritten every line
If we had the chance to do it all again, tell me, would we, could we

From “Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand Reunite 42 Years After The Way We Were: Pictures,” by Joyce Chen, Us Magazine, December 11, 2015

Moral imagination

From Part I of Jonathan Walton’s book, A Lens of Love, beginning with a couple of one-liners that have stuck with me this week:

Does religion make a person more dogmatic and parochial or more open and accepting?

The opposite of faith is not doubt; it is certainty.

A biblical story’s context is central to biblical interpretation: “The better we understand what the ancients were trying to convey about God, power, injustice, evil, suffering, and hope in their world, the better we might be able to make moral connections across space and time in our world.” Context helps us interpret the Bible’s symbolic and metaphoric language for our time.

Walton said, “Moral imagination is similar to faith.” I don’t remember learning much about “moral imagination” when I was young and in school, but I saw moral imagination within those who were working for a better world. Moral imagination drives us to see the world not just as it is, but how it could be. Who among us today with moral imagination is making a difference in the world?

As I was saying

It was time to get back to the New Testament project. I went to the cabinet to retrieve the manuscript. The first thing I spotted was a box of “floppy” disks. It’s been awhile. I found the tiny USB drive. The Introduction seemed vaguely familiar. The files were last modified in 2013. In the big scheme of things that’s not too long ago, I told myself.

Chapter 1 about Mark was finished, as was Chapter 2 about Matthew. Chapter 3 about Luke was two-thirds done. Seems an odd place to stop. Maybe the phone rang. It’s already too long. I need to pick up at the healing and teaching segments before Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” It’s coming back to me. Slowly. My knees aren’t the only parts of me that are aging.

How many books about the Bible have been written since 2013? Books that I haven’t read? A cup of coffee seemed in order. Then I remembered. The Lenten group that graciously started a week late is studying Jonathan Walton’s book about–Voilà–the New Testament: A Lens of Love: Reading the Bible in Its World for Our World. My kind of sub-title. Gotta start somewhere.

“‘Lens of Love’ focuses on justice,” by Jeffrey Blackwell, The Harvard Gazette, September 28, 2018

Inspiration where you find it

Sometimes inspiration comes in unexpected ways. On Monday night, as my mind and body were winding down, I watched a few minutes of C-SPAN’s replay of the Senate hearing for Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland. I don’t recall hearing or seeing Judge Garland before that evening. I listened with one ear, but I looked up when Senator Cory Booker referenced the judge’s family experience, a “Micah mandate” and his motivation for wanting to be Attorney General.

I turned both ears toward the TV to hear the soft-spoken judge’s reply. He said slowly and at times haltingly, “I come from a family where my grandparents fled anti-Semitism and persecution. The country took us in and protected us. I feel an obligation to the country. This is the highest and best use of my own set of skills to pay back. So, I want very much to be the kind of Attorney General that you’re saying I could become. I’ll do my best to be that kind of Attorney General.”

The senator said, “I believe your heart and I’m grateful that you’re living that Micah mandate.” The biblical reference is Micah 6.8:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?

A quiet place

During the winter, Friar and I carved out a quiet place in the woods. With a level, a shovel and some gravel, we placed six 16-inch pavers as a platform for a folding chair and a mat. One day last year, on a walk as we passed the woods overlooking our neighbors’ pond, I remembered Henry David Thoreau’s two years at Walden Pond, I told Friar that Thoreau was a “transcendentalist.”

To Friar that may have sounded like someone who avoids going to the dentist. He gave me his “Okay, whatever” look, but he seemed to concur that the overlook would be a suitable, quiet place to occasionally sit and think for a few minutes. Thoreau spent two years at Waldon Pond. Friar and I enjoy our transcendence, our quiet moments, in shorter increments, mostly between meals.

Yesterday was warm and sunny, so we spent a few minutes test-sitting the lawn chair and the mat. The idea was to create a bit of space close enough to our neighbors’ pond to enjoy the view yet close enough to the coffee pot and the wireless router in case I need write down an idea or do a little research. Friar likes it, which is the main thing, and it made a good Lenten “desktop.”.

Lent begins tomorrow, again

Lent for Western Christians (Roman Catholics and some Protestants) began last Wednesday, February 17, after a pandemic-subdued Mardi Gras. Lent for Eastern Christians (in various Orthodox traditions) will begin this year on March 15th. Why different calendars? I yield to an old Newsweek article. Sometimes I use the Doug Layton method of theology: “Is it in red?” (He was referring to some Bibles that print the words of Jesus in red. He figured if it’s not in red, it’s negotiable.) So, following the LSR (Laytonian School of Religion), and with my general predisposition to compromise, I’ve decided that for me, this year Lent will begin tomorrow–February 24. That’s consistent with my standing rule for when to begin losing weight–tomorrow.

Last year for Lent I gave up Donald Trump. That lasted about as long as my commitment to eat sensibly. Jon Meacham said Lindsey Graham’s quick reversal from his anger toward Trump for the January 6 assault on the Capitol reminded him of when Tom Sawyer said an evangelist came to town who was so good that even Huck Finn was saved until Tuesday. Sometimes our enthusiasm for conversion is brief. I guess that’s why Lent is an annual occurrence and why it lasts several weeks. Recognizing that there’s a bit of Lindsey Graham and Huck Finn in me, I’m ready to begin Lent again. I’m beginning late for the Western version, and by beginning tomorrow, I have a cushion. If I backslide, I can begin again with my Orthodox friends on March 15.

An ecumenical and interfaith worldview comes in handy sometimes. Tomorrow, I’m going to give up not just Donald Trump but politics itself. I plan to study, think and write about two things in the coming weeks: the New Testament and the equity market. With the market showing some confidence that we’re getting traction against the COVID-19 pandemic, with uncertainty about whether an uptick in interest rates is a blip or a trend, and with a big stimulus plan in the hopper for Congressional debate–it could be an interesting spring in the market. Several years ago I began working on a brief, 10-chapter companion to the New Testament. Life changed. Many Lents came and went. I’m going to dust off the manuscript and get back into the NT.

Beginning tomorrow.

From Holy Trinity+Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Cathedral

When does a hero become an idol?

We need heroes. They motivate and inspire us. We don’t need idols, which give the illusion of comfort but always let us down. When we make a person an idol, we aim too low. Ultimate devotion to a mortal distorts or replaces loyalty to Ultimate Reality, to our highest principles. The biblical writers were adamant about no other gods because idolatry is a waste of time that always ends badly. We do no one a favor by making him or her an idol. The worst thing we can do to another person is to dehumanize him or her by making that person an object–by using someone for our own purposes, perhaps especially, as an object of devotion.

It’s fair to ask whether Donald Trump is more than a hero for a large number of Americans. Over 250 ardent supporters face charges in the January 6 insurrection. Some GOP leaders say, “We can’t (win) without him.” The Judeo-Christian tradition resists idolizing anyone, but people of faith are divided. Yesterday’s post mentioned a Politico article by Julia Duin: “The Christian Prophets Who Say Trump Is Coming Again.” The sub-title states the controversy: “In the growing community of charismatic Christian prophecy, faith in Donald Trump’s imminent return to the White House is a new dividing line.” Some quotes:

“Talk show host Sid Roth, as well as Jennifer LeClaire, the former editor of Charisma magazine… apologized, with LeClaire writing: ‘I believe some prophets who prophesied a Trump win never heard God at all. They merely tapped into the popular prophetic opinion because it was what so many in the church wanted to hear.’

“Comments like these have prompted discussions around the charismatic world on podcasts, email threads, Twitter and Facebook. The overriding emotion … is anger at the prophets–in some cases, for making false declarations and, in other cases, for apologizing for those declarations.”

“The emerging rift mirrors the one in the GOP, with one faction trying to move on from Trump in the name of democratic principles, and the other redoubling their commitment to him spurred by the grassroots and in defiance of facts.”

Hear Margaret Hoover’s interview with Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA), from Firing Line on PBS, aired February 12, 2021:
“Are we going to be a party that’s united around (Republican) ideas, or are we going to be … dedicated to the personality of one person?”

Two beds

We are in the midst of a whirlwind. Religious fervor spills into politics. Political fervor spills into religion. It’s happened before. In 1701, Samuel and Susanna Wesley began to live apart because Susanna refused to say “Amen” at the end of prayers for the British royal family. She was a “non-juror” who rejected the legitimacy of King William III. Samuel said, “you and I must part: for if we have two kings we must have two beds.” William died in March, 1702. Four months later, the Epworth Rectory was severely damaged by a fire.

William’s successor, Queen Anne, was more tolerant of dissenters. The couple reunited in 1702 and there was at least a truce, because child John Wesley (the 15th of 19 children) was born on June 28, 1703. The rift continued during the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714). In 1712, clergy were required to name in their regular reports to their bishop any unbaptized adults in their parish. That year, Samuel named just one–his wife Susanna–who had been baptized by her dissenting parents rather than by an Anglican priest loyal to the Crown.

Separated by 300+ years, the Atlantic Ocean and the U.S. Constitution, the Wesleys’ fuss over church and state seems quaint. But it’s happening now in the USA. Some churches and some families are divided over the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s presidency. In an earlier post about conspiracy theories, I mentioned a Christianity Today article about this political/religious division. Tomorrow, I’ll unpack a February 18 article by Julia Duin in Politico about some U.S. religious leaders who believe the 2020 election was stolen from God.

William III, aka William of Orange (1650-1702), from Historic UK

No other gods

The late 6th Century gave us the seven “deadly” or “cardinal” sins. A friend says he tries to give each one equal time. The Jewish faith, older (and therefore, perhaps, simpler) than Christianity, really has just one cardinal sin. It’s amplified by the Jewish Torah and the Jewish prophets. In its simplest form: “No other gods.” This was a recurring theme the Old Testament because it was (and is) a recurring problem.

The biblical writers saw idolatry as a waste of precious time. Idols get in the way of better choices for our time and energy. Idols prevent us from focusing on making peace, feeding the hungry, and teaching our children, etc. The Jewish version of the Ten Commandments begins with #1: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” From this flows #2, a corollary, a therefore: “You shall have no other gods before Me.”

I asked a Milwaukee friend if he went to “Joe’s Town Hall.” He said, “No, watched some on TV. Joe is Joe, good one term transition President.” This reflects a refreshingly ordinary quality. I don’t think many people idolize him. I was an active duty pastor over the course of eight presidents, Nixon to Obama. I tried to be professionally respectful, dutifully prayerful, and vigilantly skeptical. The biblical prophets show us how to relate to those in power. More about this tomorrow.

Idol Pleasures,” by Hershel Shanks, Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October, 2000

More polarized, more bitter, less stable?

Last night, Peggy Noonan’s weekly column was posted at the Wall Street Journal website. In a day or so, it should be posted at The title: “Rush Limbaugh’s Complicated Legacy.” She summarized the media’s reports of his death: “His obituaries in the mainstream press were mostly judgment, no mercy. It’s not nice when malice gets a final, unanswered shot. On the conservative side, TV commentaries were cloying to the point of cultish.”

She described his intense work ethic and she noted how he single-handedly changed an industry. They were friends during the Reagan revolution, and with quiet candor describes how they grew apart–much as Anne Applebaum describes her split with former friends from the early Reagan years. Peggy Noonan posted last night: “In the past 15 years my views on important issues diverged from his; he came to see me as an apostate and attacked me for my criticisms of Iraq policy, Sarah Palin, George W. Bush and Donald Trump.

She ended her column where I ended yesterday’s post, with a reflection about the FCC’s old “Fairness Doctrine.” She wrote: “There were so many voices in the marketplace, and more were coming; fairness and balance would sort themselves out.”

Noonan, a speech-writer for Ronald Reagan, wrote: “In 1987 the doctrine was abolished, a significant Reagan-era reform. But I don’t know. Let me be apostate again. Has anything in our political culture gotten better since it was removed? Aren’t things more polarized, more bitter, less stable?

“I’m not sure it was good for America.”

From “That Peggy Noonan Feeling,” by Chris Lehmann, The Baffler, April 13, 2017