Revisionist Christians

Westminster Presbyterian Church

The June 25 sermon, “Revisionist Christians,” by Associate Pastor for Congregational Life, Rev. Sarah Brouwer, at Minneapolis Westminster Presbyterian Church discussed the need for Christians constantly to consider revising, reforming, seeking again and again the plans God has for a future for us as individuals and for all people.[1]

Preparing for the Word

In “Preparing for the Word,” the initial part of the service, we all joined in the following Prayer of Confession: “We confess, O God, we live in extremes. We need you only when things go wrong, but forget you in times of joy. When we have enough, it’s because we did it, and when we have nothing at all, we blame you. We value individualism until we require the help of community. Forgive us, we pray. Nurture peace in our frenetic lives. Help us to cultivate gratitude. Remind us to receive your abundance, and share it with others. We pray, O God, to be grounded in your infinite grace and mercy.” (Emphasis added.)

Listening for the Word

The central part of the service, “Listening for the Word,” sets forth the Scripture reading for the day followed by the sermon.

Scripture Reading

 The Old Testament reading was Jeremiah 29:11-14 (NRSV):

  • For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.” (Emphasis added.)

The New Testament reading was Paul’s letter to the Philippians 4: 1-17 (NRSV):

  • “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.”
  • “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.”
  • Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
  • “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
  • “I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.”
  • “You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone. For even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me help for my needs more than once. Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account.” (Emphases added.)

The Sermon

Rev. Sarah Brouw

Revisionist History, a podcast by New York Times bestselling author, Malcolm Gladwell, is a ‘journey through the overlooked and the misunderstood. Every episode re-examines something from the distant or recent past—an event, a story, a person, an idea—and asks whether we got it right the first time.’”

One of the episodes, Generous Orthodoxy, has “deep theological connections” that builds upon the work of German-American theologian, Hans Frei, who first coined the phrase. “In this episode, Gladwell interviews Chester Menger, “a 96 year old man who has lived his entire life in the Mennonite community and [who] until recently had been a well-known retired clergy. In the last few years, “Menger became famous in the Mennonite world for a challenging letter he wrote to the church after he married his gay son and subsequently had his ordination renounced. As you listen to the story, you become not only enthralled by the stance he took, but also by the love this man continues to have for his church.”

“For Mennonites, community and reconciliation are two essential tenants. The word community, for them, is not just a term they use to describe a religious group; they live it out in grand gestures of support for one another–especially when someone in the community is in need or has been harmed. It’s for this very reason that when Menger’s son came to him and told him he was gay, albeit after a bit of time, he came to wholeheartedly accept the fact–and not just from a personal perspective, but a theological one, too. His church, however, did not.”

“And for Menger, the excommunication of his son from the church flew in the face of everything Mennonites stood for–community and reconciliation. I can only imagine trying to stay in a church that rejects your child, but, according to Menger, leaving also would have flown in the face of what he believed. So, he decided to write a letter–really a statement of faith–to the church he loved. He writes,

  • ‘I am profoundly reluctant to write this letter because I know there are those it will wound deeply. But I have also come to the conviction that I can no longer hide the light the Lord has lit within me, under a bushel. I want to share with you what the Lord has been telling me and my dear life companion…. We invite the church to courageously stake out new territory, much as the early church did. We invite the church to embrace the missional opportunity to extend the church’s blessing of marriage to our homosexual children who desire to live in accountable, covenanted ways. We know that while many of us hear different things from the Scriptures, God’s deepest desire, as made known in Jesus Christ, is “to seek and to save that which was lost.’”

“The letter quotes the Apostle Paul a number of times, and in the interview with Gladwell, Menger notes one verse in particular from Romans 1:16 (NRSV): ‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone.’” (Emphasis added.)

“The story is remarkable, and told so well. I found myself envious of this man’s simultaneous ability to love his son and the church that didn’t love his son, a generous orthodoxy on his part, to be sure. Menger was able to maintain respect and reverence for tradition, while also seeing the need to reform and revise with abundant grace and hope for the future. I wondered if I could be so open and willing. The truth is, Menger made it seem easy, as though holding these two things in the balance was exactly what his faith and church had prepared him his whole life to do. Was he worried, that after spending over 70 years as an ordained minister in the church he loved, he would have his ordination taken from him in one fell swoop? No. He laughed when Gladwell asked him.”

’Rejoice in the Lord, always, again I will say rejoice,’ this is what the Apostle Paul writes in the letter to the Philippians. In it I also discovered a sense of awe for what Paul, the author, was able to do–exactly what it seemed he had been preparing his whole life for. It’s Paul’s charge to the Philippians, and comes at the end, written to them, we think, while Paul is in prison. Much like Chester Menger, Paul maintains strength, purpose, humility, and lack of fear for the future–proclaiming his faith even after being arrested and jailed for it; preaching the abundance of the Gospel even from a place of scarcity.” (Emphasis added.)

“Paul, as you may remember, was formerly Saul of Tarsus, who was traveling one day on the road to Damascus, doing his duty to persecute early Christians when suddenly he saw Jesus in a great light and was struck blind. Three days later Ananias restored his sight and from thereafter his life was dedicated to spreading the good news of the Gospel. Paul knew from his own experience what it meant to be a follower of Jesus; he had been made new. He respected the Jewish traditions from which he had come, but knew the message of Jesus was for everyone, and that certain things had to be left behind, or change, in order to welcome all people. As Paul writes, ‘Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.’ Paul not only knew the Gospel was for everyone, but because he was in the trenches with these early Christians he also knew they had to make the church their own, to adapt if it was going to survive. He tells the Philippians, don’t worry, guard your hearts with Christ, keep on doing what is right. He is not more prescriptive than that.” (Emphasis added.)

The good news of the Gospel is that every day is a chance to be transformed, to make things new again- a chance to adapt. The old life has gone away, Paul says, and a new life has begun. [The] most helpful part of worship, in my opinion, is the prayer of confession and assurance of pardon. It always feels like such a relief each week to bring before God all that keeps us from being fully who we are, as a world, as a community, and as individuals. We approach a God who has already forgiven us, we offer up all the ways we fall short, and then we are assured of that forgiveness, again. We hear it from the pulpit and we say it to one another: . . . all of us are forgiven. Alleluia. Amen. It feels like the worship equivalent of Revisionist History, our own generous orthodoxy.” (Emphases added.)

“Hans Frei originally said, ‘Orthodoxy without generosity leads to blindness; generosity without orthodoxy is shallow and empty.’ God has been so generous with us, why would we limit how the church can revise and rethink and retell its story? Tradition is important, yes, orthodoxy makes meaning for us, it is part of our history and foundation, but it’s not all we are. Paul knew that, our reformer forebears knew it, and now as we stand at the precipice of a new era in our life together at Westminster we must know it, too. We are Revisionist Christians. Generous. Open. Adaptable. Transforming. People who examine what God is doing in the world and try to follow; as Chester Menger would say, ‘to seek and save that which is lost.’” (Emphases added.)

“At Westminster I think we do understand what it means to be Revisionist Christians. This congregation is in constant motion, ‘keeping on,’ as Paul charges the Philippians. And we are guided by Paul’s admonition to them, ‘whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just… think about these things.’ But there will always be opportunities to revise. And we know that’s true because we believe in a God who is active. As the prophet Jeremiah writes, ‘I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord.’ Yes, God has plans for us, and it is reassuring to hear in that often referred to verse. But do you remember what comes after it? God says, ‘when you call upon me, and pray to me… if you seek me with all your heart.’ Revisionist Christians seek out God’s plans, they seek the lost, they seek to be generous, and open to the future, even as they remember what they are revising from. To be sure, revising doesn’t mean forgetting. It means appreciating, analyzing, lifting out that which was forgotten or left behind, and pulling it into the future in truth. We must revise with hope, as Menger said, not hiding our light under a bushel.” (Emphases added.)

[Last week’s verdict in the trial following the death of Philandro Castile] should make us all wonder how we can “leverage [our] privilege and give voice to injustice. For me it begins, at least, by coming here, and confessing how far I have fallen short. And when I do that I’m reminded I can’t do it alone- none of us can. We need this community to help us remember that being Christian means being Revisionist Christians. We gather here to tell the truth about what has been lost, and say that black lives matter. And then we make plans to dialogue and act, and stand in solidarity… And God promises to be with us in it, and we make promises in return, and week by week we come back, re-promising, revising, reforming, seeking again and again the plans God has for a future for all people… every one… I trust God is working to make all things new. And, what is always true is that, thankfully, God is revising us. We are being made new, each and every one of us.” (Emphases added.)

“I can only hope to have the same kind of faith or joyful determination as Chester Menger or the Apostle Paul- the kind that is willing to change in such profound ways. But, what I do know is that this community has changed me. Westminster has revised me and my call. And that means now I, too, hold in the balance not only a love for us, but a deep love for the world outside. And I have a call to not only to be changed by you, but by whoever is beyond our doors, and whatever they need. We are God’s people, and we exist to be revised; for our own sake, and for the sake of others. My hope and prayer is that it will be your call, too, to let the light that is lit within you shine.” (Emphasis added.)

Affirmation of Faith

 In the “Responding to the Word” final  portion of the service after the sermon, we all joined in the Affirmation of Faith with the following words from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s “A Brief Statement of Faith” of 1983:[2]

  • “We trust in God the Holy Spirit, everywhere the giver and renewer of life. The Spirit justifies us by grace through faith, sets us free to accept ourselves and to love God and neighbor, and binds us together with all believers in the one body of Christ, the Church. In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace. In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives, even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth, praying, ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’ With believers in every time and place, we rejoice that nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Conclusion

This sermon was especially moving to me because it emphasizes that we believe in a God who is active. The good news of the Gospel is that every day is a chance to be transformed, to make things new again–a chance to adapt. We are God’s people, and we exist to be revised; for our own sake, and for the sake of others, what is always true is that, thankfully, God is revising us. We are being made new, each and every one of us.

A more frequent formulation of this idea for Presbyterians and others in the Reformed tradition is “Reformed, and Always Reforming.”

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[1] The bulletin for the service and the text of the sermon are available on the church’s website.

[2] Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Book of Confessions at 307-18.

Welcoming Immigrants at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church

Westminster Presbyterian Church

The Fourth of July was celebrated at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church with a conversational sermon, “Whom Do We Welcome?” by two immigrants, Rev. David Shinn, our Associate Pastor for Pastoral Care from Taiwan, and Evelyn Ngwa, a Deacon from Cameroon.[1]

The Scripture

The Scripture for the day was this comment by Jesus in Matthew 10:40-42 (NRSV):

  • “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

The Sermon

Rev. David Shinn

The sermon was opened by Rev. Shinn with these words from Deuteronomy 26:5 (NRSV): ‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.’”

[This passage reminds us that] “our storied faith is steeped in this beautiful tapestry of stories. In retelling the stories, it stirs the hearts and minds of the faithful to recall God’s incredible deliverance from bondage to liberation. This is the core of our spiritual DNA, that we are a people who believe that God migrated to the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Who, under the tyrannical oppression of Herod, fled to Egypt and became a refugee. In fact, the story goes even further back. It begins with Adam and Eve, the world’s first immigrants. Our biblical stories are filled with stories of our faithful ancestors being called and sent to lands unknown such as Abraham, the wandering Aramean. Our spiritual stories are told through the lens of immigrants and refugees. Yet we have often forgotten the root of this meaning and practice.”

“In the same way, deep within our country’s DNA, we are a nation of immigrants. On this July 4th weekend as our nation celebrates its 241st birthday, we remember how this land was first founded by the Native Americans who traversed through great distance from Asia to the Americas. Centuries later, a new wave of Europeans immigrants, escaping from religious intolerance, settled and colonized this land. Since then, waves and waves of immigrants and refugees have come seeking for religious liberty, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness.”

“[Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen, Westminster’s Senior Pastor, told] me about two nurses who came [to the U.S.] as immigrants and refugees. One person came at the age of three escaping from the atrocity of the Khmer Rouge. The other came to the U.S. by way of becoming a refugee in Ghana when her own country, Liberia, erupted in civil war.”

“This is who we are. A country made up of immigrants fleeing from tyrants, escaping poverty, and seeking for better life.”

“With 241 years of history of immigration, how are we doing today in welcoming immigrants and refugees?”

“In just a few words in our scripture today, mixed with power and compassion, Jesus challenges us to think deeply about the meaning of welcoming one another. In doing so, we may then discover and receive the reward that comes from the warm hospitality that is at the center of God’s welcome and gift of faith to us. Our focus this morning is on hospitality and on compassionate welcome as a form of Christian discipleship and service on behalf of Christ to all people of God. This hospitality and compassionate welcome are the simple and basic acts of kindness we can all perform in welcoming one another. We like to invite you to look around here in this community and look beyond this community in the way we can practice hospitality and compassionate welcome.”

Deacon Ngwa responded, “Looking at our passage from the gospel of Matthew; Jesus challenges his disciples to go against the status quo and implement God’s alternative plan of “a just and merciful world” by continuing his mission on earth. He continues “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple will not lose their reward”’

“Jesus’s mission on earth was and continues to be about bringing love to the world by proclaiming the Good news, healing the sick, casting out demons, and raising the dead.”

“According to Jesus, [Ngwa continued,] mission is not optional but the very reason why the church and disciples exist. These disciples today are all who have chosen to follow Christ called Christians. Those people are you and me, and everyone is included.”

Rev. Shinn then said the two of them wanted “to share our personal stories of being welcomed as a stranger to this strange land. From the immigrant’s point of view, the United States is fascinatingly strange in so many ways.”

“When I first came to the U.S., my adopted parents wanted to help me learn as much as I could and as fast as I could, about this land. It was no coincidence that I began the formative years of my immigrant journey in the Commonwealth of Virginia. To help me, they asked one of their very good friends who was a high school English teacher, Mrs. Barbara King, to tutor me. For the initial months, every afternoon after school hours, Mrs. King came by for half an hour to sit with me and help me with homework. Her first assignment for me: memorize the names of the 50 states and the capitals.”

“Yet, I learned the most about hospitality and welcome on the Chuckatuck Creek and the tributary rivers of the James River, where the settlement from English arrived to build Jamestown. There, Mrs. King took me fishing at least couple times a week during my first summer in 1983. She packed sandwiches, fruits, and her favorite drink, Dr. Pepper, in the cooler. We hopped on her Johnson outboard motor boat and off we went to look for her crab traps and good fishing spots. At times, her husband, Mr. Jack King, a veteran of the Korean War and a Newport News shipyard builder for over three decades, would join us. To this day, I have a very soft spot for Mr. and Mrs. King’s kindness.”

Deacon Ngwa next shared her story of welcome to the U.S. “I came into the United States through Newark International Airport. At the entrance was a greeter dressed in a red suit, black pants and a tie. He had this big smile on his face and shouted to everyone ‘Welcome! Welcome to the United States of America! Enjoy yourself; feel at home, you are welcome!’”

“I thought he was talking to me directly. It felt as if the greeter was talking to me personally because in a strange land where I know no one else other than those I was traveling with. How could a stranger be so welcoming? The image and message of the greeter stayed in my memory to date. It felt nice to be welcomed by a stranger in a strange land.”

“We don’t have snow in Cameroon. You all know that. I traveled in January, the heart of winter and snow. I knew about winter, and I read about it. I knew about the cold and I prepared for it. Yet I had not experienced winter or cold before then. No amount of warm clothing and no amount of heat could keep me warm, especially at night. I put on sweatpants, sweatshirts, socks, hat, and mittens. There was central heat, and I also had a bedside heater. That didn’t make any difference and I wanted to go back home so badly.”

“To crown it all, I was separated from my family. My husband and I were here while our young children stayed back home for the time being until we stabilized. The cold was one part, but being apart from my family just made things worse. That was not a very good experience. My family means so much to me and I was separated from them.”

Rev. Shinn: picked up on this thought. “A significant part of the immigrant life reality is not just adjustment, learning, sacrifices, but also challenges of separation from one’s family and familiar culture. While we both have many difficult challenges range from blatant in-your-face racism to subtle and demeaning micro-aggression, that’s not the focus of the message here. The focus, however, is how do we put to use Jesus’ teaching of hospitality and compassionate welcome in our daily lives? “

In our Scripture for the day, “Jesus says, ‘and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of the disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.’”

“Notice Jesus says, ‘give even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones.’ In the arid climate of Nazareth or Capernaum, keeping anything cold would be nearly impossible. Yet, it is only possible if one is intentional and dedicated to either draw water from a very deep well or keep the water deep inside the house to keep it cool. In other words, the prerequisites of practicing hospitality and compassionate welcome are intention and dedication.”

Deacon Ngwa added, “Do not be afraid of people who are different from us, whether they are young, old, female, male, tall or short. Let’s not be afraid of people.”

“Example: Let’s say an 80-year-old woman is sitting by a 13-year-old young man in church. The adult in this case who is a mature Christian can help the young man feel at home by showing interest in what he is doing. ‘Oh what book are you reading, what is it about, what grade are you in? By the way, my name is Evelyn and what is yours? It seems you like to read, who are your parents? ‘ As much as you can keep this conversation going.”

“By doing so, the adult has met the young man where he is and this might be an invitation from this adult to this young man to come to church for one more week. This is showing love to the younger teenager. A teenager can experience acceptance. This is doing church together. “

“Next, spend one to two minutes of your time to know your pew neighbor by talking and shaking hands, by finding out where people are from and what they are doing. Welcome people sitting by you or coming in through the doors of Westminster. Your neighbor might be a guest or first-time comer.”

“Once you connect with them, they will feel at home. They will not feel like a stranger.”

“Mission work is not optional and we are all Disciples of Christ to bring love to the world. Be each other’s greeter with the bright red suit and big smile at the airport yelling ‘WELCOME TO AMERICA.’”

Rev. Shinn, “Thank you, Evelyn for this powerful and important reminder that we begin the practice and hospitality and welcome from right here in this community, regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity. Our doors are wide open to them and we can share our welcome and our lives with them.”

“Yet we as a nation are struggling. We are struggling with hospitality and compassionate welcome when we engage in amped-up, fear-driven rhetoric toward immigrants, refugees, and people of Muslim faith.”

“For many Asian Americans, the newly installment of the travel ban echoes perilously close to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 when Chinese immigrants were denied entry to maintain racial purity in the US. It also echoes dangerously to President Roosevelt’s executive order 9066 when he ordered Americans of Japanese heritage into internment camps. Once again, the bell of fear, resentment, and anger tolls.”

“However, the bell of hospitality and compassionate welcome must toll louder and brighter. Christians, you are, WE are that bell. Our Westminster vision of Open Door Open Future is that very bell of hospitality and compassionate welcome. We are followers of Christ and we will not fail. We will not fail because in our nation’s DNA, we are a country of immigrants that fled from tyranny for liberty, from oppression for freedom, and from injustice for humanity. In our Christian DNA, Jesus instills in us hospitality and compassionate welcome. Let us not forget our national DNA and our spiritual DNA.. Let us shine that hope in our open and faithful expression of hospitality and compassionate welcome. Whom do we welcome? Everyone! Everyone, we will.”

The Prayer of Confession

The sermon’s theme was foretold in the earlier Prayer of Confession (from Feasting on the Word, Kimberly Bracken Long, ed.): ‘ O God of extraordinary hospitality and welcome, you open your table wide to invite all people to come. Even with this gracious invitation in hand, we deny others of your welcome. We have allowed sin to run our lives, to shape how we act toward others, and to kill our relationship with you. In your great mercy, forgive us. Change our bodies from implements of destruction to instruments of your peace; for the sake of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.’ (Emphasis added.) [2]

The Music

The music for the service also emphasized the sermon’s theme.

One was the famous hymn, “In Christ There Is No East or West,” which opens with that phrase and continues “in him no south or north, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.” (Emphasis added.)

Another was the Offertory Anthem, “Welcome to God’s Love,” with these words: “Families of all shapes and kinds, love the only tie that binds This gathering of open minds, welcome to God’s love. Every person has a place in this holy, sacred space, Earth’s entire human race, come and feel God’s love! No proof required of your worth, a gift to you before your birth From God, who made the heavens and earth. Welcome to God’s love. We’ll love each other and take care of every need encountered there. Within God’s heart there is room to spare. Come and live God’s love.”[3] (Emphasis added.)

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[1] The bulletin for the service and the text of the sermon are available on the church’s website.

[2] Kimberly Bracken Long is s an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and a professor of sacramental and liturgical worship in the tradition of the reformed church.

[3] The Anthem’s composer is Mark A. Miller, an Assistant Professor of Church Music at Drew Theological School as well as a Lecturer in the Practice of Sacred Music at Yale University and the Minister of Music of Christ Church in Summit, New Jersey.

 

 

 

Roger Cohen’s Gentle Words of Wisdom

Roger Cohen
Roger Cohen

Roger Cohen movingly has reflected on life and death in his New York Times column, “Do Not Go Gentle.”  Although I had read many of his earlier columns, this one stopped me to ponder its thoughts and to explore some of his other columns and biography and then to share the results of that investigation in this blog post.

“Do Not go Gentle”–Excerpts

“Home, and what constitutes it, is the most potent of memories. It’s not excess of love we regret at death’s door, it’s excess of severity. If we lived every day as the last day of our lives, the only quandary would be how to find the time to shower love on enough people. We live distracted and die with too much knowledge to bear.”

“For me, the menacing political storms of America and Europe have been accompanied by family illness; and I’ve found myself in recent days cocooned in thoughts of those I love, the fragility of life, and its delicate beauty.”

“I confess immortality, whose attainment is a hot theme in Silicon Valley, does not interest me. . . . When I think of it the image that comes to my mind is of a blazing hot day with the noonday sun beating down in perpetuity. The light is blinding. There is no escape from it, no perspective, no release.”

In contrast, “the most beautiful times of day are dawn and dusk when shadows are long, offering contrast, refuge and form. Death is the shadow that gives shape to existence, urgency to love, brilliance to life. Limitless life is tedium without resolution.”

“As Ecclesiastes [3: 1-8] has it, there is a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted. I find it hard to imagine what inner peace can exist without acceptance of this cycle — the bright green of the first spring leaf, the brittle brown leaves of fall skittering down an alley in a gust of wind.”

“None of which is to urge mere acquiescence to death, whether physical or political, in this season when death merchants are on the march. On the contrary, this is a time to rage, a time to heed Dylan Thomas: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

A “friend, who has battled and vanquished cancer, told me the other day of going to lunch with his 98-year-old father a couple of months before his death. My friend fought back tears as he recalled how his father leaned over to him toward the end of the meal and said: ‘You know, I did not want to die before I knew you were well.’ It is for sons to bury their fathers, not fathers their sons.”

“Ah, fathers, they wait so long before they let down their guard with their sons. When they do the power and poignancy of it is overwhelming.”

“My own father, now 95 and withdrawn, wrote to me on the death 17 years ago of my manic-depressive mother: ‘I know that my spirit will not soon be released from those cruel demons that tore so relentlessly at the entwining fabric of love between Mom and me. I did strive within the feeble limits of my human fallibility to preserve and cherish and sustain her. But alas — for Mama ultimately, death was the only angel that could shield her from despair.’”

“The most vulnerable parts of our nature are often those closest to our greatest gifts. I will always be grateful for the moments I was able to see my gifted father unguarded.”

“The dead whisper to us, they console us, they admonish us. Love more, love better. Do not . . . go gentle into that good night.

Other Columns

Many of his columns for the Times are online, and a hunt-and-peck incomplete search of that collection uncovered the following four columns for inclusion in this blog post. I am confident that a more thorough search would produce other thoughtful columns.

In May 2015 Cohen’s spending time at an unnamed airport prompted ruminations about status anxiety, “The Great Unease.” It included the following: “By comparison, having little or less [material possessions] seemed relatively straightforward — and could even spur illogical acts of an entirely different nature, such as going out and working for a couple of hours on repairing somebody’s car and then refusing payment, or giving time in other ways that defy measurement on the scales that hold sway over contemporary lives. There was a great deal to be said for acts of spontaneous generosity, for surprise visits, for being sidetracked, for idle conversation, for the gestures that forge community.”

The column ended with the following: “The Chinese say: ‘If you want to be happy for a day, get drunk; a week, kill a pig; a month, get married; for life, be a gardener.’ Cultivate your garden, the inner as the outer. Make it bloom.”

Another May 2015 column, “The Presence of the Past, ” contained these observations about how we experience the past:

  • “As we grow older, the past looms larger. There’s more of it. The past is full of possibility. It is ever-changing, an eddying tide, subject to the gusts — and lacunas — of memory.”
  • “Who, a friend asked me the other day, would ever want to be 90? The answer is somebody aged 89. Old age is not for sissies, my grandmother liked to comment. Nor, however, is the other option. So on we go, accumulating past with reckless abandon, like children guzzling candies.”
  • “Yet as Faulkner observed, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ Or as a disillusioned Yugoslav Communist once put it, ‘The most dangerous thing for a Communist is to predict the past.’”
  • “Only through a balanced view of the past, conscientious but not obsessive, may we shun victimhood, accept divergent national narratives, embrace decency, meet our daily obligations, and look forward.”

His June 2015 column, “Mow the Lawn,” starts with comments about his youngest child’s graduating from a London school and getting ready to start college in the U.S., but includes these words of wisdom:

  • “Life is a succession of tasks rather than a cascade of inspiration, an experience that is more repetitive than revelatory, at least on a day-to-day basis. The thing is to perform the task well and find reward even in the mundane.”
  • “I’ve grown suspicious of the inspirational. It’s overrated. I suspect duty — that half-forgotten word — may be more related to happiness than we think. Want to be happy? Mow the lawn. Collect the dead leaves. Paint the room. Do the dishes. Get a job. Labor until fatigue is in your very bones. Persist day after day. Be stoical. Never whine. Think less about the why of what you do than getting it done. Get the column written. Start pondering the next.”

This column about mowing the lawn also quoted from a commencement speech he had given:

  • “’Everyone has something that makes them tick. The thing is it’s often well hidden. Your psyche builds layers of protection around your most vulnerable traits, which may be very closely linked to your precious essence. Distractions are also external: money, fame, peer pressure, parental expectation. So it may be more difficult than you think to recognize the spark that is your personal sliver of the divine. But do so. Nothing in the end will give you greater satisfaction — not wealth, not passion, not faith, not even love — for if, as Rilke wrote, all companionship is but ‘the strengthening of two neighboring solitudes,’ you have to solve the conundrum of your solitude.’”
  • “’No success, however glittering, that denies yourself will make you happy in the long run. So listen to the voice from your soul, quiet but insistent, and honor it. Find what you thrill to: if not the perfect sentence, the beautiful cure, the brilliant formula, the lovely chord, the exquisite sauce, the artful reconciliation. Strive not for everything money can buy but for everything money can’t buy.’”
  • “In the everyday task at hand, for woman or man, happiness lurks.”

The column, “Young Lives Interrupted,” from November 2015 starts with comments on a short story by Ernest Hemingway and ends with these words:

  • “It seems, as we grow older, that we are haunted less by what we have done than by what we failed to do, whether through lack of courage, or inattention, or insufficient readiness to cast caution to the winds. The impossible love abandoned, the gesture unmade, the heedless voyage untaken, the parting that should not have been — these chimera always beckon.”
  • “What’s done is done but the undone is another matter.”
  • “There are too many words today, too much emotion, and too few letters. Truth is more often the fruit of diligence than revelation, of discipline than inebriation, of discarding than accumulation.”

Cohen’s Biography[1]

Born in London in 1955, Cohen graduated with honors at Westminster School, a top “public” school in English parlance. He then attended the University of Oxford and graduated with a B.A. (and later M.A.) in History and French in 1977.

That same year he moved to Paris to teach English and to write for Paris Metro, after which he started working for Reuters, which transferred him to Brussels.  In 1983 he joined the staff of the Wall Street Journal in Rome and later Beirut. The New York Times was his next and current employer, 1990-present, and he has served as a columnist for the paper since 2009. He also occasionally writes for the New York Review of Books.

Cohen has published these books: (a) In the Eye of the Storm: The Life of General H. Norman Schwarzkopf (with Claudio Gatti) (1991); (b) Hearts Grown Brutal: Sagas of Sarajevo (1998); (c) Soldiers and Slaves: American POWs Trapped in the Nazis’ Final Gamble (2005); (d) Danger in the Desert: True Adventures of a Dinosaur Hunter (2008); and (e) The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory of a Jewish Family (2015).

Cohen’s father, Sydney Cohen, a doctor, was born in South Africa and emigrated to the United Kingdom in the 1950s. Roger’s mother June also was born in South Africa and accompanied Sydney to the U.K. She died in 1999.

One of Roger Cohen’s columns, “The Battle to Belong,” from January 2015, told a moving account of his parents’ lives with these more general observations: “The strain of burying the past, losing one identity and embracing another, can be overwhelming. Home is an indelible place. It is the landscape of unfiltered experience, of things felt rather than thought through, of the world in its beauty absorbed before it is understood, of patterns and sounds that lodge themselves in the psyche and call out across the years. When home is left behind, or shattered, an immense struggle often ensues to fill the void.” A more expansive exploration of his own family history is found in his book, The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory of a Jewish Family.

Conclusion

Thank you, Roger Cohen, for sharing your thoughts with the world. You help us to understand and accept the truths expressed long ago in Ecclesiastes.

Recognize and rejoice in the fragility and beauty of life. Engage in acts of spontaneous generosity, surprise visits and idle conversation. See life as a succession of everyday tasks that should be well performed and that will provide happiness.

As we think about our ever-lengthening pasts, do so with balance and the realization that every one of us is haunted most by what we have failed to do. When you have these realizations, endeavor to remedy those failures.

Also accept the cycle of birth and death and see death as the shadow that gives shape to existence, the urgency to love and the brilliance to life. You too may find that the dead whisper words of encouragement and consolation.

These words are worth pondering by all of us. I look forward to reading his future columns as well as diving into the collection of his columns in the Times.

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[1] Roger Cohen’s biography may be found in the New York TImes, Wikipedia and Jewage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Evaluating Ta-Neshi Coates Through the Prism of President Obama’s Howard and Rutgers Universities Speeches

President Obama’s commencement address at Howard University was examined in a prior post. Key points in Obama’s speech for this purpose are the following:

  • “Be confident in your heritage.  Be confident in your blackness.”
  • African Americans have a “particular awareness of injustice and unfairness and struggle.  That means we cannot sleepwalk through life.  We cannot be ignorant of history. . . . We have cousins and uncles and brothers and sisters who we remember were just as smart and just as talented as we were, but somehow got ground down by structures that are unfair and unjust.”
  • “You have to go through life with more than just passion for change; you need a strategy. . . . [C]hange requires more than righteous anger.  It requires a program, and it requires organizing.”

Now we evaluate a prominent contemporary African-American, Ta-Nehisi Coates, through the prism of that speech and of a related presidential speech at Rutgers University.

Although President Obama in his speech specifically commended Coates, a Howard alumnus who did not graduate, for writing “a book that wins the National Book Award” and “the new run of ‘Black Panther.’” Obama did not attempt to determine whether Coates satisfied the above charge to the class. If Obama had done so, I believe he would have concluded that Coates did not meet this version of the challenge.[1]

Coates’ major work to date, “Between the World and Me,” clearly demonstrates his confidence in his black heritage, his overwhelming awareness of injustice, unfairness and struggle and his passion for change. In this sense he meets at least this part of the Obama challenge.

However, Coates fails in this book to go beyond righteous anger. He does not have a strategy or program for change. In fact, his book eschews any such program as destined for failure. And when he addresses one possible program for change– reparations for past racial injustice in a separate Atlantic Magazine article–he fails, in my opinion, because he weakly concluded that Congress should adopt a bill to establish a commission to investigate the issue and because he apparently makes an erroneous assessment of a Chicago class action lawsuit involving contracts for deed. The more detailed basis for this negative assessment is set forth in an earlier post. [2]

In addition, Coates in an interview by Charlie Rose demonstrated a facile reading of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous saying, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” According to Coates, this saying is a demonstrably false reading of history and a false prediction of the future and, therefore, meaningless. But the saying was never intended to be a history lesson or a future prediction. Instead, It was intended to be inspiration to continue the struggle for justice for those who were so engaged. Indeed, President Obama understood it correctly when in his speech at Rutgers University he said,

  • “But progress is bumpy.  It always has been.  But because of dreamers and innovators and strivers and activists, progress has been this nation’s hallmark.  I’m fond of quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’ . . . I believe that.  But I also believe that the arc of our nation, the arc of the world does not bend towards justice, or freedom, or equality, or prosperity on its own.  It depends on us, on the choices we make, particularly at certain inflection points in history; particularly when big changes are happening and everything seems up for grabs.” (Emphasis added.)

Perhaps Coates is off the hook with Obama’s concession that there is no one way to be black and there is no litmus test for black authenticity or as 1 Corinthians 12 reminds us, there are different gifts to different people for the common good (verses 4-11) and there are many parts to one body and all work together for the common good (verses 12-31). Thus, perhaps Coates’ gift is to express anger over racial injustice and to leave it to others to figure out what to do about that injustice and to work to overcome it.

Although Coates has said that his book was not written for “white” people, `I have to say that as a “white” septuagenarian, I initially and vigorously disagreed with Coates’ ranting that others and I “have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white,” that “’race’ [was] a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world” and that “the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of the belief in being white [was achieved] through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of blacks; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you [Coates’ son] and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.” (Pp. 7-8)

Yes, I always have regarded myself as white, checked the box “White” or “Caucasian” on many forms without a second thought and found myself identified as “white” on a 1940 U.S. Census form. But I never have done any of the awful things that Coates says were done to elevate my belief in being white.

Nevertheless, Coates’ rant has been nagging and causing me to conduct further research and reflection. I, therefore, now think that Coates is correct on this important point, which I will explore in subsequent posts. Thus, perhaps Coates is satisfying, in his own way, the Obama criteria for African-American men, and indeed for all of us, to be honorable citizens of this great country.

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[1] Reactions to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me,” dwkcommentaries.com (Aug. 13, 2015); Additional Reflections on Ta-Nehisi Coates, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 3, 2016).

[2] Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Unsatisfactory Case for Reparations, dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 18, 2015). See also Ta-Nehisi Coates Discusses the Age of Mass Incarceration, dwkcommentaries.com (Sept. 17, 2015).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pentecost Sunday at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster Presbyterian Church

A moving worship service on Pentecost Sunday, May 15, was celebrated at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.[1]

Prayer of Confession

During the first part of the service (“Preparing for the Word”) Associate Pastor, Rev. Brennan Blue, led the congregation in a short, meaningful Prayer of Confession: “Almighty God, you poured your Spirit on gathered disciples, creating bold tongues, open ears, and a new community. We confess we hold back your Spirit among us. Transform our timid lives by the power of your presence, and fill us with a flaming desire to be your faithful people. We pray this in the name of Jesus.” (Emphasis added.)

Reading of the Holy Scripture

The second part of the service (“Listening for the Word”) had the reading of the Scriptural passages for the day. First was Genesis 11: 1-9 (NRSV), which states in part:

  • Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. . . . Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.  And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”  So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.” (Emphases added.)

The New Testament passage was Acts 2: 1-17 (NRSV), which states in part:

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they [the 12 Apostles] were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. . . . [Responding to the crowd’s belief that the disciples were drunk and not understanding one another, Peter said,] “this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘’In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.’” (Emphasis added.)

After the reading (in English) of these passages, Psalm 104 was read simultaneously in Italian, Russian, Korean, German, Pidgin, Arabic and Mandarin. Here is the beginning of its text in English (NRSV): “Bless the Lord, O my soul. O Lord my God, you are very great. You are clothed with honor and majesty, wrapped in light as with a garment.”

The Sermon

Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen, Senior Pastor at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, delivered a thought-provoking sermon, “What Happens When Faith Catches Fires?”

“We call it the Tower of Babel, but on a closer read, it turns out to be a story about a city, a city unlike any we know in our time – without discord or diversity. A city without division of culture or ethnicity.” (Emphasis added.)

“’Now the whole earth had one language and the same words,” Genesis tells us.(Genesis 11:1).”

“Babel is a city where all are alike. And God is not happy about it. Genesis 11 describes an ancient version of what author Bill Bishop calls The Big Sort: the effort in America – sometimes unconscious, but often intentional – to cluster ourselves into like-minded units. We see it all around us: communities and neighborhoods where we think alike, look alike, act alike, consume alike, worship alike, vote alike.”

“Come, let us build ourselves a city,” the people of Babel said, “And a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves.” At first blush it seems like a good idea: stick with those in your camp politically, religiously, socially, racially. If need be, make rules to enforce all that sorting out. Put up gates if you have to.” (Emphasis added.)

“Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.(Genesis 11:1) That’s history according to those who built and ran Babel, those in control. That’s the perspective of privilege, the version of reality those in power want us to believe. But there never has been only one language, one narrative in any community. That’s what Black Lives Matter is telling us. There never has been only one way to tell the story of who we are, and every time some group wants to do that it leads to discrimination and intolerance at best, and sometimes to violence and death. It’s no wonder God wants to confuse their language and, thereby, bless and affirm and celebrate human diversity. It was God’s way of protecting the minority narrative in that ancient city. ‘Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’” (Genesis 11:7) (Emphases added.)

“That’s not the Almighty trying to fend off a human attempt to attain Godlike power, as is often supposed. God has nothing to worry about from humankind. No tower will ever reach the divine precincts. The sin of Babel is not the effort to be like God or to try to reach heaven; it’s the human inclination to exclude the other in an attempt to create a community of one kind only.” (Emphasis added.)

“God wants to terminate our tendency to tribalism. God wants to undercut our capacity to create closed communities that admit – or think of themselves as – only one kind and push the rest out, one way or another. God wants to lift up the narrative of those on the margins of that ancient city, confined to the underside of history of biblical history.“ (Emphasis added.)

“Suddenly things begin to change in Babel. People start asserting their own story in their own way and in their own words. The human family spills out across the land speaking different languages and eating different food and making different music and wearing different clothes and worshipping in different ways. And that’s precisely what God intends. God creates us for that kind of community – diverse, mixed, richly varied in hue and culture and opinion. But we humans never quite get over the dream of building Babel.” (Emphasis added.)

The result is what we have today among the peoples of the earth, in our cities, our neighborhoods, our schools, and, even, our churches. It shows up among those on the right and among those on the left. It’s found wherever people work toward ideological purity, wherever people write off “the other” not like them. Pentecost is God’s attempt to put an end to all that, to put an end to Babel’s hold on the human heart. For fire to burn there has to be heat, and there was heat that day in the flames that danced above their heads. For fire to burn there has to be air, and there was air that day in the rush of a mighty wind. For fire to burn there has to be fuel, and there was something ready to burn that day, in the hearts of those gathered. Faith catches fire on Pentecost.”(Emphases added.)

“Those lit up by the wind and flame that day are the same people they were before the conflagration and chaos. Nothing has changed. Injustice it still injustice. Despair still abounds in the world. Human enmity still has a stranglehold on the people of the earth, and yet there is something burning now in their hearts that gives them hope, something that gives them courage they never thought they would have.”

When faith catches fire the future opens wide. In contrast, at Babel the future is foreclosed by human pride. The Tower we build is a mountain of individualism and self-importance and fear of those not like us – a tower that wants to have supremacy in our lives, as if we were better than others, as if we did not need one another, as if we were not made stronger by the different voices of the human family. Babel has no future in either its ancient or modern forms. (Emphasis added.)

“This isn’t the detached stuff of abstract religion; it’s the stuff of real human life. We face it every day, at school and at work, on the street and in the news, and certainly, in this season, in our politics. We politely call it “polarization,” but that’s just another name for all of us striving for Babel, where, to God’s distress, ‘The whole earth’ – supposedly – ‘had one language and the same words.’” (Emphases added.)

The future belongs to Pentecost, not Babel. It belongs to those who discover in their very differences a oneness that had always been there but they had not seen before. The people at Pentecost are still Parthians and Elamites, Cretans and Arabs, Romans and Egyptians, but by the power of the Spirit they have figured out how to build community. They listen and hear one another for the first time.” (Emphasis added.)

Jesus tells us to love one another, even to love our enemies. When faith catches fire that’s what happens. Barriers are overcome, strangers welcomed, the outcast brought back in. When faith catches fire the insurmountable is suddenly not so overwhelming, the distance from here to justice is shortened, and that which once seemed impossible becomes something that might actually happen. You and I have hearts that need heating up. The wind of Pentecost is already blowing. The flames are dancing all around us. Our faith is starting to catch fire, and when it does, the gates of Babel shall not prevail against it. Thanks be to God.” (Emphasis added.)

Conclusion

I had never studied or thought about the two main scriptural passages except I remember the Tower of Babel as a tale of a place where people talked in different languages (in a babel of confusing tongues) and the Pentecost passage as a hard-to-believe tale of people understanding one another when they spoke in different languages.

I see the Genesis passage as describing people who only spoke one language and who were supremely proud and self-confident. They were building a tower “to make a name for themselves.” In other words, they suffered under the sin of pride. God did not like that situation and, therefore, made them speak different languages to make it more difficult to get along by themselves. It was an affirmative action program of creating diversity. Just think what a boring world it would be today if the earth were occupied by over seven billion identical human clones.

As the Senior Pastor said, “Jesus tells us to love one another, even to love our enemies. When faith catches fire that’s what happens. Barriers are overcome, strangers welcomed, the outcast brought back in. . . . You and I have hearts that need heating up. Our faith is starting to catch fire, and when it does, the gates of Babel shall not prevail against it.”

But we need to confess that we hold back God’s Spirit among us and that  our timid lives need to be transformed by the power of God’s presence so that we have a flaming desire to be God’s faithful people.

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[1] The bulletin for this service is available online as is the text of the sermon.