An Analysis of Robert Frost’s Poem, “The Lesson for Today”

When I heard the July 16 sermon, “Lover’s Quarrel,” at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church that was discussed in a prior post, I did not get the point of its title: “Lovers’ Quarrel.” It is not a common phrase for me. After subsequently reading and reflecting on the sermon, I concluded that God loves us and, therefore, sometimes has to quarrel with us when we stray. The same is true for human lovers.

The sermon says the phrase “lover’s quarrel” came from Rev. William Sloane Coffin while briefly mentioning that it originally came from an unnamed poem by Robert Frost, all as discussed in that prior post.

Although I had heard of Robert Frost, I did not know the title or content of the referenced poem. When I found and read (several times) the lengthy poem—“The Lesson for Today”–in which the phrase appears–I was still bewildered. Only after letting the poem lie untouched for several days, doing some research about the poem and then re-reading it again several times did I come to the following analysis or interpretation.

This poem was first read by Frost on June 20, 1941, at Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa Society and then published in 1942 in a collection of poems, A Witness Tree, which was  awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1943. This poem, therefore, was written during the start of what later became known as World War II and after several unfortunate tragedies had occurred in Frost’s personal life– his daughter Marjorie’s death in 1934, his wife’s death in 1938 and his son Caro’s suicide in 1940.

 

These historical and personal circumstances, I believe, are the referents for the poem’s first line talking about “this uncertain age in which we dwell . . . as dark as I hear the sages tell.” But “If” precedes this statement and immediately suggests that the poet is wondering about the nature of the age in which he and others are living.

Frost or the fictional “first person” then engages in an imagined conversation with the “Master of the Palace School,” who is the Blessed Alcuin of York and who, circa 770, established schools to copy and preserve ancient manuscripts.  Alcuin’s doctrine of memento mori (remember that you have to die), which Frost says he holds, was part of medieval Christian theory and practice of reflecting on mortality, especially as a means of considering the vanity of earthly goods and pursuits.

Frost or the fictional first person imagines that Alcuin tells the paladins (the twelve legendary peers or knightly champions in attendance on Charlemagne) in his class,”the lesson for today is how to be unhappy yet polite.” (Emphasis added; the title of the poem.)

The first person in the poem also reflects on mortality. “There is a limit to our time extension, We all are doomed to broken-off careers, and so’s the nation, so’s the total race. The earth itself is liable to the  fate Of meaninglessly being broken off.”

One of the consequences of mortality is modesty about what anyone can know about the time in which he or she lives. Says Frost, “You [Alcuin] would not think you knew enough to judge  The age when full upon  you. . . . We can’t appraise the time in which we act. But for the folly of it, let’s pretend We know enough to know it for adverse. . . . There’s always something to be sorry for, A sordid peace or an outrageous war.”

Frost or the fictional first person also tells us that he has read Alcuin’s “Epitaph,” which is not quoted in the poem, but which reads as follows:

  • “Here, I beg thee, pause for a while, traveler,
    And ponder my words in thy heart,
    That thou mayest understand thy fate in my shadow:
    The form of thy body will be changed as was mine.
    What thou art now, famous in the world, I have been, traveler,
    And what I now am, thou wilt be in the future.
    I was wont to seek the joys of the world in vain desire:
    Now I am ashes and dust, and food for worms.
    Remember therefore to take better care of thy soul
    Than of thy body, because that survives, and this perishes.
    Why dost thou look for possessions? Thou see’st in what a little cavern
    This tomb holds me: Thine will be equally small.
    Why art thou eager to deck in Tyrian purple thy body
    Which soon in the dust the hungry worm will devour?
    As flowers perish when comes the menacing wind,
    So also thy flesh and all thy glory perish.
    Give me, I beg thee, O reader, a return for this poem,
    And pray: ‘Grant, O Christ, forgiveness to thy servant.’
    I implore thee, let no hand profane the holy rights of this tomb,
    Until the angelic trumpet announces from Heaven high:
    ‘Thou who liest in the tomb, rise from the dust of the earth,
    The Mighty Judge appears to countless thousands.’
    My name was Alcuin, and wisdom was always dear to me.
    Pour out prayers for me when thou quietly readest this inscription.”

Frost ends the poem with the following: “And were an epitaph to be my story I’d have a short one ready for my own. I would have written of me on my stone: I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.” In other words, Frost found a lot to dislike about the world in which he lived, but which nevertheless he loved. The poem, however, to my reading, has no Christian or other religious references or meaning. (Emphases added.)

This analysis or interpretation, it should be noted, was provided by this blogger who is not a student of literature and who had not read many poems by Frost or others. Therefore, I solicited the following comments from a friend, Nancy Welch Barnby, who has degrees in English literature (Grinnell College, B.A. and University of California (Berkeley), M.A.) plus years of teaching English, for her greater qualifications for such an analysis. The following are her comments on this poem.

  • “One should never assume that the speaker is the poet himself.  Of course, the poem no doubt mirrors many of Frost’s own views, but the final view here is essentially conservative, opining that no ideology (liberalism) can solve the problems of any era (ours or Alcuin’s).  Frost himself was more liberal.”
  • “Overall, I think what Frost is saying is that in no era can any ideology solve every problem.  Political systems can neither assuage our disappointments in life nor save us from death (or save our souls).  That’s the human condition in any era.
  • The final line is set up as the speaker’s epitaph, but note that it is starkly set apart from the rest of the poem for its lack of rhyme (to say nothing of the fact that it’s the last line and emphasized by the colon).  The speaker claims the epitaph as his own, but the poem as a whole underscores the idea that such is the human condition (always has been, always will be).  In essence, we all have a lover’s quarrel with the world.  We love the delights of living, but are frustrated by the sorrows we face (such as death and war, which you reference, or today the political realities of DACA, racial prejudice — well, too many to name).  Also note that the speaker is still addressing Alcuin at the end, which again joins the two ages in terms of man’s essential problem in living on earth.”
  • “This line references the idea that nothing really changes in the way man lives in the world: ‘But these are universals, not confined To any one time, place, or human kind . . .’ Another such line follows: ‘One age is like another for the soul.’”

Conclusion

Other comments on this poem or the sermon at Westminster Presbyterian Church are invited.

 

 

 

 

 

Lover’s Quarrel

This was the title of the July 16 sermon by Rev. Sarah Brouwer at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.[1]

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Rev. Sarah Brouwer

 

 

 

 

Preparing for the Word

Prayer of Confession:

“God of mercy, you call us and we ignore your whisper, listening to the voices of this world. You call us and we choose a different path, following our own devices. You call us to be the body of Christ, to collectively proclaim your justice and love. God of grace, open our ears and our hearts to your wisdom and ways. Help us to receive your forgiveness, and by your Spirit, show grace to a broken world. Call on us, again, O God, to serve you and your people.”

Listening for the Word

Readings from Holy Scripture:

Isaiah 10:1-4 (NRSV):

  • “Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees,
    who write oppressive statutes,
    to turn aside the needy from justice
    and to rob the poor of my people of their right,
    that widows may be your spoil,
    and that you may make the orphans your prey!
    What will you do on the day of punishment,
    in the calamity that will come from far away?
    To whom will you flee for help,
    and where will you leave your wealth,
    so as not to crouch among the prisoners
    or fall among the slain?
    For all this his anger has not turned away;
    his hand is stretched out still.”

Luke 5:27-32 (NRSV):

  • “After. . . [Jesus] went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth; and [Jesus] said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up, left everything, and followed [Jesus].
  • Then Levi gave a great banquet for [Jesus] in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them. The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

Sermon (extracts):

“This is the place where the good news of Jesus Christ should be preached to all people. It is the preacher’s job to make sense of the complexities within scripture- to lift out what is challenging, troubling, even, and then reveal the ultimate truth of the story, which is that God’s love is always at the center, even if it seems buried in the shadows of a dark text.”

“It seems to me this preaching gig is . . . more of a dialogue that should engage all of our hearts with God’s word. Like you, I have thoughts, questions, reactions to what God says and what it means for us today.”

“I come here, too, because, despite how comfortable I am, I still need to hear the good news of the Gospel. But good news is not always comfort. I need the Gospel to give me a framework for how to think about and serve a world where affliction is rampant, and the news we hear and read about is often not good. The Gospel should surprise us, challenge all of our assumptions, and help us make meaning, find purpose, and push past cynicism. That’s what is good about the Gospel. [This] church with Open Doors and an Open Future exists not to come down on anyone, but to be a community where we explore the nuances of being followers of Jesus Christ in the 21st century and beyond.”

“The two passages, side by side, from Isaiah and Luke, seem to convey a relatively similar message, though they are separated by hundreds of years in their history.

“Isaiah speaks a word of judgment to certain scribes, who have written laws that continue to oppress the poor, the widows and the orphans, and protect the established members of society. Isaiah’s Israel was a kinship society where money was not exchanged. Widows and orphans were those who didn’t fit neatly into extended, patriarchal families that cared for one another, so finding resources to house and feed them when their husbands or parents died, either did not exist or were scarce. Laws to carve out space for them in an ordered world, were the only way they would thrive. The words Isaiah uses against these scribes are harsh, but fairly straightforward, and common among the prophets- they describe what the eventual consequences will be for behavior that continues as it is in the present. The Common English Translation says [this Isaiah passage] like this:

  • “What will you do when disaster comes from far away? To whom will you flee for help; where will you stash your wealth? How will you avoid crouching among the prisoners and falling among the slain?”

“In the reading from Luke, the overall message is somewhat the same: calling sinners to repentance. But, if we pay close attention, there is a slight twist. In the story it says that, after recruiting Levi, a tax collector, Jesus joins him at his house to have dinner with Levi’s former colleagues- the other tax collectors. In first century Israel, tax collectors were despised because they would defraud the poor, and pilfer money for themselves, while aiding the harsh Roman Empire. The Pharisees, who were strictly religious, Jewish leaders, began to whisper to the disciples behind Jesus’ back, complaining that Jesus was hanging out with these sinners who mistreated the poor. Jesus must have overheard them talking, and in what seems like a rather loaded comment Jesus says, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.’”

“It occurs to me that Jesus was probably calling both the tax collectors and the Pharisees sinners, because there really are no righteous people in this story. The so-called righteous folks were finger-wagging Pharisees who could not see beyond the surface of what Jesus was doing. Jesus’ method was a different way of being a prophet, one that sought to build a relationship with those whose moral compass had failed them, to try and change their minds. But, so convinced were the Pharisees in their interpretation of Jewish law, they could not imagine eating and conversing with sinners like Levi and his friends.”

“In the same way, if we approach scripture, using either of these passages or others, as a way to prove our own side of the argument we will always be in opposition with someone, afflicting them with our righteousness, and never making any headway in finding what good God might be doing right in front of us. Scripture should not be used as a method to prove  one’s point about a subject, but a way for the good news of the Gospel to surprise even our own well held assumptions about justice.”

“William Sloane Coffin, a well known social justice preacher who died not that long ago,. claimed he had a Lover’s Quarrel with America, and preached often about patriotism. In his mind there were “three kinds of patriots, two bad, one good. The bad ones,” he wrote, “are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country, a reflection of God’s lover’s quarrel with the world.”[2]

“God is the lover, and we are the beloved. That is the first and most important truth we can hold on to- you might even say it’s the comforting part of this sermon. But, the word quarrel implies that this love is a two-way street. God doesn’t love us inconsequentially, or deny us love as a consequence. There is a relationship between lover and beloved, one that has expectations on both sides. And if we are God’s people, as Coffin says, we are a reflection of this lover’s quarrel- this is the kind of relationship we are to have with the world. To love it is to engage it, to be affected by it, to care for it.’

‘What I think is important for us as Christians, though, is that the quarrel is not about winning or losing an argument- it’s a quarrel that spurs us toward working on our relationships, our place in the world in relationship to all people, and making sure that they are good, and honest, and, eventually, whole.”

“If we look back to Isaiah, I think this is what the prophet is getting at. Isaiah was conveying a lover’s quarrel; God’s frustration with the people of Israel was out of love for them, love for those they were leaving behind, and the relationships that were all suffering because of it. God’s quarrel was, and is about justice. And justice, in the biblical sense, is a social concept.“

“As professor Rolf Jacobson writes, ‘It has to do with the order of society and how that order shapes or fails to shape human relationships with one another. A society that is ‘more just’ is one in which the social order allows life to thrive… A society that is ‘less just’ is one in which the social order prevents life from thriving to a greater degree.’”[3]

“As we read these difficult texts we know justice is sought after, but what we often fail to see is that relationships are at the core of God’s work to bring it about. Love and relationships are the way to a justly ordered society where all people thrive, even when it comes through laws, or policy decisions.”

“It’s why Jesus sat and ate with sinners and, at the same time, corrected the righteousness of the Pharisees. ‘None of you is right,’ he seemed to say, ‘until you are willing to break bread together, to love one another, even in the midst of your quarrel.’ God’s justice does not come about by denigrating one side or the other. It may necessitate consequences and correction, but God’s justice is always, ultimately, loving, relational, and restorative in its approach and culmination.”

“There are maybe some who will hear what I just said and think this sounds like a good idea, but that in the end it is naive, it’s idealist- there is not one lens we can use to view the world that will help us all settle our quarrels and bring about justice, especially one as emotionally driven as love.”

“Maybe it is naive. But, if we can’t be idealists in church, where can we be? We have a God who died to show us how far love was willing to go. To be sure, there is a time and place for data and quantitative research, which can also help solve problem,… but we come to this place to imagine that with God all things are possible- that the affliction of the world will not win out, that God’s justice will eventually inhabit all of our hearts, and the world will begin to turn.”

“Until that day comes we return here to be reminded of the good news. We have a framework we are creating here, for a world that is coming into being out there. We are making meaning here, and dialoging here, so that we can lovingly quarrel with the world. And we also come here to remember that, while we are likely neither the tax collector nor the Pharisee, God is still lovingly quarreling with us. And that is a good thing to remember, especially for those of us who think we have a lot of this justice stuff figured out.”

“In general, there are any number of ways we can approach issues of injustice. Being good citizens, giving away money or time, using a good filter for investments, reading and staying up-to-date on all that is happening in the world, checking our privilege. I think I’ve done most of these things, myself, and while it is important work, I have to say that none of them has ever left me feeling remarkably hopeful about the state of justice in our world. And without hope, what is the motivator to continue in our pursuit?”

“In his book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, author and speaker Parker Palmer writes this, ‘If you hold your knowledge of self and world wholeheartedly, your heart will at times get broken… What happens next in you and the world around you depends on how your heart breaks. If it breaks apart into a thousand pieces, the result may be anger, depression, and disengagement. If it breaks open into greater capacity to hold the complexities and contradictions of human experience, the result may be new life.’”[4]

“Herein lies what we do here, particularly related to justice. All of us have the capacity to have our hearts broken, especially if we are paying attention to the world. But, it all depends on how they break. Will we be overwhelmed, apathetic, angry, or cynical? Or will we come here, and find ways to move forward in hope?”

“Here’s the thing- our hearts will break if we love the world as God loves the world. And there are a number of ways to handle it. But, in this place we have a way for them to break open and create new life. When we come here, we are not doing it alone. We have the hope and the call of one who loves us and is quarreling alongside of us, who is working to restore relationships. And we trust in the promise, that there will be a day when two sides understand each other, when we are all fully known, and quarrels will ultimately cease.”

“This is why we come. This is why I am a minister. Not to afflict the comfortable. Maybe to comfort the afflicted. But, always, always, to engage in God’s love and quarrel with the world- one that challenges assumptions, that builds a framework of meaning and purpose and hope, and constantly, little by little moves us toward justice. Thanks be to God. Amen.”

Conclusion

The phrase “lovers’ quarrel,” I guess, had been kicking around in the back of my mind, when what should have been its obvious meaning suddenly dawned on me. Two lovers care for each other’s best interests, but do not agree on everything. Occasionally one conveys truth to the other that the other resists. As a result, they have quarrels or disagreements, not wars or fisticuffs or worse, and in the best of times they seek to resolve their quarrels through conversations and reasoning.

This too is the nature of the quarrels that God has with us His people.

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[1] The bulletin and a video recording of the service along with the text of the sermon are available on the church’s website.

[2] Coffin, Credo, at 84 (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 2004)(extracts of sermons and other writings). In an aside Rev. Brouwer noted that the “lover’s quarrel” phrase had come from an earlier unnamed poem by Robert Frost that will be discussed in another blog post.

[3] Jacobson, “The Lord is a God of Justice (Isaiah 30:18): The Prophetic Insistence on Justice in Social  Context,” 30 Word and World 125 (2010).

[4] Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy (Jossey-Bass 2014.)

Bobby Kennedy’s Obsession with Combatting Communist Cuba  

A new biography of Bobby Kennedy documents his obsession with Communist Cuba while he served as U.S. Attorney General in the administration of his brother, President John F. Kennedy (1961-1963).[1]

Background

Bobby’s obsession was fueled by the anti-communism of his father, Joseph Patrick Kennedy, a successful Boston businessman, Ambassador to Great Britain for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and later financial contributor to the campaign war chests of U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy., the noted anti-communist. This in turn led to Bobby’s working for seven and a half months in 1953 as an aide to McCarthy and to a personal connection between the two men that lasted until McCarthy’s funeral in 1957. According to the biographer, “the early Bobby Kennedy embraced the overheated anticommunism of the 1950s and openly disdained liberals.” (Ch. 1.) [2]

The Bay of Pigs Invasion

Although Bobby “had played little part in planning or executing the [unsuccessful] Bay of Pigs raid” in April 1961, immediately thereafter he sought to do “whatever was needed to protect his brother’s [political] flank.” The President put him second-in-charge of the Cuba Study Group to determine what had gone wrong, and over six weeks Bobby and the three others on the committee focused on flawed tactics and slack bureaucracy, not the goals and ethics, of the invasion. Afterwards the President redoubled his engagement in the Cold War while not fully trusting his generals and spies. (Pp. 240-46.)

“Operation Mongoose”

As a result of that review, Bobby concluded that “that son of a bitch [Fidel] has to go” and became the de facto man in charge of the CIA’s “Operation Mongoose” to conduct a clandestine war against Fidel and Cuba. This Operation had 600 CIA agents and nearly 5,000 contract workers and a Miami station with its own polygraph teams, gas station and warehouse stocked with machine guns, caskets and other things plus a secret flotilla of yachts, fishing craft, speedboats and other vessels. It conducted paramilitary missions on the island, including the demolition of a Cuban railroad bridge. This Operation was based, says the biographer, on the flawed premises that the “Cuban problem [was] the top priority of the [U.S.] Government—all else is secondary—no time, money, effort or manpower is to be spared,” that “the Cuban population would rally to the anti-Castro cause” and that the U.S. secret army of Cuban exiles could “vanquish anybody.” (Pp. 247-52.)

The Operation planned and tried to execute plans to kill Fidel. Afterwards Richard Helms, then the CIA’s director of clandestine operations, observed that Bobby had stated, “Castro’s removal from office and a change in government in Cuba were then the primary foreign policy objectives” of the administration. (Id.)

The Cuban Missile Crisis

Fidel and the Soviet Union were aware of this supposed secret U.S. operation and convinced “Khrushchev he was doing the right thing by installing [Soviet] missiles” in Cuba in the summer of 1962. (P. 251.)

During the start of the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, Bobby doubted whether an air strike on the missiles on the island would be enough and pondered whether it should be followed by an all-out invasion. He also suggested staging an incident at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay by sinking a U.S. ship akin to the sinking of the Maine that was the excuse for the U.S. entry into the Cuban war of independence in the late 19th century. (Pp. 263-66.)

After the President had decided on a blockade of the island, Bobby rallied support for that effort, but 10 days later he wondered whether it would be better to knock out the missiles with a U.S. air attack. (Pp. 264-66.)

Later the President and Bobby decided to accept Khrushchev’s demand for the U.S. to remove its missiles in Turkey in exchange for the Soviets’ removal of its missiles in Cuba while the U.S. part of this deal was kept secret. (Pp. 267-69.)

Aftermath

After the crisis was over, the U.S. eventually discovered that the threat from Cuba was greater than perceived at the time. The Soviets had more missiles with greater capability to take out short-range targets like Guantanamo Bay plus long-range ones like New York City. The Soviets also had 43,000 troops on the island, not the 10,000 the U.S. had thought. The Soviets also had on the island lightweight rocket launchers to repel any attacks with nuclear weapons. And the Soviet submarines in the region had nuclear-tipped torpedoes with authorizations to be used if war broke out. Moreover, Fidel at the time had encouraged Khrushchev to launch a preemptive nuclear strike on the U.S. in the event of an U.S. invasion of the island. (Pp. 272-73.)[3]

In any event, in April 1963 Bobby commissioned three studies: (1) possible U.S. responses to the death of Fidel or the shooting down of a U-2 spy plane; (2) a program to overthrow Fidel in 18 months; and (3) ways to “cause as much trouble as we can for Communist Cuba.” (Pp. 275-76.)[4]

Bobby subsequently wrote a memoir of the crisis that was intended for publication in 1968 as part of his campaign for the presidential nomination, but that did not happen because of his assassination that year. Instead it was posthumously published in 1969.[5] The biographer, Larry Tye, concludes that this memoir was untruthful in many details and was intended, for political purposes, as “a fundamentally self-serving account that casts him as the champion dove . . . rather than the unrelenting hawk he actually was through much of [the crisis].” The “biggest deceit’ of the book, again according to Nye, was “the failure to admit that the Soviet buildup [in Cuba] was a predictable response to [the] American aggression [of the previously mentioned Bay of Pigs invasion and Operation Mongoose].” (P. 239.)

Nevertheless, the biographer concludes that during the missile crisis Bobby “drew on his skills as an interrogator and listener to recognize the best ideas” offered by others and “ensured that the president heard the full spectrum of views” of those officials. In addition, Bobby was effective as an intermediary with the Soviet Ambassador. (P. 270.) Finally, the crisis helped to mature Bobby. He slowly saw “that a leader could be tough without being bellicose, [found] . . . his [own] voice on foreign affairs . . . and [stepped] out of his brother’s long shadow.” (P. 282.)

Conclusion

In the summer of 1960, through an internship from Grinnell College, I was an assistant to the Chair of the Democratic Party of Iowa and, therefore, was thrilled with John F. Kennedy’s election as president.[6]

Cuba, however, at that time was not high on my list of priorities and I was not knowledgeable about U.S.-Cuba issues. Thus, in April 1961 I have no memory of the Bay of Pigs debacle in the last semester of my senior year at Grinnell.

In October 1962 my ignorance of U.S.-Cuba issues continued during the start of my second year at Oxford University as the Cuban missile crisis unfolded. But I do recall listening to radio reports of these events and wondering whether they would lead to my being drafted and forced to return to the U.S. for military service. That, however, never happened.[7]

My interest in Cuba only began in 2001 when I was on the Cuba Task Force at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church to explore whether and how our church could be involved with Cuba. The result was our establishment in 2002 of partnerships with a Presbyterian-Reformed Church of Cuba in the city of Matanzas on the north coast of the island and with its national denomination. Thereafter I went on three mission trips to Cuba and started to learn about the history of U.S.-Cuba relations, to follow the current news on that subject and to become an advocate for normalization and reconciliation of our two peoples.[8]

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[1] Larry Tye, Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon, Ch. 6 (Random House, New York, 2016).

[2] There are seven blog posts about Joseph Welch, the attorney for the U.S. Army in the McCarthy-Army hearings of 1954, that are listed in Posts to dwkcommentarires—Topical: UNITED STATES (HISTORY).

[3] The Cuban missile crisis has been the subject of the following posts to dwkcommetaries.com: Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev’s Messages During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 (Sept. 5, 2016); Conflicting Opinions Regarding the Relative Strength of U.S. and Soviet Missiles, 1960-1962 (Nov. 2, 2016); Fidel Castro’s Disingenuous Criticism of President Obama Over Nuclear Weapons (Aug. 15, 2016).

[4] After Bobby’s 1964 resignation as Attorney General, there apparently also was a 1966 CIA operation to assassinate Fidel. (See Covert CIA 1966 Operation To Assassinate Fidel Castro?, dwkcommentaries.com (May 30, 2016).)

[5] Robert Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis (W.F. Norton & Co., New York, 1969).

[6] See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: My Grinnell College Years (Aug. Aug. 27, 2011); Encounters with Candidates JFK and LBJ (Apr. 16, 2011).

[7] Another post to dwkcommentaries.com: My Oxford University Years (Aug. 30, 2011).

[8] My many posts about Cuba are collected in List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

 

Jesus’ Question: Who Do You Say That I Am?

‘Who Do You Say That I Am?” was the title of the August 20 sermon at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church by Associate Pastor Brennan Blue.[1]

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Rev. Brennan Blue

 

 

 

 

 

Here are extracts of that sermon along with the main Scripture reading of the day and two of the prayers.

Preparing for the Word

Prayer of Confession: “Merciful God, you call us home with compassion and grace, but we fail to listen. You love and name us as your own, but we fail to respond in kind. We turn our backs on our neighbors’ needs, consumed with our own concerns. We look the other way while violence, prejudice, and greed run rampant in our communities. God of grace, help us to admit our sins and shortcomings, so that as you come to us in mercy, we may repent and find a new way of being. At home in your compassion and care, may we find that we ourselves are new beings.”

Listening for the Word

Reading of the Holy Scripture: Mark 8: 27-33 (NRSV):[2]

  • “Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist;’ and others, ‘Elijah;’ and still others, ‘one of the prophets.’  [Jesus then] asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And [Jesus] . . . sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.”
  • Then [Jesus] . . . began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, [Jesus] rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’”

Sermon (Excerpts):

“Biblical scholars cite this passage [from Mark] as a literary and theological hinge; the single most important passage in the whole of the gospel, for it reveals the truth of Jesus’ identity that only he has known all along: Jesus is the Messiah, and nothing will ever be the same.[3][

“Countless sermons, books, dissertations, and devotions have been written about just what this means that Jesus is the Messiah. Today, I ask us to step back and wonder at what may be one of Jesus’ greatest strengths. He knows who he is. He understands and even embraces his identity, both human and divine.”

“Jesus knows his gifts and graces, his desire to teach and pray and heal. He shares these freely from places of deep love and mercy. But he also knows the hard things that come with his identity. He knows that he will suffer, and must suffer freely in service of others. He probably knows that his will be a lonely road.”

“One that, ultimately, he will have to walk alone. This too Jesus embraces from a place of deep love and mercy.”

“I doubt that Jesus could so faithfully walk the road before him without knowing fully and faithfully who he is. But by the grace of God, Jesus does and Jesus will.”

“And if we are to follow Jesus, then it’s important that we not only know this Messiah, but that we follow in his steps and know ourselves, as well.”

“That’s what it’s going to take. Honest soul-searching and self-work. The courage to name our fears, failings and prejudices, even as we name our gifts and graces. It means speaking out while also searching in; leading from our identity, even if we’re working to change that identity. This is as true of our advocacy, as it is of our worship, our service, our care.”

“In short, it takes being and bringing all of ourselves to the table, trusting that God can handle us – all of us – as we are. That’s why we gather each week to confess our sins, hear God’s Word, and pray for the hurts of our lives and world.”

“So may we live and work for the day when the promises of divine grace, love and welcome may be not only written upon our hearts, but spoken from our lips, witnessed in our lives and policies, and demonstrated by the strength and our care and conviction.”

[May we be able to answer Jesus’ question: “‘But who do you say that I am?” An answer that is truthful for each of us. An answer that is persuasive for others.]

“May we may know and love ourselves for who we are.”

“May we may know and love our neighbors for who they are.”

“As we together seek to know and follow Christ.”

Responding to the Word

The Pastoral Prayer was provided by Rev. Dr. Margaret McCray, the Executive Director of the Westminster Counseling Center, with these words:

“How it must grieve you, our loving Parent, that as we grow into our adulthood from the wide open spaces of our childhood dreams and aspirations we can lose our way, neglecting and even denigrating the unique beauty within ourselves and within every person we meet: the different but equally useful and remarkable talents you endow us with; the different ways we express our sexuality;  our different colors of skin and varied cultural traditions and life experiences; the different and deeply spiritual ways we worship you.”

“Forgive us, Loving God, for making our lives tiny and restricted, contenting ourselves with small, selfish ideas and actions. Forgive us for cutting ourselves off from engaging with our sisters and brothers from all over this exquisite home you gave us to live in, a home we are rapidly destroying by our thoughtless abuse of its once abundant resources.  Heal us, mend us, embolden us, Gracious God.”

“We pray for those who live in fear and anger, for those who know the horror and grief of terrorist attacks, for those who live in poverty and hunger, for those in the midst of war, displacement and hatred, for those affected by drought, mudslides and the effects of climate change.   The world cries out for us to be vessels of the love you created in us at our birth, the love you poured out in Jesus the Christ, who showed us how to live that love.”

“Give us energy and commitment to act on behalf others. Embolden us to live lives of generosity and compassion, to show kindness and act justly towards all people.  Give us courage to speak out against injustice, to honor the rich, fertile multitude of the different bodies, talents, skills, traditions and imaginations you have given us.  Heal our wounded hearts, help us to nurture the unique possibilities of our own bodies and minds. May we go to sleep each night and wake each morning knowing that whatever the day may bring we will meet it with gratitude and love in our body, mind and soul, for it is from this deep well that we draw the love and justice we show others.  This is what saves us.  This is what gives us hope.  This is what inspires us.  This is how you created us to be.  Amen.”

Conclusion

Jesus’ first question to his disciples–Who do people say that I am? — might be seen as His seeking information about whether His message was getting through to the people. When the disciples provided multiple, conflicting answers, Jesus clearly was dissatisfied and thus asked his  follow-up question: “But who do you say that I am?” Presumably the disciples were much more familiar with what Jesus had said and done and would have better answers. Indeed, only one answer was necessary when Peter said, “You are the Messiah.”

That follow-up question also was addressed to everyone in Jesus’ time and to everyone since then. There obviously have been and continue to be many different answers to this question. Some will say, “I do not know.” Others, “He was a man who lived many years ago who claimed to be the Son of God.” And so on.

For those of us who claim to be Christians, the question is a challenge to have an answer that is direct and authentic. For me, Jesus was a favored Son of God, who by his words and actions courageously demonstrated the kind of life that God wants every human being to live. As Jesus affirmed, “Love God with all your heart, mind and soul and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus, therefore, commands our love and worship, as we strive to follow Him and live the life that He demonstrated.

Striving to follow Him involves reflection, prayer and conversation with others as we struggle to discern our gifts and talents and how to use them to advance God’s kingdom on earth and thereby discover and advance our own vocation. [4] As Rev. Blue said in his sermon, following Jesus requires “honest soul-searching and self-work. The courage to name our fears, failings and prejudices, even as we name our gifts and graces.” In so doing, we “live and work for the day when the promises of divine grace, love and welcome may not only be written upon our hearts, but spoken from our lips, witnessed in our lives and policies, and demonstrated by the strength and our care and conviction.”

======================================

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

[2] The other scriptures were Jeremiah 31: 31-34 and Galatians 3:23-29.

[3]  Jeffery S. Siker, “Exegetical Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, eds. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), p. 237, 239.

[4] Other posts have reflected on the concept of vocation and my own sense of vocation: My General Thoughts on Vocation (Feb. 6, 2014);  (Feb. 15, 2014); Another Powerful Worship Service About Vocation (Feb. 15, 2014); Other Scriptural Passages About Vocation (Feb. 17, 2014); What Happens When Jesus Calls? (Feb. 19, 2014); My Vocations (Feb. 23, 2014).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

U.S. State Department’s Positive Assessment of Cuban Religious Freedom  

On August 15, 2017, the U.S. State Department released its annual report on religious freedom in nearly 200 countries and territories in the world. This report is a requirement pursuant to the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended; legislation that upholds religious freedom as a core American value under the Constitution’s First Amendment, as well as a universal human right. This law calls for the government to, quote, “[Stand] for liberty and [stand] with the persecuted, to use and implement appropriate tools in the United States foreign policy apparatus, including diplomatic, political, commercial, charitable, educational, and cultural channels, to promote respect for religious freedom by all governments and peoples.”[1]

The release was accompanied by remarks from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who said, “conditions in many parts of the world are far from ideal. Religious persecution and intolerance remains far too prevalent. Almost 80 percent of the global population live with restrictions on or hostilities to limit their freedom of religion. Where religious freedom is not protected, we know that instability, human rights abuses, and violent extremism have a greater opportunity to take root.” He specifically mentioned serious concerns about religious freedom in ISIS, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Bahrain, China, Pakistan and Sudan. Subsequently Ambassador Michael Kozak, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, conducted a telephone conference briefing with journalists.[2]

Our focus here is examining the report’s substantially positive assessment of religious freedom in Cuba in 2016.[3] A more negative evaluation of Cuba was provided earlier this year by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an unusual, quasi-governmental group; its report about Cuba  also will be discussed before providing my own observations.

State Department’s Assessment of Cuba[4]

Religious Demography

“The U.S. government estimates the total population at 11.2 million (July 2016 estimate). There is no independent, authoritative source on the overall size or composition of religious groups. The Roman Catholic Church estimates 60 to 70 percent of the population identify as Catholic. Membership in Protestant churches is estimated at 5 percent of the population. Pentecostals and Baptists are likely the largest Protestant denominations. The Assemblies of God reports approximately 110,000 members and the Four Baptist Conventions estimate their combined membership at more than 100,000 members. Jehovah’s Witnesses estimate their members at 96,000; Methodists at 36,000; Seventh-day Adventists at 35,000; Anglicans, 22,500; Presbyterians, 15,500; Episcopalians, 6,000; Quakers, 300; and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), 100. The Jewish community estimates it has 1,500 members, of whom 1,200 reside in Havana. According to the Islamic League, there are 2,000 to 3,000 Muslims residing in the country, of whom an estimated 1,500 are Cubans. Other religious groups include Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Buddhists, and Bahais.”

“Many individuals, particularly in the African Cuban community, practice religions with roots in West Africa and the Congo River Basin, known collectively as Santeria. These religious practices are commonly intermingled with Catholicism, and some require Catholic baptism for full initiation, making it difficult to estimate accurately their total membership.”

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and prohibits discrimination based on religion. The government and the Cuban Communist Party monitored religious groups through the Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) in the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and continued to control most aspects of religious life. Observers noted that the government harassed some religious leaders and their followers, with reports of threats, detentions, and violence. Evangelical and other Protestant religious leaders reported the government threatened to expropriate some religious properties under zoning laws passed in 2015 but took no action during the year. Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reported in a January publication that there was an increase in government threats to close churches from 2014 to 2015. The majority was related to government threats to close churches belonging to Assemblies of God congregations, but the Assemblies of God and the government were able to reach an agreement which enabled the churches to stay open. Religious groups reported a continued increase in the ability of their members to conduct charitable and educational projects, such as operating before and after school and community service programs, assisting with care of the elderly, and maintaining small libraries of religious materials. Multiple high-level leaders from Catholic, Protestant, and minority religious groups agreed the religious freedom environment had improved compared to past years.” (Emphases added.)[5]

There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.” (Emphasis added.)

“U.S. embassy officials met with officials from the ORA to discuss the registration process for religious organizations and inquire about the rights of nonregistered groups to practice their religion. Embassy officials also met with the head of the Council of Cuban Churches (CCC), an officially recognized organization that has close ties to the government and comprises most Protestant groups, to discuss their operations and programs. The [U.S.] Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and the [U.S.] Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs met with leaders of Catholic, Protestant, and minority religious groups to discuss the religious freedom environment in the country. The embassy remained in close contact with religious groups, including facilitating exchanges between visiting religious delegations and religious groups in the country. In public statements, the U.S. government called upon the government to respect the fundamental freedoms of its citizens, including the freedom of religion.”

U.S. Commission’s Evaluation of Cuba[6]

On April 26, 2017, the Commission released its 2017 report on religious freedom in 36 countries and one region, in contrast to the nearly 200 countries covered by the State Department. The Commission’s nine unpaid, part-time commissioners are appointed by various federal government officials supported by an ex-officio non-voting member (U.S. Ambassador David Saperstein), an executive director, four directors, an executive writer, five policy analysts, one researcher and four administrative staff, all based in Washington, D.C. It apparently has an annual budget of only $ 3.5 million.[7]

The 36 countries (and one region) evaluated by the Commission fall into the following three groups:

  • The 16 countries that the Commission believes constitute “countries of particular concern” (CPC) or “any country whose government engages in or tolerates particularly egregious religious freedom violations that are systematic, ongoing, and egregious” and that the Commission recommends that the State Department so designate. (Pp. 3-4)
  • The 12 countries that the Commission believes constitute “Tier 2 nations in which the violations engaged in or tolerated by the government are serious and characterized by at least one of the elements of the ‘systematic, ongoing, and egregious’ CPC standard;” Cuba is one of these 12 countries (Pp. 3-4)
  • The 8 other countries and one region that the Commission has monitored, but are not deemed to be CPC or Tier 2. (Pp. 3-4)

For Cuba, the Commission’s “Key Findings” were the following: “During the reporting period, religious freedom conditions in Cuba continued to deteriorate due to the government’s short-term detentions of religious leaders, demolition of churches, and threats to confiscate churches. In addition, the Cuban government harasses religious leaders and laity, interferes in religious groups’ internal affairs, and prevents—at times violently—human rights and pro-democracy activists from participating in religious activities. The Cuban government actively limits, controls, and monitors religious practice through a restrictive system of laws and policies, surveillance, and harassment. Based on these concerns, USCIRF again places Cuba on its Tier 2 in 2017, as it has since 2004.” (P. 134)

Almost all of the specifics that purportedly underlie these Key Findings relate to churches affiliated with the Apostolic Movement;[8] Assemblies of God churches, which the State Department reports had settled its problems with the Cuban government; the Western Baptist Convention; and the detentions of Ladies in White protestors (pp. 136-38). Apparently, the Commission’s discussion of Cuba is based in whole or in part on reports by Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which has headquartered in the United Kingdom with offices in Washington, D.C. and Brussels, Belgium and which only obtained U.N. accredited consultative status after eight years by the U.N. Economic and Social Council in April 2017 by a vote of 28-9 with 12 abstentions.

Purportedly based on these Key Findings, the Commission made certain recommendations to the federal government (p. 134).

Conclusion

I believe that the State Department’s assessment on Cuba is more reliable than that from the U.S. Commission, as a mere comparison of their respective reports and as the mere listing of the various religious groups active on the island in the Department’s report should demonstrate.

Moreover, the Department has experienced diplomats in Cuba who met during the year with various Cuban government and religious officials supplemented by visits to Cuba by Washington, D.C. Department officials with responsibility for assessing religious freedom around the world. In contrast, the Commission is a very small organization with limited resources in Washington, D.C. without personnel in Cuba or visits to Cuba and that apparently has focused on a small number of Cuban churches, some of which apparently are affiliated with a little-known church in California and with apparent reliance on a little-known U.K. group that only recently received U.N. accredited consultative status by a divided vote.

The Department’s assessment also is supported by my personal experience.

Over the last 15 years as a member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church I have been actively involved in our partnerships with a small Presbyterian-Reformed Church in the city of Matanzas on the north coast of Cuba and with the national Synod of that church. I have been on three church mission trips to Cuba to visit our partner and other Presbyterian-Reformed churches and its campimento (camp) on the island, the ecumenical seminary in Matanzas (Seminario Evangelico de Teologia), Havana’s office of the Council of Cuban Churches and Havana’s Ebenezer Baptist Church and its affiliated Martin Luther King, Jr. Center and Pastor Rev. Raúl Suárez, who has served in Cuba’s legislature (National Assembly of People’s Power).

I also have welcomed and discussed Cuban religious life with Cuban members and pastors on their visits to Minneapolis, including Rev. Dra. Ofelia Miriam Ortega Suárez, the Directora of Havana’s Instituto Cristiano de Estudios Sobre Gênero and a member of Cuba’s legislature (National Assembly of People’s Power). In addition, I have heard from other Westminster members and pastors about their trips to Cuba. This includes some Westminster members who have been involved in installing clean water systems in Cuban Presbyterian-Reformed churches through the Living Waters for the World Ministry of the Synod of Living Waters of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), our denomination, and a Westminster member is now the Moderator of the Cuba Network Coordinating Team for that organization.[9]  Finally I read widely about Cuba, especially its relations with the U.S. and its religious life.

These connections have been very important to me personally and to others at Westminster as we stand in solidarity with our Cuban brothers and sisters. I also was impressed and moved by Pope Francis’ encouragement of U.S.-Cuba normalization and reconciliation in 2013-2014 and his pastoral visits to Cuba and the U.S. in 2015.[10]

I, therefore, believe that at least in the 21st century there has been an ever-increasing role for, and freedom of, religion in Cuba as this poor country struggles to improve the spiritual and economic welfare of its people. I also believe that Westminster and other U.S. churches’ partnering with Cuban churches and people along with Pope Francis’ witness have been God’s servants aiding, and continuing to aid, these encouraging changes.

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, Preface: International Religious Freedom Report for 2016 (Aug. 15, 2017); U.S. State Dep’t, Overview and Acknowledgement: International Religious Freedom Report for 2016 (Aug. 15, 2017).

[2] U.S. State Dep’t, Secretary Tillerson: Remarks on the 2016 International Religious Freedom Report (Aug. 15, 2017); Special Briefing: Ambassador Michael Kozak, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (Aug. 15, 2017).

[3] Other posts have discussed the State Department’s and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s previous assessments of Cuban religious freedom along with comments by others and the international law regarding freedom of religion; they are listed in the “Cuban Freedom of Religion” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Cuba.

[4] U.S. State Dep’t, International Religious Freedom Report for 2016: Cuba (Aug. 15, 2017).

[5] This positive development was emphasized in the body of the Cuba report, which stated, “Religious groups reported their leaders continued to travel abroad to participate in two-way exchanges between local faith-based communities and those in other countries. The majority of religious groups continued to report improvement in their ability to attract new members without government interference, and a reduction in interference from the government in conducting their services.”

[6] U.S. Comm’n Int’l Religious Freedom, 2017 Annual Report (April 26, 2017); Press Release: USCIRF Releases 2017 Annual Report (April 26, 2017).

[7] Grieboski, The Case for Pulling the Plug on the US Commission on  International Religious Freedom, Huffpost (Dec. 18, 2011); Press Release: Rubio Celebrates Signing Of U.S. Commission On International Religious Freedom Reauthorization Act Into Law (Oct. 15, 2015).

[8] The Apostolic Movement apparently is headquartered in San Diego, California as “a Fivefold Ministry organization headed by an Apostolic team of Fivefold Ministers . . .[with] a mandate from God the Father through the Lord Jesus Christ, to go and prepare the Body of Christ for the final move of God . . . [by finding] the Hidden Warriors whom He has hidden away, waiting for the time of their manifestation [based upon the belief that] God has reserved for Himself apostles, both men and women, who are not currently visible or part of the Status Quo Church System.”

[9] A brief discussion of these Westminster connections with Cuba occurs in this blog post: Praise God for Leading U.S. and Cuba to Reconciliation (Dec. 22, 2014).

[10] See the blog posts listed in the “Pope Francis Visits to Cuba & U.S., 2015” in List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

Subversive Revolutionaries 

This was the title of the July 30th sermon at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church by Associate Pastor, Rev. Sarah Brouwer.[1]

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Rev. Sarah Brouwer

 

 

 

 

 

Listening for the Word

The central part of the service—Listening for the Word—featured the reading of the Scriptures and the preaching of the sermon.

Scripture Reading

 The main Scripture for the day was Ephesians 6: 10-20 (Common English Bible):[2]

  • “Finally, be strengthened by the Lord and his powerful strength. Put on God’s armor so that you can make a stand against the tricks of the devil. We aren’t fighting against human enemies but against rulers, authorities, forces of cosmic darkness, and spiritual powers of evil in the heavens. Therefore, pick up the full armor of God so that you can stand your ground on the evil day and after you have done everything possible to still stand. So, stand with the belt of truth around your waist, justice as your breastplate, and put shoes on your feet so that you are ready to spread the good news of peace. Above all, carry the shield of faith so that you can extinguish the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is God’s word.
  • Offer prayers and petitions in the Spirit all the time. Stay alert by hanging in there and praying for all believers. As for me, pray that when I open my mouth, I’ll get a message that confidently makes this secret plan of the gospel known. I’m an ambassador in chains for the sake of the gospel. Pray so that the Lord will give me the confidence to say what I have to say.” (Emphases added.)

The Sermon

“I am as far removed from Roman-controlled late first century Asia minor as I am from the war-torn places of our world– and even the violent parts of our city. But, I do read about war and violence in the news, and it disturbs me. And, the worry most on my mind nowadays is that there seems to be more and more license to threaten individual lives and bodies, especially those who fall outside norms, and land in the margins. So, to equate the Christian life with putting on armor not only falls outside of my comfort zone, it seems counterintuitive, even dangerous.”

“But, I also have to wonder if… maybe that’s the point. “

“The strategy of Jesus is not centered in taking the right stand on issues, but rather in standing in the right place—with the outcast and those relegated to the margins.”

“In the letter to the Ephesians there is no explicit mention of violence outside of the notion of putting on armor, but, the author does talk about standing firm, even as we struggle with cosmic forces of evil. And evil is really the root of violence- not quite the same thing, but certainly related. What’s important, though, is that the writer of this letter actually takes images that are familiar to these early Christians- people who would have seen powerful, intimidatingly dressed, sometimes violent Roman soldiers, walking the streets every day — and then subverts them, takes them out of context and changes the metaphor. The image of armor ends up undermining itself, revealing its emptiness.”

“[The]author of Ephesians seeks to build community by coming alongside it, knowing it, and reframing what appears to be true. . .. For the Christians in Ephesus, it meant they had to shake off the illusions of the powers of the world and put on the armor of God. They had to learn that the body of Christ is a ‘heavenly’ reality, full of righteousness and truth, and it is in no way determined by violent ways or the abusive habits of those who claim power.”

“Although I can certainly appreciate what the author of Ephesians is doing here, it still makes me uncomfortable. Things have not gone well when Christians have put on armor. This text has been misread many times and used in defense of violence, even though I am abundantly sure that was not the intent. As a friend of mine writes, ‘spiritual growth usually feels more like laying down defenses, shedding layers, allowing more of my unprotected self to see the light of day.’ Even putting on the armor of God, which is a subversive, totally different way of garnering strength, just doesn’t sit well.”

“But . . . Ephesians doesn’t mess around with the idea that there is evil. Conflict is implied, but not necessarily conflict with others.”

“Evil is real, but we like to talk about it as though it is part of these systems of injustice, so we can easily remove ourselves from the equation. A friend of mine says it this way, ‘We tend to make evil bureaucratic, so we can engage in problem solving and policy-making. And while those ways of dealing with injustice are productive in some ways, they fail to adequately grapple with the reality of evil, and the way that it works within and among us, spreading like a virus (Wiles).”

“Jesus knew that evil didn’t just exist among the Roman authorities. If he did, he would have spent all his time with them. Instead, he taught the disciples, he healed the sick, he gave to the poor, he spent time with sinners. Jesus knew that violence, even the violence that killed him, was just a symptom of inner conflict.”

“And who among us can’t understand this? Even if we don’t have urges toward violence, we all have deep-seated pain, discomfort, grief, loss, loneliness, anxiety, shame and self-doubt that we are battling internally on a daily basis. And maybe we don’t put on physical armor to cover it up, but we certainly manage to bury evil that eats away at us, covering it up with illusions of personal success and power, or whatever other things we do that don’t really protect us from the world or our own hurt. You might have noticed, but Ephesians never mentions battling enemies, because there are none. Our so-called enemies are always just as imprisoned as we are.”

“[According to] Rev. Matt Fitzgerald . . . in the Christian Century . . . , ‘The breastplate of ministerial self-righteousness will not protect me. I have learned over the years that a helmet made of bourbon and a sword forged from cynicism are also insufficient, as are prosperity, religious zeal, fitness and even family. None of these are strong enough to hold back ‘the cosmic powers of this present darkness’ (Eph. 6:12). None can thwart the forces of chaos and disorder that upend even the most righteous of lives. Yet we are tempted to try to master the tragedy of existence by ‘living well.’ Perhaps this is why the writer of Ephesians makes a distinction between ‘the whole armor of God’ and our efforts to become godly. The shield is God’s, not ours.’”[3]

“When I think of someone who has explored the cosmic forces of evil within and sought to overcome them, the person who comes to mind is Jean Vanier. [He] is the founder of the well-known L’arche Movement, which consists of 135 communities around the world where people of 5 varying physical and mental abilities live together as equals. Vanier once wrote, ‘We human beings have a great facility for living illusions, for protecting our self-image with power, for justifying it all by thinking we are the favored ones of God… But I am struck by how sharing our weakness and difficulties is more nourishing to others than sharing our qualities and successes.’”[4]

“If we put on armor, let it be subversive armor. Let us wrap truth around our waist like a belt, and let it be the kind of truth that Jean Vanier talks about. We might wonder uncomfortably, ‘And what good will truth do in the end?’ You might consider asking someone who has revealed the truth about their sexuality, told the truth about who they truly are, deep down, exposed their true identity to a shaming and dangerous world, but whose life was saved as a result. You could ask someone who has admitted they were powerless to addiction, who finally said, ‘I need help. This is unmanageable.’ That kind of truth is strong, it has a story, and it not only has the power to nourish others and change lives, ‘it is strong enough to bring forth life from the grave (Wiles).’”

“The writer of Ephesians says, ‘stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.’”

“The Gospel is the world of opposites, where engaging real evil and conflict actually means putting your defenses down. It seems very vulnerable, to march into combat armed only in the Spirit; even precarious and costly, to hold faith as your shield. It feels like you might lose everything on that path to battle. As my friend Sarah writes, ‘Frankly, it all resembles foolishness. It’s as foolish as God Almighty showing up as a baby. Babies literally can’t do anything. They’re just really needy, and they call forth love and compassion. That’s all. But this is the shape of our God. This is our confession about power. This is the nature of our strength—a belt of truth, a breastplate of righteousness, shoes of peace, a shield of faith, a helmet of salvation, and a sword of the Spirit. This is the only armor there is. And it’s no kind of armor at all.’ Except, if we remember the promise. That if we put on this subversive armor, God’s armor, evil and violence will not win in the end, and self-destruction and self-righteousness do not have to be our last resort. If we are willing to put on this strange promise, to wear it, to stand firm in it, and to be advocates for it, it will save us, and others.”

“So, while I still don’t like the idea of armor, I believe in it. I have to. And I pray you will join me, as we ‘dare to lay down all our other weapons, and put on, piece by piece, only this, the armor of God.’”

Preparing for the Word

The first part of the service—Preparing for the Word—helped to prepare the congregation to listen for the Word. Keys for this part were the congregational singing the Processional Hymn, “God of Grace and God of Glory,” and saying the unison Prayer of Confession.

Processional Hymn: “God of Grace and God of Glory”[5]

God of grace and God of glory,
on thy people pour thy power
;
crown thine ancient church’s story;
bring its bud to glorious flower.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
for the facing of this hour,
for the facing of this hour
.

Lo! the hosts of evil round us
scorn thy Christ, assail his ways!
From the fears that long have bound us
free our hearts to faith and praise.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
for the living of these days,
for the living of these days.

Cure thy children’s warring madness;
bend our pride to thy control;
shame our wanton, selfish gladness,
rich in things and poor in soul.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
lest we miss thy kingdom’s goal,
lest we miss thy kingdom’s goa
l.

Save us from weak resignation
to the evils we deplore.

Let the gift of thy salvation
be our glory evermore.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
serving thee whom we adore,
serving thee whom we adore.

Prayer of Confession

 Before the reading of the Scripture and the sermon the congregation in unison said the following Prayer of Confession:

  • “Spirit of God, we confess that we put on airs more often than we put on the armor of God. We are guilty of girding ourselves with lies instead of the truth. We try to protect ourselves with arrogance and self-reliance instead of righteousness, faith, and your gift of salvation. Our footsteps do not follow your path of peace. We are quick to use your Word to attack one another, instead of striking out against the sin of the world. Forgive us, Holy God. Gift us with wisdom and strength to change our ways, so that we may live as your faithful people.”

Conclusion

The passage from Ephesians was not familiar to me and like Rev. Brouwer I had difficulty in seeing how it related to my life.

I was aided in this effort by some of the words of the Processional Hymn (in slightly different order): “God of grace and God of glory. Lo! the hosts of evil round us scorn thy Christ, assail his ways! Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore. On thy people pour thy power. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of this hour.”

The pouring of God’s power on us can be seen as embracing us in God’s armor: a belt of truth, a breastplate of righteousness, shoes of peace, a shield of faith, a helmet of salvation, and a sword of the Spirit.

The hymn’s plea to “save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore” recognizes the difficulty we all experience in seeing so many injustices in the world and feeling incapable of doing anything to combat them and, therefore, falling into “weak resignation to the evils we deplore.”

As Rev. Brouwer said in her sermon, ‘We tend to make evil bureaucratic, so we can engage in problem solving and policy-making. And while those ways of dealing with injustice are productive in some ways, they fail to adequately grapple with the reality of evil, and the way that it works within and among us, spreading like a virus (Wiles).”

We, therefore, need God’s wisdom and courage for the facing of this hour. For me, this means discerning our gifts, identifying ways to use these gifts to help others and then digging in doing it while recognizing that nothing we do is complete or perfect and that we are prophets of a future not our own.[6]

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

[2] The Old Testament reading for the day was Joshua 24: 1-2a, 14-18.

[3] Fitzgerald, The armor of God: Ephesians 6: 10-20, Christian Century (Aug. 11, 2009).

[4] The noted theologian Henri Nouwen spent the last 10 years of his life at a L’arche center in Canada.

[5] The hymn’s lyrics were written by Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick (1876-1969) for the 1930 opening of New York City’s interdenominational Riverside Church, which was conceived by John D. Rockefeller and which Fosdick served as senior pastor (1930-1946). Earlier he had been a Baptist pastor in Montclair, New Jersey (1903-1917), a chaplain in World War I (1917), and pastor, in New York City, at First Presbyterian Church in Manhattan‘s West Village (1918-1924) followed by Park Avenue Baptist Church (1924-1930). Fosdick became a central figure in the “Fundamentalist–Modernist Controversy” within American Protestantism in the 1920s and 1930s and was one of the most prominent liberal prominent ministers of the early 20th century. This led to an investigation of his views by the Presbyterian Church in the USA where he was defended by John Foster Dulles, an elder at First Presbyterian and later Secretary of State.

[6] Another Perspective on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, dwkcommentaries.com (July 27, 2017).

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.