I Will Not Be Silent – Rev. Dr. Linda Thomas

fontThe Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is being remembered today – on this, the national holiday that bears his name – and among his many gifts that I hope to lift up today, that of ‘truth-teller’ is one of the big ones. In a day when thirty-year-old men stalking teenage girls isn’t sexual abuse, where racism isn’t racism, and where a sitting president of the United States makes an average of 5.6 “false statements” a day, it would do us well to remember the power of telling the truth – of standing up when others want to silence you. These are the thoughts I share with you, our readers, this week – and I hope they give you some comfort and fire in these days of ours. Please read, comment, and share!

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”


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Edgar Allen Poe’s poem The Raven gives a dramatic description of a dreamer—

Deep into the darkness peering, long

I stood there, wondering, fearing

Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal

Dared to dream before.

         Mortals we are, and dreamers we are encouraged to be; but to what end?  Hear a story about a dreamer from Genesis 37:

Now Joseph had a dream…. [He said to his brothers] behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and lo, my sheaf arose and stood upright; and behold your sheaves gathered around it and bowed down to my sheaf.”  His brothers said t him, “Are you indeed to reign over us?  Or are you indeed to have dominion over us?  So they hated him yet more for his dreams and his words….

Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem.  And his father said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them…Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring me word again…So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them…They saw him afar off, …They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us him.

The writer of Genesis beautifully describes the relationship between Joseph and his brothers.  Joseph is destined to play a special role in God’s history.  When he shares his dream with his brothers, they are outraged and he is condemned.  Mortals we are, and dreamers we are encouraged to be, but to what end?

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The prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures were sometimes dreamers. Indeed, they were also proclaimers of God’s word and truth.  It is a rare moment when forces in history press together causing a person who is both dreamer of diving dreams and proclaimer of divine truth to emerge as leader. Such persons are of a holy substance; we call them “persons of all seasons.” I believe that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was such a person—He was a “person of his time” who spoke to the immediate issues of the 1960s and a “person for all seasons” who spoke in such a way that his words ring true today and will continue to ring true in the future because he taught us about human relationships, and God’s love. He taught us about humanity’s death wish and our desire to pursue war-making instead of peace-making.

Both of today’s scripture lessons provide a launching pad for reflection on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  In Isaiah 62 the prophet proclaims boldly the coming day of Zion, which will be signaled by Zion receiving a new name.  The prophet declares, “I will not keep silent; I will not rest” until that day comes.  “I will not keep silent,” the prophet cries out “until Zion is given a new name—a name that will reveal that a transformation has taken place between god and the people of Zion. Until a spirit of wholeness—shalom is with the people.” Zion will no longer be called Forsaken and the land no longer called Desolate.  The prophet declares God shall name you, and you will be called: “My delight is in her”; you, O Zion shall be called, “the Lord delights in you.”  God shall rejoice over you.  “I will not be silent,” says the prophet “until the salvation of Zion is at hand.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. like Isaiah of long ago cried out, “I will not be silent.”  Born the grandson of a sharecropper and the son of a pastor who lived in America’s south, Martin Luther King, Jr. grew up under the Jim Crow system (the separation of races).  He thought that he would like to be a lawyer when he grew up in order to help change the south’s unjust laws.  However, he changed his mind when he went away to Morehouse College, and met two ministers who showed him that ministry could and should address things like segregation, hunger, and social sickness.

King went to Crozer Seminary and after graduation became the pastor of a church in Montgomery, Alabama. On December 1, 1955 something happened in Montgomery that changed King’s entire life. An African American woman, Rosa Parks, taking a bus home from work was seated just behind the “white section” on a bus.  By law, whites sat up front, blacks in the back.  Several white people go on the bus.  There were no more seats for them in the “white” section. So the bus driver ordered Mrs. Parks, and three other blacks to give up their seats.  The three other blacks obeyed the driver.  Mrs. Parks said, “No.”  Simply put Rosa Parks’ demonstrated “outrageous, audacious, bodacious and courageous behavior for a Black woman of her day.

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She spoke truth to power; she gave voice to the voiceless.

Rosa Parks was arrested immediately and the news of her arrest spread quickly.  A meeting was quickly called to organize a protest and Martin Luther King was chosen as the leader.  He did not want the job but he said, “History has thrust something on me which I cannot turn away.” Like the Old Testament prophet Isaiah proclaimed that Zion would have new name in recognition of its transformation, King likewise proclaimed that America would reveal a transformation within the people and within the infrastructure of our society.  The new name for America came to him in a dream.  He said, “I say to you today, my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.  It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [and women] are created equal.”

The words of Martin Luther King, Jr. still have tremendous impact on us even today, but as the Genesis story of Joseph and his brothers illustrates dreamers and proclaimers of God’s truth suffer.

We all know that Jesus lived the life of a servant. He suffered and God was glorified. It was as though Jesus proclaimed through is life and ministry, the same words of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, “I will not be silent. I will bring glory to my God.”  The New Testament lesson tells of Jesus’ first miracle—turning water into wine at a wedding celebration in the city of Cana. Since this is the first miracle where Jesus reveals himself as having power over nature, his act rings out: “I will not be silent. I am the son of the Most Holy God.”

This act is not a miracle to amaze; instead it is a sign where God is revealed to a few people.  In fact, Jesus manifests his glory to those who already believe—his disciples.  This miracle of Jesus turning water into wine is such a simple act—an act where god is revealed and honored.

As I reflect upon the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. there must have been so many events that seemed like miracles to him.  Events that gave assurance that God was present; assurance that made him continue to proclaim, “I will not be silent.”

King’s commitment to non-violence began when he read a composition by Henry David Thoreau.  Thoreau believed that a person had the right to disobey any law that was evil or unjust. Once Thoreau would not pay his taxes as a protest against slavery and he was put in jail.  A friend came to visit him and asked, “Why are you in jail?”  Thoreau responded, “Why are your out of jail?’

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Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)

King was also greatly influenced by Mahatma Gandhi.  In the effort to win freedom from British rule, Gandhi told his followers to meet hate with love; to win freedom there must be suffering, “Rivers of blood may have to flow before we gain our freedom” Gandhi told his followers, “But it must be our blood.”

King’s use of Gandhi’s technique also meant that he was following the way of Jesus Christ.  King told the people: “love rather than hate.”  Be ready to suffer violence but do not react in violence.”  When King took his movement to Birmingham, Alabama, where Bull Connor and the toughest code of segregation existed—nonviolent resistance as a strategy got tested.  The police used clubs and police dogs.

I heard Andrew Young tell about the march in Birmingham at the Riverside Church in New York City.  He said: “Then Connor ordered his men to turn on the powerful fire hoses.  But the marchers were not afraid.  Slowly we began to move forward.  The police couldn’t believe it.  They fell back without turning on the hoses.  The marchers passed them unharmed.  It was as though God had once again parted the Red Sea.”

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The Wedding at Cana

As the sign of Cana was performed without very many people’s knowledge, so this event took place without very many people acknowledging it as God’s work.  The first miracle at Cana caused the disciples to have faith in Jesus; likewise, the miracle at Birmingham caused the marchers to have faith that with God on their side, and with King’s leadership grounded in God’s love, their lives would be transformed.  Many people heard King but did not recognize that God was working through him.  It was God who gave King the dreams and the courage to declare that his dreams could become reality.  King would not keep silent as long as injustice afflicted the human family. He taught us that equality is essential to all members of the human family and that peace is the harmony of our dreams and our reality, which is the essence of shalom, or wholeness.

Mortals we are and dreamers we are encouraged to be; but to what end?  Here comes the dreamer. Come now let us kill him.  The assassin’s bullet that killed King in 1968 stilled the voice of truth but not the truth itself.  Like any prophet sent by God, King said things that many did not, and still do not, want to hear.  As Christians we are called to live the fullness of the gospel for the entire world.  The following words from King’s speech “Beyond Vietnam” challenge us as a people of faith to live the fullness of the gospel.  As we hear these words let us reflect upon those places in the world where people are suffering, suffering especially because of war:

Now let us begin. Now let us re-dedicate ourselves to the long and bitter—but beautiful—struggle for a new world.  This is the calling of the children of God, and our brothers and sisters wait eagerly for our response.  Shall we say the odds are too great?  Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard?  Will our message be that the focus of American life militates against their arrival as full women and men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost?  The choice is our, and though we might prefer it otherwise we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.

(Beyond Vietnam – April 4, 1967 – click here for full audio and here for a transcript).

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King Memorial in Washington D. C.

The proclamation of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday as a national holiday is a challenge to us all as we reflect on our contemporary Christian journey.

King had a dream. 

Will you share it? 

He had a dream. 

Will you live it? 

Amen.


Dr. Linda E. Thomas has engaged students, scholars and communities as a scholar for thirty-one years. She studies, researches, writes, speaks and teaches about the intersection and mutual influence of culture and religion. Her work is rooted intransitively in a Womanist perspective. An ordained Methodist pastor for 35 years with a Ph.D. in Anthropology from The American University in Washington D.C. and a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Dr. Thomas’s work has taken her to South Africa, Peru, Cuba and Russia. She has been recognized as an Association of Theological Schools Faculty Fellow as well as a Pew Charitable Trust Scholar.

 

 

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“Buck Up” and Other Lies – Evan Mayhew

Linda Thomas at CTS eventInspired in part by the the #Me Too movement, last night Oprah Winfrey spoke directly to young girls after accepting the prestigious Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Gold Globes. She said that, “For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dared to speak their truth to the power of those men. But their time is up.” LSTC MDiv Senior Evan Mayhew, shares a most passionate blog post with us this week – detailing his life-long wrangling with toxic masculinity and depression. On the long walk to gender equality, lifting-up more holistic ways of ‘being a man’ is a crucial step, and Evan attempts to do so here. He is rigorously honest about the way male socialization can lead to abusive behavior. As a woman who has experienced abuse, a pastor who has supported those who have been abused by men, a professor who teaches about abuse and most pointedly, as a mother with a 17-year old daughter, I find hope that Evan takes the crucial step of lifting-up more holistic ways of ‘being a man.’ Indeed, this is public church ministerial leadership. Read, comment, and share.

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”


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“Buck up”

I don’t think there are two words in the English language that I hate more.

This phrase is tied to so much in my life.  It speaks to me of a certain kind of toxic expectation: that we should be able to bury our emotions and just deal with it.  But some awful things happen when we don’t deal with our emotions… they bubble up in different ways… in horrifying ways…

I’ll be the first to say that I’ve had a pretty privileged life.  I’m a cisgender, white man who was born to a lower middle-class family in the conservative breeding grounds of southeast Wisconsin.  Think Paul Ryan, Reince Priebus, Scott Walker… they’ve all been formed or grew up in the place I lived.  It’s a conservative utopia.  And with traditional politics came conservative morals, and with conservative morals came conservative gender expectations.

I was a “boy”, and I was expected to act as such.

Not by my family, thank goodness.  My mother and father were children of the sixties revolution, and therefore encouraged me to do whatever I wanted and got me the toys I actually wanted to play with (except G.I. Joes… my Mom hates guns).  My mom encouraged me to talk about my emotions and express myself.  My dad didn’t force me to play catch with him and joined in all the fun activities my three older sisters and I got involved in.  My sisters dressed me up in coconut bras and we made little home movies complete with dance parties.

And I was never told, “Boys don’t cry”.

 

But from a very early age, I realized something… I wasn’t like the other “boys.”  I didn’t want to play with trucks, or footballs, or tackle people in the yard.  I wanted to create epic stories with my stuffed animals, talk about my day, and hang out with my sisters.  But these other boys just wanted to act as masculine as they could.  They fought on the playground, bragged about their Pokémon card collection, shouted over each other… I was nothing like them.

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And as I got older, I saw these same boys become aggressive teens, I heard “locker room talk,” I smelled the horrible Axe perfume, and the fights continued.  But suddenly, I felt a pressure I had never felt before… that I should be like them.  I should like football, aggressively talk about girls, act cool. 

But… I wasn’t anything like them. 

As I journeyed with these peers through high school I noticed that the locker room talk was more aggressive,; I heard the bragging, saw the bullying and fighting get more and more serious… and I didn’t know how to relate to them anymore.

“Buck up”

As college at UW-Madison came and went, I dealt with depression and began to understand how ADHD was going to affect my adult life.  I reached new lows, lost faith in myself, ignored God… I slept through classes, took incompletes, I had to stay an extra year because I failed a class…  I did things I’m not proud of just to survive.  A professor told me “I would never succeed in life”.

Those years were the hardest of my life.  Some of those scars never healed.  And all the while, white men who were angry, screaming obscenities at football games, partying every day of the week, making horrible jokes and always asking me the same question… surrounded me

“…Am I right?”

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This phrase always seemed to come after some awful statement.  Sometimes it was about a woman being attractive.  Sometimes it was a subtly racist joke.  Sometimes it was after something so ridiculous I didn’t know how to respond, “That’s why we gotta get our pump on, bro… Am I right?”

NO! 

NOT AT ALL!

These angry men were so drenched in a received personality, I didn’t even know how to interact with them.  It was an identity shaped by expectations to be tough, loud, funny, interested in certain things, and above all else, un-emotional.  These men had been told that it wasn’t okay to cry, that real men like certain things…

…That “a real man” was even a concept.

I count myself lucky every day that this was not my experience.  I can’t imagine what it would be like if my parents told me I had to act a certain way, or scolded me for wanting to do things that fell outside of the bounds of being a “boy”.  Of course these men are angry!  Of course they do and say horrifying things!  They’re told to be a “real man” all their life, a concept that might have made sense 50 years ago, and when they grow up they don’t fit in the world they live in.  They’ve never been who they actually are!  They’ve never been given permission to have emotions, so of course they express their angry and resentment through a myriad of destructive means.

And since the world is set up for them to do whatever they want, they wreck havoc on everyone else’s.  When I see the news, I wonder how many men I met in college went on to commit sexual and domestic violence, who secretly harbored racist resentment, who were in the closet but actively harassed LGBTQIA people out of frustration…  You don’t need to convince me that there’s something wrong with white male culture in America. I’ve seen it my whole life!

“Boys don’t cry”

I went through harrowing depression in college.  I still deal with depression.  I can’t imagine what my life would have been like if I didn’t know how to deal with my emotions.  The truth is that we all go through these moments at some point in our life, and if we are not equipped to deal with them, we are a danger to ourselves and everyone else around us.  I have always believed that all problems in society stem from depression, fear, and low self-esteem.

White popular culture worships hyper-masculinity.  Just look at the biggest box-office hits and you’ll see what I mean.  Captain America, James Bond… the list goes on and on.  Football players, action stars…  There’s so much that reinforces that this is what a “real man” looks like.  If you can’t live up to the standard, then…

“Buck up”

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For t-shirt, click here.

I want to imagine a new vision of masculinity, where men are encouraged to be vulnerable, to cry, to express emotions without fear of being labeled.  Or even better, I want to get rid of the idea all together.  Just like any other label, it messes with our head.  I want to ask parents to buy all sorts of toys when their kids are growing up.  Let them find out what they like and whom they like.  Maybe, just maybe, we’ll stop hearing stories about the ones who snapped.

But it’s up to me too.  Recently I heard a friend say that they want to spread the hashtag #YesAllMen …and I agree.  Just because I was lucky enough to escape the hyper-masculinity that so many cisgender white men are born into doesn’t mean I haven’t aided and abetted it.  I sat in those locker rooms, I nervously gave high fives after “am I rights?” I watched men refuse to be emotionally open…

It’s my problem too. 

For me it all begins with vulnerability.  If we do not allow “boys” and “men” to be vulnerable, I believe nothing will ever change.  I was lucky enough to be a part of a class in college that discussed issues of race, ethnicity, and gender… The diverse class would read a play about a topic and then sit in a room and discuss.  There were no boundaries of what could and couldn’t be said, but there was an understanding that we were to respect one another and keep the conversation open.

What I saw in that class was eye-opening.  I saw cisgender, white men ask some of the most horrifying questions I have ever heard, and then a member of the group they were talking about would answer those questions.  Anywhere else in the world, these questions would have ended in a fistfight, but because everyone felt safe and supported, the issues were actually dealt with.  It was transformative.

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Why are you afraid?

I want to give these men a place to be vulnerable.  I want them to have space to say and feel all the things they’ve been told they can’t.  I want them to know that someone cares about them.  But there’s more… As the professor in that class said, “If you stay silent, no one will ever challenge you.  But if you speak, you can grow”.  As much as these men make me furious, I also know ignoring and abandoning them will only make the problem worse.

So, I resolve to “speak up.”


26638446_10210345507586451_263831965_n.jpgEvan Mayhew is a seminary student from The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago where he is in his last year of his Master of Divinity (MDiv) and was recently approved for ordained ministry in the ELCA. Last year he served as the Vicar at New Life Lutheran Church in Bolingbrook, Illinois where he began to explore his passions for creative worship leading and interfaith relationships. When not engaged in ministry, he can be found working on film projects, writing and playing music, or laughing with friends.

New Year’s 2018 – Rev. Erik Christensen

Dr TPastor Erik Christensen, Pastor to the Community and Director of Worship at LSTC, gives us a very memorable reflection to begin the year focusing – somewhat fittingly – on resolutions. However, Pastor Erik uses this moment to expose how these new year’s resolutions have a dangerous tie-in to individualism, and how maybe – just maybe – talking about how we hope to change is actually best accomplished not by ourselves, alone, but rather with others. Read, comment, and share, and Happy New Year!

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”


 

 

blank-calendar-2018-2018-monthly-calendar-template-2018-monthly-calendar-template-2018-calendar-by-month-2018-calendar-by-month-2018-yearly-calendar-2-hcjklw-actpzb-pnomkr-uqtuka-ngRPVt.jpgThere it is, sitting open on the dining room table. The 2018 planner, with its blank pages and silent promise that this may be the year when I finally … what? What is it that I hope will slip in and replace this sense of fragile, tentative expectation?

I wonder if it might be accountability.

New Year’s Day creates a moment for reflection on the patterns and habits that, over time, shape our lives into whatever they are. From the Earth’s point of view, it’s just another day, another twenty-four hour rotation. From the sun’s point of view, it’s the end of one earthly cosmic circuit and the beginning of a new one. Our planet’s steady wobble creates the periodic rhythm of seasons that help us track the course of each year, reminding us that we, too, will grow up, bear fruit, shed our leaves, and eventually rest with our ancestors in the ground.

Having firmly entered middle age, I’m newly aware that my life is not infinite. My time feels measured in ways both mysterious and urgent. I want to make something of myself, to use the time given to me wisely and powerfully, to make a difference, to leave something of value behind. I sense that there is another iteration of me lying just under the surface of my present life better equipped to meet the challenges of this broken and tragic world, and my blank planner is the outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible commitment to become that person.

This is the sentiment that gives rise to the ritual of making resolutions, and today is the day for doing just that. Yet, having lived through a few New Year’s Days already, we are all a bit suspicious and weary of resolutions. We remember too easily our stalled efforts and abandoned commitments. Perhaps we compensate by setting our sights just a little lower with each passing year, or by abandoning the ritual of making resolutions altogether. While that may be acceptable in a specific sense (we can surely make allowances for those who refuse to follow the crowd), what would it mean to live a life devoid of goals? What happens when we abandon any sense of agency to set and pursue a direction for our lives, our families and communities?

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My suspicion is that the sense of futility that haunts our efforts at reform is directly connected to the spirituality of individualism and the myth of willpower that props it up. As an undergraduate psychology major, I remember being surprised to discover that “willpower” was not a readily verifiable aspect of human personality. If willpower is measured by the ability to make significant changes in one’s life, then it runs counter to all the evidence that the single most important factor in making real and lasting change is the support of another human being to whom we make ourselves accountable.

In one memorable study, a pool of heart attack survivors whose lives depended on their ability to make major changes to their diet and exercise regimens were split into two groups for observation. The first group was given clear information about the changes needed to improve heath and prolong life. The second group was given the same information, and was also supported in identifying and recruiting another person to whom they would be accountable for making these changes. The results were dramatic. A year later, those who’d been given nothing but information had not made the necessary changes to their lives. Those who’d established relationships of accountability had made real gains toward recovering their health. Though willpower failed, relationships prevailed.

What does this teach us about what is needed in this present moment, in which it seems the whole world has suffered a heart attack? A moment in which the necessity of change is a matter of existential survival for the planet, and a test of moral credibility for institutions like the church that have for too long been silent about, and therefore complicit with, the unjust arrangements of power that have kept great swaths of humanity shackled in poverty and dependent upon untrustworthy actors. It teaches us that we need more than information. I believe it suggests that the time has come once again, as it does each and every morning, for us to make new resolutions — but now to make them together.

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This is what I appreciate about community organizing. It begins with the assumption that we are all longing for change in our lives and in the life of the world around us. Furthermore, it does not blame us for failing to effect these changes on our own. Instead, it correctly diagnoses the issue — we lack the power to make these changes alone and, therefore, need one another. Where the spirituality of individualism with its myth of willpower blames and mocks us for what we fail to accomplish by ourselves, the spirituality of organizing assumes that we were always intended to arrive at God’s preferred future together. Therefore, it offers a process by which we can do so through deep investment in one another’s lives, solidarity with one another’s dreams, and collective action for the common good.

This is also why I find worship so nourishing. In worship I am reminded that my life is not my own, that we all belong to one another. I regularly name the ways that my life fails to conform to the image of God within me, and hear a word of forgiveness that frees me from self-hatred and useless guilt so that I can resume the work of building the beloved community of God here and now with other, similarly liberated people. Over and over again I am reminded that I exist as part of “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” (1 Peter 2:9)

All of us in this together.

Science backs up what we intuit from our participation in worship as well. In his work on gratitude and self-control, Northeastern University professor David DeSteno has found that where individual strategies of change (let’s call them attempts at “willpower”) create body damaging side effects connected to the release of stress hormones, the intentional cultivation of gratitude in relationship to one another seems to generate higher levels of self-control while lowering blood pressure and reducing anxiety and depression.

Our ability to act together may, in fact, be what saves our lives.

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The lesson I take from these findings is this: that the sense of urgency I feel on this particular day of the year to do something new, something better, something effective, powerful and lasting will quickly dissipate unless I find a way to do it with others. This means the resolutions I make need to make space for the resolutions you may be making as well, which means we each need to hear one another’s stories of resolve. I need you to understand what I am trying to do with my “one wild and precious life” (to quote Mary Oliver), and I need to understand the same from you. These goals won’t make much sense unless we understand the paths that led each of us from our various pasts to this fresh moment in which, once again, everything is possible.

So let this be one of the handful of commitments we make today: to share our resolutions with each other, and then to ask the other…

“Why are you making this resolution?”

“What is at stake for you in this commitment?”

“What will happen if you fail to make this change?”

And, most importantly of all, “How can I help you keep this resolution?”

Happy New Year.

“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” (2 Cor. 3:17-18)


headshot professional (large)Pastor Erik Christensen serves as Pastor to the Community and Director of Worship at LSTC. He joined the staff this fall after previously serving as the redevelopment pastor with St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square (Chicago) for the past eleven years.

On Advent, Cancer, and Christmas – Prof. Vitor Westhelle

thomas110_1027092Two weeks ago, Dr. Lea Schweitz struck a deep chord among our readership with her blog post on the relationship between Advent and cancer. Currently living with cancer right now, is one of my colleagues here at the Lutheran seminary in Chicago – the Rev. Dr. Vitor Westhelle, and moved by our mutual colleague, he generously accepted my invitation to share his own thoughts on actually living with this disease, and what it means to be passive and wait for God to act – and what this means on today, Christmas Day. Please read, comment, and share.

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”


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When the first result of the biopsy came, the doctor, knowing I was a professor, and suspecting that I did not know what stage IV meant (I did), looked at me, part concerned, part whimsical, and explained: “It is like an A+ grade.” I did not know how to react, except to say that I rarely give an A+ grade. But we are talking about cancer and it is less rare than my A+ grades.

I thank prof. Lea Schweitz for her inspiring, graceful and … grim advent meditation. And could it be otherwise? Proper! After all, advent is in the church year the opening but also the ending. It is the beginning of the church calendar that starts with an apocalyptic blow of the trumpet. The Messiah comes, the decisive moment is near, the ax is dangling over our heads, the judge will pronounce the verdict.

Indeed, an occasion to talk about cancer, this uninvited guest that some of our bodies host and announces loathsome tidings. And then just lingers on, feasting at the table of our flesh.

As Lea well noticed in her reflections, some of us are better hosts then others. The race and class divide swings the pendulum definitely to African-Americans, and the proletariat (remember this word to describe the working poor? … it will be back!). These have gold status as preferential hosts. And the divide is designed to keep on growing (at least that was the decision taken by the US Electoral College in November of 2016). Yet, no one is safe. Family history (DNA), cultural, acquired or nutritional habits, environmental conditions all help to qualify the host for the arrival of the, elegant as it is (to use Lea’s apt description), vile guest, who has no plan to move out. Life within life that is there as a suicidal bomber. Or, perhaps, the herald of a new stage in human evolution.

I was recently referred to a passage (thanks Carolyn!) of Ezekiel 20:49  in which the prophet complains to God that, in delivering the assigned message, the hearers sneered at him. Ezekiel protests: “Ah Lord God, they are saying of me, ‘Is he not a maker of allegories?’”

Yes, Ezekiel, own it. This is what we all are in communicating God’s message: shameful makers of allegories, and we can do no other.

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The famous chess match between Death and the Knight – Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.

Without apology for my preference, one of the most remarkable movies I have seen in my life was the 1957 production of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. The title comes from Revelation 8: 1 that tells about the half an hour silence in heaven upon the Lamb’s opening of the seventh seal. The movie’s director is a son of a Lutheran priest that worked as a chaplain in a sanatorium. Ingmar Bergman used to sign along his name after a production, à la Bach, S.D.G. (Soli Deo Gloria), but was at the same time a doubting Thomas. The movie is about God’s silence midst the tragedies of life.

Briefly this is the allegory. A knight comes back from an unsuccessful Crusade where he went searching for meaning in his life, but to no avail. Back, he lands in a plague-ridden Sweden of the 14th century, and is met by death personified. As a master chess player, he lures the Grim Reaper into a chess game, seeking to postpone his demise. In the midst of this game, which was already days long, and while traveling back home, the knight gets to a church and goes to the confessional where he shares with the attending monk his meaningless life and the struggle he is having with death. In confession he reveals that he has a strategy to win the game, not knowing that he was confessing to death itself, his adversary, impersonating a monk.

Death, the decisive enemy (1 Cor 15: 26) is very tricky indeed. It comes as life within life to win the match. In this allegory I, as a cancer patient, do not identify with the knight. The doctors that treat me are the knight in the story in a deadly match with cancer that they alone see. In the movie, only the knight sees the enemy, the others think that he is playing alone. The doctors have the strategy, the medicines, the trial drugs, the chemo, and radiation and not rarely are they deceived by smart cancer cells that are ahead of the game.

The reason for bringing this movie into this account is to say that cancer patients do not identify with any of the players, but with the chessboard and the pieces that keep on falling in moves being made on either side. We are the neutral ground over which a battle for life or death is being fought. This allegory of the chess game with death, a classic medieval motif, is quite depressing when one identifies oneself with an inert component of it, a chess board with its pieces.  But it is realistic. It is not about the drama and search for a meaningful life. And it is not even about death and its stratagems either. It is about us, patients. Patients that do not have a scheduled release date, let alone the very idea of a release. Elusive remission, perhaps.

Except for some moments in which we are presented with an option for treatment (happens only at critical moments in which the physician will not take full responsibility, and one has to sign a pile of documents that exempt everyone of responsibility if things turn out bad), we as patients, are not subjects, just chessboards over which the game of life and death is being played. The word “patient” itself tells the tale. It comes from the Greek pathos, undergoing suffering, describing an utterly passive condition. This estate of passivity is proper to convey our surrendering to God, but it is a disturbing thought when you know that, in dealing with physicians and oncologists, there is ultimately no other option but to trust them and their expertise. And no one can doubt the advances in the treatment of cancer from which we may benefit, and they administer. But in fact, we are paradoxically closer than we think to the native healers of our lands before colonization, with the difference that, for the healers, the connection with the divine was explicit, now it is not, but equally real, and, maybe, for that reason, comforting.

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But allegories and analogies carry us only that far. There are many other actors at play. Friends and family are there with us, and often suffer more with the prospect of our passing than we can ever truly appreciate. Nurses, technicians, and assistants that administer drugs, take and measure vital signs, and an array of other things that they do,  are angels of mercy. They also carry the weight of our pain as the metabolism in our bodies keeps changing, while they undergo mutation.

However, today is Christmas.

The frightening time of advent’s apocalyptic expectations turns into a festive celebration, because God joins the human condition. Emmanuel, God with and in the world, meeting life precisely there were it is most fragile and abandoned. God is there as a fragile babe with and in the underside of the divide to be there with those who need. “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” (Mark 2: 17). And this is not an allegory to describe a spiritual condition. It is the physician who takes upon herself the condition of those who need healing, soteria! This is what is meant by God taking our flesh, being incarnate: God’s got cancer. Or should we say “incancerated”?


Dr. Westhelle began his theological career as a journalist for the national church newspaper in São Leopoldo, RS, Brazil (1975-76) . Ordained in 1988, he served for four years as parish pastor of a 13-point parish in Paróquia Evangélica de Matelândia, PR, Brazil. At that time he also was the Coordinator of the Ecumenical Commission on Land in Paraná where he was an enabler and a companion with those struggling for land and justice. In 1989 Westhelle was invited to be a member of the faculty of Escola Superior de Teologia, São Leopoldo as professor of systematic theology and ethics, where he continued until he joined the Lutheran School of Theology in 1993. He was visiting professor at the University of Natal, South Africa, and the University of Aarhus, Denmark.  He has written widely on the theology of Luther, and on the themes of Liberation, Creation, the Apocalyptic and Eschatology. The cross-theme, in particular, theologia crucis, defines who Westhelle is as a theologian. A prolific writer and editor, with more than 130 scholarly publications, Westhelle is author or co-editor of nine books, as well as  a highly-sought speaker throughout academic circles and the Church.

God’s Word on Climate Change and Global Citizenship – Prof. Stewart Herman

Dr TWhen Prof. Stewart Herman wrapped up his time teaching in the Religion Department at Concordia College in Moorehead, Minnesota – he decided to act on a long-held passion: sustainable energy consumption. In this blog post, he elucidates a bit on the reasons why he and his wife Linda decided to change their house, more than 100 years old, from ‘net negative’ to ‘net positive.’ And of course as a life-long Lutheran, he had some pretty interesting reflections along the way,  beautifully illustrating the way that science and religion can influence and inspire each other, and he has graciously offered to share these here. Please read, comment, and share!

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”


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Fun facts and info about the my home and the project.

Dr. Linda Thomas kindly invited me to blog about a three-year project I just finished, to renovate a house In Minneapolis to ‘net zero’.  ‘Net zero’ means the house now produces at least as much energy as it uses, and from renewable sources—solar and geothermal.   Our house is unusual, perhaps rare.  There seem to be no more than half a dozen century-old houses in the US that achieve net zero.

Why would anyone put three years into such an effort?  Like most Americans, I am worried that the world is sliding into a super-heated state.  Within half a century human life may no longer be possible, according to some predictions.  And it certainly won’t be comfortable.  Imagine heat wave after heat wave hitting Chicago.  The problem is that too much carbon is being liberated, as a gas, into the atmosphere.  You can’t taste, see or hear it, but it is there—a vital building block of life.  But too much is a bad thing, and we have to cut back drastically on how much we liberate from fossil fuels into the sky.

Here I take a leaf from the book of my parents.  My father identified with the social gospel in his effort to make LSTC (as its first president) an institution engaged with its neighbors in Hyde Park and beyond.  He believed in reaching out into the world, rather than keeping the world at bay.  For example, he encouraged students in the early 1970s to take on Commonwealth Edison for its emissions of air pollution.  My mother also, in her own way, advocated for environmental responsibility.  She also was a gardener.  Back in the late 1960s, she brought plants into the brand new but austerely empty LSTC building.  Through them, I saw commitment to the earth’s well-being as inseparable from authentic faith.

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And I wanted to be part of the solution rather than the problem.  After years of frustrating advocacy at the college where I used to teach, I concluded that radically reducing my own carbon emissions was the clearest path forward.  My wife Linda and I decided to make an educational venture out of it.  We wanted to show that an ordinary house on an ordinary lot in chilly Minneapolis could be renovated to make more energy than it uses.

We succeeded, by scientific measure.  The sun gave us 17,000 kWh of electricity in the first year, while we consumed only 13,000.  We have gone beyond net zero, to ‘net positive’, as energy geeks say.  We are now offsetting at least 12 tons of carbon a year through all the electricity we generate.  We are heating and cooling our house from 4 deep geothermal wells in our tiny back yard—rather than from natural gas or some other fossil fuel.  Indeed, our house is all-electric, which I believe to be the wave of the future.

I feel good about what we have done with our house, but I can’t feel too good.  I’m Lutheran, which means I dare not believe that I have actually saved myself by my own effort from the god-awful mess we have made of our planet—or even that my individual salvation would mean very much.  12 tons is a speck compared to billions of tons of carbon pushed into the atmosphere throughout the world each year.   So how to be part of the solution to the BIG problem?

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In the sixteenth century Martin Luther had no reliable assurance of salvation from the church of his day because it effectively blocked God’s Word from being heard.  He reluctantly created a new institutional vehicle which would offer less resistance to God’s self-communication.  Ever since, Lutherans have had to wonder where the Word is active, and how it might be unobstructed. The Reformation authorized a perpetual restless willingness for clerical and lay people to listen, and to rethink and rethink again what discipleship means in changing contexts. 

Luther had no clue that humans might actually destroy their environment, but the Reformation gave us a way to think about it.  So let me go out on a limb.  I believe that the dawning Anthropocene—the era when human activities are changing the face of nature fundamentally—requires us to become open to radically unfamiliar expressions of the Word.  And to hear it, we need to become more intelligent and technically competent in matters of energy flow and natural processes than we ever have been before.  In short, we need to be open to the Word coming to us through science and technology.  These are tools for us to understand where exactly we fit in Creation—where we are burdening rather than benefitting the earth. 

So here is my very modest suggestion.  It involves immersing ourselves in the technical geekiness of energy flow.  The country of Switzerland has rallied around the idea of a ‘2000 watt’ society  (see the relevant Wikipedia article  go right to the American website).  A ‘watt’ is a really small unit of the power of electricity.  For example, your laptop requires about 50 watts to operate.  But why 2000?  The idea is that if everyone in the world drew electric power at the constant rate of 2000 watts, there would be enough for everyone.

That is the target, but how close are we? 

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According to Swiss research, Americans use electric power at the rate of 12,000 watts—six times as much.  

By this point, would you like to know where you fit?  It takes some math, and some research.  At 2000 watts you use 48 kilowatt-hours per day or about 1440 per month.   A kilowatt-hour is 60 minutes of electricity running at the rate of 1000 watts—like running a microwave for a whole hour.  (Note: if you are having trouble sorting out this terminology, think of the difference between a speedometer and an odometer.  Watts and kilowatts are like miles per hour, while kilowatt-hours are the measure of how far you are getting.)

The first part of the calculation is easy.  Check your utility bill; you are charged by the kilowatt-hour (kWhr).  See how many you are being charged for—probably somewhere between 500 and 1500 per month.   Your own electricity usage is probably the firmest fact you will find for calculating your energy use.   But it is not enough.  You also need to add in the energy costs of your workplace, of your transport, and more subtly, the energy it takes to produce the food you eat and the other products you buy.  In other words, you need to add in all the other energy you invest in your life.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a simple calculator for toting up these uses of energy in terms of kilowatt-hours.  The 2000-watt society has a calculator (http://2000-watt-society.org/calculators.html), but its security certificate is invalid.  So I suggest a real simple but crude substitute: take your electricity bill and multiply it by four.  For example, if your electricity bill reads 500 kilowatt-hours in a month, assume your total energy footprint is 2000.  That would put you just a little over the 2000 watt mark of 48 kilowatt-hours per day.  If you have a roommate or two, be sure to divide your total in by two or three, which will make your energy footprint smaller.

Why do this math?  If scientific measurement tells us that the earth can afford only 2000 watts per person, might that be an expression of God’s Word? 

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According to statistics, the average European consumes 3 times the sustainable amount of electricty every month, the United States 6 times, while China and India are well below the sustainable amount – for now.

I don’t want to press this idea too far, because the Word is no one’s possession.  At least we can affirm: our personal lives matter, even if none of us individually can stop global warming – becauste collectively we can make a difference, even seeing that on an individual basis is harder.

So calculate your energy use to see if you are more part of the problem or part of the solution, in your own personal life.   I suspect poor folk and urban dwellers tend to use relatively little.  Similarly, I suspect that most students use relatively little energy, directly and indirectly.  It is when you settle down and build a nest that energy use goes up.  Still, it is useful to know where you are, situated to the rest of the world.

If you are consuming energy at the rate of 2000 watts, you have made a significant step in solidarity with the rest of the world.  If not….you have a target for your own personal consumption.


029 calendar animal SWHStewart W. Herman is a visiting fellow at the Christensen Center on Vocation at Augsburg College, after retiring from 27 years of teaching religion and ethics at Concordia College, Moorhead, MN. He graduated from LSTC in 1981 with a M. Theo. Studies, and from the University of Chicago in 1988 with a PhD from the Divinity School in ethics and society. He spent two years with Lutheran World Relief in Vietnam during the war (1970-1972), and half a dozen years in New York City writing about energy and environmental issues (1973-1978) before turning to theological education.

 

Advent and Cancer – Dr. Lea F. Schweitz

Dr TLast week, Dr. Lea F. Schweitz, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology/Science and Religion/Director of the Zygon Center for Religion and Science at my institution – the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago – preached a sermon that not only spoke to her research interests and the stellar work of Zygon this semester, she also spoke to the real life circumstances that members of our community and their loved ones live with–cancer. Making full use of the tension inherent in ‘waiting,’ Dr. Schweitz presents some elegant points between what something as vicious as cancer has to say to us, about what it means to wait, about who is made to wait, and how waiting and expectation reveal as much about us as our doing. Please read, comment, and share!

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”


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Grace and peace to brothers and sisters in Christ, siblings in Spirit, children of God.

Advent has begun. Alleluia! The semester is all but ended.  Lord, have mercy!

The ubiquity of both/and dialectics in Lutheran theologies should mean that we know how to move gracefully between Advent’s beginning and the semester’s ending. And, yet, in my experience of time at LSTC, the beginning of the church year in Advent and the end of the semester in December often feels more like whip lash than like a dialectic dance. It’s a beginning and an ending that together feel more like being pulled into Lake Michigan by a strong undertow than a peaceful swim at Promontory Point.

Beginnings and endings are delicate things.

One of the things that ended for me this week is the Advanced Seminar in Religion and Science. This is the Zygon Center class I taught with Dr. Leonard Hummel on evolutionary theologies of cancer.

Biologically, and much to my lament, cancer is a rather elegant disease. It finds its way into human bodies through the very mechanisms that helped us to evolve. Cancer just is part of humanity’s evolutionary inheritance. This is why it is so hard to pin down; this is why treatments are becoming personalized and individualized. Cancer is not one thing, it is a shape-shifter. It transforms itself, and more importantly its key feature is an ironic immortality.

Cancers are cells that have simply forgotten how to die.

And yet, the legacy of humanity’s evolutionary inheritance in cancer has not been divided up equally.

Cancer disparities are everywhere.

The Center for Disease Control reports that breast cancer death rates are 40% higher for black women than for white women.  The National Cancer institute has found that poverty is a carcinogen. It would seem that both God and cancer have a preferential option for the poor.

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And, these are simply for the data points that have been deemed worthy of collection – sample sets, for example, for Latinx and LGBTQI persons are still not “statistically significant.” A turn of phrase that captures what you will soon hear Emilie Townes call an “ontological category that serves to keep us from our health” and one of  “the death-dealing, life-denying ways that we structure our existence.”

The story of cancer includes the inelegant – no, the decidedly sinful – chapters of systemic factors that keep some from their health. Cancer disparities are the signposts of the “death-dealing, life-denying ways” that we structure our lives and our categories to keep some from health.

The story of cancer has other chapters as well.  In our lives, there is the chorus of those we know and love who are in, with, and under the biology and the culture of cancer. Some we name out loud in our prayers; many we hold in our hearts.  Often, we ask: God, where are You in this?

After World AIDS day on December 1, we boldly proclaim that the body of Christ has HIV/AIDS.

Today, also, we recognize that the body of Christ  has cancer.

Is there good news in this? Honestly, some days, I don’t feel it.

Reading Luke at the beginning of Advent and the ending of a semester when we have been teaching and living theologies of cancer has forced the question: where is the gospel in our working and in our waiting in a world of cancer?

Let’s talk work first; waiting can wait.

Did you hear the imperatives in our text from Luke?

Be on guard!

Do not get weighed down!

Pray for strength to escape!

It feels like a lesson full of exclamation points.

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In my own life, this is always the sign of trouble. If it seems like everything on my to do list is punctuated with an exclamation point – and there isn’t a differentiation between, for instance, folding socks and paying the gas bill, it’s a clear sign that something is off. I can actually hear my therapist gently say: “Lea, this is a red flag.”

As we enter the season of Advent, the lectionary brings us visions of apocalypse. And, preachers have the task of undoing some of the ways apocalyptic imagery has been used as a weapon of violence and theological fear-mongering. There are many ways that our readings of these texts at the start of Advent that can signal that something is off.

The lectionary’s apocalyptic invocations might seem to push an all imperatives kind of living. Run faster! Work harder! Be busy! Keep awake! Stay alert! All exclamation points! All the time!

These texts are easily read as a permission slip for the kinds of soul-crushing busy-ness that many of us know all too well. Clearly something is off. Our text from Luke is not about these imperatives.

Note well, in a Lutheran seminary, this is dangerous territory. This is not a blanket dismissal of work because of the fear of works righteousness. Sure, works righteousness is a thing, but it’s not the thing that should get in the way of doing works of love and justice. It’s a categorical mistake to confuse justice and justification. The warning in Luke about getting distracted or weighed down does not apply in the arena of justice.

On the other extreme it is a misreading of the text if we only read the imperatives and we forget the prepositions. It’s not: “Work! Work! Work!”  It’s the work of; It’s work with, and It’s work for. Loosely paraphrased, our text in Luke implores us to be alert and to pray so that we can be ready to make our stand, when the time comes.

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The trick about Advent texts is that they speak of a future that is already present. Beginnings and endings are delicate things – as Advent begins, we already know the end. Christ is coming, and Christ is here. Both/and. When Luke implores us to be alert and to pray so that we can be ready to make our stand, when the time comes, we know that the time is coming, and the time is now. Because the time is also now, we make our stand today.

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Emily Townes

You can hear it in an excerpt from Emilie Townes’ theological response to the long, unjust history of health care in African American communities. In her conclusion from Breaking the Fine Rain of Death, she writes:

“Hope is a spirit that is within us and without us

It calls us to itself, to ourselves, to one another

This hope/ is lament / is community / is love / is justice / is healing.

It is the very heart and soul of who we are and how we are and how we can be and how far we have yet to go…

This hope reminds us that we cannot accept the death-dealing and life-denying ways in which we have often structured our existences or had our worlds ordered for us through the Tuskegee, the HIV/AIDS, through the inadequate clinical trials, through unaffordable health care, through unattainable insurance.

“We must act through a faith that is grounded in what the wise old folks tell

Us about living and hoping and refusing and cussing and praying and doing.

The work of love and justice to bring ourselves home again.”

She doesn’t overlook the imperative: we must act. But it’s the prepositions that get the top billing – It’s the work of love and justice, It’s the work for peace, It’s the work with neighbors. The good news in a world of cancer is in the Spirit of hope that is lament, community, love, justice, and healing.

During Advent, in a world of cancer, we await the coming of Christ who is already here in works of love and justice, in works of peace, and in works with neighbor.

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So, what about waiting?

Waiting is a common thread between cancer and Advent.

Much of both Advent and oncology is in the waiting.

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Bonnie Thurston

Hospitals and parenting have taught me that waiting with grace is a rare and beautiful gift, but I had missed it in my thinking about cancer. It was the final verse of our Advent reading today that re-attuned my ear to it, but it comes out even more clearly in an excerpt from Bonnie Thurston’s poem, entitled “Oncology in Advent:”

She writes:

“Theologians say

The Cosmic Christ

Is operative in all things

I’m waiting to see it.

Where are You?

In the oncology waiting room…?

Where are You

When diseases maim and kill

Not quickly and cleanly

But with messy tendentiousness?”

How am I to see You here

Unless, perhaps, as Emmanuel,

A fellow sufferer,

Bald and trembling.”

Like working, this waiting is in the prepositional mode rather than the imperative. It isn’t “Wait!”

Waiting is in the prepositions: We wait for and we wait with.  In our holy waiting, what we find – or better, whom we find, is Christ there in our midst, waiting with us, and waiting on us.

Together, cancer and Advent teach us a new move in the dialectic dance. We walk the delicate balance of working and waiting – and God is there, already with us in both the working and the waiting. This is not an either/or – it’s not a choice to work or to wait. It’s not in the imperative mode. In a world of cancer, God calls us to work with and to work for those affected by the death-dealing and life-denying ways in which we have often structured our existence to keep some of us from health. In a world of cancer, God calls us also to wait with those in whom we already see the face of the coming Christ, now, perhaps, as Emmanuel, fellow sufferer, bald and trembling.

Amen.


schweitz.jpgDr. Leah F. Schweitz holds an M.A. from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago Divinity School. In July 2007 Lea Schweitz joined the faculty of the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, where she teaches courses in Systematic Theology, Philosophy of Religion, and Science and Religion. Schweitz’s research revolves around the question of what it means to be a human being, a matter that she believes is uniquely illuminated by conversations between religion and science – a passion which finds its keenest outlet at LSTC as the Director for the Zygon Center for Religion and Science. In addition to her professional interests, Dr. Schweitz is interested in natural history, cooking, gardening, papers arts, and music.

Unapologetically Divisive – Rev. Erik Christensen

fontPastor to the Community and Director of Worship at LSTC – the Rev. Erik Christensen – preached a marvelous sermon last week. Pulling on everything from the Boston Declaration, to a painful family story, not to mention the immortal and disquieting Gospel text Matthew 25:31-46, the parable of the sheep and the goats. Caring for each other, loving our neighbors as ourselves, aiding any and all who suffer – these are things that we must do, and do now, Christensen reminds us. This is an especially poignant message after recent steps by our nation’s Congress – advancing a tax proposal that overwhelmingly enriches the powerful at the expense of the least of these. So please, read, comment, and share.

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”


“What I think, is that this is hell,” is what my sister told me.

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Me and Tara, ca. 1985. Arriving in the United States from Thailand.

By this point, I’d already gone to seminary. So it occurred to me, in the moment, that my sister was articulating a very present eschatology. By this point, she’d been living with a dual-diagnosis of persistent mental illness and mild developmental delay for a few years. She’d experienced the primal wound of being abandoned by her birth mother, raised in a foster home for the first six years of her life, and then torn from the land of her birth by loving, well-intentioned people who, nevertheless, did not look like her, or speak her language. By this point, my sister, Tara, who is Thai by birth and gifted with beautiful, lustrous brown skin, had experienced a childhood filled with racism both ignorantly casual and pointedly vicious. She had spent years running away from home, running toward danger. She’d been exposed to the violence that comes with life on the streets. She’d been beaten, she’d been exploited, and when she turned to the police in a life-or-death moment looking for help escaping the horrors of her immediate surroundings, they’d taken one look at her and saw only a disheveled, disorganized, dirty, brown-skinned girl with a funny way of talking and they told her to get lost, as if she wasn’t already.

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Tulips, breaking through topsoil.

So we were talking, she and I, about resurrection, and what hope we may have for the future, for a life better than the ones we’d known. I was talking to her about the miracle of tulips, which seem to die over and over, only to break free from the earth again and again to show their beauty in their frailty. And that’s when she told me, “what I think, is that this is hell.”

So, my reflection on this passage from Matthew has to start there, in hell, though the text itself does not use that word.

This scene of final judgment, which is unique to Matthew’s gospel, is “the only scene with any details picturing the last judgment in the New Testament.”[1] Here we hear Jesus speaking in the voice of the ruler of heaven and earth seated on a cosmic throne before all the nations, rendering a judgment that addresses each person, each of us, on the basis of how we have responded to the human beings in our midst who are experiencing on a daily basis the depth of the hells this world has to offer: hunger, thirst, hostility to all that is strange or foreign or different, the bare naked exposure of poverty, the wretchedness of disease and illness, the graceless confines of our retributive justice and our merciless prison industrial complexes. In this scene of final judgement, the Lord of the universe says nothing about people’s personal sentiments, or public proclamations. The Lord gives no consideration to who you have claimed as your “personal Lord and savior.” The Lord of time focuses, like my sister, on the present and the fires to which we have consigned each other and asks what we have done for those whose daily reality is a burning hell.

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Illustration of St. Matthew the Evangelist from the Lindisfarne Gospels. Britain, 8th century.

I haven’t always known quite what to do with the festival of the Reign of Christ at the end of each liturgical year. Over time, however, I’ve come to appreciate the opportunity it provides for us to consider the distinctive voice of the synoptic gospel assigned to the year now ending. For this last year, it has been the Gospel of Matthew. So we have been hearing the good news of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ in a recognizably Matthean mode. Matthew’s theological world draws us into a recognition of the reign of God in clear opposition to the reign of Satan; it is the only gospel to speak explicitly of the “church” as a description for the community of believers, and so it invites us to give consideration to what we think the church is and who is part of it; it insists that Jesus is the fulfillment of the law, not the abolishment of it, and in doing so it ties the ethical life of those who follow Jesus to the ethical demands of the prophets of Israel. Then there is the thorny matter of Matthew’s relationship to the rest of Judaism, as this gospel preserves the memory of a religious community divided within itself over the nature of the covenant, the revelation of the messiah, and the imperative of the present moment to acknowledge and respond to what God is doing now in human history.

These themes and tensions are always with us, and I was reminded of that fact as I read and re-read the Boston Declaration, a theological statement released last Monday at the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature that publicly calls out American Evangelicalism for the ways that it has stoked the fires of a very real and present hell for millions of “the least of these” who suffer under the tyranny of intersecting ideologies of oppression that have interlaced racism, colonialism, and environmental degradation in ways that have created a living hell for the peoples of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the US territories; that have privileged and prioritized profits for gun manufacturers over the lives of human beings; that have supported the violent hetero-patriarchy evident in the daily revelations of rampant sexual misconduct and abuse by men against women and girls in workplaces and in homes; that has scapegoated Jewish people, Muslim people, Black and Brown people, and Queer people for the sins of White Christian Patriarchy; for elevating the economic appetites of nations by respecting national borders more than the lives of those who cross them as immigrants or refugees from the living hells created by those very same nations.

The stark and unapologetically divisive nature of the Boston Declaration very much reminds me of the stark and unapologetically divisive nature of this scene from Matthew of the final judgment in which all the nations are gathered before God and the people are surprised once more to hear that God takes sides.

That our apathy and misconduct cannot be dismissed or justified by our claims to ethnic or national or religious exceptionalism.

Fra_Angelico_009
“The Last Judgment” by Fra Angelico, ca. 1395-1455

We all recoil from this scene, or should if we are in the least bit self-aware. The on-going presence of hunger and thirst, violence and poverty, malicious neglect of the ill and obscene incarceration of our neighbors who are, in fact, our siblings, indicts us all as complicit in the dominion of “the devil and his angels.” (Mt. 25:41) And it simply will not do to dismiss our discomfort with reminders of our Lutheran doctrine of justification by grace through faith; to let ourselves off the hook with reminders of God’s unceasing mercy, because it is God who addresses us here. It is God who speaks these words of judgment.

So we are left to grapple with the purpose and function of this eschatological vision and the tensions it produces. It is a tension that brings me back to my sister’s own declaration: “What I think, is that this is hell.” A very present eschatology, not unlike, I think, Jesus’s own eschatology. After all, it is in Matthew’s gospel that Jesus begins his public ministry by proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Mt. 4:17) This is Matthew’s Christology, that Jesus brings the reign of God, the fulfillment of God’s promises in the past, into the present moment with consequences for all of human life, for all of creation, here and now. Now is the moment of judgment. Now is the assurance that God does, in fact, take sides. Now is the promise that the hells in which we are burning cannot stand against the waters of the Christ into whom we are baptized. Now is the moment of our salvation. Now, not in the words we say or the identities we claim, but in the acts of lovingkindness we perform for one another, for the needless misery we relieve, for the welcome we offer, for the liberation we effect.

Now.

Now.

Now.

Hell is not a threat of future punishment by our God.

It is now.

Or at least that’s what I heard when I listened to my sister, one of the least of these, and I believe her.

What do you suppose might happen if you, if all of us, believed the voices of the women and girls, of the strangers and foreigners, of the masses that are incarcerated, of the legions of the sick and dying, of those who hunger and thirst?

A final word before I say goodbye to Matthew for a couple more years:

We struggle with the vitriol Matthew voices against those he calls “the Jews” because of the long history of Christian anti-Semitism, which the Boston Declaration rightly both laments and condemns. In its own context, however, what Matthew gives witness to is an intra-religious conflict among people who understood themselves as belonging to the same faith, yet who still drew very different conclusions about what God was doing in the present moment and what their faith required of them as a result. Here, again, the Boston Declaration provides a timely example. We might wonder what this present moment will look like two thousand years from now to those who have the advantage of that perspective, who will be able to look back and see what this one group called Mainline Protestants said about another group called American Evangelicals. We cannot know how these divides will deepen, or heal. Perhaps we will continue to drift away from one another to such an extent that we can no longer even recognize ourselves as belonging to the same religion.

Here Matthew shows us the righteousness of God, in that, no matter how much Matthew the evangelist might wish to claim superiority over the other sects of Judaism on the basis of his theological declarations, in the end God once again confounds our ideas of righteousness by disrupting the borders we draw around nations, tribes, religions, identities by lifting up those who do what is needed to meet the needs of the wounded neighbor, the suffering sibling.

We, too, should hear this word: that God cares less for our Boston Declarations than for our

actual presence with those who suffer. God cares less about the accuracy of our theological ideas than the impact of our public witness. Just as fifty years of dialogue with the Roman Catholic church has led us to a new commitment to shared acts of proclamation and service, we might imagine and should already be looking for ways to heal the rifts that divide us from the very people we now condemn. For surely, in the moment of judgment that is always already happening, we will discover once again that we are all a part of the same family, that we all bear Christ to one another, that we are all standing before the throne of God, and that we are all in this together.

Amen.


headshot professional (large)Pastor Erik Christensen serves as Pastor to the Community and Director of Worship at LSTC. He joined the staff this fall after previously serving as the redevelopment pastor with St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square (Chicago) for the past eleven years.

 

[1] “The Gospel of Matthew: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” by M. Eugene Boring in The New Interpreter’s Bible, v.8, p.455 (1995: Abingdon Press)