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Spring Bible Study on the Gospel of Mark

Our spring bible study will be on Wednesdays at 7pm via Zoom and will focus on the Gospel of Mark.  We will begin this Wednesday, January 20th at 7pm, and we’ll go for roughly an hour.  The Zoom link is included below in this newsletter.  Further details:
 
We did two bible studies in 2020.  The first, on Romans, was teaching heavy and a proper study.  The second engaged a variety of scriptural narratives and was deliberately more participatory and reflective.  Our Mark study will include both.  Our seminarian, Krista Heuett, will also lead occasionally as part of her internship work.
 
I am waiting to hear back for formal permission from Bp Reed, but I am hoping to swap, extend and otherwise finagle our Sunday morning Gospel passages so as to (almost) read Mark start to finish, deviating from a continuous Mark progression only for the really big days Palm Sunday, Easter, Pentecost, etc.  So, our Wednsday bible study texts will hopefully coincide with our worship texts for the following Sunday.  I’ll also be focusing some on Mark in these newsletters.  I’ll just go ahead and name that the possibility of all this bible study + lectionary coordination makes my slightly obsessive heart very, very happy J
 
We’re in the Gospel of Mark all year long in our Sunday lectionary regardless, so our study will take as long as we need, and we’ll take weeks off here and there, too.  You are welcome to jump in and out of this bible study as you like, week in and week out! 
 
The best way to maximize your own experience of Mark’s Gospel is to sit down at some point over the next few weeks and read the whole Gospel of Mark in one sitting, stopping at the end of 16:8.  (For reasons we’ll discover in our study, 16:8 is properly the last verse.)  To recite the whole Gospel would take about two hours, so if reading it in one go is just out of the question, try splitting it in half: read 1:1 through 8:21, and then at your next sitting, read 8:22-16:8.
 
Throughout our study, we’ll be trying to hear Mark’s Gospel with the same ears Mark’s first hearers would’ve had.  Mark’s first audience would’ve heard this Gospel as a single, oral performance told start to finish by a traveling evangelist.  Nowadays, however, we tend to hear bits of the Gospel in little segments on Sunday mornings.  Familiarizing ourselves with it as a single story to be read start to finish can help not only to teach us about the original audience’s perspective, but also to reveal new insights in our own day, giving new depth and context to our smaller lectionary slices.
 
Finally, if you’re a studious type and would like an accompanying text to help you on your way, I recommend Mark as Story: An Introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel by Rhoads, Dewey, and Michie (3rd edition).  You can find it on Amazon at this link.    Mark as Story can helpful for those of us who are new to approaching Mark’s Gospel as a single coherent whole.  It includes chapters on Mark’s setting, plot, and the ‘main characters’ as Mark imagines them.
 
God’s Peace,
 
 
Fr. Daniel+
 

A Reflection on King Herod after the Breach of the U.S. Capitol Building

Twice this week we’ve heard the story of the Wise Men from the east traveling to visit the Christ child.  The Wise Men observe a peculiar star at its rising, and this new light sets them on a journey to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. 
 
I’ve been reflecting on this story all week, mostly from the perspective of these Magi.  The shining of the star in the night; a finite journey through the desert; the relief of unburdening ourselves at the feet of our Savior; how despite the gloom, a pinpoint of hope lights our way.  After the events at our nation’s Capitol building on Wednesday, however, I am confronted with the reality that I’ve tried to sneak by the darker side of the Magi narrative.  The drama turns on the figure of King Herod.
 
In Jerusalem, King Herod receives word of the Magi’s quest for the child who has been born King of the Jews and is immediately afraid (Matthew 2:3).  A large part of Jerusalem is afraid with him.  He hatches a plot, trying to trick the Magi into divulging to him the location of this new King (2:7-8).  What is only implied at this point is that Herod has no intention of paying homage to the Christ child, but intends to eliminate him as a potential rival.  This becomes gruesomely clear when Herod, having been tricked by the Magi, flies into a fury and has all the children in Bethlehem killed who were born around the same time as Jesus (2:16).  Herod wants to be sure there’s no chance of his losing what little power he has.
 
From the perspective of the Magi, this Epiphany reading is one of journey, of seeking and finding, of entering into a world illuminated by a new light.  There are dangers on the journey, to be sure, but they are peripheral to the journey itself.  The dangers are things to be overcome or avoided so as to focus on what is most important.
 
King Herod and his courtiers, however, experience these same events as a direct existential threat.  If the King of the Jews really has been born in Bethlehem, as the Wise Men say, then clearly Herod’s own kingship is at risk.  His anxiety turns to fear, his fear to paranoia.  His actions are duplicitous.  He increasingly sees the world as falling into two categories: pro-Herod and anti-Herod, so much so that he resorts to killing children.[1]
 
Whenever we read a story about a really bad guy like Herod, we tend to focus on the specifics of their horrific actions.  Tyrants executing people, imprisoning rivals, sending their most dead-eyed goons to Bethlehem to do the unthinkable.  We are rightly appalled by their actions, but our fixation on their actions frequently gives us an artificial distance from the characters in question.  We would never do that.  Our communities would never stand for thatThat could never happen here.
 
More often than not, we are blessedly right about the actions in question, but we mistakenly accept this as evidence that we have nothing in common with the souls of the characters we read about.  “Those men (it is usually men) do not exist today,” we say, “at least not here.”  Or, “surely a psyche like Herod’s could never wield any real influence, surely not here!” 
 
After this week’s events, it would be more accurate to say that, while societies like ours have made progress in limiting the scope of the damage that a paranoid or narcissistic Herodian can cause, we still very much revere, follow, and empower characters like these.  There’s no point in being coy: President Trump has revealed himself to be one such Herodian.
 
The distinguishing characteristic of Herodianism is a combination of idolatry and cowardice.  At its most basic, idolatry is attaching our devotion to that which is not God.  In the biblical world, this was easily seen because idolatry usually involved literal idols.  The prophet Jeremiah, for example, says idols are worked from wood by an axe and bedecked with gold, but have no power for evil or good, for there is none like the LORD (10:3-5).
 
The essential mistake of idolatry, then, is attaching our hopes and desires for our Creator onto a creaturely object: a silver statue, a golden image, a Caesar.  Idolatry is confusing that which is lesser for that which is greater.  This definition is helpful in our own day, when we tend not to have literal idols that are objects of religious devotion.  It also helps us see what is going on with Herod of Jerusalem, where idols were verboten, and what’s been happening in our country.
 
If idolatry manifests as confusing a lesser good for a greater good, then we see Herod confusing the greater good of Israel’s rightful kingship with his own ability to sit on the throne.  There is no honest investigation or curiosity on Herod’s part.  He goes straight from hearing about the birth of Israel’s King to fear, duplicity, paranoia, violence.  The reaction is automatic and instinctive; it admits of no possibility beyond that preordained by his ego needs.  “What could be greater than my continued kingship?”  This is a rhetorical question for Herod.
 
The parallel to President Trump’s recent "we will never concede" speech, which came after numerous election recounts and court hearings, is obvious.[2]  On Wednesday, an extreme minority of our country (and a minority within Mr. Trump’s base of supporters, at that) adopted and enacted this idolatry with President Trump as their chosen object.  The greater good of a legitimate democratic election—the very thing which brought Mr. Trump into the White House—was eclipsed by the lesser good of having their chosen standard bearer remain in power. 
 
It is worth noting that it is in the nature of greater goods that they can be shared by a greater number of people than lesser goods.  Everyone can share in a legitimate election; far fewer can share in whatever goods were perceived in a forced takeover of the Capitol building.  To return to our scripture narrative, it is worth wondering what would have happened if Herod himself had journeyed with the Magi to visit the Christ child.  How happy would Herod have become?  How much more at peace?  How much better at offering his gifts for the betterment of all?
 
The cowardly aspect of Herodianism is perhaps less obvious.  Cowardice is a lack of courage, the virtue which enables us to endure or persevere through that which is dangerous or distressing.  When we think about courage, we usually think about soldiers defending our country, or of police officers entering into harm’s way to enforce the law.  Rightfully so: battle is dangerous, as is confronting violent criminals.  Without courage, the dangers of these situations would send one running for the hills.
 
The virtue of courage manifests in other ways, too.  The very refusal to fight can itself be a kind of courage: “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?  But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?” (Matt. 26:53-54).  The greater good is Christ’s conformity to His Father’s will; the lesser good would be fighting for His survival in the face of utterly unjust persecution.  It requires courage, then, to pass through adversity without resorting to idolatry.
 
Herod lacks this courage.  Again, he pursues no honest inquiry; no openness to the possibility that this new King could be the real deal, let alone that the Christ could be good news for him, too; no imagination for a world without Herod himself in the center.  The birth of Jesus brings too much discomfort, too much change, too much surrender.  Herod lacks the courage to endure these and resorts to sheer force.
 
Again, the parallels are obvious.  President Trump lacks the courage to endure the discomfort of loss, to persevere through the change rapidly approaching in his life, to surrender his position at the top of the free world.  He sees no options but a kind of battle, so he created one and abused the trust our fellow citizens at the Capitol had given him in order to do it.  Let’s be clear: this isn’t choosing battle as the wrong response to an actual injustice.  There was no injustice here.  This was a takeover of the Capitol after having participated freely in a legitimate election alongside everyone else.
 
I, like you, am weary of so much.  Throughout our myriad national struggles, I have tried to speak from an intelligibly Christian point of view.  This has included my trying to address incidents of racial violence, the immediate violent backlash of protests against that violence, the struggle in which so many of our police officers find themselves, and the bitterness around our recent election—all that since May. In recent years I have also been directly critical of President Trump's leadership when I thought it acutely warranted.
 
In all that I have said and written about what we as a country have done and suffered, I have tried (perhaps unsuccessfully) to focus on events, issues, speeches, or what a given text of scripture might demand.  I have tried to avoid focusing on persons.  The reality, however, is that our single biggest stumbling block at the Capitol, the Herodian in this narrative, is exactly that: a person, and what we most desperately need is that person’s public remorse and repentance.  It was President Trump who gathered the crowd; it was he who egged them on; it was he who turned on his own Vice President for refusing to act unconstitutionally; it was the Trump name on the flags they carried into the Capitol; and it was his actions that allowed the Confederate flag into the halls of Congress this week. 
 
As I am writing this, there have been various condemnations of the President, of the crowd who stormed the Capitol, and even some calls for the President’s removal from office.  Many of these are from prominent Democrats, too many of whom are themselves Herodians and are rightly open to charges of mere partisanship.  Thankfully, after Wednesday, many calling for a peaceful transition of power, and an end to ludicrous theatrics, are Republicans and the President’s onetime allies.[3] 
 
In an environment like this, cries of treason abound.  Remove him from power, send him to jail, lock them all up.  When I am able to resist my own small-mindedness, what I honestly want for President Trump, and for us, is his repentance.  God knows, he is not our only Herodian.  Nor is repentance something that he needs to do but that I and the rest of us somehow don’t need to do.  The Christian life is nothing without repentance; repentance is the name of our road home.  President Trump is simply the one with the most power, the one who raised the stakes almost to the breaking point this week, the one whose repentance in all this would have the most far-reaching effects for our common good.  What is there left to us now, but repentance?
 
God came to us in the flesh of a particular man who lived a particular life; thus, so too must our discipleship walk a particular path—with repentance for particular sins.  When the princes of the earth repent of princely sins, the wide and visible road home which they walk becomes a highway the rest of us can share.  Their repentance gathers us in its homeward motion, freeing us from our constant emotional and ideological wars.  We become traveling companions.  We begin to heal.
 
Remember: it is in the nature of a greater good to be enjoyed by a greater number of people, and that God in Jesus Christ is our greatest good.  The Wise Men find him, yes, as do countless poor Galileans, fishermen, demon-beset sufferers, women of ill repute, corrupt tax collectors, adulterers, even violent thieves hanging on their own crosses.  There is a place for the Herodians of the world with Him, too, if they—perhaps we—have the courage not to settle for anything less than the vision of God, knowing full well that it will cost us all our crowns.
 
 Thank you for reading, and God’s Peace.
 
 
Fr. Daniel+
 
[1] See the Collect for the Holy Innocents on page 238 of the BCP.  Holy Innocents is a little observed holy day on December 28.
[2] The parallel stops with the mere fact that both Herod and President Trump are being replaced by legitimate powers.  In case it needs saying: the natures of those legitimate powers are in no way identical.
[3] Congressman Adam Kinzinger of Illinois has called for the removal of President Trump from office by invocation of the 25th Amendment.  Congresswoman Liz Cheney of Wyoming has said there is no question that President Trump both formed and incited the mob that stormed the Capitol, and that this is an abuse of the trust his supporters have placed in him.  Senator Lindsey Graham  of South Carolina said “enough is enough” and repeatedly affirmed the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election, calling attention to the fact that all legal challenges to the election have either failed or been dismissed outright, including by judges appointed by President Trump himself.  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Vice President Mike Pence both condemned the disruption to the Electoral College count, Leader McConnell going so far as to call it “insurrection.”
 

Lucy's Hands

When a new priest is ordained, it’s common for folks to ask her for a blessing after the ordination service.  Maybe in the receiving line right after worship, or maybe during a reception afterwards (in non-pandemic years), lay people and clergy alike line up and ask the newly ordained to pronounce God’s blessing upon them. 
 
In a denomination like ours, to bless is to perform a uniquely priestly function: neither lay people nor deacons fulfill this particular role for the community.  So when the person asking for the blessing is himself a priest, it has the added weight of an older member of the priestly guild not only welcoming a newer member into the order, but also of his submitting to her pastoral authority at that moment.  In this submission, there is celebration.  She is finally getting to do the thing God has called her to do, and the gathered Church, lay and clergy alike, gets to receive God’s blessings in a new way, through hands which have never blessed quite like this before.  God’s blessing is made particular in a way it never has been before.
 
It’s a beautiful thing.  Ordination day blessings are at once playful, tender, and a little awkward, as holiness almost always is.  This was doubly true for me on Saturday, when the newly ordained priest happens to be my wife.
 
After the service there were a dozen or so of us visiting on this big outdoor porch area of her church, and sure enough, the blessings started.  (The congregants always instigate this; never the new priest!)  Some were very socially distant; some stood; some knelt; some closed their eyes; some giggled a little.  Lucy blessed us all.
 
I decided to kneel.  I still had all my worship robes on, so it was a bit awkward, and Lucy put her hands on my head and traced a cross on my forehead with the soft blade of her thumb.  She invoked the Holy Trinity in words almost identical to the ones I say to kids when (in more usual times) they come to the altar rail with their arms crossed. 
 
It was one of the great moments of my life.  As I’ve pondered it over the past few days, the memory has sort of dilated in my mind, widening and bringing other memories into it, raising them up, somehow. 
 
One memory is of being a little kid and coming to the altar rail and getting a blessing.  There’s no face on the priest who is doing the blessing in this memory; it’s just this big hand in a billowy sleeve reaching down in a way that is both friendly and intimidating.  Lucy’s hands are not like those—hers are smaller, sometimes the nails are painted, and one finger wears a sparkly ring—but the shape of the gesture is the same.  Somehow, her blessing me on her ordination was exactly the same as every other blessing I have ever received from a priest.
 
Another memory is more recent.  Whenever I give myself a haircut, I always have to have Lucy come take the clippers to finish the job.  Neaten up the back of my neck, fix this particularly unruly bit on my crown, edge the mustache just so.  I sit very still, and her hands are at work on and around my head, attending very carefully to that which I am unable to do myself.  Just like the blessing she offered on her ordination day, this work comes very much from Lucy’s hands, but the gesture itself is very different.  Still, there’s something about the intimacy of haircut day for me that was also there when I knelt before her on the pavement.
 
So there we are, on her ordination day, a somewhat awkward clergy couple doing church things.  I am at once just an ordinary Christian person asking a blessing of an ordinary Christian priest, and I am also this woman’s husband.  When she said the words and put her hands on my head, they were at once the hands of this great big historical community we call the Church, and also these very small, particular, ring-wearing hands of my wife, hands which are a necessary part of haircut day.
 
There was one touch there, but two relationships.
 
I linger on this blessing memory not only because I love it, but also because it is teaching me about the Mystery we celebrate on Christmas.  When God becomes human flesh and blood in Jesus of Nazareth, God is choosing to locate himself among us as one of us.  God’s hands are no longer simply divine, transcendent, cosmic.  They are here, now, particular. 
 
No human being has ever led a generic life; none of us lives in the abstract.  There are always concrete details.  When God becomes incarnate in Jesus, God joins us in the fields of particularity.  God’s blessings are now no longer pronounced transcendently, cosmically from on high.  They come from these hands, a carpenter’s hands, not theoretical or theological ones.  And when this happens, the door is opened for the particular lives we lead to also bless.
 
By the incarnation of Jesus, God has so graced human nature that these particular hands, these small hands which sometimes have painted fingernails and one finger wears a sparkly ring—these, too, are now the hands by which God blesses.
 
When Mary of Magdala, or the brothers James and John, first sat down with Jesus to break bread, or to rest in the shade, or to decide where to go next, they had a kind of dual relationship with him.  He was both this man who was their friend and teacher, who was left handed maybe and popped his knuckles a lot, but he was also their God (though they did not know this latter bit).  In Jesus, the two are not distinct.  When Jesus washes their feet, there is one touch, but something like two relationships.  By his divinity, we are saved.  By his humanity, we are given the grace to participate in our own, and in each other’s, being saved.  There is a person-shaped space for us in the very Trinity.
 
The world is hallowed now, as are its people.
 
This Christmas, when God comes to us in human form, perhaps God is telling us that it is always His hands we are feeling when a blessing finds us.  The tall and vaguely intimidating priests of your childhood reaching down in blessing at the altar rail.  Your wife’s palm turning your chin to the side as she trims your mustache.   For me, receiving a blessing from the Rev. Lucy Bridgers Strandlund on her ordination day embodied the truth that it is always God’s hands that bless, whatever form the blessing takes.  The love of a priest for her people, the love of a wife for her husband—both were gathered in one touch.
 
On Christmas, we celebrate the coming of our Lord.  In Christ, in this one man, God’s touch is loves unnumbered.  The softness under your grandmother’s medical bracelet.  Your grandchild sticking her squidgy fingers into your mouth.  Your neighbor’s squeeze on your elbow as you make your weary way to your seats.  Your sibling’s playful yet perpetually antagonistic pinch on your knee under the table.  The soft palm of a hospice nurse.  “These hands, these particular touches,” God seems to say, “these are always my hands.” 
 
On the other side of every blessing you have ever received, God is there.  There, just there, Emmanuel.
 
Merry Christmas,
 
 
Fr. Daniel+
 

Schedule for the week of Christmas

Sunday, December 20: An Advent Festival of Lessons and Carols for the 4th Sunday of Advent. This is an "online-only" service and will be on Facebook and YouTube at 10am. See bulletin link below, included in this newsletter. Lots of St. Liz faces in this one!

Thursday, December 24: A Celebration of Holy Eucharist for Christmas Eve, ending with candlelight and “Silent Night.” This service will be outdoors and in-person at 4:30pm. It will also be live streamed via YouTube. Our link will be posted on Facebook and will be texted. If weather is bad, we’ll be online only. Note: Since this is an outdoor service, there will be no Reverend Father Advent Humbug around to tell you not to bring your coffee/hot chocolate/etc. into the church! Festive attire, reindeer antlers, etc. are all very much encouraged, as well!

Friday, December 25: We will not hold a Christmas Day service this year (though our Christmas Eve service should still be available online). Mark and Wanda have recorded Christmas music that will be available online by 8am Christmas Day.

Sunday, December 27: Holy Eucharist Rite II at 10am. This service will be outdoors and in-person, with a live stream option for folks at home. If weather is bad, this will be online only, with the link posted on FB, YouTube, and text. 

Sunday, January 3: Holy Eucharist Rite II at 10am. This service will be outdoors and in-person, with a live stream option for folks at home. If weather is bad, this will be online only, with the link posted on FB, YouTube, and text. 

Finally, in wider diocesan news, Lucy Strandlund (my fave) will be ordained to the Sacred Order of Priests tomorrow (Saturday), December 19 at 11am at St. John’s Episcopal Church in New Braunfels. Watch the service here.

Stay warm, stay safe, and stay hopeful! 

God’s Peace,
Fr. Daniel+

Your 2021 Bishop’s Committee

I am pleased to announce our 2021 Bishop’s Committee (the “BC”):
 
Krista Piferrer, joined January 2019 (Bishop’s Warden as of Jan. 2020)
Betsy Terrel, joined Jan. 2019
Ruth Anne Bloor, joined Jan. 2020
Kevin Hammond, joined Jan. 2020
Rachel Joiner, joined Jan. 2020
Maddie Spearman, joining Jan. 2021
John Sharkey, joining Jan. 2021
Lisa Sartorio, joining Jan. 2021
Steve Kowalik, joining Jan. 2021 (one-year term)
Lisa White, Treasurer, non-voting member, joining Jan. 2021
 
I hope you will join me in welcoming our BC and that you will keep them in your prayers as we begin our work together.  You will note that no one on this list is named Junior Warden yet.  We’ll discern that as a BC after the first of the year.
 
A few things to note: first, I want to thank our outgoing BC class—Tina Otto, Philip Johnson, and Charlie Welvaert—for their good and faithful work these past three years.  These folks are also the first class of BC members who came on knowing they’d serve a three-year term rather than an indefinite one.  Charlie has agreed to remain a part of facilities-related conversations as needed for a few months so as to ensure continuity.
 
Second, I’d also like to thank our outgoing treasurer, Sarah Johnson, for her work the past couple years, especially for helping us to increase our percentage of online givers.  This was an invaluable step for this year, in particular.  I am also grateful to Lisa White for agreeing to return as treasurer, a role she knows well and in which she served through the end of 2018.  Sarah has agreed to remain part of finance-related conversations as needed so as to ensure continuity there, too.
 
Third, many of you know that David and Ina Jensen are splitting their time between Ohio and Texas now so as to spend more time with family.  As such, David decided it was best for him and for the BC as a whole for him to step down before his term was out.  I am grateful for his work, as well, particularly his and Ina’s keeping the yard looking so good.  Steve Kowalik has agreed to step in and finish out David’s term, which had one more year remaining.  Thank you, Steve!
 
Finally, when the BC gathered for our annual retreat back in February (all those years ago!), we had planned to hold elections for BC members this fall.  In August, when it was clear to us that Coronatide would continue through the fall, we made the decision not to attempt elections this year, but to continue adding new members as we’ve done in the past: after consulting with some current BC folks, I invite new members directly.  Once that list is compiled, Bishop Reed officially appoints the entire 2021 Bishop’s Committee.
 
Again, I hope you will join me in welcoming our 2021 BC and that you will hold them (and me) in your prayers as we approach a new year.  I am happy to answer any questions you may have, as well.
 
God’s Peace,
 
 
Fr. Daniel+
 
 
 

The Knock

I’m reading Thomas Aquinas right now for my degree.  He was a 13th century theologian and Dominican friar, and he remains one of the most influential thinkers in Church history.  Of the thousands of pages he wrote, he is probably best known for his “Five Ways,” or five proofs for the existence of God.  These are on my mind this Advent.
 
The Five Ways are easy to find online, if you’re interested.[1]  The Five Ways are (mostly) formally similar, by which I mean that each as a similar basic concept at work in it.  The gist is this: we observe in the natural world that things depend on other things for their goodness, motion, innate and accrued characteristics, and the like, and that less perfect things tend to depend on more perfect things.  Given that an infinite chain of dependence doesn’t make sense, it follows that there is Something that serves as the existential linchpin for the rest of the created universe.  There must be an “Unmoved Mover” or “Uncaused Cause” or “Necessary Being.”  You may have heard these phrases before; this is the conceptual neighborhood we’re in.
 
To give a sort of hodge-podge example, we might observe that sunflowers grow tall and turn their bright yellow faces towards the sunlight.  From this we might observe that the sun itself causes the growth of sunflowers and their propensity to look sunward.  Sunflowers are less perfect than the sun: sunflowers grow irregularly sometimes; they wilt; they might be prone to sickness, etc.  The sun, however, moves with perfect regularity and reliability; the only real change it under goes is its location as it turns through the heavens.  
 
There’s a kind of fittingness to this relationship: the less perfect sunflower depends upon the more perfect the sun.[2]  After these observations, we might very well ask, “Given that a sunflower’s growth and inclinations depend upon the sun, on what does the sun itself depend for its heavenly motion and its perpetual shining?”  And so on.
 
Thomas says that God is the name we give to Whatever It Is at the very beginning (and end) of these creaturely relationships of dependence.  There is an Un-Created-Creator on which all we creatures depend for our existence and creaturely goodness.
 
At this point, you may be saying, “Okay, that’s interesting I guess, but all this talk about causes and unmoved movers and stuff doesn’t really sound like the God we pray to on Sundays.  What about God’s love, compassion, and justice?  Where is all that?  What about Jesus?”
 
You’d be right to make these objections; none of this philosophical stuff is intended to be the meat and potatoes of religious practice.  Thomas doesn’t intend it as such (though his detractors often caricature him this way).  There’s a key moment right after Thomas finishes his Five Ways that lets us know this.  Thomas effectively says, “Okay, so we’ve demonstrated that there is some existential linchpin out there, and that we call that God, but we still have no idea what God is like.”[3]  In other words, we can use our minds to observe that there must be some Uncaused Cause out there, but our minds could never really say much about what (let alone Who) that Cause is like.
 
To put it differently, Thomas’ Five Ways not only use observations about the created world to demonstrate the existence of an Uncaused Cause, but they also demonstrate that this mysterious Cause isn’t part of the created universe.  Therefore, it is not open to our rational investigation in any usual way.  Whatever this Cause is, we can’t expect it to be like, or to behave like, the causes we see in nature.  It is subject only to its own laws.  It’s not an object in the universe, but is beyond. 
 
Thus, right after demonstrating that there is some Unmoved Something holding the chain of creaturely dependence together, and that we call this something God, Thomas then makes the startling observation that we can’ know what this God is like, but only what this God is not like.[4]  This God does not exist in the way the sunflower does.  Even the sun is an unfitting comparison.
 
The sheer strangeness and mystery of this God-beyond-thinking is on my mind.  It’s as though Thomas is saying that we creatures are all in a room together with the door closed.  There is a knock on the door, and we hear it.  The sound of the knocking is in the room with us, but the One Who Knocks is not.  The door is closed, and while we can hear the knock, we can’t say what the Knocking One is like—whether they are tall or short, whether woman or man, whether or not they are a shepherd or wearing roller skates. 
 
Thomas’ Five Ways are his noticing the sound of the knock, and concluding that Someone must therefore be on the other side of the door.  But he is careful to say that, on our own rational power, we cannot know anything about what that Someone is like—so long, that is, as the door remains closed.  Should this Someone open the door and step into the room, well, that would reveal to us a great deal which we could not otherwise know.
 
All this is on my mind this Advent, especially this year.  We say each year that Advent is a season of preparation, expectation, and waiting on the Messiah.  And our behavior changes accordingly.
 
There is a Christmas tree in the living room, for example, with presents under it.  From this we might conclude that whoever lives in this house has family or friends with whom they expect to exchange gifts; this is the cause of the tree and gifts.  We might further conclude that they love each other.  And we might further observe that these creaturely actions of festive tree-decorating and affectionate gift-giving depend on a particular point in the calendar which human communities have been observing for centuries.  So not only do these folks love each other now, but they are part of a much older historical community for whom this particular point in the calendar is important.  And from this, in turn, we might arrive at something like the Church and the life of a man named Jesus.
 
This is so much knocking on the door.  Clearly, Someone is waiting to come in.  If we are wise, however, we will admit that for much of our lives, we have known very little about who this Knocking One is.  We know a great deal more about gifts and decorated fir trees. We might even know a great deal more about Church History.  (Or Thomas Aquinas, as the case may be.)
 
I don’t say that pejoratively; I like gifts and Christmas trees alongside everybody else (and I like Thomas Aquinas alongside a subset of far fewer people)!  But we need to take our cues from Thomas: the signs we see in the world tell us that Someone is knocking, but they don’t tell us what that Someone is like.  We have to wait on them to open the door in order to know that.  When the door opens, One will enter who is not bound by the kinds of cause-and-effect which we see in the world around us.  Instead,
 
the sun will be darkened,
   and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
   and the powers in the heavens will be shaken
(Mark 13:24-25)
 
It’s always a bit jarring to read these Advent scriptures during the time of tinsel and Amazon sales.  The gifts and the cookies and the trees always come alongside John the Baptist’s proclaiming the repentance of sins and Isaiah’s reminder that “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.  The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass [and only] the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:6-8).  Fa la la la la, la-la, la la.
 
What I am realizing this year is that, not only do I know very little about the Knocking One, but I’ve never even been particularly good at listening to the Knock.  The uncomfortable truth is that for Christians, these prophetic texts are part of the Knock.  It’s just that usually, we hear them as a kind of interruption: quit that knocking out there, Whoever you are, we’ve got to get these cards in the mail and beat the rush at Target!
 
But this year is different.  Everything in creation’s room is in disarray.  It’s lonely.  We’re anxious.  We’re having to let go of our dependence on more perfect things like in-person community and the fullness of worship, and instead we are dependent for our physical safety on less perfect things like isolation and masks and Facebook and being outside in the cold.  This year, when God knocks on the door of the universe, maybe we hear the voice of the prophets and think, oh thank God, we’re going mad in here.  We’ll repent, turn to the Lord—whatever it takes, just get in here already!
 
This has been true for me, and I know it has been true for many of you, too.  Marriages have fractured; some have fractured and begun to heal.  Relationships to alcohol have been re-evaluated or ended completely.  The griefs we have for so long refused have finally been grieved.  Jobs have been lost and gained; still others have been revealed as hollow.  Rest has come now that we’ve reckoned with the fact that our own strength and productivity were the very things wearing us down.  In the absence of the usual levels of activity around us, we are realizing that we’ve always been asleep to our own desires.  Or waiting on someone else to handle the important things for us.
 
Our souls are older now.
 
Many of us this year have faced the hard truth that nothing in creation that we ever sought or sought to avoid has ever been enough, not even sunflowers and Christmas trees.  Even more perfect things, like friends and family, we habitually load with burdens of desire and expectation which they were never meant to bear.  The conflicts we avoid, the necessary actions we merely think about instead of following through on—these are not gone just because we’ve stuck our noses in the corner.  Their continued presence haunts and does not absolve.
 
These dissatisfactions and struggles, the interminable silence and terrible inertias of soul, the damaging dependencies we never saw coming—all these are unsettling, but they are also part of the Knock.  These are the effects in a broken creation of the truth that God has made us for Himself and that we will find happiness in no other.  We are natural creatures with supernatural longings.
 
So much has been stripped from us this year that, oddly enough, we are more aware of this than ever before.  This would seem to fly in the face of the evidence.  Our spiritual lamps are trimmed and shining, and we are ready for the bridegroom, despite the darkness we feel around us.  Our souls are wearing their very best wedding clothes, despite the literal bathrobes and sweatpants in which we spend so much time these days.  The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart God will not despise (Ps. 51:18).
 
Remember: the Knock suggests that there is a God at the door, but it does not tell us what God will be like when we meet Him.  Put differently, your sense of yourself, the evidence you marshal in support of your own shame or inefficacy, it cannot and does not determine how God will greet you.  The Who of God is not determined by our usual conclusions and evidence.  In a bit more Thomistic mode, the Knocking One is not bound by the creaturely chains of dependence, of the usual modes of cause and effect.  Darkness is not dark to Him; the night is as bright as the day (Ps. 139:12). 
 
The reality is that many of us are more ready for the door to open than ever we have been.  So fear not when the stars seem to fall from your heavens, or when the sun and moon cease to give their light.  Fear not when you melt down in your closet so that the kids don’t hear your crying.  Fear not when your only accomplishment today was brushing your teeth, or when you remember that you never made it that far yesterday.  Fear not for loved ones whose decisions you cannot make, nor for your own decisions you cannot undo.
 
When the door opens at last, perhaps we will find that nothing is lost, but only changed.  We repent, though we scarcely know how.  With anticipation, with fear and trembling, even with hope.
 
Hark, a Knock upon the door.  The approach of One we do not know.
 
God’s Peace,
 
 
Fr. Daniel+
 
[1] The primary text is early in Thomas’ massive Summa Theologiae, which is divided up into parts, questions, and articles.  The Five Ways are found in the first part, question two, article three.  A common way of seeing this noted would be “Ia q. 2 a. 3,” or “Prima pars, q. 2, a. 3” or something similar.  Now that you know this, you’ll be extra fun at parties!
[2] No offense to sunflowers here, but for Thomas, a sunflower’s greater changeableness would make it less perfect than a heavenly body like the sun.
[3] Thomas’ exact words: “When the existence of a thing has been ascertained there remains the further question of the manner of its existence, in order that we may know its essence. Now, because we cannot know what God is, but rather what He is not, we have no means for considering how God is, but rather how He is not.”  See the introduction to question three of the first part of the Summa Theologiae.
[4] See note above.

Worship Update through the New Year

Your Bishop’s Committee and I met this week to discuss an appropriate worship plan for the Advent and Christmas seasons.  Our new default will be to hold outdoor, in-person services every week.  Masks and social distancing are required at all outdoor, in-person services.  These services will also be live streamed and will include the radio ‘drive-in’ option.  I’ll say more about what I see as the strengths and weaknesses of this plan below, but for now, just the facts.  Services[1] noted in italics are online-only.
 
*Sunday, December 6 (Advent 2) Holy Eucharist @ 10am outdoors and in-person.  We’ll live stream it, as well. 
 
*Sunday, December 13 (Advent 3) Holy Eucharist @ 10am outdoors and in-person.  We’ll live stream it, as well. 
 
*Sunday, December 20 (Advent 4) A Service of Lessons and Carols @ 10am!  Mark, Wanda, our choir, and a handful of others have been working for weeks to make this service possible.  Online only, and there will be lots of St. Liz faces on-screen!
 
*Thursday, December 24 (Christmas Eve) Holy Eucharist @ 4:30pm outdoors and in-person.  We’ll finish in candle-light.  We’ll live stream it, as well. 
 
*Friday, December 25 (Christmas Day) Christmas music will be available by 8am.  This will be pre-recorded, not a live stream.  Online only.
 
*Sunday, December 27 (1st Christmas) Holy Eucharist @ 10am outdoors and in-person.  We’ll live stream it, as well. 
 
*Sunday, January 3 (2nd Christmas) Holy Eucharist @ 10am outdoors and in-person.  We’ll live stream it, as well. 
 
*Wednesday, January 6 (Epiphany) Evening Prayer @ 7pm.  Online only.
 
*Sunday, January 10 (Baptism of Our Lord) Holy Eucharist @ 10am outdoors and in-person.  We’ll live stream it, as well. 
 
The strengths of this plan are that it allows more possibilities for gathering together in-person than our current approach.  As we enter Advent and Christmas, our hunger to be together is even keener than usual, especially since so many of us are not celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas as we normally would.
 
The weaknesses are primarily two: first, coronavirus numbers are on the rise in our area, and any way you slice it, we increase our risk by upping our number of in-person services.  I will confess that the above plan is the absolute limit of what I am comfortable with for us right now, and it includes more in-person offerings than I initially proposed to the Bishop’s Committee.  However, at our meeting there was a unanimous feeling among the BC (many of whom have remained consistently cautious) that we can manage weekly outdoor services safely, and I trust them.  So, we’re moving ahead.  With holiday travel, if numbers climb precipitously, I may back us off the above plan, though I hope not to.
 
The second weakness is the same practical one which has so far spared us: in the event of bad weather, our only real recourse is to live stream.  Unfortunately, this will remain true of Christmas Eve, as well.  If you don’t receive our text updates, please sign up!  Text STLIZ to 71441.  The plan as of now is to check the forecast on Saturday, and make cold weather decisions Saturday afternoon and rain decisions the morning of.  These will go out via text and will get posted on Facebook.
 
A few other details.  You will notice that the above plan does not include an in-person service on Christmas Day, but only an online musical offering.  Our Christmas Day service tends to be small during normal years, and in the interest both of minimizing risk and honoring the peculiarities of volunteer work right now, this year our physical church site will remain quiet on Christmas Day. 
 
Finally, for those who plan to participate exclusively from home, consecrated communion bread will be available for you to pick up each Saturday from 9am-noon and each Sunday (with the exception of Dec 20) from 8:15am-9:30am.  If you are unable to drive and need bread brought to you, please email me at danielstelizabeth@gmail.com  
 
The Bishop’s Committee meets again on Monday, December 14th @ 7pm. 
 
God’s Peace, and Happy Thanksgiving,
 
 
Fr. Daniel+
 
[1] Not listed above are Memorial Service for DJ Sartorio on Saturday, December 12th @ 2pm.  This will be outdoors and in-person, though we won’t live stream or radio it into cars.  We will also have Choral Evensong each Wednesday of Advent (Dec 2, 9, 16 and 23) @ 7pm.  Evensong will be online only.
 
 

Redeeming Mammon

There’s a poem I like called Paradise Lost.  It tells the story of how Satan and his rebellious angels were expelled from heaven, and how Satan decides to get back at God by tempting Adam and Eve.  The author takes a lot of liberties with the biblical narratives to accomplish all this, re-imagining some things and adding others. 
 
One of my favorite scenes is the “solemn council…at Pandemonium,” which is the capital of hell, where Satan and all his fallen angel buddies debate how they’re going to get back at God.[1]  The solemn council is grand and dramatic and farcical.  I mean, this is God we’re talking about: omnipotent, all-knowing, unassailable.  All their ideas are pretty dumb, despite the soaring rhetoric, and the whole bureaucratic process of the debate is a sham anyway: we all know that Satan is just going to tell the demons what’s going to happen.
 
Still, the speeches are worth the read.  Some demons advocate for invading heaven with open war, but others say that would be silly.  Why not sit tight and see if God relents a little?  Or why not just try to make the best of hell?
 
This last is the approach taken by a fallen angel named Mammon.  In the poem, Mammon is the personification of money, or rather the personification of the obsession with money.  You may remember that name Mammon from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:  “You cannot serve two masters….You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24).  Wealth there is mamona and in some translations is rendered with the name Mammon
 
If Mammon is obsession with wealth, it’s no surprise that Mammon’s speech at Pandemonium uses financial language to make his case.  Mammon says trying to reinvade heaven would be stupid, and asking God to take them back would be humiliating, even if it worked.  If God gave them grace and took them back, Mammon says, it would come at the cost of having to make “servile offerings” to God:
 
                                    …how wearisome
            Eternity so spent, in worship paid
            To whom we hate.[2]
 
Notice those verbs?  Mammon doesn’t want to spend Eternity paying worship to God.  Such offerings would make him servile.  He says it’d be better to say in hell and make the best of it, to search for gems and gold and use all of that to build up their own imitation of heaven.  Mammon wants to 
 
seek 
Our own good from ourselves, and from our own
Live to ourselves.[3]
 
It’s all a bit absurd.  After all, Mammon is saying they should rely on their own resources (as though God didn’t create gems and gold) and make the best of it where they are, which, again, is literally hell. 
 
Mammon’s speech is as delusional as all the rest at the solemn council of Pandemonium.  These fallen angels are nursing bruised egos, and they’re puffed up with imagined power and excellence.  They plot an impossible feat, after all: to avenge themselves…on God?
 
Yet when I listen to Mammon’s speech, I have to admit I hear something of myself in it.  I try to “live to myself” all the time.  I use financial words for non-financial things on a daily basis.  I pay attention, spend effort, save time, occasionally waste an afternoon.   These economic metaphors determine so much of how we shape and understand the world.  Time, talent, energy, attention—it’s all commodity to be spent, paid, saved.
 
No wonder Jesus is talking about money when he warns us against serving two masters.  Of all the idols out there, Mammon is sneakiest and most powerful precisely because money is so liquid: it flows into the million little gaps between us and the world.
 
Here is what I mean: we all know in our minds that God is the real source of shelter, food, friendship, and the pursuit of good things like learning or music or cooking pies for your friends.  But nowadays, money is also involved in all of that—mortgage payments, rent, transportation, the grocery bill, going to get coffee with your friends.  To learn requires having the right tools; to play an instrument requires owning one or having access to it; to cook you need to buy groceries.  All of these likely require a tank of gas in the car.
 
Money flows into the gaps between us and our enjoyment of creaturely goods.  Of all the idols out there, then, Mammon comes closest to touching all the same things God touches: shelter, food, time with friends, good work, creative pursuits.  Even our way of speaking reflect Mammon’s influence.
 
Because Mammon touches so much, over time we come to function as though Mammon is the source of everything he touches, and this functional belief is the source of money’s power.  That word function is important.  None of us believes consciously that Mammon is the source of all these good things, but our stated beliefs and our functional beliefs are not the same.  Functionally, we do often live as though it is money that keeps us existentially afloat.  We cry out to it in times of distress.  We carry its symbols with us everywhere.  Our calendar is built around its feasts and fasts.
 
This is why the Christian disciplines of giving are so important.  We human beings are such that we act our way into really believing things, not the other way around.  This is part of what is going on when St. James says, “Faith without works is dead” (2:17).  If I say, or even know, that God is the source of all that is good, my heart’s only satisfaction, and yet all the decisions I make in a given month are ones that demonstrate that money is my first concern, well, then regardless of what I say, functionally I am at least in part a disciple of Mammon.
 
I want to be clear: I’m talking primarily to those of us who actually have some money.  (If you’re not sure if that’s you or not, then that’s you.)  Folks living with real material insecurity have very real struggles, but not necessarily the spiritual one I’m talking about.  If, for example, you’re praying to God for monetary relief to keep your lights on, then clearly your functional belief is that God saves, not money.  In this scenario, money is what it should be: a means to an end, subjugated to God with everything else.
 
It’s a bit paradoxical: those of us who have a measure of financial security are sometimes the ones most tempted to let Mammon take God’s place in our heart’s hierarchy of goods.  When we’re used to having money, we’re also used to relying on it.  We’re used to money as a stable force that never abandons.  We’re used to operating with an eye not towards sufficiency, but to what more we could have or experience.  Or, if we have survived a season of acute financial distress but are stable now, perhaps we are organizing our lives so as to keep Mammon happy, i.e. to prevent money from abandoning us again. 
 
It’s subtle, and I feel kind of icky just thinking about it.  (“Icky” is the technical theological term.)  We spend energy and attention making sure Mammon’s liquidity continues to flow, extending Mammon’s reach.
 
The good news is that this very liquid quality that makes Mammon so tempting is also the quality that makes the practices of giving so transformative.  When we offer to God of our first fruits, we are offering to God of that liquidity that touches so many aspects of our lives.  When we offer to God from our financial resources, we are therefore also offering (back) to God the goodness of those gifts He has given us: food, shelter, relationships, and the like. 
 
The liquidity of money works both ways.  Remember: Mammon used to be an angel; he just fell.  What is an idol for many can, by the redeeming power of God, become an agent of holiness.
 
Our poet plays with this.  This is the first description we get of Mammon in Paradise Lost:
 
                        Mammon, the least erected spirit that fell
                        From heaven: for even in heaven his looks and thoughts
                        Were always downward bent; admiring more
                        The riches of heaven’s pavement, trodden gold,
                        Than aught divine or holy else, enjoy’d
                        In vision beatific….[4]
 
Do you see the joke?  In heaven, the streets are paved with gold, so Mammon’s fall begins with his walking around heaven bent over, staring at the ground.  He’s in heaven—literally heaven!—and he goes about bent at the waist, staring at the golden street.  He is in heaven to befriend God and enjoy God forever, but his vision is distracted, lowered unnaturally to the glittery pavers.  What is a street but something that fills the gap between us and where we want to go?
 
When our functional belief is that the giver of all good gifts in the universe is not God, but money, we are like an angel pacing and muttering in little anxious circles, so bent over that our noses almost scrape the street.
 
When we write our tithe checks every month, or when at the first of the year we set up an automatic withdrawal, God is grabbing us by the shoulders and standing us up straight.  God is appealing to our better angels, saying, “Hey, eyes on Me, remember?  There’s work to do and a whole world to enjoy.  No sense wandering around the Kingdom without taking in the sights!  Keep your head up.  Look around a little!”
 
This straight talk is life-giving.  The gold paving stones of heaven are a means to an end, just one way of getting where we need to go.  For God to come along and stand us up straight is for God to remind us that money is a tool, a thing, a largely abstract but still inanimate object that should do what we tell it to do, not the reverse.  Demystifying money, talking about it honestly, and giving generously of it all help to keep money in its proper place.  What we want is for our habits of generosity to require no more thought than walking down the sidewalk.  For them to become ordinary and undramatic, like brushing our teeth or saying thank you.  This kind of stewardship is how Mammon is restored to the upright and more angelic posture God intends.
 
God’s Peace,
 
 
Fr. Daniel+
 
[1] Paradise Lost, Book I.755-756.  This poem is where we get the word pandemonium.  The council is most of Book II.
[2] Book II.246-249
[3] Book II.252-254
[4] Book I.679-684

Defiant Spirituality

One Sunday afternoon in March, we came together in that little church in a field in Buda, TX to pray and sing songs of praise together, before embracing one another in a sign of God’s peace and saying goodbye for the week, not knowing the long and difficult road that would unfurl before us in the months ahead. Who would’ve known how strange and distant those embraces would eventually seem, or how quickly our perceptions of “normal” would change?
 
To say that these last nine months have been difficult and unusual would be a wild understatement. Like many of you, our family has struggled with the limitations imposed by our need to observe social distancing protocols and to forego many of the rituals that make things, well, normal. We learned how to shop for groceries without going to a grocery store. We held drive through graduations and birthdays, and settled for a friendly smile or a wave where a hug should have been. We began honking our horns at one another to celebrate milestones and special occasions (Texans aren’t supposed to honk their car horns; I learned this when I moved here from Florida 14 years ago, it’s just not polite). We traded in our suits for sweats and fashioned masks out of bandanas and old scarves. We had to say goodbye to friends and family members at a cruel distance, making our peace with the need to protect the most vulnerable in our midst.
 
In our home, we lost a grandfather to the scourge of COVID, only three weeks after losing a grandfather to the scourge of cancer. We struggled to transition our work to the home front and keep our jobs afloat, while managing the demands of online learning for our little ones as school buildings were closed. We agonized over whether to send our kids back to school this fall, and whether we’d made the right choices for our family. We wondered aloud about the future, and whether we would ever see the physical, social, and spiritual healing that we all so desperately knew we needed. We sobbed in solitude for the friends and mentors we lost, and our inability to be with them and celebrate their lives with a firmly held hand or a hug.
 
In an oddly comforting way, we know that we are not alone, as so many of you are walking the same road with us (six feet apart, of course). I sat on my back porch one afternoon in August, just about fed up with the sum of it all when I got an email from Fr. Daniel about this year’s stewardship effort and what it might look like in these strange times. “Stewardship? Now, of all times?” I thought to myself. “How are we supposed to talk about stewardship in the middle of all… this?” I sat on the question for a while, thinking about how things had changed, and how we would adapt our spiritual practice of stewardship to these constantly shifting circumstances. The world was upside down, and I was sad, angry, deflated, and exhausted. I made up my mind to be grumpy, and not think about it for a few days. There just wasn’t any room for anything else.
 
Sometimes though, God has other plans. As the weeks drew on, the sadness, anger, and exhaustion were slowly replaced by a new emotion – defiance. I started to think about the months that had felt like years, and the things I really missed about life before the pandemic. It had taken me years to find a church community that truly felt like a home, and suddenly I felt like it was gone as we retreated to our homes to worship from our televisions and telephone screens. But I reminded myself that it wasn’t gone at all – just temporarily dispersed – and that our strength as a church community doesn’t depend upon where we are or how we worship. Rather, it depends first and foremost upon God’s fellowship with us in Christ, and secondarily upon our willingness to participate in that fellowship by supporting one another and our church, strengthening our common bonds in whatever configuration is necessary.
 
I returned to the question of stewardship and what it all means when our natural instinct is to look inward and pull back amid uncertain times. In pondering this question, I finally found something that I could control amid the chaos in my life; a place where I could make a firm and definitive statement as a Christian about where and how I wanted to grow in my faith, the pandemic be damned. I resolved to take the next step in my giving plan for 2021, and began my journey into a new and defiant spirituality.
 
Defiance is a pretty powerful word, isn’t it? It conjures up images of a toddler throwing a tantrum at a department store, or pretty much anything a teenager might say to their parents (you know who you are, and this too shall pass). But defiance isn’t necessarily a bad thing when it’s exercised responsibly in pursuit of a true and faithful purpose. As one writer put it, “I can be defiant because I have examined the matter through and through, and I know that it’s coming from a true place in my spirit. You have to be willing to be defiant if you’re going to follow God, and allow him to restore your heart.”
 
The Bible is full of people defying expectations, ignoring societal norms, and allowing God to restore their hearts. Peter and Paul were beaten and jailed, but they continued to defiantly sing songs of praise to their Lord. In the Gospel of John, a woman pours expensive perfume over Jesus’ feet before wiping it away with her hair, in defiance of societal norms. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus prescribes several acts of creative defiance in the Sermon on the Mount: “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” Mary Magdalene, whose very name (Mariam in Romanized Greek) means “rebelliousness,” is a symbol of defiant hope, being the first to see the risen Christ because she stayed at the tomb when everyone else had left. Jesus himself gave us the most defiant act of all, dying on a cross for our sins so that we might have eternal life in him.
 
The language of defiance has been helpful for me in reclaiming some agency in a year when so much has been out of my control, and for whatever reason, God has led me to this renewed sense of defiant agency through stewardship.  I am grateful for that.
 
But everyone’s stewardship journey will be different, and there is faithfulness in all expressions of giving, no matter how big or small. It’s important to note that while some of us may still be in a position to continue to give and step forward in our commitments, doing the right thing for you and your family during these odd times is the real expression of faith. Our individual journeys are different, but we walk them together.
 
If you are like me, you might be tempted to look inward until the storm passes.  If that’s the case, then maybe God is calling you to try on a more defiant spirituality, as well, one which encourages growth in spite of daunting challenges, and in so doing affirms not only who we are now as God’s people, but who we will be when we are able to gather again more regularly. Despite the distance – even in defiance of it - the Holy Spirit unites us in our common goals: growing our church community, deepening our shared faith, becoming the community God is calling us to be. 
 
Again, we walk together, even when we walk apart.
 
 
 
 

Salt, Light, and the Sundering of Israel: Reflections in Election Week

One of the most dramatic Old Testament stories is how the Kingdom of Israel rips itself in two.[1]  It’s told in 1 Kings 9-13.  Mostly, what I want to do today is retell it.
 
To set the stage: the ascendancy of King David unites the Israelite tribes and begins a season of triumph over Israel’s historical adversaries like the Philistines.  Despite seasons of The Sopranos-esque conflict within the royal family, the Kingdom of Israel survives David’s reign intact and reaches the apogee of its power under David’s son, Solomon.  This is when the real trouble starts.
 
Solomon is renowned for his wisdom and for accomplishing great feats of expansion, like building the Temple in Jerusalem.  But despite his gifts and accomplishments, Solomon is a hard ruler (9:15-22), and he is tempted by the many gods of his many romantic interests (11:1-8).  His ego and philandering will eventually be the end of the kingdom as one kingdom.
 
Solomon’s personal failings instigate the sundering of Israel, and these are inseparable from what we moderns might call his policies (11:9-13).  Solomon’s heart is the problem (9:4, 11:9), the cause of both his own bad actions and much of the sickness in the kingdom.  It’s also important to note that the sundering of Israel doesn’t happen in Solomon’s own lifetime, but in the generation following him.  The damage is done, but the real fracture happens later.
 
When Solomon dies, his son Rehoboam succeeds him (11:41-12:1).  Rehoboam is an unmitigated disaster.  He hears the counsel of wiser and more experienced men who tell him that the people of Israel will follow him faithfully if he will be the people’s servant and speak good words to them (12:7).  But Rehoboam rejects their counsel, preferring instead to surround himself with sycophants (12:8-11).  In the crudest of locker room talk, they tell Rehoboam that the only way to outdo his dad Solomon is to be an even harsher task-master, to give his own ego even freer rein than did Solomon. 
 
Notice what has happened: Solomon’s character sets the standard for what kingship looks like in the eyes of the younger generation.  When Rehoboam becomes king, his way of surpassing his father is simply to out-Solomon Solomon, only Rehoboam lacks Solomon’s virtues.  Rehoboam says to the Israelites, “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke; my father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions” (12:14). 
 
This won’t do.  The people reject Rehoboam’s leadership, crying, “What share do we have in David?  We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse” (12:16).  In other words, there is no evidence in Rehoboam’s attitude that he wants to be a servant for the whole of Israel.  He has made himself the adversary of too many people, and they respond in kind.
 
The kingdom splits: the northern tribes run Rehoboam out of town and follow a new king named Jeroboam.  (Yes, in a classic dose of biblical confusion, the two leaders’ names rhyme: Rehoboam and Jeroboam.  I recommend thinking of them as simply R and J.[2])  Rehoboam rules in the southern kingdom of Judah, where Jerusalem is, and Jeroboam rules the majority of tribes in the northern kingdom, what is sometimes called Ephraim, where places like Bethel and Dan are.
 
Rehoboam thinks about going to war against the north, but a prophet says, “Look, God thinks that is a really bad idea.  You were a jerk, so take your licks and let them be” (12:21-24, paraphrasing).  For once, Rehoboam listens to reason.
 
At this point, things could have died down and the two kingdoms could’ve shared a measure of peace.  But it wasn’t to be.  Jeroboam sets up shop in the northern territories, but he notices that his citizens continue to travel south to Jerusalem to participate in rituals at the Temple there.  This is the grand Temple Solomon built, and it’s one that God clearly favors (9:1-5).
 
But Jeroboam is insecure about his citizens’ continuing to trek south into Rehoboam’s kingdom of Judah for all their important religious and cultural observances.  So Jeroboam does the one thing every Israelite should know not to do: he makes two golden calves; builds shrines for them in Dan and Bethel so they’re convenient for everybody to get to; and then tells his citizens, “Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (12:28).  Insert face-palm emoji.
 
Here again, we see that a king’s personal failings and his policies are not easily separated.  The construction of shrines and boosting the statuses of two cities are policy moves, maybe, but they are connected to Jeroboam’s own insecurities.  Jeroboam seems not to trust his own citizens, living in fear of what they might do if they continue to worship the Lord in Jerusalem (12:27).  Thus, golden-calf policies.
 
I’ve always wondered if Jeroboam would actually have preferred it if his southern rival had mustered Judah and marched north for war.  It is always simpler to lead when you can point your people towards an enemy.  Fear of an enemy prevents scrutiny of your own side.  An enemy threat prevents leaders from having to separate their own egos from the roles they fill.  But being against something is never enough to sustain a community for the long haul.  It is always harder and messier to trust your people to identify and pursue corporate goods alongside you, but this work is always necessary.
 
One final scene is worth relating.  A prophet comes up from Judah to visit Jeroboam where he is standing by the idolatrous altar he has made in Bethel.  The prophet condemns Jeroboam’s using kingly power to make idolatrous golden calves.  Jeroboam flies into a rage and points at the man, crying “Seize him!”  But Jeroboam’s outstretched hand withers on the spot as proof that God is against him (13:1-5).
 
That one moment is symbolic of the whole saga.  A king’s outstretched hand is a symbol of authority, an iconic exercise of power.  This is doubly so when the king is standing in front of a religious site, as Jeroboam was.  But when power is not exercised in accordance with God’s intentions for it, which is to say when power is not exercised on behalf of the good of the people leaders are called to serve, that power will inevitably turn back on the wielder.  The hand of Jeroboam withers. 
 
Good kings in the bible are not afraid of the truth; they are faithful shepherds like David (1 Sam. 16:11-13, for example).  Solomon, Rehoboam, Jeroboam—they were not shepherds.
 
I intend no allegory in narrating this bit of scripture on election week.  Neither President Trump nor Joe Biden nor any other candidate up for election can be mapped simply onto any one of these characters.  But the narrative of Israel’s sundering is instructive for us.  The questions it asks are our own
 
Is the United States one country or two?  Will we continue to perpetuate the lie that it is possible, or even desirable, to isolate a leader’s stated policies from his or her demonstrated character (and vise versa)?  Are we willing to follow the people we elect into the shrine of a golden calf, or will we continue to make our pilgrimage to Jerusalem?  And perhaps most distressing of all: would we actually prefer to defend ourselves—rhetorically or literally—against our ideological enemies rather than repent of our own sins and undertake the fitful, messy work of creating a more flourishing society?
 
There is a reason that Jesus instructs his followers to be salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16).  Salt preserves what is good from spoiling.  Light from a city on a hill is a guide to others and a bright, visible statement of hospitality in the midst of darkness.  Without salt, a society’s virtues spoil over time.  Israel devolves from the shepherd’s rule of King David[3] to the wise but vainglorious Solomon, to the ego and cowardice of Rehoboam and Jeroboam.  Wherever we are on this spectrum as a country, it’s clear we need more shepherds and more salt.  We need fewer royal hands withering with vainglory, ego, and cowardice. 
 
We also need more light, but frankly it’s not clear that the United States deserves to be called a city on a hill right now, despite our self-image.  Or perhaps it is fairer to say that what light God has entrusted to us has been dimmed under our stewardship in recent decades.  If light is about hospitality and guidance, maybe God is illuminating for us questions about whether we are actually hospitable.  Are we guided by something higher than ourselves and the strongmen onto whom we project our shadows writ large?  If not, then what hill are we standing on?
 
As I am writing this, we have no idea how the Electoral College is going to go.  Who knows where it’ll be when you read this.  I am no more neutral about the election than you are.  Following Jesus has never invited neutrality, and I trust you feel the same.  However you voted, I hope your choices were informed by the faith we share. 
 
Our shared temptation in all this, however, is to ascribe too much significance to the decision we’re trying to make as a country, to think that once somebody gets to 270 electoral votes we will have rendered some final moral verdict. 
 
We will have done no such thing.  Remember 1 Kings: a society moves through sickness and health over generations.  Any one leader may reflect that sickness or health back to us, and he or she has a measure of power to improve or worsen it.  This is doubly true for us who elect our leaders every few years instead of watching kings and their descendants ascend to the throne indefinitely.  We therefore have no Rehoboam or Jeroboam at whose feet we can easily lay America’s ills or successes.  Our leaders’ sins are always ours, at least in part.  As are their virtues.  We are, in a word, responsible.  
 
We are responsible for our neighbor’s suffering, and we share in her flourishing.  We are responsible for the example set by the public figures our children and grandchildren grow up seeing on television; it is never inevitable that they come to influence.  We are responsible for the fact that so many of our fellow citizens feel that their country cares so little about them, and that their votes are so meaningless, that Kanye West received over 3,600 votes in Idaho and over 10,000 in Tennessee.  I find it hard to believe there were thousands of Americans who honestly felt Yeezy 2020 was a compelling ticket.
 
We are responsible.  Americans don’t like to talk about responsibility; we prefer to talk about freedom.  We like to fly the flag of I’m gonna do what I want, and so long as we use the word “rights,” we call it good.  But this is not how Christians understand freedom.  
 
One of the very first things God says of humanity is that it is not good that man should be alone (Gen. 2:18).   By definition, then, our flourishing is a flourishing-in-community.  The ethic of I’m gonna do what I want might work well in a world where human existence was intrinsically solitary.  That would certainly be a world in which we would want our leaders to model that behavior for us.  But whatever else we could say about that world, it simply isn’t the one God made.  I can therefore only assume a do what I want attitude in a world made not by God, but by me.  To supplant God as world-maker in this way, either explicitly or functionally, is idolatrous.  It’s also exhausting.  Creating and sustaining a world is work only God can do.
 
What if Christians in the United States repented of our vapid rhetoric about freedom and chose instead a substantial rhetoric of responsibility—God-willing, even of care?  What if we led a cultural shift that rejected condescension, disdain, cruelty, and the raw assertion of self in favor of the Christian values of peace, care for the weak, careful attention to the good of the whole, and playfulness?   What if Christians in the United States were salt and light within our own borders?  Would this not be truer freedom? 
 
I believe that it would, and in the short-term, this truer freedom would give us rest.  We are exhausted with voting against someone, with having our attentions fought for and piqued on social media, of having our emotions leveraged.  We are weary with being told again and again that we are fighting for the soul of our country, as if this were a game of capture-the-flag with the soul of America suspended in the middle.  A soul is not something possessed, but who and what one is at the most essential level.  The soul of the United States is therefore not the possession of one group at the expense of another.  Instead, the soul of the United States is whatever we most essentially are together.
 
Right now, it seems to me that the soul of America is pretty damn tired.  The good news is that the way of salt and light is the way of rest.
 
Salt and light do what they do by their very nature; there is no great effort involved.  Salt simply is salty; it preserves naturally.  Light simply is the act of shining; it illuminates and guides naturally.  There is a restfulness about doing what is proper to one’s nature.  It allows for wholeheartedness without anxiety.  Think of the fearful, angry energy Rehoboam and Jeroboam expend—there is no rest there.  Is anyone really free who cannot rest?
 
Your nature is the image of God.  Your nature is fundamentally ordered towards the benefit of your neighbor and delight in her sheer otherness.  This is love, your saltiness and your shining.  It is also rest for those who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, as I imagine many of you are.
 
God’s Peace,
 
 
Daniel+
 
[1] This narrative arc is (roughly) in 1 Kings 9-13.  All citations in this article are from 1 Kings unless otherwise noted.
[2] R’s kingdom = the south, contains the city of Jerusalem, usually called “Judah.”  R’s kingdom includes the tribe of Judah and likely Benjamin.  J’s kingdom = the north, contains the cities of Bethel and Dan and Shiloh, usually called “Ephraim” or “Israel.”  J’s kingdom includes the other ten tribes.  Both kingdoms are full of God’s people.
[3] It is a mistake to overly idealize King David, who was also a notorious sinner.  Still, in the corporate imagination of the scriptural narrative, his example of fidelity to God is the rule by which other kings are judged.
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