Giving Thanks for the Light and the Dark

Last Sunday we heard the reading of the creation story from Genesis. "…darkness covered the face of the deep…. Then God said, 'Let there be light'; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from darkness…. And there was evening and there was morning the first day." Thank God for the light, especially on Saturday.

If you sleep in that morning you'll miss our planet's brief pass by one of the four stations on its trip around the sun. Zooming around our home star at about 67,000 miles per hour and spinning on its axis at about 1000 miles per hour (at the equator), the summer solstice will arrive at 6:51 a.m. and we will be well on our way to the shortest and darkest days of the year. Saturday will be the longest day of 2014 at 15 hours, 17minutes and 5 seconds here in Boston, promising to be mostly sunny in the mid 70s--a beautiful day thanks to those 23.4 degrees of axial tilt when the North Pole leans as far toward the sun as it can. You might want to pause and be present to that moment, giving thanks for the earth and the sun and the one who made them and set everything in the universe spinning at seemingly random tilts toward the light.

But what about the darkness we slowly left behind these last six months. In the creation story God calls the light good but doesn’t have much of an opinion on the darkness. God doesn’t call it bad. And neither does Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest and theology professor who published a new memoir last April entitled Learning to Walk in the Dark. Time magazine made her book a cover story that month, saying she was "nudging people down a path toward endarkenment." That's a word I'd never seen before! Taylor's endeavor revives something old in Christian theology in that darkness holds divine mystery. Her book came out in time for Good Friday, calling to mind God's actions in the life death and resurrection of Jesus. As Taylor writes in her book, "I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that saved my life over and over again, so that there is only one conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light." Indeed God can use darkness in powerful ways.

There are many good examples of dark, life-giving encounters with God: God appeared to Abraham in the night and promised him more descendants than the stars. The exodus from Egypt began in the dark. Paul's conversion happened after he lost his sight. And of course Jesus was born beneath a star and was resurrected from a dark tomb. A theology of the cross has taught me to look for God in the dark places of grief and loss, suffering and death, in the troubling and difficult places of life.

In the quiet and early light of this Saturday morning, I will pause and giving thanks for God's ongoing creative work in and through the light, but even more so God's gracious and redeeming work in the darkness.

Faithfully, Ross

Tulips Are Blooming

Viceroy TulipGoods allegedly exchanged for a single bulb of the Viceroy Tulip, February 1637(in Dutch gilders): Two lasts of wheat-448; Four lasts of rye-558; Four fat oxen-480; Eight fat swine-240; Twelve fat sheep-120; Two hogsheads of wine-70; Four tuns of beer-32; Two tuns of butter-192; 1,000 lb. of cheese-120; A complete bed-100; A suit of clothes-80; A silver drinking cup-60 = Total 2500

I remember just a few things from my early childhood in the Netherlands: breaking my left arm, a clown on TV from whom I learned Dutch, that it was never sunny, and tulips. Sunshine came up from the ground in the form of thousands of tulips. This happy last memory came to mind when I received a small vase of tightly packed yellow tulips from colleagues after my dad died. That was a bright spot in some dark days. What is it about tulips?

In his second Wall Street appearance, Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas) uses a historical chart displaying the market value of tulips and compares it to the Financial Crisis of 2007-10. Charles Mackay’s book, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841), describes what some scholars consider to be the first economic bubble, when, in early 1637 people went nuts for flowers.

Tulips actually came to Amsterdam from Turkey in 1560. After soggy and cold Dutch winters, the beauty and vibrant colors of the tulips bewitched Amsterdam’s upper class and made the tulip a sensation. Bulbs could cost their weight in gold. Eventually, the bulb bubble burst; hence Gekko’s graph.  

In a more recent work on Tulipmania, Anne Goldgar writes, “A whole network of values was thrown into doubt.” In the 17th century, it was unimaginable to most people that something as common as a flower could be worth so much more money than most people earned in a year. The idea that the prices of flowers that grow only in the summer could fluctuate so wildly in the winter, threw into chaos the very understanding of “value”.

In the recent gloomy days of spring leading up to Easter, I’ve cherished the little green arms of the tulips waving in the wind, promising warmer weather and beautiful displays of color. In the last days of fall, a tulip bulb is thrown into the ground. It does not look, feel, or smell alive. Six months later, the tulip displays a whole lot of faith. It comes to life in a grey world where its green leaves don’t seem to belong. It pokes its head through the barely warm earth, and decides that spring is coming. Like the cross of Good Friday, the tulip promises that there is new life ahead.

We need to hear the promise of new life for us and for the world. I’m not sure precisely what tulip bulbs meant to folks back then to drive the price up so high, but Tulipmania reminds me of how disordered many of the world’s values are. And how hidden and buried our deepest faith-based values of forgiveness and resurrection can be for us. Every day there are different challenges that threaten our truly living in the world — simple distractions, weighty issues, a world in need. We need to hear the Easter promise of new life to bring us back to a center — to re-root us in Jesus’ promises of forgiveness of sins, new life, and hope for the world to come. These promises give us the courage to be brave in our faith and live out Christ’s resurrection in our lives.

In Easter we discover that behind the universe is a God of love who is capable of bringing life, hope, and possibility to everyone—both in this life and in a dimension beyond. It changes everything. This is an immense claim, and for many of us it can take years to trust it. If Christ is risen, then no failure or loss, no landslide or war, can ever be the last word. God can bring life out of any tomb.

Plunge back into your lives, the messenger told those first disciples, and you’ll meet this Lord for yourself. And we can too—in a worship service or on the street, in a struggle at home or the office, in the care of a friend, or in a call to make a difference. We can find the strength and courage we need really to live. That’s the Easter difference. Christ is loose in the world. There are no dead ends because Christ the Lord is risen.

Faithfully, Ross

 

Thoughts on Capital Punishment

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Whitey Bulger, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Jared Remy, and Jesus of Nazareth all have something in common. Lots of people wanted them executed.

Palm Sunday is April 13 when we will read the Passion according to Matthew’s gospel. This year the congregation will be the voice of Jesus during his arrest, trial, conviction and execution. Later that week on Good Friday we will hear the Passion according to John.   The first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings arrives during Holy Week when we will remember that fateful day and hear the cries for justice. A trial date has been set for November 3 and the prosecution is seeking the death penalty.

How do those of us whose hearts and minds have been captured by the crucified and risen Christ respond to capital punishment?   Here are some thoughts on the issue.

The issue of capital punishment is pressing because today well over 3,000 people pace the death row cells of America's prisons. If each of those prisoners were placed in a six-foot wide cell the cell block would stretch almost the distance it takes me to drive to church from my home, about four miles. The number grows larger each year, but of the many sentenced few are executed. During the first 20 years after the death penalty was reinstated in the United States in 1977, 285 were executed but 772 had their sentences overturned and 468 had their convictions overturned.

If I could walk that imaginary cell block route and meet each prisoner and learn what brought them to this fate I would surely be glad that they are where they are and that, at the very least, most should remain there for the rest of their lives.

If the subject is pressing, it is also difficult. Debate about capital punishment continues to be waged especially when spectacular cases arrive—and they always do—from an aging mobster apprehended to acts of terrorism to domestic violence that ends in murder. How do we approach this issue from the perspective of the Christian gospel, especially the one we have next week which finds our Lord on the threshold of death row. From the vantage point of this peculiar Christian story, have we anything to say that would not be found on the op-ed page?

Indeed the Hebrew Scriptures (our Old Testament) do not prohibit capital punishment and in fact prescribe capital punishment for certain crimes. It seems clear from such scriptures that God entrusts the state with power to take human life when a failure to do so constitutes a clear danger to society. There are those who point to such passages to support the practice of executing murderers in our time. However, those who argue for capital punishment on this basis must also consider that the Hebrew scriptures list no fewer than seventeen crimes that are punishable by death, including sorcery, prostitution, profaning the Sabbath, contempt for parents, and, of course, adultery, proving once again the perils of literalism. Fortunately they never say that crime must be punished by death. The Hebrew Scriptures really lead us to this question: Can a death penalty be administered in a just manner?

What about the New Testament? Well, the New Testament does not include any explicit prohibition of capital punishment. And yet before Jesus gets anywhere close to his own trial he meets someone who has already been tried, convicted and sentenced to death. And instead of letting it be carried out he intervenes in the case of a woman about to be stoned to death for committing adultery. But even here the gospel reading does not record that Jesus made any general statements about the practice of capital punishment. John merely records how Jesus responded to the particular circumstances of that one incident. That is one reason why it can be dangerous to trace ethical guidelines from a single biblical story. That does not mean that we cannot infer much from such a passage. While the New Testament writings do not prescribe capital punishment, they do not contain any explicit prohibition of capital punishment, either.

There are two arguments that are most commonly offered by those who support capital punishment. First, capital punishment is often advocated as a deterrent to future crimes. This is a straightforward and secular argument and seems to have some common sense. But a number of studies cast great doubt on the effectiveness of capital punishment as a deterrent to crime. The United States is the only Western, industrialized country that practices capital punishment, and yet we have had the highest incidence of homicide. Individual states that have had periods when they practiced capital punishment, and other periods when they did not, show no correlation between their practice and the incidence of homicide. Adjacent states in the same period of time, where one practices capital punishment and the other does not, show no difference in the incidence of homicide. As Albert Camus observed, "When pickpockets were punished by hanging in England, other thieves exercised their talents in the crowds by surrounding the scaffold where their fellow was being hanged. "

When confronted with such evidence, those who favor capital punishment usually move beyond the argument based on deterrence. The second commonly-cited reason for the practice of capital punishment is the desire for justice. And what I often hear here is really a desire for vengeance. And let’s face it, sometimes vengeance can be incredibly satisfying. The desire for vengeance is so natural, and thus very understandable. It is older than history, certainly older than the Mosaic formulation, "An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth." Indeed, vengeance can seem almost instinctual. We can see it at work in every school-yard scuffle, where a balance sheet is kept of every push and shove. As one editorial writer put it, "Taking the lives of murderers has a zero-sum symmetry that is simple and satisfying enough to feel like human instinct: The worst possible crime deserves the worst possible punishment."

Having granted that, however, it is important to add that a response that is natural, instinctual or even understandable is not necessarily right. As Christians we are called to an ethic that is by no means natural. It is rigorous and difficult. If someone hits you, the natural response is to hit that person back. But we are stuck with Jesus, who says difficult things like, "You have heard it said that 'an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,' but I say to you, if someone strikes you on the right cheek, offer him the left also."

It is not fair to characterize vengeance as a mere primitive instinct. It is more than that.   One law professor put it this way: "Execution is primarily a vengeance mechanism, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. Vengeance is a way society gestures to itself that justice has force against injustice." Walter Berns, an eloquent defender of capital punishment, argues that society must manifest a terrible anger in the face of a terrible crime, for nothing less will suffice to "remind us of the moral order by which alone we can live as human beings."

In other words, according to these advocates of capital punishment, vengeance is more than brut instinct. It can be a highly refined desire to affirm the standards of civilization. It says that we take our standards seriously and will not see them mocked by antisocial, violent individuals. Capital punishment is one way to affirm that our laws transcend the life of any individual.

This is a serious argument. Nevertheless, it seems to me that in our attempt to prove that we will not have our standards of justice mocked, we end up mocking them ourselves. Consider first how the death penalty and capital punishment are a great distraction for our need of vengeance and how it concentrates our focus on the convicted. This distraction of seeking vengeance not only keep us from expressing sympathy and offering support to victims of crime but really ends up hanging them out to dry. Somehow it seems safer for us as a society to spit on the convict rather than embrace the victim. We are almost more afraid of the victims of violent crime because we know they could be us in a way that we could not be the criminal. One of the chief complaints in support groups for those who have been victims of crime is that once the trial is over they are on their own.   And so it is because of our church’s concern to minister to people affected by violent crime that the death penalty is wrong. The focus gets terribly misplaced.

The argument for vengeance also seems wrong because of a strange logic. We kill people who kill people to show people that killing is wrong. To me, that in itself is an uncomfortable paradox, at the very least.

But even those who can accept such a paradox will have to admit that when we move from theory to practice the picture becomes even more disturbing. The record provides abundant evidence that the death penalty is imposed without precision or consistency. Even those Hebrew Scriptures that prescribe capital punishment take pains to stipulate that the punishment must be meted out fairly and equitably, a standard that we cannot claim to uphold.

We wonder about a legal system, for example, that kept passing Jared Remy along, despite many arrests and much violence, and never stopped him before it was too late. It seems that highly paid attorneys and a famous father kept him out of jail. An old slogan states the opposite: "Those without the capital get the punishment."

If the current system of justice discriminates against the poor, it all the more clearly discriminates on the basis of race. Although the 1976 Supreme Court decision that made capital punishment permissible again was supposed to have included safe-guards that would assure that capital punishment would not be used in a way that discriminates against minorities, the record since then indicates that the discrimination continues. About half of all the people who are murdered each year in the United States are black. Yet, since 1977 when capital punishment was reinstated in this country, the overwhelming majority of people who had been executed-- 85 percent-- had killed a white person. Only eleven percent had killed a black person. David Baidus, a University of Iowa law professor found that, although blacks account for some 60 percent of Georgia homicide victims, the killers of black victims are punished by death less than one-tenth as often as are the killers of white victims. When Peewee Gaskins was executed in North Carolina several years ago, it was the first time in nearly half a century that a white American was put to death for killing a black one.

In such a flawed system it is more than a mere theoretical possibility that innocent parties are executed. New examples are added to the public record in which innocent people are executed and, incredibly, some have been executed even after the real murderer has stepped forward to confess guilt. The Innocence Project states that 18 of the 314 people exonerated through DNA evidence since it began in 1989 served time on death row.  

As much as this may disturb us, it should not surprise us. It reaffirms what we should have known all along: Even a carefully crafted system of justice is imperfect because it was crafted and administered by fallible human beings. Consider Jesus in our Palm Sunday gospel. There were folks just like you and me who were convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus was guilty and should be executed. In Palm Sunday’s past, we remember the congregation reading the part of the crowd who yell: “Crucify Him. Crucify Him!” We know that our voice is their voice. In short it is our concern for justice and the actual use of a death penalty that makes capital punishment wrong. We cannot be precise enough in our judgments when the stakes are so high as to cost a human life.

Of course, even though our judgment is imperfect, we are called upon to use that judgment every day. We cannot avoid the necessity of standing in judgment over one another. Civilization requires it. In order for civilization to survive, crimes must be identified and violators punished. That is why Moses, and then those whom Moses appointed, were given the job of being judges for the Hebrew people. But even a wise and divinely-appointed judge like Moses pronounced every judgment in great fear and trembling, recognizing that our judgments will be necessarily flawed because we measure deeds with a crude instrument.

And so, our judgments can never be absolute, but only preliminary, awaiting the absolute and perfect judgment of God. Christ the King whose return we await and whom we confess will judge the living and the dead is temporarily out of the courtroom, and we may need to put together a system of judgment and punishment in the interim to keep order, but we must never forget that we are merely stand-ins for the true judge who always keeps the prerogative of final judgment.

If we lived in a world without God, if all we had were our own human reason, our own human conscience, our own human justice, then we might be free to be absolute in our punishments. But when we recognize that God is our one true judge we will view our own judgments as potentially flawed, and thus preliminary, conditional, and subject to appeal, always subject to appeal to the one absolute judge, that is to God. If we recognize this, it seems to me that we will exhibit greater humility in our judgments. Such humility would prevent our judgments from taking any final, absolute form, such as the death penalty. Even if it were an appropriate response to a crime, our own sinfulness prevents us from distributing such punishment with fairness.

It might not come as any surprise that our denomination’s position on Capital Punishment is one of opposition to it and for many of the reasons I have stated here. You can find it here.

Liberia Missionary

Liberian Flag

A member of our congregation is leaving for Liberia next week as a short term missionary for two months. I just happened to be married to her. I am not only proud of her willingness and ability to do this but also that Janice goes as part of our denomination’s global mission effort to make a difference in one of the poorest countries on earth.

Liberia is a tiny English speaking country in West Africa on the equator at the corner of the continent where the coast line turns due west. It’s about the same size as Virginia but with 3 million less people that Massachusetts (3.7M). On many lists it’s the second poorest country and some 85% of the population lives on less than a dollar a day.

The Liberian flag offers a big hint at its history. It looks like the U.S. flag but with only one star. That’s because it’s the only country founded by American colonization which began in 1820 as former slaves were sent there in the hope that this was better than remaining in the U.S. The capital Monrovia is named after our fifth president James Monroe.

The Lutheran church has a mighty presence there and many of you might remember former vicar Moses Dennis from Liberia who now serves an immigrant congregation in Philadelphia. There are about 70,000 Lutherans in Liberia with over 385 congregations. The women of the Lutheran church began a larger movement to bring an end to a long and devastating civil war in 2003. A film we watched recently tells the story well--watch it here

For the last ten years the country has been on the road to recovery, much of it under the leadership of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who is both a graduate of Harvard and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. She is the first elected female head of state in Africa. I’d like to think that our denomination’s involvement in Liberia and Janice’s two months of service are part of that comeback story. Janice will be guest faculty at the Mother Patern College of Health Science in Monrovia. She will be teaching a course on research to nursing faculty from around the country and guest lecturing in their graduate school of social work. The hope is that raising the level of nursing education leads to better patient care. Let’s wish her well on Sunday and keep her in our prayers.

Yours, Ross

The Five Minute Rule Reminder

Dear Friends,

Seven years ago I introduced what might be the only rule we have in church—“The Five Minute Rule.” People remembered it over the years and actually observed it. Over time, it got forgotten or fell out of use. Or maybe you never even heard of it. So as we begin a new season, bringing newcomers to Saint Paul seeking a place to worship and the warmth of community, I thought it was worth a reminder.

While I loath sports analogies, the pastor of a congregational church in Bronxville, NY wrote this to his congregation:    

Sports fans know the “two minute drill” as a vital part of any football team’s practice schedule. Enough games are won or lost in the final two minutes that no team can afford to be without plays specially designed to make the most out of a very short and critical time. We too need a strategy for dealing with a short and critical time, the first five minutes after worship.

He then described the “Five Minute Rule”:

For the first minutes following worship, staff members and other leaders have all committed to talking with visitors and guests first before moving on to their friends and acquaintances. Those leaders are on the lookout for an unfamiliar face… some may be visitors, others are recent new members, and still others may be longer time members they’ve never met.

I have concluded that we need to adopt the “Five Minute Rule” at Saint Paul because, in spite of our best intentions, visitors don’t always experience the welcome of the church. I think the biggest reason for this is that we can seem like a rather closely-knit group. And to the extent that we are a closely-knit congregation is a great strength, but it is also a potential weakness. You see, when we gather each week, there are friends we want to catch up with. We want to say a word to someone we know has been having a hard time or is celebrating some new joy. And, of course, there is always that bit of church business that needs to be done; if we speak with that person now, we will avoid playing telephone tag later in the week. All of that is good and important, even. But it also means that sometimes visitors come to worship and wander through Fellowship Hour without anyone truly welcoming them. I haven’t noticed this lately but I don’t always make it downstairs!

That’s where the “Five Minute Rule” comes in. After worship, let’s put aside the other conversations—even important ones— for just five minutes, so that we can extend the welcome of the church to those who might not otherwise experience it.

People sometimes say to me: “But there are so many new people in church, I don’t know who the visitors are.” But, actually, they are not at all hard to spot, particularly at Fellowship Hour. They’re the ones drifting through the crowd with a rather lost look on their faces, or hanging back in a corner, very intently drinking their coffee. (That’s the biggest give-away because no one comes to coffee hour just for the coffee! They come to connect with others.) I have also heard people recount embarrassing conversations that resulted when they tried to reach out to someone new: “Hello! Are you new here?” “Well, actually, I’ve been a member here for twenty-five years.” But there is a simple way around that one. There is no embarrassment in saying, “Hi, I’m Ross. I don’t believe we’ve met.”

I would add one feature to the “Five Minute Rule”: the stopwatch starts with the words of dismissal at the end of worship. Often newcomers are not sure about fellowship hour so the best time to make contact and connect is before they have even made it to the isle. I’ve said many times that the most important time of decision about whether or not to return to a church is in what happens immediately after worship is over. It’s a humbling thought: your five minutes of welcoming a newcomer are probably more important than hours of sermon preparation. Then again, your welcome might be the best sermon they heard that day!

We know that our fellowship hall needs some work, especially around sound mitigation. I hope we can make it a more welcoming and warmer space this year. But let the welcoming begin before a newcomer even knows where the fellowship hall is.

Pastor and poet J. Barrie Shepherd offered this simple prayer: “Teach me, good Lord, to love your house and to love with equal devotion your family of every house and home. Train me, as your doorkeeper, to make all persons welcome and to fit your house to welcome them, through Christ who is the host.” So let’s renew the “Five Minute Rule.” Each one of us has an important role to play when it comes to making the house of God fit to welcome all in the name of Christ.

Faithfully, Ross

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