Hattie’s Gift

When by some good grace we enter into our elder years, we begin to search for those who might help guide us into ways we might surrender our lives at the end. In a world of mechanized and computerized physical care, we find it difficult to learn or perform the ars moriendi, the art of dying, of previous ages. This is not merely a matter of foregoing expensive extraordinary measures to prolong life, but of opening up a greater Life in the process of losing our own. In recent years I have been blessed by those who gave me glimpses of this art of living as their bodies gave up what we call life. It is the phone call from a hospice bed to say they love us. It is the last visit in the nursing wing when laughter bubbles up from deep inside the vanishing vehicle of a great spirit.

On April 19 I received this gift from my old friend Hattie Polk, who lay dying peacefully, detached from the tubes and wires that might have sustained her 95-year old body a little longer. She had decided it was time to leave us. She wanted to say goodbye to old friends. I was next to last on her list. We spoke of how she had helped us launch our book of stories about the beauty and importance of gay and lesbian people in our midst, a book that has gone around the world with its message of reconciliation. Our short sentences roamed around memories of church, of projects and meetings, and of people important in our lives.

As I held her hand she told me she was seeing a beautiful peony before her, opening its petals to receive her. I have tried to put this experience into words:

Hattie leaned into God’s garden gate.

Looking over the weathered wood and iron

She saw a peony, she told me,

Opening its smile, its arms,

Surrendering its sweet bouquet,

The ants receiving its libations to the sun.

She smiled, she laughed, she opened up her arms

As it embraced her in a love

That filled the whole garden.

She danced into its warm embrace exclaiming

Peony, sweet peony!

Hattie’s life went into a greater transcendence a few days later, leaving us a gift of joy, grit, and delight in seeking a greater justice than we can ever imagine. Each of us struggles with the art of our own future dying. Let us be thankful for the cues, the scripts, the choreography of such a one-time dance that others offer us as we approach that time.

Thank you, Hattie.

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The Holy Work of Reparations

I recently finished leading a group of about 20 people here at our church through the book Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair, by Duke Kwon and Gregory Thompson (Brazos Press). Both authors are pastors with advanced degrees in theology, well-grounded in the local work of reparations. Their readable, well-organized volume has received praise from across the theological spectrum, and deservedly so. It combines historical and sociological analysis of the impact of White supremacy on American lives throughout the period of European settlement and the life of the American republic. They are seeking not only to repair the damages of slavery, segregation, and discrimination against African Americans, but to take on the burden of the White supremacy that underlies these devastating crimes against humanity.

In their words: “We see it as our responsibility to acknowledge the truth of our collective history and our own culpability in it, to surface ethical resources in the Christian tradition that can help us engage the consequences of this history, and to call others in the church to take up the work of reparations in their own communities.” (185)

In their view the claim to White supremacy, whether revealed in enslavement, lynching, terrorism, or daily discriminations of all kinds, damages the very image of God that all humans bear. It is thus a kind of original, or primordial, sin that requires not merely reparations, but repentance, a turning to a new self-concept as the door to a new way of life. In a time of struggle over the very facts and meaning of our history, their call for repentance requires an honest assessment of our personal and collective past as well as a numbering of the destruction this racist arrogance has caused. It then requires, and here is the hard part, a certain kind of grace to hold both our systemic sin and the possibility of new levels of justice in the same mind. Though they don’t use this term (they are more Calvinist than Lutheran), it is a matter of “simul justus et peccator” (“simultaneously justified and a sinner”). This is hard for most Americans, because we want to slip quickly into the beneficent sunset of our social reconstruction, ignoring the way we have sabotaged the new beginnings we have seen before, whether in our Revolution or the brief eras of Reconstruction and the New Deal. It is a task, therefore, requiring humility as well as perseverance, gratitude, and hope.

I write this in the midst of Holy Week, in which we Christians re-live the drama in which the suffering, despised, and crucified prophetic Rabbi from the outback of Israel took all the violence of the world onto himself, that we might live into the life that swallows up death in the inexhaustible love of God. On Friday, here in our local community, we will walk down Main Street with a large cross, praying at various stations along the way. We will then gather for a lunch and discuss James Cone’s classic book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, in which these two horrendous symbols are brought clashing into our consciousness, calling for repentance as well as new life. Regardless of whether you grab hold of Reparations or Cone’s testament, I hope we all will catch a glimpse this week of how new life emerges out of the suffering of our world.



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A Collision of Christendoms

We are all trying to make our way through the images of inhuman warfare in Ukraine, grief-stricken by the loss not only of lives but of dreams of stability and peace in a globalized world. In this blurry confusion I have found myself realizing that my own country stands on shaky moral ground. Blinded by the victory over the evils of fascism in the Second World War, we took on wars around the world in defense of the civilization of democracy we claimed to espouse—in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. And then there were the clandestine overthrows of governments in Chile, Iran, Guatemala, and other places. Our claims to defend national sovereignty or self-determination ring hollow in the face of this history, not to mention the repercussions of slavery and genocide that haunt us to this day. In the decades of this American “crusade” to make the world safe for democracy, America’s churches have often wedded themselves to this expression of American imperial ambition to support a kind of American “Christendom.”

At the same time I have been very aware that the Russian invasion of Ukraine presents a crisis to the Orthodox communion of churches as Moscow takes on a war against Kyiv. (For a helpful introduction to this see John Burgess’s critical analysis in The Christian Century this week.) We thus have two colliding versions of Christendom: the Evangelical wedding with American nationalism and the Orthodox vision of a “Russkii Mir” (Russian Peace/World) uniting all the Slavic peoples under Moscow’s rule. On each side, we have contests between supporters of this imperial model of Christendom and those who seek a critical engagement of churches in open republics of democratic governance.

In this midst of these reflections, my friend John de Gruchy sent me a link to the statement of Orthodox theologians and leaders on “A Declaration on the “Russian World” (Russkii Mir) Teaching” that lays out the biblical and theological basis for opposing this imperial version of Christendom threatening the world’s peace. Here is the core of their statement:

“The principle of the ethnic organization of the Church was condemned at the Council of Constantinople in 1872. The false teaching of ethno-phyletism is the basis for “Russian world” ideology. If we hold such false principles as valid, then the Orthodox Church ceases to be the Church of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Apostles, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, the Ecumenical Councils, and the Fathers of the Church. Unity becomes intrinsically impossible.
“Therefore, we reject the “Russian world” heresy and the shameful actions of the Government of Russia in unleashing war against Ukraine which flows from this vile and indefensible teaching with the connivance of the Russian Orthodox Church, as profoundly un-Orthodox, un-Christian and against humanity, which is called to be “justified… illumined… and washed in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of God” (Baptismal Rite).”

The war in Ukraine is not only a struggle over autocracy versus democracy (and not simply over the value of national sovereignty). It is a struggle over the degree to which Christian churches will align themselves with nationalisms and imperial versions of “Christendom.” It is a struggle to affirm and continually refine the alternative view of the critical engagement between church and public order, of the Christian case for democratic, republican orders of government, and the integrity of the image of God in each person. This is what I am thinking about as I see the faces of the beautiful people of Ukraine, of the mangled bodies of Russian soldiers, of the wreckage surrounding the ancient churches of Ukraine. The Russian word “mir” means both “peace” and “world.” What we mean by “world” and “peace” hangs in the balance in this war.

I close with a picture of the famous Madonna of Kyiv, which dates from the 12th century and which now hangs (safely, we hope) in Moscow. Even as it testifies to the unity of the  Orthodox churches, it also becomes a prize in their warfare. Above all, it reminds us of the loving heart of God that underlies God’s image in us all.

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Bodies Together at Table

We are all weary, bone weary, from the sense of loss, of powerlessness, of the shadow of doom that hangs over the earth. It is another “end of the age” that humanity has felt over many centuries. And, indeed, we are very palpably on the cusp of a disjunction from past to future, exactly the atmosphere in which the Gospels emerged two millennia ago. No wonder the Book of Revelation is so popular.

It is felt in the death of an unvaccinated family member whom we couldn’t reach with reason. It is felt in the rage that confronts our neighbors on school boards, city councils, and civic organizations. And it is also felt in the smaller publics of our life, whether in church, voluntary association, or club.

Our Roundtable Worship has gathered by Zoom for almost two years now, seeking in this digital connection the enrichment and deep centering that has meant so much in years past. As we search for a way ahead back to physical gathering, we become aware of the small but immensely symbolic elements of bodily gathering. The tasting of bread and juice as they are passed hand to hand. The feel of the talking piece as our hand receives it and passes it on. The movement of the foot and hand as the mouth moves in speech. The sense of a common leaning in to hear what somebody is saying. The slight aroma of the candle flickering on the table. The resonance of the bowl as we move into a time of prayer. The shared silence in the breathing of the sanctuary. The feel of the wood as we move our hand around the rim of the table. The embrace upon hearing something that has moved us all. Above all, the sense that we are in a place made sacred by symbols, memories, and a certain choreography of respect and awe. All of this is lost in the reduction of our worship to images and detached voices on a computer screen.

And so we are making plans to return to a physical gathering when the public health sirens are turned off, our bodies resistant to possible new variants of the scourge around and within us. Will it be a “hybrid” experience? Can the two modes co-exist? Or is worship itself only an ephemera of experience, a breath of words and song, an ineffable now-ness of co-presence? We are groping our way toward that reality, as others seek their own paths to a new place in life’s way.

In that spirit I share the introductory liturgy to our most recent Roundtable Worship.

Call to the Table

In the silence of our loneliness,

          You send your word of conversation.

In the mystery of your cataclysmic power

          You pour out a love that suffers loss.

In the unity of all creation

          You reveal a Trinity of mutual love.

In a universe in constant labor

          You give birth to world embracing care.

Out of a tree borne of the light

          You build a table of plenty.

We come to your table,

          Your table of peace.

ALL. Amen. Amin, Ameyn.

A Moment of Reflection:  “Eucharist,” by Sadao Watanabe


Expelled from the Garden your children were spared from hopeless death.

Though oppressed and afflicted your people passed over to pastures of plenty.

The prophets in exile were fed by the grace of ravens and widows.

Your suffering servants, though mocked by the mighty, were saved by God’s power.

A people in pain gave birth to your Peace.

Lives hallowed in faith walked the way of your love.

In thanks and in praise we come to your table. Amen. Amin. Ameyn.


O Lover of All,

For your love that will not let us go, we give you our unbounded thanks. For the communion of your saints, our hearts are filled with gratitude. For the helping hand, the kindly word, the song of inspiration, we are filled with thankfulness. For the memory of your mercy and the hope built on your promises, our lips lift up our song of praise.


Posted in Public Life, Roundtable Ministries Project, Worship and Spirituality | 4 Comments