About Comparing Things to the Holocaust

You probably haven’t heard of State Sen. Stacey Campfield unless you live in Tennessee, which is just as well because Campfield is, umm, not exactly a strong contributor to healthy political discourse. (Campfield is so far out there that in this case anything other than understatement runs the risk of coming across as insulting.) A little while ago, for example, Campfield said:

Democrats bragging about the number of mandatory sign ups for Obamacare is like Germans bragging about the number of manditory (sic) sign ups for ‘train rides’ for Jews in the 40s.

So you can see what I mean.

Campfield was roundly condemned by political leaders in Tennessee, because no matter how much you hate the Affordable Care Act it’s still considered a little bit crazy to compare it to a genocide.

All of which is unsurprising. I could be wrong, but I’m not aware of any case in which a public figure was met with approval after invoking the Holocaust to describe a happening other than the Holocaust.

Reason being that the Holocaust is typically taken to be a collective act so horrific that to bring it into a comparison with something else—even if in your mind that something else seems to be equally horrific—is to diminish the widespread and unspeakable suffering given to so many millions by the Nazi government. So in most corners of polite American political discourse the Holocaust is off limits as an item of comparison. It’s horror stands alone and requires no comparison, exaggeration, or analogy. And to use the Holocaust as a point of comparison, illustration, analogy, or rhetorical weight in order to describe something else is to speak carelessly and callously.

When victims of the Holocaust recount their experiences, then, they usually don’t feel the need to say “it was sort of like this” or “imagine that…” in order to get across the truth and weightiness of their experience. For example, In Elie Wiesel’s famous narrative Night the reader finds very little in the way of metaphor, analogy, or rhetorical flourish. Wiesel recounts his story with plain language, with a matter of factness that is terrifying because the plain truth of his story, as it is and without embellishment, is terrifying.

Wiesel presents the reader with only one or two passages that step outside of his normal frame of reference—passages that might be counted as “comparisons” as they briefly take the reader somewhere else as if to say that Wiesel’s survival of the Holocaust is best understood with reference to something other than the Holocaust itself.

Allied forces were closing in on the concentration camp that imprisoned Wiesel and his father, and so their Nazi imprisoners forced them onto a train and transported them to Buchenwald. The traincar was crowded such that no one could sit down, and Wiesel and his fellow prisoners were given no food.

Wiesel writes:

One day when we had stopped, a workman took a piece of bread out of his bag and threw it into a wagon. There was a stampede. Dozens of starving men fought each other to the death for a few crumbs. The German workmen took a lively interest in this spectacle.

And he continues, now moving the reader elsewhere:

Some years later, I watched the same kind of scene at Aden. The passengers on our boat were amusing themselves by throwing coins to the “natives,” who were diving in to get them. An attractive, aristocratic Parisienne was deriving special pleasure from the game. I suddenly noticed that two children were engaged in a death struggle, trying to strangle each other. I turned to the lady.

“Please,” I begged, “don’t throw any more money in!”

“Why not?” she said. “I like to give charity…”

This is one of Wiesel’s very few Holocaust comparisons. There is something more similar than dissimilar in the Nazi who throws scraps of bread and the Parisienne who throws coins. They represent “the same kind of scene.”

Anyhow, I wanted to put these two very different Holocaust comparisons in the same space—one by a bumbling and clueless TN State Senator and another by a widely respected writer. Both are striking although obviously for very different reasons.

Wiesel’s inverted Holocaust comparison raises our standards as it exposes the cruelty involved with a supposedly charitable act. Whatever shock the reader feels upon reading Wiesel’s narrative is directed, however briefly, towards everyday happenings, with the result being that his narrative functions not as a sealed-off, unspeakable happening that is unrelated to more mundane matters but rather as a challenge to confront humanity’s universal capacity for cruelty. If Wiesel’s comparison is offputting it is not out of any disrespect or diminishment of Holocaust victims. No, Wiesel speaks the urgent truth of a victim’s suffering and then raises other happenings to that same level of urgency.

Campfield begins with a current happening and then tries to play off of the moral outrage and urgency he expects to be associated with a Holocaust comparison. But he is reaching, of course, for a moral urgency he has absolutely failed to understand, and in service of equally misguided concerns about the present. Campfield is the boy who cried wolf but in reverse. The threat and urgency that he hopes to invoke have already passed, and everyone knows he’s lying from the get go.

And so any outrage he hoped to harness is directed only at himself.







The Early Church Mothers

Given on Mothers’ Day 2014, in response to Acts 2: 42-47.

We have a reading today about the early church, but I’d like to start by acknowledging Mother’s Day. I say acknowledge very intentionally because acknowledge is a nice neutral word. We’ve already celebrated a bit and we’ll celebrate more later I’m sure. That’s one kind of acknowledgment. But there’s more to acknowledge on a day like Mother’s Day than the warm fuzzies. Mother’s Day, just like any other holiday, carries with it joys and celebrations just as much as our disappointments and hurts. And I want to hold up the good and the bad because if we can’t tell the whole truth here, in church, then the truth of our experience won’t be told anywhere by anyone.

So please hold in mind, at least for a moment, those who experience hurt today, on Mother’s Day. For every person who has the good fortune to call their mother there is someone else who has lost their mother, someone who would like very much to call but cannot call. For every person who sings their mother’s praises there is bound to be another who finds their relationship with their mother to be a site of strife and difficulty. And please remember that for every woman who shows around pictures of children and grandchildren there is another who holds negative pregnancy tests, month after month. Remember, please, that miscarriage is a far more common occurrence than most people tend to think. These are all hurts that will not be voiced or raised up if we do not do so here. So I hope you’ll have a happy Mother’s Day but I hope more so that you’ll have an honest Mother’s Day. Hold the happiness and the hurt, each in turn or perhaps both at once.

And, if we’re trying to speak the full truth of Mother’s Day then it seems important to note that we are likely to have some disagreements about the meaning of motherhood. We can all get together to praise mothers but the fact of the matter is that we all have different ideas about what exactly we’re praising when we praise motherhood. I read a really fascinating book recently called The Way We Never Were. I know its bad practice to judge a book by its cover but I haven’t yet heard any prohibition against sermon illustrating by a cover. There’s this 1950’s TV family, neighbors of the Cleaver’s I’m sure, all sitting together. Dad is reading the paper and his wife and two little kids, a boy and a girl, are all looking over his shoulder as if it’s the most delightful thing in the entire world that dad is reading the evening paper. So you can imagine that certain ideas about motherhood might attach themselves to that kind of picture.

Well, the author, Stephanie Coontz, she is trying to trouble some of the ideas that Americans tend to have about traditional or ideal families, and she is especially concerned to trace the history of the expectations we have of wives and mothers. It’s a big book but I want to pull out just one insight from my reading, and I think this holds true regardless of what sort of ideals you hold about motherhood. Here it is: We want the ideal Mother to accomplish more than any mother could accomplish even if she met the ideal. (Repeat.)

The ideal Mother, or so the American story goes, is not only a moral exemplar but she is also responsible for the morality, success, and achievement of her family and even of society at large. But it’s a tall order to be the shining exemplar while also making sure that everyone else is exemplary, and in our desire to uphold the image of the ideal mother we place some extremely unfair expectations on actual mothers. So women who work 70 hours a week to make ends meet for their children are chided for failing to spend enough time at home with their kids. Their poverty problem gets treated as a family values problem in what’s essentially a heads we win tails you lose proposition. If you met the ideal you wouldn’t be in your situation but you can’t meet the ideal because of your situation. On the other hand, though, those women who are praised as ideal get a pass when their children misbehave.We don’t actually expect moral mothers to be responsible for the morality of their children. Something curious happened when Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in disgrace after the Watergate scandal. He made sure to point out to the reporters covering his final press conference that his mother was a saint. He said, “Nobody will write a book probably about my mother. My Mother was a Saint.” Apparently even Saints raise crooks, and I suspect that even if every Mother in America were a Saint we would still have our fair share of social problems and corrupt politicians. Some responsibilities are far too big to place on just one group of people.

And that’s why I’m glad that the Church has always spoken of collective responsibility; one mission and one people; we all belong one to one another and we’re all responsible for the ideals we hold up. To speak of Church is always to speak of us, all of us, never this group of people or that group of people. It’s been that way from the very beginning. Whatever ideals the Church holds up are the responsibility of the church in general. That’s our witness, at least as I read it. It’s never the case that a certain group of people are responsible for certain ideals just because of how they’re classified by others. Paul said We’re all one in Christ Jesus, now. Neither Jew nor Greek, Slave nor Free, Male nor Female. And of course not everyone has the same gifts. To some the gift of wisdom, to some the gift of healing, to some the gift of prophecy, and on and on. Different gifts but they’re all allotted from the same spirit, Paul said. To some the gift of mothering, and not all have borne children, and not all are women, but to some of us, any of us, the gift of mothering because the Spirit allots as the Spirit so chooses.

So I want to suggest that whatever it is we idealize when we idealize motherhood isn’t just the responsibility of the people we call mothers. If Mothering is part of the gospel then mothering is a task for the church as a whole.

And I believe, personally, that there is plenty good reason to speak of a mothering gospel and even of a Mothering God. Just look at today’s reading:  “All the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.  Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.” Think of that what you will but I have a hard time squaring that sort of arrangement with the ideals we usually ascribe to American Fathers. These are really not sound business techniques. (Dave Ramsey would not be pleased with the head of house who implemented this scheme) No, it sounds to me like the church is mothering–ringing the dinner bell, welcoming everyone to the table, making sure all of God’s kids get their fair share.

Or do you remember the story of the Prodigal Son? It must be one of our most familiar stories. The kid demands his inheritance, squanders it all, and comes back home with his tail between his legs. And what’s the Father do? He doesn’t say, “Now, what’ve you learned?” And he doesn’t dish out a lesson in fiscal responsibility and he doesn’t say You can stay but only under these conditions and you’re going to learn about budgeting. And it looks an awful lot like coddling and not very much at all like the sort of tough love and fairness we might expect from a responsible head of a household. In other words, the Father in the story of the prodigal son doesn’t act like a father, at least not like a sensible, breadwinning American father. The Father in the story throws a lavish party, as if the kid is back for Thanksgiving after a Dean’s list semester at college.  This is not how the idealized American father would behave, but we can imagine it much better if it’s a Mother. Just imagine Richard Nixon’s saintlike mother. She died before he took office but imagine his Saint of a mother welcoming him home after that final press conference as if he’d been in a minor schoolyard skirmish. That’s what God is like.

And I want to say to you that this is the sort of love that God is imparting to all of us. God loves the creation like only a Mother could and God is about the business of mothering even when God is called by the title Father. Some of us have learned something of God’s love through our own mothers, and others of us have experienced God’s love through the mothering of others. We’re thankful for that. We pray for those who mother and we pray that the rest of us might go and do likewise, building up a church that rings a dinner bell for all of God’s kids and preparing ourselves to welcome back prodigals just like a mother would. Amen.

About That Disingenuous Albert Mohler Pro-Death Penalty Piece

Albert Mohler is the president of the Southern Baptist Convention and a professional guardian of right-wing evangelical orthodoxy. He recently penned an editorial for CNN on (his version of) Christianity and capital punishment, the gist of which is:

I believe that Christians should hope, pray and strive for a society in which the death penalty, rightly and rarely applied, would make moral sense.

This would be a society in which there is every protection for the rights of the accused, and every assurance that the social status of the murderer will not determine the sentence for the crime.

Christians should work to ensure that there can be no reasonable doubt that the accused is indeed guilty of the crime. We must pray for a society in which the motive behind capital punishment is justice, and not merely revenge.

We must work for a society that will honor every single human being at every point of development and of every race and ethnicity as made in God’s image.

We must hope for a society that will support and demand the execution of justice in order to protect the very existence of that society. We must pray for a society that rightly tempers justice with mercy.

Should Christians support the death penalty today? I believe that we must, but with the considerations detailed above.


I don’t doubt that there exists a worldview in which all of Mohler’s opinions and points of analysis are internally consistent, so I wouldn’t want to claim that Mohler is acting as a unprincipled, partisan hack or anything like that.

That being said, Mohler’s recommendations are shown to be pretty deeply disingenuous as soon as they’re put into conversation with something resembling reality. Mohler wants a death penalty regime under which “there can be no reasonable doubt that the accused is indeed guilty of the crime” while at the same time bemoaning that “We have also robbed the death penalty of its deterrent power by allowing death penalty cases to languish for years in the legal system, often based on irrational and irrelevant appeals.” Mohler’s “irrational and irrelevant appeals” are, of course, the same appeals that have exonerated innocents. Were it not for the criminal justice system “allowing death penalty cases to languish for years in the legal system” the state of Tennessee would have executed Ndume Olatushani–a mean who was imprisoned 28 years for a crime he clearly and conclusively did not commit.

There are any number of other issues with Mohler’s argument, but these two facets illustrate my current point well enough. In order for the death penalty to carry its desired deterrent effect Mohler wants the appeals process to be quicker and also more accurate. There is, of course, no thinkable social or legal reality in which an appeals process could simultaneously be hastened and made more accurate. So what Mohler is suggesting is that Christians ought to support the death penalty in a society that does not and cannot exist.

But the contradictions that present themselves when Mohler’s argument is brought into conversation with reality aren’t the primary reason his opinion piece is so disingenuous. It’s possible, after all, that Mohler could simply be unaware of certain aspects of America’s death penalty regime that trouble his vision of a moral death penalty to the point of making it impossible.

No, the reason Mohler’s piece is so disingenuous is that neither he nor anyone of his ilk ever make a point of advocating for the types of reforms that might make the death penalty acceptable within their own frame of moral reckoning. Hard-right Evangelical groups, so far as I know, do not spend their time or political capital battling racial or income disparities in the application of the death penalty. Capital punishment is a hot button issue for the majority of Mohler’s flock only in so far as they wish to preserve it in the face of abolitionist politics.

What Mohler has done, then, is to advocate an ideal that may or may not know to be impossible without taking any meaningful steps to seek its possibility. Any talk of an imaginary moral death penalty is little more than lip service meant to support the continuance of an undeniably problematic American death penalty regime.

If Mohler were to practice what he preaches/editorializes, if he were actually to seek out the conditions of his just death penalty, well, then he would likely find himself to be an abolitionist in practice even if still idealizing a certain vision of the death penalty.

Palm Sunday: Notice the Crowd

I’m going to assume you already know the Palm Sunday story, because it’s a familiar story but more so because I just read it. This is one of those stories that’s probably too familiar. A couple of years ago I wrote a Palm Sunday sermon for class and we were using  the text from Luke. Didn’t preach it anywhere, just researched and wrote it, wrote about the donkey and the palms and the hosannas, and I didn’t realize until we were discussing the text and sermons in class that in Luke’s story there aren’t any palms. Luke has the parade and the hosannas but no palms.

Today we have palms, literary palms, at least, imaginary palms, but Matthew’s story does have palms. You’ll remember that Jesus is standing outside of Jerusalem, he’s making his way from the countryside to the city, to the seat of power, and he stops outside of the city to plan the entrance. Jesus decides to ride a colt into town, but he needs to borrow one because Jesus doesn’t own anything. Jesus is famous by now, apparently, because he’s fairly confident that any given colt owner won’t mind him borrowing their colt. “If anyone gives you trouble as you’re walking off with a stranger’s colt just say Jesus needs it.”  He gets the colt and starts processing. A crowd gathers, soon shouting Hosanna. Waving the palms and shouting Hosanna–that means, basically, Hoorah!–saying “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

You may also know that the Palm Sunday parade is politically important. Some of the scholars think it was a sort of counter-parade, almost like a protest or an act of political theater–those are modern terms but maybe something similar. The Romans are processing on the one side of the city and Jesus and the peasants are on the other side. Two very different displays of political power and authority. The Romans with their war horse and spears and Jesus on a colt with the palm branches. Two parades, both political although obviously representing two very different politics. This palm parade, this political performance that Jesus are staging, it seems to be a reference to a passage in Zephaniah. None of us really know Zephaniah but people then would’ve known the imagery and so when they saw Jesus processing into town on a colt that would’ve carried a very particular meaning. Zephaniah spoke of a king, a messianic figure, someone who would show up and set everything right, secure the peace, put an end to oppression and violence. And Zephaniah says the king, if he’s righteous and victorious, he’ll show up riding a colt. That’s what Jesus seems to be claiming. God’s reign of righteousness is here; the battles already been won. But you may have known that bit of background already, as well.

I’d like to ask you, if you would, to please divert your attention. You already know the story and now you know a little bit about the history, and politics and symbolism, so forget about all of that. Notice the crowd. A crowd is always amorphous so its a little bit difficult to say much of anything about a crowd, except maybe you could talk about the sorts of things a crowd does in general. You don’t really know who’s in a crowd, either, so you have to guess. Some of our more imaginative religious minds like to speculate. Maybe some of the people Jesus talked with or healed earlier in the story are there–the woman at the well, the centurion and his daughter, maybe some of the multitude who saw the loaves and fishes miracle. And that’s a nice thought. It seems reasonable to speculate that way since there are crowds all along; Jesus can hardly get a moment to himself on account of the crowds and the hooplah. Crowds gather to hear the teaching. Crowds swarm around for a healing. And now a crowd is gathered with the Palms. Hosannah! It could very well be the same crowd from earlier. There’s at least some overlap, I would suppose.

And I’ve often about this Palm Sunday crowd. Where do they all go, where are they in a few days when Jesus is standing before Pilate, and when the crowd, the anonymous crowd known only by its collective actions, where are they when the crowd yells out “crucify him”? I would hate to think that it’s the same crowd. I find that thought really disheartening: the idea that the some of the same people would shout “Hosannah!” just days before they shouted “Crucify him!” But its possible. There may have been some individuals who were enthusiastic participants in both crowds. And the alternative isn’t much better, to be honest. The crowd might’ve had the same mentality as the disciples, most of whom scattered as soon as things started looking bleak in Jerusalem. Hosannah one day, they’re shouting Hosannah, then not a few days later hiding away in their homes, disposing of the palm branches, hoping no one thinks they were involved with any of the Palm Sunday Jesus business at all.

In some churches it is customary to keep the palms. In some churches the palms are collected after the service and stored away for most of the next year. And then when lent rolls around again, in 11 months or so, they take out the palms a few days before Ash Wednesday and they use the palms to make the ashes. I love the continuity of that. It’s like the church is saying that Christian faith is always the same, it always has the same substance. Christian faith is always in some way a Palm Sunday faith–even if we’re dealing with a somber time like Ash Wednesday instead of the joy and adulation and confidence in Jesus that goes with the palm parade.  And we’re always trying to hold the opposites together that way. Trying, essentially, to be present with Jesus in the Palm Sunday crowd and the  Pilate crowd, then sitting at the feet of the cross in the same way we wait at the tomb for the resurrection.

I confess that I don’t much understand the biblical crowds, but they make sense in a way. Jesus rides into town announcing God’s righteousness, saying the victory’s already been won and now we’re free, and then in a few days the Romans kill him and its back to business as usual. All of which seems like a spectacular failure.

But I have a feeling that crowds might have acted differently, might have been more steadfast and faithful to Jesus if they knew the end of the story. Passion week ends, not with the condemnation and crucifixion, but with the resurrection. Then not long after the resurrection there is another crowd gathered, at Pentecost,  listening to the disciples who had seen the resurrected Christ and received the Holy Spirit.  And we call that Pentecost crowd church, that crowd’s the beginning of the church, and now we’re part of the crowd, too. I think that’s a fine definition for the church. We’re the Palm Sunday Crowd and the Pentecost Crowd. And this time, since we know how the story ends, this time we’re trying to get passion week right, walking with Jesus through the power of the Spirit, at the palm parade and at the trial, at the cross and resurrection, carrying our palms the whole way.

The Woman at the Well and the Not-So-Impressive Gospel of Jesus

Given on the 3rd Sunday of Lent, in response to John 4: 5-42.

I have good news.  Today’s your lucky day, because today I’m going to give you all a very exclusive, behind-the-scenes look into the world of sermon preparation. You might think of what I’m about to tell you as being sort of like the church version of All Access Hollywood, but if you think that you’ll be wrong, because sermon preparation is actually quite dull. There is that reality show about the mega-church preachers in LA, I don’t know if you’ve seen the trailer or watched it at all, but it looks very exciting. They have big houses and lamborghinis and there’s high profile drama. But what usually happens at my house is that I sit around in my bathrobe with my books and my cat, drinking the cheapest coffee I can find.

The process usually goes like this. I try to read over the text, sit with it, think about what it might mean or different ways it might be approached and understood. After I’ve read it for myself I take a look at some of the commentaries, articles, blogs and things like that, just to make sure I’m not completely out of line with my own reading. Then once I’ve read it myself and read other people’s take on the text I think about what’s happening in the world and how it all might fit together. And finally on Sunday I get to monologue for about 15 minutes.

Well, this week a couple of unusual things happened as I was going through the sermon prep routine. I read the text and then I start to read the extra stuff, the commentaries and all that, and pretty quickly I notice that the extra stuff has a lot of extra stuff. I mean when people talk about the story they talk about all sorts of things that aren’t actually in the story. So that’s a little bit unusual, or at least noteworthy. I remembered, though, that there is a long tradition of rabbinic commentary. The Rabbis would retell Bible stories, they’d add details or give the characters motivations that aren’t necessarily in the story. So it’s a little bit unusual that there’s extra stuff but it’s also a fairly standard feature of the tradition. We read the story and then we elaborate on the story.

Now, about today’s story. It’s a little bit lengthier than usual, this is actually one of the longest conversations Jesus has anywhere in scripture. But it’s also a bit sparse so far as details go. Jesus has a conversation with a Samaritan woman, an anonymous Samaritan woman. We don’t know anything about her except  that she’s had 5 husbands. Jesus has a clairvoyant moment and says, unprompted, “you’ve had five husbands.” That’s about all we know about the anonymous Samaritan woman. In any case, they have this conversation, and the conversation is a way for Jesus to announce what his ministry is all about. He says I’m bringing eternal life, life and life to the full, to everyone. Not just people in Jerusalem but people everywhere. And he says the eternal life I’m bringing is like water, metaphorical water, obviously, and those who drink it will never thirst again. All of this, he says, is happening right now, even as we speak. That’s the good news, and the story says that the anonymous Samaritan woman gave a testimony to her village and it was a good testimony because many in the village believed. That’s not bad! The story’s actually pretty good all on its own.

But like I said, there’s some extra stuff. And it was when I started reading the extra stuff that something truly strange happened. I’m reading about historical context, and about the samaritan woman, and all of  a sudden I feel as if my New Testament professor is glaring over my shoulder. That’s how you know you’ve gotten your point across as a professor, when you’re able to actually haunt people.

As it turns out, some of this extra stuff is exactly the sort of thing our professor warned us about on multiple occasions. The problem, basically, is that we want Jesus to look better than the stories make him look. And oftentimes the way we make Jesus look better is by making the people around him seem worse. So a lot of interpreters  reach into the historical record, and they’ll find some material that lets them paint an ugly picture of ancient Jewish society. As my professor would say, They make ancient Jews look like the Taliban so that Jesus can look like a good feminist.

Here’s how you do this: you go poking around the old rabbinic commentaries, and you find some ancient rabbi that says some really oppressive and misogynistic stuff. Then you say, Look, isn’t Jesus great for speaking with women in public? We even say isn’t Jesus great for reaching out to these women, even though, if you look, Jesus hardly ever reaches out to anyone, usually they come to him. But the issue, though, with finding these really harsh sounding rabbinical opinions, is that there are a lot of rabbis writing and they tend to disagree. Some are more liberal and some are more conservative. And if you want to paint a really oppressive picture of Jesus’ social context you have to cherry pick the really bad stuff and claim it represents everyone. It’d be like citing the very worst hits of a Jerry Falwell type and then saying, “aren’t Christians a rotten bunch?” So sometimes, then, we try to make ancient society looks bad so Jesus looks better. Our professor said, “don’t let me catch you doing that.”

There’s one more problem with the extra stuff.  A lot of commentators assume, they read into the story, that the anonymous Samaritan woman must be disreputable. Five husbands so she must be promiscuous, or she might even be a professional. But notice, the story doesn’t give any indication as to why she’s had five husbands. If anything it’s a piece of trivia. Jesus says you’ve had five husbands and she says, basically, “Wow, how could you know that? You must be a prophet of some sort.”  You’ve seen this before, probably. The tradition makes similar claims of Mary Magdalene–a friend and patron of Jesus, but with a seedy past, they say. Even though there’s nothing in the scripture to support such a claim.  The thinking seems to be that a conversion story is more impressive, that Jesus’ saving power is greater, if the one who’s converted is especially down and out.

And that seems to be the reason for all of the extra stuff. We like impressive stories, drastic stories. We want to see a religion that has some real OOMPH to it. Something with conversion power.  And this story is much more impressive with the extra stuff. It’s not just any woman who makes the testimony that brings the gospel to her village. She used to be on quite a different path, you know. So this is the story we like. Jesus saves a particularly sinful sinner and then she gives a great testimony to her village. It’s not really the story as John tells it but it’s a good church story.  So we sometimes read things that aren’t there.

But take another look at the story. It’s a perfectly good story as is, maybe not as impressive as we’d like but it’s still quite good. The best part, I think, is that our witness, the anonymous Samaritan woman who speaks the Word to her village, she doesn’t sound too sure of herself. She’s caught a glimpse of something in Jesus but she’s not yet convinced. Here’s what Fred Craddock wrote about the passage: “If any wish to be fascinated by this woman, let them be so now. She is a witness, but not a likely witness and not even a thorough witness. ‘A man who told me all that I ever did’ is not exactly a recitation of the Apostles Creed. She is not even a convinced witness: ‘Can this be the Christ?’ is literally ‘This cannot be the Christ, can it?’”

I know it doesn’t seem like much. The woman at the well sees Jesus and then she goes to her village and gives her testimony.  She says, in effect, “I think this might be the Messiah.” She is hopeful but far from certain.

But in John’s gospel that’s enough. John seems to believe that a little bit of faith, even the first inklings of faith, can go a long way. I believe that, too. I think sometimes faith comes to us in fits and starts. And I’ve always been more inspired by people with a true enthusiasm for part of the gospel than those who speak a full gospel as if it were meaningless.

I wanted to share something with you by way of conclusion. Usually I make a point of reading the UCC’s daily devotionals. I miss some of them, but I always try to read Quinn Caldwell’s devotionals; they’re very good. A couple of months ago he wrote a devotional, and I like this one because it reminds me that the gospel is big and challenging, and yet it’s fine to start small.

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away . . . See, I am making all things new.” – Revelation 21:1-6a

Do you believe this, or don’t you?

Do you believe that God is working–right now–to bring this world to its fulfillment, or don’t you? Look out your window. Do you believe that God is–right now–in the process of perfecting all that, or don’t you? Look down at yourself. Do you, or don’t you, believe that God is–right now–perfecting the very self you’re looking at?

If not, fine.

But if you do believe that a new world is coming to pass, then you have your work–and your hope–cut out for you. It means it’s time to start practicing living like you’ve been made new, as if God has dressed your soul for a wedding. Like God is living next door. Like every person you meet is being molded for glory, and just a split second from shining like the sun.

Start now. Pick one thing in the room, and imagine what that thing will be like when God’s done with it. Pick one person, and imagine that God is–right now–about to reveal the glory of heaven in her; treat her that way all day long. Tomorrow, pick another, and the next day, another…and just see if a new world doesn’t emerge.


The Lent You Can’t Prepare For

Given in response to Matthew 4:1-11.

We’re now in a new church season. It’s the first Sunday of Lent, really just the beginning, only the 5th day of our Lenten observance.  Ash Wednesday is still in recent memory and if you attended an Ash Wednesday service you can still call to mind the feeling of the oil and ashes across the forehead, and you can see the smudges imposed on the faces of others, and you can hear the minister who says “remember that you’re dust.” From dust you came and to dust you shall return. We are now in that somber season, the season of preparation called Lent.

I had realized earlier this week, even before Gene called to say that Jerry wasn’t doing well and even before Stan sent news of his loss, I had realized that you wouldn’t greet the season by saying “Happy Ash Wednesday” or “Happy Lent.” Happy is very clearly the wrong word, even under normal circumstances. Even more so now. And I don’t know that there’s an alternative. There’s not really a greeting for Lent. We say blessed Advent, happy Easter, merry Christmas. What do you say about Lent? What do you say to the person observing Lent?

There’s a reason we don’t have a greeting for Lent. It’s because Lent is a bit of a downer, and very few people are actually excited to see Lent. You spot Lent from across the room, you see that you’re in the same vicinity and you might be required to have a conversation, and your first inclination is to avoid eye contact. “Maybe Lent won’t see me.” You notice out of the corner of your eye that Lent is sort of drifting around the room, can’t find anyone to talk to. Suddenly Lent spots you, makes a beeline for your side of the room and you know that you’re trapped. You say “Wow, it’s so good to see you, but you know I was just getting ready to leave…”

But Lent has a way of catching up to you, maybe during the 40 days that’ve been allotted but maybe some other time. Your friend Lent is persistent and  Lent has a lot to talk about, and a lot to ask of you. Lent would like for you to renounce something, preferably something you find comforting or hard to do without. Leave it alone for 40 days and see how that goes. Lent would like to talk about intentionality, discipline, introspection, self-denial. It can all be very draining. But probably the main reason no one wants Lent around is that Lent wants always to speak of dust and ashes and death. Just in time for the beginnings of Spring and in the midst of all that new life you’ll find Lent imposing ashes, reminding everyone, all of us, that we are mortal, limited, finite. And the worst part is that we have to acknowledge eventually that Lent is speaking the truth–the truth about our need to give things up and the truth about our mortality. In fact, the ashes and the spiritual practices go hand in hand. We give things up, habits and objects and attachments, we loosen our grasp for a while because we could never hope to hold them anyway, at least not forever.

That’s Lent, and I think we can be excused for declining to call it happy or merry or blessed.

I suppose that’s part of the reason why we do so much planning. We do a lot of preparation before and during Lent.This is some serious, heavy stuff we’re talking about so you’ll want to be prepared. You need to start thinking about it before Ash Wednesday arrives.

“What are you giving up Lent?”

 Oh, I don’t know…Chocolate, maybe meat, definitely not caffeine.”

Something difficult but something doable. Its no use to pick something you can’t follow through on. We call it “intentionality”, that’s the church-speak, “intentionality.” So you plot out the course of action but more importantly you sit down to think about why, why are we doing these things? I saw a very good list of 40 Lenten practices, one for each day. A church in Denver put it together. It’s 40 small practices instead of one big practice. And they’re all very well thought-out. All are in the Lenten spirit in one way or another. Some are religious–pray for your enemies one day, read Psalm 39 another. You might, one day,  donate art supplies, or ask forgiveness of someone, or bake a cake, or turn off the radio while riding in the car. Some of them don’t sound spiritual but they could be. If you’re in the Lenten mindset then you’ll find that even regular activities strengthen your Lenten spirituality.

And I hope you’ll do some of those things, or maybe even all of those things. A well-planned Lent is bound to be a productive Lent, and it would be a shame to let a perfectly good liturgical season go to waste by failing to plan for it.

However. I wanted to point out that planning can only go so far because there is a Lent you can’t plan for. You might’ve noticed that’s the name of the sermon–the Lent you can’t plan for. Well, what needs to be said today is that you cannot plan for an imposition of ashes. Of course you can plan to attend a service and you can choose to step forward at the appropriate time and you can wear the ashes around all day, to school and to work. You’ll forget just for a moment that you’re wearing the ashes until someone double takes or glances quickly at your forehead, and then you’ll be reminded of what the ashes signify–that you’ve been marked by Christ, baptized with the same baptism and called by the same Spirit into the same wilderness. And you’ll remember that Lent is a season of preparation.

But all of that is symbolic. And while you can plan to wear the symbol of the ashes you cannot plan, cannot anticipate the moment when you’ll actually experience what the ashes are trying to represent. The minister says, “You came from dust and you’ll return to dust, eventually.” And you hear the words, wear the ashes, understand the ritual. But you cannot plan for an imposition of ashes, not if the imposition of ashes is meant to contain the reality of mortality. Because the only way to fully understand our mortality is through death, through the death of someone else, and you cannot prepare to lose a friend.

* * *

I wanted to point out just a couple of things about today’s reading, a couple of details from the story of Christ’s temptation that seemed relevant this week. First is that Jesus doesn’t seem to do any sort of planning for the Wilderness. Maybe he did and the story just fails to mention the planning, but I wondered while reading the story if Jesus had any idea the how the whole episode was going to unfold. Remember that Jesus doesn’t get there on his own. He goes to the wilderness because he’s led there by the Spirit, so there are already two people characters involved. Then he fasts, forty days and forty nights, and after fasting he is famished. At this point a third character shows up–we call him the devil or the adversary or the tempter–this third character shows up when Jesus is at his very weakest, maybe even when he’s close to death. That’s when this encounter happens. Not when Jesus is at his strongest and best-prepared and most spiritually intentional. The temptation happens probably at the worst possible time, at the time when Jesus is probably most unprepared.

Well, then Jesus is tempted. He’s hungry, practically starving, and the tempter says “feed yourself.” And the tempter says if you’re so powerful why don’t you throw yourself off of a building and then call on angels to save you. And the tempter says, finally, why don’t you grab hold of political power. I can offer you that but first you need to bow down and worship me.

Three temptations, three different temptations, but in all three cases Jesus is being asked to deny his mortality. What the tempter is proposing is that Jesus become a superhuman–someone who could never be hungry or harmed physically or be subject to the whims of any earthly ruler. And the tempter, because he is shrewd, always shrewd, proposes all of this when Jesus is at his most famished and most human, just as he’s standing toe to toe with the reality of death.

And that, for me at least, doesn’t sound like the sort of Lent you could plan for. I’ve not yet heard of anyone who could prepare to face death, or to confront their mortality, or to receive an imposition of ashes. How’s that for an irony–you can’t prepare for the inevitable, not completely.

I thought maybe Jesus could show us how to navigate Lent, but Jesus didn’t seem very well prepared for Lent either, at least not if preparation means having any easy time of it.  Do you remember what happens at the end of the story? A few more characters show up, only in the last verse, they are practically an aside. The episode concludes with the tempter taking his leave and then suddenly, the text says suddenly angels appear and they start ministering to Jesus.

Jesus–the one we call the Great Physician–does not heal himself. God sends helpers.

If you’re looking for the heart of Lent, here it is. Not in the fasting or in the ashes or even in the confrontation of our mortality, but in what comes next. And one thing we know about our God, the God of Jesus, is that God always sends help after an imposition of ashes.

Sighs Too Deep For (Using Our) Words

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” –Paul, in his letter to the Romans

I’ll admit that I don’t always understand or appreciate St. Paul, but sometimes he’s alright. “Sighs too deep for words.” There is something—Paul calls it the Spirit but the name’s not so important—there is something that helps us in our weakness or in our bafflement or in times when words fall short. And that something, call it what you will, speaks through feeble and unintelligible expressions—sighs, groans, bouts of sobbing and then finally exasperated silence. Paul says all of that is helpful, even more helpful than words.

These words of Paul, of course, are not true, not even close. Even the most socially inept pre-schoolers can tell you that you’re supposed to “use your words.” Because without words we can’t really get anywhere. Maybe you’re angry or disappointed or you need to cry for a while, but don’t think that’s helping anyone. We need to know “what’s wrong?” or “what happened?” and those aren’t the sorts of things we can know until you put the feeling into words. Helpful sighs? No. Words are helpful; use your words.

And yet, Paul might be onto something when he speaks of “sighs too deep for words.” It is true that words, although generally helpful, are not always accurate. You try to match words to a sigh, or really to any other expression of feeling, and almost immediately you have to say, “No, that’s not it.” Words only seem to describe part of the feeling, or you find that words give the feeling a discernible shape but only by witling away at the fullness of the thing. Words are helpful, even if reductive, because they render something we can work with. But there’s often a sense in which the thing we can work with isn’t very much like the original thing, the feeling, that we started with. And what’s lost in all of this “using our words” is that oftentimes the meaning of a cry is in the crying. The meaning of a sigh or a cry or some other expression of what we call feeling is contained most fully in the expression itself, and when we use words to “get somewhere” something is lost.

So there are “sighs too deep for words” and they are true but they are not terribly useful, at least not useful in the way we normally think of usefulness. All of which is frustrating, all of which leaves us in a sort of existential and social predicament because we want simultaneously to express ourselves truthfully but also to be understood by those around us. And to live with this predicament feels sometimes like being drawn in opposite directions, towards conflicting poles that represent two different ways of communicating and forming meaning. Let’s call the two poles Expressive and Descriptive.

There is sometimes an obvious, plain connection between expressions and descriptions. Like if you were to stub your toe and then wince/grimace/curse-under-your-breath. I ask “what happened?” You say “I stubbed my toe.” And then that’s that. We can both assume that the stubbed toe produced pain produced the expression, and (unless we want to get into a mostly pointless philosophical exercise) we can also agree that we share a common understanding of what you experienced when you stubbed your toe. In other words, subjectivity isn’t really a consideration when trying to match up expression, meaning, and description. I typically don’t assume that you have some sort of privileged access to the sort of experience we are both describing, the stubbed toe. We can both describe that sort of simple, painful feeling without worrying that we are diminishing the experience by matching it to words.

But most experiences aren’t nearly that simple. What’s it like to lose a loved one? What’s it like to have your heart broken? Suddenly the question “What happened?” isn’t really adequate to the task of matching experience with description.  “What happened?” scratches the surface or maybe provides a starting point, but there’s a lot more to be said, and the most characteristic and important parts of the experience can’t be conveyed with strictly descriptive language.

A couple of months ago I read a blog post written by an employee of Macy’s or some other department store. She works behind one of those glass display units where they keep expensive things like the perfume, and she recounts that it is mostly dull. But she started to notice, maybe once or twice a week, that someone would approach the glass display cases and then ask to smell a particular scent.  They would smell the fragrance and then they would start to cry. It happened somewhat often. “Can I sample Polo?” and then tears. What’s happening? One day a customer says, unprompted, “that’s what my dad used to wear.”

That’s descriptive. It also doesn’t tell you much. You know that scents can bring memories and memories carry tears, but if you see someone crying after sampling a scent and they say “that’s what my dad used to wear,” then you don’t actually know anything about the meaning or content of the expression carried by their tears.

There’s a sense in which the meaning of a cry, the full meaning, is in the crying. The meaning, the content of the expression is known very well by the one who cries but there’s no way to state it simply or descriptively for an outsider, at least not in the same way that you can exhaust the personal, subjective meaning of a yelp when you say “I stubbed my toe.”

And this, basically, is why it’s difficult to be a person–because feelings are often nebulous but descriptions, good descriptions, are precise. We want others to know our feelings the way that we know them, but the qualities of feeling and communication set up a game where we’re trying to describe a nebulous thing precisely. We’re trying to create impressionist ink blots with fine-tipped pens.

What’s fortunate, though, for you and for me, is that the expressive and descriptive poles pull us back and forth along a sort of spectrum. There are spaces for communication that lie in between the personal/expressive/subjective and the shared/descriptive/objective.  And it’s in those spaces–the spaces of visual art, music, poetry–that we can try to match experiential knowing with experiential communication. That’s how I’d theorize art and it’s also more or less how I would tend to theorize religion. Both are the attempts to communicate and share the sorts of experiential knowledge that can’t be captured by more precise or objective attempts at communication.

Paul says that there’s a Spirit that can speak for us, pray for us, help us when we can’t find the words. Because words fail. Words are sometimes partial and limiting and deceptive. Our words, even our best words, are frail; they can’t hold the fullness of an expression when what’s really needed is a sigh too deep for words or a cry that reveals its meaning only in the crying.

Use your words? Yes, sometimes, if you can. But you should know that your words–your literal, objective, descriptive words–all of those words will prove themselves useless just as soon as you need to say something truly important. What you’ll need instead is a story or a poem or a song–something a little bit nebulous but true precisely because of its nebulousness. And before the story or the poem or song–before any of that’s even a possibility and before you know what they might be trying to express–before all of that is the Spirit and a sigh.