The Circularity of Arrogance

“[Jesus] sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.'”
– Mark 9:35

No, I don’t really want to talk about the things
we talked about, not when you’d likely
have preferred we talked about the things
you said, the things we didn’t want to talk
about at all. No, not at all.

I really do not want to tell you, nor
admit, that we were one in mind
to not discuss what you had said,
and in the unity of our denial broke
into an argument of who is chief.

Um. After you, of course.

So really, we’ll just stand in silence, let
our shuffling feet reveal what you
already know without our saying anything
(and have I said just how annoying that
we know you know what we’d prefer you did not know?).

Our lips compress as you confirm you know
(we knew you knew) and tell us greatness is
the thing you said that we’d preferred
to leave unsaid: the first is last, the last is first,
and yes, we know, but honestly…

You know this doesn’t ever work – you know.
You know there’s prideful service just as much
as prideful leadership. You know
that some proclaim their martyrdom of self
as virtue though they only serve themselves.

So even were we to have spoken of
the greatest servant soul among us
(after you), we still would have been puffing up,
not building up. Do you not see
the circularity of arrogance?

I see despair has crept across your face,
the desperation as you take the hand of… wait.
You mean it’s just that simple? Serve the child?
Serve the growing child? Serve the child that’s grown?
Serve the child – and so we serve our God?

A poem/prayer based on Mark 9:30-37, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Reading for Year B, Proper 20 (25).

The image is Jesus and the Children, a Carolingian fresco on the north wall of the nave of the Monastery Church of St. John in Müstair, Switzerland, ca. 825. Image file from James Steakley; artwork: unknown – Jean Hubert et al., Europe in the Dark Ages (London: Thames & Hudson, 1969), p. 152, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6941409.

Unreturned Compassion

I originally wrote this essay in 2010 as a Facebook “Note.” Since that portion of the service has steadily faded away, this seems an appropriate moment to republish the piece here at Ordained Geek.

In an opinion piece carried by the The Hour in Norwalk, my good friend the Rev. Paul Bryant-Smith, pastor of the First Congregational Church UCC in that city, makes the case that ‘It is our responsibility to defend our Muslim neighbors from slander.’ I commend the essay to you, and I have very little to add to it, except to note that the chorus of those American Christian leaders affirming interfaith relations of kindness and integrity is far larger than those opposing it.

As is frequently the case in these days of instant comment on the Internet, though, one of the latter voices appears right below Rev. Bryant-Smith’s. It’s discouraging, and it features, near the end, this dispiriting flourish: ‘So please, for this weekend of mourning and remembrance, save your one-sided message of unreturned compassion for your pulpit.’

That’s the crux of the matter. Unreturned compassion.

The argument goes like this: ‘They (pick a They, any They) did something bad to us/said something bad about us/think badly of us. That’s Bad.’

So far I agree.

‘Because They did this bad thing, They are Bad.’

Perhaps. All too frequently, one person stands as surrogate for another’s bad acts, with whom they can be identified because of (frequently superficial) shared characteristics. Guilt by association usually looks much different to the one being condemned than it does to the one doing the condemning.

But for the moment, let’s assume that the people named are no surrogates; They bear some actual responsibility. Are They therefore Bad People?

The Gospel word, the Good News, says both yes and no. Remember those whose blood Pilate mixed with their sacrifices, says Jesus (Luke 13:2). Were they worse sinners than anyone else? ‘No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.’

Sin and sinning aren’t escapable things in classic Christian theology. We do the best we can, but we can’t be perfect. With absolute purity unattainable, we rely on the grace of God.

So are they Bad People? Yes. And so are you and I, in our own ways.

But now we really come to the heart of it. What are we to do with Bad People, with Them, and with You and with Me?

‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you’ (Luke 6:27-28).

Unreturned compassion. That’s the crux. That’s the center. That’s the Cross.

That’s where we have hope for a society that is greater than what we have. That’s where we will find (or at least glimpse) a blessed community. If we save it only for the pulpit, we’ll never have the glimpse.

Unreturned compassion. That’s the crux. That’s the center. That’s the Cross.

Don’t Tell Anyone

He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. – Mark 8:29-30

Could I become your follower
without the burden of a cross?
The walk would be so easy then,
a spiritual stroll, an amble down
the garden path of soul, refreshed with rain.

Could I become your follower
and leave aside the self-denial?
I look around and see so clearly that
a number of your followers have done
this very thing. As I could, too.

And I could cheerily obey your word
to keep my silence, tell nobody
of your puzzling riddles: save my life
by losing it? Lose my life by saving it?
I can produce such nonsense without help.

But what temptation do I have for you?
Now Peter tried by loyalty and love
to make you do what you, right near the end,
preferred: to let the cup go by
and take the simple way of power.

You turned away from tempter’s lure.
You took the road. You dared rejection, found
rejection. You were faithful unto death.
Now through that course, temptation has
no power over you forever more.

In these five stanzas, though, you’ll find
temptation has its power still, not over you,
but over me, to choose the words which ask
the least of me, and leave aside the words
which ask my height and depth.

Reluctantly, then, Sufferer
of Calvary, I lift the burden of
the day, and hope it is, indeed, a cross,
and that a Simon of Cyrene might help
me bear it to the place where life meets life.

A poem/prayer based on Mark 8:27-38, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Reading for Year B, Proper 19 (24).

The image is Christ Carrying the Cross by Titian (ca. 1585). Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15501461.

Not Cool

“But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.'” – Mark 7:28

Really, Jesus. Is this you at your best?
First you tell a woman desperate
for the health and healing of her child
she is an animal, a dog.

Not cool.

And when the crowd has brought
a man disabled, hard of hearing,
hard to understand his speech,
did you ask what he wanted? No.

Not cool.

I grant you that we get these stories
at some distance from events.
Perhaps you used a kinder phrase
to tell this woman that you would not help.

Still: not cool.

Perhaps when you withdrew with the
disabled man, you asked (somehow),
he understood (somehow), and so
you knew you’d do what he’d desire.

Still: not cool of Mark to leave that out.

We’re left uncertain from these words
whether a deaf man is as fully human
as a woman of another race
who had to claim humanity of you.

Not cool.

And we could use your clarity amidst
accursed reasons to dismiss
humanity by race, by gender, or
by disability.

Not cool.

Whatever demon tormented the girl
was nothing to the demons we embrace.
Whatever deafness afflicted the man
was nothing to the way we will not hear.

Not cool.

So Jesus, I must ask you this:
to exorcise the demons we acclaim,
and cure the deafness of our hearts
when we would not be healed.

Not cool: but oh, so needed.

A poem/prayer based on Mark 7:24-37, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Reading for Year B, Proper 18 (23).

The image is Cristo e la Cananea (Christ and the Canaanite Woman) 16th cent. by Ludovico Carracci, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35849286. Carracci’s depiction of this story has great movement. As is not uncommon in artistic depictions of this scene, there is a dog behind the woman in the lower left corner.

One Question

[Jesus said,] “For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother…'” – Mark 7:10

Just one not-so-simple question, Jesus.

When my mother died, I was two hundred seventy miles away.
When my father died, I was nearly five thousand miles away.

When my mother died, I was a college student, attending classes.
When my father died, I was a pastor, leading worship that morning.

Did I claim my education (toward ministry; I knew it then) and
Did I claim my work as corban, given to you, at their expense?

Did I honor my mother according to the commandment?
Did I honor my father according to my love?

A poem/prayer based on Mark 7:1-23, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Reading for Year B, Proper 17 (22).

Photo by Brendan Anderson.

Weighed Down

“Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” – Ephesians 6:11

“Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. David strapped Saul’s sword over the armor, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, ‘I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.’ So David removed them.” – 1 Samuel 17:38-39

Truth? You want me to wear truth?
That’s a heavy burden to carry on the belt.
My hips are groaning just to think
of carrying the truth. I cannot walk with these.

Righteousness? You want me to wear righteousness,
to face the world with generosity presented
as my face? I can’t imagine feeling any more
vulnerable than that. I cannot walk with these.

Faith? You want me to bear faith?
I tell that, as bucklers go, faith wears a little thin.
The barbed and flaming arrows pierce it through
even as I strain to lift it. No; I cannot walk with these.

Salvation? You want me to wear salvation?
This one sounds good, I grant you, but it bows the head.
I’d rather revel in my sovereignty than yours,
which makes me bow. I cannot walk with these.

The hardest of all to wear are the shoes
that make me ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.
Where might they take me? Into what risks?
And what protection do they offer? None.

No and no and no. I cannot walk with these.

And yet… I try.

A poem/prayer based on Ephesians 6:10-20, the Revised Common Lectionary Second Reading for Year B, Proper 16 (21).

The image is Philistine Shields and Spears from The pictorial Bible and commentator: presenting the great truths of God’s word in the most simple, pleasing, affectionate, and instructive manner, by Ingram Cobbin, Daniel March, L. P. Brockett, and Hesba Stretton. Image obtained through the Internet Archive Book Images – https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14763830682/ Source book page: https://archive.org/stream/pictorialbibleco00cobb/pictorialbibleco00cobb#page/n301/mode/1up, No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43907449.

That’s Asking a Lot, Jesus

[Jesus said,] “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” – John 6:51

I, well…. Jesus, I do not approve.

The metaphor is… gross.
For me, the living bread
is molding in the back
of my refrigerator.
Whoever eats that bread
may never die because
the penicillin analogues
within it will suffice
to sweep the viruses
and bacilli away.

The metaphor is gross.
Not stopping there, you up
the stakes, from moldy bread
(OK, my imagery) to feast
of cannibals (and that,
my Savior, is entirely on you).
Though not quite two
millennia have passed
with broken bread/Christ’s body,
it’s still a foul thing to say.

The metaphor is gross,
not just for what it pictures,
but for what it then demands.
Your flesh, our bread? Then you
are what sustains, on you
we must rely, in you we find
our nourishment, in you
we live our life. No wonder they
protested, knowing that you claimed
the place and power of God.

The metaphor is gross,
the message so demanding, that
despite my many years of faith,
despite my years of leadership
within the Church, the gathering
we grossly call your body, I
still hesitate, still wonder: Can
a human body really mediate
for God? Oh, I believe,
but help, I pray, my unbelief.

A poem/prayer based on John 6:51-58, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Reading for Year B, Proper 15 (20).

The image is Feeding the Multitude by Daniel of Uranc (1433) – photograph by Michel Bakni, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=98280902.

Plenty of Room… For the Devil

Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. – Ephesians 4:26-27

Jesus, I’m banging my head against a wall here…
(Figuratively. I’m not banging it literally… yet…)
Truth and gracious words and tender hearts
are not winning the day.

In a global pandemic, governors forbid that schools
require that their students learn in masks.
For God’s sake, why?
Are we to be instructed by a flood of death?

Death of children, death of parents, death of uncles,
aunts, kupuna. An unmasked Masque of the Red Death,
a viral dance through classrooms, buses,
homes, cafes, churches, and… through mortuaries.

Oh, look, as patients struggle for a breath
and hospitals require more beds
and look, the dying count is rising, too,
and truth and gracious words don’t cut it.

How could we possibly grieve the Holy Spirit more
than with this wholesale exercise of folly,
denying the urgent summons of her wisdom,
favoring the clarion call of limitless greed?

For greed has won the day, mammon taken the prize,
to summon workers back to risky work,
their children back in virus-sharing schools,
so owners profit more than they will pay.

The cause of education? That’s a laugh.
We find that educators are not valued
for the things they teach our children – but
to keep them while their parents work.

Six hundred fourteen thousand dead
in this country alone; four and a quarter
million dead around the globe and some still claim
the danger and the cost are fiction.

A falsehood that belies that we are truly
members of one body, interwoven
over oceans, nations’ borders, and our
prejudicial, harmful acts,

Connected not just in pandemic
but in ordinary time, connected
because the suffering of one
will lead to suffering for all.

We do not imitate our God in truth.
Though Christ, in love, gave himself up,
we still insist on offering up more lives
for lives, for greed, for power, for evil.

A poem/prayer based on Ephesians 4:25-5:2, the Revised Common Lectionary Second Reading for Year B, Proper 14 (19).

The image is The angel of death striking a door during the plague of Rome. Engraving by Levasseur after J. Delaunay. https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/obf_images/70/48/4b5c28e57609137dd2009ae490f2.jpg Gallery: https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/V0010664.html Wellcome Collection gallery (2018-04-03): https://wellcomecollection.org/works/p8gxfxrp CC-BY-4.0, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36456028.

Successful Complaint

Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the LORD, for he has heard your complaining.'” – Exodus 16:9

May I have the form, please? Thank you.

[Divine Complaint Form: Form 2, Revision 4,917,824,718]

[For Internal Use Only: Complaint Reference: Exodus 16]

Complainant: Hebrew Refugees

Complaint Date: Now

Complaint Received and Delivered by: Moses and Aaron

Complaint Type: [Checkbox] Hunger

Desired Timeframe for Response: [Checkbox] Immediate

Related Previous Complaints: Enslavement, legal murder, tasked with making bricks without straw, military pursuit, bitter water.

Disposition of Previous Complaints: Emancipation, murder now illegal, emancipation, military pursuers overthrown, water made drinkable.

Further Factors in Current Complaint:

While warned to provide ourselves with unleavened bread – there was not time for it to rise before fleeing Egypt – we did not have time to bake enough to provide for a journey which has now extended to forty-five days. The people are camped in a wilderness without bread ovens, with questionable amounts of firewood, with uncertain water sources, without adequate cooking oil, without flour, without mill stones, and without grain.

Further, we are unhappy with our leadership. They don’t seem to have plans for reliably obtaining food or water, and we are not confident in their ability to navigate through this wilderness to our destination in Canaan. It could take us forty years at this rate.

While the disposition of previous complaints tends toward confidence, the simple truth is that we will not survive without a reliable source of food. We do not accept that we are free only to starve.

[For Internal Use Only: Resolution of Complaint: Manna.]

[For Internal Use Only: Notes on Resolution of Complaint:]

[They didn’t know what it was.]

[For Internal Use Only: Notes for Future Planning:]

[Lay in a forty year supply.]

A (semi-)poem/prayer based on Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15, the Revised Common Lectionary First Alternate Reading for Year B, Proper 13 (18).

The image is Miracle of the Manna by Jacopo Tintoretto (ca. 1577) – http://www.laeditorialvirtual.com.ar/Pages/MartosDenes/LosDeicidas/Images/MilagroDelMana.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5182241

Journey Around a Star

Community Concert of July 23, 2021 – Clicking “Play” jumps to the beginning of the song, “Journey Round a Star.”

As noted in the video, I am one of those people who will wish others a good trip around the sun to honor their birthday. This song takes up that theme.

They’ll put billionaires in space, because they think they can afford it.
But this is Spaceship Earth; we’re already aboard it!
Sing out… as we mark the day
We came into the world and were on our way.

[Chorus]

All aboard for a journey round a star.
Stand still all you like; even so you’re traveling far.
All aboard for a trip around the sun.
Celebrate the days since your journey begun.

Each you is unique, you are one among billions
And each circuit of Sol… you’re a soul worth gazillions.
Sing out… You’re a creature of worth.
You’re a child of blessing. You’re a child of Earth

[Chorus]

Revel in joy; Loved is what you are.
A star among the planets, orbiting a star.
Sing out… Loud and clear.
Sing out… Launch a new year.

[Chorus]

July 23, 2021