Labor Day: The Day of the Prophets

I grew up in a small coal town in western Pennsylvania. For many years, Colver was a typical company town, reflecting the power differential between miners and mine owners, and reinforcing mining families’ total dependence on the company for income and services. Even the name of the town reminded its citizens of company dominance, deriving as it did from a mash-up of the owners’ names: Coleman and Weaver. But by the time my father returned to his hometown to work in the mines, the industry’s influence over the town and surrounding area was mitigated by another force, the labor union. Once free as “job creators” to dictate the working conditions and living arrangements of their employees, coal companies now had to negotiate with the collective power of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).

For most of my childhood, the United Mine Workers were led by Richard Trumka, who passed away recently after a lifetime of advocating for the American laborer, in roles with UMWA and the AFL–CIO. For his part, my father was active in UMWA District 2, Local 860, even after a back injury ended his active employment. Dad hurt his back when I was seven, but by the early eighties his fellow miners found themselves unemployed as well, displaced by the end of workable coal strips underneath our sleepy town. The coal industry remains the centerpiece of Colver’s history, but by the time I became a teenager, the mine’s demise (and the absence of any substitutable prospect of work) was the defining reality of the present.

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Sanctuary

This summer I have been watching a CNN documentary mini-series called Jerusalem: City of Faith and Fury. One historian on the show invokes the saying, “the past is never the past,” and goes on to remark that “if there is one place on earth where that is true, it is Jerusalem.” What makes Jerusalem the most conflicted place on earth is the number of communities who lay claim to the city, especially the historical depths of those claims. The three Abrahamic faiths all claim Jerusalem as a holy city, and their adherents regularly make pilgrimage to it. The importance of Jerusalem has led to millennia of contested claims to the city that continue to this day, for Jerusalem physically captures a sense of the holy for the groups who lay claim to it; it symbolizes something important about the identity of those communities. To lose the city is to be displaced, to be cut off from the sacred in a visceral sense. This isn’t just about territory. It is about belief, identity, a sense of grounding in the moral cosmos, a connection with the holy. The city’s religious significance—and the Abrahamic faiths’ inability to imagine it as a shared space—is what makes the history of Jerusalem so tragic.

The conflict around Jerusalem is a particularly painful example of the intense importance of place to our sense of meaning. We are embodied creatures, so time and space are important to how we understand ourselves and our place in this world. Our sense of place reflects and gives identity, and when we are disconnected from meaningful places, we feel displaced—rudderless, vulnerable, perhaps not really ourselves.

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Not in the Eyes of the Beholder

Adapted from American Liturgy: Finding Theological Meaning in the Holy Days of US Culture (Cascade Books, 2021)

We are coming up on what we in Vermont refer to as “mud season.” As the landscape emerges from its snow-covered hibernation, the spring ground cannot hold all the water produced by the melt, so the water sits on top, creating mud that seems to last for weeks. Every responsible homeowner possesses planks to serve as a makeshift bridge, essential for getting from driveway to aptly named mudrooms. Otherwise-routine trips into town now require a check of local traffic news to ensure roads and bridges have not been overtaken by water looking for somewhere to go. Yesterday’s farm field is a lake today, complete with ducks and geese taking advantage of the flash body of water. And in March and April most of our cars look like they have been off-roading.

But while we complain a lot about mud season in Vermont, there is more to spring here than mud. Nature awakens from its long winter nap with bright skies and crisp breezes that convey hope and promise renewal. The melt-off that creates all the mud also fills Vermont’s streams, brooks, and creeks to capacity (or beyond), and the water crashing down the falls of Otter Creek offers a stunning display of power and beauty. The warmth of the sun, the emergent grass, heck, even the mud, are beautiful sights to bear after months of frigid cold and fleeting daylight. Like every other season, spring in Vermont reminds us of what beauty looks like.

Celebrating beauty in the natural world is not just a preoccupation for flannel-wearing, granola-crunching Vermonters like me. Beauty is an object worthy of Christian celebration too, because it is how the Bible starts the story of God’s love affair with the world. The opening lines of Genesis offer a poetic celebration of creation. The world around and beyond us humans is good. We know this because Genesis not so subtly tells us in stanza after stanza of the creation ode: “God saw everything that [God] had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Gen 1:31).

If we insist on viewing everything with ourselves at the center of the universe, then we might think creation was good because it was set up perfectly to serve us human beings. But maybe the world is good just because it is beautiful, and it is beautiful simply because God declares it is. Its beauty flows from God’s own animating beauty. Long ago, the New England preacher Jonathan Edwards wrote a treatise called The Nature of True Virtue, in which he wrote that beauty as we normally experience it in life is the apprehension of things in “mutual agreement,” a “visible fitness of a thing to its use” that is pleasing to us, rationally and emotionally. It is the experience of things like order, proportionality, and agreement, or the delight we feel when something fits smartly as part of a greater impressive whole. Edwards believed that this beauty we experience in the world around us reflects “some image of the true, spiritual original beauty,” which he understood as “union and consent with the great whole” of Being in general (that is, God). In other words, we experience things as beautiful—physically, emotionally, or morally beautiful—when we are struck by the way they reflect the goodness of God and the wonder of God’s “big picture” in which we all exist.

Edwards is adamant that things are not beautiful because we say they are. We sense beauty in our world because those things are beautiful already, and they are beautiful because they participate in God. God is “the ground both of their existence and their beauty.” God is the source of the beauty we experience, and the beauty in our world is an experience of God. So despite the popularity of the cliché, it turns out that beauty is not in the eyes of the beholder, at least not if the beholder is mortal. Beauty resides in the heart of God and extends outward to the things we experience as beautiful; in that way, beauty reflects the inherent value of the things we behold. Beauty is a gift, to the one who is beautiful and the one who regards that beauty.

To experience beauty is to participate in the divine. Listening to wind rushing through tall pines can be an encounter with God. Taking in the intensity of green on a countryside in June can be a spiritual epiphany. Gazing with wonder on the intricate camouflage worn by tree frogs is an experience of the holy. Basking in the serenity of a simple afternoon, following your lovely spouse in tow as she makes her way around a local nursery, is beautiful. Sharing friendship in a loving community is beautiful.

As with everything else in the Christian life, the gift of beauty comes with corresponding responsibility. Ecologically, we have a responsibility to protect that which God has given us as beautiful, not just so there will be an earth for future generations of people to use, but because it is God’s world and valuable as such. Interpersonally, we have a responsibility to name the beauty in ourselves and others. Especially to the bullied and harassed, to the marginalized and ostracized, to those who do not conform to what society considers right or normal, we are charged as ambassadors of God to declare: you are beautiful, just as you are, because God loves you as you are.

There is a lot of mud in the world right now—in our politics, media, entertainment, schools, and communities. Maybe what the world needs right now are people who point out the beauty in the midst of the mud. Calling out beauty when we see it, everywhere, sounds like a suitable job for the people called church.

Closing Our Sanctuaries Is Not a First Amendment Violation

It is an expression of Christian charity

 

Lost in the traumatic aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, including President Trump’s assault on the right to free speech and peaceable assembly, the US Supreme Court issued a ruling on another First Amendment issue late last week. The case involved a church suing the State of California for prohibiting large in-person services during the COVID-19 pandemic. The church argued that assembling as church is a fundamental expression of Christian faith, and that the order to limit gatherings is therefore a violation of the First Amendment. A majority on the Supreme Court disagreed, ruling that the prohibitions on mass gatherings did not constitute a violation of religious freedom.

 

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Motorcycles, tribalism, and America

My friend Steve Martin serves as Director of Communications and Development for the National Council of Churches in DC. He and I share a love of motorcycles and a love for the church. In the following essay, he writes beautifully about what motorcycling might disclose about being American and being Christian, as well as how church might refract our identity with other “tribes.” Even though he rides the wrong kind of bike, I’d like to share what he wrote:

Motorcycles, tribalism and America – What I learned riding in Rolling Thunder

The Light Shines in the Darkness?

Today many Christians observe Epiphany, commemorating the coming of wise men to see the infant Jesus, following the star until they found him in Bethlehem. Epiphany concludes the traditional twelve days of Christmas, and what it adds to our Christmas celebration is the Good News that God’s presence is a Gospel meant for all the world. The star shines for the redemption of all of humanity. The wise men who sought out the infant Christ came from beyond the family lineage of Israel, and together they symbolize the longing for life and love, hope and peace, that every member of the human community shares. As the Gospel of John’s opening lines declare, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” On Epiphany we celebrate that the imperative of the prophet Isaiah is an invitation for the whole world: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” Epiphany may be a specifically Christian holy day, but in our celebration we the Church are simply what theologian Karl Barth once called the “provisional representation of all humanity.” In our Epiphany celebration, we foreshadow a hope for all people, the light of life, Emmanuel, God with us!

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A Word of Grace and Truth

Grace and truth. Neither is in great supply these days. Grace and truth can be scarce in the church or at family holiday gatherings, but they are virtually unicorns in American politics, rumored to be real but never actually seen. In our post-fact era, there is no such thing as truth, for reality is whatever my favorite cable channel or internet site says it is. And in our hyper-partisan political culture, where political opponents are no longer fellow citizens but enemies of the people, grace gives way to demonization. In the eyes of Democrats, Republicans are racist, cowardly, and enslaved to the wealthy elite. In the standard rhetoric of Republicans, Democrats are anti-religious intellectuals bent on undermining American security with open borders, while redistributing wealth to eliminate the need to work. The absence of grace and truth in our politics increasingly bleeds into how we relate to our neighbors, family members, and church kin.

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Friendship as Holy Time

This past week I was blessed to spend a couple of days hanging out with friends in Greenville, South Carolina. I have known Susan, Ken, and Leeann for only three years or so, when I joined a committee for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that they were already serving. In a short period of time, they have become some of my closest friends. When we are working together, we are writing theology exams for our denomination’s ordination process, and it is wonderful to bond with them in our common love of theological tradition and the church. But what has pulled us together runs deeper than theology. These friends understand (and to varying degrees share) my extreme introversion. They endorse and encourage my love of bourbon and gin. Perhaps most important of all, they match my school-bus sense of humor with disgusting antics of their own. (Well, Susan and Leeann are happy to meet me in the gutter with inappropriate jokes and innuendos, while Ken futilely tries to model humor that is a little less adolescent.) They care about me, not because I do something for them, but simply because I am. Two days with this Fun Bunch yielded more laughs and spiritual restoration than I have enjoyed in a long, long time. It was holy time.
SCKen

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Christian Witness in the Two Americas

In the most racially divisive moment in the United States since the Civil Rights Movement, we are discovering that we are not “one nation under God,” but two Americas, living in the same national space. One America recognizes that we are becoming increasingly diverse as a nation, with experts projecting that people of color will outnumber white citizens in less than a generation. This America welcomes diversity and celebrates how rich and interesting our country becomes with the embrace of racial, ethnic, cultural, and sex/gender difference. This America accepts the truth that to live up to our moniker as the “city on a hill,” we must embrace our tradition as a nation of immigrants and establish border policies that are both disciplined and gracious. This America acknowledges that our national history is built on injuries to people of different races, cultures, and countries, but it seeks to remedy that legacy by the confession of sins and commitment to a future of fairness and mutual respect.

But there also is a second America, gripped by fear and simmering with resentment, inhabited by groups used to occupying the majority and serving as the measure of what is normal, but who now are in danger of losing their country to an element that feels foreign and alien.

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