A St. Patrick’s Day reflection from Kate Jacobs: Casting out the snakes, then and now.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Our annual coverage of St. Patrick’s Day over the past 15 years often has focused on Catholic traditions. So, this year, we invited a Protestant-Anglican writer to reflect on the holiday. In her long and remarkable career, the Rev. Dr. Kate Jacobs has been both a leading Baptist and an Episcopalian. She sent us this fascinating column from her religious perspective on how St. Patrick’s mythic battle with serpents remains relevant today.

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By KATE JACOBS
Contributing Columnist

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his year, St. Patrick’s Day falls just three days after the fourth Sunday of Lent when that day’s lectionary—the Bible readings used in many churches—will focus on serpents, a synchronicity since legend declares that St. Patrick banished the snakes from Ireland.

Of course, he did not, since there were never snakes in Ireland. The Ice Age made the region too cold and, even after it warmed, Ireland’s separation from the continent by water meant that snakes could not migrate there.

What St. Patrick did, however, is bring the power of Christianity in an attempt to rid the people on the island of the evil spirits arising from within them.

We are told that, when he was young, he was captured by pirates from his home in Britain and taken to Ireland where he was sold into slavery for six years until he escaped and returned home. But then he felt the urgency of God to return to Ireland to call the people to follow Jesus to a better way of living.

As a person with Irish heritage, I love St. Patrick’s Day. Like most people, I also think about the themes of this saint’s legacy through many filters of family, faith and culture. I think about the writings of Walter Wink who pointed to  the New Testament language of “powers and principalities” and said that this phrase does not refer to demons leaping from the sky to wreak havoc on earth—but to spirits arising from our “collectivities” and leading us toward wrong. Wink says that those collectivities may even have been created to do good but over time can become fallen and do wrong, and it is our responsibility to name, engage and redeem those powers.

So, when I think of this venerable myth about the snakes, I think: St. Patrick freed the people of Ireland not from snakes but from the evil spirits arising within the people themselves.

To this day, we are called to confront all that goes bad and inflicts harm through the systems of our age.

So many snakes!

There are many snakes in the Bible! Snakes are mentioned more than 80 times, almost always as poisonous and instigators of sin. First in Genesis 3 the snake tempts Eve to disobey God and Adam follows, for which they are evicted from the Garden. Then finally in Revelation 12: “The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.”

Does the snake (or serpent or dragon) represent an external force that impels humanity to engage in acts contrary to the will of God? Or is the snake symbolic of a system that arises from within us? And what does that interpretation mean for how Christians see the role of Jesus in our salvation? Gabriel Fackre, one of my favorite professors in my seminary studies and also preacher at my ordination service 40 years ago, presented various models for the atoning work of Christ that switched my focus. Atonement requires repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation—all necessary steps to being at one.

As a young woman I had seen the role of Jesus as dying on the cross to appease the wrath of God for our sins—paying the price with his blood so that God’s judgment turned to mercy. But as I looked at the models for the atonement and then looked at the entire life of Jesus and its meaning for our lives, I began to perceive Jesus more as example and teacher who shows us the love of God and neighbor, illuminating and inspiring us to follow him and shape our lives.

That upcoming lectionary text in Numbers 21:4-9 comes when the Israelites are freed from slavery in Egypt and are traveling through the desert. This passage shows how in challenging times we can become angry and cast blame rather than maintaining our journey through the wilderness toward freedom. The text from Numbers says that God sent venomous snakes among the people to bite them so that they repented and Moses turned to God, who told him to place a bronze snake on a pole toward which they would look up and not die. Even when they were poisoned by the serpents, as they looked up at that symbol they were saved. I tend to see that story as myth that conveys deep truth—the people were suffering the harm inflicted by their own evil spirits. Then, as they were drawn to look at the source of that poisoning, they were transformed.

The Gospel text in John 3 gives us words that Jesus spoke to Nicodemus, a Pharisee who sought him out under cover of darkness to inquire about his role. Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

For Christians, the role of Jesus is not simply to die to appease the wrath of God so that when we say his name we are guaranteed entrance to heaven, no matter how we choose to live. I believe that the role of Jesus is to show us how to walk the way of life toward a new day when all people are united as one, all dedicating our lives not for the sake of power and wealth for a few but for peace and the well-being of all.

When we look up at Jesus, as Christians we see the one sent by God to show us how to live, which brings me back to the snakes, the evil spirits that we must name, engage, redeem, so that this might be a world of justice and peace.

So what shall we do?

So what shall we do? How can we banish the snakes from our land for the sake of a good life together? Like St. Patrick, we must take action to name forces of evil, reach out to engage them not in negativity but for redemption and reconciliation.

Over the years, I have found this to be both a valuable and very challenging lesson. Today, serpents can sneak up on us without warning even as we are enjoying daily life.

Here’s just one example: A cross I like to wear was given to me almost nine years ago when we lived in Tennessee, by a woman who told me it was a tribute to all the work I was doing in our community chairing the long-range planning committee and then the communications and marketing committee. I very much appreciated the gift.

Then one summer day in that year a number of neighbors were gathered in boats on our lake for a “raft off,” swimming in the lake and sitting in boats to chat. Suddenly the name Trayvon Martin came up. This was a few months after he had been shot as he walked home with a bag of Skittles and an iced tea in his hands. The neighborhood watchman who shot him had been charged and was subsequently acquitted.

A number of people on those boats began talking about their hatred for Trayvon and their support for his murderer—including the woman who had given me this cross. I was so horrified that I wanted to take off the cross and hurl it into the lake. Then, the realization struck me that the cross stands for God’s love for us and how far God will go to rescue us from our wrongs and lead us to a new way of being. No matter how those who claim the cross as the symbol of their truths pronounce and perpetrate hatred, the cross is the cross of Jesus and our calling as Christians to live by God’s truth and invite others to join us.

As St. Patrick’s Day draws near and we look forward to putting on our green shirts to celebrate, as Christians may we pray that God will draw us more deeply into the ways St. Patrick sought to follow Jesus.
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The Rev. Dr. Kate Jacobs responded to the call of God, entered seminary and was ordained after she had five children, taught high school French and worked as an employment counselor, plus earned her first master’s degree. After seminary she was ordained 40 years ago, served at the First Baptist Church in America founded by Roger Williams in 1638, then for 13 years served as executive director of the Ministers Council of the American Baptist Churches USA. In her Tennessee retirement years she was confirmed as an Episcopalian and licensed to preach. Now she continues to preach for the Christian Interfaith Church at Ashby Ponds in Ashburn, VA. One of her most meaningful educational experiences was a Harvard fellowship in 2001 when she studied quantum theory and theology, since the connectivity of all things shapes the basic tenet of her life.

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Marilyn McEntyre invites us to consider ‘Where the Eye Alights,’ opening ourselves to the power of lectio divina

EDITOR’S NOTE—Writer and teacher Marilyn McEntyre describes her work as “creating connections between language, medicine, faith and the world we share.” In 2018, we recommended her book, Make a List—How a simple practice can change our lives and open our hearts. At that time, we featured this author interview with Marilyn about Make a List. You can learn more about her other books by visiting her website www.MarilynMcEntyre.com. To introduce her new volume, Where the Eye Alights, we asked Marilyn to write a column for us that would tell the story behind the book from her author’s perspective. And, here it is …

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By MARILYN McENTYRE

Click the cover to visit it’s Amazon page. The book also is available at Barnes & Noble and other booksellers.

The invitation by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing to write this book about writing gave me particular pleasure, since I teach writing, write about writing, and have come to believe that writing can be, as my spiritual director once suggested, “an extension of your prayer life.”  Writing this little book felt like that for me. Of course I hope that readers will find blessing, consolation and invitation in it. I also hope they’ll “go and do likewise.”

In the book, I reflect on 40 common phrases. I hope that, just as I did in writing the book, readers will discover how a simple phrase can open up an avenue of reflection that can take surprising turns.

A phrase like “remember that you are dust,” for instance, connects the biblical creation story with a scientific truth (that the elements we are made of are those we find in the soil, and that it’s all—literally—stardust) and to a reminder that underscores our deepest hopes for peace and equity in human community: We’re all made of the same stuff.  My thoughts, as I sat with the phrase, led me to one of my favorite works of popular science, Dirt, by William Bryant Logan.

I pulled my well-thumbed copy off the shelf and took renewed delight in Logan’s introductory reflections on the story of Moses and the burning bush.  After admitting he’d always wondered why God didn’t just call out to Moses to get his attention rather than resorting to the rather dramatic device of a burning bush, he says, “Now I know why. The truth, when really perceived and not simply described, is always a wonder. Moses does not see a technicolor fantasy.  He sees the bush as it really is. He sees the bush as all bushes actually are.”

His phrase, “all bushes” triggered another memory—a wonderful sermon I heard on the inclusiveness of God’s love that started with the question, “What part of all do we not understand?” I thought of a line I love from an old hymn: “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.”  We are dust. We are beloved. All of us. All of creation.  All political leaders, laborers, refugees, prisoners, patients, all the endangered animals and desecrated rainforests—all dust.  All loved.

One thought led to another as I sat remembering, connecting dots into constellations, dwelling on phrase as it grew into a refrain .  It opened into wide and deep places.  It led me into prayer.

This is how lectio divina works:  you read, you listen for the “word or phrase” that calls you to pause and reflect—this time, on this reading.  Another time it might be a different phrase.  You read prayerfully, inviting the Spirit to speak through the text into the lived moment in which you read.  The word or phrase you pause over becomes a portal that opens onto the broad landscape of memory.  Associations arise: images from stories, childhood memories, learning moments in science classes or in Sunday school.  The process is meant to be an open, prayerful, receptive, and deeply subjective encounter with the Living Word.  It is a moment of intimacy, always enlivening, often surprising, shaped by and grounded in our theological understanding, but not a moment for intellectual analysis so much as enjoyment of loving divine guidance.

Lectio divina can become a habit of mind we carry into all our reading and conversational life.  Listening for a “word or phrase” is different from listening to grasp key ideas or arguable points.  As a reader, when you come upon a phrase like this—“love in the open hand” or “heart of my own heart” or “with malice toward none”—you may find yourself catching your breath in a moment of simple delight at what it evokes.  It may be a feeling of gratitude.  It may be a shift of frame:  I hadn’t thought of it this way before. It may be a recollection of the whole speech or poem or song that invites you back for another look at words that may bear some new blessing.  What is worth reading is worth rereading—especially the words of our sacred texts and surely also the rich legacy of words poets and writers have left for us to reclaim or reframe or reflect on.

The contemplative reading that has its roots in lectio divina is certainly not the only fruitful way to read a text.  We need the critical reading skills we learn in classrooms.  It’s good to know how to summarize, analyze, construct arguments, and define terms for use in law and policy making.  It’s good to read a whole sentence and be able to paraphrase it to arrive at a “common sense” of meaning and intent.

Our words our equipment we take into public life. But they are also instruments we play in our tenderest moments, not to deliver information but rather to delight the mind and open the doors of the heart.

Writing down what came up around a word or phrase every morning for forty days was a valuable practice for me.  It changed the quality of those days.   Many have done this before; many are doing it now in monasteries and pastors’ studies and in parks (where it’s still warm enough to be in parks) with pencils and an hour reclaimed from the daily schedule.  That hour or so is time well spent.  The returns come all day, and keep coming.

I hope that, for any who read Where the Eye Alights, the book will be both a gift for the moment and an invitation to begin a fruitful practice of prayerful, receptive reading and writing in which you find, just where the eye alights, the word you need for now.

 

 

Day1’s Peter Wallace proclaims, ‘Preach it, Brother! Preach it, Sister!’

CHURCH CLOSINGS HIT WITHOUT WARNING IN FEBRUARY 2019 IN ITALY. Even then, religious leaders had little idea of the historic disruption they were about to experience. Journalist Elisa di Bendetto, who lives near one of the first outbreaks in Italy, posted one of the first news stories about church closings that soon would circle the globe. She took this photo of a sign announcing that Catholic masses and catechism classes would be cancelled—oh, but just for a few days. Little did they know …

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At anniversary of COVID closings, let’s remember the fine art of preaching

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine

Thank God for media ministries like Peter Wallace’s Day1, the network that has been sharing regular inspiration through American radio stations—and now the Internet—since the end of World War II. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Peter and his team were well-equipped as long-time veterans in providing virtual pulpits to the most talented men and women in the fine art of preaching.

“We have been a godsend to a lot of our listeners. That’s what they are telling us in their letters and emails,” Peter said in our interview about his new book. “Our audience is primarily in the United States, but we even got a wonderful postcard from Japan the other day thanking our staff for continuing these broadcasts throughout the pandemic. The writer said he and his family haven’t been able to go to church, so they listen to Day1 to supplement their spiritual lives.”

At ReadTheSpirit, where we regularly report on Holidays, Festivals and anniversaries, we have not heard of any congregations planning to mark this historic one-year mark, but we are not certain. Perhaps someone has developed such a liturgy or planned such a service, because this really is an unprecedented milestone in religious life. For the first time in American history, thousands of churches have been closed for a year—a foundational upheaval in the way Americans’ worship that is sure to result in cascading changes for years to come.

One huge wave of changes has been fueled by media. When American churches emptied one year ago to protect their members from the pandemic, most of those congregations had little external media presence they could immediately fall back on. Out of necessity, nearly all congregations rapidly expanded their online offerings.

At this milestone, Peter Wallace’s new book, Bread Enough for All, A Day1 Guide to Life, is encouraging Americans to appreciate that one of the core spiritual practices they should celebrate and continue is that fine art of preaching.

Who Should Buy This Book?

The book is aimed, first and foremost, at ordinary readers who enjoy short, inspiring Bible-based messages, perhaps to read all at once—or to savor over weeks of day-by-day enjoyment.

But there is a second audience we want to address in this ReadTheSpirit Cover Story: the thousands of preachers, teachers and small-group leaders who regularly read our columns. This book represents a delightful opportunity to see how some of the greatest preachers of our age bring contemporary messages from the ancient biblical texts we all enjoy reading each year. This collection is a treasure trove of creativity. We bet more than a few readers will quickly grab ideas from this book to share in their own weekly Bible studies, email newsletters, church bulletins, homilies and sermons. There are just too many gems here to resist sharing a few!

Peter Wallace, left, with Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry of The Episcopal Church. (Bishop Curry has provided many messages to the Day1 network. Here’s an index of some of Curry’s contributions to Day1. Plus, Curry has two sermon excerpts in the new book.)

Who Is in This Book?

To illustrate the points we are making, we decided not to include the entire table of contents from the book. Instead, we are offering below a list of the great preachers—men and women—who also have appeared in the pages of ReadTheSpirit magazine since our founding in 2007. Each one appears in this Day1 book with the title of their original on-air sermon, the Bible reference for their reflections and then an excerpt of their original on-air message.

Just look at this list! It should convince many of our readers to jump to Amazon right now and order a copy of the book. You’ll get:

Diana Butler Bass

Diana Butler Bass—a best-selling author, historian and educator—has appeared many times in our ReadTheSpirit pages. She preaches this new book’s title message, “Bread Enough for All” from John 6:35, 41-51 Then, Peter Wallace brings her back later in the book for a second sermon, “The Power of Today” from Luke 4:14-21.

Bishop Michael Curry also is one of the few preachers who appears twice in the book with “Keep the Faith” from Hebrews 10:32-11:1 and “The King of Love” from John 18:33-37.

Best-selling author and educator Barbara Brown Taylor appears with “The Prophet Mary” from John 12:1-8.

Pastor and standup comic Susan Sparks gives us “Trust Jesus and Elvis,” based on John 20:19-31.

Bishop William H. Willimon preaches “Good News?” from Mark 10:35-45

Beloved author and Celtic theologian John Philip Newell offers “Look to the Child,” drawing on Luke 2:1-14.

Bishop Kenneth Carter preaches “Our Patience, God’s Peace” from Isaiah 40:1-11

The late William K. Quick, who was regarded as one of the nation’s greatest preachers in his prime, offers “Every Missile Is Aimed at Jesus,” drawn from Luke 2:14, John 14:27 and Romans 10:15

Theologian Walter Bruggemann adds “A New World Birthed,” Matthew 1:18-25

The late Bishop Leontine Kelly is included with “The Mind of Christ,” Luke 22:14-23, 56

Our own author of Changing Our MindDavid Gushee preaches “Justice Denied—Except from the Love of God,” Psalm 22:25-31; 1 John 4:7-21 and John 15:1-8

Theologian and educator Barbara K. Lundblad offers “The Body of Christ Takes Up Space on Earth,” John 14:1-14

And Peter Wallace himself appears with “Let’s Dance,” 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 and Mark 6:14-29

But wait! There’s more—

Many of us who love to learn from our religious history are pleased to find a lively 12-page history of the Day1 network at the close of this book. Among the gems in those final pages are stories about how C.S. Lewis came to appear on the network—and how TV host and Presbyterian pastor Fred Rogers also appeared.

“Of course, I’m very pleased with the initial response to this book,” Peter Wallace said in our interview. “We could have chosen from hundreds and hundreds of broadcasts over many decades and we finally focused on more contemporary preaching so that also gives us a better diversity of voices.

“While all of these men and women are different, there are common themes you’ll find as you read through the book. We focus on God’s love and the need to care for one another. The proof of the value of this work really is in the way Day1 continues to reach listeners who tell us that we are important in their daily lives.”

He added, “Given our history, most people think of us as an American radio network, but we’re all over the world now. We’re on the air in Canada, Liberia, the Philippines, New Zealand—and, in a lot of places, that’s because we have very supportive friends who make sure we remain on the air.  For example, we’re on a whole network in Nigeria through this wonderful guy who gets our audio on CDs and broadcasts using those. We do offer broadcast-quality downloads, these days, but we still have a lot of requests for the CDs for certain stations like in Nigeria.”

Continuing Commitments

Peter closes his book with an affirmation that the central mission of the network remains unchanged—and that it will continue into the next generation, he hopes.

He writes, “The message remains the same now, not only on the radio but via various podcast platforms. The consistency of the message—the approach to biblical interpretation, the assurance of a God who can love us through our self-doubt, our suffering, our divorce or illness, and the challenge to follow Jesus in every area of life—has never changed.”

Of course, this book was finished before Peter and his team realized the full extent of the pandemic’s impact on churches. One afterword we could add to this volume is simply this:

May this celebration of the art of preaching inspire men and women everywhere to continue their commitments to their own congregations in whatever forms those ministries may take in sharing this timeless Good News.

Ken Whitt reminds our troubled world, ‘God Is Just Love,’ then gives us 100 ways to find hope and be love

Multi-generational experiences in the wilderness are a major part of Ken Whitt’s work with families. Yes, he is in this photo. Look at the far left. He’s presenting a reading with the man in the blue plaid shirt. Want to see him more clearly? Read this story—and you’ll spot him below with his grandson.

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Click this cover image to visit the book’s Amazon page. Ken Whitt’s new book is available in hardcover, paperback and Kindle eBook versions. The book also is available via Barnes & Noble, Walmart, Powell’s Books and many other online bookstores.

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

“What can I do right now?”

That’s a question we’ve heard from countless readers and writers since the first days of 2021 as we all seek ways to rebuild America’s shattered community.

Having seen this turbulence coming for a long time, the prophetic author Ken Whitt answers with the title affirmation, spread across the front cover of his book: God Is Just Love—Building Spiritual Resilience and Sustainable Communities for the Sake of Our Children and Creation.

For readers seeking very practical ideas they can pursue immediately, Ken closes his book with “100 Things Families Can Do to Find Hope and Be Love.”

And: Psst! Here’s a secret—If you count every item on that list, there actually are more than 100 things that you and your loved ones can do right now. So, c’mon! This idea is catchy! Jump over to Amazon right now and you’ll soon be equipped with all sorts of hopeful, loving ideas to share with family and friends.

In fact, this practical, urgent theme runs through a half dozen timely books our publishing house is producing in the first half of 2021. Last month, we reported on the launch of journalist Bill Tammeus’s book, Love, Loss & Endurance, A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety. In that cover story, we emphasized that Bill’s book closes with 16 pages describing specific ways we all can help to “unplug extremism.” Also early this year, we will publish David Livingston Edwards’ book What Belongs to God, which includes a detailed outline for organizing discussion groups with friends about “Choosing Peace.” Then, Mindy Corporon’s upcoming book Healing a Shattered Soul, once again, connects readers with lots of practical ideas and resources generated by Mindy’s nonprofit. In addition, our team is working on an expanded second edition of Brenda Rosenberg’s 2020 book, Reuniting the Children of Abraham, to add both some video resources for groups and some daily reminders of things we each can do as individuals. Also on the horizon is Howard Brown’s book, Shining Brightly, which will offer ideas at the close of each chapter for letting your light shine a little more brightly.

Excited? We certainly are.

“I’m just glad we’re all part of this effort reaching out in so many different directions,” Ken Whitt said in our interview this week.

‘Our Voices Really Are Coming Together’

Ken and his grandson—both sporting a comfortable plaid.

“As readers discover what these authors are writing, you’ll definitely see that our voices really are coming together,” Ken said. “There are so many hopeful connecting points between what all of us are writing and the ideas we’re giving to people.

“What unites us? We all see the urgency in helping people find the next best thing they can be doing right now. We all know that the challenges we are facing are larger than any one of us. We all need each other. We can’t do what needs to be done alone. That’s a major part of my book—how families and communities need to come together across all generations—from the youngest to the oldest—to prepare for the future. In my book, I’m talking about examples as practical—and as fun—as teaching kids to make topsoil to grow vegetables or to bake bread over a fire outdoors. I’ve done it. It’s fun and it gets us all going in the right direction.”

That’s why our publishing house devoted nine pages at the end of Ken’s book for that list of “100 Things Families Can Do.”

“I’m so glad we made the decision to include that list,” Ken said. “Everyone who hears about my new book asks about that ‘100 Things Families Can Do’ section. Because of all that’s happening in our world right now, and especially in this country since January 6, it’s clear to millions of people that we all need to take action.

“We need more than talk,” he continued. “Every day, I’m seeing news reports about what we all need to be doing to encourage peace, build stronger communities and work toward saving what we can of our planet’s future. And, people are responding to that.

“Our voices really are converging,” Ken said. “Just this week, I was so surprised to read what Pope Francis said from the Vatican—calling for a return to ‘lectio divina’ and coupling that call for prayerful reading of the Bible that really engages our relationship with God.” Then, the pope went on to make the connection between our need to be more loving and truthful people—with a warning against further dangers from extremists. Ken said, “I’m not Catholic and I have my own way of describing this, but when I read what the pope said, I thought right away: Hey, there’s a chapter in my book that’s very much like what the pope is saying.”

‘Torn from the Headlines’

The core of Ken’s book is a loving adventure story about how he and his wife have tried to connect with several generations of their family—and other families—to encourage both faithful resilience and also courageous action to help save the earth’s resources. (And don’t miss this: At the end of this cover story there’s also an inspiring 1-minute video that captures the major themes of Ken’s book and his ongoing work as a speaker and teacher.)

Journalists like to refer to such timely books as “torn from the headlines” and Ken literally has a growing mountain of recent press clippings about the themes he explores in his book. Yes, one theme he addresses is how to “unplug extremism,” as Bill Tammeus describes that challenge. But that’s only one of Ken’s major themes. Even more important is saving our planet from the perils piling up with waste and global warming.

“In the past, I sometimes felt I was a voice crying in the wilderness,” Ken said, “but in this new year, not a day goes by that there isn’t another big headline.”

Among the recent headlines Ken recommends to readers are:

Why are these major news stories appearing almost daily now? Because after four years of official American indifference to the plight of our planet, a host of new leaders are arriving in Washington D.C. to kick start environmental efforts. In that regard, Ken highlights this Washington Post piece by Ben Adler, headlined, “Every Cabinet Job Is about Climate Change Now.”

Are you intrigued by these newsy, helpful links and ideas? Then, you’ll also want to connect directly with Ken and his nonprofit Traces of God Ministries. Ken’s group has been working on these issues for years, but in 2021, they’ve suddenly found a whole new level of interest in their work. The group’s website was completely redesigned—by our publishing house friend Michael Thompson at One Thompson Place—in preparation for the 2021 launch of Ken’s book. If you visit the website to meet Ken and his colleagues, you’ll discover there’s an ongoing flow of inspiring columns. On that page, there’s also a box where you can sign up for a free once-a-week email reminder of new headlines. And, don’t worry, you can sample Ken’s weekly email for a while, then you could cancel anytime, if you wish. Our thought is: You’ll get hooked on Ken’s weekly “Whittlings,” the name of that newsletter.

Want to learn more? Enjoy the 1-minute video tour!

The following video was created by our Marketing Director Susan Stitt to give you an overview of Ken’s book in just 1 minute. Want to help with this effort to build community? Share this YouTube-based video with friends—or share this entire cover story with friends. It just takes a few moments to connect with others and this particular news really is a bright ray of sunshine.

Who knows? By sharing this, you just might find a few friends who want to join you in learning, you know—what you can do right now.

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Experimenting with Public Conversations on Race, Culture and Justice

A Racially, Culturally Diverse Group of Religious Leaders Open a Conversation

HERE’S WHAT YOU’LL FIND IN THIS COLUMN

  • HOW IT STARTED—First, the Rev. Chenda Innis Lee from Alexandria, Virginia, explains this pilot project.
  • WATCH A SAMPLE DIALOGUE—Second, we’re streaming one of the pilot dialogues—you’ll see the video screen below—because that particular episode includes one of our long-time columnists and authors Benjamin Pratt.
  • READ A SAMPLE COLUMN—As part of his own work in confronting injustice, Benjamin Pratt is encouraging readers to write their own stories about encountering injustices in the U.S. As a model, he has written a column, below after the video screen, summarizing some of his own reflections.

HOW THIS STARTED—AND WHERE IT’S GOING

The Rev. Chenda Innis Lee. (Clicking on her photo will take you to her church’s website.)

By CHENDA INNIS LEE
Contributing Writer

The origin of the idea—After the murder of George Floyd last year, Bishop Sharma Lewis called Virginia United Methodists to take action on issues of systemic racism in the Virginia Annual Conference. She invited all 16 districts within the bounds of the Annual Conference “to have authentic conversations about race and reconciliation in houses of worship, communities, and workplaces in which we acknowledge racism as a sin and actively pursue whatever is necessary to dismantle the injustices.”

The committee who produced it—The Alexandria District, under the leadership of the Rev. Jeff Mickle formed a Racial Justice Taskforce to create a resource to be used as training for the clergy of the Alexandria District. The Rev. Chenda Innis Lee was asked to lead this work. The diverse task force of five members, both ordained and licensed local pastors, included two Black women, one Asian man, one Latino man, and one Caucasian woman. The group worked together for three months and produced a five-week video series titled: Real People, Real Talk: Clergy Experiences of Racism. These 30-minute conversations include discussions with active and retired clergy and bishops of the Virginia Annual Conference.

How it will be used and by whom—The video series already has been used as a mandatory training resource for clergy in the Alexandria District. It was well received by participants. The resource is now available for clergy and laity to use in their respective ministry settings. Although the audience for whom it was produced are United Methodists, it is available for anyone who wants to engage the work of racial justice. The resource now has been released on YouTube as six segments through the link above.

The Rev. Chenda Innis Lee serves a church in Alexandria and also chairs the Racial Justice Taskforce for the Alexandria District of the Virginia Conference.

WATCH A SAMPLE DIALOGUE

The Real People, Real Talk: Clergy Experiences of Racism—the series of videos linked above in this column—includes the following 30-minute episode in which Benjamin Pratt, one of our most popular columnists and authors, was part of the online dialogue. Simply listening to the introductions of the participants begins to expand our awareness of the complexities of race and cultural identity today. This dialogue, within the larger series, includes some brief references to the history of racism—as well as very contemporary experiences of this friction wherever people live and work and even order their favorite fast food.

BENJAMIN PRATT—WRITING OUR STORIES

Benjamin’s books all are intended to help inspire and encourage our diverse communities. In this particular book, he zeroes in on the challenges of America’s millions of caregivers.

For many years, Benjamin Pratt has been one of our most popular writers. He has published several books, which you can see displayed on his Amazon author page. Now, as a part of the pilot project in eastern Virginia, he is encouraging his readers to write their own stories about encountering the entrenched injustices involving racial and cultural assumptions in the U.S. As a model, he has written this column summarizing some of his own reflections.

By BENJAMIN PRATT
Contributing Columnist

I am privileged and I have been so since my birth.

Considering the circumstances of my childhood, I never imagined I would declare this as a given. I grew up in a relatively poor, working class family. I lived with my parents and my brother in grandparents’ homes. We were a loving and happy family even with my mother visibly becoming more and more crippled daily by rheumatoid arthritis. From my 4th grade until my 10th, the four of us slept in the unheated attic of a small house in Erie, PA, where winter temperatures often hovered at 0 degrees. We used a chamber pot because my grandfather didn’t want us to possibly awaken him by going to the one bathroom. By the time I was in the 8th grade I couldn’t stand up straight in the low-ceiling attic. Obviously, these are not the conditions we usually attribute to privilege. It wasn’t Downton Abbey.

In spite of all of that, I was and am privileged—I’m white. The color of my skin, even though it technically is not white, gives me a leg up, an advantage, a privilege at the gateways of life. I’ve discovered that some whites don’t think they are part of a race—they assume they are part of the default norm.

Two Ways to Describe ‘White Privilege’

I was recently invited to participate on a panel of three persons discussing “white privilege,” “white fragility,” and how to be an ally for persons of color in our society. As our conversation began, I was asked to describe “white privilege.”

This was my answer:

Thousands of American men returned victorious from WW II and the bonus of free education and a housing loan. That was true if you were white, not if you were one of the million black Americans who had risked their lives in war. Only 4% of black GIs were able to access the bill’s offer of free education. Also, the Federal Housing Authority warned town developers that selling to nonwhite families would topple their profit values. On the housing front, a set of policies created by the FHA and implemented by lenders and realtors, mapped out neighborhoods according to skin color. This housing appraisal system, referred to as “redlining,” designating the area as a “hazardous” investment because it was for blacks. The red zones were filled with poorer quality buildings with higher interest rates for loans while “green” areas had lower interest rates and better quality structures. These experiences are at the heart of “white privilege” and “structural racism.”

Since our online conversation, I’ve heard a much more succinct way to define white privilege:

“As a white person I don’t worry about the safety of my child or grandchild when they leave the house.”

A History of Violence Close to Home

The first African Americans were bought and sold at the mouth of the James River in what is now Virginia in 1619. American slavery lasted a quarter millennium until 1865. It will be 2111 before African-Americans as a people will have been free for as long as they had been enslaved on American soil.

At its core, racism, classism and elitism are snobbery. It does not ask about what you believe, what you have done, or what you will do with your life. Snobbery asks: Who are your ancestors? What color is your skin? What class are you in society? Snobbery is a high window on the world viewed through blood, skin color and ancestry.

In my own personal journey, I have become ever more welcoming of diversity. I have told you about my earliest life. We were Protestants living in a predominantly Roman Catholic, Eastern European community. Following seminary, I was the founding pastor of a rapidly growing interracial church that, after 60 years, has become even more ethnically balanced. As a pastoral counselor, I was profoundly influenced by clergy colleagues from all traditions, sexual orientations and genders.

Jesus as a Model for Christians

As in all things Christian, let’s turn to Jesus as a welcome model of conversion when we face the power of snobbery in our lives. Many Christians insist that Jesus was perfect from infancy through the end of his life, but that assertion is challenged by at least some New Testament texts. If we believe that Jesus was a real human being who grew throughout his life, then we may even be witnessing Jesus rebuffed for snobbery in passages such as Matthew 15:21- 28 or Mark 7:24-30. These are scenes in which Jesus encounters a foreigner, a mother whose young daughter has been possessed by “an unclean spirit.” When this woman pursues a weary Jesus and pleads with him to heal her daughter, he snaps that it would be like tossing bread to dogs. The woman is persistent, though, and snaps right back at Jesus. Suddenly, Jesus softens, relents and performs the healing. Some commentators rebel at the idea that Jesus was chastened by this woman and actually changed course because of her rebuke. Perhaps these commentators fear that a woman played such a catalytic role or they fear accepting a Jesus who was not entirely perfect at every moment in his life. For me, this passage only leads me to love Jesus more. It makes his humanity real. He was a man who changed and acknowledged broader world views. Just as so many women have enabled me to broaden my perspective on life; it appears that a persistent and rather desperate woman of a different ethnic heritage was instrumental in converting Jesus from what may have been a weary moment of snobbery.

St. Paul’s Hymn to Love

There is no vaccine for the virus of racism that plagues our planet. So, what can we do is “let peace begin with me” as we engage with family and friends and even when we have the opportunity to be with persons of different perspectives. We can choose patience, empathic listening, gentle kindness—just a few of those qualities St. Paul listed in his famous “Hymn to Love” in 1 Corinthians 13:1-13.

One of the great joys of my life now is to live in the same community with my friend since seminary days nearly 60 years ago. Jim Truxell and I take turns with others leading worship in our community. We discuss, share and challenge each other in our preparations for the sermons and services. On the Sunday prior to the Inauguration of our new President and Vice President, Jim preached a sermon on the two covenants—our American covenant and our Divine covenant. Jim challenged the community concerning what we can do, using Paul’s words,

Jim said, “Paul intended the 13th chapter of his letter to be part of a plan of action for healing their fractured community. It was Paul’s attempt to remind them of the heart and soul of their own covenant: that they should love one another as Jesus had loved his disciples. Or, as one of our great hymns puts it: ‘to love others as we find them, or as they may become.’ If we use only two of the things Paul says that love is, we’ll be off to a great start. Paul said that love is patient, and love is kind.”

The Transformation of George Wallace

Jesus, the Master Storyteller, would tell a story now to capture the essence of what we are saying. So, Jim did just that, he told this story:

What happened in Selma, at the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 was egged on by the self-avowed segregationist Alabama governor, George Wallace who ran a successful campaign on “Segregation forever!”
In 1979, wheelchair-bound because of a 1972 would-be assassin’s bullet lodged in his spine, this same George Wallace was wheeled by his attendant to the front of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. It was the same church Martin Luther King, Jr. pastored in the 1950s. Wallace turned to face the African American congregation.
Wracked with pain, his confinement to a wheelchair having ended the physically hyper-active life he had so cherished, George Wallace began to speak: “I’ve learned what suffering means in a way that was impossible. I think I can understand something of the pain that black people have come to endure. I know I contributed to that pain and I can only ask for your forgiveness.” As he was leaving the church, the congregation began singing “Amazing Grace.”
Wallace went on to ask forgiveness of black leaders. As governor, he then appointed a record number of African Americans to state positions.
What changed George Wallace? Surely his chronic, intense pain helped. But it involved something else: a profound and utterly unexpected act of kindness that touched his heart as he lay paralyzed in the hospital.
In 1972, George Wallace was campaigning for President. So was the first African American woman ever to be elected to the U. S. House of Representatives. You’ll recognize her name: it was Shirley Chisholm. Over the adamant objections of her staff, Shirley Chisholm suspended her campaign in order to visit George Wallace in his hospital room.
Astounded, Wallace asked Chisholm, “What are your people going to say about your coming here?”
Chisholm replied: “I know what they’re going to say, but I wouldn’t want what happened to you to happen to anyone.”
When Shirley Chisholm returned to the campaign, an aide asked how she could imperil her electoral campaign to visit such an arch villain and foe of African Americans. She said, “Sometimes we have to remember we’re all human beings, and I may be able to teach him something, to help him regain his humanity, to maybe make him open his eyes to make him see something he has not seen.” And then she added this: “You have to be optimistic that people can change. Sometimes one act of kindness may make all the difference in the world.”

My Call to Action

I may be privileged as a white person but that is not a privilege I want. I want to be privileged by God’s grace to be capable of empathy, kindness, patience and love for each person I encounter. I want the privilege of standing by all persons regardless of race, caste, sex or faith.

 

 

 

How can we respond to ‘a cry for racial justice 400 years in the making’?

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

“A cry for racial justice some 400 years in the making moves us. The dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer.” Those words from President Biden in the middle of his inaugural address were an electrifying call to action. He touched repeatedly on our shared religious resources. “As the Bible says, weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning,” Biden said.

So, this week in ReadTheSpirit magazine we are recommending two resources to help us sustain and share that joy.

First: The Prophetic Call of  Dr. Willie James Jennings

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page. This new book is published by our friends at Eerdmans.

One of the most frequently quoted religious scholars over the past year as people of faith confront racial injustice is Yale University’s Willie James Jennings, whose latest book is a manifesto for religious leaders calling for a global rethinking of the way we all approach the American history of racism. While most Americans are focused on our own entrenched injustices right now—Jennings’ call is to recognize that we are part of a worldwide movement that is struggling to come to terms with white domination over many centuries.

In a Zoom interview, Jennings talked with me about his new book, After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging, and stressed repeatedly that his prophetic message is: “There is a global crowd building.”

His book zeroes in on the systemic flaws in the way America’s universities and seminaries are teaching the next generation of our religious leaders. Chiefly, he argues, we need to reorient our teaching to give students a glimpse of the worldwide connectedness of all humanity.

Jennings on ‘the Work of Joining Fragments’

Jennings’ call to action unfolds across 165 pages. At one point in the book, he describes a long list of his own students from Ghana, Korea, Peru, New Zealand and South Africa—all of them hoping that their faith can honor and celebrate their own unique cultures as they pursue their careers in ministry. Jennings encourages all of these students, but he pushes them to enlarge their vision. He wants them to take another big step in their future ministries. It’s not enough to devote one’s life to a single cultural expression, he argues. As people of faith, our vocation is to recognize that God filled the whole world with colorful cultures—and we are called to respect all of them. We are called, he argues, to embrace the global crowd and encourage cooperative connections in building a more just world.

“I wanted for them all a greater hope than only restoring a sense of indigenous worlds now in pieces,” Jennings writes about his encounters with these students. “I wanted a drawing of those pieces together, a throwing of them into the air, an allowing of the Spirit of the living God to take those pieces and fit them together in new life-giving ways that would be familiar, singing familiar songs, remembering peoples and lands, struggles and hopes, but also new, with new songs, new futures that would mark a path toward what Christianity could be at the site of fragments. The work of joining fragments aligned with the work of loving and learning together; this was the fragment work I wanted to see.”

Benjamin Pratt and a View from the Grassroots

So, what does this soaring, prophetic all look like from the grassroots?

It looks like an experiment that our author Benjamin Pratt, a retired United Methodist pastor and counselor, contributed to in his region of Virginia. In his area of the church, Ben took part in one of a series of pilot public conversations about race, diversity and justice.

Please read the second part of this Cover Story to learn how this group of religious leaders of various hues and cultural backgrounds is taking steps toward uniting our fragments.

Duncan Newcomer’s Abraham Lincoln Quiet Fire—Lincoln on the sacred call to freedom and unity in his first inauguration

Lincoln’s first inauguration in 1861. He stands in the middle of he small crowd under the wooden canopy. Only a small patch of his white shirt can be discerned between the middle two pillars of the canopy. (Another view of the scene is below.)

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By DUNCAN NEWCOMER
Host of the ‘Quiet Fire’ series

This is Quiet Fire, a reflection on the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln and its relevance to us today. Welcome.

Here’s Lincoln quote for you: “I would rather be assassinated on this spot than surrender it.”

Another view of the same moment. Cranes are visible on the roof, continuing the construction of the Thomas Walter-designed dome, which was not finished until 1866.

As President–Elect, Lincoln is on his way to D.C. to be inaugurated and is speaking early on the morning of February 22, 1861, on George Washington’s Birthday, in Old Independence Hall, Philadelphia, where he is to raise the flag.

To Lincoln this is a sacred event, at a sacred place. Philadelphia was our first capital, Independence Hall our first Capitol building.

His new guard, Alan Pinkerton, had told him he definitely could be killed that morning. They had tracked down multiple assassination plots. Yet Lincoln insisted that he be at Independence Hall on that morning, to raise that flag, to celebrate his boyhood hero, George Washington, and to do all in this first American capitol building.

It was there that he interrupted his prepared speech to say, “I would rather be assassinated on the spot than surrender it.”

“It” is the flag, the ritual event and place, and most, the country dedicated to the world-wide principle of liberty for all. To be there was more than rational. His emotions, the meaning of his words, the potential sacrifice, all add up to the theme of this program: the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln.

This was his courage to be faithful to something he knew to be sacred, the people there felt to be sacred, the political liberty that was a hope, as he said, “to the world, for all future time.” This is eternal for him.

What did the building and the flag have to do with it?

Lincoln’s speech begins, “I am filled with deep emotion at finding myself standing here, in this place where were collected together the wisdom, the patriotism, the devotion to principle, from which sprang the institutions under which we live.”

He makes it personal.  “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.”

This is the spiritual life of Lincoln.

So he presents himself this proposition: If this country can be saved on the principle of liberty, then he says he will be “one of the happiest men in the world.” If it cannot be saved through the principle of liberty embodied in the Declaration of Independence, then, he says “it will be truly awful.”

And that is when, after suddenly stopping and bowing his head, he adds “I was about to say I would rather be assassinated on this spot than surrender it.”

He would rather lose his life than lose a country that lost its liberty and what that liberty means to the people of the world for all future time.

Later that day, Lincoln, at the State Capital in Harrisburg, speaks with light humility to the General Assembly about his role in that somber early morning event in Philadelphia. He says that he was allowed the privilege of standing in Old Independence Hall. He says, “our friends had provided a magnificent flag of our country.” And that he had been given the “honor of raising it to the head of its staff…and that he was pleased that it went to its place (there) by the strength of my own feeble arm.”

Now we know from his axe-holding demonstrations that his arms were anything but feeble. But he is humble about this ritual, this place, the flag.

What is it about flags?

You know as kids we play capture the flag. Obviously it isn’t the flag we want but what it means to be able to capture it. I knew a woman in Belfast whose father had a piece of his father’s American flag. Having been captured in battle on the first day at Gettysburg his unit had torn up their flag and each hid their piece of it so that the Confederates couldn’t get it. They promised to reunite the flag if they lived.

America planted the first flag on the moon. At military funerals a spotless new American flag is draped over the casket and then folded into a tight triangle and given to the family. Flags are signs by which we symbolize sacred values. For Lincoln he hoped it would represent the value of liberty for the people of the world.

A theologian, H. Richard Niebuhr writes this using the images of the flag: “The Puritans, Pilgrims, Quakers, with their associates, were first of all loyalists. They were loyal…(to what they considered)…to use (G.K.) Chesterton’s phrase, the ‘flag of the world’; they were convinced that this flag represented power and law as well as benevolence in which men could trust when they had lost confidence in their own good will and in that of their…” church and state. They were protesters and dissenters only because they desired to be loyal to the government of God” he writes, “and that was their positive unifying allegiance, despite their many quarrels.”

Lincoln concluded his remarks at the Pennsylvania capital praising the cooperation of the people who arranged the flag raising event, of which he said he was their humble instrument:

“And if I can have the same generous cooperation of the people of this nation, I think the flag of our country may yet be kept flaunting gloriously.”

That was his invitation then, and can be to us now, so that like Lincoln, we can be lighted down in honor to the latest generation.

This is Duncan Newcomer and this has been Quiet Fire, the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln.

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Care to Enjoy More Lincoln Right Now?

GET A COPY of Duncan’s 30 Days with Abraham Lincoln—Quiet Fire.

Each of the 30 stories in this book includes a link to listen to the original radio broadcasts. The book is available from Amazon in hardcover, paperback and Kindle versions. ALSO, you can order hardcover and paperback from Barnes & Noble. In addition, our own publishing house offers these bookstore links to order hardcovers as well as paperbacks directly from our supplier.

 

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