Monthly faith reflections from Pastor Clark.
I love the book of Acts of the Apostles. It shows what radical lives the gospel and Spirit of Jesus empowered the apostles to live. And the reasons others opposed them seems shockingly relevant to here and now.
Acts 16 tells about Paul the apostle and his partner, Silas. They met a young girl who was enslaved, to both humans and an unclean spirit. When Paul cast out the spirit, the human slaveholders revealed their values: profit over people.
"But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. …they said, 'These men are disturbing our city!'”
Then Paul and Silas were beaten badly and thrown into prison. But, you know, so was Jesus.
"About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so powerful that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains unfastened."
The resurrection earthquake! The power of Pentecost! “You have cast the mighty down from their thrones,” we sing during Holden Evening Prayer services, echoing Mary’s Song in Luke 1. Here, God cast those slaveholders and marketplace authorities down: by decisively liberating the prisoners, not by revenge. The story didn’t end here, though, because Paul and Silas made no escape. No, all the prisoners stayed put.
Shaken awake, the jailer assumed the prisoners escaped and immediately became terrified. Of those slaveholders and their enabling authorities. Of the humiliation and brutality they’ll certainly unleash on him for his failure. He got ready to kill himself rather than face them.
Just then, Paul and Silas interrupted. They told of a Lord of love and mercy, so unlike the slaveholders and their prisons. He immediately trusted in this Lord, and immediately he and his whole household are baptized. Liberated too. No one was free until everyone was free.
What a marvelous story! Written, of course, to help us find God and God’s way in our world. Here’s what I take away:
I so identify with the jailer. The people disturbing our cities now remind me of how the Lord of love shook foundations for me, woke me up to racism, and gave me a choice to live for the one true God and serve slaveholders no more.
Racism is a power-grab. It’s about plunder, not hate. Bianca Vazquez and Ta-Nehisi Coates woke me up to this. People with wealth, social status, and power invented the lie of race. They used it to maintain and expand their dominance. They still do.
he origins of race and slavery in America show this clearly. So some history, by way of Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow. The “elites” of early colonial America were the “planter class” of European immigrants. Their tobacco plantations were the source and symbol of their wealth, power, and status. They needed land and cheap labor.
Native Americans lived on the land the planter class wanted. Jealousy for that land (and for more wealth and power) led to the lie of “the civilized white man” and “red savages.” They planted the lie in the Bible (“red Canaanites”) and put the lie in the mouth of God. Then the lie justified plunder and genocide.
For cheap labor, the planter class used indentured servants, a kind of temporary slaves. At first, indentured people were both European and African—poor Europeans who sold themselves for a chance at a better life and African captives. But then European and African indentured servants united in an uprising against the planter class. It failed. But alarmed, the planter class adopted a divide-and-conquer strategy to protect their wealth and power. Based on the lie of “white superiority” and “black inferiority,” they bribed poor Europeans with special privileges. They planted the lie in the Bible (“the curse of Ham”) and put the lie in the mouth of God. Then the lie justified slavery and plunder.
The lie was written into the Constitution of the United States. The first presidents were members of the planter class. According to USA Today, George Washington was the wealthiest president ever, until Donald Trump was elected.
Some might say this is revisionist history. It really is. Acts shows how the first apostles revised the history they thought they knew. The old stories of Abraham, Sarah, Moses had to be told anew, because of Jesus.
William Sloane Coffin, pastor and peace activist, said:
"There are three kinds of patriots, two bad, one good. The bad ones are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country, a reflection of God’s lover’s quarrel with the world."
This history is core to my own lover’s quarrel with our country. This history also sheds light on racism’s weakness and suggests a way forward:
I say all of this not to convince but because I am convicted. It’s taken me my whole life so far to unlearn the “history” and lose my “religion” and let the truth set me free. George Floyd and so many more have died in the meantime.
“But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor.”
–Paul, Galatians 2:18
“If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”
–Jesus, John 13:17
“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
–Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address
Thanks be to God.
Pastor Clark Olson-Smith
“But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.”
“We are on virus time, not human time,” said Dr. Michael Osterholm, epidemiologist and Lutheran. It has certainly been a time to face what is always true: we are not in control. Our actions matter: we can have—we already have had—an influence on the trajectory of the pandemic, on how many and who dies. And, for at least the next year, coronavirus will set the timetable. For the sake of the least of these, we get to practice patience and a lot of letting go and letting God.
Control is always an illusion. We don’t so much surrender control as surrender to reality. We are, never were, and never will be in control. We accept this truth and more with a hearty and wholehearted “Jesus is Lord!”
The more we want control, the ruder reality seems. So when your gut reaction is to take offense: check yourself. Do 10 “Jesus is Lord”s and one Serenity Prayer and reassess the situation. You may discover your own anxiety, grief, and pain. Don’t run from them. Let them teach you. Let Christ minister to you.
My father-in-law’s “rude” reply was wisdom perhaps only a grandfather could offer. It’s second half of life wisdom.
Saint Paul called the preoccupations of the first half of his life “reason to be confident in the flesh,” but we could call it “reason to delude himself into thinking he’s in control.” Paul continued,
“Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish”
Love liberates, including from illusion. But understanding what Paul said may not come until great love and great suffering turn us around the bend toward life’s second half.
Right now, I’m in a real wrestling match with the illusion of control. Which, my father-in-law would say, is a good sign.
I care very much how others feel about me. Illusion would have me believe I can make everyone always feel great about me. Specifically, now, illusion tells me, “If you create a perfect ‘Return to Church’ plan, St. Paul people will feel great about you.” But reality is:
Richard Rohr calls this pandemic a great initiation. Initiation into what? Reality and five “essential messages:”
Accepting reality involves admitting how fiercely we resist it. Each of us have our own favorite ways to cling to illusion. Perfectionism, playing the blame game, varnishing the truth, and never slowing down are a few I know well.
But why focus on the negative? Why look into the muck of ourselves? Because right there, at the cross, is the gateway to the deepest, truest, most loving reality: Christ.
“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
Paul learned the hard way—just like the rest of us do—that no one, not even Christ, experiences the power of the resurrection without suffering. So first the “rude” “negative” messages, then the five “consoling promises”.
When I was ordained, the then-bishop of the New Jersey Synod gave me, Sara, Gomes, and Giselle the same charge:
“So discipline yourselves in life and teaching that you preserve the truth, giving no occasion for false security or illusory hope.”
There it is again: reality. It’s worth living in reality, because in reality, Christ lives also.
Thanks be to God.
Pastor Clark Olson-Smith
“To put up with or endure” is the first definition of abide In English. And are these days not a test of endurance?
I am often:
I am often also:
It takes discipline to receive both, to deny neither, to not react compulsively, to respond wholeheartedly, and to trust. This is the test of endurance: not to survive or merely “put up with” but to do in this difficult season what Jesus did and taught.
Run the race and never give up
“Abide in me as I abide in you” includes Hebrews 12, 1st Corinthians 9, and 2nd Timothy 4. (Go read them.)
“…let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us…”
“Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it.”
“I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable…”
Not all of us can or do run. Not many of us call ourselves runners. But use your hearts and hear the call.
I raced in the Quad Cities Triathlon twice. While I was in training, experienced triathletes gave me this advice.
“You can train before you race, or you can train while you’re racing.”
“Train in all weather because you’ll race in all weather.”
Our race is not for toilet paper or to avoid COVID or even to live long lives. Our race is to love God with all our heart, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. The “weather” is bad and all of us are training while racing (i.e., we weren’t prepared for this), but Christ calls all the same, “Abide in me as I abide in you.”
More to the race: from me to We
I receive this pandemic as a judgment against us. Not in the way Christians so often do, scapegoating the few and exalting themselves while turning God into a torturer or mass-murderer.
God did not send the virus to punish anyone. Instead, we are the punishing ones, through our generations-long, bipartisan lack of care for our sisters and brothers. Which is really our insistence that caring should only be done in private, not on the public, collective level. The latter is where we decide who works in meat-packing plants and who can work from home; who has preexisting conditions that put them at higher risk and who has the time, money, and access to good food and medical care to be healthy; who succeeds in school and who goes to prison, whether healthcare workers have the supplies they need and whether we have enough tests and who gets loans and relief money, etc.
“Am I my brother’s keeper?” was Cain’s dismissive question for God. “And the Lord said to Cain, ‘What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!’”
To abide in Christ in these days of testing includes accepting humbly that we are part of the whole which has failed so many. And we are part of the possibility of a new way to be a nation together, creating infrastructures of love for the lost and least, the stranger and the poor, the oppressed, the orphan, and the widow.
the Race after the race
The church I long for struggles “to provoke one other”—and the world—"to love and good deeds,” including in public. Isn’t it love when schools continue to provide meals to kids that need them, even when school is cancelled? So much more love is possible.
Hope in Action’s work for a permanent bathroom in Clinton Park is valuable in itself and is training for even greater work in this direction. This is also true for this congregation’s long tradition of feeding ministries.
When we’re done running this race—enduring isolation, disease, and death—there is another race ahead (which is the same race) to be transformed and to be transformers in love. This is our gift and calling as resurrection people. Christ abiding in us and us abiding in Christ means we’re never alone in that work of love, on the smallest and the largest scales.
Thanks be to God.
Pastor Clark Olson-Smith
In the early 1990s, when I was at peak coolness, the Christian rap and hop-hop group DC Talk dropped their hit song, “Luv Is A Verb.” I listened on cassette, so I speak with authority: love is a verb, not a feeling.
Hope is also a verb. So is abide.
As Susannah can tell you, verbs are action words. But abide may seem like one of the least verby verbs. For me, abide’s action has much to do with stillness, silence, and solitude. For the Gospel of John, abide has much to do with obedience—obeying Jesus, imitating Jesus.
There is a give and a take to abiding in Jesus. I know by experience that stillness, silence, and solitude with Jesus make it possible to obey and imitate Jesus. Apparently, this is exactly what Jesus meant when he said, “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”
“Words come easy but don't mean much,” sang DC Talk.
No matter when we get to worship in person again, every day we get to make abide mean everything. Abiding in God and God abiding in him made Jesus the Christ. Abiding in death, Christ brings life. Go and do likewise.
Thanks be to God.
Pastor Clark Olson-Smith
Abide. It’s the Gospel of John’s definition of Jesus and this Gospel’s definition of us. The abiding is mutual. Disciples abide too.
John says Jesus’ first disciples started following in this way: When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, "What are you looking for?" They said to him, "Rabbi" (which translated means Teacher), "where are you abiding?" He said to them, "Come and see." They came and saw where he was abiding, and they abided with him that day. It was about four o'clock in the afternoon (John 1:38-39, stay and remain replaced with abide).
A row of small houseplants abide on a windowsill. Amos is most proud of the one in the yellow pot. When its plant died, Amos buried an acorn there. Now there’s a baby oak tree in the dining room, and it’s plain to see: it grows toward the sun.
Do houseplants have more sense than I do? Sometimes I think so. And other times, I’m surprised to discover I’ve grown right where Jesus is.