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Paradise burning. (AFP/Getty Images)

The latest numbers from California are 72 dead and more than 1,000 people missing.

“Missing,” by the way, is a euphemism for “probably dead.” With those kinds of numbers, it’s a certainty that entire families and extended families have been killed.

Hundreds of thousands of survivors in California are displaced and homeless.

Ground zero, if you will, is a once dynamic “village” of 26,000 people, a town called “Paradise,” that is no more. Paradise, a community that had a long and colorful history, is literally an ash heap. (More on that interesting history here.)

Because of the smoke, millions of Californians far from the tongues of fire are having to wear masks, suffering from smoke-and-ash unfit for breathing. Hospitals and clinics in The San Francisco region are overwhelmed, and will be for a long time to come.

The “golden sun” of beautiful San Francisco before the wildfire disaster.

Oddly, if this had been a hurricane, we’d be subjected to wall-to-wall news coverage. We would all be moved by the endless, feel-good stories of Americans uniting to rescue and render aid to fellow Californians. American volunteers would be pouring into California.

Disasters like 911 and the many crushing hurricanes we’ve endured in the States have touched our hearts and brought out the mettle in us. The unimaginable suffering wrought by such disasters had a way of uniting Americans in grief, in spite of divisive, political blame games.

It’s been politically fashionable in recent years to make a political caricature out of California, to condemn it as a flaky, liberal Lala land.

Years ago when I was doing hospital chaplaincy, I was visiting a patient who had requested a pastoral-care visit from me. When I walked into the room, the TV was blaring with some kind of political news out of California. The first thing the patient quite angrily said to me was, “I’ll be glad when California falls in the sea!”

I promptly turned off the TV. I always muted or turned off the TV if there was news blaring in a patient’s room (or any other program at high volume). I would routinely ask a patient how he or she was feeling, opening the door to meaningful, spiritual conversation about that person’s health and well being.

If I was going to fully engage the sick or injured person in front of me with a serious talk and perhaps a prayer (if they accepted my offer of prayer), I wasn’t about to compete with the crap on television. Especially the kind of bad news that is never, every conducive to a sick or injured person’s healing and well being in any way whatsoever.

News overload can literally make a sick person sicker, an injured person weaker.

Pardon the digression here, because this is what I want to say today:

California is one of the most beautiful, enchanting and unique places on earth, with some of the friendliest people I’ve met anywhere in my travels from coast to coast.

Hopefully, the California bashers and haters, starting with our political leaders in high places, will be chastened by one of the most hellacious disasters America has ever seen.

Californians — the good Americans in The Golden State — need our prayers and donations and above all, our love.

Read some up-close and personal stories from a somewhat dated article by The United Methodist Church’s great Methodist reporter Sam Hodges.

A once-thriving community of 14,000 Californians, a place named Paradise, is gone forever. (AP photo by John Locher)

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The Gospel for this Sunday’s worship tells the story of a desperately poor widow, one who may have starved to death in dropping the last two copper pennies she had in the Temple kitty.

Jesus was not so impressed by the giving of the religious powers-that-be. And Jesus, importantly, did NOT praise the poor widow for giving her last two pennies to the Temple kitty.

As told in Mark 12:38-44, the story of the so-called “Widow’s Mite” is the story of a destitute widow who desperately wanted to do right in the eyes of God.

Her sacrifice is presented in contrast to the powerful and wealthy powers-that-be. Lurking around in their long, fancy robes, they made a public show of dropping a few shiny gold and silver pieces — actually a small percentage of their wealth — into the treasury. This was done to impress the lowly folk, and their wealthy peers, with how generous they were.

Jesus, being the sometimes not-so-nice guy that he was, had harsh words for the bastards:

    As he taught, [Jesus] said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!

    They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

    He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums.

    A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. (Mark 12: 38-42)

Let’s pause here to consider exactly what the widow sacrificed.

In those days, a small copper coin was the smallest coinage (i.e., a mite), like our modern American pennies. It took 64 such coins to make a denarius, and a denarius was a day’s wage.

That is, enough to live on for one day. The woman had only a fraction — 1/32 — of what it took to eat and live another day. Yet she gave it up to leaders who were robbing her.

She was willing to starve to death — and it’s possible she did starve to death — to give up her last coin for what she probably thought of as a sacrifice to God.

The fact is, she was a victim of the kind of robbers known today as televangelists and “prosperity gospel” preachers. And, for that matter, many of today’s pious political leaders. (See yesterday’s blog post for more about them and the political power they wield.)

The Bible clearly teaches that God had a special place in God’s heart for widows. They were among the poorest and most vulnerable in biblical times.

In the New Testament alone, chera — the Greek word for widow — shows up 25 times.

There is a reason the rich and powerful are frequently condemned in the Bible, while widows and other poor and vulnerable people are never, ever condemned. The Bible shows us that God’s will for widows and all the other have-nots trampled by the haves is for them to be loved, protected and cared for.

Here’s the rest of the story as told in Mark 12:43-44

    Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

It’s important to realize that the poor widow’s story has all too often been misused as an example of how we should give generously to the church and thus give to God.

Back in the day, even good, well-intentioned preachers commonly used the story of the poor woman in the Temple to raise money for building projects or stewardship fund drives.

Some still do.

Prosperity gospel crooks and televangelists increase their wealth every day by appealing to the poor and gullible people who eat pet food in order to send money to those corrupt preachers for their books and tapes and special gifts.

Whether good preachers with good intentions or robber preachers use the story as an example of how we are to give, the fact is that nowhere in the story of The Widow’s Mite does Jesus praise the poor woman for her generosity.

Jesus doesn’t hold her up as an example for us to follow in our giving.

The story is about how the powerful religious leaders are so rotten that they, in the blistering words of Jesus, “devour the houses of widows.”

Mind you, widows in that time would sell their houses to the same wealthy jerks who would rob their last two pennies from them! That’s how brainwashed the rich had the poor, as so many rich religious leaders do today.

I like to think that Jesus didn’t allow this poor widow to starve to death. I’m thinking Jesus, a short time after this, saw to it that she and other widows in the Temple were taken care of, perhaps by the well-to-do women who walked with Jesus and financed his ministry.

I can’t imagine that Jesus or his disciples would have left her to starve after giving the last two copper coins she had to a corrupt religious system.

I wonder, how many widows with children are fleeing violence and poverty from Central America today? (Art by L.V. Dia in The Houston Catholic Worker.)

In the context of these American times, I’m sure of this: many of the widows fleeing violence and poverty under the leadership of corrupt leaders in their Central American homelands are widows who will arrive at the gate to freedom in the U.S. Once at the Texas border to seek asylum, they will no doubt be shunned and politically exploited by religious and political leaders who wear fine threads and pray with booming voices in public places for American freedom.

The abuse and exploitation of poor widows and other vulnerable people is an old, old story that gets repeated time and again.

May the good Lord watch over the weary widows and children and all the vulnerable wherever they are on their hard life journeys.


IT BEING A BRIEF LESSON IN CHRISTIAN HISTORY, AS FOLLOWS:

Celsus was a 2nd-century Greek Platonist who wrote an extremely anti-Christian screed.

Televangelist Paula White of Florida (what’s up with Florida???) is one of Donald J. Trump’s favorite “spiritual advisors.” (Orange-headed gentlemen prefer blonds?) She’s part of a symposium of loud-mouth frogs who have helped Trump create a Swamp full of slimy money-grubbers.

In fact, the famous Christian apologist Origen made his fame by refuting Celsus’s anti-Christian rant in a document called “Against Celsus.” Origen picked apart Celsus’s flawed, wrongheaded assumptions about Christianity.

And Christians owe a debt to the influential Origen to this day for sharpening what we Christians believe about all things God, and why we believe it.

But you have to give Celsus credit for being a far more colorful writer than Origen. Celsus described Christians as “a swarm of bats,” “ants creeping out of their nest,” “frogs holding a symposium round a swamp,” and my favorite — “worms in conventicle in a corner of the mud.”

You also have to give Celsus credit for what was a perfectly prophetic, predictive description of Jerry Falwell Jr., Paula White, James Dobson, Robert Jeffrees, Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, Franklin Graham, Tony Perkins and all the other loud-mouth frogs “holding symposiums round the Swamp” that lying, crooked Donald J. Trump and all the aforementioned have created.

The world is always ending somewhere, be it in a California bar where college kids have gathered to dance the stress away or in a hospital emergency room near you, where someone will pass unexpectedly today.

Jan Richardson, the gifted poet, painter, spiritual director and United Methodist pastor, wrote this poem in response to the slaying of 49 people in an attack at Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

It was published in her superb book Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons. (See here for more.)

She blogs at The Painted Prayerbook (here).

“Blessing When the World is Ending”
By Jan Richardson

Image: End and Beginning © Jan Richardson, The Painted Prayerbook blog

Look, the world
is always ending
somewhere.

Somewhere
the sun has come
crashing down.

Somewhere
it has gone
completely dark.

Somewhere
it has ended
with the gun,
the knife,
the fist.

Somewhere
it has ended
with the slammed door,
the shattered hope.

Somewhere
it has ended
with the utter quiet
that follows the news
from the phone,
the television,
the hospital room.

Somewhere
it has ended
with a tenderness
that will break
your heart.

But, listen,
this blessing means
to be anything
but morose.
It has not come
to cause despair.

It is simply here
because there is nothing
a blessing
is better suited for
than an ending,
nothing that cries out more
for a blessing
than when a world
is falling apart.

This blessing
will not fix you,
will not mend you,
will not give you
false comfort;
it will not talk to you
about one door opening
when another one closes.

It will simply
sit itself beside you
among the shards
and gently turn your face
toward the direction
from which the light
will come,
gathering itself
about you
as the world begins
again.


Further proof that Thomas Merton is as relevant today as he was when he wrote this — during the McCarthy Era of the fifties:*

“A mass movement readily exploits the discontent and frustration of large segments of the population which for some reason or other cannot face the responsibility of being persons and standing on their own feet.

Thomas Merton: “Here is the great temptation of the modern age, this universal infection of fanaticism, this plague of intolerance … which flows from the crippled nature of man who is afraid of love …”

“But give these persons a movement to join, a cause to defend, and they will go to any extreme, stop at no crime, intoxicated as they are by the slogans that give them a pseudo-religious sense of transcending their own limitations.

“The member of a mass movement, afraid of his own isolation, and his own weakness as an individual, cannot face the task of discovering within himself the spiritual power and integrity which can be called forth only by love.

“Instead of this, he seeks a movement that will protect his weakness with a wall of anonymity and justify his acts by the sanction of collective glory and power.

“All the better if this is done out of hatred, for hatred is always easier and less subtle than love. It does not have to respect reality as love does. It does not have to take account of individual cases. Its solutions are simple and easy.

“It makes its decisions by a simple glance at a face, a colored skin, a uniform. It identifies an enemy by an accent, an unfamiliar turn of speech, an appeal to concepts that are difficult to understand. He is something unfamiliar. This is not ‘ours.’

“This must be brought into line – or destroyed.

“Here is the great temptation of the modern age, this universal infection of fanaticism, this plague of intolerance, prejudice and hate which flows from the crippled nature of man who is afraid of love and does not dare to be a person.

“It is against this temptation most of all that the Christian must labor with inexhaustible patience and love, in silence, perhaps in repeated failure, seeking tirelessly to restore, wherever he can, and first of all in himself, the capacity of love and which makes man the living image of God.”

— Adapted from Disputed Questions, “Christianity and Totalitarianism,” Thomas Merton
————
*Mind you, the book, comprising a few essays, wasn’t written about Sen. Joseph McCarthy and or other American political leader of the time.

Still, it’s from an essay about totalitarianism and speaks to how weak people (who fear love and are “afraid to be persons,” Merton says) lap up the lies of political leaders and find meaning in misguided mass-movements.

As in the Trump Era.
————-
H.T. Beth at Louie Louie


IN THIS PHOTO by Hilary Swift for the New York Times: Mourners gathered for Joyce Fienberg’s funeral in Pittsburgh on Wednesday. Story of the funeral here.
====================================

The president of The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) noted in a statement — released shortly after the slayings at Pittsburgh’s The Tree of Life Synagogue Saturday — the terrible irony of the massacre.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs wrote:

    “The murders took place during a prayer service in the Tree of Life congregation where, like synagogues all around the world, they were reading from Genesis recounting how Abraham welcomed perfect strangers into his tent.

    “How painful and ironic that we live in a time when we have to temper our loving welcome of strangers as we protect our communities from violence and hate.”

What the Jews call Torah — the first five books of our Christian Bible’s Older Testament — granted equal protection under the Jewish law for non-citizens with this command:

    “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

This commandment appears 36 times — that’s thirty-six times — in the Torah.

The commandment stems from the extravagant hospitality of Abraham, the first Jew. He literally ran out of his desert tent to bow down before three perfect strangers as they approached, showering them with God-like grace as told in Genesis 18:1-8.

    The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.

    He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground.

    He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant.”

    Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree.

    Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on — since you have come to your servant.
    So they said, “Do as you have said.”

Acting as their servant, Abraham then “hastened into the tent” to his wife Sarah and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.”

Then, Abraham literally ran — again — this time to his herd, where he “took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to his servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.”

Abraham’s sense of urgency in making strangers feel at home stands out in bold relief.

The story of Abraham is considered by many American Jews and Christians, myself included, as the clearest mandate we have in America, the richest and greatest nation in the world, to welcome aliens with our hands open in abundance, not closed like a fist in scarcity.

And yet our U.S. government policy toward migrants from south of the U.S. border continues to run from harshly deceptive to downright evil.

Go to this link to learn how the Trump Administration is putting legitimate asylum seekers in Catch-22 traps.

* * *

The story of Abraham and others in the Older Testament aren’t the only ones that underscore our call as Christians to hospitality to aliens among us.

Hebrews 13:1, for example, says to “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

According to his posts on social media, the man who attacked and killed 11 people and critically wounded others at a synagogue in Pittsburgh believed that Jews were the people behind the much-publicized caravan of Central American migrants fleeing violence in their homelands.

I doubt that all those making the trek through Mexico, where many of them will stay, are angels. I have little doubt that a small percentage of those few thousand migrants have no intention of seeking asylum.

But the notion that every one of the 3,500 men, women and children — all unarmed — are marching like an army to “invade” America is a sign of severe paranoia caused by the consumption of way too much toxic, political Kool-Aid.

The very word invasion implies intent to conquer a country by occupying it and taking prisoners — and taking lives.

Needless, draconian measures to defend against unarmed men, women and children fleeing violence and poverty in their native lands makes good politics for hack politicians.

Tragically, it all makes for lousy Abrahamic hospitality.


With patience, we must bring together the sparks and rays.

“This is an age of spiritual blackout, a blackout of God. We have entered not only the dark night of the soul, but the dark night of society. We must seek out ways of preserving the strong and deep truth of a living God theology in the midst of the blackout.

“For the darkness is neither final nor complete. Our power is first in waiting for the end of darkness, for the defeat of evil; and our power is also in coming upon single sparks and occasional rays, upon moments full of God’s grace and radiance.

“We are called to bring together the sparks to preserve single moments of radiance and keep them alive in our lives, to defy absurdity and despair, and to wait for God to say again: Let there be light.

“And there will be light.”

— Rabbi Abraham Joshue Heschel (1907-1972), Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity
More on Rabbi Heschel here.