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Archive for January, 2016

So give to the poor; I am begging you, I am warning you, I am commanding you, I am ordering you.”

"St. Augustine in His Study" (also called Vision of St. Augustine) by Italian Renaissance artist Vittore Carpaccio.

“St. Augustine in His Study” (also called Vision of St. Augustine) by Italian Renaissance artist Vittore Carpaccio.

“It is in the poor person that Christ has wished to be fed.

“Let us not, then, reject our God in the people who are poor ….”

— St. Augustine

St. Augustine (354-430 AD) churned out 5 or 6 million words in his letters, sermons and classic books.

Somehow, the North African saint produced this massive body of work without a computer, much less a typewriter.

Think about this: he poured out those millions of words without so much as a Bic Pen or a nice, No. 2 pencil with a nice eraser head.

What’s more, during so much of his productive writing life, his day job was serving as the Bishop of Hippo, leading a community of priests and people who required constant crisis management.

Once he finally embraced God after so many years as an adventurous party boy, Augustine was embroiled in conflicts and controversies most of his 75 years. The stress of it all would have put a lesser person in an early grave.

Somehow, he was never distracted from his prolific production of eloquent books, sermons and letters.

Augustine was the Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, where his leadership called for constant crisis management.

Augustine was the Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, where his leadership called for constant crisis management.

Augustine will always rank as one of the greatest thinkers of all time for his provocative theology, which is spiced with quips like,”Lord, make me chaste; but not yet.” And with easy, breezy nuggets such as his commonly quoted “Lord, our hearts are restless until we find rest in you.”

Like most seminarians even in Protestant seminaries, I was required to read and study and be ready to discuss what seemed like a couple of million of Augustine’s prolific words.

But in re-visiting much of Augustine’s writings for my forthcoming book (which was much more enjoyable reading without the pressure of seminary expectations), I realized for the first time what a heart he had for the poor. So much of his provocative and controversial theology is studied and reconsidered in every generation that I’m thinking his advocacy for the poor has been largely overlooked.

Like all the great figureheads in Christian history–from Paul to St. Francis to Mother Theresa to John Wesley and Dorothy Day to the current Pope Francis–Augustine spoke and wrote often of seeing Christ in the face and personhood of every poor person he encountered.

Much like Pope Francis today, Augustine acknowledged that accumulating wealth can do good. But like today’s controversial Pope, he warned repeatedly, and forcefully, in plain language, that money and valuables are dangerous for the arrogance and avarice they spawn.

Avarice, St. Augustine warned in a sermon, is the “worm of wealth,” noting how easy it is to become arrogant, greedy, and corrupt in heart when you hold the gold.

He included these words toward the end of every sermon:

“Do not reject the poor people.”

That’s not one of his oft-quoted quotes, but it tells us a lot about his love and embrace of the least among us.

Here’s a summary of his remarkable life and times.

And for your edification, what follows are excerpts from the bishop’s works, in some of his most clear and simple words, concerning the poor and their humanity in relation to the church, harvested from the Web Site Augent:

* * *

    You have found yourselves companions [with the poor man], walking along the same road; he is carrying nothing, you have an excessive load.

    He is carrying nothing with him, you are carrying more than you need.

    You are overloaded; give him some of what you have. At a stroke, you feed him and lessen your load.

    So give to the poor; I am begging you, I am warning you, I am commanding you, I am ordering you.

    Give to the poor people whatever you like. (Sermon 389, 5-6)

“As a human being [Jesus was] a poor person. Truly, that Man rose to heaven already rich, and now sits at the right hand of the Father.

But here, among us, He still suffers hunger, thirst and nakedness: here He is a poor person and is in poor people.” (Sermon 123, 4)

    “First and foremost, clearly, please remember the poor people, so that what you withhold from yourselves by living more simply, you may deposit in the treasury of heaven. Let the denial of self of one who undertakes it willingly become the support of the one who has nothing. Let the voluntary want of the person who has plenty become the needed plenty of the person in want.” (Sermon 210, 12)

“There are two types of persons to whom you must give. Two types of persons hunger; one for bread, the other for what is right. Between these two hungry persons you find yourself as the doer of the good work; if charity motivates the work, it serves the good of both. For the one desires what he may eat, the other desires what he may imitate. You feed the one, and give yourself as a pattern to the other; so you have given to both of them: the one you have given reason to thank you for killing his hunger, the other you have given reason to imitate you by setting him an example.” (Homilies on the First Letter of John 8, 9)

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You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”

— From Thomas Wolfe’s 1940 novel You Can’t Go Home Again

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“And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”

— The prophet Jesus as quoted in Luke 4: 21-30

I’ve always been amused by Luke’s story about Jesus being (almost) chased off a cliff by the homeboys in Nazareth as told in Luke 4: 21-30. (Scroll down to read it.)

Jesus naturally goes down to the synagogue on the sabbath and proceeds to read the Old Testament prophet Isaiah’s (radical) vision of the good news.

At first, the homeys are cool with his reading. But then Jesus keeps connecting himself and his program to other biblical figures and stories. He makes it known that, essentially, he’s the one of whom Isaiah spoke all those hundreds of years ago.

He’s the one, he is telling them, who will bring “good news” to the poor and the outcasts that they, the religious leaders, exclude from their religious Boys Club.

Their initial pleasure with his reading of Isaiah now turns to rage and they go chasing after him like a pitchfork mob all the way to a cliff, where they might just send him tumbling.

But then, in an amusingly dramatic turn, the Jesus of NO FEAR does an about face and goes walking right back through the mob untouched.

If Dr. Luke came back today and sat on a cracker barrel and told us this story to our faces, I have no doubt that he’d give us a smile and a wink at the end of it. (The sly humor of biblical writers going all the way back to Genesis is so subtle as to be missed in all our earnest Bible study. I mean, a fig leaf of all things?)

In telling us this story of Jesus today, Luke would point out what is obvious: that these kinds of conflicts exist even today. We accept others as long as they act in lockstep with our ideas. As long as “they” look like us, think like us, act like us and believe what we believe.

Jesus found that “you can’t go home again” if you’re going to go out and get all radicalized by God’s love.

Here’s the story as told by Luke, by far the best writer of all those biblical writers:

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Luke 4:16-30 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Rejection of Jesus at Nazareth

16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.

21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”

23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’”

24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers[a] in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”

28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.

29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.

30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

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Donald Trump was reportedly “humbled” when he dropped in at a Presbyterian worship service Sunday. (Story here.)

I’m thinking the only way to humble him would be to call on him to lead the congregation in prayer.

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Mourners pause at crosses representing the 12 Marines who died in helicopter crashes Jan. 14 in Hawai. The crosses were adorned with flight gear, boots and Hawiian leis during a memorial Friday at Marine Corps Base Hawaii. WYATT OLSON/STARS AND STRIPES

“In a world of grief”: Mourners pause at crosses representing the 12 Marines who died in helicopter crashes Jan. 14 in Hawai. The crosses were adorned with flight gear, boots and Hawiian leis during a memorial Friday at Marine Corps Base Hawaii.
WYATT OLSON/STARS AND STRIPES

“Prayer For Disciples”
By Pastor *Steve Garnaas-Holmes

God of Love,
in a world great with darkness
I drink your light.

In a world of violence
I soften my heart.

In a world of fear
I deepen my breath.

In a world of grief
I enlarge my embrace.

In a world of shouting
I open my roots.

In a world of fragments
I let myself belong.

In a world of walls
I go out into the streets:

I bear you to those
who are mad with hunger for you.

In a world of fissures
I return to you,
always to you.

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*Steve Garnaas-Holmes is a poet, songwriter and ordained pastor in the United Methodist Church, serving in Massachusetts, where he lives with his wife Beth. He previously served in Montana and New Hampshire. He writes a daily contemplative reflection, Unfolding Light, as well as lectionary-based music and worship resources.

Find more poetry and great writing here.

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With the loss of Glenn Frey, probably speak for many when I say I feel like I've lost an old, always vigorous friend who gave me a lot of pleasure and good times over the years.

With the loss of Glenn Frey, I probably speak for many when I say I feel like I’ve lost an old, always vigorous friend who gave me a lot of pleasure and good times over the years.

So often times it happens

that we live our lives in chains,

and we never even know we have the key.”

— From “Already Gone,” performed by Glenn Frey and The Eagles, written by Frey and his collaborator on many cool songs Don Henley

Glenn Frey–who along with his soul mate and writer of so many progressive country and rock songs he co-wrote with Don Henley–was no Don Henley as a singer. He said as much in “The Eagles” documentary the band released last year when he said there was a reason he started doing fewer lead vocals and Henley did more.

But he was certainly good enough as a vocalist to grab you with his understated delivery of lines as wonderful as these opening lines from “Lyin’ Eyes”:

    “City girls just seem to find out early,

    “How to open doors with just a smile,

    “A rich old man, and she won’t have to worry,

    “She’ll dress up all in lace, and go in style.”

How many miles did I, and untold numbers of us in the seventies, Texas Two Step across dance floors to that song with longnecks in hand?

How many untold number of American music lovers–male and female, country and urban– cranked up the radio to sing along at the top of the lungs every time Glenn’s lament about that cheater’s “Lyin’ Eyes” came on the radio?

The Eagles were, in truth, a terribly uneven band. They churned out some god-awful bland and forgettable songs that somehow became hits. “There’s a new kid in town, everybody’s talking ’bout the new kid in town.” How such a pedestrian lyric and melody ever became a hit song is mystery.

But when The Eagles were good, they were “Hotel California” and “Lyin’ Eyes” and “Tequila Sunrise” and “Desperado” great.

Hard to believe that a rock music icon like Glenn Frey, who almost did the “live fast, die young” thing before he converted to health and fitness and domestic family life, has died at 67.

But God bless him, we’ll always have “Lyin’ Eyes” and so much more.

Here’s the skinny on this shocker.

And a more substantive obit from venerable Times obit section.

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In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. …

“Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

“There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.”

In keeping with this blog’s annual tradition I once again encourage you to read for yourself a prophetic letter so powerful, so eloquent and so uncompromising that it would make that powerful master of letter writing Paul the Apostle, who knew the challenge of writing from a jail, break out in hosannahs.

Compare it to the lack of truth, power and eloquence lacking in political leadership in this age, when so many political leaders play the Christian card at every turn. Or contrast it with the megachurch leaders who write their “prosperity gospel” sermons from the comfort of their home palaces and jets.

It’s doubtful that the American patriot who wrote these words would be much impressed.

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About 16,000 Walmart employees, who were granted a whopping minimum-wage increase to $10 an hour by Walmart in 2015 (try living on that income for a month), learned from Big Daddy today that they are being thrown out of work. (See story and list of stores here.)

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I emphasize here all the time that my blood runs capitalist, even though I find plenty to criticize and dislike about it. As brutal as it can be, I’ll take it over the paternalistic socialism I witness in Belize every day, even though the country claims (pretty much pretends) to be capitalistic.*

As much as I admire Bernie Sanders for his rare kind of integrity and seriousness at a time when precious few American leaders have either trait, I could never vote for a socialist who thinks a 90 percent tax rate in this day and age wouldn’t be unreasonable. Americans couldn’t vote for him either.

But I don’t doubt that the Senator feels pain in his good heart for people like the Walmart employees who routinely went to work today, only to learn that they won’t be going to work tomorrow.

Prosperous, insecure Americans today are high on more and bigger tax cuts but low on empathy for the poor–increasingly incapable, it seems, of imagining a walk in another person’s shoes.

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I cringe every time I hear some poor-bashing hypocrite in Congress, who thumps his 20-pound Bible at every turn, suggest that people in low-income neighborhoods where jobs are scarce need only get off their hindquarters and move to some place where jobs are plentiful.

If you share that attitude, tell some struggling Walmart employee who has found himself suddenly jobless today that he or she needs only to pull up stakes and move out of the town or city neighborhood that’s been home forever. That assumes that he or she has a big savings account from a job that pays a whopping $10 an hour. It’s not only unrealistic, it’s insulting, adding a huge insult to someone facing a huge, unexpected life crisis.

Tell it to an ex-Walmart employee who was so thankful for Walmart in a town or neighborhood where it was about the only employer in town for 10, 20, 30 or more years of his or her life.

One of the Walmarts closing is in Bryan, Texas, 20 miles from where I grew up. Being the budget shopper that I am, I was in that very Walmart (one of the corporation’s smaller “Market stores) in October when I was staying at my daughter’s home in College Station, the bigger and more prosperous of the twin cities comprising Bryan-College Station. Lo and behold, I happened to cross paths with a Walmart worker from my hometown whom I hadn’t seen in a coon’s age, as we used to say in the hometown. We had an all-too-quick conversation and were genuinely happy to reconnect, however briefly, after all these years.

I asked him if he’s on Facebook. “I wish I could be,” he said. “I don’t have time to do anything but work, go home and take care of my family and come back to work.” He mentioned that he also has his aging parents to care for.

It’s not as if he was ever a best friend of mine, mind you. But, naturally, he instantly came to mind this morning when I read the news about Walmart.

I feel for him today, and being a praying man I’m praying for him and all the 16,000 fellow Americans from Walmart world suddenly unemployed. God help them and God help us all to be something akin to what a Christian nation or even just a compassionate nation of empathetic people would look like, think like, talk like, act like, pray like.

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*(As an aside: the doctors that Castro boasts about exporting to countries like Belize on a rotation basis are so poorly paid by Castro that they feel like they are living large when they live here. The ones here in San Ignacio live in a spacious house together 100 yards from my house. Fine people, these Cubans. Too bad they can’t talk, much, to this curious old reporter out of fear.)

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“Look up here, I’m in heaven.

“I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.

“I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen. Everybody knows me now.”

— David Bowie in “Lazarus,” his musical, spiritual meditation on his impending death from cancer.

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Such a powerful, wide-ranging voice it was. How it spoke with such power and immediacy as if someone were speaking directly to you as in the story of astronaut “Major Tom” in “Space Oddity.”

    Ground Control to Major Tom . . .

    Commencing countdown, engines on Check ignition and may God’s love be with you

Such a chameleon, great actor, fashion trendsetter and above all, a performance artist who was way ahead of his time in so many ways.

Many have noted that he made avant-garde cool. Indeed, what other avant-garde artist outside of his dear friend John Lennon’s place could have broken into traditional Top 40 Radio in such a big way. His breakthrough work was as weird and wild, in a way that was both subdued and in-your-face, as if it were coming from a space cadet on some kind of crazy and potentially dangerous “smart pill” from the future.

And yet he was as classic and stylish as Bing Crosby, with whom he famously sang “Peace on Earth/The Little Drummer Boy” on a TV Christmas special.

I remember seeing them do that duet, back in the days when TV was three channels and PBS and everybody watched Christmas specials because the TV fare was so limited and conservative. And I’m thinking, “David Bowie??? — him??? — that gender-bending weirdo, all dressed up and looking like a traditional crooner, singing with Bing Crosby???”

I had a hard time getting on the program with Bowie. But he managed to wear down my earthy, conservative Texas sensibilities. Over time, his whole body of work won over those of us who liked the soul music and something more akin to garage-band rock on our radio dials.

In time he went way more traditional and classic in his music and performing and lifestyle, but it still sounded and looked and seemed so ground-breaking.

You just never knew what you were going to get next from David Bowie.

    “Under the moonlight.

    “The serious moonlight.”

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Today’s Music Therapy contains adult material.

Send the kids to their rooms.

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