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On this day in 1962, Karl Barth — a Swiss theologian and preacher who famously resisted Hitler and the rise of the Nazism — was featured on the cover of TIME magazine.

That tells you everything you need to know about what an influential man of God that Barth was and will always be.

Lately I’ve been revisiting some of the Lenten and Easter sermons and other prolific writings of Barth. He churned out theology books by the volumes–his Dogmatics was an astounding 6 million words!

But I had forgotten what a heart he had for the poor and vulnerable, like the inmates he routinely preached and ministered to at the prison in his hometown Basel, Switzerland.

In fact, one of his many books, Deliverance to the Captives, contains 17 of his Sunday sermons to prisoners. It was endorsed by one of his greatest American admirers, the novelist and all-around man of Letters John Updike.*

Barth, incidentally, was a lifelong socialist. Even as a young parish minister he was known as the “Red Pastor” of Safenwil (Switzerland).

But I hasten to add that even though he regarded Jesus and the gospel as inherently political (as do I), he had no truck with those who wanted to reduce the gospel and theology to political ideology (same here).

Barth (like me) was all for government assistance, but believed that, at the end of the day, it was the duty of Christians and the church to … well … be the church, to be Christians … and not abdicate Christian duty to government with all its cold bureaucracy.

He wrote:

    “Christ was born into poverty in the stable at Bethlehem, and He died in extreme poverty, nailed naked to the Cross.

    “He is, then, the companion, not of the rich men of this world, but of the poor of this world. For that reason He called the poor blessed, and not the rich.

    “For that reason He is here and now always to be found in the company of the hungry, the homeless, the naked, the sick, the prisoners.”

Among the many religious leaders of many denominations he met, Karl Barth met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who admired him (as did the great sophisticate and novelist John Updike).

God only knows how Barth–who made a much ballyhooed trip to America where he met, among other people, Dr. King and Billy Graham (whose preaching style turned him off) would feel about the ways the hungry, homeless, naked, sick and imprisoned are detested and scapegoated for all of America’s woes today.

Barth was on his extended American tour when TIME interviewed him for the cover story. He was shocked at the awful conditions in American jails and prisons and the treatment of the have-nots in general.

Mind you, all in all, Barth loved and admired America. But his pointed criticisms of her obviously did not sit well with everybody. In a letter to a friend, the great wit and Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor cracked:

“I distrust folks who have ugly things to say about Karl Barth. I like old Barth. He throws the furniture around.”

I leave you with what this great man of God said about the Church with the question: how is your church doing in this regard?

    “The Church is witness of the fact that the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.

    “And this implies that … the Church must concentrate first on the lower and lowest levels of human society. The poor, the socially and economically weak and threatened, will always be the object of its primary and particular concern.”

————-
Come back to the blog tomorrow, Easter Sunday, for something fascinating that the late Mr. Updike — a “man of the mind” if ever there was one — had to say about the bodily resurrection.

Karl Barth: He wrote volumes upon more volumes of great theology (6 million words) –and yet was a down-home preacher and pastor who loved the poor and vulnerable that Jesus loved.

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In 2015, I spoke about “the fourth word” of “the seven last words of Christ” at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church here in San Ignacio, BZ. Here’s what I said about these famous, agonizing words from Mark 15:34.

    “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?”

Christian Mostaert, “Christ, Man of Sorrows”

Contrary to what some folks might think, Jesus did not speak English. Jesus didn’t even speak Spanish, or Kriol or even Mayan, obviously.

He spoke an old, pretty much now-dead language called Aramaic.

But I want you to imagine, just for the purposes of this reflection, that Jesus DID speak English even from the cross. We know that he said from the cross, in the ENGLISH translation, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?”

But we can only guess exactly HOW he would have cried out those words in English. We can only guess the kind of emotion he was expressing because we can’t possibly know. We can only guess at the word or words he emphasized in that outcry.

1. Maybe he said like this:

“My GOD! … My GOD! WHY have you forsaken me?”
Maybe he was just screaming out in his agony the way WE sometimes commonly shout out “My GOD!”

That’s almost an automatic reaction when we experience pain or something terribly shocking to us, isn’t it?

If we’re in prolonged pain we might reflexively scream out, “My GOD! I can’t take this pain anymore!”

Have you ever reacted to physical or emotional pain by crying out something like,

“My GOD! I can’t TAKE it anymore!”

I sure have.

“WHY ME?”

2. But MAYBE Jesus said it like this.

“My God! My God! Why have you forsaken ME?” As if to say, “ME! OF ALL PEOPLE! How could you do this to ME! Your own SON!”

Raise your hand if you’ve ever cried out to God, “My God! Why ME! Why am I suffering like this! I’m one of the good guys!”

I’ve had many of those “Why me?” moments.

———

3. It’s entirely possible, I think, that Jesus was steaming mad when he said those last words.

“With those precious hands nailed to a tree, he couldn’t shake his fist at God–-he couldn’t shake a fist at his Father, that is. But maybe he WANTED to in that agonizing moment.

I’ve always said that I picked great parents, that my parents loved me and did everything they could to ensure that I would have a better life than they had growing up.

That said, family members inevitably have conflicts sometimes, and the conflicts between a parent and teenager, who is a young know-it-all, can get really heated, right? I had my share of conflicts with my old man. But that’s not to say that I didn’t get so angry or put out with the him that I didn’t want to shake a fist at him sometimes.

Whatever fights we had were forgiven and forgotten because we truly, deeply loved each other–at least until the next conflict that passed and was forgiven and forgotten.

I served for a considerable number of years as a hospital chaplain, ministering to people laid really, really low by illness and injury and impending death, and giving pastoral care to their families and loved ones as well.

I also served two full years as a chaplain in hospice care. Hospice is pain-management care given to people who are dying–-people who have no chance of living more than two years or maybe only two months. It was common in my experience with sick and dying people or their families to say to me, “I know I’m not supposed to get mad at God, but…”

And many times, I would stop them right there and say, “Whoa! Wait a minute. Where in the Bible is it written that we can’t get angry as all get-out with God? Where is it written that we aren’t supposed to question God?”

My friends, the Bible is full of people wracked by some kind of pain who ain’t at all happy with God.

The Psalms, most of all, are full of what we call Psalms of Lament, or Psalms of Complaint, where the Psalmist is sort of shaking his fist at God in anger or utter frustration with God, who seems to have grown cold or abandoned even the most faithful of believers.

And, in fact, when Jesus said, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me!”–-when Jesus had that moment in which he obviously felt God had abandoned even him-–he was quoting from a Psalm.

Can someone tell me which Psalm that was so I can find it and read it????

Yes, Psalm 22–-and I want to read some of it to you, starting with the very first verse, which is–-what do you know?”—-“My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?”

That line didn’t just come to Jesus’s tormented mind in the moment, but rather was a direct quote from Psalm 22, a Lament Psalm.

So here is some more from Psalm 22, and please, think about Jesus on the cross as you hear these words from Mark:

    1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
    Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
    2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
    and by night, but find no rest.

    3 Yet you are holy,
    enthroned on the praises of Israel.
    4 In you our ancestors trusted;
    they trusted, and you delivered them.
    5 To you they cried, and were saved;
    in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.

    6 But I am a worm, and not human;
    scorned by others, and despised by the people.
    7 All who see me mock at me;
    they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
    8 ‘Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—
    let him rescue the one in whom he delights!’

    9 Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
    you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
    10 On you I was cast from my birth,
    and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
    11 Do not be far from me,
    for trouble is near
    and there is no one to help.

Now, notice that as depressed as the Psalmist is, and as much as he feels abandoned by a seemingly deaf God who seems to refuse to hear his cries, he turns right around and says to that same God:

“Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.”

And if you read the rest of the Psalm, you will notice that the poor guy, who feels lower than a worm, for gosh sakes, hasn’t abandoned his faith and hope in God!

That’s how lament Psalms and stories end up in the Bible: we see people complaining to God, but not losing faith-–they remain in CONTACT with the father because they know deep down that God is too good and trustworthy and loving to actually abandon or go cold on us.

So my whole point is—-it’s OK for us to be angry or frustrated or doubtful about God in EXTREME situations of pain or grief or suffering. And we will have duress in life–-the rain falls on the evil and the good no matter how devout the good guys are.

But Jesus himself CERTAINLY understands our pain and doubt and anger. He and the Father know good and well how excruciating our pain can be in life.

While it’s all right to be most unhappy with God, the WRONG thing to do be to stay STUCK in anger or frustration and doubt about God.

God is a big boy–-God can take our complaints, and will hear them in a merciful and understanding way.

But our forsaking–-abandoning God-–that’s another matter.


The Christian response to refugees seeking asylum at the border is a far cry from the U.S. government response. (Art by Bro. Mickey McGrath, an Oblate of St. Francis De Sales, artist, author, and speaker. More on him at http://www.bromickeymcgrath.com and http://www.embracedbygod.org)

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

~ Hebrews 13:3

Today is Maundy or Holy Thursday, the day in Holy Week when the Jesus of Radical Love washed the feet of his disciples in a radical act of loving hospitality.

Back when Jesus walked, washing the feet of a guest in a home — even a stranger — was far from being a glamorous task. But somebody had to do it. And that somebody was usually the house servant.

Cleaning feet was an act of hospitality and hospitality was, and will always be, a powerful motif in Judaism, Christianity and Islam — the Abrahamic religions.

The theology of hospitality stems from the story of Abraham responding to three strangers outside his tent and his running around at a frantic pace to serve them as if they were three kings.

They turned out to be God in the form of three angels.

April-May is the peak time of the (very) hot-dry season in Belize. The feet of the poor folks do get dirty and dry and cracked. (They get caked with mud in the rainy season.) I had lived in Belize a short time when I became acutely aware of just how dirty — and bone weary — the sandled feet must get in the Holy Land clime.

Show dogs and rescued pets get treated with more care and dignity than human beings at our borders.

I can’t imagine how weary and sore the feet of desperate migrant get in their journeys of thousands of miles.

I certainly can’t imagine the Jesus of radical love and hospitality sanctioning the treatment of those desperate people by the United States government these days.

I can’t imagine it because no one can possibly believe that the Jesus of radical love supports the demonization of people fleeing poverty and violence to such an extent as to brand them as “animals.”

No one can possibly believe that Jesus who died on the cross for the sake of all people in all times would bless United States government policies that treat human beings with far less care and dignity than pet owners in the United States of America treat their rescue animals and show dogs.

Nobody can possibly deny that the Jesus who humbled himself all the way to the cross is a far bigger and better Jesus than that.

Being the holy superstar that he was, Jesus was couldn’t go anywhere without drawing a crowd. In the last days of his life, he attracted three especially significant throngs:

Sometimes an encouraging word is like salt, not salve, on a wound.

1. The festive crowd that celebrated his entry on a little foal into Jerusalem for the Passover holiday.

The people in that crowd were overjoyed, at least for a short time, because they snapped to the fact that the prophet Zechariah had proclaimed that their savior/king would ride into town on a donkey.

2. Then there was the mob, comprising some of those same people who had laid palms in Jesus’ path and boogied in the streets with joy over him. Now they wanted Pontius Pilate to go all Mel Gibson on him.

3. The third crowd — many mourning women among them — were those who followed Jesus as he bore his cross (with a little help from a good-hearted African). It was those women, God bless em, who gave Jesus what we all need when we’re at our lowest, most painful points in life.

They gave him the gift of their presence.

Image: Antonio Ciseri’s 1871 depiction of Pontius Pilate presenting a scourged Christ to one of the 3 crowds.

And therein lies a pastoral-care lesson in Luke’s gripping account of the Passion. Even when they followed him at a distance, Jesus knew the women were there for him. In all his anguish, he could feel their loving presence.

It’s a wonderfully pleasant thing to be with someone we love on a happy, festive occasion like a wedding or birthday or Christmas bash. Not so easy simply to be there when someone is laid low by grief. We want to speak platitudes at them in futile attempts to make them feel better.

Really, it is not that hard to simply say to someone who is in pain, “I cannot imagine how you are feeling, but I’m here for you.”

If you really love and care deeply about someone, allow them to feel and express their inescapable pain.

Allow them to say what they want to say to get their pain off their chest without jumping in with an encouraging word or two or 50.

Because, ironically, an encouraging word has the potential to salt the wound rather than salve it. (“He’s in a better place and he wouldn’t want you to be so sad and remember that this will make you stronger in the end and God has some good reason for this, you know.”)

Like those women in mourning who followed Jesus all the way to the cross — and let him do what little, meaningful talking he did to them without talking back — just be there to share the pain.

The latest annual survey of happiest nations on earth is out.

Have a happy day!

In the happiness rankings of every nation in the world, America — God bless her — has dropped from 18th to 19th, this in spite of a booming economy and America’s greatness restored to that of the roaring 20s (which didn’t end so well).

You would think a nation that codified “the pursuit of happiness” at its inception would not have such a sinking case of the blues, but there you go.

According to this year’s survey, the happiest nation is (drum roll please) Finland, followed by the other Nordic nations of Denmark, Norway and Iceland.

(Our good neighbor Canada, where your average citizen is happy to sit at home with a Moosehead Beer and watch nonviolent curlers go at it, came in No. 9.)

Read it and weep, ye whose American hearts are so restless for more and more of the things that money and prestige can’t buy.

Here’s a Lenten reflection for you, right out of your Good Book, which concludes with a verse on how to achieve the perpetual joy of noonday brightness in spring.

ISAIAH 58 (With my italics for emphasis)
1 Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.

2 Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,

    as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
    and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;

they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.

3 “Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

    Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
    and oppress all your workers.

    4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
    and to strike with a wicked fist.
    Such fasting as you do today
    will not make your voice heard on high.

5 Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

    6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of injustice,
    to undo the thongs of the yoke,
    to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?

    7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
    when you see the naked, to cover them,
    and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,

10

    if you offer your food to the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
    then your light shall rise in the darkness
    and your gloom be like the noonday.

The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.”

— Deuteronomy 29:29

Stunned people at one of the mosques attacked in Christchurch, New Zealand.
PHOTO BY Mark Baker/Associated Press, via The New York Times

The Bible tells how the world is, complete with all the suffering, hatred and wrenching violence, and how the world could be, and should be — and ultimately, how it will be.

With the advent of the Internet, “modern evil,” if you will, seems to make our ability to counter it futile. In the chilling, 74-page manifesto written by the young man who mowed down Muslims as they prayed in New Zealand, he noted this about the Internet:

    “You will not find the truth anywhere else.”

Like the Jews and Muslims, we Christians live in hope, which lies at the core of Abrahamic faith.

But how can we, as Christians in a world so modern that technology seems to outpace our ability to cope, counter the kind of suffering, hatred and violence that took place in a hospitable city ironically named Christchurch?

The Torah (the first five books of the Bible’s Older Testament) insists that we in fact can and must counter our seemingly endless inhumanity toward one another.

As Deuteronomy 29:29 notes, some things are not for us to know; some things only God knows and God keeps God’s secrets.

But the rest of the verse is a reminder that God has revealed to us how to do all the good we can do, individually and communally, for our sakes and the sake of our children.

Whether we live in Christchurch, New Zealand, or Bump-in-the-Road, Texas, there are wrongs around us that we, in community and individually, can set right.

There is suffering we can alleviate.

There is brokenness we can repair.

We always have the power of choice. We can choose the greatest good or the worst evil. We can be a blessing to others or we can be a curse.

The worst thing we can do is be complacent, waiting for God to set things right in the world while we obsess over our personal salvation, not that our salvation is not important.

Waiting for God to set things right assumes that God never expected us to respond to others in obedience to God’s own will for mercy and peace on earth, with justice.

I believe in the efficacy of prayer, but also believe in putting prayer into action. And here is my prayer for this day of Lent:

    Lord in your mercy,

    Give us the spiritual eyes to see the infinite number of wrongs around us that are in need of being set right.

    Give us the spiritual ears to hear the cries of those who are hurting and vulnerable because of the biases and prejudices that we, in our fears, harbor toward other religions, cultures and customs.

    Help us to develop fuller God consciousness, not just on days of worship in our churches, but in every moment we live, being mindful every moment of the Golden Rule.

    Help us to live and act every moment in the stream of your grace that flows through the cracks in the world, starting in our own homes and neighborhoods, our businesses and workplaces, our houses of worship.

    Deliver us Lord from complacency.

    Deliver us Lord from despair.

    Deliver us Lord from evil, and forgive us as we forgive those who offend us.

    Help us to be inspired by the horrific events in Christchurch, New Zealand — and by horrific events that happen around the world every day and threaten to overwhelm us with complacency — to do all the good we can do.

    Amen.

“Leave the past in ashes.”

1. I’ve heard it said a thousand times: “I’ve done so many terrible things in my life God could never forgive me.”

As if God has no desire to forgive even the worst of the worst.

The Ash Wednesday service in The Book of Common Prayer includes this line:

    “Return to the Lord with all your heart; leave the past in ashes and turn to God with tears and fasting, for He is slow to anger and ready to forgive.”

Ash Wednesday is a sort of “Ask Wednesday.”

Ask for forgiveness with a penitent heart.

Ask for an Easter heart that points on a new pathway.

God in God’s grace has been wooing you and waiting for you to surrender your whole life.

2. I have to say that seeking forgiveness and turning one’s life around to follow Jesus does not absolutely require “tears and fasting,” per The Book of Common Prayer’s Ash Wednesday manual.

Conversion only requires the sincere desire to align the heart with God’s heart. The payoff happens to be holistic health of the mind, body, soul and spirit.

3. There is always the temptation in Lent to become a spiritual athlete in order to show God how mighty strong we are.

But Lent is not about becoming strong. Lent in fact is about allowing our weakness to be penetrated by God.

4. Thomas Merton wrote:

    “Nevertheless, the liturgy of Ash Wednesday is not focused on the sinfulness of the penitent but on the mercy of God. The question of sinfulness is raised precisely because this is a day of mercy, and the just do not need a savior.”

    ~ From Seasons of Celebration, 1965

Mercy.

Mercy.

Mercy.

Mercy.

Mercy.

It’s all about that divine Mercy.