Would Jesus get away with the Lord’s Prayer in Congress?

With many of you, I am following with interest the controversy surrounding the Chaplain to the House of Representatives, Patrick Conroy S.J. I’m reflecting on it from the viewpoint of someone who was a “guest chaplain” for a day on September 22, 2010. The Congressman from my district (the 22nd in New York) Scott Murphy nominated me for this honor.

The Rev. Doug Fisher, Fr. Daniel Coughlin, and Congressman Scott Murphy, NY.

The Chaplain at that time was Fr. Daniel Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest. He was warmly hospitable to Betsy and me. Before my prayer, which would open the day in the House, Father Dan took us on a tour. When we arrived at the Chapel, knowing Betsy is also a priest, he asked her to say a prayer for us in that sacred space.

Doug and Betsy in DC.

In 2010 our nation was still in the throes of the recession caused by the 2008 crash. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were still raging. And, like now, immigration was hotly debated. In trying to offer a  prayer that was more than generic, I wanted to include the unemployed, immigrants and those serving in our Armed Forces. Here is the prayer in full:

Father Conroy seems to be in trouble with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan for a prayer he gave in October 2018 as the new tax laws were being debated. In that prayer Conroy asked for God’s blessing, and urged lawmakers to “guarantee that there are not winners and losers under the new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.” After that prayer, Conroy recalls Ryan saying “Padre, you just got to stay out of politics.” Conroy believes that this prayer, and a desire to have an Evangelical chaplain who might be more conservative politically than a Jesuit, were the causes of the request for his resignation (which he gave and then rescinded).

The Rev. Patrick Conroy, SJ Chaplain, US House of Representatives Photo: CBS News

I would argue that my prayer, and that of Father Conroy, stand in a tradition of prayer that is incarnational – praying with a God who “dwells among us.” The Psalmists and Jesus prayed in this way. Their prayers were not abstract. Their prayers were not disembodied.

Consider the Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name.” So far, that prayer would be OK in Congress. But then it gets political. “Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread.” In heaven there are no “winners and losers” so it should be that way here too. Jesus is calling for a kingdom where all are fed. Would Jesus get away with saying that in Congress?

At the Continental Congress in 1774, there was a contentious debate over prayer. The decision was to allow it.

First prayer at the 1774 Continental Congress

The Rev. Jacob Duche, an Episcopalian, prayed, “Take them (American states) under Thy nurturing care…detest the malicious designs of our cruel adversaries; convince them of the unrighteousness off their cause.” With that prayer ringing in their ears, the 1789 Constitutional Congress declared that every day they were in session would be opened in prayer. It has been that way ever since.

As one commentator on the Conroy controversy put it: “Taking care of the poor and standing against injustice is part of his (Conroy’s) sacred creed.” I think our elected leaders need to hear that creed. I do. Every day. Do you?

+Doug

Climate Change: We must go about our mission of changing hearts

Recently Betsy and I went with friends to a restaurant in Great Barrington. When the waiter handed us our menus, we all noticed a statement on the cover of the menu: “Drinks will be served without straws. If you want a plastic straw, we will supply one upon request.”

That led us to a discussion of “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch” floating right now in the Pacific Ocean. It is described by National Geographic as “a soupy collection of marine debris – mostly plastics.” You can read more about it here.

One might dismiss this plastic straw story as just another example of “crunchy granola” Great Barrington in the Southern Berkshires. Or one can see it as an invitation to the larger picture of how we treat God’s creation. This is where a newly published book by my friend, The Rev. Jim Antal comes in.

Jim’s most recent book is Climate Church, Climate Change: How People of Faith Must Work for Change. The book is the product of a deeply prayerful life that has led Jim to engage the crucial issue of climate change with rigorous scientific study and a passion to care for God’s creation. (He credits our own Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Missioner for Creation Care, for her input into the writing.)

Here is a description and scope of the book in Jim’s own words:

“This book invites people of faith- together with their faith communities- to accept that God has called us to bear witness in a time such as this- a time when the continuity of God’s creation is in jeopardy. I suggest that the enormity of this moral crisis constitutes a theological emergency (italics mine). To resolve this emergency, God is calling the church to initiate a moral intervention.”

Jim goes further to express this mandate:

“Do you believe in God? Then you have a moral duty to fight climate change.”

The “theological emergency” is expressed in some of the title chapters which certainly got my attention:

  • “The Earth is the Lord’s, Not Ours to Wreck.”
  • “A Loving God for a Broken World.”
  • “The Church’s Vocation Today.”
  • “The Marks of the Church in a Climate Crisis World.”
  • “The Church Was Born for This.”
  • “Self-Giving Love in Place of Self-Centered Fear.”

After delving deeply into theology, science, and politics, Jim offers numerous examples of what a moral intervention based on our theology and spirituality looks like. This is good and holy work but it will be challenging. A recent review of the book in The Chicago Tribune highlighted the magnitude of what is necessary: “The chapter entitled ‘Discipleship: Reorienting What We Prize” outlines the basic challenges in social and economic priorities Antal thinks are necessary to realize this goal. Americans, he believes, must reject and rethink ‘our insatiable desire for material growth, our uncompromising insistence on convenience, and our relentless addiction to mobility’.”

US Congressman Bob Inglis (R) SC

That will require a change of heart, but isn’t that what the Church is called to do? Recently former Congressman Bob Inglis (Republican) from South Carolina, said “science can convince our minds that climate change is real and we must act now to preserve the planet. But it is religion’s job to change our hearts.”

Jim Antal’s book tells us why and how we must go about our mission of changing hearts. It might begin with giving up plastic straws but it can’t end there.

+Doug

 

 

Easter is not an April Fool’s joke.

It is a long time and several snowstorms since Ash Wednesday. Do you remember the date of Ash Wednesday this year? February 14. Valentine’s Day. How romantic was it to hear those words: “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.” And now we have Easter Sunday on April Fool’s Day. But we have words that sound like Valentine’s Day. “Remember Love is stronger than death. And to that love you are returned.” And I’m here to tell you that the Resurrection of Jesus is not an April Fool’s joke. No, it is a reality that changes our lives.

But before I get to that reality that changes our lives, I have to admit the earliest disciples thought, at first, that the Resurrection was an April Fool’s joke.

In John’s Gospel, when Mary Magdalene sees angels in the empty tomb, she weeps and asks the angels where his body has been taken. In Luke’s gospel, the women saw the tomb empty and were given a message by “two men in dazzling white” that Jesus was risen. But when they go back to tell the eleven remaining disciples that news, “the disciples did not believe the women because their words seemed to them like nonsense.” In Matthew’s gospel a rumor circulates that the tomb was empty because someone stole the body. And in Matthew’s gospel, when the eleven see Jesus on the mountain, “some worshipped him and some doubted.”

And in Mark’s Gospel it is even worse. The women go to the tomb. A young man dressed in white tells them (1) don’t be afraid; (2) and go and tell the good news that Jesus is alive. He is risen! He has gone ahead of you to Galilee. The next line, the last line in the entire Gospel is “They fled from the tomb in terror and amazement. They said nothing to nobody. They were afraid because…”And the gospel ends there.

Now I know some of you are going to google “ending of Mark’s gospel” and you are going to find the “alternative endings” to Mark’s gospel in which the fear is gone, Jesus appears to the disciples and everyone is talking about it. I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Those alternatives endings were added by monks who were hand copying the Bible many, many years later. They could not bear the fact that the story from Mark ends in fear and silence. So they added a couple of happy stories. Like the ones that were already in the original texts of Mathew, Luke and John. Now hang in there because I’m going to come back to Mark in three minutes and forty five seconds.

The first reaction of the disciples is Resurrection of Jesus is an April Fool’s joke. How did they get from that to a belief so strong that they would literally give up their lives defending it? Eventually they got there. Eventually we can get there.

Let’s back up to my favorite story – the Feeding of the 5000. And I humbly think it was Jesus’ favorite story too. It is the only story of his ministry that gets into all four Gospels. And in two of the Gospels – Mark and Luke – it is followed a few days later by the Feeding of the 4000. (This shows that even in the time of Jesus, average Sunday attendance was declining.) And sometimes, when the disciples don’t understand what just happened, Jesus says – using his frustrated voice -“oh if you only understood about the loaves and the fishes, you would understand this.”

You all know the story. Jesus goes away to a deserted place to pray. 5000 people hear about it and join him there. All day long he preaches and heals and forgives. At the end of the day, the apostles tell Jesus all those people out there are hungry. And they are in a deserted place. No restaurants. I know people in Massachusetts are saying “there must have been a Dunkin’ Donuts. They are everywhere.” But no, not even a Dunkin’ Donuts. Jesus says “you give them something to eat.” The disciples say “we don’t have enough. Just five loaves and two fish.” Jesus says, again using his frustrated voice, “Give it to me.” He thanks God for it, breaks it, gives it away and God multiplies the grace, all 5000 are fed and there are 12 baskets of broken pieces left over.

This story tells us a lot about humanity, God and the church. But for this sermon I’m just going to stay with God. The God we meet in creation and the God we meet in the Bible is a God who over creates. Think about our God who we meet in nature. If you look out at the sky at night and you see a dozen or so stars, it is beautiful. Maybe you did that with your loved one on Ash Wednesday/Valentine’s Day after you heard the message you are dust. But God did not make a dozens of stars. God made millions of stars. More than we will ever see. Because God over creates.

Think about trees. In a couple of months we will look at the trees and they will be beautiful. If there were a few hundred leaves on those trees, they would still be beautiful. But as we know in New England in October, when you leave church on a Sunday and are trying to rake all those leaves before a Red Sox playoff game or a Patriots kickoff, there are not a few hundred leaves on a tree. There are thousands. Why? Because it is the nature of God to over create. We have a God of abundant life.

Jesus, the human face of God. Jesus, the one who reveals God to us, over creates. The 5000 are fed. And there are 12 baskets of broken pieces left over. There is more than enough because that’s who God is.

Here’s what that means for you and me. Because of God, we don’t have just enough grace to get through the day. Even on our worst days, even if it doesn’t feel like it, we have more than enough grace. We can’t use up all the grace God has put into our lives. And, when we come to the end of our time on earth, there will be more life. Not because we have earned it, but because we can’t possibly use up all the life God has given us.

Let me back this up with wisdom from some really smart theologians. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr wrote this about Resurrection and nature:

“Our Lord has written the promise of Resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime.”

Walter Bruggemann, a brilliant contemporary theologian:

“The power of the future lies not in the hands of those who believe in scarcity but of those who trust in God’s abundance.”

Now let’s go back to Mark. We know the last line in Mark’s Gospel is fear and silence and stops in mid-sentence. The first line of his Gospel is strong and definitive. “The Beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And then we get 16 chapters telling of the mercy, compassion and hope of Jesus. It is a story of a life of transformational power. You know that phrase we use so often – “it is what it is”? Jesus didn’t believe that for a second. Jesus changed everything. Sinners became forgiven. The sick became healthy. The hungry were fed. The poor were lifted up. The oppressed became free. Scarcity became abundance. Those trapped in fear became courageous. Bread and wine became his Body and Blood. And there was an urgency to these transformations. In 16 short chapters, Mark uses the word “immediately” 56 times. So of course Jesus is going to transform death.  Jesus is not going to look at death and say “it is what it is.” Life will be changed not ended.

Phillips Brooks, bishop of all of Massachusetts in the 1890’s wrote:

“Tomb, thou shalt not hold him longer. Death is strong but life is stronger. Stronger than the dark, the light. Stronger than the wrong, the right. Faith and Hope triumphant say Christ will rise on Easter Day!”

So why did Mark ends his gospel in fear and silence with no period at the end of the last sentence? He does it because the story is still going on. The story of transformation and resurrection has begun in Jesus and that story has not ended. It continues down through the centuries and in you and me. As theologian Marcus Borg says, “because the tomb could not hold him, he is loose in the world. He is still recruiting for the Kingdom Of God.” The Resurrection of Jesus is not an ending but an invitation to new life. A life that is free of fear and cynicism and “it is what it is.”

The past few weeks we have seen that understanding in the rising of our young people. They experience the public health crisis of gun violence and say this doesn’t have to be what it is. We can transform this reality. And they tell us their marches are not an ending but a beginning. We see it in the rising up of those who say we can save the planet from the destruction of climate change if we act now. We see in all of our individual lives when we get up again after failing. Thomas Merton says, “To understand Easter and live it, we must renounce our dread of newness and freedom.”

Easter is not an April Fool’s joke. It is an invitation to New Life now and forevermore. If you don’t believe me, believe Bruce Springsteen when he sings about the garden of the empty tomb of Jesus in The Rising:

“I see you Mary in the Garden,

In the Garden of a thousand sighs.

There’s holy pictures of our children

Dancin’ in a sky filled with light

May I feel your arms around me

May I feel your blood mix with mine

A dream of life comes to me.”

Amen.

 

Blessing of Journalists: The truth will set us free.

Below is the text of Bishop Fisher’s exhortation given today at the Blessing of Journalists at Christ Church Cathedral.

Henry Luce wrote “I became a journalist to come as close as possible to the heart of the world.” That sounds like a calling of religious magnitude.

I have been asked “why a blessing of journalists?” Well that goes to the nature of blessing. Blessing is both an appreciation and a commitment.

Those blessed “are” a blessing. You are a blessing to our democracy and essential to our common life. As Thomas Jefferson said:

“Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost. Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the later.”

In our own time, Senator John McCain:

“If you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free AND many times adversarial press. And without it, I am afraid we would lose much of our individual liberties overtime.”

A videographer from a local television station listening to a reading.

You are a blessing because you tell the stories of the poor, the abused, the underrepresented, and the oppressed. These are the people that Jesus and the Prophets raised up. And you do too. Thank you for telling the stories of Dreamers. Thank you for giving voice to those teenagers in Parkland Florida who demanding changes to our grossly inadequate gun laws. I am grateful to you for giving voice to the earth, which is so vulnerable to climate change. This is holy work. Thank you for speaking truth to power.

Bishop Fisher giving his exhortation. Deacon Linda Taupier, far right.

You are a blessing because you help build community. From small town newspapers to big city daily papers to radio and television and news streams on the Internet, you have the power to gather people in ways small and large. Churches do that but it does not need to be a church service that brings people out of isolation into community.

The Rev. Lauren Holm, pastor of Bethesda Lutheran Church, Springfield, reads words from Pope Francis on journalism.

And you are a blessing because you are an inspiration. I was in high school during the Watergate years and several of my classmates went into journalism because they were inspired by the journalists of that time. Many have compared this era to Watergate. Right now young people are watching you and wondering if they too are called.

Mr. John Cheek of Grace in the Berkshires, sings, “There is a Balm in Gilead.” Accompaniment by Scott Bailley, Music Director, Episcopal Church of the Atonement.

Blessing is an appreciation and it is also a commitment. It is not another “our prayers and thoughts are with you.” Prayer is a prelude to action.

One of those aforementioned high school friends of mine who went into journalism wrote this to me: “We all need blessings in this time when curiosity about others, truth and compassion are under daily assault.”

(Left-right) Dean Tom Callard, June Watson, Bishop Fisher.

My own Communications Director, Vicki Ix, who is in frequent communication with many of you, thinks of this time like the days of Noah. “It feels to me as if a storm is coming and we are building an ark. People of faith and journalists share fundamental values that may be critical in the days ahead.”

Journalists, you are a blessing. And people of faith bless you with our commitment, because the one we follow said “The truth will set you free.” And with you, we want to come “as close as possible to the heart of the world.” Amen.

+Doug

What I long to know.

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abiliene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” Luke 3:1

In the second year of the Presidency of Donald Trump, when Paul Ryan is Speaker of the House, and seventeen students and teachers are killed in Stoneman Douglas High School, and AR-15’s are bought legally, and the NRA contributes millions a year to buy votes, and there have been 1607 mass shootings since Sandy Hook, what is the word of God saying to the Church in the wilderness?

+Doug