Thursday, January 26, 2017

Reclaiming Prophecy in Troubled Times

I had the honor of moderating a conversation between the Norwalk Policy Chief and representatives of the Black Lives Matter movement at a breakfast held on MLK Day. The event was full of speeches and prayers and singing. In introducing me to the audience the Rev. Dr. Jeffery Ingraham the pastor of a large Baptist Church in Norwalk, lauded my handling of a contentious public hearing on white privilege but said in researching our denomination found that we could not be farther apart theologically. He cited a billboard from one of our churches that read “More Curious Than Certain”. He was certain Jesus died for our sins, we, he implied, considered that Jesus was a matter for further consideration.

As we worked together, of course, we could put aside those differences for the common cause we made to remember and learn from the prophecy of Dr. Martin Luther King. I reminded him later that King’s oft used line “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice” was in fact, first penned by our own Rev. Theodore Parker, a staunch abolitionist and Unitarian minister. The point I hope to make was that in the words of Dr. King, “we may have come on different ships but we are all in the same boat now.”

In other words, we need to see the deep seated call for all people of faith to reclaim the prophecy of Dr. King and so many others for what it can teach us about how to live in this broken world. Prophecy is an often misunderstood as some kind of fortune telling, confusing its truth telling for a foretelling, like a tip on which horse to bet on.

A Medieval prophet prophesied to a king that his favorite mistress would soon die. Sure enough, the woman died a short time later. The king was outraged at the prophet, certain that his prophecy had brought about the woman's death. Word spread through the kingdom and soon got back to the prophet. The King summoned the prophet and commanded him: "Prophet, tell me when you will die! “The prophet realized that the king was planning to kill him immediately, no matter what answer he gave. The prophet thought for a moment and said: "I only know that whenever I die, the king will die three days later." source:

We are all in lamentation, even amidst our abundance. Life itself is finite, the world has struggle and now, especially we may feel lost and not yet found. The ancient Hebrew  prophet Amos speaks a timeless truth when he says of those in power:
“Take away from me the noise of your songs, I will not listen to the melody of your harps. Let instead justice roll down like waters and righteousness and mercy like an ever flowing stream..” (Amos 5:24)

The lamentations we may be feeling will lessen (but like grief never fully close) when and if we dedicate our lives to something larger than ourselves. This is the prophetic tradition we own. We need hope here, I agree, and we need reliance to reclaim the prophetic tradition that is ours stretching back to Amos, through Jesus, through the loving ministry of Clara Barton, through the Waitsail and Martha Sharpe through Dr. King and onto such luminaries in our times such as Christopher Reeves, Maya Angelou and Mary Wright Edelman, through the lights of those still to come, Corey Booker, Nina Turner and the young Unitarian Universalist minster in Bismarck at Standing Rock, Rev. Karen Van Fossan.

We have a deep and hope filled pool of prophecy that is ours to claim. And I am proud that hundreds of thousands of women and men, girls and boys marched for justice after the inauguration. We will need to march again and again.

As I thought about this passage from Amos, I could imagine the world he was railing against. Long gone were the glory days of Saul, David and Solomon. Israel had split into its own version of the red and blue states; a civil war had divided the land into to two states; Israel and Judah with the power resting in the Southern half of the land. The Jewish empire was faltering under its own weight, made sleepy by its wealth and arrogant by its belligerence. Amos, as all good prophets should, was telling the haughty leaders that false piety wasn’t enough. That prayer in schools wasn’t going to save them, that flag waving, scroll thumping sacrilege was a lost cause. That making Israel great again rings hollow.  Only justice and righteousness will save them; in fact that is only offering God really wants from his people. Our journey is only beginning but I take courage that it is the way of tyrants to fall. It always has been.

With Grace and Grit, John

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Towards Our Promised Lane

I start with the Hebrew story of Jacob, the son of Isaac, who was the son of Abraham. Jacob stole the blessing of his father from his older brother Esau. He did this by dressing up in goat skins and convincing his father who was blind, to turn the inheritance over to Esau who was hairy, right away. Isaac, convinced that Jacob was Esau, handed over the inheritance to Jacob.  With his brother’s inheritance in hand, Jacob fled his father and his older brother and found himself with his uncle Laban who promised him his daughter Rachel in exchange for seven years of hard labor and most of the inheritance he had just stolen from his older brother. 

Seven years turns into fourteen and so when God told Jacob it was time to return home, he was more than ready. His father was long dead and Jacob longed to return to his homeland, to his own promised land. Jacob left with his wives, servants and children and headed back to the Promised Land, quite anxious about how he would be received by his older brother after cheating him so many years ago.  They family arrived at the bank of a river and Jacob sent the party across not entirely sure he could yet come out to face his brother.  Exhausted from the journey he put his head down and prepared to sleep.  As he slept, an angel came upon him and began to wrestle with the wily Jacob.  They were evenly matched and as dawn came upon them, Jacob asked the strangers name, to which no reply was given, instead Jacob was wounded in the thigh bone, an ancient symbol of intimacy.  Jacob held the stranger and demanded that before he let him go he bless Jacob  and the angel said, “your name has been Jacob (which means to grasp) but from now on your name will be ‘Israel’, for you have striven with God and prevailed” .

Jacob was a changed man.  Until then he had been a passive player in the drama of his destiny, the mama’s boy, the trickster, worried about his older brother, ignored by his father, tricked by his father-in-law, trapped in a darkness of soul in which his life held little purpose.    (See Naomi Rosenblat’s Wrestling with Angels; Doubleday, 1995 for an excellent discussion of this motif)

Yet, somehow, through his own self – reliance he was able to come out of his old hidden self and accept his wounds (symbolized by his thigh injury) and transcend to the higher place of his true and better nature.

Just where was Jacob’s promised land? Was it in the land he was migrating to? The land he once called home? Or was it to reconcile with his brother, Esau from whom he had stolen his father’s inheritance? In a very outward and literal sense, Jacob was returning to his home land, an actual place that felt had been promised to him by God. But if we look further into the story, we can see that he was also traveling to the promised land of reconciliation and brotherly love that he longed for with his brother. But neither of those “promised lands” were possible until Jacob completed his most important and inward journey and that was the promised land of his own integrity.

Wrestling with the angels is a powerful metaphor in mythology. It refers not so much to a celestial force or even something outside of who we are, but a wrestling with our inner doubts, our faults and even our guilt. By prevailing through the night, Jacob was given a new name, and with that name a renewed identity to become the good man he was promised by God to become; no longer the trickster and liar, but instead a human being cognizant of his faults and willing to atone for them by returning to his brother and asking for his forgiveness. The wound he suffered from the wrestling with the angel was not so much a physical one as it was spiritual and emotional. The physical dislocation of his hip was just a reminder of the spiritual dislocation of his conceit in favor of a life with the promise of integrity.

Where is the promised land? Beloveds, the promise land starts in us, right in here, right with our own doubts, and our own judgements, our own fears and our own prejudices. Every great world leaders has wrestled with the angels; Mother Theresa, Muhammed and his encounter with Gabriel, the Buddha and the temptation of Mira the God of death, Jesus and the devil promising him worldly power and eternal life. Each prophet, just like each of us has to wrestle for our better selves. That is the true and most lasting promised land.

Before I entered the ministry I thought seriously about become a lawyer. A prosecuting attorney at that. I saw myself putting bad people away. I was angry and afraid of the world. I went so far as to begin the application process. I wrestled with this decision for weeks on end, until finally, with a little help from my beloved, I saw that temptation for what is was; a place to put my fear of being poor and my fear of others into a destructive role. I am not saying that being a prosecuting attorney is wrong. Just that it was wrong for me. I was going into it for the wrong reasons. It was a long a slow journey back to my true promised land, my decision to enter the ministry and I have been grateful ever since.

We all have struggles we must overcome in order to enter the promised land of a better life. Throughout this month I will be exploring how we can overcome those struggles and become prophets in our own world. For prophecy does not entail a telling of the future as much as it entails a telling of our truth. For someone like MLK who had plenty of struggles to overcome, the promised land he dreamed of was not just of his people but of himself. He was well aware of his shortcomings, his anger, his infidelity, his impatience, but he was also aware of how important it was to not let those shortcoming stall his work. Taylor Branch in his last and most sentient book (At Canaan’s Edge) of King and the Civil Rights movement spoke realistically of just how much of a struggle it was for the prophet that he was to overcome his failings. He did struggle with affairs and his marriage, but he fought against those failings and was prepared to move forward with his larger mission to fight against war and poverty itself.

How do we prevail? How do we overcome our shortcomings and move towards our own promised land? We can work for justice. We can march for rights. We can hope for a world beyond the one we see here. But we will need to do the inner work as well. This is what I have learned from Dr. King. We have to wrestle with our own angels before we can truly complete our journey to the promised land we dream of.

One of the most profound lessons I have learned over the years has been to engage my emotions in my journey. Getting out of my head and into my heart has been, and will continue to be, a lifelong journey. Daniel Gorman speaks of emotional intelligence. I think this is vital to the journey. We need to  understand what makes us tick. To become aware of our fears and our anger and not misplace it onto those who do not deserve it. Owning our deeper selves is not easy, but the good news is we don’t have to do it alone. We have others who can share with you this journey. Engage your angels and find that centering truth that will take you to the promised land.  We will have opportunities to fight injustice in the months ahead. What we need first is the courage to deal with our own fears. This is where I think we need to begin. In our own hearts first.

I have found that emotional honesty is a great means by which to do this; to be less politically correct and more what the journalist Sally Kohn calls being emotionally correct ( To not demonize those who are not like us and to try instead to understand where they come from, what their fears are. If we could start there in this polarized country, we might find our journey to the promised land to be much less daunting. I have tried this myself in talking to several people who are the political opposites of me. When I ask them why they voted the way they did, I often hear of their own fears. And I then I can stop demonizing them and understanding that while we may disagree we are both worried about our families, our country and our future. This should be where our justice work begins.

When Jacob crossed over into his homeland and sent word to his brother Esau that he was coming he was full of trepidation. What would his brother do? What he still be filled with anger at having his inheritance stolen? Would he attempt to harm Jacob? Or would Esau welcome him home? As Jacob approached his brother’s camp he could see Esau and a large retinue approaching quickly. Jacob worried that they were mounting an attack.  But as Esau drew closer Jacob could see that his brother was running towards him with open arms. As they embraced Jacob realized that his worst fears were relieved. His brother had moved beyond the struggles of their past and was overjoyed to welcome his brother Jacob home. Home to their promised land. May our journey this year also bring us closer to home, starting with our own hearts as we open them to the promise of transcending love. 

With Grace and Grit, John