An Easter Story

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Lee Van Ham’s new book, “The Liberating Birth of Jesus” came out in late fall.  The timing and the title might lead one to expect that it’s a story of Christmas.  It’s not, though there’s mention of how our culture crowds out the full meaning of Jesus’ birth.

It’s an Easter story.  Specifically, it’s about two Easter people, whom we know as Matthew and Luke, who wrote for Easter people, to help preserve for future generations the mind-blowing experience of encountering Jesus.

Why do we have these two birth narratives in the gospels of Matthew and Luke?  Because each writer is using different but complementary ways of making the case that the Jesus whom the early Christians encountered brought them to a new consciousness, a new creation.

Van Ham works through all the pieces of the story, the magi from afar, the shepherds close by, genealogy and dreams and angels, showing how they point to the arrival of a new creation.  For us today, this new way of seeing can lead us to living radical creation-centered lives.

Christmas as we know it came in with government-sanctioned Christianity in the fourth century of our era.  Over and over, the Easter message has been co-opted by human institutions.  Over and over, prophets arise to bring us back to the main point: the energy of Easter that is a new beginning.

“The Liberating Birth of Jesus” is a short but solid book that would make a good group study.  I highly recommend it.


Another Turn in the Wheel of the Year

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I spent a large part of May Day cleaning a nasty piece of malware called “Get Savin’” out of my computer. It could be considered a very modern form of spring cleaning, I suppose. Thank goodness there are helpful websites out there and people who can tell us which ones are good. After all that work I decided to “lie low” for a couple of days. I didn’t want to chance discovering that the “cure” hadn’t been successful.

In the materials I’ve been reading about this cross-quarter day, the mid-point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice, I have been even more struck than usual by the climate specific nature of the Celtic beliefs on which current ideas about Beltane (May Day) and Samhain (Halloween) are based. If you live in northern Europe – or New England – you are likely to be excited about the spring flowers, and you can find dew on the grass on May Day morning. (Apparently there is an ancient tradition that washing your face in that May Day dew will bring you beauty and good fortune.)

Here in the desert, however, the weather is getting hot – this really is the turn into summer, which will last until the fall equinox. the way I measure the temperatures. No waiting for Memorial Day to open the swimming pools around here.

People like Lisa Michaels, whose posts on the seasons and the astrological signs I read regularly, are well aware that they are using language that only fits the northern hemisphere. Christianity too is a northern hemisphere religion, with its light in the darkness themes of Christmas and Epiphany. Christianity has done best when it absorbs aspects of a local religious viewpoint into its ritual and imagery. Where we live, and the images and ideas we draw from our surroundings, make a difference in our world view. Place – the specific place in which we live – matters.

(You can find Lisa’s recommendations on celebrating the seasons at http://www.lisa-michaels.com)

Advent Hope: Images of Emmanuel

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The most popular advent hymn is probably “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”  I wish we would sing it every Sunday in Advent, since it is only appropriate on those four Sundays.  There are as many as eight verses, depending on your tradition.  These verses are a compendium of metaphors, different images added one to another to try to convey the qualities and importance of the Awaited One, the savior and healer who is to come.

To emphasize this abundance I am numbering the themes, although they do not appear in all versions in the same order.

1.  In the first verse, also often sung at the end, Emmanual will ransom Israel, which mourns in lonely exile.  This echoes both the Exodus from Egypt and the return of the Israelites from Babylon.  It can also remind us, in our present time, that mourning feels like exile.

2.  Emmanuel is “Wisdom from on high.”  Wisdom is sometimes presented as an assistant to God.  Here Wisdom will teach us.

3.  Emmanuel is the mighty Lord who gave Israel the law.  He is thus the God who will judge all.

4. Emmanuel is the Branch (or Rod depending on the version) of Jesse.  Jesse is the father of David and therefore Emmanuel is in the line of Israelite kings.  This Branch will rescue people and “give them victory over the grave.”

5.  Some traditions also have a verse describing Emmanuel as the Root of Jesse’s tree.  This suggests that the Awaited One is in the lineage of David and at the same time was before David. (As described in one of Jesus’ discussions with the Pharisees in the gospels.)

6.  As Key of David, Emmanuel opens the way to heaven and closes the path to misery. Though no door is mentioned, the image is of an actual key which can lock and unlock.

7.  Emmanuel is the Dayspring, which is to say the sun, which disperses the clouds of night.  This is in turn a metaphor for removing the dark shadow of death.

8.  As King of nations, Emmanuel will restore what is broken, bringing peace.

9.  This King is also called Cornerstone, the stone which binds a building into one.

The original combiner of these metaphors, back in the eleventh or twelfth century, knew the scriptures well.  All of these images circle around the hope for healing, for safety and for peace, that very human longing which is the underlying theme of Advent.

What is Nature? (From the Biography)

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In November 1900, John Emerson Roberts had begun his fourth year as an independent freethought preacher, speaking on Sunday mornings in theaters.  He was beginning to be noticed beyond Kansas City.  A nationwide network, the American Secular Union and Freethought Federation, invited him to speak at their conference in Cincinnati, Ohio.  This was a great opportunity to make his views widely known.

            Roberts chose for his topic “This Natural World of Ours.” As reported the following month in The Truth Seeker, this speech shows that Roberts is still as reverent as any minister. He has transferred his reverence to nature, the “sublime” discoveries of astronomy, and the gradual revelation of the universe as an “ordered whole.” As he has done before, Roberts faults Christianity for condemning the world as evil. If God lost the world to the devil, he argues, this makes God the creator a failure. He speaks harshly of medieval piety:

“Within the cloister, the sanctuary and the cell, with bleeding knees on floors of stone, crouched and cowed the saints in terror. With aching bones, exhausted bodies, tortured nerves and disordered brains, they were visited by visions of horror. Those hideous dreams were called revelations from God, and have come down to us as theology.”

The true secularists among the audience would have enjoyed this immensely. It is not clear whether all would have agreed with where Roberts goes next. He makes a general argument that the world is divine. He sees only two possibilities: either the world was created, in which case it must reflect its creator and that creator’s divinity, or it was not. If it was not created, then the natural world “is eternal, self-existent, intelligent and self-sufficient. Can God be more than that?” Either way, he asserts, the world is divine.

After some additional arguments against old Christian views, Roberts personifies the natural world as mother:

“The faithful world pays the strictest and most minute attention to the least and humblest thing, and treats it with the same dignity that she does the largest and greatest things, the worm, the bird, is as much provided for in the intelligent plan of nature as is any rational being . . . Moreover the laws of nature are moral. They exist in the interest of the health and well-being of man.”

Having lifted up nature, Roberts goes on to challenge the Christian view of heaven.   He asks, “Can it be that the dream of the beautiful world beyond was the gambler’s dream of something for nothing, or the visionary’s dream of sudden wealth?” A world that was not earned would be immoral. He concludes:

“There is an eternal law of exactness and compensation whereby the great world gives back to every one in equal measure and undiminished what each one gives to the world. If we knew this world and kept its laws we should find that sickness and disease, deformity, weakness of will, and poverty were unnecessary, and we should look upon them as disgraceful just as we look upon crime. If we knew this world and kept faith with it we should make our heaven here and ask for none here or anywhere that we did not make.”

Another speaker at this conference was Clarence Darrow.  Both men were paid $25 for their efforts.  Roberts and Darrow began an acquaintance that lasted for decades.  That is another part of the story told in the biography.

Excerpts are from John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date’ Freethought Preacher, which is available from Amazon, through ERYBooks.  Or use the contact page to order directly from the author.

Rereading Sacred Text, With a Poem


In my last post I mentioned in passing the feminist interpretation of the Biblical record.  There have been many kinds and layers of this.  I was involved in a number of them.  I attended meetings of the Evangelical Women’s Caucus.  I read Daughters of Sarah and Free Indeed, two periodicals produced by women seeking to reinterpret what they had been taught.  Both survived only for a time, which is typical of small magazines of all kinds. Free Indeed took its name from the passage from John, “If the Son makes you free, you are free indeed.”  Daughters of Sarah published a few of my poems.

I learned to think for myself through looking at the many different women’s approaches to scripture.  I had gotten through college as a very good student who believed what I read, whether it agreed with my own experience or not.  Amid all the women’s perspectives, it was necessary to make choices, and one of the keys to those choices was “does it fit with my experience” instead of “does it fit with what I’ve been taught.”  This approach was the gift, for me, of feminist interpretation.

There are many stories about women in the Bible.  Some are extensive, some seem to be only fragments.  At one time I concluded, “The named woman is the one who got into trouble.”  Here is a poem I wrote during this period.


As I circle stony islands
where ten foot tides turn ledges
into granite waves,
threats to an outboard propeller,
I hear Delilah sing
with Jael and Judith.

On a bluff of ragged rock
these three women, servants
to god and country, sing by turns
of Sisera, Holophernes, Samson,
of tent peg, sword, and scissors.
The song repeats like blues,
like scissors, rock, paper,
break, cover, or cut
to the next story,
the next severed head
served up on a fine platter.

The trays have corroded
on which the tribes they served
once served them empty honors.
Their hungry song blends
with calls of cormorants and gulls.
From such contagious sorrow
I flee to deeper water.

Among other things, this poem is meant to suggest that the situation for women is similar on both sides of the conflict; Delilah was, in the history, an enemy of Jael and Judith, yet I imagine their stories were similar.  I’ve placed them not in the Mediterranean but on the Maine shore, which I know, can describe more vividly, and have used to reflect their mood and situation.

Many of the women whose work I was reading in those days gave up on the patriarchy of Christianity, and Judaism as well, altogether; some became Wiccan.  I stayed in my tradition, but continued to rethink the reading of Scripture.  Now I look at my sacred texts from many points of view.  Some days I take the words quite literally, but I am convinced that, however much inspired, they were written down by people who could only communicate in the language of their time.  Other times I am struck by how much of our God language is, and has to be, metaphor.  Always I find it a rich source of story, language and reflection on the human condition.

“Sirens” was published in Daughters of Sarah in 1990.

A Pure Beginning: Reflections and Poem


In the nineteenth century, when John Emerson Roberts was a liberal preacher, there were many people who believed in an original “pure” Christianity, before things got messed up with doctrines and debates and rules.  One such person was Alexander Campbell, whose follower were first called “Campbellites.” They eventually became the denomination Christian Church/Disciples of Christ.  Another case was that of Joseph Smith; he  avoided creating one more denomination among many by developing a whole new Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

In the twentieth century there was another kind of belief in an original Christianity as feminist scholars like Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza gathered together clues of the roles of women in early Church communities, before the bishops made them second class members.

Current scholars recognize plenty of evidence that there was no original “pure” Christianity.  The letters of Paul reflect lots of discord: “You shouldn’t eat that!”  “You shouldn’t do that!”  “My way or the highway!”  In fact, the writer of the Acts of the Apostleswhom we call Luke may have been the first to imagine a state that never existed, one of harmony and agreement among all.

What I imagine in the early church is a stronger fellowship.  But it may be that strong fellowship requires a common danger.  Those who see “true Christianity” as beleaguered in today’s “secular” culture, probably are able to build such fellowship more easily than others.  Here’s my image of then and now:


The half-light of half-learned lessons
cuts us off from elders
of the sharp-edged pagan years.
Outlined by evening sky
they walk toward prayer,
leaning over their lamps.
By flickering light they stand
in corners cut in damp earth
holding each other tall.

Old story told once more,
we rise from cushioned pews,
let fall each other, uninstructed
in the catch of shifting weight.
Shadows of wistful wishes wax
in failing light.   The dark
is out there.  Who can teach
the bending into it?

I don’t recall what darkness concerned me when I wrote this poem.  Perhaps I was just discovering that darkness is a part of life, not to be avoided.  I learned through dance that catching one who falls can be taught; we were also taught how to allow ourselves to be caught.  It’s the same with emotional support – we can learn to give and to receive, but it is something we do need to learn.

Thanks to Allen Matlins for returning this poem to the light by posting it on his blog last November.  It was published in Christian Century in 1983.  Rediscovering it has led me to look at other poems I wrote about that time, to ponder how things and people change over time, and to find several which are still “good enough to share.”

Celebrate the Early Harvest!

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Wheel of the Year

We’ve come to another “cross-quarter day,” the midpoint in the quarter of the year from the summer solstice to the fall equinox.  I know this as “Lammas,” a contraction of “Lady Mass” or some other special mass, evidence of the Christian church’s propensity for covering a festival with one of its own.  This syncretic approach disappeared with the reformations, both Catholic and Protestant, when distinctions and exclusions became the norm.  (The feast day for Mary, mother of our Lord, is August 15, not August 1, so the connection is uncertain.)

Lammas celebrates the early harvest, the wheat harvest.  In Pennsylvania, at the beginning of August I would be counting the weeks, then days, until Labor Day, when I expected the heat, or at least the  humidity, to be gone.

Whether the heat bothers you or not, this cross-quarter day, in the northern hemisphere, also marks the point at which the lessening of daylight becomes noticeable.  The evenings are getting shorter.  We are six weeks past the solstice, that wonderful long evening, and the sine curve of the year’s cycle has speeded up.  This used to be troubling to me because I was steeped in an abstract rationalism that treated days as calendar boxes, and named fall, defined as after the equinox, as the time when the days are “supposed” to get shorter.  My “book-learning” confused me.  To expect the universe to follow such rules, to be other than it is―that is what’s contrary to reason.

With its hot weather, shorter days and the imminent start of school all at once, August has sometimes seemed like the worst of all possible seasons; a sense of loss sets in.  But the farmer’s market is full of wonderful produce.  In Maine, it’s the season of corn and blueberries.  In southern New Mexico, it’s time to gather the eggplant, zucchini and tomatoes for a freezer full of ratatouille to serve over pasta.  And local peaches are ripe. Enjoy this first harvest season!