What Lives Matter? What Truths Matter?

What is it that feeds resentment in today’s political climate?

National Public Radio’s David Greene in a piece that ran on NPR’s Morning Edition on October 30, 2017, asked a woman named Jessica, who lives in southern Virginia, and is also a member of a group called “League of the South,” about her reasons for joining a “White Lives Matter” demonstration in Shelbyville, Tennessee.

Jessica started out by sharing, “We just want to be left alone. That’s it.”

When asked by Greene who was not leaving her alone, she started by referring to the “Confederate war.” I suppose the shelling of Fort Sumter was the Confederate way of saying, “Just leave us alone.”

Greene then asked, “And what about today?” To which Jessica explained, “Well, today you have people who, you know, I’m a Christian, you know, Christian background, so I have virtues and values. And things that they are promoting out, you know, like on commercials and stuff like that, you know, that stuff’s not right to me.”

Again, Greene asked about the things that bothered her.

Jessica said, “You know, the LBGT stuff. I don’t agree with that stuff. I mean, I don’t hate those people, but if they want to be that, that’s fine, but don’t shove it down my throat, you know? And as far as multiculturalism – you know, every commercial you see on TV, it shows that multiculturalism. Why? Why is that? What – are they trying to paint a picture?”

Greene then asked about what, in Jessica’s thinking, was the difference between not liking multiculturalism and racism, a label Jessica resented being applied to herself.

“I mean, you don’t have to – I mean, like I said, the League of the South is not out to destroy another race. They are out to preserve our race. What’s wrong with that? I’m not embarrassed to be white. I’m proud of what my ancestors made me and I’m proud of what my ancestors did because they fought for my state, my homeland. You know, they created me (laughter). I mean, there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s no problem whatsoever with being proud to be white.”

The picture I get is that Jessica, for one, sees on television and elsewhere, images of people of diverse races and sexual orientations. This is obviously something new to her, and so she believes they are “shoving down her throat” a different set of “virtues and values”, than those she is comfortable with. She believes she is being harassed–so much so that she joins an organization and drives hundreds of miles to tell people to leave her alone.

One thing that is fascinating about this interview is that the name of the demonstration Jessica is attending is “White Lives Matter.” Jessica sees it as an important expression of pride in virtues, values, race, and ancestors. This name is a direct stand against the “Black Lives Matter” movement. And on the other end of the divide in this debate are people who regularly declare that the group of people they identify with have, in the past, been routinely marginalized, silenced, and left politically powerless. So, the Black Lives Matter and the LGBT communities, in effect, are saying the same thing that Jessica believes: “There is no problem whatsoever with being proud to be who we are.”

Pride in one’s own identity is a primordial motivator. People of all time and people from all over the world have such pride. They work to nurture it. They are passionate about defending it. But respect for the pride of others, for an identity that differs from our own, is a most rare thing. Jessica hits the nail on the head when she says, “That stuff’s not right to me.”

And when Jessica adds the point that she is Christian, and then, immediately qualifies that a bit by saying “you know, Christian background,” she is sharing a most salient detail. Because Christianity is not renowned for being a tolerant religion. In fact, many scholars have pointed out that the two features shared by today’s major, global faiths, tend to make adherants intolerant of things that just don’t seem right: monotheism itself and sacred scripture.

In a polytheistic, or pagan world, there are lots of gods. Understanding of those gods tends to vary according to locality. Things get fuzzy. The same god may have many different names with many different sets of characteristics, and many different ways of devotion.

But the monotheistic faiths tend to be particular. When the stories, laws, and poetry of those faiths get written down in black and white, the notions of what’s right and wrong tend to be seen in black and white as well. The priesthoods of the faiths get passionate and particular, since they see themselves as guardians of what’s right. In short, things get absolute.

For me and my house the key question is, “What absolutes are the right ones.” And I am going with two at this time–two absolutes that are absolutely vital for Christians to keep before their eyes.

The first is human fallibility–a fallibility we cannot wiggle out of, and we cannot afford to forget. There are rights and wrongs. There are truths and falsehoods. There is truthful news and fake news. But it is part and parcel of our human identity that each of us is often wrong about which is which. Not just sometimes, but often. We are limited in our perspective and in our experience. No matter how well educated and scientific we are, almost everything we think we know we have no direct proof for. We are fated to live by faith on almost everything. And to keep faith true we must test it. We are driven by passions and needs we also do not understand, and we must admit the bare fact that other people, of different worlds, have different passions and needs.

And any set of values and virtues we live by should have, at the top of the list, humility. There are truths and there is Truth, but we cannot possess either. Truths we must test and Truth itself must be bigger than we are and so must possess us.

And this fallibility and humility is indeed highlighted amply in the Christian Bible. The two cardinal Truths of the Bible are that God is God and we are not. The true God is compassionate and the creator and controller of all things. The one true human enemy of God is the person who pretends to be God.

The second important absolute that I believe we need to recover for our time is that the God of the Bible loves all people and wants to gather them into a whole with the God of love in the center. This is a Truth that is evidently too obscure in the Bible.

It is easy to see the biblical God choosing and covenanting with Abraham and his offspring. It is hard to notice that God intends this chosen family to be a blessing to all the families and nations on earth. It’s easy to root for the survival of a tiny people of Israel, as they create a religion around their pride of being covenanted to the LORD God. It is hard to think that the people they drove out of Canaan and the people they shut out of the rebuilding of the Temple after exile also loved their land and were proud of their ancestors. It is easy to notice the 144,000 of the sealed and saved of the House of Israel in the Book of Revelation, but all too easy to miss the fact that the prophet hears that number but immediately turns and sees a different truth: “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…” redeemed and worshipful.

The vast Roman Empire coveted the idea of a single, universal religion that could help them unite a vast and diverse world state. But eventually things fell apart.

Again, the kings of Europe saw the potential of a tightly regulated religious establishment that could apply control over the hearts and minds of barbarian tribes. But, again, things fell apart quite violently as a result of the Reformation.

And today a quick ride around the block will demonstrate that we Americans continue to be divided by denominationalism just as we are shamefully segregated during the worship hour by race.

And we will continue to be segregated and divided and crippled, to the extent that we forget these chief absolutes: We are fallible human beings. When we strive to know the truth, we should also be striving to be possessed by the Truth. And this Truth is that we have a God whose will is to love and gather all people.


Wounded Wise

This week’s “Dear Abby” column in our local paper started out with a letter from a 25-year-old woman lamenting the absence of a healthy role model in her life. Her father had abandoned the family years earlier, and her mother couldn’t seem to think of anyone other than herself.

It’s easy to get the impression that young people long ago renounced all need for role models and certainly for advice from their elders. The “Father Knows Best” days gave way to the “Never trust anyone over 30” generation, and Hollywood has given us a steady stream of films in which adults in positions of authority are uniformly portrayed as a bunch of clueless losers.

But I have been very recently reminded of just how thirsty people of every generation are for the example and guidance of what I would call the “Wounded Wise.”

I made a quick trip back to the congregation I served 28 years ago. Grace Lutheran Church in Fremont, Ohio celebrated its 125th anniversary. They invited back the clergy who had served as pastors, and the many “sons and daughters” of the congregation who had gone on to become clergy themselves.

The church was packed for a hymn sing, Eucharist, and luncheon. I was particularly impressed with the way generations of members of this congregation had built and maintained a fabulously beautiful sanctuary and church building; and with the legacy of excellent lay leadership, which carries on multi-faceted ministry to this day.

But the overflow of conversations I had with the people who graciously greeted me during this event reminded me of a powerful lesson I learned while serving at Grace: It was my own painful experience of a divorce during my tenure there that opened the floodgates of people who looked to me for counsel.

I came to Grace in the early summer of 1977; but it was after my divorce in 1981 that many parishioners came to me in large numbers. I could understand that those struggling with marriage difficulties and divorce would see in me someone who knew their troubles, but I also was called on to minister to and give advice to parents with troubles with their children, couples just trying to get a good start in their relationships, and people simply troubled by religious doubts.

And 28 years later many of these people approached me at the anniversary event, thanking me for standing with them, understanding them, forgiving them, and just being the person that I am. It was all very humbling, not least because I could not clearly remember the kinds of encounters I had had with them. But the cumulative effect of these mini conversations was to remind me of how surprised I was, so long ago, deep in this age when seniority and faith were said to be in such low esteem, that there was truly such a hunger and thirst for good counsel.

And I think the counsel that was sought was indeed wounded wisdom. People saw my suffering. They saw and heard from me that I didn’t have all the answers, but I did, in truth, have a God walking with me.

The Old Testament was drawn together, shaped, and written down during a time of great suffering—during the collapse of Israel and Judah, the exile of the faithful in Babylonia, and the struggle to rebuild the nation. The most powerful idea of all that came out of that entire experience was that Israel was being shaped by Yahweh into a Suffering Servant. It may be that the prophetic mind and voice of one author saw this role developing for her- or him-self, but eventually thought that he shared this mission with the entire nation of Israel, or what was left of it. By their shared suffering they were taking on themselves the sins of the world. They were suffering in the world, for the world.

Centuries later Jesus Christ came on the scene. His preaching and healing ministry made a deep impression on his followers; but he was arrested and crucified for his trouble. Many thought, “Just more useless words. Just another wasted life.” But some of his followers saw in Christ a perfect expression of the power of suffering to atone and to reconcile–the perfect font of empathy and healing compassion.

The world needs role models. Young people are desperate for role models. They are hungry and thirsty for people of experience, and people who are honest with their sufferings and doubts. They are desperate for people who aren’t trying to sell them half-truths and calculated lies. Today they are desperate for people who can counsel consistently for reconciliation and peace.

I myself, as a certified old person, often think of the things I can no longer do. My knees, ankles and hands are failing me. But, as the Apostle Paul says, while my body may be gradually wasting away, my inner self is being renewed day by day when every intimation of compassion, born of sorrow, works its way through my veins to my words and actions. And it is so encouraging to remember why people sought out my example and advice years ago. It wasn’t because of my muscle or memory or elegant answers. It was because of common pain, and sorrow and the shared hope that a great good God was walking with us through it all.

Blessing of the Animals September 30

We share great joy with our animals. Photo by John

We share great joy with our animals. Photo by John

Connie and John invite you to bring your pet or pets to Heatherhope for a service of “Blessing of the Animals” on Saturday, September 30, starting at 10:30 a.m.

Our pets bring God’s grace to us as they tune into our emotions, give us unconditional love, and faithfully celebrate our return from our duties far and wide. They make our homes and our whole world alive with goodness and grace.

In this service we will praise God for this gift and rededicate ourselves to compassionate care for all living things. We will also remember Saint Francis, the patron saint of animals, whose feast day is the following Wednesday.

Bring your pet; or if that is difficult, simply bring a photo, memento, or  story.

The service will be brief, but you are welcome to stay and chat or watch a demonstration of our dogs herding sheep, if you like.

You are encouraged too to bring your two-legged companions to share the joy.

Feel free to phone us at 815-895-9736 for more information. And be sure to find directions to the farm by clicking the “directions” tab at the top of this or any page of our web site.

If Not Now, When?


This is certainly an opportune time. A kairos moment as the Bible might put it. The Lord has called us to love one another and now is the time for strategic, bold, and courageous love in action.

We have an unusual man in the Presidency–perhaps without parallel in American history, and so in global history. All American Presidents, good or bad, have tried to serve all the people with dignity. This President panders only to his “base.” He respects only those who, support him unwaveringly today. What you did yesterday doesn’t matter. This President only possesses, and only uses, the tools of bluster and bullying that have served him well in the real estate business. But these are the very tools that divide the people and bring contempt upon the office of Presidency and upon the place of the United States in the family of nations.

The phenomenon that now makes this a particular time of crisis is that there are groups of people who recognize many of the character flaws of this President, but who make excuses for his behavior and support him in any way they can despite those flaws. They do so in the vain hope that in his exaggerated appetite for power he will drop some crumbs their way. Republicans hope for control of government. Their benefactors in business want less regulation and taxation for the sake of more profits. Evangelicals hope for a Supreme Court to roll back limits on their influence and roll back the laws that protect reproductive choice.

All of you who support this man, please wake up!! The man in the Presidency holds all the principles you think you share with him in utter contempt. He has amply demonstrated this in his career as he has run vastly different flags up the flag poles until he gets enough salutes. And he never, ever, takes responsibility for his own mistakes. He never cleans up his own messes. He never flinches at throwing his allies under the bus when it seems expedient. So, eventually he will do the same to you.

The saddest thing of all is that these many supporters of this President, people, full of resentment over their own lack of power, and full of appetite for power at any price, are allowing this President to destroy our fundamental democratic institutions. The bedrock of all these institutions consists of the pursuit of truth and fairness and our system of checks and balances. This President now attacks all time-honored principles of objectivity. Daily he attacks what he childishly calls the MSM (main stream media) and “fake news,” when they have only followed long established processes of fact checking, and even when they have largely only shared what he himself has said and done. He sees nothing wrong with his own allies making vast profits by the public policies they set. This President blatantly undermines the all important freedom of the press, the independence of the courts and even now his own staff and the entire intelligence establishment and the Department of Justice. And he has a well practiced habit of, whenever he is caught out for his own blatant crimes and faults, concocting lies by which he attempts to smear his opponents with the very same kinds of sins. The upshot of all of this is that our citizens are being fooled into thinking there is no such thing as truth at all. They are being made to think that anyone with a gift for government is an agent of the “deep state,” that anyone who points out the President’s mistakes or lies is out to destroy him, and that anyone who advocates cooperation with other nations is selling out American sovereignty. So citizens are being fooled into mistrusting any honest government and trusting only their strong-man President.

And so, we should embrace the ageless wisdom of Rabbi Hillel, recorded in the Pirkei Avot and the Mishnah: “If I am not for myself who is for me? and being for my own self what am I? If not now when?”

We need to act on enlightened self interest. We need to act for the sake of our community, our society, our nation and our world. But that last part is most urgent now. This is the time for action. We cannot allow this President to establish a new normal. He is President and will be for four years (God willing, no more!). But we are the nation. And if we refuse to be bullied or to have sand thrown in our faces–if we refused to be silenced, but speak up often and loudly, we can join our voices and make a difference.

We are waiting, defiantly for the election of 2018 when we can cut away some of this President’s cheering section in congress. We are leaning out toward 2020 when we have the opportunity to elect a brand new President who is an adult and is not so pathologically self-centered. But these dates will come up on us fast, so we must make this a fruitful waiting. We must talk to each other, listen to each other, respect each other, and make plans with each other to bring this nation back from the brink of a very bleak new normal.

If we are giving our President the benefit of the doubt, we should say, “Resist till he grows up.” But it is a bit late in the game to be expecting him to change. He has not the talents nor the character nor the inclination to be presidential. So we must call him out, resist, and act.

If not now, when?

The Beauty of Cooperation--The Comedy of Competition

Last weekend the dogs, Betty and Nell, and I, took part in a sheepdog competition. Though the kind of sheepdog trial that we partake in does indeed test almost all of the skills of dogs and handlers that are called upon in practical flock work, I find myself almost always having to check myself when my dogs come away with low scores, or even no scores at all because of disqualification.

There are very many ways to lose points and to be disqualified in a sheepdog trial. It is, almost by definition, a cruel sport. There are many ways to find yourself and your dog out of the prize list. In real farm work you simply shrug these things off, and perhaps quietly stop your dog, regroup, and start over with the right moves rather than the wrong ones.

But in sheepdog trials you get tunnel vision. You sometimes get fooled into thinking you or your dog are no good because of one or two slipups. In fact, odds are, every dog who dares to go out on such a field, with top competition, is still a miracle in motion for their instinct and their skill at moving sheep. And most of the handlers do quite well moving sheep about on their farms or home flocks.

Come to think about it, just about every sport humans have invented–every test of skill there is, is a great and almost silly abstraction. Life takes hard work, strength, stamina, speed and precision. But, in our sports or games we always verge on the ridiculous. We put goal keepers in front of nets. We make the target as small as we can. We stretch ourselves.

Take the spelling bee as an example. Every year there is a ritual we go through where we put a story or two or three on the front page of the papers about the kid who wins the spelling bee. These days it is usually an Asian-American who wins. And always–always that child has had to endure round after round of spelling some ridiculously obscure words. Today we have spell checking software, but some of the words used in the spelling bee can’t even be found in those applications.

This is sport. This is the nature of competition. And we love it when the task is next to impossible, and someone has dedicated their life to being the very best at it.

And the rest are losers. In fact, almost everyone is a loser for the sake of the one who is very best. And those losers feel terrible about it. They came so tantalizingly close, but they just missed.

It is a comedy, isn’t it? Grown men hitting little balls around the hills and into tiny holes–and spending a fortune on expensive clubs and lessons–and getting drunk and cussing, and smashing their expensive club against a tree if they flub a shot. A child breaking down and crying because they left out that all important second “t” in scherenschnitte. What in the world is scherenschnitte? Or being embarrassed about that wonderful dog of yours just because on this day it couldn’t read your mind better when you tooted out all those commands on your whistle.

All the sports and games in the world amount to a great way to kill time and even get your blood pumping faster. You might, once in a while, proclaim to the world that you are number one, and a winner. But never forget, it is all a big joke.

But if it’s beauty you are after, try cooperation. My good mentor, Gordon Watt, was working with my dog, Betty, and me, on blind outrunning–that is, sending the dog to gather sheep over or around hills or woods and out of sight. Betty is quite used to moving gracefully around sheep and bringing them to me. But now I am asking her to bend out the right way when she hasn’t a clue where the sheep are and so doesn’t have anything to bend away from. And at one point, when I am whistling and speaking commands calmly and clearly, and Betty is bending out just right, and heading the right way over the hill, Gordon says, “Now you’re helping your dog!”

Of course that’s what I was always trying to do. That’s what Better was trying to do for me–helping me get the sheep. But now we are making contact. Now we are a team.

And that’s beautiful. That is the most beautiful thing in life, I think. That’s what makes flock work with the dogs so beautiful at home–so beautiful that we can see our dogs relax and enjoying life so much that they seem to smile about it.

Once in a great while sport can get at this, as when the Soviet hockey team skated and passed the puck in magnificent circles around their opponents. But it amazed and frustrated the fans of the teams they beat–the masses of people who think hockey consists of simply knocking people’s teeth out–the people who are stuck in the hilarious comedy of pure, brute competition that produces one winner and a pile of big, fat losers.


Merlin and Bald Eagles Add Drama

You can’t beat beautiful raptors for excitement.

About a year ago I was running the dogs and a huge bird flew up from the field. Could it have been a bald eagle?

About six months ago, sure enough, one cruising along parallel to my car as I drove down Airport Road.

Then Connie and I found the nest, and saw one on a nearby branch. Then, recently, I saw a pair of them perching, then going off to hunt. Good friends of ours saw a couple of eaglets sticking their heads up that same day. And I snapped some good shots.

A pair of bald eagles nesting about a mile from Heatherhope. Photo by John

A pair of bald eagles nesting about a mile from Heatherhope. Photo by John

I have also seen a big falcon flying about in winter and early spring. I think, because of its light color on the underside, that it could possibly be a prairie falcon–but they are very uncommon around here.

Yet I keep finding piles of feathers about the yard, and even inside the barn once.

Then, yesterday, I looked out the window, and there was a beautiful falcon, in the midst of a pile of feathers, finishing off his meal. I snapped quite a few pictures; and looking at the bird books, I feel pretty sure it is a Merlin–which is a bit smaller than a prairie falcon, but doesn’t have that bird’s distinctive mustache that curves down from its beak. Here is a couple pictures that I took.

I still think the other bird I’ve seen flying in the past might be a prairie falcon, since it has the light underside, unlike the Merlin. But we will see.

In any case, these birds are quite dramatic, and fun to watch. I inspected the remains of the bird the Merlin killed and ate, quite near our house, and it was interesting to find the head and attached beak of the dead bird, picked very clean indeed. I am guessing it had once been a grackle.

The Merlin, which migrates through Illinois, adds drama to our day. Photo by John

The Merlin, which migrates through Illinois, adds drama to our day. Photo by John








A Merlin falcon in our back yard, finishing off his dinner of a grackle. Photo by John

A Merlin falcon in our back yard, finishing off his dinner of a grackle. Photo by John

Fences With Gates

The center of our philosophy and our theology here at Heatherhope is our belief that God gathers and Satan scatters. If you have an allergy to God- and Satan-talk, then at least consider this basic notion that we all share a need to belong, and there are forces at large that discourage and encourage the fulfillment of that shared need. The Epistle of John says, “God is love.” We add, “God gathers.”

So, all of us have strengths and weaknesses, and we feel most at home and most fulfilled when we are able to help others and help them belong with our gifts and when we are lifted up and drawn near where we fall short.

Living at peace with this kind of belonging is what holds us in a good relationship with society around us. Living at war with it keeps us in tension.

A perennial problem in our political world is that people have lined up on two sides of a divide. One side believes society as a whole can only be strong and good when individuals are strong and good. Liberty to do as we wish with what we have as individuals is all important, and any attempt to engineer positive outcomes by government and its powers detracts from individual liberty and from the health of society. The other side of this divide believes that we cannot produce strong and good individuals without good government and good systems; and we must give up some individual liberty to achieve the good of the whole.

An interesting test case of these two perspectives is public health in general and vaccination in particular. The disease of measles was on the verge of being eliminated in the United States when a group of campaigners began to claim that there was strong reason to suspect that the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine was causing autism in children. A host of studies has thoroughly debunked those claims, yet there are communities in the nation where parents have refused to have their children immunized.

Those who believe healthy societies make healthy individuals have on their side the argument that the protection of each of us as individuals depends on very high immunization rates so that infections cannot spread far and wide.

But there is a weakness to the “good society leads to good individual” argument. The chief tool that is always lifted up as making society good is education. If we simply help people understand the facts and the consequences of their actions we will build the good society.

The weakness of this idea was exposed by a study of people who were initially hesitant to immunize their children with the MMR vaccine. They were shown a large amount of information from research that clearly debunked the claim that the vaccine caused autism. The result was that those initially hesitant to immunize gave much less credence to that particular myth, but they also were even more adverse to having their children vaccinated.

This shouldn’t be a big surprise. In 1954, the social psychologist, Gordon Alport, published his book, The Nature of Prejudice. One of the concepts he noted there was that all of us have a keen ability, when presented with clear evidence that our prejudices are wrong, to simply “re-fence” them. I think of this as the “Yeahbut” defence. Deep down we may even have an uncomfortable feeling that we have built our notions on a feeble foundation, and that we are acting irrationally. But reason be damned, it is our personal worth that is being questioned, and we cannot give an inch. So, we say, “Yeah, but…” and we go on acting as we had before.

Our society and our individuals need more than good schools or good educational campaigns. We also need good families and churches where a deeper kind of spiritual formation can take place. There is not a single societal program that can be “sold” to the public without there being a deep and broadly shared worldview that causes people to see every individual as sacred, but also the community, and even the family of humankind as sacred. This is the idea of the holy. This is something that we learn not from books or software programs, but from living in community and sharing in the ancient traditions of philosophy and religion.

Fences are quite important on this farm where we keep sheep. But so is moving the stock from place to place to keep the grass from being overgrazed and dying out. So we need gates. We need them in the right places. We need to keep them in good repair and free from ice and snow and briars and brambles. We need to have good dogs that can move the sheep where they don’t want to go so that we can medicate them or just get them to fresh food and water.

The good shepherd knows that there is a place for fences and a place for gates. And the Good Shepherd works always to gather, not to divide and scatter. She knows the health and strength of each little lamb depends on the health of the entire flock. She knows how important it is to have other flocks out there where she can find rams and replacement ewes that are healthy. She knows it because she has found good information in books and online resources, but more importantly because she has been around other good shepherds who have lived this way. They have, slowly perhaps, but surely, discarded ways that scattered and weakened the flock, and adopted the ways that gather and make the whole flock strong.


Heatherhope Believes In A Dynamic Church

Easter morning listening to the radio. National Public Radio represents the best of broadcast journalism. But I heard exactly two references to the great Christian Festival Day of Easter. One was an offhand comment, just before the segment with “puzzle master Will Shorts,” in which the host noted that many listeners would possibly be away from the radios at Easter egg hunts. The other was the obligatory quick piece about the Pope’s message to the crowds gathered in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City for an Easter message (He’s still for peace, by the way).

That about sums up the popular perception of the church today: a monolithic, authoritarian organization with a bit of superstitious nonsense out at the fringes.

Here at Heatherhope Farm we hope to stand up for the real church: a powerful and ancient dynamic.

This dynamic has many vectors at work, but the two main ones are the power of charisma and the authority of office. The German theologian of the Hans von Campenhausen, who died in 1989, wrote a fine exegetical and sociological exploration of these two vectors in his book, Ecclesiastical Authority and Spiritual Power in the Church of the First Three Centuries. Dairmaid MacCulloch, in his wonderful survey of Christian history, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, summarizes this examination nicely noting that in the earliest years of the church there was a rough balance between mobile and local ministries. The mobile was made up of traveling prophets and teachers and had a rather fluid way at looking at functions. There were apostles and prophets and a diversity of “gifts” for ministry. Meanwhile there was a developing local ministry with a “grade known interchangeably as bishops or presbyters, together with a separate grade of deacons” who helped with the Eucharist and carried out the daily routine of the church. The “local ministry” was motivated by a concern for presenting a common front visa vie the critics, competitors, and persecutors of the church. They were the ones who were more and more concerned to define the boundaries of belief and the identity of the church for the sake of this ongoing struggle to survive and thrive (MacCulloch, pp 131-133.) This vector of the church went on to produce what MacCulloch calls a “monarchical, episcopal” church that began to insist on the authority of a single bishop in each large city of the Empire, a defined canon of Scripture, and more closely defined theology.

In the 2nd century, a stream of the “mobile ministry” called the Montanists got caught up in a spiral of conflict with the monarchical, episcopal strain of the church. The Montanists valued wandering prophets and teachers. They championed outpourings of the Holy Spirit. As in the New Testament times they had no problem with women being apostles or prophetesses. They saw real authority coming out of charisma (MacCulloch, pp 138-141).

The bishops of the local ministries saw the claims to charisma-based authority as a threat to the stability they had worked so hard to maintain. With the Roman Empire buffeted by barbarian tribes and increasingly corrupt leadership, and with the church itself experiencing the first Empire-wide persecutions, the monarchical bishops were in no mood for toleration of the wildness and diversity of the spirit-led.

But this back and forth was not a one-off thing for the church. The tension between charismatic power and ecclesiastical authority has really shaped the church of all ages. Of course, history is written by the victors, and the more priestly, status-quo oriented voices of the church have been the victors in the sense that they have managed to shape the chronicles. But it does not take too much acumen to read between the lines. Desert Fathers, monks and nuns, university teachers, humanists and socialists, reformers, pacifists, artists, poets, confraternities–they have all been censured, branded as heretics, and at times burned at the stake; but they have never been silenced. Every “heresy” you can think of lives on today. Today the unbelievers and free thinkers denounce the “organized church;” but they choose not to be honest with just how disorganized the church really is.

There is so much more to Easter than egg hunts and pontification. There is more to the church than constitutions, faith statements, creeds, and official denominational web sites will ever disclose.

The church is what goes on behind altars and pulpits on Sunday mornings, but it is also fueled mightily and constantly by eruptions of the Spirit at food pantries, AA meetings, yoga classes, street protests, backyard fence conversations, and hospital bedsides–twenty-four hours a day and in millions of startling, spontaneous, unpredictable ways, all around the world.

So, Heatherhope Farm would like to go on record as standing with this, the real and the dynamic church. There will never be a static balance of charisma and authority in this church. It will always be a struggle. Always a tension and dialectic.

Connie and I love being part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. It is a true expression of the church of the ages, even though it takes millions of “man-hours” for it to pass resolutions to do studies and finally to take action about anything important–such as loving our (unlovable) neighbors. Connie and I love our community of faith at Salem Lutheran Church in Sycamore. We are joyful that each week we can kneel at the altar rail and receive the bread and wine and experience the over-arching unity of God’s people that Christ accomplished on the cross. We know that all people are God’s people, and we are thankful that the Spirit has kept this table open to all the poor, the lame, the cripple, and the blind–all the invalid people of the world, for over 2,000 years, despite any exclusionary impulse of priests and pastors. We want that altar to be there. We want that liturgy to be sung. And so we embrace bishops and the “organized church.”

But we also rejoice in that disorganized part of the church with all those invalids that find their way to the altar of the Great Banquet. We rejoice in the messiness that comes with this unauthorized infiltration; and we know it is a godly, creative energy that emerges when we eat and drink with the invalids. But it is worth it, because it is always the misfits who lead the way to the future in the church.

We at Heatherhope affirm feminism. We understand that women have been told to be quiet and obedient, but if they hadn’t been noisy and disruptive the good news of Christ’s resurrection would never have gotten out to the world.

We want to reach out to the poor, and we want to be aware of the ways our own privileges distort the ways we see government and society.

We know the monarchical/episcopal church has not always wanted to see these invalid ones, but we know homosexuals and sexually mixed-up people have always been at the banquet, and have always helped keep the church from rotting away.

And since we know God’s great end-time banquet has places set for all the invalid ones–the ones without papers, we rejoice in the immigrants and refugees that have made our church and our world a rich place.

In order to stand with this dynamic church we take this good old earth seriously. We take history seriously. When people want to cop out and drop out and leave this world by pretending to be “super-human”–by trying to turn to the spiritual, apart from mundane messiness and politics and good gardening and ecology and apart from taking responsibility for the dirt beneath our feet–they are turning their backs on the church. We believe that the church affirms this world. This is the world that Jesus lived and died to redeem.

We believe charismatics and church authorities need each other. The gate crashers and the gate keepers need each other. The authorities have invested in stability, charismatics in the wind of God that blows where it wills. But the Spirit/wind/breath of God has been blowing over the primordial waters from the beginning of creation. She wants to stay here with us as we all struggle and converse and work together. She alone can help us gather and belong to each other as we work things out.

I have been working with a dear friend of Heatherhope Farm, and seminary student, Denise Rode, on a close reading of a potent pericope from Luke, chapter 14. Jesus is teaching us about how to behave as guests when taking our seats at a banquet. He teaches us too about how to be hosts. He tells us that in our race to have standing, we may miss our place in community. He tells us when we invite people we should not aim for a payback that cheapens others, but one that elevates others. We should invite those God is looking for, the in-validated ones–those that many others are looking to exclude, to disqualify, to deem unworthy. Jesus teaches us that no person is unworthy, because all are gifts from God. That’s the way it is in God’s future, perfected reign. That’s the way it is to be in God’s reign among us today that remains all too less-than-perfect. Renounce the scramble for the first seats. Take the last place of belonging. Accept God’s invitation. And accept God’s invitation to be inviting to those who have been invalidated from the invitation lists of others. This is what the Spirit is freeing us to do.

And this is why the church is so much more exciting and vast than egg hunts and Popes.

Passion Sunday Petitions

Lifting our voices and turning toward God, let us pray for the church, the earth, and all who are in need.

A time of silence.

Lord of compassion, as we the people of your family, the church, conclude our Lenten journey with the walk through Jerusalem to the cross, help us to understand that Jesus’ pain and sorrow is the pain and sorrow of our neighbors. Jesus bleeds with the blood of child soldiers in the Congo. When Jesus is scourged, he screams out with the helplessness of every prisoner who is forsaken and tortured. We he feels forsaken, it is the loneliness despair of our neighbors he feels. When Jesus gasps for breath on the cross it is with the convulsions of the children of Syria poisoned by Sarin.    Lord, when we weep for Jesus, teach us to weep for our neighbors around the world whose wounds he takes upon him.

Hear us O God.

Your mercy is great.

Lord of forgiveness, as we walk through Jerusalem with Jesus this week, help us remember that Jesus took our guilt and nailed it to the cross. Help us remember that on the cross he breaks down the dividing walls that we, in our ignorance, keep building up. Help us remember that we are to live this day as resurrection people, freed from our sins and freed from the specter of a judgmental God, so that we may live not for ourselves but for our sisters and brothers–not for ourselves, but for our God.

Hear us O God.

Your mercy is great.

Lord of the Great Banquet of victory to come, We thank you for the Victory Feast of our Lord’s body and blood. We thank you for the young people who will join us for the first time at this Feast. And we pray that as we break this bread together and lift this cup of promise, that we are all strengthened to live as one, and to love one another as you have loved us. May that love we share bring healing to those you have given us to care for, including all those we mention before you now, aloud and in our hearts….

Hear us O God,

Your mercy is great.

Ash Wednesday Petitions

Creator God,  we who stand before you are dust,    and to dust we shall return. But you have breathed into our lips your Holy Breath, so we are also … yours. Help us this Lent to come alive to your Spirit within us. Break down the walls around our souls with which we shut out your forgiveness. As we look at ourselves in the mirror this day, give us eyes to see ashes – but ashes in the shape of the cross.

Lord, in your mercy…hear our prayer.

Loving Father, break down our own lack of faith in ourselves as your people, that shuts out your forgiveness. Break down that wall through the power of the cross we now wear upon us. Help us know that when you look at us, you see Christ and his righteousness. Free us from the shackles of our past shortcomings, to be excited and inspired by your love–that we may speak those little words and share those gentle touches that heal one neighbor at a time,   and so heal the world.

Lord, in your mercy…hear our prayer.

Faithful Lord, heal us of those things that keep us from accepting your forgiveness and feeling your healing. Shine your light and clear out those dark and damp places in our own hearts where we have stuffed down old grudges and hurt feelings–where we have kept track of those debts owed by others–where we cherish and chew on our resentments, and where we keep track of those we give ourselves permission to blame. Help us to forgive those who have trespassed against US so that we may fully be forgiven OUR trespasses. When we speak to those we love who are suffering, may Christ be in the ears of all who hear us–may they hear reconciliation. May they hear the Good News of your love and be healed.

Lord in your mercy… hear our prayer.