On Hope and Despair in Israel and the Occupied Territories

If you want a glimpse of Israel that we don’t tend to get from either the American media or advocacy groups, let me recommend David Grossman’s speech before an Israeli Peace Conference this week. Haaretz published it. It is a must read, in my view. David Grossman is an Israeli author of several books. His first book of broad note was in the 1980s, The Yellow Wind, about the Israeli Occupation of the West Bank.


God have mercy on us all.

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A July 4th Prayer: Toward a Nation Chastened by Goodness

On the Sunday of the July 4th weekend I offered this prayer in worship at Pinnacle Presbyterian Church. It was suggested to me that I post it here. I’m following that suggestion. That the nation might be chastened by goodness. 

  Common Prayer, Pinnacle Presbyterian Church
  July 6, 2014, by Dr. Wesley Avram

A July 4 Prayer: 
Toward a Nation Chastened by Goodness

Holy One, on this July 4 weekend, we pause to remember the sacred gift of land and nation. We are grateful for the freedom we share, the security we know, and the common good we desire. Keep us good stewards of each, that we might not hoard freedom at others’ expense, confuse false security for true, lose the great blessing of community as we seek our individual happiness. Bless our nation with honest industry, sound learning, and an honorable way of life. Save us from violence, discord, arrogance, and from every threat to our values. Help us honor each other, even in our differences, and give us compassion, even as we expect each other to do our best for those we love. 

Give those entrusted with governing the spirit of wisdom, freedom from undue influence, and a desire to serve. Give those who serve in the military protection, good judgment, and a deep and abiding knowledge that they are prayed for and appreciated. Though they may be at war, keep their hearts for peace.

And on this day, for each of us who seek to follow you, let the memory of our baptism fill our vision. Remind us of the unity we share across borders with all who are baptized into your church. And through your church, let us know how profoundly connected we are to all people. Let the blessing we know as freedom be for us more than a privilege to protect, but also a gift to share. Bless all that aspire to your liberty. Bless all that work for your justice. Bless all that open doors of sympathy. Bless all that resist evil, love goodness, and do your work.

With so many places of concern on our minds in these days, we lift to you Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Israel and the Occupied Territories, the Sudan, the Central African Republic, the Congo and other African nations, the Ukraine, Turkey, European nations undergoing economic struggles, our own hemisphere including Haiti, Mexico, cities and towns of our own land where opportunity seems elusive and life is hard or violence rules.

In all of these places, and more, embolden those who would shape change in positive directions. Let your Spirit be the author of the future, the protector of the young, and the maker of peace.

And so finally, O Lord, we pray today as we pray every day:

For those who are ill among us.
For those who are lonely.
For those who face difficult decisions.
For those who have died, and for those who have been born.
For those unemployed, uncertain, or insecure.
And also for those who rejoice this day, for new opportunities, new love, new faith, strong will, health, and well being.
Through it all, we are yours.


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Everyone Washes the Dishes

Emily Scott was one of the most energetic and creative students at the divinity school were I taught a few years ago.  She is now a Lutheran pastor in New York City and part of a team starting a new ministry called St. Lydia’s.  Naming a church for a saint is nothing new, of course, but this congregation is not quite what you’d expect of a saintly church.  It’s what Emily calls a “Dinner Church.”  By that she means the whole worship service of this young church reaches back to the oldest of Christian traditions, which is worship at a table around a meal.  First only on Sundays, but now also on Mondays, anyone who will join in comes from wherever they were wearing whatever they’ve got on and carrying whatever’s in their hands to gather round a table.  They sing a song, light candles on the table.  They bless a loaf of bread in the center of the table and then share that loaf.  They dip the bread in their soup and use it to clean their plates.  They read a passage of scripture and she interprets the passage with a story or two.  They talk about it and share stories around the circle.  They hold hands and pray, read a poem, clean up, sing a song, receive a blessing, and go on their way.

Each week, maybe forty in total.  From that number a couple of discussion groups have formed, a movie club, and a community garden project.  They’ll add more meals when they can, never letting them get large enough to lose the intimacy they find in sharing their ordinary lives.

“My love of the tradition I grew up in runs deep,” Emily says, “But I have also felt a craving, throughout my life, for an acknowledgement of God’s presence in the ordinary, or even the profane places of my existence—the places that are not set apart with silver or lace, but instead feel raw and raggedy.  Does God not find me there too?  It is perhaps no coincidence, then, that the Latin root for ‘profane,’ profanus, means ‘outside the temple.'”[1]

We talk of the “emerging” church, and the “next” church, and “fresh expressions” of church, and “missional transformations” of church.  All that talk recognizes that something is profoundly changing in how God is calling us to be God’s church.  No question about that.  Some so-called “traditional” churches will remain, of course .  Some of those will remain strong and some will not.  New experiments will arise, and some of them will become strong and some will not.  But whether traditional or new, liturgical or “Dinner,” the most faithful expressions of “church” will be what they’ve always been, and that’s the thing that Emily Scott has rediscovered at St. Lydia’s.  They will be patterned, welcoming, open, rooted, reliable, tasty, song-filled, prayer-textured, friendship-allowing, love-imitating, Jesus-following circles of intimacy and experimentation.  And that’s even true for the big established ones, if they still want to be Christ’s church.  And whether small or big, old or new, they’ll always remember, together, that it’s best when everyone shares in the washing up.  That’s church.


[1] This quote, as well as the story of St. Lydia’s, comes from Emily M. D. Scott, “Holy Things for Holy People,” Reflections: A Magazine of Theological and Ethical Inquiry (Yale Divinity School, Spring 2014), pp. 13-15 (quote from p. 14).

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Rachel Weeping? . . A Mother’s Day Prayer

Judith Brackett reflecting on the abduction of girls in Nigeria. I received this just two days after visiting the Holocaust Museum in D.C. with a group of pastors. I think of so many mothers weeping for their children (and those who are not mothers weeping as well) in so many places, in so many times, of so many ethnicities and races and ideologies and faiths. Too many, for too long. How do we claim resurrection as a reason to act, with hope?

Emil Fackenheim wrote of Jewish mothers in Nazi concentration camps giving birth as an act of hope in the face of evil. I recall reports of a sudden increase in birth rates among Palestinian women 9 months after the massacres in the Sabra and Chattilla refugee camps in Lebanon, interpreted by Palestinians as an act of hope. I see the hope in the eyes of every parent of a child I baptize on behalf of the church.

How do we tend to children in need, in crisis, in distress, overwhelmed by forces and temptations of a consumer culture that would steal their souls? How do we tend to them with hope and not just affection, in solidarity with all children and not just commitment to our own, with commitment to justice for all and not just to opportunity for some, as an expression of God’s mothering and not just our own?

Mother’s Day 2014
Judith Brackett

News of the abduction
raises suspicion
that though you are a good idea
your promises don’t reach
into the hidden places
where teenage girls are trapped
raped of voice and body
of such unimaginable cruelty
that a father of one of the missing
in his grief confesses
it is preferable to imagine his daughter dead
than it is to imagine the brutality of her abuse.

Could it be
that the possibilities unearthed on Easter morning
have so soon expired?

May that question incite in us a vehement NO!
Invite our grieving faith to lean on your promises
steady us and ready us
to live your resurrected YES.

May that same love that knits people into being
in the wombs of all mothers
transform the silence of the lost
and birth us into speech and action
that bears witness to the truth
the lost are not forsaken
there is no such thing as a motherless child.


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I start with a poem, not my own.

Field Notes for a Psalm of Ascent

Jane Zwart, Assistant Professor of English, Calvin College

Unto thee I lift up mine eyes, O thou that dwellest in the heavens. Psalm 123:1

Mimic the rustic who mistakes a hot air balloon

for a keyhole punched in the sky’s bright tin
and prays the old words Thy kingdom come.

Mimic the magi who watched heaven thrum
and dim, wondering what angels the novas
would toss from quiet into song.

Mimic the kid who carries a plastic flashlight
to the backyard and aims it upward, transmitting
a prayer in Morse code, first by clapping a hand
over an Eveready’s canned brightness, then
by letting its light go—never mind the stars’ unblinking.

Mimic the martyrs who rolled their eyes
not to mock their captors but because they knew:
earth’s thin ceiling is heaven’s vellum floor.

Mimic the skeptic who cannot sit through a sunset
without saying (in a manner more angry than glib, more
bashful than blasphemous) O God Almighty.

Mimic the Christ, who must have thought our constellations
backward but who stayed anyway, peeling death
from lepers, dusting Palestine off his disciples’ ankles.

Mimic the Christ, who must have scanned the sky
he meant to cross, then put on a cross. It was rooted where
no stars could dangle. Mimic him, the Christ.

A friend near Philadelphia, Tim Bickhart, sent this poem to me by a professor at Calvin College, Jane Zwart. He’d seen the last two stanzas in a letter that had gone out from the President’s office at the college and hunted down the rest. Turns out this was the Inaugural poem written by Professor Zwart for Michael Le Roy’s inauguration as Calvin’s President in 2012. [1]

I read and reread the poem. I’m not sure what possessed him to send it, but I’m glad he did. It was one of those perfectly timed gifts from someone out of the blue. He had an intuition that I might like it. So I’m sharing it here.

Mimic the rustic magi kid martyr skeptic Christ. He is more than all the challenges we lay toward him.

It’s become a trope among folks attracted to the claim that science has disproven Christian faith that believers indulge a primitive, even naive, view of the cosmos. It’s said that we locate some divine parent-figure in a physical space somewhere looking “down” on us—or at least that we let the beliefs of folks who once did believe that sort of thing still hold sway over us.

Maybe. But, in fact . . . no. We don’t. In fact . . . we “locate” the divine in a more metaphorical space than that: in wonder, passion, fascination, humility, weakness, glory, abjection, connection, compassion, urgency, patience, transcendence, presence, love. We “locate” the divine around the corner, in a word we hear but can’t physically locate, and to which we respond. We respond with a “yes,” and with a turn of our heads, and with a re-pointing of our bodies toward the other. A move to mimic.

[1] I’ve only been able to find this poem in an online version of the inauguration bulletin, and reprint it here because I like it so much. If there are copyright concerns, I’m happy to be informed and will gladly comply with any permissions requests expected.

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Blessed to be Chosen

With beauty before me may I walk,
With beauty behind me may I walk,
With beauty above me may I walk,
With beauty all around me may I walk.
In old age wandering on a trail of beauty,
Lively, may I walk;
In old age wandering on a trail of beauty,
living again, may I walk.
It is finished in beauty.

                        ~ Navajo prayer


On that Saturday I received an email from the second youngest daughter of Arthur J. Hubbard, Sr., a 102-year old Native American Presbyterian Christian who had just passed. Among the divided duties of family members at this time, this daughter was charged with finding the place for his funeral. Arthur was living in a town a couple hours away when he died. The last Presbyterian congregation the family had been involved in together, in downtown Phoenix, could not accommodate. They knew they’d need a large space, wanted a friendly one, and several of the family lived nearby. The Moderator of the Presbytery of the Grand Canyon, Rev. Martha Sedongei, herself a Native American Pastor, was asked to officiate. They were asking if they could use Pinnacle Presbyterian as their location. She and one of her dear sisters came to worship the next morning, to make contact with us.  One of our associates sat with them and discussed details. We wanted to extend this hospitality. 

As things turn out, this was far more than a small funeral for man who lived a noble and long life. Mr. Hubbard was well known as one of the few remaining Navajo Code Talkers who were instrumental in America’s victory against the Japanese. He was an instructor in the program. He was also active in a number of economic and cultural development projects among the Indian nations, was the first Native American elected to the Arizona State Senate, was instrumental in founding the Navajo band (a trombone player), an active life-long Presbyterian, father of 12, and more. To mark him in history, he was in the first class to graduate from the Presbyterian mission school at Ganado, on the Navajo reservation. That school is no longer active. As was said of him, he never sought glory, only saw things that needed to be done and set out to do them. 

His body was brought by an escort of Native American motorcyclists from Case Grande early Tuesday morning, with volunteers from more than one American Legion post waiting for him upon his arrival at the church.  Numbers of people came for a 90-minute visitation in the sanctuary, with food and hospitality prepared for folks as they arrived. The Navajo Band played outside, in his honor. The service commenced, in a rather traditional, even Anglo, Presbyterian style–but with just enough of a sense of Native American ‘family’ for anyone to know this was something a bit different than what we normally experience at Pinnacle. A long receiving line to greet the pastors ensued after the service. State legislators attended, along with a mixed group of Anglo and Native citizens–with a shared sense of Christian faith. The President of the Navajo Nation arrived with his own entourage, to give Arthur honor. Media from four outlets arrived to film and do interviews for broadcast on the evening news programs.

After the funeral procession left for the National Cemetery for a military burial, the community returned for a reception with speeches and memories for over two hours in the Fellowship Hall. 

If you’re interested, I’ve attached a film clip to this post below.

Not only were the Pinnacle staff remarkable in their efforts that day, but in extending this hospitality we might have discovered something important about our ministry. Native sisters and brothers spoke gratefully of the connection, spoke of feeling at home on our open and natural campus, and spoke of how welcoming they found our sanctuary with its flowing water, natural light, cross of native desert ironwood, stone floor, and stained glass depicting water and canyon. No symmetry in our sanctuary, but a feeling of nature born from the imagination of our architect, Jim Roberts, who himself grew up on Indian tribal lands where his parents were teachers. The choice was God-given, we were told.

So I’m left wondering. Are we not connected to each other, even when cultural encounters feel awkward and eclectic? Aren’t we open to learning from each other when experiences like death mark both our common humanity and our shared yearning for love and gratitude? Aren’t we better when we share a commitment to each other’s well being and not just to our own successes? Aren’t we the church when we embrace surprising encounters of healing memory, gracious celebration, and hope for reconciliation?

I received that email that Saturday as a request for accommodation, and so a bit of an imposition on other plans.  Tuesday was a day scheduled full of staff meetings, after all. Yet in God’s eyes, I was actually being given a wonderful opportunity. No, we were being given a wonderful opportunity. And it became so. In the end, it was a wonderful gift. 

How blessed we were, and privileged, to be chosen. May the church always be a place for such encounters, and may we have the wisdom to learn from them and let them change us.   

Fox10 News:
Former Senator, Navajo code talker Arthur Hubbard remembered

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A little more on “selfie”

Did a little more on the “selfie” thing last month, but forgot to post it here too. It went up on the Pinnacle Presbyterian pastors’ blog, Echoes (of the Word), on December 23: http://www.pinnaclepres.org.  Here it is:


Ok, I was thinking about the selection by US News and World Report and others of “selfie” as the 2013 Word of the Year, beating out “twerking” and a couple of other contenders. But Geoff Nunberg from UC Berkeley has written on this in a far more subtle and interesting way than I would have, so I’ll link his article (also available as an audio commentary on http://www.npr.org). It all still begs for some theological response, though–but maybe later . . . I’m thinking about Christmas now.

Christmas! That’s it, our celebration of the divine “selfie” imaged in the face of that swaddled baby in whose face we see God–redeemed of our narcissism, perfected of our brokenness, God depicting Godself through a self-gift of love.

Obscure? Well, maybe worth a little Christmas thinking. Look at Patrick Blower’s cartoon from England’s Daily Telegraph in an earlier post. Can you imagine? Funny, but poignant.

The great 20th century Jewish thinker, Martin Buber, once wrote that the dilemma of the modern person is that we’re doomed to attend our own actions as spectators. And he wrote that before “selfies.”

Don’t know what a “selfies” are? They’re those photos we take of ourselves on our smartphone with front facing lenses in various situations of our lives–ostensibly to post on social media sites so everyone else can see us spectating our own lives. They’re the new, pervasive, high tech version of the “wish you were here” postcards of the last century.

Beth McDonald on FM 99.9 in Phoenix pointed out one morning the way our selfies are often so distorted, with funny looking faces, torsos bigger than they are, arms strange because of the angel of the lens. We only come into view from a further distance. Up close, we are out of wack. There’s a sermon there, of course.

Are there any experiences that are so authentic, so real, that a “selfie” could never hope to show what you’re really experiencing in them? Can we see ourselves more clearly in relationship to something other than a screen containing our image? Does God relate to us free of the narcicissm that so devastates our abilities to relate to each other, free of the insecurities that force us to try to record our “place” in life, free of the endless abstractions and self-deceptions that can sometimes come when we feel like we are always looking at ourselves (or when we lack healthy self-awareness, out of some kind of fear)? Yes. I’m thinking of the image of God in the face of the one baby born in God’s image (and seen through our eyes) in Bethlehem. We have no snaphot image of that baby except as an imageless act of pure love–in the image of babies of many colors and faces inspired by our imagination of this one baby we have come to know (or may yet come to know) as God. The wisefolk who came to see this baby weren’t watching themselves watching him. They were searching, and were found. They were giving, and were given to. They were watching, and were seen by the One they were watching. And so by being seen, they finally saw themselves–and they saw themsleves in a way no camera could ever catch. The baby is God’s image of Godself, given to us as love.

This Christmas, take a moment and put the smartphone cameras down and sing a hymn, say a word of thanks to a presence you can’t see, and see yourself in the face of the Love that created you. Then you can wave and point and make a funny face!

Here’s the Geoff Nunberg article, if you’re interested:


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