Rejoicing and Mourning

Verse – Romans 12:15

We often get the biggest gifts just when
we need them least. When we are poor, folks stay
away. They do not even see us then:
invisible, we starve. We work all day,
all night, but if we strike it rich, we find
new friends who buy us lunch, and bring
us business, give us tips on stocks,
and lend us their vacation homes. Remind
me what the prophet said: we are to sing
and dance and eat the fatted ox
with those who celebrate. But we must then
search out the poor who mourn or else we sin.

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, October 25, 2013

“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”

Paul’s Epistle to the Romans chapter 12, verse 15.

Editor’s Note: Have you noticed that we don’t talk about the poor any more? Why, do you suppose?

Yertle the Turtle and the 47%

Dr. Seuss weighed in on the news about the 47% of “dependent” Americans and “the distribution of wealth” and power with the non-partisan story of Yertle the Turtle.

A comment on “Uproar over video offers a warning about what happens when fundamentalism wins” (MPR commentary September 18, 2012) on religion as a tide pool).

Here’s an edited version of what someone named Dan Brunner wrote:

I think tide pools vary but are basically the same-1 source, (1 God) bound by laws of nature (God/humanity/morality) composed of bits of the ocean’s ecosystem (people/works). Tide pool waters are nature being apostolic; even if the ocean isn’t within eyesight, people are instinctively drawn to the marvel of and connection to it, and at the core are likely to believe the tide pool is evidence that there is something greater beyond.
There should be simple joy/peace in such a marvelous place, given space and freedom, there probably wouldn’t be conflict, however a turtle without good motive, without talent or merit can make itself king of a pond, can control and oppress other turtles to elevate oneself/opinion. With the myth that Yertle has achieved the height required for the greater vision, he’s given the power to create arguments around whose tide pool is better, bigger of more virtue; Yertle can burn Korans, yell God hates __ and misrepresent both history and what other Yertles say.

In the book, supporters supported until they physically couldn’t, but sometimes, in real life, Yertle supporters crawl out of the pond and get on a bus. Each tide pool can have its own Yertle and Yertle-supporters….
The Yertles argue; supporters support. Like a commodity, the tide pool can be fortified, quartered, used, harvested and polluted. The spiritual draw is weakened, but we sit there content and convinced we are right, or we feel obligated to follow tribe/tradition/peers to the point where we end up like the water you describe  – slimy, stinky and immune to the stench.  It’s good to be part of the tide pool, but isn’t our quest to be towards the ever-fresh ocean? Could/would Yertle ever explain that, if it meant he would no longer be seen as king of the pond?

Join Dan and chime in on the discussion of the tide pools (ponds), the kings, and poor little Mac at the bottom of the Yertle tower (the Tower of Babel) whose burp saved turtles from the tyranny of Yertle.

The Wafer and the Loaf: the Pope and Raul Castro

I woke up this morning to read “Pope calls for ‘justice, peace, freedom and reconciliation’ in Cuba. He was greeted by Cuban President Raul Castro, who promised religious freedom in his Communist nation.”  What follows is my reflection on this piece in light of three weeks in Cuba in 1979..

Curious. The headline and the story are curious.

Pope Benedict arrives in Santiago, Cuba. In Mexico he has just criticized Cuba’s Marxist model as obsolete and has called for a future of “justice, peace, freedom and reconciliation” in Cuba.

The President of Cuba, Raul Castro, welcomes the pontiff to Cuban soil.

The media focuses on the Pope’s call for change in Cuba, on the one hand, and Mr. Castro’s promise of  religious freedom in Cuba, as though the latter were a new development.

In 1979, on the heels of the Catholic Bishops Conference in Puebla, Mexico, I spent three weeks in Cuba, one of 75 churchmen and theologians invited by the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Matanzas, Cuba and the Presbyterian-Reformed Church of Cuba.

Most of the guests were from Central and South America. Others were from France, East and West Germany, Rumania, the Soviet Union, Mozambique, Angola, South Africa, Zimbabwe. There were four of us from the U.S: Professors Harvey Cox, , Robert McAfee Brown and a tag-along practicing pastor and college chaplain from Wooster, Ohio.

What do I remember most about that trip? Five memories:


1) Approaching Cuba from the air, looking down at this island 90 miles from the coast of Florida, asking how this little David had managed to slay Goliath at the Bay of Pigs, and wondering what was so threatening to us that the U.S. government continued to punish it with an economic embargo. I felt like a bully. Guilty. Ashamed. Humble.

2) Getting sick on a collective farm, sitting under a tree after drinking a complementary glass of banana juice. I was quickly tended to by Cuba’s medical and pharmaceutical system. They continued to check on me until all was well. Everyone gets health care.

3) The Cuban pastors’ response to a long breast-beating speech by Robert McAfee Brown, one of the foremost theologians in the U.S.  Brown spent 45 minutes in a biblically based sermon apologizing to the Cubans, a kind of cathartic confession in full public view. I was with him all the way. The Cuban response? Stop that. You didn’t do this. The American people haven’t done this to us. Your government has. Wallowing in guilt won’t help you and it won’t help us. We all need to find ways to promote justice and peace in our own contexts. We are all here as friends, brothers and sisters in Christ.

4) Walking through the streets of Matanzas in the evening. Children playing freely in the streets. Windows and doors wide open. Neighbors talking and laughing with next-door neighbors. This could not be staged. This was the real Cuba.  As Harvey Cox, the charming professor from Harvard Divinity School who is fluent in Spanish, led the three of us through the streets, children followed him like the Pied Piper. Harvey would laugh with them and they with him. We would sing and walk. It was playful, like nothing that was happening back home.

5) A conversation with Communists on the veranda of the home of the President of the seminary. Raul Castro was among them. They were there to welcome us to Cuba. They also wanted to talk theology and society. They wanted to know what we really believed about God, about the Kingdom of God, and about social justice and economic equality. I don’t remember his name now, but I do remember the long one-on-one conversation during that cocktail hour with a member of the Communist Party. He had grown up Roman Catholic but was no longer a believer. The Church, he said, had kept the people in their place before the revolution. The Party had raised them up to believe in themselves. The Church had given them a wafer; the Party gave them bread, real food, real nutrition. The Church proclaimed the Kingdom of God after you die; the Party proclaimed a society of justice and peace that could be achieved in this world.

He asked what I thought. I told him that the version of Christian faith that he had described was not my faith. It was something else, but it was a very popular distortion of the life and teaching of Jesus. I told him that I shared his hope, that what he called “the classless society” I called the Kingdom of God, and that, to the extent that we were each working for the elimination of poverty, the end of starvation, and the health and joy of all God’s children, we were working toward the same goal under different names.  I rehearsed my history of Christian-Marxist dialogue dating back to seminary and the summer of 1966 living in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia as the Experiment in International Living Chicago Ambassador to Czechoslovakia. I told him of Josef Hromadka, the Czech theologian who had begun this dialogue because, said Hromadka, there was only one reason that the Bolshevik Revolution was atheistic: the sin of the Church. Its failure to align with the poor rather than the rich. The Church and the Czar had become of one cloth, just as he had been describing. The Church was giving people nothing but a wafer; the bread would come only after death. Lenin and Trotsky were insisting that to be genuinely human was to eliminate the economic structures that produce poverty and despair and that delay the distribution of real bread until an afterlife. Like Marx, they saw religion as the opiate of the people, the ideological blanket that blinded people to their earthly reality. But the biblical Kingdom is not about the Church, it’s about the new society in which the love of God reigns everywhere. It’s the NEW city, the new Jerusalem, and, in that new city, there is no longer any temple. There is no longer any need for the church because the Kingdom has come.”

The man from the Party’s eyes were wide.

I asked the man on the veranda where he thought his hope for such a society came from. “I don’t know,” he said, “I think it’s just part of being human.” “Yes,” I said, “but why? How’s that hope get there? Why should we hope unless there is something in being itself, something in the deepest part of us, that holds out the promise of its fulfillment, an inner sense that beckons us beyond the present conditions? The name for me is God.  None of us has ever seen God, yet I see God in Jesus of Nazareth, a worker, a carpenter, preacher of the Kingdom of God. I hear in your visions an echo of the Sermon on the Mount. I get the clearest sense of it when we share the meal at the Lord’s Table, the sign of the Kingdom.  The Kingdom will not come by Prometheus stealing fire from the gods. We have to work for it, but we also ‘wait for it with patience.’”

“Thank you, I’ll have to think more about that. You sound like Jose.” There’s a long pause. “Well…We’ll have to wait and see. I guess only time will tell who’s right,” he said. Like Harvey and the kids on the street that evening, we shared a good laugh, shook hands, and moved on to another conversation.


It’s now 33 years later and I’m reading about Raul Castro’s “promise” of religious freedom, the very same Raul Castro who was on the veranda at the seminary, who graciously welcomed the guy with the wafers to Cuban soil, except for kissing his ring. Priests and lay people from throughout Cuba throng to the site. None of them is hungry for bread.

Curious…for a country with no religious freedom. Don’t you think?

Mary of Occupy

The Mary of Occupy – All Things Considered commentary on the Song of Mary in the Gospel of Luke. Gordon C. Stewart.

In other cultures and other times, the young woman would be called a peasant. But here and now she is a protester, one of the dwindling numbers of ragged young people on the government plaza. She moves among the Occupier sleeping bags and protest signs in the cold of winter, singing her song of hope and joy.


She makes no demands, which is confusing to some. Hers is a different way: a bold announcement that the old order, symbolized by Wall Street, is already finished. Her purity and her message are impervious to the games of demand-and-response that serve only to tweak and tinker with the old systems of greed and financial violence….