Category: Ecumenical Institute News

Ten Ways to Strengthen Relations with Police and Public Safety Officials

Rev Dr C Anthony HuntThe following was developed by longtime EI faculty member and pastor of Epworth Chapel UMC the Rev. Dr. C. Anthony Hunt and shared as part of his presentation on “Police, Protest & Possibility” for the virtual #TheologyTownHall held Wednesday, June 17, 2020. [Join us at noon on Wednesdays for Theology Town Halls led out by different members of the EI community.]

One key to a church’s vitality is the quality of the relationships it establishes with a broad spectrum of leaders and institutions throughout its community. One of the most important set of relationships a church can develop is with police and other public safety officials. Recent well-publicized police-involved shootings and deaths, and the shootings and deaths of a number of police officers around the nation, have stained police-community relations and resulted in unrest in many areas.

Working proactively rather than reactively to strengthen a church’s relationship with its surrounding community and with police engenders trust. It also helps improve the quality of life for persons living and working in particular communities. It is a part of the theological task of churches to “seek the welfare” (shalom, peace, well-being) of all people in their respective communities (Jeremiah 29:7). Individuals, churches, groups, organizations, institutions, and even governments can promote the wellbeing of communities by making a sincere commitment to strengthen the relationship between the church, the community, and the police.

Here are ten ways that individuals, churches, and other community organizations can work toward strengthening these relationships.

  1. Pray for the police serving your community.
  2. Pray for and publicly affirm the police and other public safety officials who are members of your congregation.
  3. Know your community police officers by name, and keep their contact information readily available. Schedule regular meetings with community police officers to establish and strengthen relationships.
  4. Participate in periodic drive-arounds and community walks with police and community leaders.
  5. Invite police to community events held by the church, such as back-to-school events, community meals, and food giveaways.
  6. Include local police on the distribution lists for the church newsletter and email communications.
  7. Seek to collaborate with community entities like the Chambers of Commerce, NAACP, community associations, PTAs, and other churches in the community across denominations and faith traditions to address common interests and concerns regarding policing and public safety.
  8. Invite community police to speak to youth and young adults in the church.
  9. Educate youth and adults on appropriate conduct if stopped by police. 
  10. Assist police departments in the recruitment of qualified persons in the congregation and community who would serve well as uniformed police officers, especially women and minorities who may be underrepresented.

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SOCIAL JUSTICE READING LIST
(download as PDF)  

Alexander, Michelle
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

Alinsky, Saul
Rules for Radicals: A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals

Baker-Fletcher, Garth
Dirty Hands: Christian Ethics in a Morally Ambiguous World

Beckford, Robert
God of the Rahtid

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich
The Cost of Discipleship

Brown, Claude
Manchild in a Promised Land

Canon, Katie
Katie’s Canon: Womanism and the Soul of the of the Black Community

Coates, Ta-Nehisi
Between the World and Me

Cone, James
A Black Theology of Liberation
God of the Oppressed
The Cross and the Lynching Tree

Davis, Angela
Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine and the Foundations of a Movement

Diangelo, Robin
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism

Du Bois, W.E.B
The Souls of Black Folk

Dyson, Michael Eric
Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster
Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America
The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America

Freire, Paulo
Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Gunning Francis, Leah
Ferguson and Faith: Sparking Leadership and Awakening Community

Harding, Vincent
Hope and History: Why We Must Share the Story of the Movement

Hendricks, Obery
The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of Jesus’ Teachings and How they have been Corrupted

Hunt, C. Anthony
Blessed are the Peacemakers: A Theological Analysis of the Thought of Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Come Go with Me: Howard Thurman and Gospel of Radical Inclusivity
I’ve Seen the Promised Land: Martin Luther King, Jr, and the 21st Century Quest for the Beloved Community
And Yet the Melody Lingers: Essays, Sermons and Prayers on Religion and Race, vol. 1
My Hope is Built: Essays, Sermons and Prayers on Religion and Race, vol.2
Stones of Hope: Essays, Sermons and Prayers on Religion and Race, vol. 3

Jacobson, Dennis
Doing Justice: Congregations and Community Organizing  

Johnson, Cedric
Race, Religion and Resilience in the Neoliberal Age

Jones, William R.
Is God a White Racist?

Kendi, Ibram
How to Become and Antiracist

Lebacqz, Karen
Justice in an Unjust World

Lebron, Christopher
The Making of Black Lives Matter

Kelsey,

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Transforming the Healing Mission of the Church: Historical Reflections and Missional Discernment for the Quarantined Body of Christ

The following is the full text and accompanying resources from EI historian Dr. Stephen Lloyd’s #TheologyTownHall on May 20. [Join us at noon on Wednesdays for Theology Town Halls led by different members of the EI community.]

Healing has a central place in our Christian faith. The pages of the Bible are filled with healing. God heals, prophets heal, Jesus heals, and Jesus’ followers heal. Healing is a form of divine service, as Jesus tells his followers that when they care for the sick, they are indeed caring for him. Christians look forward to God’s coming kingdom in which all will be healed. God’s mission in the world is inconceivable without healing and caring concern.

We are now faced with a major pandemic, in which healing and care is absolutely vital. Yet as a Church, we find ourselves in uncharted territory. Most of us have never face “stay-at-home” orders or “safer-at-home” recommendations before. We struggle to think about mission in the context of social and physical distancing. Jesus said, “Go,” but now we are being told to “stay.”

Looking back at the history of healing and Christian mission might give us some insight into how we can move forward. Certainly, the way Christians care for people has changed, but two things have been constant:

  1. Christians, when at their best, have met sickness with prayerful concern; and
  2. Christians have used the best contemporary medical knowledge available to promote physical healing.

Prayerful healing has marked Christian history from the very beginning. Before Christianity enjoyed legal status in the Roman Empire (i.e., before 313 CE), Christian mission was largely successful because of Christian healing efforts. When there were epidemics, pagan doctors, like Galenus, often fled to avoid illness. Christians, however, cared for the sick, and their pagan neighbors took note of this tendency.

Lucian was evidently impressed; he said, “It is marvelous how these men rush to one another in misfortune.” But not all pagan observers were so positive. Julian the Apostate was perturbed that Christian communities provided care not just for their own, but people who were not members. He rightly worried that by caring for non-members, Christian numbers would increase.

Statistician-turned-historian Rodney Stark argued that even without modern medicine, simply caring for somebody (feeding, hydrating, keeping cool/warm/comfortable) increased his or her chance of survival. Those cared for by the Christians, argued Stark, would have survived at a higher rate.[i] This certainly gave a miraculous mystique to the early Christians, yet it would have also made them a very attractive community. The healed person would find a natural fellowship with a healing community, and, perhaps, even want to pay that forward.

Medical historian Gary Ferngren has argued that these early Christians were not simply relying on miracles for healing. Instead, they engaged in a variety of techniques, which included contemporary expert medical advice, folk medicine (remember Paul’s advice to Timothy that he “take a little wine for the stomach”), prayers, and the use of sacred objects. When it came to the healing mission of the church, Christians would try what might work from a variety of sources, both Christian and non-Christian.[ii]

Care for the poor, sick, and otherwise vulnerable became part of the institutional landscape of the Christianized Roman Empire beginning in the fourth and fifth centuries. While arguing that trust in medicine should not supplant trust in God, early Church fathers actively promoted the formation of hospitals (for the sick and poor) and monastic infirmaries. Gregory of Nazianzus famously sought to reduce the stigma against diseases such as leprosy. The ill were not outcasts being singled out by God, but victims of misfortune who required both spiritual and physical healing.[iii]

Institutionalized Christian care continued into the early Middle Ages. Christianity spread throughout much of northern Europe through the establishment of monastic communities. These communities frequently established hospitals and infirmaries that tended to the sick and the poor and served as places of refuge for travelers.

Monastic hospitals were run by highly educated monks who relied on a variety of techniques and medicines that were thought to be effective at the time. We now know that promoting cleanliness was probably good, herbal remedies may have had some efficacy, and bloodletting was probably a mistake.[iv] Nevertheless, much like their earlier counterparts, these monastic medics understood illness to have both physical and spiritual components. They used medicine within a religious context.

But when we think medieval, we don’t think medicine. We think dirt, grime, cloudy skies, and plague. During the massive Bubonic Plague outbreak, commonly called the Black Death, 75 to 200 million people died worldwide. Between 1331 and 1353, Europe lost a third of its population. Some major towns lost half of their population in just six years. It was an unsettling pandemic that turned Europe on its head.

Both religious and medical authorities were completely unable to respond to the situation. Half of Europe’s priests died, probably becoming contaminated while administering last rites. People desperately grasped at anything: they asked for the intercession of saints, they engaged in group self-flagellation (later banned by the church), used pagan spells, and some even tried to summon fairies. Charlatans pushed fake cures. Some people went into hiding, others engaged in a myriad of licentious behavior with whatever time they had left.

Christian mobs scapegoated Jewish communities throughout Europe, leading to lethal anti-Jewish pogroms.[v] In many ways, the Black Death demonstrated just how unmooring pandemics can be. I also think its important to recognize that the history of Christianity and healing is not unambiguously positive: poorly considered Christian responses made the situation worse.

To be sure, there were some milder and more pragmatic responses to plagues. In 1527,

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Having God’s Point of View: Theological Perspectives from Corinthians

Jennifer McNeelEI Faculty member in Biblical Studies, Dr. Jennifer McNeel was featured during our Theology Town Hall Meeting on May 13. Dr. McNeel is known to current students and recent grads as one who orients to biblical studies, and teaching the New Testament survey. Last fall, she co-taught with Rabbi Nina Cardin our “Mothers in Jewish and Christian Scripture and Tradition” class. The full text of Dr. McNeel’s town hall follows, or you can view the recording

 
Even before the COVID-19 crisis took over our lives, many people felt like the world was changing, and changing too fast. In my experience, many people already had a lot of anxiety about what was going on in the world and where things were headed. There were already worries about social change, political change, climate change, and more. And now of course, it feels like almost everything about our lives has changed under stay at home orders, as we deal with meaningful events being canceled, worries about those who are sick, concerns about job loss, and the struggle to maintain our own physical and mental health during social distancing.

All this new change, piled on top of the anxiety many of us already felt about a changing world, can be overwhelming. When I think about people in the Bible who had a sense that the world they lived in was changing, Paul comes right to my mind. Paul lived and moved through the world with the sense that Christ’s death and resurrection had inaugurated a new age, and that the final culmination of that massive changing of the world was coming soon. In other words, a great change had already taken place, and more change was still coming.

What did all that change mean for the way Paul lived his life and wanted other believers to live? I’d like to take a look at a few different passages that show us something about that, starting with 1 Corinthians 7. In this chapter Paul is giving a lot of advice in answer to questions that the Corinthians asked him in a letter – questions about how to live “in Christ” while also “in this world.” We see here Paul’s advice that the Corinthian believers should not seek to change their status with regard to a variety of things, such as circumcision, slavery, and marriage. Here’s the example of circumcision from verses 17-20:

17 However that may be, let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you. This is my rule in all the churches. 18 Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. 19 Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing; but obeying the commandments of God is everything. 20 Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.

In the matter of circumcision as well as marriage and slavery, Paul says they should be guided by this principle in verse 20: “Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.”

If you were already married, don’t seek to separate from your spouse. If you are a slave, don’t be concerned about seeking freedom. Stay in the condition you were in when you became a Christian.

I think we might find this a little surprising. I would imagine that those early Christians were probably eager for some kind of outward change in their lives to mark their new faith, their membership in a new community, and Paul seems to be saying: in the face of this great change, you are not called to change anything. As modern readers, I think perhaps his words on slavery in this chapter can be the most challenging – when he tells slaves not to be concerned about seeking freedom. Fully getting into that is beyond the scope of this 15 minute talk, but if we go a little further we can understand better why his philosophy is “let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.”

In verses 29-31, Paul writes:

29 I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.

Two related ideas bracket this passage: that the appointed time has grown short, and that the present form of this world is passing away. We’ll look at these in turn.

First, “the appointed time has grown short.” This NRSV translation uses 2 English words to translate 1 word in the Greek. “Appointed time” is translating the Greek word kairos. This word means time, but has a richer meaning than just time as we think of time ticking by (the word for that is chronos). Kairos can be mean: “time, period, season, type of time, appropriate time.” If I say to you, “these are the times we are living in,” I don’t just mean it’s Wednesday afternoon at 12:10. I mean something richer—there is some particular quality or characteristic of this time period I am trying to express. Kairos  has that sense–a particular kind of season, or a time that is especially appropriate for something. So, if we wanted to be a capture the meaning of this phrase, “the appointed time has grown short,”

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Fragility and Hope: Practicing Medicine in a Pandemic

The May 6 Theology Town Hall featured Dr. Brian Volck and Dr. Matthew Loftus, who have practiced medicine in a variety of settings (including Baltimore city, the Navajo Reservation, South Sudan, and Kenya, among others). They reflected on practicing medicine in the time of a pandemic. Dr. Volck’s remarks are included below, or you can view the full town hall. Prior writings by Drs. Loftus and Volck on the coronavirus pandemic include the following:

Practicing Mercy 
Dr Brian Volck
One evening not long before the statewide order to shelter in place took effect, I and my wife, Jill, were climbing into bed when she asked, “Is someone knocking at our front door?” I thought I’d heard a soft voice from the sidewalk below a few minutes earlier, but now I, too, could hear a faint tapping. Upon opening the door, we found a boy about two years old dressed in pajamas and shivering in the cold night air. A slump-shouldered woman sat on the front steps. She looked up at us with heavy-lidded eyes and said, in the muffled undertone of someone who’s had far too much to drink, “We need help.” There was no one else nearby – no car, no clue why she had chosen our house. I was wary, uncertain what to do. To be honest, I was a little scared this was a setup, a ploy to get into our house for who knows what mischief. Jill, however, took one look at the child and said, “Come on in and get warm.”

We helped the mother to her feet, picked up the boy, and brought them both inside. She was clearly intoxicated. Her clothes were neither torn nor dirty, just disheveled. She was missing a shoe. There were no signs of physical trauma. The boy looked scared, staring silently at his mother, his eyes wide, his nose runny – whether from tears or a cold it was hard to tell – and the diaper under his pajamas was twisted to the side as if he’d been dressed in a hurry. In time, he stopped shaking as we talked to his mother. She said she was trying to get to the baby daddy’s house but had lost her way. She lived with her mother in another neighborhood where she said she felt safe. For some reason, though, she didn’t want to return there tonight. She had no cell phone or ID and couldn’t remember anyone’s number.

It was clear they needed what’s traditionally been called a corporal work of mercy. What wasn’t clear was how to help them. Jill and I are both physicians, but we hadn’t trained for this. We brought them something to drink, some cookies for the boy to eat, then Jill quietly stepped away to call our pastor in search of advice. He encouraged her to call the police, which she did. By the time the officer arrived, the boy was in my lap, talking to me while rubbing his snotty nose in my shirt. We were not a good example of social distancing. The police officer was annoyed at us for letting strangers in the house. Didn’t we know how dangerous Baltimore gets at night? In the end, however, he managed to trace down the mother’s mother, who quickly drove to our house to take her daughter and grandson home, thanking us profusely. The officer called Jill fifteen minutes later to say that the boy’s grandmother was grateful to have the two of them back rather than with the baby daddy, whom she described as an abusive alcoholic. “Mercy,” I said. Mercy, indeed.  

I share this story because it can help us think theologically about health care during the COVID-19 pandemic without getting lost in a thicket of biomedical details. When Jill welcomed two strangers in our living room that evening, we were making it up as we went along. Few of us like to think of our personal physician doing that with us, but many cases don’t fit the textbook descriptions. This was one such outlier. Yet we’d been practicing for these moments since our medical school days, when we formed habits essential to our profession, habits like as prudence, courage, and truthfulness. No one in our rigorously secular medical school or residencies called them virtues. No one quoted Aquinas, Alasdair MacIntyre, or Stanley Hauerwas.  Some of our mentors admonished us to leave questions of God to the hospital chaplain and refer any moral dilemmas to the ethics committee. But, in retrospect, I see all that training now through theological eyes, further refracted by my more recent formation as a lay oblate in the Benedictine monastic tradition.

I have time to name just two such habits. The first is hospitality, something that seems conspicuously absent in hospitals today. Yet, “hospitality” and “hospital” derive from the single Latin word, hospes, which can mean both “guest” and “host.” What’s more, these words share a root with the English word “hostile.” Linguists trace these surprising connections back to a Proto-Indoeuropean root *ghos-ti- , which can mean “guest,” “host,” “stranger,” and “foreigner.” This jumble of contradictory meanings also appears in the ancient Greek word xenos, from which the fourth century Byzantine xenodochia – the first true hospitals – took their name. Etymologically, then, xenophobia may be less about fearing the stranger than fearing what we, as the host, might be asked to do for her.

In most traditional cultures, hospitality is understood as a duty and a danger at the same time. Host and guest enter a relationship of mutual obligation: the host offers protection and inquires after the guest’s needs,

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What Shall I Do With My Time?: Thinking About Hospitality In The Time of the Coronavirus

The following is taken from Dr. Arthur Sutherland’s presentation for the virtual #TheologyTownHall held Wednesday, April 22, 2020. [Join us at noon on Wednesdays for Theology Town Halls led out by different members of the EI community.]

 Arthur SutherlandAs we all know, these are indeed extraordinary times. I want, however, to use caution in how far I go in affirming this idea. I want to be careful with my words. These are extraordinary times for some people, but not for everyone.

Let me explain. Like yours, my life is interrupted. Over the past several months, my routines, my abilities, and my desires have become out of sync with my expectations. My new language includes words and metaphors that I did not plan to use, and some I didn’t know, before March. The COVID-19 virus has brought words like “sheltering in place,” “social distancing,” and “Instacart.”

More disturbing to me is how often I hear people talk about “feeling imprisoned” or “going stir-crazy.”   These words, phrases, metaphors, and others like them, trouble me. It is the language of incarceration. When we say, “stir crazy,” we are using a slang term coined by prisoners in the 1850s to describe their feeling of mental imbalance. When we use these words, we are speaking like the condemned. We are protesting our lack of freedom. When we use these words, we are robbing the jailed to pay for our self-pity. In contrast, listen to how an actual prisoner, the Apostle Paul, described his life:

Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need (Phil. 4:11-12)

In this passage, Paul has not wrapped his face with a crying towel. There is no sense that his imprisonment was going to overturn other ways of viewing his life.

I recently read an article by Jerry Metcalf, a man incarcerated in Michigan who writes for The Marshall Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization that seeks to create and sustain a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system. In his essay, “No, Your Coronavirus Quarantine Is Not Just Like Being in Prison,” he sets us straight:

For those of you reading this who feel trapped or are going stir-crazy due to your coronavirus-induced confinement, the best advice I can give you—as someone used to suffering in long-term confinement—is to take a pause, inhale a few deep breaths, then look around at all the things you have to be grateful for.

And for some reason if you still find yourself going stir-crazy after all the deep breaths and the journey inwards, then try more straightforwardly considering my situation. I’d give anything to trade places with you right now.

I’m scared to death. I may die all alone in prison without any of my loved ones around to comfort me and send me off. I don’t want the last faces I see to be those of the two cruel prison guards assigned to watch over me while I slip away.

It’s almost as if the coronavirus were specifically designed to kill off those locked away from society. I know this isn’t literally the case. But this is a virus that is airborne and most affects people in confined, overcrowded spaces.

There is no place for us to hide. We have no home to sequester ourselves in. It is physically impossible for us to separate.

In considering Metcalf’s rejoinder to our self-pity, I looked back at my own research and interest in theological hospitality in search of how to rethink my language use during this pandemic.

How do prisoners think about time?  As I wrote earlier (before COVID 19 started jumping from cage to cage in Wuhan), the interplay between faith, hope, and time is more heightened for prisoners than for ordinary folk. In fact, next to the concept of space, time is the critical element in understanding the metaphysics of prison life.

Contemporary prisoners have developed their own language for this: they speak of “doing time;” “serving time;” “passing time;” and “hard time.”  And then there is “Buck Rodgers Time”– a parole date so far into the next century, a prisoner cannot imagine release.

In the New Testament, Christian prisoners fend off this despair by making use of three perspectives of time: the chronological; the ritualistic; and the imperatival:

  • Paul’s request that Timothy “come before winter” indicates an awareness of chronological time (2 Tim. 4:21).
  • Paul adopts a ritualistic metaphor for time when he writes, “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure” (2 Tim 4:6).
  • For those who will remain alive after him, he employs the imperatival, encouraging them to live with a sense of urgency; he wants them to live in the kairos–in the propitious moment–so that they “make the most of the time” (Col. 4:1).[1]

You might pause to think about how you live out these three types of time:

  • What does the chronology of your day look like?
  • What are your private rituals? What are your public rituals?
  • What is kairotic for you? What is it that must be done? What is it that will change yourself or the world?

Let me add here that no amount of binge watching on Netflix is going to stop the terror that domestic abuse victims have of another day at home and no place to get away.

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EI Prof Authors Book Responding to COVID-19

 

Associate Dean Pat Fosarelli has just published a timely booklet, How to Talk to Children and Teens about COVID-19.” Drawing on her expertise both as a pediatrician and as a practical theologian specializing in faith development and spirituality, Dr. Fosarelli has provided a needed resource for anyone engaging with children and teens during this time.

“This pandemic can be a time of emotional and spiritual growth for us all,” says Dr. Fosarelli, “but that will only happen if we choose growth rather than denial.”

The downloadable booklet is inexpensive, and can easily be purchased for an entire church or school. Even in the midst of our own fear, suffering, and anxiety, we can have honest and compassionate conversations with children and teens about this worldwide tragedy and provide hope for a better future. The book contains activities for helping children of all ages explore their own reactions and consider what they can do for others right now. Brief, authoritative, and filled with wisdom and guidance, it is available immediately for download.

“A virus that human beings have not seen before is now infecting millions of people all over the globe….If this is difficult for adults to fathom, it is nearly impossible for children and teens to understand.” How to talk to children and teens about COVID 19 book cover

Pat Fosarelli

 

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Reading Isaiah 25 and Psalm 114 in an Easter Season Marked by COVID-19

Think about the phrase ‘marking time.’ In common usage, it denotes waiting idly, nothing much happening, or even soldiers marching in place. But both Jews and Christians mark time according to the story of our faith. Last week Jews kept Passover, and Christians in the west passed through Holy Week into the great 50 days of Easter. We mark time by what we remember and what we anticipate in the stories, prophecy, and poetry of our faith. The fourth virtual #TheologyTownHall, held Wednesday, April 15, 2020, marked time with a performance (by Dr. Radosevich) of the story of three strangers walking to Emmaus , and interpretation (by Dr. Hancock) of Isaiah’s imaginative hope that death—the swallower—will be swallowed instead, and the psalmist’s confident assurance—despite apparent scarcity—of divine presence and provision. The following is taken from Dr. Rebecca Hancock’s presentation. [Join us at noon on Wednesdays for Theology Town Halls led out by different members of the EI community.]

Grocery store aisle with empty shelvesI imagine that the feasting imagery of Isaiah 25 may sound a bit incongruous in a time when the Coronavirus pandemic has led to problems with supply chains, empty shelves, and long wait times for grocery delivery service.

For some, this is more than simply a question of whether food and other products are available, but whether or not they have the financial resources for necessities. We are faced daily with our communal lack of resources: lack of protective equipment; ventilator shortages; not enough tests; and the absence of a vaccine to name just a few. As we hear daily reports of death tolls—in the world, in the country, in our state, and in even in our own zip codes—the image of death’s destruction may also seem far removed from our everyday experience and worries.

But the prophet’s words in Isaiah 25 are not meant to be heard as descriptive of the contemporary reality, but rather as a hopeful proclamation of a future dramatic reversal. This text is situated in the midst of several chapters in Isaiah that take a cosmic focus and emphasize YHWH’s universal kingship. Often called a “little apocalypse,” these chapters point beyond the immediate experience of the community toward a realm of divine activity that has both spatial and temporal dimensions.

In the verses here, the text describes a celebration following divine deliverance from oppressive forces. In the first verse, wine is mentioned twice. Throughout Isaiah, wine and vineyards often served a metonym, a stand-in for a wide variety of food sources. Here, wine and the rich foods listed recognize God’s provision of sustenance while also emphasizing that the food here is no paltry offering, but a lavish banquet. In an interesting contrast, the image of feasting also has a figurative counterpart—the swallowing up of death.

A few textual details stand out:

  • First is that God is the central actor throughout. In a series of diverse images, it is God who hosts an elaborate feast; God who destroys mourning and even death itself; and God who gently wipes away all tears.
  • The second thing to note is the use of repetition, the most notable repetition of which is the word “all,” used five different times: “a feast for all peoples;” “the shroud cast over all peoples;” “the sheet that is spread over all nations;” “tears from all faces;” and “the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth.” God’s actions are comprehensive and on behalf of the whole world.

The prophet also uses highly symbolic language to underscore the ultimate power of God over death. In the background, we hear echoes of ancient myths, now transformed. The Canaanite god of death and the underworld, Mot, is often described as having an insatiable appetite—a mouth that stretches open to devour, lips stretching open to consume. It is Mot’s mouth that swallows the Canaanite god Baal “like a dried olive.”

In the Old Testament, death is also often personified. Very frequently, the Bible depicts death and Sheol, the place of death, as “swallowing up” its victims. For example, in Isaiah 5:14 (NRSV) we hear:

“Therefore Sheol has enlarged its appetite
and opened its mouth beyond measure.”

In a surprising reversal, it is not death who swallows in Isaiah 25, but God who consumes. Death—so often personified as hungry, insatiable, and active—is here the passive recipient of God’s final action. Immediately preceding Isaiah 25:6-9, the prophet recounts God’s action on behalf of the poor and needy, providing a shelter and refuge to those in distress. The destruction of death in this text, then, is closely connected to the establishment of God’s justice and the celebration of God’s kingship.

The other text before, us, Psalm 114, is a hymn celebrating God’s deliverance from Egypt and God’s provision in the wilderness. The opening verses focus on God’s past action on behalf of Israel, juxtaposing two images of Israel’s crossing a body of water: first crossing the sea as they fled Egypt; and second crossing the Jordan River as they entered the promised land. In this psalm, we encounter highly symbolic language as the physical world is personified: the sea looks back and flees; the Jordan turns back; the mountains skip like rams; and the hills skip like lambs.

Like Isaiah 25, there are allusions to ancient mythological traditions, once again transformed. In both Canaanite and Mesopotamian myths, the sea is a deity with which the chief god does battle. In the psalms, the sea, and water in general, are often personified, serving as a frequent metaphor for any chaotic or destructive force, both human and cosmic.

In Psalm 114, those forces that represent opposition to God are portrayed as cowed by God’s mere presence.

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Preaching the Empty Tomb to an Empty Room

Dean Laytham’s Introduction:  

Every week a preacher asks her- or himself, “How do I proclaim the Good News for this people, gathered in this place, at this time? What is the Good News here and now for us?”

That perennial question is peculiarly focused this Holy Week, as the now has been exponentially magnified by corona-crisis, as the us has been radically diminished—even dismembered—by social distancing, and the here has been displaced and destabilized by migration to virtual platforms.

This Holy Week, preachers bent on proclaiming Good News face a particular version of the perennial question: “How do you proclaim the empty tomb … to an empty room?” 

Three EI faculty shared their answer, each focusing on one phase of the Easter Triduum:

Dr. Janyce Jorgensen, pastor at Zion Lutheran in York, PA, addressed Maundy Thursday, asking how can we “get real” with a service that is so tactile and sensory.  In a year when we will not gather together to take, bless, break and give bread, Jorgensen reminded us (quoting Henri Nouwen), that this year Jesus is taking us, blessing us, breaking us, giving us. Here is the full text of her talk, with the Nouwen references:  Jorgensen on Maundy Thursday

Dr. C. Anthony Hunt, pastor of Epworth United Methodist Chapel, spoke of the “existential texture” of Good Friday in the Black Church, which finds hope in surprising places–even a condemned man’s cross. He then referenced the ‘glad surprise’ of Easter, as illuminated in this quote from Thurman:

“… if stumbling in the darkness, having lost his or her way, one finds the spot at which they fell is the foot of a stairway that leads from darkness into light.  Such is the glad surprise.  This is what Easter means in the experience of the race.  This is the resurrection!  It is the announcement that life cannot ultimately be conquered by death, that there is no road that is at last swallowed up in an ultimate darkness, that there is strength added when the labors increase, that multiplied, peace matches multiplied trials, that life is bottomed by the glad surprise.” (Howard Thurman – “Resurrection: The Glad Surprise” in Meditations of the Heart)

 

Dr. Dave Greiser, pastor of North Baltimore Mennonite Church, reflected on preaching bodily resurrection this Easter, focusing on 1 Corinthians 15. He ended with three tips for how virtual preachers might handle the ’empty room.’ Full text: Greiser – preaching Easter – EI Town Hall 

View full Town Hall
(forward to about the 3:25 mark for the formal beginning)

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Stress and Trauma in a Time of Crisis

Following are notes from Dr. Pat Fosarelli’s presentation, as well as a poem shared by Dr. John Hayes, for the virtual #TheologyTownHall held Wednesday, April 1, 2020. [Join us at noon on Wednesdays for Theology Town Halls led out by different members of the EI community.]

What is stress?
  • Stress is anything that moves us off our equilibrium
  • A stress can be positive if it makes us feel joyful (e.g., getting married) or competent (getting a promotion)
  • A stress is negative when it causes us to feel out of control or unable to cope or the stress is never-ending
  • The current COVID situation fits the description of a major negative stress
What is the body’s response to negative stress?
  • A negative stress is associated with the fight-or-flight “response,” one of the oldest protective mechanisms in the human body
  • Fight-or-flight is supposed to be short-lived, but in chronic stress, it goes on and on
  • That is important because the chemical processes in the body associated with fight-or-flight are harmful if they last too long; these include effects on the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, the immune system, and the way we use glucose in our body
  • Raised heartrate and respiratory rates help to get us away from an immediate danger, as does a higher blood pressure and higher glucose in the bloodstream, but if these effects last too long, they damage the very body they were trying to protect
  • Structures in the brain contribute to this cascade of events, as memories of similar dangers make us more anxious; in addition, the center in our brain that alerts us to dangers (amygdala) often gets “stuck” in the on-position (just like a smoke detector that’s not working well)
  • The result is our bodies and minds are impacted sometimes in a major way
  • Physical responses: the aforementioned reactions, an improperly functioning immune response, worsening of chronic conditions, alterations in sleep and diet, etc.
  • Emotional responses: Fear, irritability, sadness, panic, crying, re-visitation of memories that are negative, etc.
  • Spiritual responses: Greater intimacy with God OR anger at God, doubting of God’s existence or care, inability to pray, etc.
Resilience
  • Resilience is what is needed
  • Resilience can be learned
  • Steps in building a resilient attitude:
    • know yourself (what are your strengths/weaknesses; what makes you more stressed or worried; what obstacles have you overcome in the past);
    • pay attention to the positives/spend much less time on the negatives (e.g., watch less TV);
    • lean in to the situation, accurately noting your reactions and if they are helpful; 
    • change your reactions to responses (the difference is that a reaction is usually automatic while a response is usually measured and considered);
    • realize that you can’t know or fix everything…and that’s OK;
    • do what you can as positively as you can (don’t dwell on what you can’t do);
    • find something to laugh or smile about…EVERYDAY;
    • connect in positive ways with others;
    • do something that gives you joy or meaning EVERYDAY (such activities evoke the production of endorphins in our bodies, neurotransmitters that counteract many of the effects of fight-or-flight noted above); 
    • lean in to God, lean on God, connecting to God in the way that seems most meaningful and natural to you

As members of the Body of Christ, each one of us is important in the overall health of the Body.

Fear is the Cheapest Room in the House
by Khwaja Hafez Shirazi (q.s.) (1326-1389 CE)

Fear is the cheapest room in the house
I would like to see you living
In better conditions,

for your mother and my mother
Were friends.

I know the Innkeeper
In this part of the universe.
Get some rest tonight,
Come to my verse tomorrow.
We’ll go speak to the Friend together.

I should not make any promises right now,
But I know if you
Pray
Somewhere in this world-
Something good will happen.

God wants to see
More love and playfulness in your eyes
For that is your greatest witness to Him.

 

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Theology Town Hall: The Coronavirus and the Book of Revelation

The following is taken from Dr. Michael Gorman’s presentation for the virtual #TheologyTownHall held Wednesday, March 25, 2020. [Join us at noon on Wednesdays for Theology Town Halls led out by different members of the EI community.]

For hundreds of years, people who have experienced pestilences have wondered, “Is this or that plague predicted in the book of Revelation?” Once again, some people are understandably asking the same question. One well-known religious group believes that the pale horse of Revelation 6 has been “riding the Earth” since the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, “sow[ing] death through plagues and other ills” (The Washington Post, March 20, 2020).

So is this pandemic the fulfillment of Revelation’s prophecies? I will answer that question with an emphatic “no.”

I do so, not because the current pandemic is insignificant, but because that sort of question  is the wrong question to ask of the book of Revelation. The right sort of question might be one that appears in Revelation itself: “How long?” (Rev 6:10), a phrase we find also in the psalms of lament (e.g., Psalm 6:3).

But Revelation’s images of plagues, other disasters, and beasts are symbols, not depictions or predictions. They are symbols of humanity’s evils, especially the evils that result from the marriage of political and religious powers, and of cosmic evil forces—and, yes, of God’s judgment on those evils. But there is no one-to-one correspondence between, say, one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse or one of the bowls of judgment and the current pandemic, or (for that matter) any other pandemic, past, present, or future.

As I and others have argued in many places and ways, in times like this the church’s mission—even according to the book of Revelation–is not to look for biblical predictions and make connections that instill fear. Neither is it to say things like, “If this is the beginning of the end, true Christians will be safe because they will be raptured—whisked away.” (Remember, there is no rapture in the book of Revelation!)

Rather, as always, the church’s mission is to bear faithful witness to Christ the Faithful Witness (Revelation 1:5) and to the eternal gospel (Revelation 14:6); to share in the suffering of the world; to call ourselves and everyone else to turn away from evil and toward Jesus Christ; and to offer faith, love, and hope to all by practicing those three theological virtues.

The situation we are facing is clearly unique and requires unique ways of expressing that faith, love, and hope—but the essential call has not changed one iota. What might the book of Revelation have to say about these three theological virtues?

Faith: In Revelation, faith means faithfulness and endurance and obedience. Since today is, for many Christians, the feast of the Annunciation, we may need to heed the example of Mary (who appears in Revelation 12), who said to the angel, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). We certainly need that sort of faith right now.

Love: Revelation tells us that the church in Ephesus “abandoned the love” it had at first (Revelation 2:4). That is certainly a danger today, as we are in various states of isolation. So what does love look like now? It means social distancing, but also more. It means praying for our EI students and their families who are uniquely affected by this situation, for the sick and vulnerable, for the health providers, for those in leadership—from the EI to the UN. It means making contact with people to be sure they are OK. And it may mean expending financial resources in unexpected ways to assist a family member, friend, or neighbor.

Hope: I especially stress the word hope, because no matter what happens, the book of Revelation is a book of hope: it invites us to anticipate the beautiful new heavens and new earth, the dwelling of God among us in the fullest sense and most complete way. And it invites us also, now, to “come” and to “take” or “receive.” As the book of Revelation comes to a close, it reiterates one of its themes—salvation as the satisfaction of our deepest thirsts—by beckoning us: “Let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take [or, better translated, “receive”] the water of life as a gift” (Revelation 22:17). Hope is a divine gift, and a divine gift to pass on to others.

Today the book of Revelation, its author (John), its main character (Jesus), the Spirit, and the bride (the church) offer that invitation to life—abundant life in Christ, abundant life in the company of God’s people. This is a life of faith, love, and hope.

All of which brings us back to Romans 8, Paul’s great chapter about God’s love and faithfulness, and thus our hope. I again stress the word hope.

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? Is it God who justifies?! 34Who will condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us?! Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No,

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