What Can We Give?

We traditionally think that three kings presented gifts to Jesus because Matthew wrote they brought frankincense, gold, and myrrh.  However, a close reading of the scripture passage does not have any reference to a specific number of kings.  Recent scholarship, however, found evidence of a fourth king.  He brought the fruitcake.

Seriously, though, if you had to bring a gift to Jesus, what would you bring?  Or maybe we should ask, “What would Jesus like?”

Personally, I don’t think he was too much into material things, especially the gifts the kings brought.  Those were gifts for royalty and Jesus was not seeking to be a king in any secular sense.

Caesar’s kingdom was the Roman Empire.  Jesus’ kingdom was God’s.  While both kingdom’s sought peace, the Empire kept the peace by fear.  Scarcity, there just wasn’t enough for everyone.  Oppression, intimidate the people with instruments of violence, such as the cross.  Protection, keep out the rabble and the riff-raff.  The Empire defined strength by a mighty military armed with fierce weapons of destruction.  The Empire defined success by accumulated wealth and vast material possessions.  The Empire practiced leadership by overwhelming dominance.

God’s kingdom, though, is the realm of peace and justice rooted in steadfast love.  When love prevails, there is no such thing as scarcity, rather we remember Creation’s abundance.  When love prevails, we open ourselves to strangers because we believe in every person’s inherent goodness and that by welcoming the stranger our hearts will expand and we will have more capacity to love.  When love prevails, we understand that true transformation comes not through weapons of destruction or instruments of violence, but by breaking bread together.  When love prevails, we define wealth not by how much we have, but by how much we give away.  When love prevails, we define leadership by humility.  Where there is love, there is no fear.

This is the realm of God.  The realm of God overturns the ways, the assumptions, and the organization of this world.  As the church, we’re called to lead our communities to live into this realm, heaven on earth. That means we have responsibility to do the social justice work, such as immigrant rights, criminal justice reform, creation care, and gender rights.  We have a responsibility to find an end to homelessness, opioid abuse, food insecurity, racism, and poverty.

Yet, we also have to be honest with ourselves.  Certainly, these are major issues and without addressing them, they leave us very far away from heaven on earth.  We can rail against any and all of them, and that can lead to change providing we don’t keep our anger and frustration only to ourselves.  Our advocacy must work in collaboration with people and organizations who can make a difference.  However, do we do more talking than acting?  Around here, many churches are apt to say, “We’re not very big.  We don’t have a lot of people.  Our financial resources are limited.”  So, we rightfully lament.  We make donations.  However, we don’t see much change; we don’t see how we’re making a difference.  That’s frustrating.

We’re caught. Leaving them unaddressed raises questions about the reasons for our own existence.  Why are we a church if we don’t take seriously God’s call to us to bring true peace and justice to this world? On the other hand, we feel impotent and wonder if we’re tilting at windmills.

Might I suggest a different approach? A different way of thinking?  While not losing sight of the big issues, let’s look to see how those issues directly affect our neighbors by walking with them in their struggles.  Furthermore, helping our neighbors reframes the social justice issues.  We could embrace someone with mental illness to remind her that she is loved.  We could help a person assaulted by the indignities of old age to live gracefully or support an adult child as he struggles to help his aged parents.  We could help an immigrant family transition to living in Pittsfield.  We could work with a family to help them get out of debt by helping them with their budgeting and spending in order to transition them to financial stability.  We could help a mother and father grapple with their son’s opioid addiction, or perhaps even worse, help a child through a parent’s addiction.

I believe the Empire’s influence colors our self-perception.  When we believe we don’t have enough members or money to make a difference, we see ourselves from the perspective of the Empire.  When we measure our capacity to serve God by membership size or money, we’re using the quantitative, material measures of success.  But God says, that’s not what makes the difference.  The difference comes when we serve in love; bearing in mind that love is not an emotion, but a verb.  God says to us, “You are worthy.  You are capable.  You are my hands and feet.  You are my instruments of peace.  You have the capacity to love.  Take care of my children.”  Friends, love is inexhaustible.  It is an ever-flowing stream.  It is an overflowing bottomless cup.

Here’s a rub, though.  We won’t help everyone.  We won’t even help a quarter of the people who are in need.  But can we help one or two or possibly four? By helping them, they will be better off.  And we would have accomplished more than just railing at the injustice.

I just finished serving homeless veterans at Soldier On.  I couldn’t help all of them.  I didn’t help half of them.  But I made a difference in some people’s lives, and that difference moved them from despair to hope.  I didn’t change their past.  I didn’t make all their struggles vanish.  But I did help them find a new way forward through their struggles so they could see a future without drugs or alcohol and a real possibility to end their homelessness.

Working closely with people who were homeless opened my eyes and gave me a better understanding into the challenges they faced.  To say, “We need more affordable housing,” believing that the answer is more funding for Section 8, overlooks a tangle of impeding factors such as: physical health, mental health, unsteady income, criminal record, inadequate transportation, or drug addiction.  We don’t always realize how close many people are to losing their housing.  Working without benefits, such as sick leave, can put a single mother on the street if in caring for her sick child she misses too much work.

Here’s one the Pittsfield Area Council of Congregations is working on.  There are people in this city who cannot afford to be properly honored in death.  They have no money to be cremated, to open a grave, and have a marker.  Imagine covering the costs to bury a loved one with your entire monthly disability check, which left you nothing for rent.

By working closely with people who are directly affected by social injustices, several things happen.  First, we offer hope to the person and possibly change her life.  Second, we learn from him about the problem, thus giving us more intimate knowledge about it.  That leads to the third point.  We can be better and more effective advocates on the issue itself.  Fourth, we get to know our neighbors, especially people whom we would otherwise never get to know.  Thus, we enrich our community by drawing its circle wider.  Fifth, though the social justice issue remains, we feel less frustrated by it because we made a difference to someone affected by injustice and possibly even transformed her life.

Friends, we are the fourth king, and we are the gift.  We give of ourselves.  We give our hearts, especially when we see the Christ in everyone we meet.

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Making Me Great

Despite what the president claims, The Wall is not about a physical wall on the border between the United States and Mexico.

He claims it is about border security, which members of Congress in both parties acknowledge is necessary.  Democrats have approved money for border security, including strengthening and repairing fences, increasing border patrols, and increasing surveillance with drones.

Data show that illegal border crossings from Mexico have fallen over the past 16 years and that many undocumented immigrants came through border crossings legally and overstayed their visas.  As for drug smuggling, walls won’t stop drugs coming across the border.  Smugglers can go around the wall with boats, under the wall with tunnels, through checkpoints with cargo, and over the wall with light planes or even using old technology, a catapult.

A couple of weeks ago former chief of staff Kelly said in an interview that the administration abandoned the idea of a concrete wall last year.  The president recently stated that the wall would be aesthetically designed steel slats (the Washington Post published a guesstimate based upon a presidential Tweet.)  He tweeted later that a concrete wall has not been abandoned.

The Wall is the hill upon which Trump will die.  Facts don’t matter for him.  The Wall is all about him.

He ran on a building a wall.  It was a rallying cry during his campaign and continues today.  It animates his base.

His administration, though, is in trouble.  Though many will say that there is no collusion between him and Russia during the campaign, the number of people around him who have been indicted is clear evidence of a seriously corrupt administration.  The turnover in the executive branch points to an administration in turmoil.  He failed to get rid of the Affordable Care Act.  He has two significant legislative achievements, the tax bill and criminal justice reform.  The former is a dud and the latter he’s swept under the carpet.  The tariff war he waged has done nothing to boost manufacturing or bring jobs back to the United States.  He replaced NAFTA with basically a tweak.

He has alienated our allies.  The members of the General Assembly laughed in his face.  His overtures to North Korea have yielded nothing.

Though the economy remains strong, he can’t shake that it has been coasting since 2010.  As the stock market gyrates every day and the gains of 2018 are gone, he can’t point to it as a sign of his business acumen and economic stewardship.

He sees himself as a tough negotiator, a deal maker.  He needs this wall to prove it.  However, by insisting on the wall and shutting the government down, he has backed himself into a corner.  Settling for less than a wall reveals him as a blowhard.  Continuing the shutdown reveals him as heartless.

The Wall is not about border security.  It is about feeding his enormous ego.  It is his narcissism on steroids.  And he is willing to shut down a major portion of the federal government and economically stress hundreds of thousands of federal workers to prove himself.

I think of leadership along the lines of Psalm 72.  A good leader rules with the welfare of all the people in mind, which will yield prosperity for everyone.   A good leader will have regard for the poor and the needy and the respect of other leaders.  A good leader will be blessed.

Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor.
May he live while the sun endures,
and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.
May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass,
like showers that water the earth.
In his days may righteousness flourish
and peace abound, until the moon is no more.

May he have dominion from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
May his foes bow down before him,
and his enemies lick the dust.
May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles
render him tribute,
may the kings of Sheba and Seba
bring gifts.
May all kings fall down before him,
all nations give him service.

For he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
and precious is their blood in his sight.

Long may he live!
May gold of Sheba be given to him.
May prayer be made for him continually,
and blessings invoked for him all day long.
May there be abundance of grain in the land;
may it wave on the tops of the mountains;
may its fruit be like Lebanon;
and may people blossom in the cities
like the grass of the field.
May his name endure forever,
his fame continue as long as the sun.
May all nations be blessed in him;
may they pronounce him happy.

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
who alone does wondrous things.
Blessed be his glorious name forever;
may his glory fill the whole earth.
Amen and Amen.

Jesus would say that good leadership requires humility.  That’s completely missing in Donald Trump.

 

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Advent Candle Liturgy – 2018

I’m late publishing this. However, not so late if you haven’t got an Advent candle liturgy yet. You have my permission to use it providing you acknowledge my authorship. Please use the following (or something really close): “Used with permission by the author Quentin Chin”

I used the texts for this year from 1 Thessalonians, Philippians, Psalm 80, and Isaiah.

Dec 2

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.
Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

Leader: The news has been filled with sorrows.  War and strife.  Floods and fires.  Shootings.  Drug overdoses.  They challenge our faith.  We look for signs of hope, but night’s inky darkness surrounds us.  Friends, let us not falter in our faith.  Let us remain steadfast to the ways of Christ as we wait patiently for dawn’s early light.
Unison Response: O God, you are the source of love and our fount of hope.  With Jesus, we can bring goodness and joy to our community.  In love, we can hasten the coming of the dawn for all who walk in darkness.  there is goodness and joy as well.  We will watch for dawn’s light breaking on the horizon.    Amen.

 

Dec 9

Philippians 1:3-11

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

Leader: We were never meant to be alone.  We live and thrive when we are in community with one another.  Diversity makes us stronger as we learn compassion through our differences.  When we broaden our understanding of people and cultures we share God’s grace.
Unison Response: You beckon us, O God, to share our common lives.  Though we see the same world differently, we have the same deep hopes and dreams of shalom.  We yearn for a new day and a harvest of righteousness.  Come, Jesus, come.  Amen.

Dec 16

Philippians 4:4-7

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Leader: The night’s inky darkness has started to fade.  Night sounds give way to the stirrings of a new day bringing the promise of God’s realm of peace.  Let us rejoice in hope and recommit ourselves to carrying on Christ’s teachings in our ministries.
Unison Response: Gentle God, our night fears abate.  As darkness fades we see that we are not alone.  We stand with others anxiously awaiting the promise of peace.  Hear our prayers and guard our hearts and minds in Christ’s coming.  Amen.

Dec 23

Psalm 80:1-7

Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
you who lead Joseph like a flock!
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth
before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.
Stir up your might,
and come to save us!
Restore us, O God;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.
O Lord God of hosts,
how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
You have fed them with the bread of tears,
and given them tears to drink in full measure.
You make us the scorn of our neighbors;
our enemies laugh among themselves.
Restore us, O God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Leader: Night is almost gone.  We can see faintly in dawn’s first light hopeful signs of true community.  We recognize that we are strong when we knit a tapestry of community with different colors, different textures, and different fibers.  Regardless of who we are or where we came from, we are one community in Christ.
Unison Response: Weaver God, you gather us together as sisters and brothers in faith.  Following the teachings of Jesus, we seek to become one community bearing witness to the possibility that all can live as one.  We are one community in which we stand with each other and for each other, defending each other against sin.  Remind us that the gospel’s message proclaims love trumps fear and life always overcomes death.  Amen.

Dec 24

Isaiah 9:2-7

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

Leader: Our waiting is over.  A new day is here.  The angels sing a new song – a song of justice and peace rooted in steadfast love.  Perfect love has cast out fear.  The Christ is born.
Unison Response: Everlasting and wonderful God, we welcome this day.  We feel the joy of hope and the promise that your realm of peace and justice has come.  We take to heart the upside down teachings of Jesus, where peace comes by sharing the bread the cup and the character of true leadership is humility.  Lead us away from death and set us upon the path of righteousness.   Help us to proclaim the ways of life in our ministries of grace.  Amen.

 

 

 

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DNC: Are You Listening?

I hold no membership in any political party.  I think I’m classified as an unenrolled voter in Massachusetts, but the label, however, is not important.  Generally, well overwhelmingly, really, I cast votes for Democrats in elections.  Furthermore, when I vote in a primary (I’m allowed to do that in Massachusetts), I vote in the Democratic primary.

I voted for a Republican candidate years ago.  She ran for state auditor.  I couldn’t vote for the Democrat because she declared two primary residences on her tax return – and she was running for state auditor?

The GOP has moved so far to the right that I have a hard time finding any resonance with its policy positions as well as trusting GOP officeholders any higher than auditor.  Though I think Gov. Baker is doing an OK job, I can’t shake the history of Gov. Romney’s tenure.  Romney ran as a moderate Republican and then with an eye towards higher office veered off to the right.  Remember, he couldn’t run away fast enough from the health insurance program in Massachusetts, which became the model for the Affordable Care Act?

Though not a Democrat, my sympathies strongly lie with them.  In this hyperpolorized political environment, one would think I would be cheering on the Democrats because they’re not Republicans.  But, I’m pretty tired of the Democrats, too.

About a year ago the Democratic leadership in Congress rolled out its vision for the party and the nation.  Dubbed “A Better Deal,” it left me shaking my head in dismay.  Better deal meant “what?”  It was a slogan to repackage the stuff the party had been pushing for awhile.  It kind of felt like the party was re-gifting used and worn out policies.

Several months ago I decided to send an e-mail to the Democratic National Committee through its website to express my thoughts as they entered the mid-term elections.  Though policies such as universal health care, free college tuition, infrastructure investment, net neutrality, and affordable housing as only a few of the policies, they are all worthy.  I wanted, however, to convey to the Committee my idea for an image to hold all of these disparate policies together.  But, I couldn’t find any way to convey my idea to the party.

I got a call from the Democratic National Committee several months ago.  We had a long conversation.  He was a young man – he told me he was 24.  He was passionate about the party and pleaded with me to donate.  Our conversation was part public policy discussion and history lesson.  He wasn’t familiar with the latter.  His motivation was anti-GOP.  I told him about my idea for the party’s message and my inability to convey it.

Today I read in the New York Times about the internal split among the Democrats.  Should the party move further left?  Should the party be more energetic in opposing Trump?  Should the party be less beholden to corporate interests?

What seems to be missing is a succinct party identity.  That identity could help to bring some of the disparate elements of the party together for a common cause at least for one or two election cycles.

I propose the Democrats unite around a theme connoting policies that will allow everyone in this country to fulfill his/her life’s aspirations.  People should not be limited by government policies or institutional barriers.  In other words:

  • Affordable, universal health care for everyone (note this does not mean a single-payer system) so people can switch jobs, start their own businesses, and have reliable health care if they lose their jobs.
  • Affordable housing.  Available affordable housing in many communities does not meet the actual needs in the communities.  Homeless people are not just people who live on our streets or in abandoned buildings.  Homeless people include people who couch surf or live in their cars and still go to school or work.
  • Food security.  People need to eat.  SNAP benefits are tight enough already (read about living on a SNAP budget).  Nutrition is necessary for children to have proper physical development.
  • Raise the federal minimum wage.  Thankfully, local and state governments have already started this.  However, shamefully the federal minimum wage remains at $7.25 an hour.
  • Ongoing education.  While free college tuition will enable recent college graduates to begin accumulating wealth rather than pay their debt, we have to make affordable education for all people possible as technology and global finance is changing the nature of jobs.  People who may have been working for 20 years  in a job that they lost due to technology or a job that went overseas should be able to be retrained for new work without having to incur terrible financial costs.

I can think of other areas and I’m guessing you can too.  Adding them would make this list way too long.  As for paying for this… raise taxes.  If the GOP raises deficit spending as its objection, we only have to point to December’s tax package, which has done little to change the overall economy.

So, my slogan proposal?  How about something similar to:  “A foundation upon which everyone can build their life.”  It will connect the various Democratic proposals into a single narrative.  It appeals to conservatives who preach self-sufficiency.

My other suggestion for the Democrats is “get out of the way.”  The old guard is too old.  Their world view was formed in the crucible that was post-World War II.  We need people whose world view was formed post Vietnam, even post 9/11.  I noted this recently during the Congressional hearings with Mark Zuckerberg.  The members of Congress on the panel were clueless with this technology.  The recent win of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is another case in point.  She beat Rep. Joseph Crowley.  Her win makes clear the frustration many people have.  The party needs to cultivate new leadership now for 2020 and 2024.  The world has changed and the same strategies to address our issues must reflect our current context.

The Democrats cannot and should not campaign as the anti-Trump party.  It can’t campaign by saying “We’re not the awful GOP.”  The Democrats need a short narrative to hold all of its positions on various issues that aspires to more than “A Better Deal.”  The Democrats need to acknowledge that they forgot to listen to the people they truly champion.

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Communion Litany

We come to this table filled with thanksgiving for your creation, a world where all could have

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness

We come with gratitude remembering how you liberated our forebears from their bondage in Egypt and in so doing showed for all time where all could have

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness

We’re thankful for your compassion that enabled Israel to return from its exile in Babylon to be a light to all nations where all could have

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness

We give thanks that you came as Jesus to live and die among us and to bear witness to love’s power for transformation so the world can be a place where all could have

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness

Yet, O God, the love Jesus taught made the hearts of the powerful tremble.  They executed Jesus on a Roman cross fearful of a world where all could have

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness

Though placed in a tomb, it could not contain him.  Jesus slipped the shackles of death to remind the world that life always triumphs over death and by his death he prepare the ground for a world where all could have

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness

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Why Are You Afraid?

(Typically, I don’t post my sermons until after I preach them.  Today, I’m making an exception as this addresses immigration.)

Deep in each hemisphere of our brains, we all have a small almond shaped set of neurons called the amygdala.  It processes our responses to pleasure and fear.  Our responses are hard-wired in our brains.  Sometimes, this hard-wiring is known as a reptilian response.  In other words, our responses are automatic – we don’t think about them.  We respond to fear by fleeing, fighting, or freezing, also known as the 3-Fs.

An example.  I remember as a kid I was at the Alameda County Fair, outside of Oakland, CA.  There was a fun house bidding people to see the Creature from the Black Lagoon.  I went in with my brother and my cousin.  It was appropriately dark and lit with ultra-violet lamps.  The Creature was sitting in the back corner of the stage.  It was surrounded by fake swampy foliage.  Everything had that eerie phosphorescent glow.  We were there with a bunch of other kids; all of us about the same age.  We were not impressed.  We really felt we were gypped and were pretty vocal about it.  But when the Creature stood up and came forward, we couldn’t get out fast enough.  I think the adults waiting outside had the biggest laugh because they could hear kids bouncing off the walls as they tried to escape.  One kid was so frightened he ran out the entrance and had to be pushed back into the room.

Our reptilian response is a natural defense mechanism. The amygdala triggers our response to ensure our survival.  When our existence is under threat, we instinctively preserve our lives.  Thus, we flee from danger, stand and fight the danger, or we freeze in the face of danger.

The disciples feared for their lives.  The boat was tossed and the threat of being swamped was real.  Yet, Jesus slept in the stern of the boat despite the turmoil around him.  When he awoke, he ordered the storm to cease, and it did.  Then, he turned to the disciples and asked them about their faith.

The disciples froze because they felt completely powerless to do anything.  They couldn’t fight the storm, and they couldn’t flee from it.  When Jesus, however, asked them “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?” he implicitly told them they had another response, faith.

Faith is the fourth “F.”  It’s not part of the reptilian response from the amygdala.  In a sense faith is the response we make after our initial flush of fear.  Maybe we can respond with faith if we think while we remain frozen in place.  Or maybe we can respond with faith when we flee far enough away that we can catch our breath and assess the situation.  However, when it comes to a fight response, how do we respond with faith first?

I know that’s hard because by responding with faith first, we have to override our reptilian response.  As I said, it is hard-wired into our brains, so it is not easy.  But depending upon the fearful situation, we can short circuit our reptilian response by being a non-anxious presence.

This is a quality of good leadership.  In the midst of a situation, a person who is a non-anxious presence remains calm, even if everyone around the person is in a panic.  By being non-anxious the person does not contribute to the seeming turmoil in that moment, which allows the person to make a decision not driven by fear or anxiety.  Seriously, this is one of the qualities of a good pastor.

Of course if terror is right in our faces, we probably would let our reptilian response take over.  However, I wonder if we have an exaggerated fear response to some situations?  I’m thinking of situations, especially around change, which can generate fear.  Change implies entering the unknown and often letting go of the past.

An example is the current turmoil over immigration.  Let’s set aside the present anger and the name-calling.  Let’s not get bogged down in left or right, Democrat or Republican.  Let’s also recognize that our nation has had a long history of tension over immigration.  As a Chinese-American I am very familiar with this tension.

I may be among the last generation of Chinese-Americans who knew personally people who entered this country illegally.  Some of these people were family members, including my mother’s stepfather, a man I loved as my grandfather.

North Adams, MA has a footnote in the history of Chinese immigration to America.  Calvin Sampson had a shoemaking factory.  He wanted to automate it, but the shoemaker’s guild balked and went on strike.  On June 13, 1870, 75 Chinese men came to North Adams as strikebreakers.  As a result Sampson became financially very successful.  It was the first time Chinese labor broke a strike.  Other businesses in other industries in other parts of the country followed suit, displacing American labor.  Animosity towards the Chinese grew, and in 1882 the United States Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act.  It is the only legislation in the history of this country specifically naming a people to bar from immigrating to the country.  The prohibition had some exceptions, which many, many Chinese immigrants exploited.  The final vestiges of the Chinese Exclusion Act ended in 1964.

Fear led to the Chinese Exclusion Act.  Let’s also acknowledge that other ethnic communities could claim their forebears met hostility, too, before their progeny became assimilated into American culture.

Today’s tensions over immigration are not new.  Our nation has a long history of fearing immigrants, and our responses have been embarrassing.  Our historic responses and our current responses are reptilian.  When we saw immigrants as an existential threat to a way of life, tipping a community’s racial mix, or economic security, then they were opposed with a fight.  It was then and sadly, it is now.

But Jesus would ask us, “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”  Immigrants do not pose an immediate physical danger to our mortal lives.  We don’t have to flee or freeze or fight.  We can be non-anxiously present.  We can respond with faith.  We can respond according to the teachings of Jesus, who taught us to love one another.  His teachings taught us to care for the people who are vulnerable and the people who struggle for daily bread.  He taught us to be generous and compassionate.  We remember Jesus words at the end of Matthew: “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matthew 25:35-36)

We are Christians.  We believe that love has the power to transform.  We believe that transformation comes not through weapons of violence, but through sharing the bread and the cup.  We believe that God’s welcome table is big enough so that everyone has a place.  We believe that God charged us to be stewards of Creation’s abundance and that there is enough so no one ever has to know scarcity or deprivation.  We believe that real peace, shalom, has its roots in justice nourished by steadfast love.

As people of faith, we have no reason to fear immigrants. As Jesus’ disciples, we should reject the fearful rhetoric that accompanies today’s immigration situation and that as Christians we have little choice except to say it is wrong and intentionally divisive.  Note that I’m not saying that all immigrants are innocent of crimes or do not pose a potential threat to foment violence, however not all immigrants are drug dealers, human traffickers, rapists, and terrorists.  Let immigration courts sort it out, not toxic rhetoric and ludicrously fallacious claims to feed fear.

It’s time this nation turns its back on its disturbing history of immigration.  We should not respond in reptilian fashion to people who seek to enter this nation. Many immigrants are fearful and responded by fleeing.  They are seeking peace.  They are seeking a better economic future for their children.  We must remember that we’ve been seen for many generations as a beacon of hope for the world.  We must find it in our hearts to welcome immigrants, to make them comfortable, and to include them in the rich and great tapestry that is America.

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Planting for the Kingdom

Life in the kingdom of God is effortless. At least that’s what Jesus was hinting when he said the seed sown in the ground grows without the farmer watering, fertilizing, and weeding. He also hinted by the mustard plant that the goodness which comes from the kingdom of God is far greater than anything we can imagine.

Though we might think of the kingdom of God as heaven, we don’t have to wait to die to experience it. The kingdom of God is not the place we go after we die, but is right here when we live according to the teachings of Jesus. As we say in the Lord’s Prayer, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Yet, we might be thinking, “If the kingdom of heaven is effortless, then why am I struggling? Why does it seem that life is hard?”

Jesus didn’t say that the kingdom of heaven is effortless to achieve. Achieving it takes work. It takes patience. Jesus sought to create the kingdom of heaven through his ministry. He healed the sick. He spoke truth to power. He confounded the authorities. All of that was a lot of work. His efforts, however, led to his execution. Nevertheless, the people he served experienced moments of the kingdom of God, however brief.
I doubt there is anyone who would decline to live in true peace and justice, rooted in steadfast love. This is shalom, the Hebrew word for peace. This is peace that extends beyond the absence of violence. It embraces the wholeness of life. It is life without anxiety and fear. It is life without deprivation or scarcity. It is life in which we have our daily bread. It is life filled with joy. It is life that is hopeful. It is life in which we are nourished with kindness and compassion. It is life nourished by our social relationships whether they are family, friends, or neighbors.

When we have all of that, our lives will seem effortless. Life like that seems almost too good to be true, almost better than we can ever imagine.

This life is possible. It is a stretch, however, to believe that this will be possible every single day, 24/7. Like the people Jesus served, we might be able to experience its moments, too. Maybe it was in the wake of achieving a hard sought goal or accomplishment. Was it a gathering of friends or family in which everyone was enjoying each other’s company, where food was in abundance and drinks flowed? Or was it when you were with a family member or a friend who just celebrated one of life’s milestones, like graduation or first holy communion? In those moments, worries and cares fall away. Joy surrounds us. We laugh. We warm each other with our love.

But we also don’t need special events to experience shalom moments. We can generate them ourselves when we follow Jesus’ teachings. We cultivate them, just like the farmer who planted the seed. Jesus’ teachings are the seed. We weed when we uproot the distractions and temptations that can lead us astray. We water when we put the teachings into practice. We fertilize when we learn from the teachings, always refining our understanding and honing our practice. The seed grows. It flourishes. It produces grain to feed us and those around us. Its rewards are greater than we ever imagined when we put the seed in the ground.

I realize I make all of this sound easy. When we really spend time with Jesus’ teachings, we begin to realize their simplicity is actually hard to execute. In his Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44) Simply stated. Hard to do. I can attest that during the Iraq war as clergy leading prayers in church on Sunday mornings, prayers were often lifted up for our troops and rarely if ever for our enemy.

That’s why attaining the kingdom of God on earth is moment to moment. In situations like family gatherings or celebrating milestones or achieving a hard sought objective, we can leave our anxieties behind, and we can love the ones we’re with. We get stretched when it comes to caring about and for people who are not like us, especially if they have been consistently in our faces or have wronged us in some way.

Yet, Jesus calls us. We’re called to live out his teachings, even when they challenge us. Living out his teachings, including and especially the ones that challenge us, enable us to experience shalom more often and in more settings. Attaining the kingdom of God on earth is not something we get automatically. We water and fertilize the seeds planted in us some time long ago in Sunday School. Maybe we didn’t pay attention to them and they’re lying dormant in our lives. Or maybe we watered and fertilized, but the weeds took over. Or maybe we didn’t realize that if we really took care of those tender shoots by faithfully watering and fertilizing them we could have a great harvest.

By nurturing the teachings of Jesus, we can have more moments when we experience the kingdom of God. We can nurture them with compassion, especially for those who are challenging to like. We can nurture them with generosity and gratitude. We can nurture them with forgiveness. We can nurture them by seeing beauty, not just in nature, but in every person we meet. We can nurture them with humility.

Shalom is ours if we work at it every moment of every day. We have to make an effort to have an effortless life. That effort is work, but it is not necessarily a struggle. Our struggles come when we work contrary to Jesus’ teachings. Our struggles come by our sins. Our struggles are the weeds we let grow in our lives. But, like a garden regularly weeded, watered, and fertilized, when we work consistently by Jesus’ teachings, we will find our efforts will be rewarded. We will have more peace. We will experience more moments of shalom.

Consistently nurturing the sprouts that poked through the ground from the seeds of Jesus’ teachings will reward us more than we can imagine right now. They may not seem like much. They may seem ridiculously simple. But take time to weed, water, and fertilize. The harvest will be rich and bountiful and beyond our imaginations. God’s kingdom is one of generous abundance. The promise of God’s kingdom is ours. The promise of shalom, a seemingly effortless life, is ours if we strive to make it a part of our daily lives.

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Death in Ministry

Since Memorial Day weekend, I’ve been overwhelmed by death.  Death came to a member in my extended family.  I presided over the final grief rituals for my mother, who died in February.  I presided over the funeral of one of the residents in our shelter program.  I attended two funerals and one wake as well.  Yesterday, I learned another one of our residents died.  Seven people.  None of them were any patients I had in my very part-time hospice chaplaincy.

As clergy, we experience death more often than most people.  Helping people die, walking with people as their loved ones die, presiding over mourning rituals are all part of this calling.  It is also an enormous privilege that a community entrusts us with this responsibility.  Depending upon the ministry, some clergy experience death more frequently than others.

I can only speak for myself.  Presiding over a funeral or memorial service takes a lot of strength.  I am fully aware that the congregation’s members in that moment are in grief.  They knew the deceased.  Depending upon their relationship they may differ in their degree of sadness and their emotional fragility.  Furthermore, in our current community context the congregation will probably not have a similar theological outlook and may even lack common theological concepts to vent their sorrow.  At the same time, I have to hold all of that during the service, even if my heart is broken too.

After I finish presiding at a funeral or memorial service, I feel drained.  I have less energy.  I am less socially engaged.  Depending upon my relationship with the deceased, I may feel personal sadness.  (I know that may sound odd, but sometimes we get called by a funeral director to preside for someone who wants clergy, but has no active connection to a faith community.  Though I may still feel drained, my personal sadness in those situations is minimal.)  Typically after a service, I tend to withdraw and seek quiet.  This also applies for services where I was asked to preside for someone I did not know.

Death is profound because it is a significant event in people’s lives.  Perhaps, even the most significant event in people’s lives.  We need time to reflect upon the impact that death has upon us and the community.  We need time to recover.

Like anyone else, I also have people in my life who I know outside of ministry.  They die too.  I happen also to know many people socially who are almost a generation older than I.  Those people were the funerals and wakes I attended.  Like anyone else after friends die, we need time to recover and be renewed and restored.  Deaths coming in such rapid succession do not offer enough emotional space for such time for renewal and restoration.

Two thoughts.  Despite our responsibilities due to our roles, we are human.  We may look strong and seem emotionally together, but we may be feeling pretty beat up inside.  Professionally, we may struggle in the wake of death, too.  Admittedly, we may be able to cope with death better than a layperson because we have the theological grounding and resources.  Nevertheless, we may need our time and space to recover.

Second, we have our own lives, too.  Personal events, such as the deaths of family and friends, affect us.  Though we may have theological grounding and resources, we are not immune to grief.  When those collide with professional responsibilities connected to death, we may get through the public rituals, but not without struggle.

What to do?  Again, I can only speak for myself.  After I finish presiding over public mourning rituals, give me emotional space to recover.  Don’t bombard me with something else to do.  Though it may seem important to you, I just finished with a profound event in people’s lives.  Your concern most likely will seem small in comparison.  Recognize, too, that I have my own personal life independent of my ministry.  That can affect me, too.  When it does, be gentle, be compassionate.

 

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God is in the Driver’s Seat

I preached this sermon this morning to some of our residents.  It is based upon the Pentecost reading  Acts 2:1-21.  The service I provide is very informal.  We always have a discussion after the sermon.  Today’s discussion was quite long and went into some unexpected places, which shows how the Holy Spirit moves.

Anyway, the sermon….

Today is Pentecost.  Fifty days before, Jesus slipped death’s shackles.  Upon leaving the tomb he returned to Galilee where he continued his ministry for forty days before ascending to the heavens.

People came to Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost, a Jewish festival marking the end of the wheat harvest as well as commemorating the day Moses delivered the Torah, also known as the teachings, to the people.

Imagine what it must have been like in Jerusalem that morning.  The city’s streets were filled with pilgrims from all around the Mediterranean.  The Temple would have swarmed with people. There must have been incredible energy that morning, and then, a violent wind and tongues of fire. A cacophony filled the air as people spoke simultaneously in their native languages.  That day 3000 people were baptized.  That was the birth of the Church.

Peter, who only weeks before denied Jesus three times, boldly proclaimed the power of the Spirit.  By doing so he became the defacto leader of the Jesus followers.

The Church was born of the Holy Spirit.  When we read the Book of Acts, the Holy Spirit’s presence cannot be ignored.  It was powerful.  It moved people to do the unexpected, such as creating a common treasury so no one would ever have to know scarcity or deprivation.  The Spirit led Peter, and he became the movement’s leader and spoke boldly to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.  The Spirit led Philip to baptize the Ethiopian eunuch and in so doing spread the gospel to the farthest reaches of the earth.  The Spirit moved Peter to baptize Cornelius and his family, even though they were Gentiles, thus showing that Jesus came for all people.

After Saul was struck blind on the Damascus road, the Holy Spirit came to him in Damascus, which brought about his conversion.  He stopped persecuting the Jesus followers and became the movement’s most persuasive advocate and supported Peter’s vision to open the movement to Gentiles.  Filled with the Spirit, Paul made three journeys across the Mediterranean which spread Christianity far beyond Jerusalem.  The Holy Spirit freed Paul and Silas from their locked cell in Macedonia, which enabled them to baptize the jailer’s family.

Without the Holy Spirit, the Church would never have gotten started.  The Holy Spirit transformed the movement of Jesus followers into a global religion – something Jesus never imagined himself.  That same Spirit dwells in each of us.

The Spirit gives us life.  It was sealed in us at our baptisms. It is the breath of life, the same breath God blew into the clod of clay which gave it life.  The Spirit is in us individually and moves us.  The Spirit is among us collectively and enables us to do great things together.  The Spirit enables us to live out God’s ways, which were taught to us by Jesus.  The Spirit not only gives us life, it enables us to enrich the lives of family, friends, and strangers in order to be a vibrant community together because it moves among us.

The Holy Spirit is the third person in the Trinity – the other two being God and Jesus.  We talk a lot about God and we talk a lot about Jesus.  The Holy Spirit, however, gets a passing nod, despite the power it displayed in Acts.

I think it’s that power that sort of scares us.  The Bible tells us that it’s powerful.  Those stories in Acts are powerful stories because they all tell us in some way that the Holy Spirit can change us.  These stories tell us that the Holy Spirit can move us to do something we could never imagine ourselves doing.  These stories tell us that the Holy Spirit can move us as a community into becoming a community we never thought possible.  These stories tell us that the Holy Spirit can push us to exceed our own limitations to accomplish the impossible.  These stories tell us that with the Holy Spirit the power of fear and death has no hold on us and that love and life ultimately is the final word.  Jesus demonstrated that when he left the tomb fifty days before that momentous morning in Jerusalem.

Yet, we hesitate.  We’re reticent.  We don’t give the Holy Spirit a chance because we’re kind of comfortable.  Let’s be honest.  Change doesn’t always come easily.  We want to change.  We know we should change.  But, change also means that we enter the unknown.  Sure, we’ll change, if we can control the outcome.  We’ll change, if we can predict what will be.  We’ll change, if we can have assurances.

When the Holy Spirit takes charge, change happens.  When the Holy Spirit takes charge, we don’t know what will happen.  We don’t have any control.  We don’t have any assurances.  When the Holy Spirit takes charge, get ready because God is in the driver’s seat.

Is that so bad, though?  God in the driver’s seat?  Let God take the wheel.  We’ll be in good hands.  Just don’t be a backseat driver.  We don’t give directions because God knows where we need to go and frankly, we’d probably still be lost if we didn’t let God drive.

That’s the point today.  We’re lost.  We don’t know it because things seem OK.  We don’t know it because we’re kind of comfortable.  But we’re comfortable because our life is familiar, even when our lives are not completely satisfying or that we don’t have real peace.  We’re comfortable because things are predictable, even when we know the outcome is not ideal.  We’re comfortable because we’re in control.  So we drive around aimlessly.  We drive around and we get stuck in the same ditch time and time again.  We drive around and pass that same landmark for the umpteenth time.  We drive around and the scenery is all too familiar.

Why not let the Holy Spirit move in us and through us?  Why not let the Holy Spirit, which was sealed in us at our baptisms lead us?  As the hymn goes: “Spirit of the Living God fall afresh on me.  Spirit of the Living God fall afresh on me.  Melt me.  Mold me.  Fill me. Use me.  Spirit of the Living God fall afresh on me.”

When we let the Holy Spirit lead us.  When we let the Holy Spirit melt us.  When we let the Holy Spirit mold us and fill us and use us, then God’s driving.  And when God is driving, we’re in good hands.  God knows the way.

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Creative Imagination: Ending Our Exile

I preached this sermon yesterday in North Adams.  I used 1 John 4:7-21 and John 15:1-8 as my texts.

On Tuesday, The New York Times published an article entitled, Trump Voters Driven by Fear of Losing Status, Not Economic Anxiety, Study Finds.[1]  The article noted that contrary to common political analysis in the immediate aftermath of the election, votes for Trump reflected people’s fear that they were losing their social status.  Noting that the economy was improving in 2016, the article discounted economic analysis.  Thus, economic anxiety would not have been a primary factor in his election.  Cultural displacement was more likely the cause. I’ll also add that this past Friday I heard a similar report on NPR’s All Things Considered.[2]

Although not specifically, both stories expressed what Walter Brueggemann, an Old Testament scholar, prophetically wrote in his book Cadences of Home Preaching among the Exiles, which he published about 20 years ago.  He used the Babylonian exile in 586 BCE as a metaphor.  Then, Jerusalem fell.  Its leadership went into exile in Babylon and did not return until 538 BCE.  Brueggemann wrote, “exiles experienced a loss of the structured, reliable world which gave them meaning and coherence, and they found themselves in a context where their most treasured and trusted symbols of faith were mocked, trivialized, or dismissed.  Exile is not primarily geographical, but is social, moral, and cultural.”[3]

It is cultural displacement, which tracks closely with Brueggemann’s observations 20 years ago.  I, however, would note that cultural displacement was not unique to Trump voters.  I suspect that many people, regardless of the November 2016 vote, feel culturally displaced.  The displacement, though, is not necessarily connected with racial identity or even diminution of political power.  Late in the book Brueggemann described exile:  “Exile may take the form of brutality, indifference, cynicism, and despair, showing up in drug abuse and child abuse and wife abuse – endless abuse.  All the while, the fabric of human care, human dignity, and human possibility is destroyed in the powerful name of greed, as though the American dream has run its course and nobody knows what to do, or even when to notice.”[4]

I doubt I’m the only one who feels something is really wrong in this nation.  I believe the increased anti-immigrant sentiment, noticeable increase in racial tension, absence of optimism and hopefulness, and a general sense of malaise are symptomatic of a nation seemingly adrift.  We have explanations:  loss of solid middle class jobs, especially for those who did not go to college, retirement without adequate pensions, a complex political situation in the Middle East, mass shootings every few days, technology which has disrupted jobs and our social fabric, an opioid epidemic that affects almost everyone in our community directly or indirectly, and political leadership which seems unable to serve the common good.  Furthermore, we look beyond our shores and realize that the United States, though still the pre-eminent world power economically, politically, and militarily, has competition from other nations whose rise have closed the gaps in these areas.

The nation we knew thirty to forty years ago is gone.  This is a cultural displacement. Not just Trump voters, but all of us might feel exiled within our own nation.

Of course, we have our own solutions.  “Those young people have to stop looking at their cell phones.”  “We have to get the ‘other’ party out of office.” (the other party being the party we favor less)  Among us church folks, we lament that people don’t go to church any more.  Early last week I heard some people say, “We need to put prayer back in school.”  One person even said we should teach the Bible in school.

We can’t turn things back to where they were.  Even if we could, how far back must we go?  Our exile did not happen in 2016 or 2008.  It happened incrementally over decades.  Was it when women began to enter professional fields previously seen as the exclusive domain of men?  Was it when people of color attained their civil rights for which they were always entitled?  Did it happen when immigrants began to open businesses on Main Street or when telephone answering software offered a choice of English or Spanish?  Did it happen when a person could marry someone of the same gender?  Perhaps it was more recent; technology enables our telephones do more than our computers did twenty years ago.  Or maybe it happened when once solid companies went out of business or sent their reliable well-paying jobs to China.

We couldn’t stop these changes.  Change is inevitable.

The question is “How do we respond?”  Defining exile as a loss of a structured, reliable world which gives us meaning and coherence presents us with a constructive response.  We need to rebuild, remake or redefine our structures, such as public policies, institutions, ideologies, and dogmas.  By doing this we can recover, reframe, or create new meaning.  The meaning we establish will probably not be the same we lost.  Implicitly, cultural displacement forces us to reframe the world we see, reimagine new possibilities, reinterpret dogmas, and reorganize our structures in order to have new meaning.   Let’s think about it like this.  Two generations ago we understood our context in the world.  Today, because that same context is no more, we have to interact with our world differently.  That context changed not only because the world changed, but we changed as well.

However, if everything has changed, we can’t build new structures or find new meaning without a stable foundation.  That foundation is God or, more precisely, our theological imaginations.  While God does not change, how we imagine and envision the Holy Spirit working in this world does.

First, we cannot be afraid of cultural displacement.  On a personal level we have to accept our exile.  We have to acknowledge we are displaced so we can find our way home.  We do that by re-examining beliefs and dogmas, which have shaped our understanding of Christian faith and in so doing find new insights and understandings.  Included in this re-examination is to answer questions: “What is it to love God?”  “How do we express God’s love in our ministries?” “Knowing God lives in us, how should we live?”  Several years ago Brueggemann gave a lecture at Smith College in which he addressed this exile.  His proposed that we must thicken the Biblical narrative, meaning we have to dig deeper into our understanding and interpretation of scripture and then engage it with our community’s context.

Second and institutionally, we have to think about our cultural displacement in terms of the church.  Just as theology changed in Jerusalem after the people returned from Babylon, we have to change our understanding of church.  We have to cut off all those suckers and branches from our vine so it will bear fruit.  It means taking a hard look at our ministries and asking if they are truly responding to the community we seek to serve.  We should question our traditions to ascertain if they remain life giving and sustainable.  Are our ministries truly fruitful?

We must rethink how we, the body of Christ, can manifest Christ in our community today.  Do we expect unchurched people in our community to come into the church in order to find Christ or do we take the fruits we cultivate and bring them out into the community?  We have to remake the structure because what we have now is not appealing to those who have no idea that they need the church.  They have no understanding of Christian discipleship.  Church is not a place where people come to become disciples.  Rather, church is the place from which people leave to serve the world because they are disciples and by going out into the world, we make disciples.

We are the body of Christ.  By that label we have to incarnate Christ.  We have to make Christ real in our community.  We have to remember that “perfect love casts out fear.”  Using the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus taught us to love our neighbors.  Our neighbors are not the people who are next to us, but the people we approach.  We love them when we bring the fruit from our vine to them.  When we do that, the fear of exile goes away because what truly matters we have made real through love.  By loving our neighbors, we assure them that they are not alone and that they matter.  They are not forgotten as they eat the fruit from our ministry.

Love as in the concrete actions of care, compassion, generosity, forgiveness, humility, and patience will cast out the fears of being alone.  Love makes real the true moral fabric of life.  Love gives meaning to life no matter whether we receive or give it.  Love is at the heart of true peace and justice.  It is the fundamental building block of shalom, the wholeness of life.  It is love that will lead all of us home.

[1] Niraj Chokshi   Trump Voters Driven by Fear of Losing Status, Not Economic Anxiety, Study Finds https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/24/us/politics/trump-economic-anxiety.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=first-column-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news

[2] Tim Mak, Despite So Much Winning, the Right Feels Like It’s Losing.  All Things Considered.  April 27, 2018

[3] Walter Brueggemann.  Candences of Home Preaching Among the Exiles.  Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, KY.  1997. Page 2

[4] Ibid. Page 114

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