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Shake It Off: June 18, 2017

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A dynast with a string of wives may bring to mind Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury and a key player in Henry the Eighth’s rebellion against Rome, for it was Cranmer that created the rationale for separating from the papacy, aligning the Anglican Church with the Protestant Reformation. After Henry’s death, Cranmer would be martyred during the brutal reign of Queen Mary, Henry’s daughter, appropriately called “Bloody” Mary for her ruthless suppression of Protestantism.

But it was an earlier King Henry and an earlier Thomas, Archbishop of Canterbury, that recently appeared in our invasive news cycle. In response to a question from Maine Senator Angus King, former FBI Director James Comey quoted a line attributed to Henry the Second, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” That violent rhetoric, spoken by a king, was interpreted by his knights as an order to assassinate the Archbishop, Thomas Becket, which they promptly did, leaving his brains on the floor of Canterbury Cathedral. Continue reading →

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Wide Awake: June 11, 2017

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The film maker M. Night Shyamalan rocketed to fame with his third film, “The Sixth Sense,” a cinematic tour de force that he both wrote and directed. The year before, 1998, saw the release of a less recognized work, “Wide Awake.” Like “The Sixth Sense,” it is tightly-focused with an obsession for detail, telling the story of Joshua A. Beal, aged ten, played with panache by Joseph Cross. Rosie O’Donnell pitches in, pun intended, as a baseball-loving nun who wants to know which apostle should bat clean-up with Satan on the mound.

Joshua is growing up, starts to see others for the first time, their complexity and their frailty. He has a first crush, experiences his first loss. It is that loss, the death of his beloved grandfather, that gives Joshua a mission. He spends much of the movie looking for God. Continue reading →

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And Fire: June 4, 2017

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Fans of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire” have long been frustrated at the slow pace at which the author writes the as-yet-unfinished work, the first volume published more than a quarter century ago, never mind that the HBO television adaptation, “A Game of Thrones,” has long run out of published material.

While it is unusual that a film or television series gets ahead of the original printed work, it is not at all unusual that there are more films or television seasons than there are books. The worst offender is Peter Jackson, the New Zealander who turned the dense three-volume “Lord of the Rings” into three long films, then turned the slim “Hobbit” into three films that were almost as long, just under eight hours. Measured by word count and minutes, it took Jackson five times as long to tell the story in “The Hobbit.” Continue reading →

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Walked with God: May 28, 2017

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There are stories you won’t find in a Children’s Bible, that they don’t teach in Sunday School. The rape of Tamar, the murder of Uriah, pretty much everything that takes place after David is crowned king. When it comes to writing Sunday School lessons, the Abrahamic covenant by circumcision always gets the chop, because no one really wants to engage 8 year olds in a conversation about foreskin. Then there is the story of the Nephilim. Continue reading →

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Sausage Revolution: May 14, 2017

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He was studying to be a lawyer when he was caught in a thunderstorm. It was quite the storm, or at least we can assume it was, for he prayed to Saint Anne, a fictional character, supposedly the mother of the Virgin Mary, to intervene. He vowed to enter the monastery if he lived, and he did live to tell the tale, and the rest, as they say, is history. This coming Halloween will mark the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s defiantly nailing his theses against the sale of indulgences to the door of a church in Wittenberg, often used to post notices, though the original doors are long gone, burned by invading French troops during the Seven Years War.

In 1522, five years after Luther’s defiant act and four hundred and sixty seven miles to the south, in Zurich, another religious revolution would develop, or maybe an offshoot of Luther’s, it is hard to tell. If Luther’s reform can be said to have started with 95 theses, the Zurich reform can be said to have started with, of all things, a sausage. That sausage was boldly and publicly consumed during Lent, a violation of Roman church discipline, an intentional provocation. Continue reading →

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Submission: May 7, 2017

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You know this story. I sat with a colleague for awhile. I stopped at a church to pray, though the pastor had to intervene and let me in, as the secretary had locked all the doors in fear. It was several hours later by the time I came down off of the Queensboro Bridge.There were F-16s in the air above us, a burnt electric smell in the air. There were men with those little grocery carts every apartment dweller in the city must have. They were Pakistani small business owners, and they were giving away the bottled water from their bodegas. Little did they know that they would soon be the targets of hate crimes by some of the very people they were assisting, as would Sikhs, a completely unrelated religious minority.

But mostly, the country came together. Like Pearl Harbor, the tragedy of 9/11 produced, for a period of a year or so, a truly United States. Then, as often happens, we lost our better selves, fell subject to bickering, division, selfishness. By the time we invaded Iraq based on fake news and trumped up claims of weapons of mass destruction, the country was as divided as ever. The ripples of discontent were even felt here in this congregation. It was not so different after the Second World War, if we are honest with ourselves, for soon after Johnny came marching home, American turned on American, neighbor on neighbor, McCarthyism and the Black Lists, the hounds unleashed in Selma. Continue reading →

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Mercersburg: April 30, 2017

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Japanese royalty either have really good genes or a whole lot of secrets. The myth is that they are descended from a sun goddess, and that there in an unbroken male lineage stretching back 2600 years, roughly to the time of the Babylonian Exile. If only Henry the Eighth had been so lucky! Or more accurately, if only the first wife of Henry the Eighth had been so lucky. Or the second, or the third, etc., etc. But this is Japan’s story, their myth, this continuing lineage.

Every country, tribe and family has its own myth, a story that gives shape, that builds and sometimes destroys. Some of these tribal and national myths are healthy, some not so much. Our founding myth includes religious refugees, the Puritans and Pilgrims in New England, William Penn’s liberating colony to the south of us. But this version of events, this founding myth, over-emphasizes the role of religion in colonization. The vast majority of those who came to the Americas from Europe came for one reason, and one reason only: economics. Continue reading →

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Nag Hammadi: April 23, 2017

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If you were filming it, you’d have to cast someone like Matt Damon in the role. It is 1975, an we are in a jeep. Sitting on the dangerous “village-side” is the biblical scholar James Robinson in an adventure worthy of Indiana Jones. Across from him, wearing Robinson’s own clothing as a disguise, is Muhammad Ali al-Samman. He is in disguise because of a long-standing blood feud between his village, al-Qasr, and the neighboring village, Hamra Dum, a blood feud that claimed al-Samman’s father, led he and his brothers to murder the murderer, that left a bullet-wound in his own chest. They are entering Hamra Dum turf, going to the foot of a cliff where, thirty years earlier, al-Samman was digging fertilizer for his sugar cane field when he dug up a sealed clay jar. Continue reading →

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Bonnaroo on a Brush: April 16, 2017

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Western art, that is the art of Europe, the European diaspora, and those reshaped by European colonialism, pretty much comes full circle when you follow it from the stick figures of the cave-dwellers at Lascaux to the stick figures on the walls of New York City by Kieth Haring. This trajectory might also take in the wild and raw work by Haring’s contemporary, Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Banksy, the heir to Haring and Basquiat, is a personal favorite of mine, and while serious attempts have been made to unmask the mysterious artist, I’m a religious person, and more that a little okay with mystery. In a world where hedge-fund gazillionaires, petro-sheiks and kleptocrats, buy up art and hide it in their private collections, there is something awesomely democratic about the art that just appears on a wall. Continue reading →

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Just Breathe: April 9, 2017

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Yes I understand
That every life must end
As we sit alone
I know someday we must go
Yeah I’m a lucky man
To count on both hands
The ones I love
Some folks just have one
Yeah others they got none
Stay with me
Let’s just breathe

These words, from up there on the stage, in Buffalo, New York. Crowd singing, waving cellphones where once they waved lighters. Everyone swept up, including my sister and I, attending a Pearl Jam concert, but where others were just swept up in the hit song from the new album, Amy and I, and no doubt some others among the thousands, had tears in our eyes, for the song “Just Breathe” is about a life coming to an end, and it had not been that long since we had buried our father, who died of congestive heart failure and COPD. Just breathe indeed. Continue reading →

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