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The Christian Choice: The Idolatrous Worship of Power or Stand in Favor of the Weak

Dietrich Bonhoeffer 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

One of the most frightening things to me as a historian who happens of claim to be a Christian is the propensity for the Church and its leaders to be attracted to the worship of power and all of its folly. This has been the case since Constantine made Christianity the State religion of the Roman Empire. Leaders of the church in every place and clime as well as almost every denomination have cozied up to rulers in the pursuit of power almost always to the detriment the Church and sometimes their nation. The hierarchies of different churches were in the forefront of the extermination of supposed “heretics,” the persecution of non-state favored religions, the slave trade, the conquest, subjugation, and extermination of indigenous peoples in the Americas, Africa, parts of Asia; they were often the supporters of disastrous wars, and at home used their place of power to wealthy beyond all measure.

Conversely, on the occasions where the Church and its leaders have advocated for the poor, the marginalized, and others who had no earthly power it lead to advances in human rights and liberty. The abolition of slavery in Great Britain was led by William Wilberforce against heated opposition in Parliament and even the Church of England that spanned decades. During the period of the Industrial Revolution, some churches and Christians made a determined effort to end child labor, support workers’ rights, and advocate for the poor, but many others feasted upon the wealth that their rich benefactors lavished upon them and remained silent. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other African American church leaders helped lead the Civil Rights movement and were joined by some white religious leaders, but many others, including men who were early leaders of the Christian Right opposed the Civil rights movement and used their pulpits to advocate for segregation. Many other just remained silent, just as their forbears had from Constantine one. Silence and the acquiescence to injustice has been a hallmark of the Christian church.

The German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw the disastrous effects of the German church’s subservience to the Nazi regime and before that to the Kaiser. He wrote:

“Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christian should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.”

Sophie Scholl (Center)

Bonhoeffer spoke those words in a 1934 sermon, just a bit over a year following the Nazi takeover as Hitler was still consolidating his power and before he and his regime began their war of conquest and extermination. Some German Christians did take the chance to stand up for those oppressed by the Nazis, both in Germany in in the areas the Nazis conquered. Many of those who did would pay for their opposition with either their freedom or their lives, but most of the church was silent. One of the young Christians who opposed the Nazis was Sophie Scholl, a 22 year old student at the University of Munich. She and a number of fellow students formed a group called the White Rose to distribute anti-Nazi materials and to speak out against the crimes of the regime. She wanted those Christians of her day that silence was not an option. She wrote:

“The real damage is done by those millions who want to ‘survive.’ The honest men who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness. Those who don’t like to make waves—or enemies. Those for whom freedom, honor, truth, and principles are only literature. Those who live small, mate small, die small. It’s the reductionist approach to life: if you keep it small, you’ll keep it under control. If you don’t make any noise, the bogeyman won’t find you. But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. Safe?! From what? Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same place as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does. I choose my own way to burn.”

The same is true today in the United States. The vast majority of Evangelical Christians who support the policies of the Trump presidency in order to be at the table of temporal power have cast the church into the pigsty of lies and polices that crush the lives of people who have no power and mock the words of Jesus.

There is a choice to be made by anyone who claims the mantle of Jesus the Christ or claims to follow him. Will we do better than our ancestors or will we to silently slide down the road to perdition?

With that I will end for the day. Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Neither Safe, nor Politic, nor Popular: The Call of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

On a weekend where we honor the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. we saw our President-Elect stoop to a Twitter tirade against Representative John Lewis, a true hero of the Civil Rights movement because Lewis dared to question his legitimacy. A true statesman would have either ignored it or simply making the comment that Lewis is entitled to his opinion. But our President-Elect has incapable of such behavior. When he was at Liberty University last year on Martin Luther King Day, he only mentioned Dr. King in regard to the fact that he had set a record for attendance at Liberty.

Even longstanding conservatives bastions in Congress who have worked with Mr. Lewis, and conservative media titans were  shocked by President-Trump’s action and many rightly commented that the only person that Donald Trump has not attacked is Vladimir Putin.

Like a lot of people it seems it seems that our soon to be President seeks to marginalize Dr. King’s life and work by simply relegating him to the pages of history. The attitude of such people seems to be that maybe Dr. King may important in his day, but that we have advanced to the point that we don’t need to see beyond the King of history, but the President-Elect seems not even to care about that. It is a sad spectacle where the man who was elected to be all of our President dismisses such an important man in our history.

So now more than ever it is important for all Americans remember and act upon the legacy of Dr. King.

Dr. King was a man of tremendous personal courage. Nearly every day of his public ministry and advocacy for the rights of African Americans and the poor his life was in danger. Of course he, like so many other men who throughout history understood that those that champion the cause of justice and peace must ask hard questions. They must engage in hard thinking. They must challenge their own beliefs as well as those that they come in contact, and they must do so from the least safe place to do so, the place of conscience which commands us to do what is right.

In 1968 Dr. King said something that should make us all look in the mirror and ask who we really are and what we represent. He noted how cowardice, expediency and vanity all vie with conscience. He said:

“On some positions, Cowardice asks the question, “Is it safe?” Expediency asks the question, “Is it politic?” And Vanity comes along and asks the question, “Is it popular?” But Conscience asks the question “Is it right?” And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right.” 

If you look closely at what Dr. King said one can almost see every political, business or religious leader make decisions about things which matter to people, but without facing the demands of conscience.

It would be easy just to say this of many of our leaders, especially the President-Elect, however, it is also true of most of us as well. I hate to admit it is regardless of our protestations most of us follow the demands of cowardice, expediency or vanity rather than conscience. We do it not because we are bad people, but because we fear the potential negative consequences of doing the right thing, we count the cost and decide we cannot pay it.

Every time we make these decisions not to do the right thing, but to shrink in cowardice, and appeal to the cold calculations of being politic, or choosing to go with what is popular, something in us dies.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and martyr wrote about the results of such equivocation from prison:

“We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds: we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretense; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use?”

But to follow the demands of conscience requires us to think, and think critically. Too often we simply do things or support causes because we are comfortable with the ideas, and because we do not want to face inconvenient or uncomfortable ideas. We do not like to be challenged. I think that is why there is such a great appeal to often ignorant loud mouthed politicians, pundits and preachers, the Unholy Trinity, to do our thinking for us. The pundits, preachers and politicians often appeal to the must base human instincts to turn citizens against each other, or to drive up support for their ideology. Such ideas are made more destructive when they appear as “memes” on social media, attached to pictures which are designed to invoke an emotional response of anger, hatred and resentment at person or group being demonized. In following them we can become unthinking fanatics, convinced of our rightness without ever examining what we believe to see if it really true.

This is not thinking when we follow the lead of such people, regardless of their ideology. In doing so we give up our right and responsibility to think for ourselves and ask the hard questions. Eric Hoffer noted how ideology blinds us:

“A doctrine insulates the devout not only against the realities around them but also against their own selves. The fanatical believer is not conscious of his envy, malice, pettiness and dishonesty. There is a wall of words between his consciousness and his real self.”

Dr. King’s words spoken in 1963 are equally true today:

“Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.”

I hope that in 2017 we may we find in Dr. King’s words inspiration to be people of character and conscience. But to do so we must start doing the hard thinking that allows us to follow the demands of conscience and not cowardice. We must do the hard thinking that places justice over popularity and the hard thinking which exposes the emptiness of brazen political calculation embodied in the easy answers and half-baked solutions of the Unholy Trinity.

Sadly, I don’t think that most people want to do this type of thinking, our materialistic culture does not value it. As a result I fully expect we give up our rights as a people to a few oligarchs who throw a few small breaks our way while they expand their control, power and wealth. It’s a bad formula and we all suffer for it.

In spite of that it is time to stop asking if things are safe, politic, popular, or expedient and do the hard work and thinking that conscience demands. If we don’t we deserve what we get. I’m sure that Dr. King would agree.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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I Alone Can Fix It: Trump’s Dictatorial Message

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Last night I watched the entirety of Donald Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. I am not going to go ever all of the details of it, especially the myriad of lies, distortions, and half-truths which the nominee proclaimed, but instead I am going to talk about what has happened to my former political party in its deification of a man who portrayed himself as the savior of the country. He bluntly said as much And proclaimed that he said “nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.” The response from the crowd was “Yes you will!” From the purely visual standpoint one could not help but notice that there were few symbols of the Republican Party in evidence and the supersized TRUMP name over the stage which was shown over a background of gold, as if you were entering the Trump tower in New York. It dwarfed all symbols of the Republican Party, as well as the nation, including the American flag.

His speech was dystopian and apocalyptic; his words fed the real and the imagined fears of people, amplifying them in such a way that catered to the view that without him as the savior the United States would perish. As he talked he railed on enforcing the laws of the country and making people safe immediately, but he ignored the Constitution, made no mention of the role of Congress, or for that matter our state governments; and only referred to the courts as means of enforcing security. Not once did he talk about freedom, except of giving the Unconstitutional freedom for Churches to advance their sectarian beliefs at government expense and with the full backing of the police state. Jefferson, Madison, and Virginia Baptist leader John Leland would be rolling in their graves over a proposal which would destroy the First Amendment. 

Enemies, were identified. They included immigrants, Muslims, and American liberals, not to mention dissenters in the GOP. Eric Hoffer wrote, “Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil. Usually the strength of a mass movement is proportionate to the vividness and tangibility of its devil.” Trump mentioned several “Devils” and cast every one of them into the image of Hillary Clinton. Clinton is certainly a flawed candidate and person, but she is not a devil, and to not reign in supporters who openly talk about killing her is unbecoming for the leader of the Republican Party, but this is not the party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Reagan, or either Bush. That party is dead. Its desiccated body died during Trump’s speech last night. Now, what remains is Republican in Name Only. Hoffer wrote,

“It seems that, like the ideal deity, the ideal devil is one. We have it from Hitler—the foremost authority on devils—that the genius of a great leader consists in concentrating all hatred on a single foe, making “even adversaries far removed from one another seem to belong to a single category.” When Hitler picked the Jew as his devil, he peopled practically the whole world outside Germany with Jews or those who worked for them. “Behind England stands Israel, and behind France, and behind the United States.” 

Richard Evans in his book The Coming of the Third Reich discussed one of Hitler’s first speeches after coming to power.

“As so often in his career, Hitler, beginning slowly and quietly so as to secure the rapt attention of his enormous audience, went over the history of the Nazi Party and the alleged crimes of the Weimar Republic since 1919—the inflation, the impoverishment of the peasantry, the rise of unemployment, the ruin of the nation. What would his government do to change this parlous situation? His answer avoided any specific commitments at all. He said grandly that he was not going to make any ‘cheap promises’. Instead, he declared that his programme was to rebuild the German nation without foreign aid, ‘according to eternal laws valid for all time’, on the basis of the people and the soil, not according to ideas of class. Once more, he held up the intoxicating vision of a Germany united in a new society that would overcome the divisions of class and creed that had racked it over the past fourteen years. The workers, he declared, would be freed from the alien ideology of Marxism and led back to the national community of the entire German race. This was a ‘programme of national resurrection in all areas of life.'” 

If those words seem somewhat familiar, compare the basic message to that of Trump. Blame your opponents and proclaim a new era without saying how you will actually implement your program, except to build a wall, demonize opponents, threaten allies, praise dictators, and promise that all the problems will be solved by you quickly, without regard to economic, military, diplomatic reality, and people in the hall loved it, “Yes you will! Yes you will! Yes you will!”  It was the worship of a would be dictator, and it was most noticeable among supposedly conservative Christians. I wonder how many of them, like German pastor Martin Niemoller who came to regret his support of Hitler, will regret theirs. Niemoller wrote, “I hated the growing atheistic movement, which was fostered by the Social Democrats and the Communists. Their hostility toward the Church made me pin my hopes on Hitler for a while. I am paying for that mistake now; and not me alone, but thousands of other persons like me.” 

German pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer had words for the kind of “truth” that Trump and his supporters are proclaiming. He called it Satanic Truth. Bonhoeffer wrote of it, “It’s essence is that under the semblance of truth it denies everything that is real. It lives upon the hatred of the real and the world that which is created and loved by God. It pretends to be executing the judgment of God…”

Trump’s overwhelming message was that he and he alone could save the country, there was no reference to how the constitutional system of our nation’s government is to work; the checks and balances of the executive branch working with the legislature to pass laws, and the courts to ensure that those laws are enforced fairly, but also to make sure that they are constitutional. Trump’s words show a contempt for that system of government, a system which is not perfect, but which regardless of its flaws is still the last best hope for enlightened civil government, of the people, by the people, and for the people on the face of the earth.

While watching the Trump speech, and and his claim that he alone can make us safe, I was reminded of these words of Abraham Lincoln wh9o sounded a warning about the real defense against tyranny, that is the love of liberty and the preservation of its spirit, for all people, in all lands.

“These [the armed forces] are not our reliance against a resumption of tyranny in our fair land. All of them may be turned against our liberties, without making us stronger or weaker for the struggle. Our reliance is in the love of liberty which God has planted in our bosoms. Our defense is in the preservation of the spirit which prizes liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands, every where…. Familiarize yourselves with the chains of bondage, and you are preparing your own limbs to wear them. Accustomed to trample on the rights of those around you, you have lost the genius of your own independence, and become the fit subjects of the first cunning tyrant who rises.”

I was frightened last night, not by Trump’s distortion of reality in his dystopian and apocalyptic picture of the United States, I have much more faith and hope in our country and its resiliency than fear mongers like Trump and scare out of me. Instead I was frightened by the fact that a man like him has now captured a major American political party, whose most loyal “Christian” adherents are ready to overthrow our republic and remake it as a dictatorship, and in which all opponents are to be silenced or swept off the streets.

The convention was like watching Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will without her artistry or the Hitlerian charm. 

So, until tomorrow, I bid you peace,

Padre Steve+

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Power and Folly

ADN-ZB/Archiv Kirchenwahl am 23.7.1933 in Berlin. Wahl in der Marien Kirche am Neuen Markt. Nazistische Wahlpropaganda unter Maske des Christentums.

I have refrained from tackling any politics for over a week now, and that was a good thing. My time of deliberate rest from jumping into any of the major political, judicial, or social controversies the past week has been good. It has allowed me to re-center myself. As I have done so I have taken a step back just to observe, to watch and listen, and to continue to read, study, reflect, and yes, to relax. .

Of course, much of that study and reflection turns back to history. Barbara Tuchman wrote, “Chief among the forces affecting political folly is lust for power, named by Tacitus as “the most flagrant of all passions.” One go a minute without observing this.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian who openly opposed Hitler and his policies in an age when the bulk of German Christians either threw their wholehearted allegiance behind Hitler, or simply did nothing. Bonhoeffer wrote about the violence of Nazi power, and how it, like other brazen displays of power produces outbursts of folly. He noted:

“If we look more closely, we see that any violent display of power, whether political or religious, produces an outburst of folly in a large part of mankind; indeed, this seems actually to be a psychological and sociological law: the power of some needs the folly of others. It is not that certain human capacities, intellectual capacities for instance, become stunted of destroyed, but rather that the upsurge of power makes such an overwhelming impression that men are deprived of their independent judgment, and…give up trying to assess the new state of affairs for themselves.”

It is important for all of us, no matter what our political ideology, or who our chosen candidate is, not to get caught up in the violence of power. We must retain our capacity for independent judgment and never give up our individual and collective responsibility to assess what is going on and make informed judgments.

Unfortunately, that can be quite an undertaking when we are bombarded with an endless assault by politicians, pundits, and preachers, and their media allies and enablers every minute of the day. Even so, we cannot abandon our duty to think and ask the hard questions, even of those we agree with and support.

Anyway, until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Living Completely in the World

bonhoeffer-standing

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The past week I have shared by thoughts about faith and doubt, and life, and I have been taking some time to recharge my batteries so to speak after all the turmoil; that which was within me, and that which keeps coming at us all in the media.

Not long before he was killed at the Flossenberg Concentration Camp, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote,

“I discovered later, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment that is it only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world. That, I think, is faith.”

To live unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes, and failures; I guess that is another aspect of faith.

I should be writing some more about current events in relation to history in the coming days and as more of my Civil War and Gettysburg text is ready you will see some of that as well, and maybe even some other history that still matters today.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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What We Owe Others

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Another short thought as I continue my recharging myself. I am doing a lot of reading, doing some research for my Gettysburg and Civil War text, as well as preparing some new material for the Ethics elective that I teach, and those are all good things for me to be doing right now. As I do them I am reminded of how fortunate I am to be serving where I am, what I get to teach, write and study and to realize that even though I wanted the position, that someone had to select me for it, and get higher approval in order to do so. That I could not engineer. Neither could I engineer on my own going from the Army to the Navy when I had already spent almost a full career in the Army and Army Reserve, nor could I engineer my last minute selection for the Clinical Pastoral Education residency at Parkland Memorial Hospital in 1994, or the times when people who believed in me, paid my seminary tuition when I saw no hope to continue. I can go on and on and on about such things. I look at the things that I have been able to do in life, the things that I have learned, and I am reminded that others helped get me here.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “In normal life we hardly realize how much more we receive than we give, and life cannot be rich without such gratitude. It is so easy to overestimate the importance of our own achievements compared with what we owe to the help of others.”

The fact is that I owe almost everything to people who have given me chances to succeed, and thankfully though many times have been difficult I did not give up. I was persistent but so much I what I can call “my” accomplishments, I owe in large part to others, and sometimes what seems like dumb luck or good fortune and just being at the right place at the right time.

So anyway, I hope that you have a great day, and please take the time to remember those who helped you.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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An Easter Alleluia?

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am glad that Easter Sunday is over. Of course in my tradition, the Catholic-Orthodox-Anglican tradition, there are 49 more days left in the Easter Season, but who is counting?

I dreaded Easter this year, more than I ever have. I think it is because that for only the second time in my life, Easter Sunday coincided with my birthday. The only previous time that it did was in 2005, when I stilled lived in a cloud-cuckoo-land of unquestioned belief before I went to Iraq, before my crisis in faith, before I was cast aside by most of the clergy of my former church, and abandoned by men, fellow priests, chaplains, and clergy, who I thought were my friends. Interestingly enough, the current head of that church continues to stay in contact with me, and sent me a nice birthday greeting this morning. We may not agree on some of our theology, but I can respect and love him. For that I am grateful, and interestingly enough, many of those who I thought were my closest friends in that church,and in the military chaplaincy, abandoned it, just as they did me, because it wasn’t good enough for them either.

This year, for me, Easter became something existential. I did not think that I was going to live through it. Now, as far as I know there is nothing physically wrong with me that, and in fact I want to live, more than life itself. I want to live to be at least 105 years old so I can lead a staff ride on the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in 2063. I may need one of those hi-tech exoskeleton units to accomplish that should I live that long, but that is my goal.

I love life, but I struggle with faith. This week, in fact the whole season of Lent that preceded Holy Week was a struggle for me. Week after week I showed up to conduct services, to celebrate Eucharist, and no one came, until the last week of the previous class when one student came by. I was thrilled when it did, but truthfully, in the past two and a half years at the Staff College, my most faithful parishioners have been Lebanese Catholic officers, and there were none of them in the winter class. So despite the fact that we are kind of in a between class limbo, I was wondering, “why do I even bother to show up?”

I mean really… on Easter Sunday morning, my birthday to make matters worse, all I wanted to do was die. On the way home from work all I could feel was heaviness, and the only thing that kept me from driving my car off the road was that I didn’t want to put Judy through that pain. What I was feeling was not her fault; she had done all that she could to make this a good week and good birthday. I could not ask for more. But if you say you have faith, and have never been to the point of despair that I have been, please abstain if you can from judging me, and spare me your sermons.

Eventually, we got out to or friends at the Gordon Biersch brewery restaurant. After the horrible morning, the afternoon was good. My mood has lifted considerably. I have been treated with great kindness by hundreds of friends who have wished me well, by phone, e-mail, or on social media. Other friends were kind to me today. My Turkish friend at Biersch, his wife, made me a small cake; others were just kind to give me a hug, spend some time in conversation, or to share a laugh with me over a beer. While there I found that one of my friends here in Virginia Beach was in an automobile accident, and suffered some injuries this morning, and I pray, to the God that I so struggle to believe in, that he will be okay.

But that being said, I wonder at times, what Dietrich Bonhoeffer asked, is not true for me: experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use?”

I admit that I have been worn down, that I am suspicious, and that I struggle. I wonder, as far as my calling and vocation as a minister, priest and chaplain goes, if I am of any use.

If I am, I am glad for that. If I have even helped someone in some small way, in his or her time of crisis, or doubt, I am glad for that. If not, then that is something to be decided not by me, nor by the Church, but by God, and such decisions are way above and beyond my pay grade. As far as the men that I feel who abandoned me when I struggled, and when my questions could no longer be tolerated; men who I did all that I could do to help to where they are today, and men who I thought were my friends and brothers; for that I have no answer. So I guess that too is well above and beyond my pay grade.

As far as yesterday morning, Easter Sunday, I guess I am glad that no one showed up at my chapel. I was so far from even believing, I was so far from the hope of the resurrection, that to cry out “Alleluia! He is risen! The Lord is risen indeed!” would have been blasphemy. So in a sense, as hard as today was, I was glad that I was spared from that.

When I thin that I am reminded of the words of he great German theologian Jurgen Moltmann;

“Believing in the resurrection does not just mean assenting to a dogma and noting a historical fact. It means participating in this creative act of God’s … Resurrection is not a consoling opium, soothing us with the promise of a better world in the hereafter. It is the energy for a rebirth of this life. The hope doesn’t point to another world. It is focused on the redemption of this one.”

I am hoping that this week will be better and that if anyone darkens the door of my chapel this coming Sunday, that I might actually join in the Easter alleluias. I want to experience that rebirth again, I want, not to simply assent to a dogma, but instead to participate in the creative act of God, and maybe to find redemption in this world whatever the next world may bring.

I hope that this makes sense, and even if it doesn’t, please, pray for me a sinner,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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