Archive for July, 2016


Common time: summer movies!

July 17, 2016

For Beloved Community

Vernon K. Rempel, 2016
Bible reading

Luke 9:51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.

The un-anxious presence

All of us receive measures of encouragement

and measures of chaos from our families.
Joy, the hopefully named hero of our story,

receives, as we soon learn,

a great, heaping measure of chaos from her family.
It’s based on a true story. Here’s what Wikipedia has:

Joy stars “Jennifer Lawrence as Joy Mangano, a self-made millionaire who created her own business empire. Mangano was a divorced mother with three children in the early 1990s when she invented the Miracle Mop and became an overnight success, after which she patented many other products, often selling on the Home Shopping Network and QVC. The film is a semi-fictional and inspirational portrayal of how Mangano overcame personal and professional obstacles to rise to the top.”
I wonder how the rest of her family felt about the portrayal.

It would be especially rough to the be the half-sister, I think.

She really gets in the way, in the movie version,

and does not come across very sympathetically.
And even worse, to be the mother,

portrayed as a feckless lay-about,

watching day-time television.
And that’s where our movie starts,

with a black and white clip from a soap opera.
Will the woman take charge of her life,

and save her land?

Or will she be done in

by the people arrayed against her?

So it goes.
Joy starts out as an extraordinarily creative

young girl.

She is a maker, inventive with her hands,

with an imagination for great stories,

which she demonstrates and tells

to her friend.
But then we see her at age nine.

A door slams. It is, as we come to quickly discover,

the door slamming on her dreams.
Her parents divorce with both acrimony

and just sheer disorder.

It is chaos.
Now it is 17 years later,

the generational life-cycle of the cicada,

as Joy is annoyed to notice.
Why does the number 17 bother her so much?

Because it is the number of years

she has buried her dreams.
Her dreams have been underground

for 17 years just like the stupid cicada

is underground for 17 years.
By now she is divorced,

has two children,

her ex-husband lives in the basement,

her mother is camped in front of the TV upstairs,

and now her father’s lady-friend returns him –

“return ex-husband to sender.”
Like Elvis sang:

“Return to sender; address unknown.”

Only her address is known.

And her emotional wreck of a father

is back.
He joins the ex-husband in the basement.

She is managing all this with as much

grace and aplomb as she can find.
She goes to work at her job

at a complaint counter.

After complaining bitterly, a woman looks at her name tag

and splutters at her:

“Joyous, eh? You don’t seem very joyful.”
Joy replies, and it is the name of the theme of her life right now:

“Perhaps I am not so joyous today.”
Only her grandmother Mimi

remembers who Joy is,

what she is capable of.
She just keeps reaffirming it to Joy.
At one point she says it all to Joy:

“You were born to be the un-anxious presence in the room.”

And wow, does her family need an un-anxious presence.
In our Bible passage, Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem.

This is generally understood to mean that

he has become utterly clear

that he’s going to have to confront

the powerful people in Jerusalem.

And it’s not going to go well.
He’s bringing love. He won’t get thanks for that.

But he’s the loving presence in the room.


Which is another way of saying

the emotional systems word: “non-anxious.”
Jesus has also struggled with his family.

In Luke 8, they try to reach him, but can’t, because of the crowd.

But he won’t help.

Who are my mother and brothers and sisters?

Those who hear the word of God and do it.
This is not a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving family situation.
Mark goes further toward explaining Jesus frustration.

Jesus called the disciples to join him,

and he gave them authority to cast out demons:

in other words, to really make a difference

in the world, is how I would say it.
And then Mark writes: “When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’” –Mark 3:21

The miracle mop

So with Joy.

When she decides she’s had enough with

burying her dreams for 17 years,

she creates a self-wringing mop.
It has an enormous yardage of cotton fibers, very absorbent,

you can do the whole floor without wringing it.
And when you do wring it, you don’t have to touch the fibers.

The mop has a built in squeezing mechanism.

And then when it gets dirty, you can detach it,

and throw the whole mop-head in the washing machine.
She needs her family’s help to make it happen, however.

Her father’s new lady friend,

played with an intensely straight face by Isabella Rossellini,

has lots of money.
But she has a very intense list of requirements.

As does her father.

And he sister looks on with competitive sullenness.
As she struggles to try to sell her new invention,

the police confiscate all her stuff,

because she set up in a K-Mart parking lot.
Her dad reads the obituary to her dreams right away:

“Look, you were broke, bored, you had an idea. Lot’s of people have ideas. Go home and take care of your family.”
Which is all she’s been trying to do.

As they all seem to hang on to her pants

and drag her down.

Drag her down to their family hell.
Family, I always tell people in counseling,

is our river, the river that we first wake up in.
And by the time we wake up in it,

we’re already all wet and way downstream.
So the question always is with family,

not which river is my life river,

but how am I going to swim in this river

that I find myself in?
Life is not a matter of standing by,

carefully choosing your river,

and then setting sail.
Life is learning how to swim

with the ones what brung ya.

And then with others.
As I said at the beginning of this little reflection:

“All of us receive measures of encouragement

and measures of chaos from our families.”
And, truly, all of us also give measures of

encouragement and chaos as well.
And when we try to make change,

try to learn how to swim in our river a bit differently,

we quickly learn that the family will notice.

And we won’t necessarily help, as family.
The insight from family systems theory here is called


It means that the emotional system of the family

tends to resist change.
We become collectively addicted to the way

we’ve been with each other in our family systems.

We have our emotional habits.

They have grown up among us like vines,

and they quickly register the slightest vibration

up and down the network.
The corollary to “homeostasis” is “sabotage,”

which I talked about a couple of Sundays ago.

The system registers the possibility of change,

and acts to stop it.
We don’t even often know we’re doing this to each other.

We communicate it with the smallest gestures,

with a seemingly innocuous word or two:
We drop silences in where we might say something

of encouragement.

We say “do you think that’s a good idea?”

We stand by the door, not exactly blocking it,

and not exactly opening it either.
If you wonder how homeostasis is working in your family

or other emotional system (church, workplace),

Ed Friedman had a self-test – do it at home!
Just change one thing in your own functioning.

Whatever you do, don’t make it illegal,

or physically harmful, or mean. Just a change.
And then watch how the people around you respond.

You will soon find out who are the strong

non-anxious presences in the room,

and who are the ones who are just hanging on

and want to tug you down.
Joy experiences this in waves of homeostasis.

She finally gets her chance to have her mop

demonstrated on the QVC (Quality, Value, Convenience)

But the guy doing the demonstration,

supposedly their star,

doesn’t even practice,

doesn’t even us the mop correctly.
So they want to drop her.

But she says “I can’t accept your answer. I can’t, and I won’t.

She marches in there,

and convinces them to let her

demo it herself.
She does and she’s a huge hit.

They sell like hot cakes.
It’s Christmas time, literally, and because of her success.

Then her beloved grandmother dies.
Then her father and sister conspire

behind her back to work with the parts producer.

They pay off the producer for a higher price he’s demanding.
But this make the mop unprofitable.

Then she goes and confronts the producer

and discovers he’s shaking her down,

and stealing her patent.
He claims it’s all due to his boss in Texas,

who’s demanding more money.
And the sister’s pay-off does something legally

that makes it possible for them to do that,

and impossible for Joy to challenge it in course.

She was improperly advised.
She gets put in jail for trespassing.

Her family comes to bail her out,

and what does her father’s lady-friend

say by way of support:
“I predicted tragedy, Joy; you’re wracking up quite a steep bill.
They convince her that the only path is bankruptcy.

She signs.

Setting your face toward…

Jesus has been going along, casting out demons,

healing, caring for the poor,

feeding hungry crowds.
For thanks, he is accused over and over

of having a demon himself.
John 8:48, 49

The [religious people] answered him, ‘Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?’ Jesus answered, ‘I do not have a demon; but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me.
In the midst of all this,

his disciples go on ahead to set up a village visit,

and the village doesn’t want Jesus.
What do the disciples want to do,

after all the love that Jesus has demonstrated?

They want to rain fire down on the village.

It is at this moment that Jesus, as the Bible says,

“sets his face toward Jerusalem.”

He now knows what he needs to do.

And he does it.
So does Joy.

The next morning,

after the bankruptcy signing,

she is nowhere to be found.
During the night, she did the classic

girl-power thing and cut her hair.

Then she put on her reading glasses

and started reading the paper work
She discovered that she was being defrauded

by the man who was the boss in Texas.
She sets her face toward Texas.

And down she goes.

And she exposes the plot to him,

and through she quiet ferocity and clarity,

she gets him to pay her back and more.
And her mop goes on to be enormously profitable,

and about 100 other record-setting patents.
Now she is fabulously successful and wealthy.

What does her family do?

They try to sue her.
But she keeps on taking care of them.
What have been the moments

when you have “set your face toward Jerusalem or Texas?”

What have been times you have pulled decision

and strength out of the mire of nay-sayers

and made moves forward?
When have you found the courage, heart, and joy,

to take the good step, to learn how to swim

a different stroke in the family river,

or at work, or church or among friends?


And how has it made all the difference?
Parker Palmer calls this the moment

When we really show up, when we stop phoning it in,

when we get undivided, and wholehearted.
And the one I like the most,

it is the moment when we stop conspiring in our own diminishment.
The homeostasis wants to keep us diminished.

wants to drag us back to the good ol’ days.

That’s diminishment.
Joy didn’t know what all would happen in Texas.

But she found herself walking down the street

in her leather and sunglasses,

with the Eric Clapton soundtrack popping

in the background: “I feel free…”

And she took care of business.
Jesus didn’t know what all would happen in Jerusalem.

He found himself arrested, then executed in agony.

And then the spirit-mystery happened.
If the movie is about the arrival of success

through great-hearted creativity,

the gospel is about the arrival of love,

through great-hearted joy and compassion.
That’s why we’re here.

What’s next?

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Trumbo: we contend not against flesh and blood

Common time: summer movie series

July 10, 2016

For Beloved Community

Vernon K. Rempel, 2016

Lectionary reading

Ephesians 6:10-13

Finally, be strong in the Spirit of Christ

and in the strength of Spirit-power.

Put on the whole armor of the Holy One,

so that you may be able to stand

against the wiles of the devil.

For our struggle is not against enemies

of blood and flesh,

but against the rulers,

against the authorities,

against the cosmic powers

of this present darkness,

against the spiritual forces of evil

in the heavenly places.

Therefore take up the whole armor of God,

so that you may be able

to withstand on that evil day,

and having done everything,

to stand firm.

Opening scene

At the beginning of the movie Trumbo is in a tub, and an idea comes to him

At his beautiful lake-house at the foot of the hills surrounding Los Angeles

Cool jazz music shows a montage of his novels and movies, his very cool success

But immediately we are taken to a set where he is on site. The author is among us…. But he certainly isn’t one of us.

Am I a communist?

Trumbo is a communist – many were,

as is noted in at the beginning of the film.

Many chose communism in response to the

Great Depression and the rise of fascism

Dalton Trumbo became a communist in 1943


There’s a wonderful explication of this as he chats with his daughter.

They are a family of considerable privilege

They have a lake-house outside LA, horses,

In this scene, she’s riding a horse.

But Trumbo, wealthy though he is, is a communist:

His daughter asks:

Niki: Am I [a communist]

Trumbo: Well, why don’t we give you the official test…. Mom makes your favorite lunch…

Niki: Ham and cheese.

Trumbo: Ham and cheese. At school you see someone with no lunch at all. What do you do?

Niki: Share.

Trumbo: Share. Uh, you don’t just tell them to go get a job…? Oh, you offer them a loan at six percent…. That’s very clever…. Ah, then you just ignore them.

Niki: No!

Trumbo: Well, well, you little commie.

Trumbo just wants to improve democracy.

There’s no indication he supported totalitarianism,

as was happening in the Soviet Union.

But was he just in favor of sharing?

Probably he would have supported becoming

what we now would call democratic socialism,

with full access to health care and a greater

net of social care  – legislated sharing.

The movie is a Hollywood self-story.

The key oppressed are the Hollywood 10

who were blacklisted and imprisoned for contempt of congress,

for refusing to name names

or in any way cooperate with the

House Un-american Activities Committee.

But many more, and many who were even more vulnerable

than these successful screenwriters,

we’re also caught up in the anti-Communist fever.

Eric Mann, from the website “Counter-punch” writes

[The movie should] show Dalton Trumbo, Ring Lardner Jr., John Howard Lawson, and so many others risking their careers, refusing to name names, refusing to snitch, because they were fighters for socialism, not [just] do-good liberals. It would show how they went to prison, lost jobs, risked and lost their mental and physical health. [And] the true Trumbo film would situate his life among the lives of so many Black and white working class people who also were red-baited from their jobs, driven out of high schools, colleges, unions, and often were driven into poverty.”


There is another story that is far more terrifying,

which is the overthrow of the democratically elected

communist government in Chile,

and how it was overthrown

evidently with help from the CIA.

This also is a story told by a movie: “Missing”.

Meanwhile, totalitarianism in the name of communism

or socialism destroyed the lives of millions

in the Soviet Union, Cambodia, and China,

among other places.

But the best impulse is that simply longing for fairness,

the desire to share.

The hurting

Meanwhile, the journalist Hedda Hopper

writes to fight the communist menace,

along with the Motion Picture Alliance.

And the House Un-American Activities Committee is formed.

And soon, friends are hurting friends,

and lives even in happy Hollywood,

are being overturned.

She even threatens her old colleague and friend, who is Mayer of Metro, Goldwyn, and Mayer, with a stunning anti-Semitic tirade.

Within Hollywood work circles there is harm.

Then the 10 go to jail

Then Trumbo wreaks havoc against own family,

and against himself – hurts himself.

Why is he always sitting in the bath?

To wash away the demons?

Now he is arguing with his friend Arlen

as the Trumbo children listen in alarm.

At one point, he has a horrible fight with his dear friend Edward G. Robinson,

after the untimely death of Arlen,

and as friends do, they each know what to say to hurt each other.

And with his family…

Niki is having a birthday.

He’s in the tub, writing, and she wants him

to come out and have cake.

Niki Trumbo: We’re having birthday cake.

Dalton Trumbo: When you hear me working, you don’t knock.

Niki Trumbo: But it’s my birthday.

Dalton Trumbo: You don’t knock. Ever.

Niki Trumbo: So the house is on fire, you don’t wanna know?

Dalton Trumbo: I work in a bathtub, surrounded by water. So I’m fairly certain that even if the whole goddamn country was on fire, that I can still function as this family’s personal slave. And all I ask is not to be interrupted for every little slice of fucking birthday cake. What? It’s ridiculous!

Finally his wife confronts him:

Cleo Fincher Trumbo: You have no idea what you could lose.

Dalton Trumbo: Oh, please. My career and the first amendment and the country, am I missing anything?

Cleo Fincher Trumbo: Us! You’re losing us! Since prison, you don’t talk or ask. You just snap, bark. I keep waiting for you to start pounding the dinner table with a gavel.

Dalton Trumbo: So in addition to being a pariah out in the world, I also have the supreme joy of battling insurrection in my own home.

Cleo Fincher Trumbo: Battling insurrection?!

Dalton Trumbo: When these 10 fingers literally clothe and feed and shelter us

Cleo Fincher Trumbo: This isn’t just happening to you. We all hurt.

And in all this, he is increasingly isolated and embittered:

He says to her: “Friends? What friends? Who the hell has the luxury of friends? I’ve got allies and enemies. There’s no room for anything else.”

The apostle Paul, writing in the letter to the Ephesians,

has this note which rings down through the ages:

For our struggle is not against enemies

of blood and flesh,

but against the rulers,

against the authorities,

against the cosmic powers

of this present darkness,

against the spiritual forces of evil

in the heavenly places.

Walter Wink, in his book The powers that be

writes that what Paul is talking about is the insides

of groups, peoples, nations.

What we call “national identity” or character,

or the team spirit of a school,

or the business culture of a particular company.

In the book of revelation, John writs to the

angels of churches, not to the church as a simple

human gathering but to the angel that has

sprung to life among them.

Maybe you have examples of this?

I remember about 20 ago there was a big-box home-store

called Home Base.

I walked in and immediately felt a spirit of depression.

All was not well at Home Base, I could tell.

Sometime later I walked into Home Depot.

And it bright and happy.

Two different spirits.

And shortly thereafter, Home Base went out of business.

And Home Depot started to thrive.

Have we not all felt this in different schools, homes,

churches, clubs, gatherings?

What’s the spirit, what’s coming alive among us?

Is this a happy occasion or an angry occasion?

Is there deep joy or deep fear?

Something gets in the air among us.

It’s remarkable how the anti-communism of the

1940s and 1950s came over the nation

like a fever and then left it like

a fever goes away.

Earlier in Ephesians, Paul writes:

…you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. –Ephesians 2:2

President Obama recently spoke in much the same way

about the wave of nativism and anti-immigrant sentiment

that is sweeping our nation,

in a speech on June 30 in Ottawa, at the north-American leaders’ summit:

“We’ve had times throughout our history where anti-immigration sentiment is exploited by demagogues,” he said at a news conference. “The language is identical. But guess what? They kept coming, and they kept coming because America offered possibility for their children and grandchildren.”

Obama added, “America is a nation of immigrants. That’s our strength. Unless you are a Native American, somebody, somewhere in your past showed up from someplace else, and they didn’t always have papers.”

“And the genius of America has been to define ourselves not by what we look like or what our last name is or our faith but our adherence to a common creed,” he added.



What does it look like to not contend against flesh and blood?

Trumbo at one point says “The radical may fight with the purity of Jesus. But (referring to himself) the rich guy wins with the cunning of Satan.”

That might now sound good. But compare it to. Jesus’ exhortation to be cunning as serpents but gentle as doves. Matthew 10:16

What does this look like. What does the armor of God look like?

In systems theory, there’s something called “differentiation.”

It means to have the capacity to maintain

thoughtful and flexible separation and connection

in relationships.

When a fever like anti-communism, or communism,

or anti-immigrant, or nativism, sweeps across,

that ability to be thoughtful and flexible goes away.

Just as it tends to for all of us in our anxious moments.

Fear is a compelling thing.

Only great love can drive out fear.

But differentiation celebrates diversity for one thing.

We are all different

Trumbo at one point says to his friends, “Please, let’s not demonize people we don’t really know.”

Let’s not paint everybody with one brush,

not create a mono-lithic “them.”

Usually preceded by the words “the only thing they understand is….”

Maia Szalavitz, author of: Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addictive and Compulsive Behavior

writes about how every addict and every addiction is different.

People become addicted for a lot of reasons:

to calm down, to get more excitement, to numb the pain,

to self-inflict pain to overcome numbness

or a combination, or a cycling through different reasons.

She says that in autism research, there is a saying that:

When you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.

(Terry Gross Fresh Air interview with Szalavitz.)

We are all group-able. But how quickly those groupings

become boxes that don’t actually fit us.

“you people; you’re all….” is never deeply true.

But the anti-communism saw a monolithic red menace.

John Wayne in the movie says to Trumbo – “maybe it’s not for your kind”

But what is Trumbo’s “kind?” A rich guy who’s a communist because he wants to share?

In systems theory, the way we press each other and even ourselves into mono-lithic groups is called “Fusion”

So often we hear about the black community, the gay community,

the gun-rights community.

But are they really communities?

And how similar are they to each other?

Feels good, secure, strong and have nice groupings like this.

It takes away uncertainty and existential nausea

But it’s like a drug, not a practice

Leah Gunning Francis writes:

“Where are the leaders?” was a common question I heard coming from pundits, politicians and everyday people… after Michael Brown’s death, in St. Louis….

“For months, there were often several protests happening at once, each seeming to sprout up with little public warning. These actions often made people wonder who was in charge of this movement, and when was he or she going to speak up and get everyone under control?

“The truth is that leaders were everywhere. People were inclined to look for one person, in the mode of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King — but that model did not fit this movement. Leaders emerged organically from the ground up, not from the top down. They were not appointed, nor did they fit any stereotypical model of what a “leader” looks like or how a leader talks.”

We’re all different. There are all kinds of leaders.

And at the same time we’re deeply connected.

We are wired to love each other, to have mirror neurons for each other

(look that up, if you haven’t run in to it yet),

to want to go out and play together,

to feel the strength and warmth

of other bodies, hearts, and minds

moving with

Differentiation means both different and connected

and being thoughtful and flexible about this.

There lives a dearest freshness deep down things

In the end, the fever passes.

The poet Hopkins writes:

Yet for all this, nature is never spent/

There lives a dearest freshness deep down things.

Or, another way to say it, “The arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.” (Originally Unitarian Theodore Parker, much quoted, including Martin Luther King, Jr.)

Keep doing good work.

And the arc of history begins to bend.

So in our movie:

Frank King: So, you’re saying that you want to give me a script and I’ll pay you and you don’t want your name on it?

Dalton Trumbo: No, you don’t want my name on it.

Frank King: Okay then.

Now Trumbo is managing secret contracts for all the blacklisted writers:

His youngest daughter, about age 8, answers the door, coolly digs into the pile of waiting envelopes of scripts and signs for the delivery.

Keep doing good work.

Eventually, the world changes.

Trumbo turns in the script for the movie Brave One under a pseudonym – Robert Rich.

Dalton Trumbo: [Presenting his new script to the producers] Oh, one problem though.

Hymie King: Expensive?

Dalton Trumbo: Worse. It’s good

Gets nominated for an Oscar. What if it wins? Who will receive the award?

Herman King: It won’t win, not the good. No offense.

Trumbo: None taken.

And then it does win, announced by the beautiful Deborah Kerr.

Then Otto Preminger, the great producer shows up and asks him to adapt Exodus. And in the end with his name on it.

A short time before that, Kirk Douglas shows up at the house, and Niki is rendered star–struck, stuck in a beautiful, wide-eyed silence. Douglas is making Spartacus, and Trumbo also gets named with him.

Kirk Douglas tells someone trying to get him to fire Trumbo: You go and ask the studio how they would like having to reshoot this movie without me because for better or for worse I AM SPARTACUS.

Then President Kennedy publicly praises the movie.

The great brick wall comes tumbling down

And he finally does get his Oscar, with his name on it, in 1975, for Brave One, and posthumously for Roman Holiday in 1993, both of which had been credited to other names originally, during the black-list era.

The distortion of all lives

In the end, he makes a famous speech, in 1970,

to the Writer’s Guild of America,

as they are presenting him with the Laurel Award

for Screenwriting achievement.

The blacklist was a time of evil. And no one who survived it came through untouched by evil. Caught in a situation that had passed beyond the control of mere individuals, each person reacted as his nature, his need, his convictions, and his particular circumstances compelled him to. It was a time of fear, and no one was exempt. Scores of people lost their homes. Their families disintegrated. They lost…. And in some…. Some even lost their lives.

But when you look back upon that dark time, as I think you should every now and then, it will do you no good to search for heroes or villains. There weren’t any. There were only victims. Victims, because each of us felt compelled to say or do things that we otherwise would not…, to deliver or receive wounds which we truly did not wish to exchange.

I look out to my family sitting there, and I realize what I’ve put them through. And it’s unfair. My wife, who somehow kept it all together, amazes me. And so, what I say here tonight is not intended to…, to be hurtful to anyone. It is intended to heal, not hurt. To repair the wounds which for years have been inflicted upon each other. And most egregiously upon ourselves.

But that is not the end, is never the end

The arc of the universe always bends toward justice

There is a dearest freshness deep down things

It may seem very deep down at times, but it is always there, always seeking us, always unfolding as love, which is our walk and work and song.



There was no single leader in Ferguson, Missouri, writes a seminary professor, activist and author of the book “Ferguson and Faith.” Instead, there were many leaders, who inspire hope for the future.


By Leah Gunning Francis

On the evening of Aug. 9, 2014, I had put my boys to bed and walked into the family room when I caught a glimpse of a chaotic scene on the news. Suddenly, I heard, “You took my son away from me! Do you know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate?”

I stood, shell-shocked, in front of the television, watching as Michael Brown’s mother spoke. Her son had been shot and killed by a police officer.

I am a mother of black sons. I live with my family in St. Louis; our home is only 11 miles from the Canfield Green Apartments, where Brown was killed.

This was too close to heart and home for comfort. The discomfort in my heart and spirit catapulted me into the streets and called out the leader within. I joined thousands of others at this intersection of faith and justice in Ferguson.

My multiple roles as a scholar-activist-mother of black sons-fellow protestor afforded me the opportunity to collect some of the stories that helped shape the movement for racial justice in Ferguson.

Those stories are gathered in my book “Ferguson and Faith,” which came about after colleagues at the Forum for Theological Exploration (FTE) and Chalice Press invited me to write about clergy involvement in Ferguson.

“Where are the leaders?” was a common question I heard coming from pundits, politicians and everyday people. After Brown’s death, thousands of people creatively protested around the St. Louis region. There were marches in Clayton, rallies in Ferguson, vigils in Chesterfield, die-ins in Brentwood and highway shutdowns in St. Louis.

For months, there were often several protests happening at once, each seeming to sprout up with little public warning. These actions often made people wonder who was in charge of this movement, and when was he or she going to speak up and get everyone under control?

The truth is that leaders were everywhere. People were inclined to look for one person, in the mode of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King — but that model did not fit this movement. Leaders emerged organically from the ground up, not from the top down. They were not appointed, nor did they fit any stereotypical model of what a “leader” looks like or how a leader talks.

They were women and men; black, brown, beige and white; gay and straight; able-bodied and differently abled; well-heeled and bare-heeled; young and not-so-young. These people found themselves responding to a call that came from around them and within them, and they refused to remain on the sidelines at such a time as this.

As I talked to people on the ground, the organic emergence of leaders became more apparent to me. Every clergyperson I began speaking with would inevitably say, “But you have to interview so-and-so.”

In particular, it is important to acknowledge the role of young leaders within the movement. Indeed, the argument could be made that young people ignited leadership among clergy; they created the space and the impetus for the clergy to live into their roles as leaders.

Even though I interviewed 24 St. Louis-area faith leaders and 13 young activists, I captured just a snapshot of leadership in the movement for racial justice in Ferguson, not the entire picture.

I firmly believe that these stories of courage contain seeds of possibilities — seeds that, if nurtured, could serve us well into a future filled with hope. I’d like to share two of the stories from people that shaped the contours of leadership.

Alisha Sonnier is a student at St. Louis University, where protestors occupied a courtyard surrounding the clock tower in the middle of campus. Sonnier is a founder of Tribe X, an organization created in the wake of the protests to raise awareness about the racial disparities and inequities on campus. The protesters began meeting with school administrators, and the resulting agreement was called the Clock Tower Accords.

“After the first night in Ferguson, we went out there so many more times. You ran into a lot of people you often saw there, a lot of familiar faces. You had a lot of similar conversations. … We were just talking about ways that we could be effective, and we were just tired of just talking about it and complaining about it, but we wanted to figure out, ‘What could we do?’ And so it was actually suggested to us by one of our advisors, ‘Well, why don’t you guys start an organization?’”

Another seed of hope emerged during my conversation with Krista Taves, a Unitarian Universalist minister in an affluent suburban congregation. She wanted to awaken her congregation to their own community’s issues of racial injustice. One step she took was to have persons of color in the congregation give testimony of personal experience of racial injustice.

“They talked about police brutality and racial profiling, about the killing of unarmed black men by white police officers, about the school-to-prison pipeline. And to the surprise of many, including me, people walked out. They walked out of the service, because they felt that it was bashing the police and that their church was taking sides. That’s how it started for us in this [largely] white, predominantly middle class congregation in far West County.”

Despite the pushback, Taves continued to preach about what was happening in Ferguson. The church’s social justice team met weekly, trying to figure out a response. The turning point came when a Cambodian teenager, adopted by a white single mother, spoke to the congregation about her experience as a person of color.

“The tears in that service were unbelievable. That’s what brought it home. The relationship they had with that family brought it home. I asked the congregation, ‘What is our response to this? Because this is here. What’s happening in Ferguson is here. … How are we going to stand together as a community?’”

These are just two stories among many. The beauty of this garden of hope is that each seed represents an expression of someone’s leadership emerging in its own vital and beautiful way — even when the heart of protest is pain.

Leadership is not just about getting people to do what you want them to do. Instead, it involves asking how your core values and beliefs are compelling you to respond to the situation at hand, as Sonnier and Taves have done.

Whenever we respond to the call to lead from our own moral center, not self-centeredness, we create space and opportunity to join God’s work in the world.

When we dare to stand at the crossroads of faith and justice and ask where the good way is, and muster the courage to walk in the way of love, mercy and humility, we forge pathways to the kingdom of God on earth.

I had the privilege of sharing time and space with many people who responded to this call to lead us into a future filled with hope. The call is still open. What say you?

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Common time; Independence Day weekend

July 3, 2016

For Beloved Community

Vernon K. Rempel, 2016

Bible reading

It is a narrow gate and a hard road that leads to life, and only a few find it” — Matthew 7:14

You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for God delights in you, and your land shall be married. — Isaiah 62:4

Beauty and war

Life is beautiful;

And yet in this world we make war

We wake to mornings in which the fragrances of the world have been released by a gentle rain overnight. All of nature sings.

And in this world, gun and weapon sales are extremely lucrative.

Beauty and the will to kill. Both are evident and among us.

How often have I, in my secret heart, the part of my heart that I hope even God can’t see, thought that the removal of someone from the earth would make my life better. Or make the world a better place.

The will to kill; the will to make war

On this Independence Day weekend, this is my reflection:

what about war

just a little more on war

Fundamentally, war is a failure to move through change well.

War is when the kitchen catches on fire

instead of cooking the food.

War is a profound phenomenon, a deep dysfunction.

Murray Bowen said we may as well protest schizophrenia as protest war; we little understand either one.

We need to feel war, not give simple answers.

It has layers:

–Desire to rescue

–Fear of attack

–Will to kill to stay in power and sustain privilege

–Killing to keep order

–Group emotionality captivated by a spirit of displacement of pain, disrespect, indignity – we imagine we can kill our way out, which is understandable, but inaccurate

We can only commune our way out , but that is a little-chosen path

The way is narrow and few choose it, as Jesus said.

War is ecstatic – “war is a force that gives us meaning,”

as Chris Hedges wrote.

So we need other ecstasies:

eating joyfully together (not alone, in addiction or alienation),


playing games,

laughing with comedians or far better with friends,

reading great words,

listening to and playing great music,

we need “sex, love, and movies”

( not “Sex, lies, and videotape” – that 1989 cultural splash)

War is a social conflagration

a social firestorm,

that started somewhere

And now, the it is a great storm,

it is the time when all bets are off,

when all’s fair (in war as in love)

it is Norse Ragnarok, Hebrew Armaggedon

Greek Apocalypse, it is the battle of Zama,

in which Hannibal and all his elephants lost to Rome.

War is the unleashing the hounds of emotion to dominate,

clean-up, fix this mess once and for all.

War is always misdirected and never addresses the root of evil,

and always perpetuates violence.

Blood spilled in violence is never the seed of peace.

It always grows back to violence.

My problem with guns – willingness to kill, as if I know so much that I can function in the flash of a second as judge, jury, and executioner.

It follows the sensibility of war, which always knows more than it knows, knows who needs to be killed when and that good will result from this.


How does change come

How does real change come so that we don’t go to war?

If we don’t move into and through change well, we will sooner or later make war. War is a failure to change in a wholesome and timely manner.

What happens when the kitchen doesn’t catch on fire.

One of my favorite processes in cooking is called “Deglazing.”

You let the meat or vegetables roast in an oiled pan.

After awhile, they will begin to brown on to the pan.

Don’t let them burn on, but it’s a fine line!

Now, when they are all nicely stuck on

and browned, and you can smell all the roasted

particulates that have been released into the air

You pour in some cooking wine or cheap whiskey

or water will do it too.

What you want is to release all the stuck-on

roasted bits from the bottom of the pan

so that they suffuse the food with goodness.

Watch out for steam when you do this!

It will come roaring up.

That is how love makes change.

It does the work, with heat, with a sense of balance

and timing, timeliness – don’t let it burn!

and some force – pour in the liquid and

watch out for steam!

But what draws you forward is not the soul-storm or destruction,

or obliteration of another, or personal or collective dominance.

It is the smell of deliciousness.

That’s what wholesome change looks like, feels like,

smells like.

What does delicious life smell like?

We may always be cooking for that.

Health care for all, housing for all,

access to mental health care,

global inequities reined in so all may eat,

my addiction to wealth in a wealthy nation

overcome in favor of joy around the table.

Cycles of change

What does social change look like?

It looks like this: you chose some change, there is sabotage,

and then there is joy.

That’s the big structure.

So first of all there is some change.

For peasants in Solentiname, Nicaragua,

working with the priest Ernesto Cardenal,

there was a circle of reflection and action.

They would read a text, usually a Bible text,

then reflect about it.

Anyone could have offer their thoughts.

Then they would decide an action to take

for the sake of their villages, their communities.

This was going on while there was a revolution

against the dictator Somoza.

It was a deadly time.

The power of the chance to be thoughtful

and reflective in the midst of violence

was critical.

The peasants’ shared interpretation of the Bible

in this time is recorded in the landmark book:

The Gospel in Solentiname.

By the way, in 1984, Pope John Paul II

defrocked Cardenal for his involvement

in social change through what

came to be called “liberation theology”

This was reversed by the current Pope Francis

30 years later, in 2014.

For the peasants, their entire social environment had crashed

They engaged in reflection and action

in order to reconstruct dignity and community.

For people in places of privilege,

genuine change may look a bit different.

For us, there may be a crash of some sort,

a slow process of disillusionment,

a sudden diagnoses of accident,

Whatever it is, a collapse, slow or fast, of something old

in genuine change, dignity and community will be at stake.

In genuine change, dignity and community will be at stake.

I think we can all think of a time or times

when that has been true for us.

Richard Rohr calls the initial event,

the crash, slow or fast,

a stumbling stone of the Spirit

He points out that the word “stumbling block” is skandalon,

from which the English word scandal also comes.

You may feel scandalized.

It may come in the form of startling personal insight.

You may wonder, “Why did I do that? What’s wrong with me?

What kind of person am I?”

How could I live that way all those years.?

How could I have gone along with that.

Good grief. You would think I would know better.

This is just the way it goes with change.

Let those days or years or that act just be what it can be:

the precedent to where you are going now.

Make amends as you need to.

Say those three little magic words “I am sorry,”

almost most powerful unmixed with any other words.

Make restitution.

Did you pay them too little before?

Pay them double now.

Follow the joy of Zaccheus.

But now this is your moment of change.

That is the point.

Whatever came before, you are ready for change.

Richard Rohr says that in such a moment,

God has caused you to stumble.

God is your skandalon, your stumbling stone. (Isaiah 8:14)

But not to hurt you! To save you!

You tripped up on the path of violence.

You tripped up on the path of mindless American consumption.

Good for you. Lucky you!

Now on to real joy.


Now you, like the peasants, have a chance for reflection.

Who am I. What have been learning

from places that matter?

You may know my story of learning about what

real love looks like in community

from Parker Palmer and Ted Haggard.

Whatever it is, you reflect and learn.

And then you act.

Especially, you start to re-create community.

But now there is sabotage!

In Solentiname, the villages were raided and destroyed

by Somoza’s soldiers.

I remember when I first said that as a Mennonite pastor

I would welcome gay and lesbian members

into our congregation,

tracts were dropped off on our lawn about heaven and hell,

one conference minister tried to ease me off

all conference committees,

An anonymous group of parents got up a petition

to remove all teachers from our church

from their jobs at

Lancaster Mennonite High School.

Something there is in nature that doesn’t love a change.

Ed Friedman called it “homeostasis”

They system tends to try to stay the same,

even when the system isn’t healthy.

This is normal in change.

This is no reason to go to war.

It’s what you plan for when you start.

It is really hard. Here’s where people get hurt or even die.

Here’s where shaming and isolation can kick in.

But because you are changing not for the sake

of ego or domination or because you’re right

and everybody else is wrong

But rather because you have smelled the deliciousness

of life and you want to keep cooking for that,

you don’t go to war.

You just keep cooking.

Ed Friedman used to say that somehow

leaders have to learn not only to tolerate the struggle

but at some level to love the struggle.

You love the struggle because you love to cook delicious food.

You love strong relationships.

You have seen joy in the eyes of the homeless.

You have seen that your enemy

was someone’s baby and is now God’s child.

But here’s the last thing.

You love the struggle, because it is the one place

of genuine joy.

Not joy that you have to rationalize.

Not joy that you have to fake.

But on the ground joy that simply won’t go away.

In that joy, we may live and we may die, but it will be joy.

It is like getting wet in the river of life.

Finally your soul has come together.

Finally your have met your true soul-mates.

It is joy no matter what comes.

And that is our other Bible reading:

You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for God delights in you, and your land shall be married. — Isaiah 62:4

The people were in exile.

But now they’re going to get married.

Not their going to get into relationships of joy,

relationships of delight.

The Spirit of God is most foundation ally

a spirit of delight, of joy, of effervescent love.

Yea though I walk through the valley of death,

I will fear no evil,

for thou art with me.

Your joy is with me,

when I give myself to the struggle of love,

let myself in for the good change that is before me.

That is the last thing, the eternal thing,

the thing that ultimately feels real.

And then there will be war no more,

because we will have made the change we need to make.

And it is not war, but joy.

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Summer risk!

Common time

June 29, 2016

For Beloved Community

Vernon K. Rempel, 2016

Bible reading:

Genesis 12:1-3

Now the Lord said to Abram and Sarai, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your ancestral house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will generous with you, and make your name great, so that you will be a generosity itself. I will be generous with those who open themselves to you, and the one who blocks you and causes you to stumble I will block and cause to stumble; and in you all the families of the earth shall live in a world that is grand and generous.’

Before they were Abraham and Sarah,

they were Abram and Sarai,

citizens of the land of Ur

at the confluence of the great rivers,

the Tigris and the Euphrates,

a land that would one day be called Babylon.

Almost as if they knew someplace

in their hearts that the destiny

of their children’s children

was not with Babylon

they followed the spirit-voice out and away,

to another land unknown,

the land that the Spirit would show them.

God sent them a TBD memo,

To Be Determined,

to be discovered.

Once you’ve left, you’ll be discovering things.

And so it was.

David Whyte’s poem “Start close in”

echoes some of this action

of taking a risk and stepping out.

I’ll read it, and as I read,

as we likely would anyway,

I invite you to think about steps of risk

you have taken or might take.

(You may follow along with the printed copy in the worship outline, if you wish.)

David Whyte

“Start Close In”

Start close in,

don’t take the second step

or the third,

start with the first


close in,

the step

you don’t want to take.

Start with

the ground

you know,

the pale ground

beneath your feet,

your own

way to begin

the conversation.

Start with your own


give up on other

people’s questions,

don’t let them

smother something


To hear

another’s voice,


your own voice,

wait until

that voice

becomes an


private ear

that can

really listen

to another.

Start right now

take a small step

you can call your own

don’t follow

someone else’s

heroics, be humble

and focused,

start close in,

don’t mistake

that other

for your own.

Start close in,

don’t take

the second step

or the third,

start with the first


close in,

the step

you don’t want to take.

David Whyte, River Flow: New and Selected Poems

If you wish, you may say one word or phrase

that you thought about during that reading….

AIDS in the 1980s

For myself, one story has to do with AIDS.

I started so close, step-wise, I could barely see one step.

I wasn’t even thinking I had taken a step.

In 1987, the Mennonite denomination

voted on a statement,

saying in effect that people must be in

heterosexual sexual relationships

if they wanted to be church members.

I went back to my new, young congregation,

they were two years old,

I had been with them for one year….

And I just knew I was never going to have

a pastoral conversation that began:

you may not be a member here

if you are in a relationship with another man or woman.

I wasn’t highly principled.

I didn’t have a strong theology of sexual orientation.

It just seemed absurd to me to want to keep people

from loving who they wanted to love.

So I told them that this would be my approach.

I didn’t know if I would have a job the next day.

I thought I probably would, but wasn’t sure.

They decided to go with me on this.

Soon we have gay and lesbian members,

generally closeted in those days

in such a conservative religious area.

The next thing I knew,

I was caring for a couple of young men

dying of AIDS.

This was the late 80’s, and there was no good treatment for AIDS.

They wasted away horribly.

One day, I found myself carrying and emptying the

urine-filled plastic urinal of one of the men

as he lay weakly in bed.

The problem was, he was cut off from his family.

They could not be in relationship with him,

because he was gay.

I was a little worried about AIDS for myself,

hoping it was no more contagious

than what they were saying in the 80’s.

And carrying a urinal, as the minister saying goes,

was not covered in seminary.

I do not tell you this as a hero tale,

not even a tale of a reluctant hero.

I was scared. I didn’t know what I was doing.

I really didn’t want to care for a person dying of AIDS.

If you want a heroic, amazing tale from this era,

read about the Church of the Savior.

They started from nothing a 3-story, large

building as essentially a hospice

for people dying of AIDS.

I only say it to show how things can unfold

if you just take one step at a time.

I did not know that’s where I would end up.

You just keep taking steps.

But I’m glad I did.

In retrospect I’m so glad I did it.

It is a memory that matters to me now.

It shaped and formed me as a young minister

in ways I could scarcely imagine.

I feel like a stumbled into something that matters.

Back to Abram and Sarai

I think the same was true for Abram and Sarai

They had no idea. All kinds of things happened:

all the trouble in Egypt,

conflict with Lot,

the whole baby incident with Ishmael and Isaac.

So much happened that their names changed.

They became Abraham and Sarah.

And all this made all the difference,

for them, for their descendants, for us.

Deep spirit-works were being laid down to carry forward

goodness into the history of the human race.

(Next week – Friedman: no good deed goes unpunished.

How risk unfolds, is undermined, and then

makes all the difference.)

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Ah, the summer deepens. We see people driving around late into the evening, and for what purpose? Did they need to go out for milk-shake supplies so that they could finish watching a movie with home-made refreshments? Does the light spilling into the living room at 8:30 p.m. call them out of the house and into the car or onto the motorcycle (when Americans get restless, we do often turn toward internal combustion solutions!). How do the days feel to you. What’s calling from the outside world of summer to the inside world of your soul?

One part of our new-church experience that I love and that has come to me as good news, and a kind of “summer energy” is how much joy there is among us as we worship and as we gather in small groups or do acts of service. It does not feel perfunctory or obligatory. If there’s one thing that is often associated with religion as a negative, it is guilt. I’m not feelin’ it among us. Instead, I think there is an ecstatic invitation to participate. There is joy. And not just joy or ecstasy for personal fulfillment or to “do what I want.” That would just be cultural individualism. But there is a joy that is the invitation into genuine community.

I think this joy is born of risk, of willingness to step into the possibility of both suffering and joy together. Our new church was born in risk, and each one of us, as we participate, takes part in a risk. What will become of us if we step into a room and become part of this, if we invest money to create this, if we spend time moving into this new arrangement of relationships? Will we make it? Choose your journey metaphor: Will the rope bridge hold our weight? Will the path become clear enough for us as we move across the valley? Will we be able to find our way from one island to the next?

But because it is risk, we are telling ourselves at a very core level that this matters to us, that what we are doing is an action of considerable significance. This wakes up new energies, moves us out of the numbness of 21st century ennui (read about this from 20th century French philosophers!), lets us enter a story that has real life in it, not some secondary, passive tale that we only watch through a screen. And in that, there is an immensity of joy, a well-spring bubbling up with the waters of life. Hallelujah!

Pastor Vern

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It is Independence Day weekend. I have always loved this time of year. My soulfulness meets the soulfulness of the long summer days with a rejoicing for languid, stretching time when the fireflies dance (only not in Colorado so much), the dawn comes to work early, and the evenings relax with a cold drink in their hands until it’s almost improper (what will people think, if the evenings stay up that late?).

What does high summer mean to you? Are there one or two things you are really hoping you might fit in this year, while there’s all this light spilling into our part of the world?

Then there is love. Psalm 90:14 says

“Satisfy us in the morning

with your steadfast love,

so that we may rejoice

and be glad all our days.”

How might these be days of “steadfast love?” What is the long practice of love for you that you would offer in the midst of these long days of light?

One other connection – relaxation. Often, when we think about love, and lots of light, we think about how we better get busy: Don’t want to waste the days. Make hay while the sun shines. The one who hoots with the owls at night will not soar with the eagles in the morning. All the good work-ethic sayings. There’s some truth in them. It is also true that we may be most loving and creative when we can relax.

In the book The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts, by Judith S. Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee, one point the authors make, that rings true to me, is that the one constant in all marriages that continue to thrive is that the couple is able to relax with each other. This is a more predictive factor than various measures of compatibility or different therapeutic interventions. So what we want to look for, work toward, and pay attention to is our capacity to relax with each other.

Given the toxicity of chronic anxiety for so many maladies, social and physical, seeking and actively creating the capacity for relaxation is a critical practice. And what could be better and more amenable counsel for a summer’s day? Relax! “Don’t worry…; be happy…,” sang Bob Marley. That may seem glib and even clueless, but there may also be a deep, resonant truth in the beats of that Caribbean groove.

Then the question may become with whom do we relax? And where? We can relax with each other in our sickness and health, when we are poor or homeless, when we need a friend or a community. Instead of “looking for love in all the wrong places,” maybe we should be “seeking relaxation in all the right places,” all the holy places. HWJR: How Would Jesus Relax? He hangs out with Mary and Martha. He sits at a community well and meets people. He goes to the wedding party and even makes more wine – a relaxing drink (unless one is addicted).

It’s not all relaxation. But how much of “it” is in fact relaxation? Are we being busy with the good and joyful life in the Spirit? Or are listening to other gods of success and accumulation? Let us relax in the great love of the Holy Spirit, who pours love into our days with infinite faithfulness and action to create goodness. For all of our days. Including these long days of summer.

Pastor Vern

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Good day, friends!

Yesterday, Rebeca, Fernando, and I were driving back from a Mennonite conference training seminar in Colorado Springs. As we headed west onto C-470 off of I-25, we could see the mountain panorama stretching in front of us. As far as we could see, from south to north, there was a great rain-curtain. The entire horizon was filled with the wavy shapes of heavy rain falling from a great height. It looked like the end of the world! Or the beginning of the world! After about 10 minutes, we were inundated. The gauge in our garden indicated that we received .5 inches of rain in a matter of minutes. Rebeca commented that her father used to say of rain like this that it was the lluvia universal, the total rain, like the flood of Noah.

Steven J. Gould famously wrote about “punctuated equilibrium” in the processes of evolution. His argument was that phenomena like the Grand Canyon were not simply formed by the steady, slow work of water. Such steady, slow work is part of the process. But great amounts of canyon-cutting happen in once-in-a-hundred-thousand-year floods that carry immense boulders tearing down through the water ways. This is true in other evolutionary processes as well, were after an enormous number of small steps, great changes happen all at once.

There is something in the human soul that wants some of this: the great sweeping moments when all the world seems to change. People have constantly predicted/expected the end of the world. Or some world-changing technology, like sentient robots. And occasionally, such things happen. Some of the social emotion in our current election cycle reminds me of this longing for sweeping action to address an abiding sense of malaise.

Another way to describe this is with Malcolm Gladwell’s notion of the “tipping point.” Processes build and build, and then seemingly all-at-once, things open up, or take a turn, or implode. I wonder if many, many small actions of love eventually issue in or result in a tipping point of grand blessing for our day. In this way, one could say that the black Baptist church tradition, with all of the words and music and sense of community built and built until, like mighty water flowing, the Civil Rights movement burst onto the stage of history.

What may we be building toward today? Is there a “tipping point” of the gospel of Christ’s peace that may be growing among us, until one day there will appear a rain-curtain of love, and all the land will rejoice?

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