When you hear the word slave or servant, what image comes to mind? Do you see one of the 100 million conquered humans who were seized and sold across the Mediterranean during the millennium of Rome’s dominance? Or a chained African on a ship crossing the Atlantic toward U.S. shores and a life of hard labor for the benefit of others?
My wife and I once toured the legendary Waterford crystal factory in Ireland, where furnaces roar 24 hours a day, powered by gas piped in from miles away. Sixteen hundred employees take turns at three shifts daily. Their training takes years, especially for the glass etchers, the smallest group among the staff.
"Do not touch.” “Do not taste.” “Don’t walk on the grass.” What is it about me that wants to do exactly what signs instruct me not to do? The warnings are probably for my benefit. The signs are not evil. So why do they bring out the worst in me?
In 1863 the Emancipation Proclamation marked the beginning of the end of slavery. The new air of freedom brought an unintoxicated euphoria. But a century later, freedom was redefined, this time as an absence of responsibility. The new air of license was inhaled and produced an intoxicated forgetfulness of anything that smacked of authoritarian inhibitions or paralyzing parameters.
"The walking dead.” These are the words of African-American soldier Leon Bass as he described the horror he saw when Americans liberated prisoners in the Buchenwald prison camp in April 1945. Today some call confirmed drug addicts “the walking dead.” Then there’s the book/film Dead Man Walking—which describes many of us spiritually.
It must have been the mother of all squalls. Some of the disciples were seasoned fishermen, skilled in the art of navigating dangerous waters. But this was a red alert. They were going to perish—and the one person who might turn the situation around was sleeping peacefully in the boat’s place of honor, the stern. They woke Jesus up with a strident “Don’t you care, Teacher?” But he did not respond to their lack of faith. Instead he responded to the peace within himself, and produced a calm that impacted nature as well as the frightened disciples.
"The past is not over,” said Odessa Woolfolk of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Speaking to my divinity school class, Woolfolk spoke of systems that continue to oppress and seriously limit access to resources that are basic to any human being. With slavery a thing of the past, with segregation banned, with the right to vote for everyone, what is the problem? It is access.
After an attempted coup in Indonesia in 1965, headlines reported that 500,000 people were killed. What did not make the headlines was the quiet revolution that began as the wind of the Spirit began to move into a collapsed intellectual and moral vacuum. There was no ballyhoo or promotion, but simply the response of untold numbers who found in the churches a haven.
"When the Counselor comes!" What was Jesus trying to tell us? His words came after an embarrassing incident. When none of us disciples was willing to wash someone else's feet, Jesus did it. Our rabbi and leader. Not until much later would we understand what he was doing; on that night we could only listen and try to make sense of his words.
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