The May 2021 edition of the First Press is here, thanks to new editor Allen Nickerson! Read the opening letter from Pastor Johanna below or click here to download the whole issue.
Letter from Pastor Johanna
Towards the end of the Book of Ezra, the priest Ezra gets some – to him – bad news: apparently, the people of Israel have not been separating themselves “from the peoples of the lands.” Instead, they have been marrying these foreigners! Hearing this, Ezra reacts with horror, tearing his mantle, pulling his hair out, one minute sitting appalled, the next falling onto his knees in prayer. Pretty dramatic stuff.
Eventually, a crowd gathers, also weeping bitterly, and the decision gets made to send away all the foreign wives and their children.
Now, I am not generally a fan of this book of the Bible. I think its concluding scenes – the tribes of Judah and Benjamin huddled together in the pelting rain with their soon-to-be separated families – is full of pathos, and opposed to an example of a community legitimately living out God’s will. I prefer the Book of Ruth, with its much more progressive attitude towards foreigners – and foreign women in particular.
But it strikes me that this book may raise some interesting questions for us to consider as we, like the exiles it depicts, find our way back to a holy place, our Jerusalem of sorts: in-person worship.
For example, is there anything we need to separate ourselves from as part of the process of returning to church?
Some of us have spent this last year watching more news and Netflix than we ever thought possible – without giving much thought to the versions of the world we’ve been imbibing along the way. (For my part, I’ve found myself hooked on a series of Nordic police procedurals).
It may be that this is a good time to consider the messages we’ve been
receiving through these media about violence or consumerism, how these messages relate to the values we hold dear as Christians, and whether it might not be a good idea to curtail our screen time.
Others of us may have gotten a little too comfortable with the new “virtual” ways of interacting, and how Zoom and WebEx, for example, allow us to check out of conversations by muting ourselves, turning off our video or not attending all that carefully to what other people are saying. (I know I’m not the only person to get distracted from time to time by my own image on the screen!) It may be that this is a good time to recognize that some of our social habits have changed over the course of the pandemic and to “separate” ourselves from these changes by recommitting ourselves to be more active listeners.
The Book of Ezra ends with a comprehensive list of all the Israelite men who had married foreign women and who will now need to send away their wives and children. Clearly, this is not an example we will want to follow as a church. As a church we will want to welcome families of all sorts, as well as people who come to us looking for family. The question is, what habits, perspectives or attitudes will we need to separate ourselves from in order to be that welcoming church.
Rev. Dr. Johanna McCune Wagner