Wednesday, September 20, 2017

A Time to Pray


The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
    his mercies never come to an end;
23 
they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.  [Lam. 3:22-23]


As I was pondering life on a Tuesday evening, thinking about what I might post for Wednesday reading, it seemed appropriate to simply ask you, my readers, to join me in prayer. In recent weeks we have seen Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma hit the Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean, as well as fires in the west. On Tuesday Hurricane Maria, another category 5 storm hit Dominica, a small island nation, where a sister of a member of the church resides with her family, a hurricane that will hit elsewhere in the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico (I have friends with family in Puerto Rico), and then a massive 7.1 earthquake hit the Mexico City area. All of this happens while the UN General Assembly is meeting, at which the President of the United States warned of the possibility of wiping a nation off the map.

These are sobering times. I do not live in fear. That is not who I am. Indeed, I am by nature an optimistic realist. But, that does not mean I am unconcerned about the state of things. It does not mean I do not care. I simply recognize that there are somethings over which I have no control, though I also understand that there are things I can do to make a difference. One of the things I can do is pray. After all, prayer centers us in God's presence. So, acting in the Spirit, I can pray for peace, healing, hope, resilience, fortitude, good will.  I would invite you to do the same.

In the spirit of the writer of Lamentations, let us come before God, whose love never ceases, and whose faithfulness is great. It is not a controlling love, but a love that invites us to participate in the work of God in the world.

God of peace, 
You are ever faithful to your promises,
You are steadfast in your love.
Even in the midst of great tragedy, you are never far away from us.
We cry out to you, we release our fear, our sense of foreboding.
We commit ourselves to you and to your cause, the realm of God. 
We look at the world, we watch as nature unleashes its destructive force.
We understand that at one level, this is simply nature being nature.
But, we know that we must confess, that we have contributed to at least some of nature's fury.
We seek your forgiveness and your comfort.
We pray for all who are affected by hurricanes, floods, fires, earthquakes, 
famine, war, the threat of war. 
When all seems lost, we come before you, trusting in your steadfast love.
Amen.


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Confessing Faith as Disciples of Christ

Note: What follows is the bulk of a chapter of a book on Disciples theology that I had begun to write in 2009. I had been teaching a Theology 101 study at the church, and thought there was a need for something akin to Ronald Osborn's The Faith We Affirm. I still think this is true, and perhaps someday I'll complete the project.  For now, I'd like to share this word on confession of faith---with Disciples of Christ in mind.

****************

Theology may seem like a strange and esoteric idea. It may sound as if it is something highly trained, professional people would do, or at least those with an avocation to talking about things that have little to do with normal life. But, the fact is, theology should be very close to the hearts of every Christian, for if we think about and talk about God and the things of God, we’re doing theology.  It is, as Philip Clayton writes: “Theology therefore belongs to everyone who is drawn to Jesus and wants to figure out what it means to be identified with him in this immensely complex, twenty-first-century world.” [TransformingChristian Theology, 2-3.]

Theology, when done in faith is also, or can be, transformative.  The reason that this is so is that theology is a spiritual practice, which just like prayer or Bible reading is something that can and should be spiritually enriching.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Bread for the Journey - Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 16A


The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” 
Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?” And Moses said, “When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him—what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.” 
Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’” 10 And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. 11 The Lord spoke to Moses and said, 12 “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’” 
13 In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14 When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. 15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.

*******************

                Israel’s journey through the wilderness was no picnic. It would take time to move from slavery to freedom. Although Israel made it safely through the sea, and the Egyptian army was turned back, they were not home free. Led by Moses and his sister Miriam, they had sung and danced a song of triumphant praise to God, who had become their salvation (Ex. 15:1-21), but the excitement of the crossing of the sea gave way to the realities of wandering in the wilderness. As their stomachs began to growl, they started to complain to Moses and Aaron. Once again, they accused Moses and Aaron of leading them out into the desert to die. Why wander aimlessly in the desert, with nothing to eat, when the “fleshpots of Egypt” danced in their heads.  The known always seems better than the unknown, even if the known is not good. The Israelites had cried out to God for deliverance, but when deliverance seemed risky, they fell back on what they knew.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Forgiveness—Journey to Generosity - A Sermon for Pentecost 15A


Matthew 18:21-35

We pick up our journey to generosity on the road with Jesus. After Jesus gave the disciples a lesson on conflict resolution, Peter raises a question about forgiveness in the context of the church.  He asks: If someone in “the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” Is seven times enough? While that may seem generous to us, Jesus decided to raise the ante to seventy-seven times. Isn’t that a bit extreme? How is anybody going to keep track of that many offenses?

If we’re honest, we all keep a list of people whose offenses against us we would rather not forgive. Truth be told, we would like to take our revenge against them. But, if we follow Jesus’ word of wisdom here, that won’t happen. Vengeance is off the table. 

This morning we have a convergence of themes in the service. We have a word about forgiveness, a word about stewardship, and a word about peace. How might these three themes fit together? What do forgiveness, stewardship, and peace have to do with Jesus’ vision for the church and for the world?

Thursday, September 14, 2017

I Am an Evangelical - Of a Liberal Sort!

The word “evangelical” has taken on negative connotations in many circles. While it has traditionally been used (in the United States) to designate conservative Protestants who are Biblicist in their reading of the Bible (insists that the Bible is inerrant/infallible) and believe that one’s salvation is dependent on affirming Jesus as one’s savior and lord. In recent decades, it has come to designate persons of conservative political commitments, with strong focus on two social issues (abortion and gay marriage). Now, it is used to describe Protestant supporters of Donald Trump (the so-called 81% of White Evangelicals who are alleged to have supported his candidacy).  While it is true that many evangelicals are among Donald Trump’s most fervent supporters, I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with the development of this stereotypical view of evangelicalism. In my experience, evangelicalism, including white evangelicalism, is much more diverse politically and even theologically than the stereotype would allow.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Football Religion - Sightings (Martin Marty)

Football season is again with us. Since my baseball teams -- Giants and Tigers --are extraordinarily bad this year, I'm paying less attention to them than might be the case in better years, I can then turn my attention to the return of football. So far my Ducks are 2-0 and show promise of a return to previous heights and the local Lions are 1-0. But, as a Christian, should I be watching football? After all, this is a violent game and studies are showing that it poses long-term dangers to participants. On the other hand, I've been watching since I was a kid. I didn't play "real" football, but I did play flag football in college. In other words, I like football. But should I?  Well, Martin Marty returns from his one month hiatus to delve into the question (he's a fan as well, though my Ducks just beat his Cornhuskers!). Take a read and offer your thoughts on the future of football. 

                                                                                           
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Football Religion
By MARTIN E. MARTY   September 11, 2017
A wave goes through the crowd at a Nebraska Cornhuskers game | Photo Credit: Asten/Flickr (cc)
The Monday Sightings is back, after a hiatus occasioned not by any lack of topics or scenes on which to focus but by the academic calendar at the University of Chicago, from which post we do our scanning, skimming, and probing. Surveying the places where “religion” and “public life” come into confluence should not have been difficult in a season of catastrophes—hurricanes and politics and more—but we chose to coast past Labor Day by reflecting on a religio-politico-ethical phenomenon which raises itself to prominence early each September: Football, “American style.”

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Saved Through the Sea - Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 15A (Exodus)



19 The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. 20 It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And the cloud was there in the midst of the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night. 
21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. 22 The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. 23 The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. 24 At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. 25 He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.” 
26 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.” 27 So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. 28 The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. 29 But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. 
30 Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. 31 Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.


                **********************

                Let us not get caught up in debates as to whether the Israelites passed through the Red Sea or the Reed Sea or some other body of water. To get caught up in such a debate is to miss the point. The people of Israel fled those who would enslave them, and God provided a way of salvation. As with baptism, the journey through the sea is act of new creation.  It is through this journey that the people of Israel cease to be slaves. Of course, as the rest of Exodus reminds us, the mindset of slavery remained with them for a long time, which is why the two-week journey becomes a forty year one.
 

Monday, September 11, 2017

Vintage Saints and Sinners (Karen Wright Marsh) -- Review

VINTAGE SAINTS ANDSINNERS: 25 Christians Who Transformed My Faith. By Karen Wright Marsh. Foreword by Lauren Winner. Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2017. 215 pages.


If you were to write down twenty-five figures in Christian History who have impacted or transformed your faith, who would you put down on your list? They could be famous, but they needn’t be famous. You might consider them saints, but they don’t have to be perfect. In Vintage Saints and Sinners, Karen Wright Marsh tells who she would put on her list, as well as telling us why she did this. Her list includes some big names, like St. Augustine and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But there are other people on the list who might not be as famous, but who have lived lives that exemplify what it means to be Christian, people like Sophie Scholl and Mary Paik Lee. While not offering us complete biographies of her choices, she tells us why these figures have transformed her faith.

Marsh is the executive director and cofounder with her husband Charles of Theological Horizons. This is a university ministry focused on connecting advanced scholarship and faith. Founded in 1991, it is now centered at the University of Virginia, where Charles is a professor. There they founded Bonhoeffer House as a place for faculty and students to gather for meals, study, and conversation. This book is, in a sense, an expression of the vision of this ministry.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Gathering in the Name -- A Sermon for Pentecost 14A


Matthew 18:15-20

What does it mean to gather in the name of Jesus? What does it mean to say that all are welcome, and all means all? Are there no boundaries? No qualifications? No form of accountability? Are there protocols we should be aware of? Who decides what these protocols might be?   
As Disciples, we pride ourselves on our theological openness. We don’t have a creed. There are no theological grounds for excommunication. Instead of focusing on boundaries, we focus on our center, which is our common confession that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Even that confession allows for breadth of interpretation. But, does that really mean that anything and everything goes?

The word we’ve heard this morning from Matthew 18 is a challenging one. It’s also unique to Matthew’s Gospel. This suggests that there’s something afoot in Matthew’s community. Someone or some group is causing problems, and Matthew wants to set up a process to handle the problem before it gets out of hand. 

Friday, September 08, 2017

Theologians and Philosophers Using Social Media


I am a user of Social Media.  I use it for personal and "professional" reasons. In fact, in writing this blog post I'm participating in it. After I publish it, I will share news of the post on Facebook and Twitter, and everywhere else my blog shows up. With this morning's post I want to share news of a new book titled Theologians and Philosophers Using Social Media: Advice, Tips, and Testimonials, (SacraSage, 2017), edited by Thomas Jay Oord.  This is the second project Tom has instigated in recent months to which I have contributed an essay.

The book is composed of more than ninety chapters, each written by someone who is in some form a theologian or philosopher. These include people like Brian McLaren, Grace Ji-Sun Kim, James McGrath, Richard Beck, Tripp Fuller, Jory Michel, and more.  Each writes from within their own field. I am, of course, a hybrid sort. On a scholarly level, I write about church history and historical theology. At the same time, I'm a pastor of a church, and so I'm interested in more "practical" issues of religion. I've just been skimming the book, reading a few of the chapters. 

Tom Oord, in editing the book, asked us to respond to six questions, and these questions formed the backbone of each of the essays.  The questions dealt with the forms of social media we use, why we chose to use them, surprising discoveries, conceptual breakthroughs, time management (social media is addictive!), three recommendations to scholars. Below are the opening paragraphs of my essay. You'll have to get a copy of the book to read the rest, along with all the other contributions.

           We live in the social media age, as demonstrated by the President’s use of Twitter to “communicate” with the masses. I put communicate in quote marks, because there are questions as to the veracity of much that the President shares via Twitter. However, what his tweets illustrate is that in this new age, communication can be immediate and unfiltered. Not only that, but everyone seems to be getting on board the train. Where once scholars could share their ideas in monographs, lengthy articles, and conference papers (all of this still happens, of course), the lure of social media has begun to entice scholars to share their wares more broadly than their immediate colleagues. I count myself among those who have adopted a social media persona.
I engage this social media world as one who is by education and scholarly endeavor a historical theologian and church historian. I have published widely in my field of expertise, which is eighteenth century Anglicanism. I also serve as a pastor of a local congregation, which makes me a practical theologian as well as a historical theologian/church historian. Due to my position in the church, I face a different set of concerns and issues than I would if I were a tenure-track academic. I do not have to publish or perish. As a pastor, I must be a generalist, which may make my engagement with social media easier. After all, on Sunday morning my congregation isn’t interested in an in-depth analysis of Henry Dodwell’s rejection of the legacy of the English Reformation. However, I can bring to a wider audience insights I’ve learned from my scholarly work (even if not in a sermon).  With this introduction, I will try to address the connection of scholarship and social media. (p. 79).

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Acts - Belief (Willie Jennings) -- A Review

ACTS: Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. By Willie James Jennings. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017. Xvii + 289 pages.

Karl Barth's Romans commentary was not only theologically provocative it disrupted theological business as usual. While rooted in the study of the text, it was and is a theological masterpiece. While theologians have been known to write commentaries (think of Calvin), most of the biblical commentaries are written by specialists, who look closely at textual and historical matters. While this is valuable, it is beneficial to the church for those who are trained as theologians to take up entire books of the Bible and engage with the text in an extended manner. It is a blessing when publishers will offer commentary series in which theologians have been invited to do just this, write commentary on scripture. One of these series is published by Westminster John Knox Press under the series name: Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Among the most thoughtful and provocative contributions to the series that has been published to this point is the commentary on the Book of Acts written by Willie James Jennings.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Standing with Dreamers


Yesterday, as expected, the Trump Administration announced they were rescinding DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), the executive order of President Obama, issued in 2012, after Congress failed to pass the Dream Act. This program allows persons who arrived in the United states prior to 2007 and before their 16th birthday to apply for deferred action, allowing them to enroll in college, serve in military, get a work permit, and essentially live openly in the United States. Some 800,000 Dreamers applied and were granted this status. I don't know the merits of the case for or against DACA, but I do believe it was and is the right thing to do. Now that the President is rescinding the order, but giving a six month window before completely ending the program, Congress has a responsibility to do the right thing, and fix this problem. 

We are a diverse people, and that's a good thing. I am enriched because of our diversity. While I grew up in a fairly homogeneous community (Oregon is really white), I've spent most of my life living in much more diverse communities, from Southern California to South East Michigan. The city I live in is the most diverse in the state.  Some are documented, some are not. Like most immigrants the folks living here came either for economic reasons or because of dangers at home. As immigrants make their home here, they enrich our culture, create jobs, contribute to the community. Unfortunately, there is a Nativist minority in our country that makes a lot of noise, and is pushing against this diversity. This is not our best instinct. We can be better.

So, I stand here in support of the Dreamers. I want to see a more robust and thoughtful program created by Congress, sooner than later. Once we're done with this pressing issue, let's start having a conversation about immigration reform. Let's create a system that is fair and just, a system that enhances and enriches the life of our country. There are economic reasons to do this. But, there are also spiritual reasons to do this.

I appreciate the word offered yesterday by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, a word that was shared by James Martin, SJ on Facebook.  Here is the word:
Todays actions represent a heartbreaking moment in our history that shows the absence of mercy and good will, and a short-sighted vision for the future. DACA youth are woven into the fabric of our country and our Church, and are, by every social and humane measure, American youth. 
While I am not personally affected by this decision, our nation is. We are poorer today, because of this decision. These young adults contribute to the life of our communities, they are, in the words of the USCCB statement "woven into the fabric of our country." They might not at this point be members of my congregation, but they are members of Disciples churches. Some of them likely went to high school with my son in Santa Barbara. 

As a person of faith, who believes that the teachings of my faith call for the welcoming of the stranger, I stand with the Dreamers. I call on Congress to act, to do what is right and good. 



 Whether or not the program is

Monday, September 04, 2017

Liberation and the Blood of the Lamb -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 14A (Exodus 12)


Exodus 12:1-14 Common English Bible (CEB)

12 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, 2 “This month will be the first month; it will be the first month of the year for you. 3 Tell the whole Israelite community: On the tenth day of this month they must take a lamb for each household, a lamb per house. 4 If a household is too small for a lamb, it should share one with a neighbor nearby. You should divide the lamb in proportion to the number of people who will be eating it. 5 Your lamb should be a flawless year-old male. You may take it from the sheep or from the goats. 6 You should keep close watch over it until the fourteenth day of this month. At twilight on that day, the whole assembled Israelite community should slaughter their lambs. 7 They should take some of the blood and smear it on the two doorposts and on the beam over the door of the houses in which they are eating. 8 That same night they should eat the meat roasted over the fire. They should eat it along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. 9 Don’t eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over fire with its head, legs, and internal organs. 10 Don’t let any of it remain until morning, and burn any of it left over in the morning. 11 This is how you should eat it. You should be dressed, with your sandals on your feet and your walking stick in your hand. You should eat the meal in a hurry. It is the Passover of the Lord. 12 I’ll pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I’ll strike down every oldest child in the land of Egypt, both humans and animals. I’ll impose judgments on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. 13 The blood will be your sign on the houses where you live. Whenever I see the blood, I’ll pass over you. No plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. 
14 “This day will be a day of remembering for you. You will observe it as a festival to the Lord. You will observe it in every generation as a regulation for all time.
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                One of the central festivals in Judaism is Passover. It is a celebration of God’s liberation of the people from slavery in Egypt. This act of liberation did not come without shedding of blood. Families were commanded to slaughter a lamb, place its blood on the doorposts as a sign to the angel of death to Passover the house, and then they were to eat the feast, dressed for travel. Whatever was left over at the end of the meal was to be destroyed. Then, as a final word of instruction, the people of God are told to observe this festival of remembrance in every generation for all time.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

What’s With the Cross? A Sermon for Pentecost 13A


Matthew 16:21-28

Many years ago, as a teenager, we were visiting my aunt and uncle, who happen to be Jehovah’s Witnesses. I don’t remember how the conversation started, but my aunt asked me why I was wearing a cross? At least I think that’s what she asked me, before asking me if I would wear an electric chair around my neck? Now, there’s a long and involved story about how Jehovah’s Witnesses understand the cross, but my aunt did raise a good question. Since crosses are a popular form of jewelry even among non-Christians, what meaning does the cross have for us as Christians? What does it mean for us to have as the symbol of our faith an implement of execution?

Friday, September 01, 2017

The Desperate Citizenship of the Christian

Martin Luther spoke of two kingdoms, which at least in the way it has gotten worked out, allowed Christians to compartmentalize their two citizenships. It's easy to do. But it's easy to confuse the two, so that merge citizenship in the nation with citizenship in the realm of God. Thus, if you're a good American, you're a good Christian (or something like that). historically, there has often been a battle between church and state as to who will have the upper-hand in the partnership. We see this most famously in the ongoing dispute between Pope Gregory VII and the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV, in the 11th century. Both Pope and Emperor sought to depose the other. While Gregory seems to have gotten the upper hand, the conflict between powers didn't end there. 


I'm reading (and will review) Willie James Jennings Belief Commentary on Acts, and he speaks of Paul as the "citizen-disciple." The kind of citizenship Paul makes use of in his tangles with the law is, in Jennings view, a "desperate citizenship," which doesn't "take citizenship lightly, but presses it to its absolute limits to perform the good for the sake  of Jesus Christ." This is a different kind of citizenship from that of the elites, for whom "citizenship is only an embroidery to their existence. It only adds to their strength and aids the accomplishing of their desires." If I understand Jennings correctly, such citizenship serves one's own needs and desires, without any concern for others or for God's creation. (Jennings, Acts, p. 206)

In contrasting our heavenly citizenship with our earthly citizenship, Jennings makes this important point, that I think we might want to hear at this moment in time, when we can easily be tempted to align to closely with the powers at be (either on right or the left, or even in the center). He speaks of our "heavenly citizenship enabling us to "risk everything for the sake of the gospel, pressing the inner logics of every nation toward good ends for the sake of a suffering creation" (Acts, p. 225). It is here, I think that the premise I've argued for in Ultimate Allegiance comes into play. In that book I've suggested that the Lord's Prayer serves as a pledge of allegiance to the realm of God, which transcends our allegiance to nation and tribe. But that doesn't keep us from engagement in the world, but it does frame it differently. 

So, here is what Jennings writes, which that I think we should take heed of:
Our heavenly citizenship translates in the here and now into desperate citizenship in the fleeting realities of worldly politics. So while some work for the welfare of the empire, we work in empires for the welfare of God's creation. Christians can easily get this confused by forgetting that the ends of an empire are not our ends, its dream not our dream, and its circle of concerns always smaller than our concerns. Our citizenship should be characterized by an urgency not born of the needs of the nation, but the witness of God's redeeming love. [Jennings, Acts, p. 226-227].
For those of us who claim American citizenship, it's not "America First." It's the realm of God first, and if we pursue that end then love rather than the need for power will be our guide.  This is what means to exercise desperate citizenship.