A Plea to those Praying for Peace

8 01 2020

Peace

The events of the past several days have led many of my friends and colleagues to offer prayers for peace, and to encourage sisters and brothers in their respective faith communities to do the same.  Donald Trump’s ordered assassination of Qasem Soleimani has brought America to the brink of a war with an Iranian nation that is justifiably angry and understandably eager for revenge; and their lobbing of missiles into Iraq, striking two military bases with hundreds of American troops, is of grave concern to everyone. So it only seems appropriate that for the past 12 hours, faith leaders of every stripe have been calling people to prayer.  We’ve been told to pray for peace, to pray that cooler heads prevail, and to pray that our swords might be beaten into plowshares!

Sadly, we live in a world, and many of us are part of faith communities, that have taught us to believe that this is the extent of a faithful and effective prayer life.  And as a result, people of all faiths are quick to get down on their knees, bow their heads, and beg God to intervene in the affairs of the world.  We plead for an end to the violent actions of narcissistic nationalists, power-hungry political parties, and a bunch of maniacal and misled men.  We’ve been led to believe, at times even encouraged to believe, that prayer is little more than asking God to do what we think we are unable to do, or . . . to do what we are unwilling to do!  We put the task of maintaining and sustaining creation on the Creator, and completely abdicate our responsibility to build and grow a peaceful world.  We like to sing, “let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”  But in reality, we think that bringing peace to our world is God’s job.

For three years, most White Evangelicals, blinded by their anti-abortion cause, have failed to hold the American President, his administration, and the Republican Party accountable to the things of God.  For three years, too many Liberal Protestants have only silently opposed the actions of the American government; and fearing their own people, and believing the lie that when it comes to things like misogyny, racism, and homophobia, there are acceptable ‘purple’ positions, they have failed to speak truth to power.  And for three years, people like me have been guilted into believing that our strong opinions were nothing more than that – opinions; that our soapboxes had become too big, too all-consuming, and too annoying, and that instead we simply needed to ‘get over’ the 2016 election, and go back to preaching ‘the way we used to preach!’

So I ask, is it any wonder that the world today does not know peace?

Should we be praying for peace?  Of course we should!  But prayer is not about asking God to do what we are unwilling to do ourselves.  In fact prayer is not ultimately about asking God to do anything.  Prayer is about our putting ourselves in a place where we can become aware of the God’s movement and guidance in our lives, and in a position where we will be more open and receptive to the Spirit’s calling.   Prayer is about mindfully becoming conformed to the image of Jesus; and recognizing our responsibility as members of the risen Body of Christ in the world today, to actually become peacemakers.  And this means active resistance to that which is not of God.  Prayer is about having the courage to speak up and speak out when we see people behaving violently, and hatefully, and destructively.  It involves correcting those who would distort the teachings of the Prince of Peace.  It includes voting for people whose lives reflect the God we claim to serve.  It means working for justice: for where there is no justice, there can be no peace.  And prayer is about seeking wisdom, trusting that she will not be found in the teachings of empire, but in the practices of community.

Of course we should pray for peace.  But peace is something that only WE can build!  So my plea this day is that our prayers become more than our pleading with God to send it to our world.  My please is that each of us would recognize our responsibility, particularly as people of faith, to seek peace and to pursue it!  Because if we are unwilling to do that, and all that is involved, then our prayers will accomplish nothing, and they will mean . . . nothing!





“In those days . . .” things weren’t much different from “these days!”

26 12 2019

StarThey are likely some of the most familiar words in the Bible.  In chapter 2 of the Gospel according to Luke the author writes “in those days . . .” 

As the story goes, a census was to be taken that required everyone to go to their hometown.  This is what led Mary and Joseph to leave Nazareth in Galilee for the city of Bethlehem.  “And while they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child, (so) she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

“Those days” . . . were hard days, and for all kinds of reasons.  Augustus was the first Roman Emperor, reigning from 27 BCE until 14 CE, and under his leadership “those days” were full of oppression.  Oppression always accompanies empire!  In ’empire’ there is always an abundance of ego, abuse, and corruption.  And, in empire, there is always a scarcity of integrity,  honesty, and community.  The system will invariably exalt some, and seek to put others in their place.  It will honor and lift up some, and it will hold down and keep back others.  And always, at the heart of empire, is a corrupt and power-hungry leader, with a selfish and narcissistic lust for power.  This was true in Jesus’ day; and it is still true today.

That is why Jesus’ words and ministry remain so embarassingly relevant?  The world that shaped Jesus’ message 2000 years ago still exists today, and so Jesus still sheds a glaring light in the darkness of America’s political landscape!  And while many have chosen not to listen, the Spirit continues to move, and Jesus continues to be born in the lives of those whose hearts remain open.

Jesus came to proclaim a ‘kin’dom where those on the margins would be lifted up, and where the oppressed might be set free.  He came to be an advocate for a world where, in the words of the prophet Micah, people would strive to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.  He came to call people to a higher standard, where their light would shine in the darkness, and where their swords would be beaten into pruning hooks so that they might not know war any more.  And today, as much as ever, this is the message we need to hear.

Today, America is as far from God’s ‘kin’dom as it has ever been.  As opposed to being lifted up, those on the margins are being cast down.  Justice has been perverted and continues to favor the privileged, while at the same time it casts down women, people color, those who don’t fit into rigid gender norms, and people whose faith places them outside mainstream American Evangelicalism.  Mercy has been replaced by “law and order”; and walking in humility has given way to a race towards a selfish and narcissistic form of Christian nationalism.  Too often today, people appear proud to walk in darkness, and they wear their hatred for others as a red badge (or hat!) of honor.

This Christmas, we need to allow the stories of Jesus birth to transform our world yet again.  We need to hear the angel songs of joy which are for ALL people.  We need see the heavens calling the least among us to be the first to see the Savior.  And we need to embrace the wisdom that the wise men bring to the nativity, and not fear the  knowledge and truth they offer.  But we need to do more than remember the story of Jesus’ birth.  Today, we also need to remember the message of Jesus’ life.  We need to consider the way he lived, and allow the Light of God that radiated from his life, to radiate from ours as well.

“Those days,” are these days.  And America is in desperate need of another silent and holy night.  So come Lord Jesus come!  May it be with us, as it was with Mary . . . “according to God’s holy Word.”

Yes, come Lord Jesus come, and be born in us today.

 

 





My mother-in-law has Alzheimer’s, but it’s still Thanksgiving!

26 11 2019

BlogIt’s a terrible disease!  We all know that!  Watching Alzheimer’s slowly and insidiously destroy memories, and wipe away parts of a loved one’s past, is like . . . dropping your grandfather’s favorite coffee mug: the one you’ve been saving for decades, afraid to use out of fear of breaking it, and then when you finally do, that’s exactly what happens!  The mug shatters and is gone; and it’s departure takes all kinds of stories with it.  It snatches them right out of your hands, slowly perhaps, but over time removing every last shard of loving familiarity that for so long had found a home in the corner of your loved one’s heart.  Even if at times that mug was forgotten, unintentionally ignored because it was hidden in the back of the cupboard, you knew it was there, and found comfort in that knowledge.

As as pastor, I’ve been dealing with people suffering from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia for more than three decades; but now it has hit home, and things are very different this time.  My mother-in-law was diagnosed last spring, and the disease is moving quickly — too quickly!  She’s been visiting for over a week now, and my time with her has been both sad and joyful.  The worst thing is watching my father-in-law and my wife attempt to navigate the situation; but the joy continues.  And the joy is what I will remember about what may indeed be my mother-in-law’s last visit to the States.  Because while she is indeed sick, she has not stopped laughing.

No, she’s not been able to fully follow or participate in all of our conversations.  We’ve answered the same 4-5 questions, 14-15 times; and she has occasionally used words that my wife has considered to be slightly ‘inappropriate.’  She’s been more open and honest about the ‘wrongness’ of my taking her only daughter away from her 35 years ago; and clearly a few of the much-needed ‘filters’ that the rest of us have are gone.  But she is still laughing!  Amazingly, in spite of all that is going on in her head, she is still smiling, and she is still laughing . . . at herself, at me, and yes even at life!

My mother-in-law is happy.   She knows that she’s lived long and well!  At 82 she has been blessed with a wonderful husband, an amazing daughter (my wife), two loving sons, ten wonderful grandchildren, and five beautiful great-grandchildren.  Her faith continues to sustain her, and her love of singing and classical music continues to bring her joy.  And when she makes a mistake, or forgets something that she knows she should remember, she just laughs.  When we jokingly tell her to stop talking so we can watch the news, she just keeps on mumbling and muttering, and laughs at us.  And when we give her a hard time for something she has said or done, she smiles and laughs right along with us.  Oh, don’t get me wrong – she has her moments.  There are times when she, and those are around her, are clearly frustrated by all that comes with the disease; but laughter persists none-the-less!

People rarely die from Alzheimer’s, but there’s no doubt my mother-in-law is in the gloaming of life.  And I know already that in her death, she will model the same faith and joy that she modeled throughout her life.  She knows full well that dying is part of living; and her laughter is not the laughter of someone nervously trying to cover up what some might consider an embarrassing illness.  Her laughter is the laughter spoken of in Proverbs 31.  When she ‘laughs at the time to come,’ she is laughing out of joy.  Strength and dignity are indeed the clothing of my mother-in-law, and her laughter is born in the knowledge that whatever comes her way, she is being held in the arms of eternity.  She is being held in the arms of God, and there is absolutely nothing to fear!  So she, and we, remain grateful.

Thanksgiving is a time to give thanks.  And even in the midst of this dreadful disease, that is what we are doing.  We are giving thanks.  We are giving thanks for the time we have together.  We are giving thanks for the love of family.  And we are giving thanks for laughter that can sustain us even in the darkest of days.

 

 

 





Election Day 2019

6 11 2019

Wave

It was an embarrassing blog!

On November 6, 2016, the morning of Election Day, I wrote . . . “I believe in America!”

I was convinced that policies and politics aside, there was no way the American people were going to send Donald Trump to the White House.  I wrote about the “spirit of America . . .  a Spirit of grace, generosity, civility, and love.”  I wrote about how I believed that our nation had learned to “recognize, name, and eradicate the color, gender, and religious bias in our life together.” And I wrote about my conviction that we would “do the right thing.”

The words came easily: too easily, I have since discovered!  Like so much of human sin, when challenged and confronted it often moves underground.  It goes into hiding and works in secret.  And that is what had been happening in America.  Our sin – racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and patriarchy – which was so visible to some, was invisible to others.  People like me had naively thought such sins had been lamented and confessed, and that we were moving on.  We believed that most of our nation was hanging . . . no, swinging! . . . on the moral arch of universe, forcing it to bend, and to move cultures and societies closer to God’s reign in the world.

But oh how wrong we were.  Oh how wrong I was!  We did NOT do the right thing, and I am embarrassed by that blog.  With the election of Donald Trump, our sins were put on display for all the world to see; and today, three years later, those sins have been legitimized and nurtured.  Sadly, for far too many of us, that have become a condoned new sense of the normal.

But here in Virginia, yesterday, Election Day 2019, revealed that things may be changing.  It appears that perhaps our nation is learning a few things.  Maybe business people, whose primary goal is always going to be personal profit, are not the best leaders of nations; for the skills required to be a CEO, or a real estate mogul, are different than those required to run a government.  Maybe ‘outsiders’ can be sometimes be so ‘outside’ that they have no idea what they are doing; for not not all bureaucracy is bad, and sometimes it provides a structure for governing, and a cadre of people who know what needs to be done in order to keep the wheels of government moving forward.  Maybe character and integrity really do matter; because words, behaviors, and lifestyles reveal a great deal about what is in a person’s heart, and they can never be overlooked because of a particular political agenda.

Election Day 2018 and 2019 have offered me some hope.  My faith in the American people is beginning to be restored; and not just because people in my political party are winning elections.  Rather, at least for me, every election since 2016, and right on thru 2020, is about nothing and no one but Donald Trump!.  And Americans are finally beginning to reject him.  People are finally coming together; and not necessarily around gun, abortion, military, or even financial policies.  America is coming together to reject everything that the current administration represents: narcissism, greed, arrogance, ineptitude, vulgarity, and lies.

For three years many have been saying that people like me to need to ‘get over’ what happened three years ago: that people like me need to stop whining, and instead do a better job of listening to those with whom I disagree.  They have been crying out for a return to civility in our national discourse, and for the eradication of the polarization that is plaguing American politics.  And they have been quick to challenge the American people to embrace the ‘purple’ nature of our families, communities, and churches.

But I continue to believe that if being purple means accommodating the national sin that is Donald Trump, I will continue to avoid the color purple.   And if ‘red’ America is going to continue to avoid rejecting his ways, then I will continue to work to make blue waves a reality around this country.  I will do that as a husband to a gifted wife and as a father to a remarkable daughter.  I will do that as a friend to countless immigrants and people in the LGBTQ community.  I will do that as a citizen of the world and as a member of the great human family.  And I will do that as a follower of Jesus Christ, and a leader in the faith community.

Perhaps, contrary to what so many would have us believe, the Trump presidency will not leave America more divided than ever.  Perhaps his time in office will leave us more united than ever.  And perhaps that unity will be around the things that really matter . . . things like justice, equality, goodness, decency, and truth.  For in the end, those are the only things that ever can, or that ever will, make America truly great!

May that be our goal.  May that be our prayer.





Can we let Baby Jesus Grow Up?

30 10 2019

Cross MangerIt’s the end of October and retailers are already preparing for the bustling holiday season!  I’m still enjoying all the mini–tootsie rolls that come out for Halloween, and eagerly anticipating my annual left-over turkey, cranberry. and stuffing sandwich on the day after Thanksgiving.  But with visions of dollar signs dancing like sugarplums in their heads, businesses are already preparing for their most profitable time of the year.

Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not complaining.  I’m far from a Scrooge!  I love Christmas as much as anyone — probably more!  And Christmas music will be playing in more car long before many people throw out the rotting jack-o-lantern on their front porch.  But I’m continually amazed at the ways in which the rest of the world gets so wound up over the birth of a baby!

Sadly, for most people, this Holy Day is really more like a holly-day.  It’s a beautiful time of year; full of twinkling lights, the Spirit of giving, eggnog and homemade cookies, and everything else that December brings.  And even if the baby born in a manger is not the focus of the season for most people, the infant child is at least part of the holiday hoopla.  I know it is for those of us in the Church.  And rightly so!

Babies are cute and cuddly.  Their warm and fuzzy swaddling cloths almost make you want to climb into their cribs and fall asleep under the stars with them!  And the Christ-child is no exception.  Renaissance paintings and Fontanini nativity scenes have created a chubby little cherub who is worthy of our praise; with a golden halo, a facial expression revealing more awareness than is normal for a newborn baby, and in whose presence one is quickly reminded of a more divine than human audience.  We, like the wise men, are quick to offer our adoration.

Having just welcomed my first grandchild into the world a little over a year ago, I’m well aware of the power of babies.  I have been touched and moved in ways I never imagined!  But as wonderful as they are, babies don’t change the world.  And so it’s time for all of us to let Baby Jesus grow up?  Before he is even born, let’s remember that Jesus was a man, who altered the course of human history!

My tradition teaches that Jesus is the fullest and most complete expression of God in human form.  And this is not because he was born in a manger in Bethlehem, or because he died on a cross on Calvary.  His expression of God in human form was made a reality because of the way he lived . . . as an adult!  And too often we forget that.  We allow his birth and his death to overshadow his life.  Both Christmas and Easter are important markers in the life of the Church, but Jesus is much more than a baby to be worshipped or a savior to be resurrected!  Jesus is the Christ that we’re called to follow!

Adult Jesus stood up to injustice and challenged the oppressor.  He called the lowly to follow him and the proud to listen to him.  He sat at the tables of sinners and outcasts, and overthrew the tables of moneychangers in the temple.  He taught the poor to persevere and the religious to repent   He offered words of grace to the woman caught in the act of adultery and words of judgement to those ready to throw stones.  He blessed the meek and chastised the merciless.   He comforted the afflicted and he afflicted the comfortable.

Jesus’ expression of God in human form was all about the way he lived; and we who seek to follow him are called to walk in his footsteps.  His life, gives birth to our lives!  And his way, guides our way!  So it’s time to we let him grow up.  It’s time to move beyond the baby in a manger and instead focus on the adult in the market.  It’s time to move beyond the infant in the stable and instead focus on the rebel in the temple.  The Savior born on Christmas night grew up to to challenge systems and structures, empire and ecclesiology, oppression and injustice.  And while his incarnation announced that God was in the world; it was his life that changed the world!

For too many of us, the only Jesus we know is the baby born in the city of David . . . the baby wrapped in swaddling cloths . . . the baby laying in a manger.  We celebrate his birth year after year, but consciously and unconsciously we keep him in a perpetual state of infancy and never let him grow up.

This year, may that not be the case.  Let’s see beyond both the manger and the cross, and prepare to follow an adult.  For as cute as baby Jesus was, he didn’t change the world.  Adult-Jesus did!  And we who are his living body can do the same thing.  But only when we allow him to step out of the stable, and move towards the cross!

 

 





Sometimes, it’s the little things!

23 10 2019

Gratitude

Seeing the world through the eyes of a child has the capacity to change everything!

It had been a long week, and all I really wanted to do was hold the tiny hands of my granddaughter!  I wanted play peek-a-boo, read “Good Night Moon,” and squirt whipped cream into her tiny mouth.

Like so many of us, I too want to leave my mark on the world.  I want my life to count for something, and I want to make a difference . . . for God’s sake!  I want to model what it means for one spouse to love another spouse unconditionally.  I want to raise children who are passionate and COMpassionate, who aren’t afraid to dream and stand up for what is right, and who are responsible and healthy contributors to society.  I want to pastor people and serve the church as the constitution of my denominations says . . . “with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.”  I want my voice to be prophetic.  I want my heart to remain open.  And I never want my mind to stop growing.

But sometimes I get tired.  And so in those moments I need to stop and learn to put my agenda on the back burner for a while.  I need to put aside my goal of ushering in the reign of God all by myself! – and slow down.  I need to see the world through the eyes of my granddaughter, and return to some of the simple things in this life!  I need to go Butler’s Orchard and feed the goats!  I need to ride the carousel at the zoo.  And yes, I need to squirt whipped cream into my own mouth, and smile!

Whether running through a field holding the hand of someone they love, gazing out at a garden of sunflowers on a glorious October morning, or spotting a pumpkin patch from the back of an old red pickup, children have the capacity to change our perspective and offer us a healthier view of life.  They ground us, and remind us of the simple joys of life!  So when weeks become long, feet get tired, and spirits are low, it’s time to stop and see the world through the eyes of a child.  It’s time to appreciate the little things.  It’s time to breathe in the cool fall air, hear the rustle of the falling leaves, and notice the changing colors of the of trees.

Fall is the perfect time to see the world through the eyes of a child, and to appreciate the little things.  And today, that means worrying less about changing the world, and focusing instead on enjoying the world!





Race, Grace, and Warm Fuzzies

8 10 2019

Because I would never dare to presume to know what was in the heart of either Brandt Jean or Amber Guyger at the time of this embrace – the photo of which has gone viral – I’m going to be careful in making assumptions or calling others to model their behavior.  I have no desire to speak for people of color, presuming that my privilege has given me the wisdom to know how they should respond to a systemic form of American racism that continues to take the lives of too many young Black men.  And, as a pastor and person of faith, I in no way want to minimize the healing power of repentance and the transformative nature of forgiveness.  But having said all that, there is something about this photo that just doesn’t sit well with me.

Brandt knows that hating the police officer who killed his innocent, unarmed brother Botham . . . as he sat in his own apartment, watching TV, and enjoying a bowl of ice cream . . . will only harm his spirit and hurt his soul.  His remarks at the trial revealed a forgiving spirit and deep love of God.  And he made it clear that he wanted only the best for Amber, and that he hoped one day she would give her life to Christ.  Amber too revealed a distraught and tender spirit at the trial, tearfully apologizing for taking the life of a beloved brother and son.  Both she and her mother spoke mournfully about how the killing had so tragically ruined the lives of so many people.

So at first glance, it is easy to see why people were so powerfully moved by the photo!  But when set in the context of all that is going on in our nation today, and when interpreted in light of the Christian faith, things become far more complex.  And here’s why.

First, Amber is part of a culture in which systemic racism still rules the day; and throughout the trial she failed to acknowledge that.  She admitted that she made a mistake, and that she didn’t know she was in the wrong apartment until she had already pulled the trigger.  But she failed to acknowledge the role race had played in her sudden fear and overreaction to seeing a Black man sitting on what she thought was her sofa.  And she never apologized for that.  In fact she actually stated during the trial that she had fired to kill!  Because that’s what fear of another does.  And Amber’s fear was not the fear of an intruder!  It was the fear of a Black man.  And so she killed him.  Had Botham been White, the confusion over which apartment the officer was standing in would have likely become quickly apparent, laughter over her mistake would have ensued, and no shots would have ever been fired.  But Botham wasn’t White.  He was Black.  And so Amber made all kinds of false assumptions, and wound up committing murder.  Her racism was put on display for all the nation to see, and she never acknowledged that . . . not once, during the entire trial.

Second, Brandt appears to be part of a church that fails to see repentance and forgiveness as part of the larger reign of God in this world: a reign in which shalom – justice, wholeness, and rightness – are required to truly transform creation.  For as important as repentance and forgiveness are, without shalom, they are little more than a warm sentiment or a kind embrace!  Shalom is justice: and where there is no justice, there is no shalom.  There may be repentance, and even forgiveness, but they are only the first steps.  And if justice does not follow, shalom will never come, and the reign of God will cease to become a reality!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about “cheap grace” in his 1937 book, The Cost of Discipleship, and defined it as the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance.  I would add that it is also the seeking of peace without requiring justice.  For without justice and repentance, peace and forgiveness mean very little!

So Brandt may have forgiven Amber for killing his brother, but she has still not repented of her racism.  And Amber may have stumbled into the arms of a reconciling peace with the brother of the man she murdered, but there continues to be little justice for Brandt, and for millions of other people of color in America.  America’s version of White Supremacy is one that too many still refuse to acknowledge and confront.  And until we do, pictures like the one above will continue to go viral, and give well-meaning White folk ‘goose bumps.’  But nothing will change.  And people of color will continue to die.

America does not need pictures of Black people forgiving and making peace with White people in a hug.  Forgiveness and peace, without repentance and justice, are nothing more than warm fuzzies!