Holy faces make holy places

16 11 2018

I love the beach!  And anyone who knows me well, knows that.  My family and I have been visiting the Outer Banks since 1993, and at times it seems as though I have more memories of North Carolina’s barrier islands that there is sand on their beaches.

But I also like the mountains.  I have wonderful memories of camping in the Poconos in Eastern Pennsylvania, and of retreats in the hills of Montreat, North Carolina.  I similarly love the rolling plains of Denmark, as well as the tropical landscapes of Jamaica.  All of these places have afforded me rich opportunities to move deeper in my walk with God, and I am not being overly generous when I refer to them as holy places for me.

However as beautiful as those landscapes were, the sense of holiness I found there was likely less about the location, and more about the people with whom I visited these memorable spots. When I’m at the beach I’m with my family, who always give my days joy and my life meaning. When I was camping in the Poconos I was with my wife, who 33 years ago was just beginning to teach me about love and marriage. And when I was on retreat in Montreat I was with colleagues, friends, and sometimes complete strangers, and all of them taught me volumes about relationships, faith, and ministry. My time in Denmark brought me into contact with people who taught me about trusting God; and mission trips to Jamaica grew within me an appreciation for the plight of the poor and the needs of the oppressed. But of all the people who have touched my life over the years, few can measure up to a saint who still lives in York, PA.

Her name is Kathy Levey, and I hope this blog somehow makes it into her hands.  Kathy was on the search committee that called me to serve as the Associate Pastor for Youth and Family Ministries at First Presbyterian Church of York, and she was the face of God to me and my family for the 6 years that we were there.  She helped my wife and me to find our way in a community that has more than a few provincial tendencies; and to make a home in a church that was overwhelmingly large, and thus by nature somewhat impersonal.  She was a sounding board as I began to develop a ministry of my own, in the shadows of one who had been dearly loved and who broke many hearts when he left; and she was a counselor when my wife discovered that she had somehow gotten pregnant, in spite of our convictions that we were going to wait ‘at least five years.’  Kathy babysat at the drop of a hat, just so my wife and I could keep date nights and enjoy dinner and a movie; and with her husband Stu, had us over for holiday dinners when we had no family around and were all alone.

When I left York in the summer of 1992 to begin serving as the Senior Pastor of the largest Church in the Presbytery of Lake Erie, at the tender age of 31, Kathy gave me a plaque that you can still find in my office today. It reads, “The will of God will never lead you where the grace of God cannot keep you.”  And while my interpretation of the message is vastly different today than it was 26 years ago, the words are no less meaningful.

It is truly the grace of God that has kept me well throughout my life; and when I look at what I consider to be my life’s most holy places, I am quick to discover that what made them holy in the past, and what continues to make them holy today, is and are the people around me in those spaces . . . people like Kathy Levey.  This Thanksgiving, it is those people for whom I am especially grateful: high School teachers who molded and shaped my mind and soul; an amazing group of college friends from McDowell Hall, and my ‘brothers’ from AEPi; Godly women and men with whom I walked through seminary, especially the guys on the second floor of Hodge Hall; amazing youth groups at First Presbyterian Church of York, PA; the staffs of all four Churches I’ve served, particularly the secretaries and office administrators with whom I often worked most closely, and especially the pioneers from Stone House; all the small groups that my wife and I have been privileged to be part of over the years; and today; and my amazing colleagues in National Capital Presbytery.

This Thanksgiving I’m grateful for the grace that God has showered upon my life in all the places I’ve been led over the years, places made holy by those who inhabited them with me.  Thank you for YOUR holy face, and for the gift of countless holy spaces!  Happy Thanksgiving!

A blue Wednesday – in more ways than one!

7 11 2018

skies It’s Wednesday morning, the 7th of  November 2018, the day after the 2018 elections; and the sun is shining and the skies are blue.  The winners of yesterday’s contests are likely still celebrating, and the losers are likely asking ‘what’s next’?  Reporters are trying to interpret the results, journalists are attempting to ‘read the teabags’, and FOX continues to do what they always do — stoke the fires of outrage with half-truths and conspiracy theories.  Thus far, President Trump has been silent, but the words of the President matter little anymore.

For many people like me, today is a blue day.  I’m certainly grateful for the gains made by opponents of the Trump of Administration in the House of Representatives, but I’m not the least bit interested in gloating.  The ‘blue wave’ was more like an ‘indigo ripple’, and I don’t expect much of the divisive animosity or acrimonious incivility to disappear anytime soon.  Never the less, the first steps have been taken, and I’m grateful that our system of checks and balances is beginning to be restored.

But today is blue for another reason — and my heart remains extremely heavy.  It’s a blue Wednesday morning because the reality of this country’s polarized electorate is not going away.  If anything, it appears to be deepening, with the rifts causing a divide that will likely never be repaired.   Some may have seen this two years ago, with the election of Donald Trump; but I refused to acknowledge it back then.  I thought it was simply a phase; a small step backwards after having taken three steps forward.  I thought that if people just saw the ineptness of the current President – his hostile and rude way of doing ‘business’, and his selfish and unGodly way of leading out country – that everyone would get on board and that change would come.

But the results of  yesterday’s elections reveal that is simply not going to happen – at least not anytime soon.  Voices like mine appear too partisan, party politics remain too strong, the Christian base of the GOP remains too misled, and too many Trumpers remain too uninformed.  And while some of that may be hard to hear, truth cannot be denied.

So I’m blue today.  I realized this morning that perhaps for the very first time I’m getting a tiny taste of what my Black sisters and brothers have been feeling for years: anger over White peoples’ racism, rage over good peoples’ silence in the face of injustice, disbelief over a nation’s flawed reasoning, and confusion over a way of being Christian that is anything but.  I feel as though I’m standing on a cliff of hopelessness, ready to either fall . . . or jump!

As I look out my office window, the ‘big picture’ offers me a view that includes a bright blue sky.  But this morning, for my own sanity, I’m going to narrow my vision, and just focus on the beauty of the fall leaves that adorn the tree in the foreground.  On days like this, we need to focus on the little things: the tiny gains, the laughter amidst the tears, the Light in the darkness, the small joys that come in the morning.  Those are the only remedies for hopelessness, and the only things that can keep us going.

So wherever you are today: take heart, be at peace, and stay strong.  By all means keep resisting, for silence truly is consent.  But do not allow the blueness of the day to overwhelm you.  Do not allow it to either make haughty your soul or make damp your spirit.  There is still work to be done . . . hard, prophetic, reconciling, and transforming work.  Such is the work of ‘blue’ people.  It’s the work to which we have been called, and the work to which we have given our lives.  And we cannot afford to lose focus.

This Wednesday morning, the 7th of November 2018, the day after the elections, let’s feel whatever it is we need to feel, and then let’s take a deep breath and keep going.

The ‘no’ in normal!

3 11 2018

Not-NormalWhether one is a supporter of Donald Trump or not, the results of the 2016 election were a shock to almost everyone!  Few people thought he could defeat . . . anyone; and yet he did!  And he did it in spite of the fact that most Americans knew he was not a very moral or ethical human being.  The majority of people living in this country knew then what the entire world knows now: and that is that Donald Trump is inarticulate and uninformed. As we have heard from people on both sides of the aisle, he lacks the temperament required to be President of the United States. He uses language that is racist, misogynistic, derogatory, and inflammatory.  He calls people names like a third grader.  He is as narcissistic as an infant.  And he lies . . . all the time!  Donald Trump is simply not presidential; and if we’re honest with ourselves, we all know that!

But for the past two years, many people have come to accept the direction in which he has taken the Republican party.  They have accommodated the leader that the GOP base has coronated ‘king’, and whether for political or personal gain, the vast majority have either decided to get behind the President or to simply close their eyes and endure the unorthodox ways in which he seeking to lead our nation.  And sadly, far too many of these people have sought to console the rest of us by saying that we really don’t need to worry, because the political situation in which we find ourselves today is . . . yes! . . . normal.

As the story of Alexander Hamilton continues to entertain people around the country, we’ve been told to be thankful that at least political enemies are not having duels anymore!  We’ve been told that Donald Trump’s sexual affairs are really no different than those of either FDR or JFK; and that his lying about them is no different than Bill Clinton’s. We’ve been told that his self-serving and ‘crooked’ financial dealings are no worse than those of Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation. We’ve been told that the left’s outrage over the actions of the Trump administration is no different than the right’s outrage over many of the actions of the Obama administration; and that if we’d just learn to listen to, and talk with, the ‘other’ side, we’d understand! And we’ve been told that people’s incivility around political conversations has been a national reality for generations: since our founding, this country has always been divided, and the polarization we’re experiencing today is nothing new, but simply the result of having a two-party system!

But friends, nothing about Donald Trump, the current state of the Republican Party, or American politics in 2018 is normal.  In fact, it’s all very abnormal.  And with the 2018 elections before us, it is time for the country to boldly and decisively say “No” to his brand of politics.

The one truth that President Trump does routinely proclaim, is that no president in American history has been criticized by the press as harshly as he has. And on that, he is correct. But never before in our history has America had a president so untruthful; a president with so many conflicts of interest, both at home and abroad; a president with a past so fraught with behavior so lacking in integrity.  Never before has the ‘mob’ mentality – a violent way of thinking and behaving, that dominates circles on the right, and not the left – been condoned, encouraged, and embraced by the President of the United States.

So thank God for the press; because even some of this President’s closet advisers fail to speak truth, and continue to spout misleading spin born in ‘alternative’ facts and absurd conspiracy theories. Without the press, we’d be left with nothing more than the partisan entertainment found on FOX.

Trump’s blatant and unapologetic commitment to behaving in ways that cause injury and harm to our immigrant and transgender siblings needs to be stopped. And his colorist and sexist rants and tweets need to end. No president in the last 100 years has dared to assert that White Supremacists could be “good people”, and no president in my lifetime has ever called for his opponents to be locked up and his critics to be shut up. No! This is NOT normal. And next Tuesday, America can take the first step in making it all stop. We can elect a Congress that will begin to hold this President and his Administration accountable. And we can disempower the voices of those Americans whose values fail to accurately represent America.

No! This is not normal. And it’s time for a change.

Until this weekend, it had been well over a year since I last watched an episode of “House of Cards.” But after the first episode of the final season, I’ve been reminded of the theatrical evil of the Underwood Administration. When the series began, its entertainment value was born in what many viewers thought to be the actors’ compelling, but unrealistic behavior. However today, five years after its premier, and two years into the Trump administration, much of the series’ entertainment value has been lost . . . at least for me. Today, the lying, the deceiving, the blatant evil is simply all too real . . . too normal. America actually HAS a president who embraces the attitudes of the power-hungry Frank Underwood. And it’s frightening to experience.

So Americans – REAL Americans, Americans who truly love this country – have no choice but stand up on Tuesday and say no. Democrats AND Republicans who care about this nation, must go to the polls and reject the Trump agenda by saying no. This is NOT normal. And we cannot be gaslit into believing that it is. So vote! And together, let’s make today’s normal, abnormal again!