The Oscars’ rock and a hard place

28 03 2022

No! The events at last night’s Oscar ceremony do not need any more attention than they are already being given. It is likely that the media will be covering what happened for days, and so the last thing anyone needs is another White guy’s interpretation of what happened.

So I will try not to do that. But (and I realize that buts abound in my world!), I am compelled to write about what I am thinking and feeling this morning because my thoughts and feelings are not new. I’ve been thinking and feeling them for a while; and writing things down often helps me to better understand both myself, as well as my ever-changing role in the world around me. And this morning, I have come to two realizations!

First, life continually confronts us with competing values: with freedom comes responsibility; where there is no justice there can be no peace; and forgiveness does not mean acceptance. Sometimes these competing values can be summed up in a short, simple phrase: tough love, democratic socialism, or righteous anger. When it comes to our values, I don’t believe any of us can be singularly focused because life is too complex, and our choices are never merely black or white.

The second realization is that the events of last night, like so many events that have taken place in our country over the past few years, have forced me to boldly stand in the tension that results from these competing values. I can’t escape that, and this morning those competing values need to be both acknowledged, and celebrated!

In the Spirit of Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jesus himself, my first commitment is to non-violence. (And while I say this is my ‘first’ commitment, it does not come before any of my other commitments, but rather is merely the first one I am choosing to mention here.) I believe we are all called to live in non-violent ways, and I think I have strived to do that most of my life. I DID have fights with my siblings when I was growing up, and I DID spank my children when they were little; but outside of throwing a rock at Edmund Sullivan when I was in middle school, I can’t think of a time when I’ve ever been violent. This is how I believe Christ-followers are called to behave. And as Easter approaches, one can’t help but be reminded of how non-violence is the only way we can find victory over the grave, and the sole way to find life in the face of death. Non-violence may never be the guiding principle of a nation-state’s foreign policy, and in certain situations people may believe it to be justifiable for them to take violent action in order to bring about something good; but for me, violence only promotes violence. And this is true both on the world stage, when evil dictators invade other countries and kill innocent people, as well as on a Hollywood stage, when a celebrity seeks to defend the honor of someone they love. While I am not putting the dictator and the celebrity in the same category, both give evidence to my belief that violence is never the answer; and at the very least, other options should always be considered first!

But having said that, my second commitment, which is equally important, is to doing whatever I can to confront and dismantle racism our land. And at this point in our history, what this means is that as a well-educated, economically advantaged, White, Christian, heterosexual man, who has been ‘running the show’ for centuries, I need to simply sit down and be quiet! I’ve been calling the shots, making the rules, and telling people what to do and how to live for far too long. And this is particularly true when it comes to the actions and behavior of marginalized groups of people both here in America, and around the world. At this point in time, my thoughts and opinions on a given situation are neither required nor needed! People don’t need me to hold them accountable, pass judgement on their actions, preach to them about forgiveness, or make it appear as though I have some kind of moral high ground from which to declare the solutions to all of the world’s problems. For when it comes to the ‘right thing to do’ — history has no choice but to give people like me a failing grade. Which is why it’s time for other voices to be heard. It’s time for other people to offer words of counsel and advice. It’s time for other people, people not like me, to chart the course forward in order to bring about the healing, wholeness, and health that is so desperately needed today. I have nothing to say that isn’t already being said, and the world will survive without my opining.

Can I hang on to both of these values and commitments in light of all that is happening today? I believe I can. And I believe I must!

So now, at the risk of a blog-post like this denying everything I’ve just said, I will take my own advice, sit down, and keep my mouth shut!

Disciples, not members!

4 11 2021

Working the polls on Tuesday, I came to yet one more tragic and disheartening realization about the church and us people of faith. Messed up theology, leads to messed up politics. And it is not only destroying our church, but it is also destroying our nation!

Standing in the rain, with a woman from a different political party, who embraced a very different understanding of what it means to be a Christian, I realized yet again that a distorted understanding of the Gospel, will distort everything else in a person’s life. And it will lead to a politics that stands in startling contrast to the way of Jesus. This is why for the past five years any responsible Church, and any faithful pastor, has had no choice but to address the deterioration of American political landscape. Because more and more, we are seeing that Church people are responsible for the state of American politics today. And for that reason, Church leaders have an important role to play in getting us out of the mess in which we find ourselves.

Whether talking about Evangelicals or “Mainliners”, no one seems to know or understand the Gospel! Evangelicals can quote Scripture as well as anyone, but there is little theological grounding and even less historical context to their interpretations of the Bible. Intellectual credibility is anathema to their understanding of faith and a walk with God; and discipleship involves little more than going to Church every Sunday morning, and spending 45 minutes singing to Jesus and telling him how much they love him! And while some are actively engaged in small groups, that can and often do provide the disipleship that is so needed today, most are not.

Those of us in the smaller, denominational churches are no better off. The average Presbyterian likely knows more about our “Book of Order” than the Bible. Worship is a place where people want to be inspired, not taught! And Sunday School is routinely given up upon confirmation, which usually occurs at some point in high school. People in denominational churches are more inclined to serve on a church committee than to ever darken the doors of a Bible Study; and so while we boast of an educated clergy, we’d prefer that their education not be forced upon our people!

So where is discipleship taking place in the Church today?

The answer, is “no where!” And that is why we find ourselves living in a country that claims to be Christian, full of people who claim to be following Jesus, but with a grossly immature and inaccurate understanding of what any of it means! We have churches with lots of ‘members’, but with very few disciples. And it’s killing us! It’s killing the church. And it’s killing our nation.

My poll-worker friend kindly offered to let me stand with her under her bright red tent, but then proceeded to tell me that when it comes to abortion, women lose their right to chose when they ‘spread their legs.’ She recently moved to Northern Virginia from Kansas, and so in her sweet mid-western style, she assured me we had more in common than we realized; and then went on to tell me that surely we both had faith in a Jesus came to save us from our sin, whose teachings were all about ‘law and order’, and whose ministry had nothing at all to do with challenging the Roman Empire. She willingly acknowledged that Jesus was concerned with the refugee and the immigrant, but then went on to say that they needed to be legal, and they needed to have some kind of skill that would be of value to their new homeland. And finally, as the rain continued to fall, in an attempt to display the compassion and empathy of Christ, she affirmed her personal desire to care for the poor and the marginalized, but then touted that age-old nonsense that such caring is the responsibility of people, not the government . . . apparently forgetting that in a democracy, the people ARE the government.

At some point in her preaching to me, she indicated that she was an active member in a local Evangelical Presbyterian Church. But I saw little fruit of one who is a disciple of Jesus. And as I graciously listened, biting my tongue and grinding my teeth, I saw no grace or mercy, a great deal of arrogance and fear, and nothing that even comes close to the humility or love that is central to the Gospel.

It is no wonder so many people have given up on the church. The witness of far too many is nothing that even comes close to the way of Jesus. And the understanding that far too many church people have of Scripture, God, faith, and discipleship, continues to lead to thinking that is so racist, sexist, homophobic, self-serving, and nationalistic, that is nothing that even remotely resembles the life of the one we call Savior.

So pastors, and churches: we have a great deal of work to do! Our people are destroying our witness in the world and tearing apart our our nation. And we bear a great deal of responsibility for this state of affairs. So we had better start doing a better job of teaching our people how to more carefully study what the Bible says; and then giving them the tools needed to interpret it, and to apply it to their lives. And we need stop being afraid to raise these issues in our preaching.

Our calling is to grow followers of the living God. Our responsibility is to cultivate ambassadors of the Gospel. And our mandate is make disciples, not members! And anything less, is anything but, ministry!

Lessons from a Pandemic

7 04 2021

With the passing of the one year anniversary of the ‘closing down of America’ due to COVID-19, it would do us well consider all that we have learned over the past 13 months. Because sadly, much of it is not good!

First, in case anyone didn’t already know this, we Americans are a selfish people! Not everyone of course; but far too many. Whiners everywhere like to proclaim that they’re all about freedom, but the freedom they espouse is little more than the freedom to do what’s good for them. Everything from refusing to wear a mask, to demanding that schools open up sooner rather than later, and before appropriate safety protocols have been put in place . . . such attitudes are all about what’s best for them. And over time, their selfish rants have become tiring and offensive. No one enjoys physical distancing. We all want to be able to go out to dinner again. And no one is enjoys living in a society that has closed down. But we make the sacrifice because we care about one another, and people’s refusal to acknowledge this is nothing less than selfish!

A second thing we’ve learned is that we are far too opinionated. And even when our ‘opinions’ are proved wrong, we refuse to capitulate! Who would have thought that Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Forest Gump operated on the same wave length! “Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice . . . (because) stupid is as stupid does!” We all have a right to think and believe whatever we chose. But facts are facts, regardless of our opinions! And so Carl Sagan adds his voice to the voices of all those who would remind us that our opinions must always be tempered by reality. “The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what’s true.”

Third, the pandemic has taught us that slowing down can allow us to take a more critical look at our world, so that we might see things that we’ve overlooked for way too long. The eyes of a growing number of White people have been opened to the White Supremacy and racism that have plagued our nation for generations. The economic disparities inherent in capitalism are suddenly glowing in the light of COVID-19, and the lack of opportunity for those living in poverty is being magnified for all to see. And American Exceptionalism and Christian Nationalism are exposing an arrogance to which far too many of us have closed our eyes for far too long. More and more, the label ‘ugly American’ is looking acutely accurate.

And finally, the pandemic has forced all of us to accept what has been true for decades — and that is that the world has changed. Technology is here to stay; and rather than resisting it, we need to learn how to better harness it and employ it for the greater good. Institutions, particularly the Church, must redefine themselves in order to better meet the changing needs of our society. And businesses and organizations must refrain from providing services that are no longer wanted, and stop answering questions that are no longer being asked. It would do us well to carefully, and non-defensively, find ways to address the sins of our republic, but in ways that will rebuild it without completely destroying it.

As has been said in countless setting these days — the world will never return to the way things used to be. We will never go back to what was, and there will be no return to normal. Rather, we will create ‘new’ normal, guided not by a desire to recreate our memories of the world that was, but by a vision of the world as it should be. Let’s build a nation that is truly committed to the common good, where liberty and justice for ALL is not just a motto but a mandate, and where we all have the courage to unlearn all the wrongs that we have held onto for so long. Let’s learn the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic; and in the spirit of this Easter season, discover again that the old is finished and gone and now is the time to build something new.

Christian Nationalism – A Contradiction of Terms

23 03 2021

During the terroristic attack on our nation’s Capitol back in January, at least one of the insurrectionists was seen carrying a sign that read “Jesus saves.” And for many of us who witnessed the attack on national tv, it was that distorted display of the Christian faith that led us to take a long hard look at this thing called “Christian Nationalism.”

Christian Nationalism is a form of patriotism that claims Christianity as it’s source! It is rooted in the belief that there is an inextricable link between an allegiance to Jesus, and an allegiance to America.  But as much as we all feel an allegiance to our country, and as much as we all love this land called America, we can never allow ourselves to be blindly led to believe that our, or any, nation has been Christened as the arm of God in this world! Because any and every form of this kind of religious nationalism – which will always view actions to defend a state as something blessed by God – will invariably lead people to a form of radicalization that is void of the characteristic that is central to all world’s religions: namely, love!

History has taught us nothing, if it has not taught us this. Consider the admirable evangelistic zeal of the Church in the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries.  At first glance, we see signs of great spiritual devotion. But in the end, that zeal, which was just as much about seeking to expand a waning Roman Empire as sharing Jesus with those who did not know him, led to the evil known as the crusades.  People of other lands and of other faiths were tortured and killed unless they professed a faith in Jesus; and it was all because of a nationalism that distorted a peoples’ faith by vanquishing it of love. 

Similarly, we can celebrate the Christian faith of many of our nation’s founders, and their desire to practice that faith freely, in a new land.  But when they landed in Jamestown back in 1607, they brought more than just a desire to freely live out their individual beliefs. My family lived less than a mile from Jamestown Settlement before moving to Alexandria in 2013; and we celebrated the 400th anniversary of that landing as much as anyone.  But the faith that those founders sought to practice had been warped by nationalistic ambitions which would eventually lead them to build a society that was void of the love that Jesus calls us to have for all people. Thus a nation was born that would oppress the land’s native people and that would enslaved of millions of black and brown bodies for generations. And all the while we would continue to think of our ourselves as a city set on a hill, and a beacon of Christ for all the world to see!

Further, some might go so far as to say that the Roman Church’s statement on gay marriage released this past week, is also so void of Christ’s love that is must be challenged and condemned. And while the motivation of Pope Francis may be less nationalistic than my first two examples, there is never the less an institutional commitment to Rome that continues to blind adherents to one of the major branches of the Christian Church, to Christ’s call to love those on the margins of our society.         

And how else does one understand the violence being perpetrated on the AAPI community today? . . . violence that has risen 149% since people began calling the COVID-19 pandemic the ‘China virus,’ or ‘Kung flu?’ Surely it is because of peoples’ twisted understanding of what it means to be an American, as well as a neglect of the Gospel value which calls us to let the world know that we are Christ’s disciples by our love for one another.

The love that we see in Jesus, as well as the love that Paul wrote about in the 13th chapter of 1st Corinthians, point to one of the central disciplines of our faith: namely, Christ’s call to love one another! And when that discipline is absent, evil wins!  Which is why so many pastors have recently signed a statement rejecting Christian Nationalism. We sought to make it clear that . . . “just as Muslim leaders felt the need to denounce a distorted, violent version of their faith (after 9/11), we feel the urgent need to denounce this violent mutation of OUR faith (today)!”

Nowhere is there a clearer sign of ungodliness, than in the rise of Christian Nationalism in America. And it’s all because of the absence of Godly love!  So like any movement within a society or the Church that is void of love, it needs to be rejected, and denounced.

Voltaire once said that “those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”  I would add that faith without love is the height of absurdity, and when we fail to see that, and when we allow people in the Church to neglect the call to love as Jesus loved, atrocities will only continue.     

It is impossible to be a Christian, and a nationalist. Our allegiance is to one or the other. So we have a choice to make, and as for me and my house . . . well . . . you know the rest!

The Songs of Caged Birds

2 03 2021

At our poetry discussion this past Sunday – where a group from Mt. Vernon Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, VA, joined with siblings at Faith Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC, to discuss Maya Angelou’s poem “Caged Bird” – a great deal of time was spent considering the two different versions of Christianity that are being espoused in our nation today.  And there was almost unanimous agreement that they are not just different, but at times they appear to be diametrically opposed to one another. 

The version many of us are striving to embrace is the one with roots firmly planted in this season of Lent.  It proclaims a Gospel overflowing with sacrificial love: one that resists violence, one that is willing to surrender power in order to reclaim power; and one that is seeking to stand over and against the religious and political elites of the day, to instead side with the oppressed and the marginalized. It is a version of the Gospel that is most reflective of the life of Jesus, and it is one that has itself, been pushed to the sidelines of America’s Christian landscape.

The other version? . . . well, the other version is all about supremacy, nationalism, and a skewed understanding of greatness that can only stand in direct opposition to the way of Jesus.  It is a vacuous version of the Christian faith; and one that many are fleeing, in spite of the fact that it has become so viciously vocal. It’s leaders dominate the airwaves, and while they claim to speak on behalf of ‘real’ Christians, they speak for no one but themselves, their ‘golden calves’, and the idolatrous empires that they have sought to create.

In her poem, Angelou borrows the image of a caged bird from Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy”, and it is an image that would become central to her 1969 autobiography “I know why the caged bird sings.” Today, it continues to offer profound and powerful imagery for anyone seeking to explore the racism that continues to imprison people of color in America. Wings clipped, feet tied, and horrifically restrained behind bars of rage, people of color continue to sing, “with a fearful trill, of things unknown, but longed for still.” Their songs are songs of freedom and liberation; and while free birds spend time seeking to ‘claim the sky’ and ‘name it as our own’, the songs of the caged bird echo throughout our history.

Several of the Black participants in our discussion wondered if we White people have ever actually listened to the songs of America’s ‘caged birds.’ Because while many of us are quick to say ‘of course we have’; it doesn’t seem that way. And for people of color, it doesn’t feel that way. Which is likely why my thoughts immediately went to the movie “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” starring Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis. For there we see the incredible exploitation of the songs of our Black siblings. And we in the Church have been the most exploitive. For indeed, while we’ve heard the songs, we’ve never really listened.

How many of our congregations have just moved through Black History Month and enjoyed all the religious ‘spirituals’ that come with it? Choirs spent hours preparing “Precious Lord Take my Hand”, soloists crooned the haunting words of “Deep River”, and congregations enthusiastically belted out “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” But did we really listened to the words of these songs? Did we hear the messages being proclaimed? Or were they little more than dignified accoutrements to our religious forms of spiritual entertainment?

Frederick Douglas once said that slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. In other words, caged birds sing because that is all that they are free to do. Their songs are full of grief, pain, longing, anger, and even rage. And for generations, we White people have gathered in auditoriums and concert halls, and done nothing but be entertained by their songs. We wanted Marvin Gaye to sing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” but not “What’s Going On?” We wanted Billie Holiday to sing “All of Me”, but not “Strange Fruit.”

So it was a fair question: have we White people ever really listened to the songs of the caged bird? Do we know that we live in a nation of cages? And are we willing to accept responsibility for changing things? Having built the cages, are we praying that God might forgive us. That we might open their doors, are we praying for God to empower us? And for the strength to destroy them, are we praying for God to embolden us? They are important questions for ALL White people, but especially for White people who claim to be following Jesus. And if these are not the questions being appropriate and accurately answered in the version of Christianity that we have embraced, then something is terribly wrong.

In his book “The Color of Compromise”, Jamar Tisby writes that in the early 20th century, as many as 40,000 American pastors were members of the KKK. He tells the story of the lynching of Luther and Mary Holbert in February 1904 . . . “on a Sunday afternoon, after worship, so a large crowd could gather.” Like the songs of the caged bird, lynching too, was a form of entertainment for supposed Christ-followers. After gathering in their solemn religious assemblies – where they remembered a man lynched on a cross . . . by a fearful and powerful mob . . . intent on seeking a flawed form of justice . . . and attempting to silence a message of love and grace for all people – after worshipping the One who created all people, in all of our glorious diversity, members of the Church of Jesus Christ gathered in the town square to lynch again. Men, women, and even children, were hung; and just as in Jesus’ day, it was all in an attempt to maintain a distorted sense of justice, and to silence any attempt to change the oppressive songs of the status quo.

To modify the words of the renown civil rights activist Fred Hampton, “you can cage revolutionaries, but you can’t cage a revolution!” And the version of American Christianity that is preached and promoted today must be revolutionary! We White people must be willing to hear the words of those crying out for justice and righteousness; and our faith must not only include the songs of those who have been ‘caged’ for way too long, but their songs must become our songs. There is no place in our assemblies for songs that in any way promote White supremacy, Christian nationalism, or any notion of greatness that in any way, figuratively or literally, ‘encages’ those who are not like us . . . ‘nasty’ birds, immigrant birds, Black or Brown birds. Any anyone promoting “America first” needs to hear Jesus’ reminder that in God’s coming kindom, “the first will be last and the last will be first!”

Regardless of what we may think we see today, there is only one accurate version of Christianity. And the other is just an imposter – wrapped in the American flag, holding a Bible that has never been read, and exalting a golden calf that should be an affront to anyone claiming to have invited Jesus into their heart.

We White Christ-followers need to listen to the songs of the caged bird. They are songs that have been sung for generations, but too many of us have not been listening. And when we finally hear them, we need to start singing along. We need to add our voices in harmony with theirs; and we need to get to work, so that God’s kindom might indeed come . . . not in a tomorrow understood to be some place in a distant heaven, but rather in this life . . . here . . . and now!

How should we then live?

2 02 2021

It was sitting in the “to read” section of my bookshelves for years, yet for some reason I never got around to picking it up. And while I donated it, unread, to a local used book store when I moved eight years ago, the title is one that remains stuck in my head still today. I might even say that it ‘haunts’ me; and I choose that word because the way I see so many people living today does, in fact, haunt me.

Evil is the only word to accurate;y describe the actions of White Christian Nationalists today: those who have been rightly labeled ‘homegrown terrorists,’ and who have been declared a greater threat to America’s national security than anyone or anything else. We should be haunted by such people! What kind of faith leads to the kind of behavior that was displayed on January 6th, when with “Jesus Saves” signs in hand, a seditious mob, full of professing Christians, rioted in and looted our nation’s Capitol? Surely, it is not too harsh to say ‘only an evil one!’ Racism is their unifying ideology, and their desire for this nation is nothing less than a return to what they consider to be White, Christian, heterosexual norms. And anyone who would dare stray from those norms is considered to be unAmerican.

And what about the misinformation that such people spread: completely incapable of even ‘speaking the truth,’ let alone doing so ‘in love’? While people always have and always will interpret data and science differently, rejecting and denying them for one’s own political power grab and personal gain, is nothing short of sinful. That too should haunt us. Because while exposure to a diversity of opinion is actually one of the things that makes us stronger, both individually and as a nation; facts are still facts! And when people lose their grasp of truth, and when large segments of the population knowingly perpetuate misinformation and disinformation, evil is left to reign.

But above all, nothing should haunt us more than a religion or a patriotism that is rooted and grounded in cruelty and coldness! It’s not just a lack of kindness and compassion that we see in Christian Nationalists today, but we continue to witness attitudes and actions that are blatantly hurtful and hateful, vindictive and violent. Such behavior has become an acceptable norm, rather than a condemnable exception; and it not only flies in the face of Jesus’ life, but it moves us and our society further and further from anything that might come close to resembling the kindom proclaimed by the Christ.

So . . . “how should we then live?”

Is that really a hard question to answer? Do we really need a book to tell us?

I certainly don’t want to be too simplistic, or in any way minimize the wisdom of Francis Schaeffer. But it seems to me that if we just look to Jesus, the answer to this question will be quite clear.

First, we should live in ways that are boldly and intentionally anti-racist: that resist and push back against ways of being that perpetuate systemic and institutionalized forms of harmful discrimination towards people based upon the color of their skin. Second, we should live in ways that are honest and truthful, and that promote authenticity in our relations with one another. And finally, we should live in ways that show kindness and compassion to everyone – even those we may not like or those who we think may think may not deserve it!

It’s really not all that complicated. ‘How should we then live’ is one of the easier questions that life poses. And frankly I think most of us know full well how we are to live. The bigger question is do we have the courage to do so! Do we have the wisdom and strength to be a people striving to live anti-racist lives; always seeking truth, and speaking it to power; and doing it all with the love of Jesus burning in our hearts? Do we have a faith that will allow us to put down our books, and to live the way Jesus did?

I hope so.

Schaeffer remains one of the intellectual giants of American Evangelicalism, and his books have become classic bestsellers. But if we have to make a choice between reading about the Christian life, or living the Christian life, dare I suggest we donate our books and start living. Because living like Jesus is the only thing that has the capacity to transform this world. And that, is how we should live!

It’s Inauguration Day America – Happy Easter!

20 01 2021

Some might think it odd for a pastor’s favorite Easter song to come from the likes of Nina Simon and Michael Bublé. But for me, nothing communicates the new life that Jesus brings to our lives and to our world like “Feelin’ Good.” Written in 1964 for a British musical, the song lifts up images from creation, and sentiments of the heart, that ring poignantly true to my understanding of resurrection. And today, on the inauguration of our nation’s 46th president, my thoughts are being drawn to this important theological concept.

Birds flying high, you know how I feel
Sun in the sky, you know how I feel
Breeze driftin’ on by, you know how I feel

Regardless of how one feels or what one thinks about the past four years, today marks the beginning of something new. And the newness that we celebrate today is nothing short of Easter-like. Like the tomb and the grave that Christ-followers remember on Good Friday – the bleakness and hopelessness of yesterday, the pain and the grief of the past – this day, all of that is forced to step aside so that morning might come to America. As the sun rises on our nation’s capitol, which two weeks ago was full of violence and evil, today we can open our eyes to a bright new day, full of potential and possibilities.

Fish in the sea, you know how I feel
River running free, you know how I feel
Blossom on the tree, you know how I feel

On the outside, the world may not feel as though much as changed. Racism will continue to deny America’s claim of ensuring liberty and justice for all; and sexism will continue to hold back and hold down more than half of the US population. The rich will continue to get richer, while the poor will continue to be marginalized and thus remain powerless in the face of an idolized and idealized capitalism. And democracy will continue to be threatened by the misinformed, the undereducated, and those whose lives are controlled by fear. But, even with all of our imperfections, America remains ripe for transformation. New life is waiting for anyone and everyone willing to reach out, grab hold of it, and begin to live into the Spirit’s promised ‘heaven on earth.’

Stars when you shine, you know how I feel
Scent of the pine, you know how I feel
Oh, freedom is mine, and I know how I feel

No! Our trust is never put in human rulers or earthly kindoms! The empires of this world and the leaders they create are never the well-spring of our hope nor the birthplace of our joy. Never-the-less, we stand firm on the words of the Psalmist: “Blessed are those who reject the path of violence, who refuse to associate with criminals, or who even sit with people who belittle others.” Presidents and prime ministers, kings and queens can either resist God’s work in the world, or they partner with the Spirit to bring about a better tomorrow. And today, we trust the later to once again become a realty in this nation that we love.

So Happy Easter America. I know it’s only January, but he’s still risen. It’s a new dawn. It’s a new day. It’s a new life for me.

And I’m feeling good!

Glenda is wrong!

8 01 2021

With the clear and decisive election of Joe Biden in the 2020 election, I had been hoping that I would never again have to type the name of “45” in any of my blogs! But as with anything-Trump, such hope-filled dreams always end in a frightening scene from your worst nightmare. And so today, less than two weeks before the inaugurations of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, we are still being forced to deal with a petulant, infantile narcissist: pouting over his defeat, perpetuating lies and conspiracy theories, and perpetrating seditious and tyrannical behavior that will only further mar his legacy of deceit and deception.

Like Glenda, the good witch from “The Wizard of Oz”, I want to simply say, “Be gone, you have no power here!” But while Trump, and Trump’s power, will be severely limited once he leaves office later this month; “Trumpers” and “Trumpism” will be around for a long time, and their power will be long-lasting. There are still 70 million Americans – just over 1/5 of our population – who fail to see the evil they encourage. There are still far too many radical, right-wing extremists in Congress who stand, not for, but against the very ideals that have the potential to make America both good, and great! And there are still far too many Republicans who remain whimpishly silent in the face of this President’s assault on Democracy and the very fabric of American society. But most tragically, there are still far too many White Churches, full of the people most responsible for the election of Donald Trump and for the validation of his racist worldview, that aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. For while their unwavering support for the actions of this administration have only further shortened their already a declining life-span, the death of American “Christianity” is still a long way off. And so the power of the White Church will continue to drag down American society.

Theologians and sociologists will likely study this phenomenon for generations to come, but I am confident that one of their conclusions will be that clergy need to shoulder much of the blame for the events of the past four years. For we have not only permitted the promulgation of a distorted version of the Gospel, but we have perpetuated it, and for generations. WE are the ones responsible for the state of the American Church today. And we are the ones who have made the Trump presidency possible. And therefore WE are the ones who need to be leading the charge for change.

But . . . that charge, must be more than a call to pray!

Like the disingenuous words of so many in the current administration, who finally, after the White Terrorism of this past Tuesday, terrorism that resulted in the desecration of the US Capitol, dared to condemn the actions of this President, the call to prayer by some of America’s clergy is too little too late. Pastors and preachers, who for the past four years have had nothing to say about the actions of this administration, should continue to remain silent, for they have lost the right to speak up now.

If over the past four years we have not preached on sermon on the politics of Jesus; if we have not led a Bible Study on the treatment of immigrants and refugees; if we have not done a Children’s Sermon on kindness and compassion, bulling and name-calling, or lying and telling the truth; if we have not sent a ‘get-out-the-vote’ postcard to a resident of Georgia, or attended a rally with a member of our congregation, or protested beside a person of color; if we have not read a book on racism or White privilege . . . if all we have done is written and read beautifully crafted prayers, imploring God to bring about the Divine will for creation, then such a misguided understanding of prayer disqualifies us from being able to call people to it! We have no right to speak up now. And something as simplistic as a call to prayer only harms our witness, as well as the witness of people of faith everywhere!

Embracing the misguided belief that politics does not belong in the Church, or that Jesus never challenged the theology of empire, demands that we reconsider our understanding of the Gospel. And allowing our fear of offending a certain segment of our congregation, or valuing ‘niceness’ over the promotion of Christ-likeness, demands that we reexamine our calling.

Like the Wizard of Oz, God has given us minds so that we can think, hearts so that we can love, and courage so that we can face the evils of our day. To America’s clergy I say the time for change is here. With a new administration comes a definite shift in power. But the power of White Supremacists and Christian Nationalists, the power of violent racists and right-wing extremists, the power of Trumpers and Trumpism remains. Fortunately, while Glenda is wrong and evil continues to have a great deal of power, the power of the Gospel is greater. And we who dare to preach the Gospel need to carefully steward our gifts, channeling the power of the Spirit for the glory of God.

Over the past four years, White Evangelicalism has signed its own death warrant. Thankfully! So now, we Whites who are left in the Church need to stand with our BIPOC siblings in the faith community, and work with them to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. Following their lead, we need to work together to dismantle racism and eradicate White privilege; and as one body, the Body of the risen Christ, we need to be bold in our speaking truth to power. In the power of the Spirit, a power that transcends all other power, we need to strive to build a world where God’s will is indeed done . . . on earth as in heaven. For only then will be able to look into the eyes of the evil that we saw on Tuesday and say, “Be gone. You have no power here!”

The Church isn’t closed this Christmas!

23 12 2020

For more than nine months now countless businesses, offices, restaurants, and schools have been forced to close their doors. Adults have been working from make-shift home-offices set up on dining rooms tables, and children have been going to school in their bedrooms, at newly-made study cubicles quickly thrown together by desperate parents. For a variety of reasons, most of which are appropriate and acceptable, life as we know it has been dramatically altered: all in an attempt to accommodate measures sought to ensure the health and safety of the American people. The Coronavirus pandemic has literally shut down communities, and its impact on our society will be felt for years to come

But let’s be clear, the Church is not closed this Christmas. In fact it’s never been closed. Most of our congregations have been asked not to gather together for worship in large numbers; but we’ve not been ‘shut-down’ as some would have us believe. The Church, and worship for that matter, are so much more than what happens in our buildings on Sunday mornings and Christmas Eve. Which is why throughout 2020, the ministries of so many churches have not just continued uninterrupted, but in many cases have grown and developed to become more than they were pre-COVID-19. And while most of the Presbyterian pastors and Presbyterian Churches that I know understand this, many Christian congregations do not! So it’s important for us to be clear about a few things.

First, congregations that have not worshipped in-person for the past nine months are not being denied their constitutional rights, nor are they being in any way oppressed by the government. Most Churches have chosen not to engage in any activities that might put their people at risk. We know that worship is how we live our lives Monday thru Saturday, and not just from 11:00 – 12:00 on Sunday mornings or at midnight on Christmas Eve. So while gathering together for praise and prayer is part of worship, it is indeed just that – part of worship. And although that part of worship can be extremely meaningful, we have made the conscious and intentional choice to put that part of worship on hold until it is safe.

Second, because the Sunday morning experience is just part of a congregation’s worship life, we have chosen to focus on other ways of worshipping God, ways that are actually more faithful to the mandates of Scripture and more reflective of the teachings of Jesus. The prophet Isaiah makes it clear that the fast God desires is “to loose the bonds of injustice, to share our bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into our homes, and to clothe the naked.” THIS is our worship; and these are the activities in which countless congregations have been engaged throughout 2020. When it comes to all of our religious and denominational rites and rituals that come with most Sunday morning gatherings, God could not be less impressed! For faith that does not amount to more than spending an hour in our buildings for what we call worship, is not the faith we desire. Do we really dare believe that coming together, so that we can sing to Jesus, and tell him over and over again how much we love him, is in any way reflective of Micah’s call “to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly?” Have we forgotten what God asks of us?

Finally, NOT gathering in large groups, even for things as important as Bible Study and Christian Formation, reveals a Church that is not only “not closed,” but one that is actively aware of and engaged with the world around us. It reveals a faith community that is open, and mindful of the context in which it is seeking to model the way of Jesus: caring for others and putting the needs of the most vulnerable before anyone and anything else. It reveals a faith community that is eager to minister in ways that reflect our desire to serve, and not just be served; and that is seeking to care for the least among us. Further, we do all of this with masks and in small groups, not because the government tells us to, but because we know this is what Jesus would do! We make sacrifices for the common good because we know that this is how our faith calls us to live; and we do not resist communal attempts to prevent others from getting sick because we think that those attempts are somehow a violation of our crazy political ideologies or worldviews.

No, the Church is NOT closed. It remains open! Wide open! And this Christmas, we invite you to join us for worship: not by getting all decked out in your holiday best to show up in a worship service on Christmas Eve; but rather, like Mary, by becoming a “Christ-bearer” to the people in your life. It’s not too late to become a Secret Santa to one of your “senior” neighbors. Or perhaps you might team up with a friend and prepare a meal for your local shelter; or take a plate of homemade Christmas cookies to that friend who is all alone. This year, worship may mean something as simple as putting on a mask when you go to the grocery store, or rejecting the selfish lies and agendas of those who would have us believe that this pandemic is nothing more than some kind of grand, world-wide, conspiracy to hurt or control people! This is how the Light that is Christ shines in the midst of a pandemic, and it’s how we share that Light with others.

As I walk the campus of the church I currently serve, I can’t help but notice how empty it looks. But we are far from closed. In fact, our congregation is as active as it has ever been! This holiday season, our people have fed more than 50 adults in our community dealing with mental illness. We have prepared Christmas Dinner bags for more than two dozen needy families; and each Friday night in December we are providing dinner for up to 50 people in our local shelter. We are collecting hats, gloves, and scarves for a local non-profit; and we proclaiming the reality of Emmanuel, God with us, online, in word and song, week after week after week. Our light is indeed shining in the darkness, and darkness shall never overcome it.

No way! The Church is definitely NOT closed this Christmas. We’ve never been closed. So enjoy the holidays. Keep the light that is you, shining brightly for all to see. And until we’re all able to once again meet safely for in-person worship, may the hope, peace, joy, and love that are Jesus, fill each and every corner of this pandemic-ridden world!

Merry Christmas Church!

Denmark: So much more than its pastry!

30 11 2020

No bakery in America makes anything that even comes close to the pastry made in Denmark – not even Trader Joe’s! Their Kringle is good, but it simply cannot stand up to what is found in every bakery, on every corner, in every town, in the world’s oldest kingdom!

Danish pastry is light, flakey, not too sweet, crunchy along the edges, and oooh . . . just writing about it makes my mouth water. The poppy seeds on the Teabirkes, the shortbread and raspberry jam of a Hindbaer Tar,; and the smooth custard of a Lindse, all contribute to a confection that puts Krispie Kream to shame. Even places like Nothing Bundt Cakes or Duck Doughnuts cannot compete! Upon my arrival in Denmark I quickly become a ‘one-a-day’ pastry kinda’ guy: two or three, if my wife lets me.

But Denmark is so much more than its pastry. I’m not sure I realized that when I first studied there back in 1982, but over the past 38 years I have come to see Denmark as one of the kindest and most compassionate nations on the face of the earth. That is likely why it is so often said to be one of the happiest!

At first glance, Danes can quite easily appear cold and aloof. They are an extremely private people: not in a ‘leave-me-alone-I-want-nothing-to-do -with-you’ kind of way; but rather they are simply a people who don’t need to be the center of attention. Most Danes quietly go about their days, thoughtfully, intentionally, and without any pretense or fanfare.

But when you get to know the people and the culture, Danes are some of the most caring people you will ever meet. Some, often the most arrogant among us, look at Denmark and notice the way they care for children, the elderly, and everyone in between, and all they are able to see is what they’ve been told to call socialism. But if we’re honest, we Americans really know nothing about socialism, and thus we continue to be manipulated in ways that cause us to fear it.

Most Danes however, look at their society and don’t so much see a form of Democratic Socialism, as they see a form of national civility. They are a people who simply want to take care of one another: and so they strive to make sure that everyone has food on their tables and a roof over their heads. They seek to ensure that everyone has the chance to go to school and get an education, and that the medical care people want and need is available to everyone, especially when they grow old. Danes have worked hard to create a society where no one ever needs to worry about the basic necessities of life: and that includes mental and emotional health as well. Everyone gets 5 weeks of vacation each year, and couples having children are given a year of maternity and/or paternity leave. Music, art, and beauty are valued; and caring for creation and being good stewards of the earth are central to their way of life.

Now we in places like America are often quick to point out the problems with such a society. High taxes lead us to believe that everyone is forced to become dependent upon the state. But the Danes I know don’t see things that way. For them, it’s not about government taking care of everyone, as it is about everyone taking care of one another! They know that THEY are the government, and that their society as a whole is better when everyone has their basic needs being met. Wealth doesn’t need to be ‘redistributed’ because their understanding of the common good insures that it is always distributed in such a way that ensures equity for all and poverty for none.

No country or nation is perfect – we all know that. People are people and governments are governments. We’re all broken and flawed! But some nations and people call upon their better angels more easily and more often than others, and Denmark is one of those places. This tiny nation of 7 million people has much to teach us . . . and about so much more than pastry. But . . . if pastry is where we need to start: sign me up! Because there’s no better place to begin!