Righteous Indignation

“Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed.” (Exodus 3:1-2)

“One day, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and looked on their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people. He looked this way and that, and seeing no one, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.” (Exodus 2:11-12)

Most preachers would be ecstatic to know that a sermon they preached 30 years ago was still remembered. Most of us would feel great if anyone remembered what we said from the pulpit 30 minutes ago. The preacher I have in mind was no ordinary preacher. The Rev James Forbes was senior pastor of Riverside Church in New York City from 1989 until he retired in 2009. He also served at Union Theological Seminary where he was named the first Harry Emerson Fosdick Adjunct Professor of Preaching. His installment at Riverside made him the first African American senior minister of one of the largest multicultural and interdenominational congregations in the United States.

Forbes was the featured preacher at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio’s Schooler Institute on Preaching in the early 1990’s shortly after I began teaching at MTSO as an Adjunct Professor of Homiletics, and I must say he remains one of the most powerful and engaging preachers I have ever heard. It was Forbe’s sermon at that Schooler Institute that I still remember 30 years later.

The sermon was based on the Exodus story, and Forbes was masterful at weaving contemporary situations throughout and illuminate them  with the biblical narrative. One of the most memorable points Forbes made came to my mind today as I began another day today struggling with my anger at what is being done to our democracy by an unstable, vengeful and pitiful American president.

Forbes used the two texts quoted above from Exodus to make the following point. He reminded us that after Moses killed an Egyptian in a fit of anger for abusing one of the Hebrew slaves he fled to the land of Midian to avoid any repercussions from Pharoah. While in Midian Moses stood up for the daughters of the priest of Midian, Ruel, when they came to water their father’s flocks and other shepherds tried to drive them away. That act of kindness and justice ingratiated Moses into a friendship with Ruel and eventually to Moses’ marriage to one of Ruel’s daughters, Zipporah.

Forbe’s interpreted Moses’ time in Midian as a time of spiritual growth for Moses because “he wasn’t ready” for what God had in store for him. And it’s there in the land of Midian while simply doing his day job tending Ruel’s sheep that Moses encounters a burning bush. After all the wild fires we’ve seen recently all over the world there’s nothing very remarkable about a single burning bush. But notice two special things about this bush. It is near Mt. Horeb, also known as Mt. Sinai, and the text calls it “the mountain of God,” foreshadowing Moses receiving the 10 Commandments from God on that same mountain.

But the other extraordinary thing about this bush is that “it was burning, and yet it was not consumed.” That familiar Sunday School story is usually interpreted rather literally as the place that Moses receives his call from God to go liberate God’s people from slavery.

But Forbes found a more profound symbolism in that story and applied it as a metaphor for Moses’ (and our) readiness to stand up to injustice.

When Moses killed the Egyptian his anger overcame him, but, said Forbes, to be ready for God’s service Moses and all of us need to be like that burning bush – angry about injustices inflicted on the most vulnerable of our sisters and brothers– angry but not consumed by our anger.  Instead spiritually mature Christians learn to channel our righteous indignation into positive actions for justice.

I do not presume to claim such spiritual maturity for myself.  Far too often I let my anger at minor frustrations or societal injustices consume me instead of approaching each of them as an opportunity to face a  problem and look for creative and productive solutions to the situation.  

Gracious God, there is so much hate and division in our world, so much deceit and injustice it is so tempting to lash out at those we disagree with or at unfair restrictions imposed upon our lives by an invisible but deadly virus.  We do not want to stop being agents of justice who strive to right wrongs, but bless us with your spirit that enables us to angry without being consumed by our emotions.  Help us “speak the truth in love” to friend and foe alike that we can be peacemakers so needed in our world today.  Amen

DREAMS AND VISIONS

“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit.”  (Joel 2:28-29)

When this text from Joel showed up in the daily devotional I’m using (“Gift and Task” by Walter Brueggemann) the words that jumped out for me were “your old men shall dream dreams.”  I have been fairly successful at living in denial about my age, but somehow having my 74th birthday in October while recuperating from back surgery has made that reality come home to roost. So in this youth-oriented culture it felt good to see “old men’ (and I understand that generic term to include women also) included in this list of recipients of God’s Spirit.  

Brueggemann offers this commentary on Joel:  “The contemporaries of Joel are mostly prisoners of the present tense who cannot imagine life other than the way it is now.”  He goes on to describe how Joel offers an escape from that imprisonment. “Joel’s poem tells otherwise! He anticipates a coming time when all sorts of people break out of such weary imprisonment. There will be prophecy, dreams, and visions, acts of imagination opening to otherwise…The news is that God’s intent has not succumbed to our precious status quo.”

That sacred use of imagination to help create a new reality free from the injustices of our present one is exciting and inspiring, but like the ice bucket challenge of a few year ago I was shocked back into my cynical self as I read on into the 3rd chapter of Joel.  That whole chapter is a gruesome account of Yahweh’s revenge upon the enemies of Israel culminating with this exact opposite of the vision of Micah and Isaiah (cf my blog post from October 12 of this year, “Pacifism Put to the Test) when Joel, speaking for Yahweh says, “Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears, let the weak say, “‘I am a warrior.’”  (Joel 3:10)

I knew those words reversing the vision of Micah 4:3 and Isaiah 2:4 were in Joel, but I had not remembered that they came immediately after the hopeful words in chapter 2.  My heart sank as I realized that immediately after Joel’s promise that everyone would dream dreams and see visions come a whole chapter where Joel is a prisoner of the present, to use Brueggemann’s phrase.  Joel is trapped in what President Eisenhower would call the military-industrial complex many centuries later. The whole cycle of revenge escalating into more brutal mayhem has been a recurring nightmare throughout the history of humankind. 

We justify our self-destructive reliance on our primal instincts by citing “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” from the Hebrew Scriptures, but what most of us don’t realize is that those words in Leviticus 24:19–21 and Exodus 21:24 were meant to set a limit on revenge so the punishment fit the crime rather than seeking to do the most damage possible on ones foes.  

And just as the Levitical law was an improvement over previous moral codes, so Micah and Isaiah and other prophets in every generation have dreamed ever better dreams and visions, culminating in the life and teachings of Jesus who lived out his vision of God’s peaceable kingdom even when it meant sacrificing life for a greater truth and reality.

But because of human nature every generation must make its own escape from the prison of the present tense.  As God’s children we are so much better than the quagmire of hate in which we are currently living.  God’s spirit is upon us now just as it was in Joel’s time, and that means all of us of every age and every gender, race, creed, sexual orientation and nationality can still dream dreams and see visions of God’s reign where we will beat those swords again into plowshares, put away our nukes and learn war no more.  

As I write this I am reminded of these words from a prophet for our time, John Lennon that still speak to this old dreamer:

“Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man.

Imagine all the people sharing all the world,

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one.”

All Saints, Birthdays, and Elections

I just completed my 74th trip around the sun and feel like I should have some wisdom to foist on my readers; but I’m coming up dry. I suspect it’s because of my stress level over the election and my recovery from back surgery 5 weeks ago. I’m doing well on the latter, but not so much on the former. The non-stop crisis du jour coming out of Washington, and the ominous record numbers of COVID cases is exhausting. I have tried to cut back on reading and listening to the news, but it’s like the proverbial train wreck that I can’t stop watching.
This much I know for sure — I cannot wait for the incessant requests for campaign contributions to end. Each one tells me that the sky is falling if I don’t give or give again. Enough already!!

This election reminds me a lot of the Nixon-McGovern election in 1972. Then too an embattled and corrupt incumbent was running for re-election against a liberal Democrat. Only that time around the Democrats overreacted to Nixon’s far right agenda and chose a candidate who was way too liberal for the country, and McGovern lost in an embarrassing landslide. Since that was only the second presidential election I could vote in my idealism was badly deflated not only because my candidate lost but because McGovern carried only one state and the District of Columbia. It was the worst whuppin’ any presidential candidate ever suffered, and I was devastated—lower than a snake’s belly. So to help pull me out of my funk a very wise friend/mentor gave me some advice I’ve never forgotten.

That friend, Russ, died early this year as one of 2020’s first of many low blows. And I miss him a lot, but when I remember his advice I feel like he’s still speaking to me from beyond. The particular piece of wisdom I’m remembering just now went something like this: “Elections are like city buses, if you miss one there will be another coming along soon.” In other words we can’t change the past but we can learn from it and move forward.

That advice didn’t sink in immediately. I remember writing a very dooms dayish letter to the editor shortly after that election bemoaning that since not even an election could get us out of the disastrous war in Vietnam all we could do now was to wait for the ultimate judgment of God. I’m glad I was wrong about that prediction. But as apocalyptic as my younger self thought that election was 48 years ago the 2020 version seems so much more critical to the future of our democracy. In part I feel that way because looking back on the 70’s we all know that the Watergate scandal took Nixon down when the election didn’t. And Nixon resigned because there was bipartisan agreement in Congress that he would be impeached if he didn’t. Such a spirit of valuing justice over party loyalty seems totally out of reach in the hyper partisan 2020 world, and that scares me.

I have now voted in 13 presidential elections, and I am much older than my friend Russ was in 1972 when he gave me that advice; but I don’t feel as wise as he was. Perhaps that is because all the foundations and norms we have lived by have been shaken by the 45th president. We are living in a far different reality than 1972 and that concerns me very much. Fortunately in my many trips around the sun I have learned a few things, none more important than this: God’s time is not our time, whether it’s daylight savings or not. We can change our clocks all we want, but the eternal truth is that all earthly kingdoms and super powers come and go, but God’s reign is forever. My tiny spin around the sun, no matter how long it lasts, is but a nano second in God’s time.

So whatever the outcome and whenever this ugly election ends that truth will won’t change. Our salvation history teaches us repeatedly that no matter what earthly calamities human disobedience to God’s will causes, there will always be a faithful remnant to carry on. God will raise up as always unexpected leaders from the most unlikely places here or elsewhere in the universe.

I have used words from Psalm 46 to comfort those who mourn at many funerals, but they also apply to national crises, of which Israel had plenty; and those words still speak to us today:

“God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
3 though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
6 The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.”

Prayer for the Depressed

“God has walled me about so that I cannot escape; he has put heavy chains on me; 8 though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer; 9 he has blocked my ways with hewn stones, he has made my paths crooked.” (Lamentations 3:7-9)

O Dear God, I pray today for those battling depression.  The stew of discouragement is made of so many ingredients that it’s hard to tell what should be tackled first – and every “breaking news” item just makes the pot more toxic.  A cup of COVID, an overdose of lying campaign ads from both parties, a heaping tablespoon of cold damp weather, incessant robocalls, all stirred into a gallon of fatigue from zoom calls and home schooling.  We feel like we’re swimming in an ocean of molasses against a deadly rip tide.  There’s no lifeguard in sight, and our arms are too weary to carry on much longer.

Dear God of past, present and future, do you hear our lament?  Where are you in the midst of our suffering?  We beg for relief and a restoration of the life we used to know.  Throw us a lifeline of hope before we drown.

Yes, we confess we have contributed to the mess we’re in. We have not taken every precaution we could against the virus.  It’s much easier to point the finger of blame at others.  We have added a brick here and there to the great wall of polarization that divides neighbors and family and poisons friendships.

And yes we know you rescued the Hebrew people from much worse calamities, but that was so long ago.  We are living a nightmare right now in real time that doesn’t even feel like real time!  We feel like the people of Israel mourning the destruction of the holy city of Jerusalem, like the victims of never ending wildfires combing through the ashes of their former lives.   We feel like the people of Louisiana bracing for yet another hurricane before they can clean up from the last one!  O God hear your people praying.  Amen

p.s. Just a reminder that the book of Lamentations was written after the destruction of Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon who began a siege of Jerusalem in December 589 BC.  During this siege, the duration of which was either 18 or 30 months the Bible describes the city as enduring horrible deprivation.  The laments were certainly justified, but they did not destroy the faith honed in the fires of other wilderness times for God’s people.  How do we know that?  Because just 12 verses later the author says,

“But this I call to mind,  and therefore I have hope:  22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; 23 they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness. 24 “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”  Lamentations 3:21-24

May it be so for us 2600 years later in the siege of 2020!

Simple Things that Heal

“Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” (2 Kings 5:13)

That verse is from the wonderful story of the healing of a Syrian military commander named Naaman.  You can read the whole story in 2 Kings 5, but here’s the abridged version.  Naaman comes down with a dreaded case of leprosy, the grossest curse of biblical times.  But in Naaman’s household is a political prisoner captured in Israel.  The slave girl is Naaman’s wife’s servant.  This nameless girl overhears Naaman whining about his plight and tells him there is a prophet in Israel who can heal him of his leprosy.  Even though this referral comes from an anonymous and powerless slave girl, i.e. someone on the very bottom rung of the cultural ladder, Naaman assumes such healing can only come from an important and powerful ruler.  So he sends a letter to the King of Israel who freaks out assuming this is some kind of political trick to make him look bad.

And then the prophet Elisha hears about the King’s dilemma and says, “Send him to me.”  Naaman shows up at Elisha’s house and gets all upset because Elisha doesn’t even come out to greet him.  He just sends a messenger out who tells Naaman to go wash in the Jordan River 7 times.  Naaman balks at this because he was expecting Elisha to come out and stage a spectacular miracle healing, and besides they have better rivers in Syria where he could have washed without making this long journey.  He is ready to go off in a huff, unhealed, but his servants (note how the least powerful characters in this drama are again the wise ones) deliver the line at the beginning of this post.  And reluctantly Naaman listens to reason, washes in the Jordan and is cured.  

Naaman’s story came to my mind in the midst of this pandemic because like Naaman all of us are being asked to do very simple things that require no special skills or knowledge.  We can all wear a mask and stay a distance from each other, and yet for different reasons masses of Americans refuse to do the only things we can do to combat this virus that has already killed over 225,000 Americans.  

Will we listen to those wise enough now who are saying to us, “Hey, if you had to do some super heroic deed to stop the spread of this deadly disease, wouldn’t you do it?  So how much more should we do the simple things.”

Naaman came to his senses and was humble enough that he listened to his servants and was healed,  Give us ears, O God, to hear and heed the simple things we can do to be restored to health.  

Rituals: The Fall Classic

Humans are creatures of habit. We function best in situations where this is some degree of normal routine so we don’t have to think about every little thing we do. Rituals, holidays and regular annual events mark the passage of time and give structure to our lives. In this weird year of pandemic when so much of our “normal” life has been knocked cockeyed ritual has taken on a whole new meaning and importance.

This may seem trivial to some or most of you, but for as long as I can remember fall for me has meant the Fall Classic, i.e. the baseball World Series. For much of my life I have been a huge baseball fan, and in particular an avid supporter of the Cincinnati Reds. But even on those quite often years that the Reds failed win the National League Pennant I still would not miss the World Series. My memories go back so far that my family didn’t yet have a TV, and I had to listen on the radio. And even well after I was married and had my own television I remember faithfully listening to almost every Reds game on the car radio or a portable set while washing dishes or doing other household tasks.

For real (and old) fans my memories include Willie Mays’ basket catch in deep center field that helped the Giants sweep the Indians in 1954. I remember great subway series when the Giants and Dodgers still lived in New York. I’ve never ever rooted for the damn Yankees but I still cherish the picture in my mind of Yogi Berra leaping into Don Larsen’s arms after the latter pitched a perfect game in ‘56 against the cross-town rival Dodgers.

As a child I got to witness a Reds game at old Crosley Field in the days of big Ted Kluszewski,

Gus Bell, Wally Post, Bob Purkey, and Frank Robinson. Other moments in my personal highlight reel include Pittsburg’s weak hitting Bill Mazeroski’s walk off homer in game 7 against the Yankees. I saw that one back when the Series was still played in the daytime so kids could actually watch. And we even were allowed during study halls at school to go down to the cafeteria and watch.

The very first time my beloved Reds made it to the Series in my lifetime was of course against those stinking Yankees. And if that wasn’t bad enough it was in 1961, the year that Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris both put on a season-long home run derby in pursuit of Babe Ruth’s record for most home runs (60) in a pre-steroid season. (If you don’t know Maris managed to hit 61 but was cursed with an * next to his record because the season was 8 games longer than when the Babe hit 60.). Suffice it say about that painful memory that the Bronx Bombers and ace pitcher Whitey Ford dispatched the overmatched Reds in 5 games.

Nine years later the team now nick-named the Big Red Machine met the Baltimore Orioles in the Series. Both teams had run away with their league pennants. Sad to say a slick fielding 3rd baseman named Brooks Robinson made so many highlight reel plays on defense that the boys of Cincy went down 4-1. Just two years later the Big Red Machine made it back to the fall classic against Reggie Jackson, aka Mr. October, and the Oakland A’s. Rose, Morgan, Perez, Bench and company held their own in an exciting 7 game series but came up just short.

And then in my 29th year of life and 21st year of fandom it finally happened. That 1975 match up between the Big Red Machine and the Boston Red Sox is still considered one of the very best Series of all time. It featured a dramatic 12th inning walk off homer by Sox catcher Carlton Fisk in game 6, and most baseball fans have seen the iconic video of Fisk standing at home plate waving his arms urging the ball headed over Fenway Park’s Green Monster to stay fair. It did, but the next day the Reds pulled out a heart-stopping game 7 victory. I must confess that I was so happy for that win that I expected it to be a world changing event. I’d waited a lifetime to see that World Champions label applied to my very own Reds. At that point in my life I didn’t have a bucket list, but if I had that win would have been one huge items to check off. Sad to say when the sun came up the next day it was just another Monday, and the world had all the joys and sorrows it always has.

The Reds followed that the next year by not only vanquishing the damn Yankees, but they swept them in 4 straight games. It doesn’t get any sweeter than that.

Then for a lot of reasons my love of baseball faded over the years. I no longer watch “Bull Durham” as part of my spring ritual. I was even in Phoenix this spring where many Major League teams do their spring training and didn’t attend even one game. I blame a lot of my loss of interest on disgust with the obscene size of salaries and how often players move from one team to another. I can’t identify with any players when they are here today and show up in a different uniform tomorrow. I did enjoy going to a game at Fenway a few years ago, another bucket list item, and I enjoy a minor league game occasionally at the beautiful stadium that is home for our local Columbus Clippers. I also enjoy, or at least did pre-COVID, going to a local ball field on a summer’s night to watch one of our younger relatives play. Brings back nice memories of my playing days in Little League and church league softball.

And yet as I write this I am watching the first game of this year’s World Series. I have no skin in this game. I truly don’t know any of the players and don’t care if the Rays or Dodgers win, but there is still a sense of order and normalcy in this most abnormal year to sit here and watch two teams compete for the World Championship.

And if you don’t believe me I’ll leave you with one of Annie’s final lines from “Durham”:

“Walt Whitman once said, ‘I see great things in baseball. It’s our game. The American game. It will repair our losses and be a blessing to us.’ You could look it up.”

Weeping Jesus

Almost anyone who grew up in Sunday School or is familiar with the Bible knows what the shortest verse in the Bible is.  John 11:35 says, “Jesus wept.”  In that instance Jesus was mourning the death of his friend Lazarus. In that case Jesus weeps because his friend Lazarus has died.  This was a very personal kind of grief that most of us have also experienced.  Death is a part of the human condition, and the incarnate Jesus knew all the heights and depths of humankind’s emotions. 

 Less familiar are the other two times in the Gospels that we are told Jesus cried.  In both of those cases he is again grieving but on a macro scale for the city of Jerusalem and the whole Jewish people.  Luke 13:34: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.”

And then on his final trip to Jerusalem and the cross Jesus weeps again. And no, Jesus is not weeping over his own coming passion and death.  He weeps not for himself but again for the city of Jerusalem and the entire Jewish community.  Luke tells us, “As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side.  They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”  (Luke 19:41-44)

The nation of Israel has had multiple chances not only from the Messiah but in generation after generation of prophets who have proclaimed the word of God to them.  But they have been tone deaf and in extreme situations have “stoned and killed the prophets.”  

I call those Scriptures to mind because I believe that Jesus is weeping again today over the United States.  Like the Jews 2000 years ago way too many of us have not had ears to hear the Gospel of unconditional love that Jesus lived and died for.  I can hear Jesus saying today, “Oh, America if only you had listened.”

We have refused to accept a boat load of scientific evidence about climate change for decades.  This dangerous denial and refusal echoes the way the church treated Galileo and Copernicus 500 years ago.  But our current situation is much more urgent and dangerous.  Look at the recent evidence: so many hurricanes in 2020 that we have run through our alphabet naming them and now are well into the Greek alphabet.  Devastating wildfires all over the western part of our country are still burning today because of years of drought due to climate change.  The scientific community has been warning us for years that we are running out of time to stop poisoning Mother Earth.  The rest of the world is taking this crisis much more seriously than we Americans.  We are much too addicted to fossil fuel consumption because of the corporate greed of big oil companies.  Our leadership still unbelievably calls the climate crisis a hoax because once more profits and stock dividends trump concern for the future of our children and grandchildren.  And Jesus weeps.

Scientists and public health professionals have warned us for generations about the possibility of a global pandemic.  Movie producers have frightened us with pandemic thrillers, but we have not been scared enough to admit and listen to the experts when we are actually living that nightmare.  Numbers of COVID cases all over the country and world are increasing daily at alarming rates exactly like the scientists told us they would.  Other pandemics like the Spanish Flu 100 years ago followed the same trajectory.  Public health officials warned us that the fall flu season would be deadly if we all didn’t do our part to control the virus.  Those warnings fell on far too many deaf ears plugged up with greed for political power and economic rewards superseding our value for human life.  We ignore the experts and reopen businesses, bars, and bistros much sooner than is wise.  The virus spreads like wildfire, and Jesus weeps.

When I reread the first Scripture about the death of Lazarus I noticed something I hadn’t before.  The Gospels are carefully organized to show truth with a capital T.  The stories in the Gospels are not randomly placed but are like pieces of a jig saw puzzle with each one making the total picture more complete and vivid.  So immediately after the dramatic raising of Lazarus from the dead the very next thing John tells us is that Jesus went immediately into Jerusalem and drove the money changers out of the temple.  

Why is that significant?  It’s John’s way of telling us that Jesus’ purpose here on earth was not just to work miracles and minister to individuals.  The complete Gospel message tells us that Jesus’ redemptive work then and now also includes confronting the systemic injustices found in our earthly institutions.  That part of Jesus’ ministry just like Amos, Micah, Isaiah and all the other prophets remains unfulfilled today.  Racism, endless wars, increasing injustice in the way economic power and wealth are distributed, and turning our fearful and angry communities into armed camps, just to mention a few, remain further from any workable solution than ever.  And Jesus weeps.  

I woke up this morning with the lyrics to one of the songs from the musical “Godspell” running through my head:  (I apologize for the weird formatting, but I gave up fighting with WordPress after multiple attempts. I hate the changes WordPress has made in its site.)

“When wilt thou save the people?

O God of mercy when?

The people, Lord, the people,

Not thrones and crowns, but men!

God save the people, for thine they are,

Thy children as thy angels fair.

God save the people from despair.”

Dear God, when will you save us from this interminable year of 2020?  When O God, when?  And even as I uttered that prayer I knew it was the wrong question to ask, because we are a people of free will.  God does not micromanage our lives but gives us freedom to make our own choices — and to take the consequences.  You might say that God gives us enough rope to hang ourselves, and that noose is now tightening around our necks.  God has given us the scientific knowledge to defeat this pandemic.  What we are asked to do is not difficult.  Yes it’s hard to give up all the activities we used to enjoy.  I miss seeing my friends and family.  I’m almost 74 years old and I hate having a year or more of the time I have left on this earth taken from me by an invisible enemy.  Yes, it’s a nuisance to wear a mask and social distance, but those are not difficult things to do in order to save the lives of my neighbors; and I will continue to do them no matter how many fools around me refuse to do so.  I’m sure Jesus also weeps for those who are too paranoid and taken in by conspiracy theories to do the right thing.

I too weep for our nation.  These are the darkest days in my lifetime, and yet to carry on honestly facing the realities of our lives in 2020 I must dig deep and humbly ask God to empower and guide my life.  And in those depths I hear words of faith like these from Psalm 30:  

“Weeping may linger for the night,     But joy comes with the morning.”

Or, as Maureen McGovern sang for the movie “The Poseidon Adventure” about a world literally turned upside down, as in a capsized ship:

“There’s got to be a morning after If we can hold on through the night 

We have a chance to find the sunshine, Let’s keep on looking for the light.”

No matter how deep the darkness or how long the night lasts, joy will eventually come in God’s dawning of a bright new day

Pacifism Put to the Test

There is a statue which stands in a garden at United Nations headquarters in New York City which bears the following words from Isaiah 2:4:

“He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore;”

Those words are also inscribed on the UN building itself, and I knew about that inscription and even saw it first-hand many years ago on a travel seminar to New York.  What surprised me when I googled it today is that the statue was given to the UN by the Soviet Union in 1959!  Yes, that “Evil Empire” quoting words from Hebrew Scripture which also appear in Micah 4:3.

I was reminded of that prophetic vision of God’s reign when readings from the prophet Micah appeared in the devotional that I’ve been using to start my day the last few weeks.  (“Gift and Task” by Walter Brueggmann). When that Scripture intersected this week with the news of a foiled American terrorist plot to attack several state governments and kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer it shook me to the core and is causing deep soul searching for me.  This kind of evil would bother me no matter where it occurred, but this plot is even more real for me because at least some of these evil deeds were hatched in a meeting just 10 miles from my home in Dublin, Ohio. 

To add to my fears I am also currently in the middle of Ron Chernow’s exhaustive biography of Ulysses Grant.  The pathos and sheer horror of every detail of the Civil War is more graphic information than I want to know.  I never expected that I would imagine such a conflict could possibly happen again in the USA.  Civil Wars in my lifetime are all in other faraway places, not in the state next door!  And yet here we are in the most precarious time for our democracy since Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox. 

I pray to God we find a way to dial back the hate and vitriol and have a peaceful transfer of power whenever this election is decided, but I am not optimistic.  And that has led me to ask myself some really hard questions about what I would do if the violence over our government escalates.

I believe that is a question all of us need to ponder.  First responders, soldiers, pilots, and athletes all train their minds and bodies in advance of a crisis or critical moment.  They do that so they are prepared and can react quickly from a planned response and not just react when there is no time to weigh options. 

This is one of those WWJD questions, and as usual the answer is not easy. But this we know: 1. Jesus made it very clear his kingdom was not of this world or its violence:   “Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”  (John 18:36)

 2.  Jesus was a pacifist.  The citations in Scripture for that point are far too many to mention; so here are just a few:  “Love your enemies (Matthew 5:43-48),” “turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:38-40),” “put away your sword for those who live by the sword will die by the sword (Matthew 26:52),” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you (Luke 6:31).”  Even the anonymous prophet called Deutero Isaiah, writing to Israel in exile, understood the peaceful nature of God’s anointed one.  The very first of what we call his Suffering Servant Songs says:

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.  He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.  He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth;” (Isaiah 42:1-4)

One of my long-time friends stimulated my thought about all of this today.  This friend and colleague has been one of the bravest and most articulate advocates for social justice I have known in my 50 plus years of ministry, a true inspiration.  Today he told me that current events have about driven him to question his belief in pacifism.  He assured me he would not go there, but his comment got me to thinking about who my greatest heroes are; and immediately Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King came to the top of that list.  Other than being martyred for their beliefs the other thing those three giants share is a commitment to pacifism.  They stood firm for non-violence no matter what, and when push came to shove they didn’t push or shove but simply lived out their core values in spite of unbearable suffering and sacrifice.  They rejected violence in all its forms, even in the face of death because they knew violence only begets more violence, and someone has to break the cycle of retaliation or human history will continue to spiral downward into oblivion.

I doubt that I have that kind of courage or faith, but I know it is the high ideal Jesus calls me to.  The Christian Gospel is no Cheap Grace escape from reality.  There is a cost to discipleship.  Mark 8:34-35 says, “He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”  That’s not just a metaphor today; it’s becoming a real existential possibility.   

So my friends please pray without ceasing for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit to redeem this dreadful moment in our history.  But also pray hard and long about what it means to be a Christ follower in a worst case scenario.  We need to be prepared to live faithfully no matter what happens in the next few weeks and months, and only the source of all being can empower us to do so. 

SPEAKING TRUTH TO POWER

I wrote a prayer two days ago asking God to make the Coronavirus a “come to Jesus” moment of conversion for President Trump.  It was a bigger long shot than betting on the filly that beat all the males in last week’s Preakness Stakes.  And now my prayer goes in the “Prayers not answered Yet” file.  Unfortunately the President emerged from the hospital even more reckless and arrogant than before.

This situation reminded me of one of my favorite texts from the Hebrew Scriptures in 2nd Samuel 12 which begins: “And the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. 2 The rich man had very many flocks and herds; 3 but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. 4 Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.” 5 Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; 6 he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”

7 Nathan said to David, “You are the man!”

Somehow Nathan drew the short straw and was tapped to go speak truth to King David.  It was risky business, and Nathan knew he could not confront David’s sin directly.  That would only make the King defensive and maybe so vindictive that he might kill the messenger instead of hearing God’s message.  So Nathan uses an indirect approach through a story to get by David’s defenses.  And the story works.  David recognizes immediately the guilt of the villain in Nathan’s story.  He has taken the bait and Nathan delivers the punch line, “You Are the Man.”

And then immediately Nathan reads the riot act to David for what he has done: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; 8 I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. 9 Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. 10 Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.”

If you want all the gory details of how God will punish David they are delineated in verse 11 and following.  What does this old story about speaking truth to power say to us today regarding our current president’s behavior?  Is there anyone who could speak to Donald Trump through a story or in any way to convince him of how his mishandling of the pandemic for months has stolen freedom, life and livelihood from millions of Americans?  Could anything inspire any regret or compassion in the President for the 210,000 American lives lost to COVID?  Can any voice break through his selfishness and greed for power in such a way that he can understand that millions of Americans are grieving the loss of loved ones and/or suffering the lingering damage of COVID to their bodies, perhaps for the rest of their lives?  Is there a prophet anywhere in Washington that can convince Mr. Trump that trying to take health care away from millions of Americans in the midst of a pandemic is cruel and inhumane? 

As the old saying goes, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  So I am very pessimistic that anything can deter Donald Trump from pursuing his re-election without any regard for who he may infect in the White House or at any of his dangerous campaign rallies.  He has made the White House a hostile work environment for the very people who serve him most closely and protect him. 

But here’s the difference between the President and King David.  David is capable of feeling guilt and remorse, of taking responsibility for the consequences of his evil actions. So far Donald Trump has shown no evidence that he is capable of such normal human emotions.  I continue to pray that God can change the President’s heart before he does any more harm to more Americans.  And for those who still cannot see through Trump’s dangerous propaganda, and for those who lack the courage to speak truth to his power, I continue to pray for ears to hear truth, for discernment and courage to realize that all of us are the ones who stand in need of God’s grace and the ultimate truth than can set us free. 

Prayer for a Damascus Road Moment for President Trump

“But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” (Acts 9:1-6)

O mighty God of transformation, I pray today for the healing of our President from the Coronavirus and for all others suffering from this deadly virus with access to far less health care resources available to presidents and government leaders. And I pray this Walter Reed sojourn will be a dramatic healing of Donald Trump’s soul like what happened to Saul on the road to Damascus. You, O healing spirit, who transformed the murderous, zealous Saul into the most ardent evangelist of the infant church, hear my prayer.

We know you have the power, Lord, to redeem the coldest heart and to forgive the most grievous purveyors of suffering, even on those closest to them. I do not have it in my heart to forgive Mr. Trump’s lies and onslaught on our democratic values. But I know you can. You have showed us in the risen Christ who turned Saul’s life around that unimaginable conversion is possible through a savior who turned the hierarchy of Roman society on it’s head by feeding, healing, touching and forgiving those who were left behind by those who had broken their covenant with you.

Now, O loving God, when this virus has brought Donald Trump as close to humility as he has ever been use this moment of his vulnerability as an opportunity to break through his facade of superiority. Embrace him with compassion that will melt his cold heart. Remove the scales from his eyes, unplug his ears so he can finally see and hear the plight of those who are suffering from his misguided view of the world. Move him with such gratitude for your healing love that he will use his worldly power to extend the privileges he enjoys to the marginalized — to all people of color, to immigrants in cages, to the working poor and those with inadequate food, education, and opportunity to have a decent quality of life.

I know I’m asking a lot, dear Lord, so much that my imagination is stretched to the limit. But I know the story of Saul/Paul whom you turned from vicious Christian killer to one who endured prison, shipwreck and unbelievable persecution to share the life-changing power of your grace because he had experienced it personally in such a drastic way that he would not let anything stop him from taking the Gospel to the very seat of worldly power in Rome.

I humbly implore your healing power to break into my unbelief and into the deluge of terrible news that has bombarded us for this longest year in my lifetime. We need a miracle, God, to heal the dangerous and increasingly violent differences in our culture. I fear we are nearing the point of no return as tensions mount leading up to this election. I have never before been afraid of my neighbors because of their political views. The spiritual healing of Donald Trump could lead to a healing of our nation’s pandemic of hate and violence. I pray with all my being for his healing and conversion and for the transformation of our nation to be worthy of our highest ideals of liberty and freedom for all of your children. In the name and for the sake of our Risen Christ, Amen and Amen.