May the Fourth

There were lots of Star Wars jokes this week about “May the fourth be with us,” but in a time that seems like a galaxy far far away the fourth of May has a more somber meaning. Forty-eight years ago four students at Kent State University were shot and killed by National Guardsmen sent there to control anti-war protests.
I was a student in 1970 at a liberal seminary 120 miles from Kent. Most of us at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio were opposed to the Viet Nam War; so we felt the pain of that tragedy from a particular point of view. Like many campuses our school was shut down after the shootings. The difference at Methesco, as we called it then, was that classes weren’t cancelled because of student protests. The Administration and faculty did it and called us all together to pray and discuss what we might do to respond to this tragedy and the animosity and anger dividing our nation.

It was a time not much different than our own where America was divided over a war that had dragged on far longer and cost more lives than was acceptable. Two presidents had promised to end the war and failed, and two prominent peace advocates had been assassinated just two years before. The move that set that fatal May day into action was President Nixon’s decision to secretly expand the war by invading Cambodia. Campuses all over the country erupted in violent protests and civic and college leaders at all levels struggled with how to restore order. Tragically people died at Kent State and 10 days later at Jackson State in Mississippi where two were killed and 12 wounded. The latter never received enough publicity. Some say it was racism because those students were black, but whatever the reason the loss of life added to the whole tragedy of that decade.

I want to emphasize that no one I knew blamed the guardsmen for the Kent State deaths. Those young men were about the same age as the protesters, which means they were my age; and I know I would have been scared to death in their shoes. If there’s blame to be had it belongs to President Nixon and Governor Rhoades and the Ohio state leaders who put the guard in that untenable position. But the blame game was of no use, and I’m grateful to my mentors at Methesco who helped us learn that lesson but instead helped us brainstorm more constructive responses.
It’s hard to find silver linings to some clouds, but if there were any benefits from the blood shed on those two campuses one would certainly be that those deaths forced the nation to a deeper examination of why we were in Southeast Asia. I believe May 4, 1970 was a turning point in the court of public opinion that brought our involvement in that war to an end sooner than it would have happened otherwise.

On a personal level that week had a profound impact on me and my ministry. The way our seminary community came together and how we responded put practical flesh and bones on the lessons we had learned academically about the imperative of the church to be engaged in social justice ministry. It was thing to study commandment to “do justice” (Micah 6:8); pleas for “justice (to) roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24); visions of “beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks…and not learning war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4); or Jesus saying peacemakers are blessed (Matthew 5:9) and warning that “those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52) but quite another to apply those idealistic teachings to the nitty gritty of life and death issues.

After a good deal of discussion our seminary community decided on a two-prong approach to that May 4th. Knowing that there was deep division both within the church and the political community about the war we decided to try and address both. The decision was made that a delegation from Methesco would contact a nearby seminary with a much more conservative approach to theological and social issues to see if a dialogue between the two schools could help us both understand the other’s point of view. I was not part of that group so I don’t remember any particulars of what came from that discussion.

The other approach was for a group of us to travel to Washington DC and see if we could meet with Congressional representatives to express our concern and desire for peaceful resolutions of differences both within our nation and in the international community. We were young and poor then and full of energy; so three of us decided to save time and money we would drive straight through that night to DC, meet with whomever we could during the next day and then turn around and drive home the next night. I can’t even imagine doing that today, but it turned out to be one of the best bonding moments of my seminary career. The two guys I shared that 24-hour adventure with are still two of my best friends 48 years later.

We did meet with some representatives but came away feeling those men were much more concerned about protecting campus property and establishing law and order than they were about the human costs of the war or the issues the protesters were trying to raise. That too was a good lesson in patience and practical theology. Change and solutions to complex social issues do not happen overnight. Prophetic social justice ministry requires persistence. The issues change in each generation, but the need for people of faith to engage in relevant, messy, controversial issues never changes. There is always a need for the church to speak truth to power because the haves very rarely are willing to share their power with the have nots.

The three of us who were punchy and sleep-deprived when we completed our 24-hour marathon those many years ago are still active in retirement trying to discern God’s word for our day and trying as best we can to address social justice issues. May the force of truth and justice always be with us.

Advertisements

Grass Not Always Greener

Whenever we travel by air my wife and I do anything possible to minimize the time we spend in airports. We rarely arrive at the airport much before boarding time, and we always try to take direct flights or ones with short layovers. So it is the height of irony then that we have lived the last four days in the Orlando airport—and yes we even did it on purpose. The two pictures above are the view from our hotel room in the Hyatt Regency at MCO. That’s the airport code which I’m guessing means Mickey Central Orlando? The first picture is of a beautiful fountain in the main atrium of the terminal, and the second is a closer shot of the security lines in the upper right of picture one. TSA has multiple security lines on both sides of the entrance to the hotel so it is impossible to forget where we are. I feel like the Tom Hank character living in the Charles De Gaulle airport in the movie “The Terminal.”

The app for the airport says that 45,000,000 pass through here every year, and I believe it judging the number of people in the food court each time we go there to eat. That number computes to an average of approximately 123,000 people per day; or the size of a small city, mostly frazzled folks dragging luggage and grump kids as they rush from one terminal to another. Sounds like a great vacation getaway, right?

So why you ask in the name of Donald Duck are we living in an airport? No, this is not one of those internet scams where we are asking family and friends to send money so we can afford to come home. And no it is not because some airline stranded us here among all the little fans of Disney princesses. We are here because Diana is attending a conference which offered a great rate on 4 star hotel, and I came along to hang out, relax, read, write and it turns out do a lot of people watching, the primary indoor sport at MCO.

I have enjoyed the relaxation and time to work out, swim, read, etc. but I’ve also learned a very important life lesson. I have often said, yes I admit like a broken record, and that I am ready to be done with yard work and move into a condo or high rise apartment. For the record I’m still not crazy about yard work, but I have learned this week that I really do miss green grass, birds singing, and the great outdoors. My only ventures into the outside world this week have been an uber ride to the grocery and even a couple walks “outside” where the arrival or departure vehicles drop passengers off or pick them up.

The other part of that life lesson is that I’ve often pondered the reasons I’ve been attracted to and married two women who love the outdoors. I’ve sometimes thought it was just God’s sense of humor at work, but now I know that in spite of all the complaining I’ve done over the years about the chores that go along with country living I too need my space and some natural beauty. Now I know I will probably forget when I get home and find my grass is deep enough to bail hay, so I’ll email this to myself as a reminder.

In the meantime I can check “living in an airport” off my bucket list.

PEACE-FULL

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s there are few.” – Shunryu Suzuki-roshi.

There are several versions of this parable, but here’s one I like because of its brevity: “Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era, received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.
Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”
Like this cup, Nan-in said, you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

That story reminds me of a very helpful mantra for meditation I learned when I took an excellent on-line course called “Peace Ambassador Training” sponsored by the Shift Network. The simple three-part meditation is this: “Let me be peaceful; let me be kind; let me accept others as they are.” At first the part of that which gave me the most trouble was the third – accepting others as they are. To apply that to people I just flat out know are wrong is a total struggle for me. (This was especially true since I took the course in early 2016, just as the nasty Presidential election campaigns were turning up their volume.) Come to think of it the 2018 primary campaign is pretty ugly too!

I finally realized two things: that to accept others does not mean agreeing with everything they say or do, and that to accept others without judgment requires that I first need to work on accepting myself. So I modified the third phrase to read “let me accept myself and others as we are.” That’s better semantics, but even harder to do.
That led me to examine the first phrase. As Julie Andrews put it in “The Sound of Music,” “Let’s start at the beginning, a very good place to start.” “Let me be peaceful” seems to be very self-explanatory. It means to act in a peaceful manner, right? But then the meditation goes on to say “let me be kind,” and that seems a bit redundant to me. If I’m acting peacefully wouldn’t I automatically be kind or vice versa? That confused me for several months until I had an insight earlier this year that reminded me of the Zen parable above. To be peaceful means to be full of peace, and if I’m full of anything else, be it judgment, anger, anxiety, fear, lust or any of the other seven deadly sins there’s no room for peace. (See my February 2016 post “Giving up ALGAE for Lent” for a fuller discussion of this.)

The other thing I realized recently is that the key word in “let me be peaceful” is that little word ”be.” To be full of peace is a matter of “being” before it can be translated into “doing.” The doing is really part two of the mantra, “let me be kind.” Even though the verb is the same in both parts I believe kindness is more about actions and peacefulness is more about one’s state of being. That’s why Gandhi said, “There is no way to peace, peace is the way.”

It is only when we are full of peace in the very depths of our being that we can act kindly toward others and accept them regardless of their words or behavior. I also believe this is what Jesus was getting at in the farewell discourse to his disciples when he says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27-29) How can Jesus expect his dear friends and closest confidants to not be troubled and afraid when he’s telling them he’s about to be brutally and very publicly executed? They are so afraid they all go into hiding, unable to bear the sight of their Lord and Savior suffering and dying on the cross.

The Judeo-Christian Scriptures are full of examples of both positive and negative examples of those who are full of peace and those who aren’t. Peter can walk on water when he’s full of peace, but when he realizes what he’s doing and let’s fear fill his heart he sinks like a rock. (Matthew 14:28-30) On the other hand, three brave men are able to defy the power of King Nebuchadnezzar when he orders them to bow down to his gods. “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter. If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.” (Daniel 3)

The same is true of post-canonical Christian Church history. Mother Theresa couldn’t have lived and worked in the wretched slums of Calcutta without being full of God’s peace. Joan of Arc could not have faithfully obeyed God even to burning at the stake if she was full of fear. One of the charges of heresy brought against Joan is one all Christians should desire for their epitaph: “It was said, “‘She does not submit herself to the judgment of the Church Militant, or to that of living men, but to God alone.”

That kind of peace does not come from human will alone. It comes only when we are humble enough to empty ourselves of pride and arrogance and allow God to fill us with peace. To that end I’ve found it very useful to employ a shortened version of this mantra whenever I remember to pause in a tough situation and ask God to fill me with peace.

These chaotic times we are living through today again cry out for women and men who are so full of God’s peace that we are able not only to act kindly but faithfully and courageously to defend truth and justice against any and all powers that threaten to fill us with fear. Pardon my irreverence, but I fully expect one of the first questions God will ask me on my judgment day is, “Steve, what are you full of?”

A Doubting Faith: The Children, Mark 10:13-16

Little Johnny was asked to pray at a large family dinner. When he protested that he didn’t know how to pray his father said, “Just pray for your family, friends and neighbors, the poor, etc.” So Johnny prayed: “Dear Lord, thank you for our visitors and their children who finished off all my cookies and ice cream. Bless them so they won’t come again. And this coming Christmas, please send clothes to all those poor ladies on my Daddy’s phone who don’t have any clothes. Amen. Johnny was never asked to pray again, but don’t you just love the honesty of children?

That may not be what Jesus was thinking when he said “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” You’ll notice in our text for today Jesus doesn’t ask the kids to speak! But when we think about the qualities children possess that we can learn from isn’t their refreshing honesty one of those? Kids tell it like it is. Today I want to focus on what being like children can teach us about having an honest faith that admits we all have doubts about life’s mysteries – and it’s OK.

Imagination is one of those qualities kids have that we sometimes lose as we grow up. Imagination is powerful – nothing can ever be created until someone imagines what it might look like. Heather Sherrill on our tech team is the theater director for Darby High School, and she shared with me recently some great stats on the value of the arts in education where creative imagination is nourished. Here are just a few of those benefits.
Students involved in music, theater and art are:
• Less likely to drop out of school
• 3 times more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree

• Have better listening and speaking skills
• Are more likely to engage in classroom discussion and public volunteerism
• And are less likely to engage in delinquent behavior

The bad news is that only 28% of public schools in high poverty areas offer theater instruction, and I would add, even in our best schools there is so much emphasis put on testing kids in math and science that important classes in the arts and physical education are cut or eliminated. Math and science are important of course in our high tech global economy, but there needs to be a balance in teaching skills and values that make for informed and competent citizens critical to a democracy. No calculus formula will provide those skills that only a solid education in the humanities offers.

Not all creative ideas that kids have, or adults for that matter, are necessarily good ideas. When my kids were 1 and 4 we moved into a parsonage that actually had two bathrooms – one up and one down. The kids were fascinated by how that plumbing worked; so Joy decided one day to flush her brother’s pacifier down the upstairs toilet and then ran downstairs to see if the binky would miraculously appear in the downstairs commode.

And that spark of imagination doesn’t die at puberty. We attended a performance of Peter Pan last weekend by Worthingway Middle School in Worthington. Our great nephew was in the cast. Do you remember that moment in the story where Tinkerbelle the fairy drinks the poison to keep Peter Pan from drinking it? And the spotlight that represents Tinkerbelle flickers out. But then Peter remembers that fairies live whenever kids believe in them and he asks all the kids in the audience to clap to show they believe. Guess what; even us old kids on Medicare were clapping until Tinkerbelle’s light flickered back to life.

Kids are also full of curiosity – that’s how they learn, and as Pastor Chris reminded us last week a childlike faith does not mean one that has no doubt. Children are full of questions. As we run some pictures of our Northwest Children’s ministries I want to share some insights and comments about childlike qualities from our Children’s ministry team.

When learning about the Creation Story a 5 year old asked “Okay, I get all this, so how did God really create the entire world? Did it just happen like a flash?” And I thought the hard questions from my kids were where babies come from!

During a discussion about being the hands and feet of Jesus Christ and feeding others in need an 8 year old asked, “When will there no longer be hungry people in this world?” Thank God for kids who can still imagine such a world and share their hope with us.

In all kinds of activities we see older kids helping the younger kids. It’s great to see such mentoring happening in our children’s ministry.

During our own version of the Winter Olympics some of the kids were so curious- they had to touch all the supplies beforehand and try it out first. A 5 and 8 year old didn’t want to play hockey or ski at first. Apparently they were not familiar with the sports and decided to complain about it. So the teachers provided coaching and encouragement and a nurturing environment for the kids to trust their team mates and themselves. The children tried and struggled, but they all got to the finish line and scored for their team. Building team work is key for a successful and fun experience- even if we lose the game- there is much appreciation for the game and for one another.

Kids like to be useful; to be significant and make a difference. The NW kids are learning from Bible stories and from the examples of this mission-minded church to be servants and good neighbors by doing things like decorating cards and tying fleece blankets for OSU Star House. The children are creative and love to share their quality artwork with others. Many are artists and they know it too. They have generous hearts and giving spirits. Always willing to share with their neighbors.

The Children’s Garden is such a great learning experience – lessons about patience and teamwork, stewardship for God’s creation, compassion for hungry people, and gratitude for harvest. While Preparing the Children’s Garden one 6 year old commented-“come on already, we need to get these seeds in the ground, time is running, people are hungry. We need more sun.” This was the weekend when we got snow in early April. Can you hear their eagerness!!!

Another example of that was one day while getting ready for Brown Bag Lunches a 9 year old commented, “Wow, we can do this; we need more friends to help. If we could all do our part, more people can eat.” One of the best things about the Brown Bag ministry is that our new friends from the neighborhood are helping and are also getting involved in other church activities,. They feel welcome here at Northwest, and our children are a big part of that hospitality.

Kids live in the moment—they see a problem and they want to address it right now, no appointing a committee to study hunger – just find ways to feed people now. I was much older than these kids when I was working as a youth pastor while in seminary, and one thing I remember from that experience was my Sr. Pastor telling me more than once, “Steve, don’t lose your idealism!” Children have natural idealism and hope – life hasn’t drained it out of them yet, and we all need all the hope we can get. Hope is the antidote for the negative kind of doubt that sometimes keeps us from moving forward, from daring to dream and try.

I was in Westerville on one of the few nice days we’ve had so far this month and had some time before my next appointment. I was near Sharon Woods Metro Park and decided to take a short hike. While there I remembered a scary moment at that park many years ago when my son Matt was maybe 4 or 5. We were riding bikes as a family and he was on his big wheel – remember those? Cool low to the ground kind of a drag racer tricycle. We came to a rather long steep hill on the bike trail and before we could yell for Matt to stop he was flying down that hill heading for a curve at the bottom where there was a wooden bridge across a small creek. If you know big wheels you know they had no brakes! We were sure he was going to crash into the bridge and die, but thank goodness he was a good driver or got lucky and zoomed thru the bridge and coasted to a stop on the other side.

I asked Matt, who now has his own 4 year old if he remembered that incident. He said no, only from hearing us talk about it. But then he went on to say something interesting. He said, “Watching Brady, his son, do things like that is a lot scarier than it was when he was the one doing them.” I forgot to remind Matt about the time he went sledding off the garage roof. Kids are risk takers. They haven’t learned about all the dangers of life yet. That gives parents gray hair, but it is also an important dynamic of faith. Courage comes from trusting your own ability and the basic goodness of life so we can do what’s right instead of just what’s safe.


Speaking of risk takers, I came across this picture this week of Havana Chapman-Edwards, a first grader in Alexandria, Virginia who was the lone student at her school to join in the National School Walkout Day on April 20, the 19th anniversary of the shooting at Columbine High School.

Havana’s mom signed her daughter out of school because Havana said she wanted to participate. Her mom says she was crushed to see Havana sitting by herself, but then she became inspired by her daughter for standing up for what she believes in.

Havana told a news reporter that she was inspired by the Parkland High School students who have been pushing politicians to protect kids from school shootings.

For 13 seconds, Havana and her mom sat in silence to honor the 13 people who lost their lives at Columbine. Havana says that she wore her orange astronaut suit because she wants to show the world black girls are strong leaders.
Comedian Bill Murray in an interview with NBC news said this about student protests: “The thing that’s so powerful about students is that, when you haven’t had your idealism broken yet, you’re able to speak from a place that has no confusion [doubt?], where there is a clear set of values. Idealism is a voice that’s inside you, it’s your conscience. That can really deteriorate along the way… and it can become almost dysfunctional, but it’s there. Everyone has it.” I agree and would add that it’s the voice of idealism that children can help us all hear again.

Kids see the world with fresh eyes, unclouded by filters of status or rank. I saw a post recently from a childhood friend about his experience in the Vietnam War, and it reminded me of the great friendship we shared as children and youth. Blaine was one of my best friends. He was raised by his grandmother who I now realize was dirt poor. Their home was in a part of town that I’m ashamed to admit I would probably be uncomfortable to visit today. My family was lower middle class, but compared to the conditions my buddy lived in we were very wealthy. But I didn’t have those filters and lenses to see the world through then. Blaine was just my friend.

My point is that kids don’t come out of the womb with any kind of prejudices – those are acquired. When I was in high school we didn’t talk about racism or classism, even though they were very real in our little town. But we learned important life lessons in more subtle ways. We had an excellent choral music program that produced a popular musical every year. As you all know I can’t sing a lick now and I couldn’t then either, but I got to do the next best thing – I was on the crew that helped produce the shows. The one that I remember most is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific.” It’s set during WWII and centers around two love stories, one between an American nurse and a wealthy French property owner and the other between an America soldier and a Polynesian woman.

The romance and music are great but more important is the underlying story about prejudice and racism that threaten to keep these lovers apart. There is one memorable song called “Carefully Taught” that says “you have to be taught before it’s too late, before you are six, or seven or eight, to hate all the people your relatives hate. You have to be carefully taught.” Those important life lessons about human relationships could not be discussed openly in my school in the early ‘60’s, but by the magic of storytelling and imagination we could vicariously experience their power through those characters.

Finally there’s another really important reason Jesus welcomes and blesses the children that isn’t so obvious to us. We think of children much differently than people did in biblical times. Today we respect and encourage children, and because of that it is easy for us to romanticize this passage. We see cute pictures and all these positive attributes of childhood trust and enthusiasm, but the people of Jesus’ day saw children pretty much in the very opposite way. Children then were powerless, totally dependent liabilities. One commentator describes them as “non-persons.” They were on the very bottom rung of the cultural pecking order of the day.

So when the disciples saw people bringing their unruly, disruptive kids with them when Jesus was trying to teach important kingdom stuff the disciples tried to shoo the kids away. But Jesus says, “Wait a minute folks – don’t you dare chase those kids away. Everybody’s welcome in my kingdom – and that means everybody! The poor, the lepers, the sinners, the lame, and these precious little nobodies.” And you know what else, by welcoming the children Jesus also knew that he was making it possible for their mothers to also crash the old boys club and listen to the good news he came to share.

We’re really excited that we’ve had several new babies born into our church family recently. As I hear tales of sleepless nights and exhausted moms and dads I am reminded that to accept the blessed gift of a child means to becomes that child’s servant. Those helpless little bundles of humanity are totally dependent on someone to provide for their every need. Those who change diapers and wipe noses give up all claims to position or privilege – and that’s exactly how humble we must become to enter into God’s kingdom where all are equal.

Jesus and the disciples saw the same children, but Jesus saw them through the inclusive eyes of love; and that’s exactly how he sees you and me – runny noses, doubts and all, and he hangs out the welcome sign and blesses us and everyone who comes. Amen.