Prayer of Lament

O God! We have added Austin to our awful litany of mass shootings. I pray for the victims, the first responders, the survivors, and for whatever demons the shooter or shooters are dealing with. I also pray for our society where this tragedy barely makes a blip on the radar of our consciousness. We are so numb to this senselessness that it has become a ho hum normal occurrence. Please shock us into caring again, to mourning again, and revive our consciences and our desire for peace. Trouble our souls deep in denial. Call us to compassion for victims and passion for doing our part to create your peaceable kin-dom here on earth as it is in heaven.

The alarm is ringing again. It is not good to keep hitting the snooze button. It is not OK to pull up the covers and pretend this is just a bad dream. Wake us, give us ears to hear the cries of your children and the clarion call for all people of faith to put prayers and thoughts into action. Hear our prayer and disrupt our false sense of security. Make our fear a motivation for change and not an excuse to avoid the cold, harsh truth. Christ have mercy. Amen

The Naked Truth, Sermon on Genesis 3:1-13

Back in pre-Covid times a pastor stopped at the home of Mary Johnson for a pastoral visit.  When there was no response to his knock he left his card with a note on it that simply said Revelation 3:20.  When Mary found the note she looked up that verse which says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.”  That Sunday after worship Mary handed the pastor a similarly cryptic note that just said Genesis 3:10.  That verse from our text for today says, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked.”

Genesis 3 is part of the second creation story in our Bible.  The first story in Genesis 1 describes 6 days of creation ending with humans created in the image of God, as Pastor Chris reminded us last week.   And at the end of that chapter God pronounces all of creation very good.  Genesis 1 is what theologian Matthew Fox calls our “original blessing.  Scholars believe that chapters 2 & 3 were written by a different author and describe in more narrative form the origin of sin and its consequences. 

I have no scholarly evidence for this, but I have a theory that the author of the second story looked over the sorry state of the human race and said, “This is not very good.  If we were created in God’s image what went wrong?”  Genesis 2 & 3 are an attempt to answer that question.  We sometimes mistakenly think these creation stories are historical descriptions of how we and our universe were created, but they’re not.  No one was around to observe the beginning.  These stories are poetic attempts after the fact by ancient humans to make sense out of why we are here and how we got here.

Here’s a problem I’ve been having recently.  I’ve always been a believer in Imago Dei, which is the Latin term for “in the image of God.”  But I’m having an increasingly hard time believing humans are created in God’s image when I look at the mess our world is in right now.  There have been at least 63 mass shootings in the US in the month of May alone and 242 since January 1. That’s 1.5 mass shootings per day!!  Here in Columbus there have been more than 70 deaths from gun violence already this year which is twice the number compared to the last three years.  I don’t even know how many brown and black people have died at the hands of police since George Floyd was killed a year ago.  Whatever we are doing to address these problems isn’t working, and yet the bitter partisan warfare in Congress keeps any new ideas from even being tried.  And don’t get me started on climate change.  In those Genesis stories God specifically charges humans with being good stewards of God’s creation, and we have failed miserably.

So how do we resolve these conflicting accounts of human nature?  Are we created in God’s image or are we disobedient and selfish like Adam and Eve, wanting to be like God?  The answer is Yes, we are both.  At our very essence humans are in harmony with God and all of creation.  But our image of God is tarnished by the temptations of the world.  There was a commercial years ago for Michelob beer that fanned the flames of consumerism by asking “Who says you can’t have it all?”  God says, that’s who.  God is the creator and we are the creatures, and when we try to reverse that order of things all kinds of calamity ensues.  Our history as a human race constantly at war with one another has left a trail of tears all over this planet.

Another question this text raises is why were Adam and Eve afraid because they were naked?  Is it like when I’m afraid when I look at my naked body in a mirror?  No, this is not about body shaming.  It is a metaphorical nakedness that means we are all spiritually exposed.  God knows us inside and out.  We can run from God and our own sinfulness, but we can’t hide – just ask Adam and Eve. 

Doesn’t being able to take your mask off feel good? We can breathe better after a long year.  Well it also feels good to be unmasked before God because confession is the only pathway to forgiveness.  We can’t be forgiven for something we refuse to acknowledge in our selves.  But this second creation story has all too often been interpreted to mean life is hard for all of us because of Eve’s original sin, which is a bad rap for women because Adam was just as guilty.   

So does this story mean Adam and Eve were punished by being evicted from the Garden?   No, this is a way of explaining why life is so hard, and we make it harder whenever we put anything else first before God. 

One of the best things I’ve been able to do during this Covid year has been to participate via zoom in an excellent book study group with some of our church members and other interested folks.  We have learned a great deal from several books about racism.   One of the added benefits is that the group has introduced me to the work of Dr. Brene Brown, a social worker and research professor at the University of Houston.  Her ideas have come up so often in our discussions that we are on a first-name basis and have made her an honorary member of our group. 

Brene has spent over twenty years studying the effects of shame and guilt on human development and behavior.  She stresses that shame and guilt are not synonymous terms even though we often use them that way.  The distinction Dr. Brown makes is that we feel guilt over a bad thing we have done, but we feel shame when we confuse bad behavior with our basic value as a person.  On one of her podcasts Brene uses a real-life example she actually observed in a classroom where a teacher was berating a student in front of her class for constantly failing to turn in assigned work.  That’s awful enough, but the teacher went on to take the student’s paper and write S T U P I D across the top of it.  In other words the teacher was passing judgment not on the student’s school work but on her value as a person.  I truly hope that teacher has found a new line of work.  I also hope none of us have experienced that kind of shaming from a teacher or parent on a preacher, but I fear many of us have. 

I bring that up because it is critical to the way we interpret the Fall, as this second creation story is often called.  If you aren’t familiar with the consequences for Adam and Eve, hear what the rest of Genesis 3 says: 

“To the woman God said,  ‘I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;
    in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband,
    and he shall rule over you’  (As an aside, that verse has been used to justify sexism and patriarchy for millennia, but the women among us already knew that.)

And to the manGod said,  ‘…cursed is the ground because of you;
    in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; 18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, …’”

Those verses have often been misused to shame people when they really are about guilt, not about shame.  Remember the difference – guilt is for bad behavior, shame is calling someone a bad person.  Bad behaviors have consequences, but they do not forever make us bad people.    Before they were written down these stories were passed down orally for centuries as a way for people to make sense of their lives.  Women wondered why childbirth is so painful, and this story is a pre-scientific attempt to answer that question.  Rather than add a load of guilt to the pain of childbirth why not accept the simple fact that pushing a baby’s head through a very small opening really hurts? 

Similarly, ancient people, like many of us today asked why life is so hard.  Remember this was a very agrarian culture.  There were no Kroger’s in town to buy food.  They had to plant, grow, hunt or harvest everything they needed on land that is mostly desert, and they naturally wanted to know why. 

Unfortunately the story of the Fall has been misused many times by the church to control people by shaming them.  For example, the communion ritual for United Methodists used to include a prayer where congregations were asked to confess by saying, “We bewail our manifold sins and wickedness which we from time to time have most grievously committed.”  And we wondered back then why many people stayed away on Communion Sunday!  Yes, we still need confession more than ever, but we don’t need to be shamed for being the fallible human beings we all are. 

The Gospel is like a meme I saw on Facebook recently which said, “I’m so grateful that neither my sin nor my stupidity keep God from loving me.”  Yes, our lives are often hard, but God loves us all so much that God was willing in Jesus to come and share our experience of life and even death.  That’s what love is; sharing both the joys and sorrows of life with each other, even those who are hard to love.

I recently watched an on-line workshop with Bishop Michael Curry, the presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.  Bishop Curry has a recent book out entitled “Love is the Way.” That title sounds a bit simplistic to me given the hurricane of hate we are living in as a society right now.  When it was time for Q&A I asked how can we reconcile the Gospel of love with the righteous anger we see in the Hebrew prophets and even on occasion from Jesus himself.  I didn’t include this, but I often want the angry Jesus who turns over tables in the temple to come and clean up the mess we’ve made of things.

Bishop Curry’s response to my question was that as Christians we must speak out against injustice, but in his words we judge “policies not people.”  In other words hate the sin but love the sinner: call out guilty actions or attitudes, but don‘t try to shame anyone, not even the worst among us. Shaming doesn’t work. Besides, whoever you or I want to nominate as the worst people among us the answer is yes, God still loves those people – all of them; the other – enemies, foreign and domestic – those we fear – or vehemently disagree with – be they across town or across the dining room table. 

God loves them all, and all means all.  Jesus did not say, “Come to me those who look like me, or think like me, or love like me.”  Jesus said, “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

Like Adam and Eve, we are all naked before God, no matter how hard we try to hide.    That sounds really scary, but it’s not, because God is Love.  These days we all have to decide where it’s safe to take off your mask.  We are wearing them in our church building still out of love for those who may not be able to be vaccinated, but here’s the Good News – When we come into God’s presence, wherever we are, or to the Lord’s Table we can come just as we are with nothing to hide.  Amen

Originally preached at Northwest UMC, June 6, 2021

Swimming for My Life

This post is either a little late for memorial day or a little early for Father’s Day or maybe both. As part of my rehab from back surgery last fall I have been spending a lot of time in the YMCA pool. I am not a good swimmer, but I have greatly increased my stamina over the last two months. I am swimming because it is low impact and about the only kind of aerobic exercise I can do because of my back.

While swimming I’ve had an unexpected revelation of admiration for my father who died a little over three years ago at the age of 96. Dad was a bomber pilot in World War II. Because our relationship was always rather strained there are lots of questions now that I wish I had asked my dad, among those are questions about his military service. I don’t know if he would have wanted to talk about a very traumatic experience he had in the war or not, and now I will never know.

I know he only made a few actual bombing runs because he got to Europe near the end of the war. I wish I had asked him about those, but because I grew up in the Vietnam war era I have always been a little anti-militaristic. The one biggest event that happened to my dad which I wish I could talk to him about occurred when he was co-pilot on a B-17 that was bringing him and 16 others back to the states after the war.

My sisters and I discovered after Dad died that he had written an article about this event for the newsletter at the retirement community where he lived for the final 28 years of his life. He titled his article “The Big Splash” because the B-17 those men were on developed engine trouble shortly after leaving the Azores in the North Atlantic Ocean and had to “ditch,” which is pilot speak for crash landing in water.

They ditched at midnight in a heavy fog, which caused them to hit the water too fast, breaking the plane in two. My dad was unconscious for a bit but was revived by the pilot and able to escape the sinking plane. Unfortunately most of his crew mates were not so fortunate, and by the time they were rescued only 4 survived the crash and 12 hours in the cold water.

Dad wrote that he thought part of the reason their rescue was delayed might have been because the radio man, in the pressure of the moment, sent the wrong coordinates for their location when the May Day signal went out.

What we do know for sure is that my dad and his buddies spent 12 long hours in the dark in cold water where sharks were known to roam. I did not remember all that while swimming in the comfortable 84-degree water at the Y, but when I did my amazement at what that experience must have been like truly inspired me. I remember telling myself, “OK, Steve, if Dad could do this for 12 hours, you can certainly do it for 30 minutes.” And I have reminded myself of that frequently ever since when I get tired in the pool or inhale at the wrong time. It’s those times I ask Dad and my Abba Father to help me finish my swim.

I don’t know if my dad and those guys had life jackets on or were in life rafts. I doubt if they had time to deploy the latter, and I know from first-hand experience that having a life jacket on while out of control in a strong current is still quite unsettling. (See my post, “When Oceans Rise,” May 9, 2019 for that story).

These recollections have not only helped keep me swimming when I needed motivation, they have also helped me understand and appreciate who my dad was as a result of that experience. I know there was no treatment for PTSD in 1945, and I wish I had been more aware of that and given my dad the credit he deserved for coping as well as he did for his remaining 70 plus years of life. I was much too judgmental of his rigid and legalistic coping skills, and I hope he can forgive me for that.

My dad was not religious growing up, and I know this big splash story was a baptism of sorts (and a baptism of fire) for him which made him a Christian; and that meant being a part of the larger Christian family began for me immediately when I was born 15 months after Dad’s near-death ordeal.

I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing there was a lot of praying during that long night in 1945; prayers that no sharks would be attracted by the blood in the water; prayers for the men who died from exposure before the rescuers arrived, and lots of bargaining with God and promises to change if they could be spared.

My prayers while swimming in the pool under the watchful eye of a lifeguard are pretty trivial by comparison. Mostly my prayers take the form of remembering biblical stories about Jesus napping in the boat during a storm and then calming the sea (Mark 4:35-40), or Jesus walking on the water and Peter’s short-lived attempt to do the same (Matthew 14: 25-32).

So, when you need a faith booster, be it in actual water or in the metaphorical oceans we call life, draw strength from the biblical or personal stories that inspire you to just keep swimming. That kind of faith is described so well in these words from the praise song “When Oceans Rise” by Jake R. Sanderson:

“You call me out upon the waters
The great unknown
Where feet may fail
And there I find You in the mystery
In oceans deep
My faith will stand

And I will call upon Your name
And keep my eyes above the waves
When oceans rise
My soul will rest in Your embrace
For I am Yours
You are mine

Your grace abounds in deepest waters
Your sovereign hand
Will be my guide
Where feet may fail and fear surrounds me
You’ve never failed
And You won’t start now

So I will call upon Your name
And keep my eyes above the waves
When oceans rise, my soul will rest in Your embrace
For I am Yours and You are mine

Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders
Let me walk upon the waters
Wherever You would call me
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander
And my faith will be made stronger
In the presence of my Savior.”

First Things First: Stillness

I was reflecting on the familiar words from Psalm 46 while meditating yesterday: “Be still and know that I am God” (Vs. 10) when it dawned on me that for most of my life I’ve been doing this backward.

Let me explain. For much of my life I was a professional student. Seriously, I finished my final formal education at age 47. Being a student came easy for me. It was comfortable because I knew how to play the education game. I like the pursuit of knowledge and hope I will always be a life-long learner.

But the psalmist put these words in the order they are in for a reason. “Be still” comes before “know that I am God.” In academic speak stillness is a prerequisite for knowing. Knowledge in the academic sense is mostly an intellectual exercise. But knowing God involves far more than our minds; it encompasses our whole being.

In Genesis 4:1 it says, “And the man knew his wife Eve and she conceived.” There “knowing” is a metaphor for total merging of one life with another. So it is with knowing God. To quote a contemporary theological statement called the “Hokey Pokey,” to really know God you have to put your “whole self in.”

And we cannot do that if our minds are racing hither and yon dealing with all the things modern life includes. How many times in the New Testament does Jesus go off to a quiet place by himself to pray, to commune with God? And that’s a problem for me. There are not many quiet places in my world. We live on two acres so there’s physical space for solitude, but even if I sit by our pond I can hear traffic from a freeway a half mile away; and urban sprawl is devouring most of the vacant land all around us.

So being still, really still in mind, body and spirit doesn’t come easily. It requires a conscious effort and discipline to find a place and dedicate time regularly to be still; so God can draw near and make herself known to us. That spiritual discipline requires us to put first things first. Be still, and then we can know God fully by surrendering our being into the mystery of Being Itself.

Like a Woman

[Note: I was going to write a note of appreciation for the many mother figures in my life, but I remembered I had written something similar a few years ago. I think it is still relevant and appropriate for a Mother’s Day post; so I’m republishing this post from January 2018.]

Bertha Hemmert was my surrogate grandma when I was growing up on Murray Street in Wapakoneta, Ohio. Not that I needed another grandma—I had two very loving ones already; but a little kid can never get too much of that special love that grandmas are so good at. And Mrs. Hemmert as I knew her then had one big advantage over my “real” grandmothers—she was just across the alley no more than 50 feet from our back door. She was probably younger than I am now, but to my 7 year-old self she seemed ancient. I don’t remember how she first befriended me. It was likely one of the many times I hit a stray baseball into her yard and had to go fetch it.

Two things I remember very well—I enjoyed hanging out at her house and “helping” her with chores like cleaning green beans from her garden. I’m sure I was often more trouble than help but I always felt welcome to drop in whenever I wanted. The other thing I remember – because my family has never let me forget it – is that one day while helping Mrs. Hemmert in the kitchen I announced to her that “I think I want to be a woman when I grow up.”

No, that was not some confusion over my sexual identity. As I reflect back on that memory and my childhood I have come to believe it meant I just felt loved being in her company and wanted to enjoy that feeling as much as I could. And it was not just Mrs. Hemmert who represented that unconditional love and acceptance for me. The most important people in my early life who gave me that kind of affirmation were all women—my grandmothers, my mom and my Aunt Ruth.

My reflection on those childhood relationships have been inspired by all of the events in our society in the past year that have raised awareness of female power and courage in spite of oppression and abuse–and by the guilt and remorse I feel that in spite of my life-long appreciation for women I have been part of the male dominated power structure that I could not be insulated from growing up in the 1950’s. Mrs. H. was typical of all of my female role models as I grew up. They were all stay-at-home mothers and homemakers, and they lived out that vocation proudly and well.

Proverbs 31 and has been used and misused to praise and eulogize many women like those. It says in part “A capable wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life. She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands. She is like the ships of the merchant, she brings her food from far away. She rises while it is still night and provides food for her household and tasks for her servant-girls. (Proverbs 31:10-15 NRSV) Of course the women in my life were the “servant-girls” for their families rather than having any, but that proverb is attributed to King Lemuel’s mother giving her son advice; and he could relate to that particular reference.

The misuse part of that Proverb has been on the hard-working from before dawn to after dark woman who is subservient to her husband. But listen to what other parts of that proverb say about women of strength as entrepreneurs and teachers of wisdom: “She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard. She girds herself with strength, and makes her arms strong. She perceives that her merchandise is profitable. Her lamp does not go out at night. She puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle. She makes linen garments and sells them; she supplies the merchant with sashes. Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness. Her children rise up and call her happy; her husband too, and he praises her: “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.” (Vss.16-19, 24-29)

That part of this proverb reminds us that to limit women, or anyone, to a particular role or station in life is not only foolish but absolutely wrong. To respect or pay women less for the same work men do is unjust. To treat women as sex-objects in blatant, abusive or even subtle or unintended ways is wrong and must stop.
I was proud of Mrs. Hemmert and wanted to be like her – because “the teaching of kindness was on her tongue” and she treated me as someone of value and worth. Women today are demanding the same kind of respect and dignity and unconditional love that the wonderful women in my life gave me. Did they raise a perfect son or grandson or nephew? Of course not. There we too many sexist forces in my life in the way I was taught what it meant to be a man; in the ways all of the heroes of American history were portrayed as powerful white men; in the male-dominated leadership of the churches I was nurtured in; in the movies and television shows I watched; in the literature I read; and the list goes on and on.

But this I know, the seeds of love and compassion were sown in my heart and soul by people like Mrs. Hemmert. I have often been embarrassed when my family tells that story about my wanting to be a woman; but today I am proud to proclaim that I am still striving to be like her; to offer everyone the kind of affirmation and hospitality she gave to me. I want to be like the women who have had the courage to speak their truth to power in the past few months. I want to be like the men that Oprah included in her great speech at last night’s Golden Globes when she said:
“So I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon! And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say ‘Me too’ again.”

“Hurt People Hurt People”

“Hurt people hurt people.”  I first heard this piece of wisdom from Brene Brown, a popular speaker and author.  Brene is a research professor at the University of Houston who spent the past two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. I thought about her  words this morning when I awoke to yet one more horror story of 8  people shot to death at an Indianapolis Fed Ex facility. After reading the news article I decided to google that phrase to see where it occurs in Brown’s writing.

I didn’t find it which means I probably heard her say it in one of her podcasts.  But what I discovered is that dozens of people have expressed that phrase in a variety of ways.  One that especially caught my eye was this one: “Hurt people hurt people. That’s how pain patterns get passed on generation after generation after generation.  Meet anger with sympathy, contempt with compassion and cruelty with kindness.  Greet grimaces with smiles.  Forgive and forget about finding fault.”  That quote is from Yehuda Berg, a contemporary Jewish Rabbi and author, and his words reminded me of a key Christian teaching.  

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (Jesus of Nazareth, Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:38-39.)  Nowhere in the Bible is the stark contrast between the different ethics of the two testaments more clearly stated.  Interestingly as different as the older quote in Leviticus 24:19-21 is from Jesus’ teaching; both represent radical new thinking for their time and context.  In the Hebrew Scripture an eye for an eye was an attempt to set boundaries on the amount of revenge a person could take on someone who had wronged him/her.  In other words its aim was to redefine justice so the punishment fit the crime.

Fast forward approximately 600 years and Jesus attempts to set an even higher standard by urging his followers to “turn the other cheek.”  Suffice it to say this is a very high bar to live up to, and most of us who call ourselves Christians fall far short of emulating the sacrificial love of Jesus.  What I like about Berg’s quote on this theme is that he unpacks what it means in terms of how the retaliation ethic results in generation after generation passing that way of living on to their children and grandchildren.

I have no way of knowing what motivated  this recent shooter to commit his violent act, and we may never really know since he, like many of the other mass shooters, killed himself.  We have now learned that he was a 19 year-old man, and that is significant because research into male emotional and mental development has shown that young men are not fully developed in those areas until their early 20’s.  Obviously this young man was not responsible enough to have a gun, much less an assault rifle.

It seems to me the rash of gun violence may have something to do with the stress we have all been under for over a year now due to COVID-19.  We are all hurting, some more than others, from the restrictions, grief and fear from this invisible enemy that has killed 560,000 Americans and millions more globally.  If we are all hurting and hurt people hurt people it makes sense that the stresses of this past year could account for some part of this awful trend. But if that is true why have we not seen similar violence in other countries?

Knowing that it can take less stress in a pandemic to trigger a violent response to others is complicated by the number of guns in this country.  In Moses’ day when the Levitical laws were developed the only weapons available to folks were clubs, swords and spears which could of course be deadly, but they were weapons designed for one-on-one combat.  They could knock out a tooth or put out an eye, but they were not capable of killing multiple people in a matter of a few seconds.  And I would note that weapons had not advanced into the ability to create mass destruction and killing by the time our second amendment was written.

My theory is that the fears and dis-ease of the pandemic motivated frightened people to own firearms, including assault weapons.  There were more guns sold in this country in 2020 than ever before.  Coincidence?  I think not.  And the fact that many radical members of the Republican party want to still live in the days of Levitical law makes the spiral of violence begetting more violence all the more dangerous.  Since I began writing this blog this morning there have been two more incidents of gun violence that I know of in this country.  One was in a Bob Evans restaurant in Canton, Ohio and the other in a routine traffic stop in San Antonio, Texas.  There have been at least 45 mass shootings (which means 4 or more people killed or wounded) already this year.  45!!  That’s about 3 per week.

What is unique about Americans that we cannot resolve this issue?  It took just 1 mass killing in Australia in 1996 to institute strict gun control.  It also only took 1 in New Zealand 2 years ago for them to do the same.  The rash of killings this time in the U.S. began at Columbine in 1999 and has run unabated ever since. Why can’t we Americans agree on common sense gun control?  If guns made us safer we could be the safest country in the world, but that is certainly not the case. 

It is obviously more important in 2021 than ever before and perhaps harder to “Meet anger with sympathy, contempt with compassion and cruelty with kindness.  Greet grimaces with smiles.  Forgive and forget about finding fault.” This seems so hard if not impossible to do, but individually for Christians and other pacifists turning the other cheek and breaking the chain reaction of violence is the only way we will survive without creating a whole population of blind, toothless or dead people. 

Lost and Found

“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Luke 15:8-10 (This is one of the three parables in Luke 15, the other two are about a lost sheep and a lost/prodigal son.)

Somehow yesterday I committed the unforgivable sin for those of us living in a 5G world. I lost my phone. It was not in any of the usual places I put it in the house, not in my office, bedroom, bathroom or kitchen. I wasn’t expecting any important calls or texts, but I was still feeling lost without that device which has become my constant companion and link to 24/7 news of the world.

After trying several times to call my phone with no luck I remembered that I had taken a walk earlier around our small pond and out to the mail box; so my wife and I made several trips retracing my steps. Since we looked everywhere inside we were sure the prodigal phone must be somewhere outside.

Finally I decided to try the “Find My Phone App” on my iPad to locate the wandering phone. That app gave me some confusing information that said the phone was anywhere from 40-800 feet away. Not helpful, iPad. As darkness began to descend on our outdoor search we retreated indoors. I switched the map on my iPad to a satellite view of our property, and on that map the location of the missing phone appeared to be in the house.

If you haven’t used this app you may not know that there is a button on it labeled “play sound.” I initially thought that meant it would like a gps verbally direct me to my phone, but each time I tapped that button I heard nothing. Then finally I learned by accident what “play sound” meant. I hit the “play sound” one last time and saw a promising sign when it said “connecting.” Not optimistically I went back down stairs to look one more time.

As I got half way down the basement stairs I began to heard a faint beeping sound, and it got louder with each step I took. It took a few minutes before I zeroed in on the exact spot which I had gone several times thinking I had not been in that room all day.

But then I looked down under the ping pong table, and there was my phone. And of course as soon as I saw where it was I remembered walking by there and hearing something drop to the floor, but I was in a hurry and after a quick glance back I didn’t take time to see what had fallen.

And then I remembered the parable of the lost coin, and I had a little better insight into what the joy of finding things and people who are lost feels like. Years ago I played Jesus in a children’s musical called “The Storytelling Man.” I still remember the song the kids sang after hearing the parables about the lost being found. The punch line of that song was, “Let’s have a party, let’s make a racket.”

That’s how I felt when I found something as ordinary as my phone. Can you imagine the joy God feels when a lost soul is found? Remember these parables are an attempt to give us a glimpse of what God’s reign is like. My favorite image from those parables is when the Father of the prodigal son goes running with arms wide open to meet his beloved son and welcome him home.

What or whom have you lost that is worth the effort to search diligently to find? It could be a friend or relative; it could be your passion or purpose in life. Whatever it is are you willing to put forth the effort and not stop searching until the lost is found. And if you are feeling lost yourself, drifting through life’s routines with no direction, please know that the source of all being that we call God is searching for you and will not give up until you are found.

Grace is Not Transactional

As we were reciting the Lord’s Prayer in worship today I was reminded of an insight I had recently about that prayer. Having said that prayer well over 3000 times in my life I’m embarrassed I didn’t realize this much sooner. In particular I’m talking about the part of the prayer that says, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.” In our congregation we have replaced the rather nebulous “trespasses” with the much more powerful and truthful “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”

For far too long I have been uncomfortable with however we say that line because I thought of the forgiveness there as being a quid pro quo. In other words it is a transaction asking God to forgive me in the same way I forgive others! I always was uncomfortable because if God’s forgiveness is limited to how well I forgive others I am in deep do do. It is a very common anthropomorphic mistake whenever we model God after our own behavior instead of the other way around.

In other words I now understand the second part of the phrase about forgiveness to be our response to God’s unconditional grace and mercy for us. We are once again renewing our promise to forgive those who have wronged us just as God has forgiven us. My recasting those words then becomes “forgive us our sins as we promise again to forgive those who have sinned against us.” That may not be the most accurate translation of the Greek or Aramaic, but I think it is very faithful to the nature of God revealed in Christ.

Forgiveness is one of the essential elements of love. We are all flawed human beings and that line in the Lord’s prayer is first an admission of our own fallibility and then a promise to extend the acceptance and love God gives us to others. It is not a deal or a transaction. Grace is free. All we have to do is humbly ask for it, and when we receive that priceless gift it won’t last if we try to hoard it. We have to pass it on.

Obsessed with Fighting

Garden of Gethsemane:

JESUS

“Judas, must you betray me with a kiss?

PETER

What’s the buzz?
Tell me what’s happening. (Repeat a few times)

PETER AND APOSTLES

What’s the buzz?
Tell me what’s a-happening.
Hang on, Lord,
We’re going to fight for you! (Repeat)

JESUS

Put away your sword
Don’t you know that it’s all over?
It was nice, but now it’s gone.
Why are you obsessed with fighting?
Stick to fishing from now on.” (From “The Arrest” in “Jesus Christ Superstar” by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice)

During this Holy Week when deaths by gun violence are more numerous than commercials during March Madness those lyrics from “Jesus Christ Superstar” speak volumes about the state of our world. I’m especially moved by the question Jesus puts to his disciples, “Why are you obsessed with fighting? Stick to fishing from now on.”

Jesus is asking us Americans the same question 2000 years and hundreds of wars later. These men with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane have been with him throughout his entire ministry. They have heard him preach and teach many times where he has consistently proclaimed a pacifist life style.

They’ve heard him say “Blessed are the peacemakers,” “turn the other cheek,” “forgive 70 x7,” and “love your enemies.” And yet when the armed crowd comes to arrest Jesus Matthew tells us, “Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him. And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear.” (Matt. 26:47-51)

What does Jesus do? Does he commend this disciple for trying to protect him? No, he reprimands him, saying, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matt. 26:52)

For those worried about the servant of the High Priest, he does not end up a forerunner of Vincent Van Gogh. Luke’s account of the arrest includes this verse: “But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him.” (Luke 22:51) Because he is not afraid Jesus responds with compassion instead of more violence.

There are many reasons we are still obsessed with fighting, but many flow from a mindset of scarcity which leads to a constant state of fear. The scarcity myth has convinced most of us that life is a zero sum game where we are all in competition with everyone else for whatever it is that we want or think will make us feel secure. The scarcity mindset is the engine that drives our over-consumption economy. We buy new models of cars and electronic gadgets, not because we really need them, but because clever marketers know how to play us. For example, I have a Fitbit Versa Lite that I use to track my daily steps, my sleep patterns, and my heartrate. It shows me text messages and emails in real time. A time traveler from 20 years ago would be blown away by such a marvelous little machine. But then I see people with Apple watches that can do everything my Fitbit does but lets people actually take calls and talk back through their wrists like Secret Service agents or Dick Tracy, and I think I really need one of those. Jealousy is scarcity’s first cousin, and it shows up when I am afraid that I’m not cool enough if I don’t have the very latest technology at my fingertips.

A much more serious form of scarcity fear shows up on the world stage, for example, when the U.S. is afraid we will run out of climate-killing fossil fuel we engage in endless, futile wars in the Middle East where the oil happens to be. On our national scene fear and scarcity rear their ugly heads in so many ways I will just mention a few. A fear of not having enough power results in bitter political divisions that threaten our democracy itself. This shows up in gerrymandering Congressional districts by both political parties to get or preserve their power. This is a hot topic right now as voter suppression laws disguised as “election security” are a national movement. Power scarcity shows up in judicial appointments for life, not based on qualifications of the candidates but on ideological viewpoints and partisan loyalty. And tragically that fear was fed by Trump’s big lie about the election and emerged in full force when people afraid of losing political power stormed the U. S. Capitol on January 6.

Sadly, fear is personified in the epidemic of gun violence in this country–from Columbine 22 years ago to Orange County California yesterday. Fear is a vicious cycle. After each mass shooting gun sales go up because people are afraid and want to protect themselves and their families and property. I get that, but we are at a point where fear is turning into paranoia where far too many people who shouldn’t feel the need to be armed. Then when an argument occurs somewhere and escalates into a situation that would have been settled with fists years ago instead results in a fatality.

Any reasonable person can see that responsible gun owners don’t need assault weapons designed for one thing by the military–to kill other human beings. But fear warps our thinking. We fear that “they,” whoever they are, may have more fire power than we do, and the cycle of armament proliferation on our streets is the same scarcity mentality that plays out internationally in nuclear arms races and spending obscene amounts of money on weapons of mass destruction.

The scarcity fear goes clear back to Cain and Abel; so there seems little hope it will be solved anytime soon, but it surely would help if more of us can take a step back and ask ourselves why am I, why is humankind still obsessed with fighting when it ultimately doesn’t work. Jesus’ warning is oh so true, “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”

Righteous Anger: Cymbal or Symbol

We are half way through March, and I can’t remember a day this year that I have not have read about another shooting in Columbus every time I open the local newspaper or turn on the local news.  Gun violence in upscale malls and communities of color, hate crimes against my sisters and brothers who are Asian Americans,  the pain of illness and aging my family members are going through!  I’m mad and I don’t know what to do with my anger.

The violence became more personal this morning when a beloved Asian American sister and friend invited our church staff to a prayer vigil tomorrow to pray for an end to the fear and violence against Asian Americans.  And yes I am angry at Donald Trump and those who cannot see or refuse to see the harm they are doing.   I know I need to love them and forgive them, but this crap lies squarely at Trump’s feet for his racist speeches about the pandemic and China.  Forgive 70 x 7?  He’s gone way over that total years ago, and I feel helpless about letting that anger eat at me!

But I don’t know what to do with the anger that would be constructive.  I want the temple-table turning-over Jesus right now, not the “love your enemies” one. And yet that same Jesus says “put away your swords” to those who would protect him, who forgives his executioners and their ignorance.  It’s too much.  I can’t love like that, and I’m ashamed to admit it.  If I cannot be part of the solution I am part of the problem.  If I can’t confess my white privilege and witness against the systemic racism in our country “I am a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal” (I Corinthians 13) instead of a symbol for love and justice.

I’m so longing for Easter but know we are a long way from the empty tomb, and the path that leads there goes through Gethsemane and the place of the skull.  Isn’t there a short cut, a way around the passion and suffering, a way to avoid the mess and the command to take up a cross and follow Jesus?

I know the answer to that question.  So I just keep praying to the source of all being to “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the living of these days1” and for the faith and strength

“To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go

To right the un-rightable wrong
To love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star.2

  1. “The Impossible Dream,” Mitch Leigh and Joe Darian
  2. “God of Grace and God of Glory,” Harry Emerson Fosdick