Prayer for Shutdown Relief

O Gracious God of the poor and the rich, of the privileged and the marginalized, the powerful and the furloughed, please hear our prayers. The uncertainty of the government shutdown is fraying our nerves and the fabric of our democracy. Working Americans are hungry and stressed by lack of pay to provide for their families. Critical services for inspecting food, conducting law enforcement activities and air travel safety are increasingly unstable. We are feeling anxious and insecure; our faith in our system of government to perform essential services is strained to the breaking point.

Out of this crisis, O God, inspire compassion for government workers that is stronger than political posturing on either side of the aisle. Melt the hearts of those who are afraid to cross political boundaries so true leadership and wisdom will prevail. In times of crisis we are not Republicans or Democrats; we are not identified by race, gender, social class or any other artificial label. We are all human beings with basic needs for food, shelter and security.

Send your Holy Spirit, we implore you, to Congress and the White House; send it to airports and food pantries. Our human efforts to resolve this conflict have failed for 34 long days; so in faithful desperation we ask that in your power you will transform the weary and fearful leaders of our nation into agents of your compassion and wisdom.

In your mercy, Lord, hear the prayers of your people. Amen

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A Tribute to Bishop Judy Craig

The world is a little colder today and not just because the weather outside is frightful. With thousands of people around the world I am mourning today the death of Bishop Judy Craig. When my mother and mother-in-law both died within 3 months of each other Bishop Craig went out of her way to inquire how I was doing when I saw her at a meeting. She was the most pastoral and yet genuinely prophetic human being I have ever known. 15 years later when we were colleagues at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio – I was the director of the Doctor of Ministry program and Judy was Bishop in Residence. She was scheduled to teach a course in that program one weekend and got news on Thursday that her brother had died out of state. I was also out of town and very concerned about who would teach that course, but when I reached Judy on the phone there was not one question about it. She was at peace with human mortality and knew there was a time for mourning, but it would be after she taught that course.

The last time I saw Judy was at a special dinner in her honor at the seminary where a scholarship was established in her honor. She had her portable oxygen with her, her physical being was failing; but it was oh so very well with her soul. When I waited my turn in line to greet her after the dinner I bent down to speak to her and in true Judy Craig style she complained about our making all this fuss over her. But then she did something I’ll never forget. She pulled me down close to her and kissed me on the cheek; and now I will always know what the kiss of peace is.

She was a rebel and a trailblazer for any and all who were marginalized, but she also had spent many years in local church ministry where she learned the art and necessity of balancing pastoral and prophetic ministry. When she gave the best commencement address I’ve ever heard at MTSO in May 2008 she told this story that captures the very essence of her spirit which lives on in all of us who were blessed to be touched by her life.

“I’m reminded of the story of a farmer who hired a builder to come and use the finest materials and build a beautiful barn. Then the farmer went out and got on his tractor and bulldozed down the old barn.

And the next day there was a storm threatening, but the farmer went into town anyway. And the storm hit, and the sleet was going sideways, and as he drove home, he was smiling to himself because he thought of his cattle in that nice, warm barn. He’d left the doors open so they could get in.

But when the farmer got home, he found the new barn empty. He went back out in the sleet and the wind, leaned into it as he walked toward where the old barn had been. And there, huddled in the wind and the sleet, were the cattle – inside the foundation of the old barn.

Recognize that? You’ll encounter people like that. Just then, dig out your patience and your modeling and your best invitational self. Pull out those great biblical illustrations about God’s future and the wonderful stories of church history. And then go and stand with those miserable cattle in that wind and love them anyway until they will finally begin to follow you into the new barn.”

Judy, you will always give us compassion to love because you so loved us.

Walls?

“There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbours.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” – Robert Frost

When I was a young child some people in our neighborhood built a fence on the property line between their house and their next door neighbors. That was unusual in those days before subdivisions where almost every yard is fenced. This fence was also unusual for several other reasons. It was 8 feet high but only about 16 feet long, leaving easy access around either end between the neighbors’ yards. You see it wasn’t a practical fence at all since it could not keep anyone or any animal from easily just going around it.

I overheard my parents discussing this fence one day and thought they were calling it a “spike” fence which made no sense because it was completely flat on top. There was nothing spikey about it! When I inquired about the fence my parents told me it was not “spike” but a “spite” fence because the neighbors who built the fence were angry with the folks next door. I don’t know if we ever knew what they were angry about, but I realize now the fence was a symbol of their animosity about something. It wasn’t really made of plywood but of anger.

Symbolic walls are much harder to tear down than physical ones, and I believe that is the reason for the stalemate and government shut down just now. President Trump has correctly pointed out that in the past Democrats have voted in favor of parts of a wall on our southern border; so the problem is not about a physical wall or about needing better border security, it is about what this wall has come to symbolize.

From the day he launched his campaign for president with remarks about Mexicans being “murderers and rapists” to racist comments about “s***hole” countries, to his refusal to condemn white supremacists in Charlottesville this President has demonstrated over and over that he is a racist. His father was a racist landlord in New York, and son Donald has not evolved from those roots.

Racism is an expression of fear, in this case fear of losing power and privilege that wealthy white males have controlled in this country since the first illegal immigrants landed at Jamestown and Plymouth Rock. And the wall stalemate/debate is grounded in that fear, and that is why it is so hard to resolve.

I have reread several artistic reflections on walls as I enjoy my own privileged status to sit in comfort with a cup of coffee and ruminate about what are life and death issues for unpaid government workers and desperate refugees. My thoughts have ranged from the account of the walls of Jericho in Joshua 6, to a play about an imaginary wall (“Aria da Capo” by Edna St. Vincent Millay), to Robert Frost’s poem “The Mending Wall,” to my own climbing up on a part of the Great Wall of China a few years ago.

All of those walls are the result of fear and somewhat based on reality. The citizens of Jericho were wiped out by Joshua and his men when “the walls came tumbling down.” The two shepherds in “Aria da Capo” kill each other because each of them has what the other wants on his side of the wall, but as they die and collapse on where the wall “is” they discover it does not exist except in their own imaginations.

I don’t know my Chinese history well enough to know how well the Great Wall worked at keeping their enemies out, but the sheer magnitude and effort and cost it took to build that wall speaks volumes about how great their fear was.

Frost’s poem cuts to the chase by asking hard questions about the need for walls. Do fences make good neighbors? Are walls needed if we follow the advice of the Great Commandment in both Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospels to “love our neighbors as ourselves?” Maybe that’s naïve, but on the other hand maybe it’s the only way, truth and life?

Thanksgiving and Confession

As usual, I approach another Thanksgiving with mixed feelings. Of course gratitude is always good for our souls. Every day should be a day of giving thanks for all the many blessings we have that we often take for granted.  But the Thanksgiving holiday is when we celebrate a particular time when the early settlers in this country, a group of starving immigrants, were saved by the radical hospitality of the indigenous Native Americans who had lived here for centuries.  And if we, almost 300 years later, are called to remember the true history of the founding of our country and not get stuck in the sanitized grade school myths most of us were taught then Thanksgiving must also be a day of confession and atonement . The reality is that the hospitality of the Native Americans was repaid with abuse, deceit and genocide. There can be no real grace or forgiveness unless we face the harsh truths about our heritage.

So it is with humility that we must come to the Thanksgiving table, and the ironic truth is that the very freedom we have to gather and overindulge this week is a sign of God‘s grace. For we do not deserve the wealth and abundance that  so many of us enjoy, but through the grace of God our sins of colonialism and aggression have not brought down judgment upon us. But we will never truly be a people at peace until we honestly look in the mirror of history and take a hard uncomfortable look at our flawed human nature.

As long as we try to live up to the falsehood of American exceptionalism or the myth that we are somehow God‘s chosen people to be a city on a hill we will dwell in some sense, even if it is subconscious, in guilt and shame.

I am sorry if this rains on your Thanksgiving parade, but I am again mindful of that Scripture from I John: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” But here’s the good news and the real reason we can give thanks this week and every day. John goes on to say, “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (I John 1:8-9)

Like you I am thankful for my blessings, my family, my health, but the bottom line is that I am most thankful for the gift of God’s undeserved redeeming grace.

History Lessons

I’ve been pondering the current re-emergence of racism in America while reading a history of the contentious and violent 1968 presidential election. This takeover of the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower has its roots in the Southern Strategy of Nixon and the blatant racism of George Wallace and Strom Thurmond. Donald Trump is simply the latest horrible outbreak of the evil virus that has been in this country from its very beginning.

There has been attention drawn to the 14th Amendment recently by Trump’s unconstitutional assertion that he can abolish birthright citizenship with a stroke of his pen. The scary thing is that if he retains control of all three branches of government next year he probably can and will. That’s what dictators do.

But here’s the history lesson we need to remember. The 14th Amendment, along with 13 and 15, that abolished slavery and granted citizenship and voting rights to African American men (women had to wait another 60 years to vote along with their white sisters), all three of those amendments were adopted during Reconstruction. That means the southern states never did and never have adopted those basic human values because their economy and heritage was founded on enslaving and abusing other human beings.

On my most depressed days I wonder if Lincoln was wrong to try and preserve this deeply divided union. Maybe we would have been better off as two separate but unequal nations?

But then the Holy Spirit taps me on the shoulder yet again and whispers in my ear, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

And my hero Nikos Kazantzakis shouts in the other ear, ““My prayer is not the whimpering of a beggar nor a confession of love. Nor is it the trivial reckoning of a small tradesman: Give me and I shall give you. My prayer is the report of a soldier to his general: This is what I did today, this is how I fought to save the entire battle in my own sector, these are the obstacles I found, this is how I plan to fight tomorrow.” (Nikos Kazantzakis, “Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises”)

Where does that faith and courage to fight the good fight come from? The clue is this other quote from Kazantzakis that is his epitaph: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”

Pastoral Prayer for World Communion Sunday

O Holy One who invites ALL who are weary to come and find rest, we the weary have heard your invitation. Rarely have we needed rest and your unifying Holy Spirit more than we do on this World Communion Sunday. We are exhausted by bitter partisan politics that divide families and friends. Some of us feel better because Justice Kavanaugh has been confirmed while others weep in despair for women’s voices that have gone unheeded yet again. But all of us are tired of the lack of civility that threatens our very way of life. When we leave this service today please empower all of us to be ambassadors of kindness and agents of compassion to every stranger we meet at school, work or in our daily lives.

We are tired of natural disasters and pray for their victims in the Carolinas and Indonesia and in places we’ve not even heard about that are often forgotten as soon as the news cycle moves on to a new crisis du jour.

But today we rejoice as the barriers of race, gender, and age disappear as Christians around the world gather at one table. We are neither Republican nor Democrat, female nor male, black, brown, yellow, red or white. We are one race – the human race—one body sharing one common loaf.

We are here to worship not because we deserve to be here, but because we need to be here. We are here because we know that all of us fall short of your glory, O God. This week we have all failed to do Christ-like things. If we pretend to be worthy we know we deceive ourselves and truth is not in us. And yet sinners that we are we come because we believe that your grace is for ALL, even for us, and that if we confess our sins you promise to cleanse us from ALL unrighteousness.

Our sins are wiped away, all grudges forgotten in the healing community we rejoice to be a small part of today. Around this table we speak different languages and have different customs; but through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit we are ALL one today and for as long as we remember who we are and whose we are we carry that holy sense of community with us.

We come, we pray, we go out to serve, in the name of the one who invites ALL who are weary to find rest. Hear our prayers O God in the name of Jesus who taught us how to live, how to build community and how to pray.

Northwest UMC, October 7, 2018

A Pastoral letter to Judge Brett Kavanaugh

Dear Brother Kavanaugh,

I write as an American citizen very troubled by your lack of credibility and qualification for a lifetime appointment on our highest court. But suspending my doubts about your character to the best of my ability I write to you as a fellow Christian who is obviously troubled to simply share the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. While I do believe Dr. Ford, I still feel compassion for your suffering, and I am embarrassed for my country that the bitter partisan divide in this country has contributed to your pain.

I do not presume to know what transpired between you and Dr. Ford or other women three decades ago. Those judgments ultimately rest between you and your God. What I do know as a man and from 50 years of Christian ministry is that being confirmed to the Supreme Court will not ease your pain. Jesus Christ famously said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” (John 8:32) Truth is the firm foundation of faith and our system of justice.

I raise the issue of truth because your testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, your interview on Fox, and today’s Op Ed in the Wall Street Journal are not consistent with your behavior before the Judiciary committee or with the testimony of multiple people who knew you in your youth. I am not talking about charges of sexual assault or misconduct; those are much more serious accusations that for political reasons have unfortunately not been fully investigated. I am talking about your characterization of yourself in your youth as a model citizen and student and your denial of excessive drinking which multiple friends and acquaintances have contradicted. I am talking about your assertion in the Wall Street Journal that you are non-partisan when you have been a political operative for decades and delivered a very partisan attack on your critics in your prepared testimony to the Judiciary Committee.

Please don’t get me wrong; I am not passing judgment on you for youthful excesses. It is your denial of those incidents and your lying to the Senate about the meaning of certain sexual activities described in abbreviations on your calendar that prompt me to write out of concern for your obviously troubled soul.

Your testimony last week called to my mind some words of Scripture that simply will not leave me and that I feel moved to share with you and any others who want to know the secret of dealing with guilt. Guilt is the heaviest burden any of us can carry around with us. It is a constant presence that takes tremendous amounts of energy. I know this from personal and pastoral experience.

The text from the New Testament that has been in my mind for the last week is I John 1:8 where it says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Sin is a part of the human condition. We are all fallible human beings who “fall short of the glory of God” to put it in the words of the great sinner St. Paul. And because we are all sinners the greatest gift we can give one another and ourselves is the gift of forgiveness. Again from personal experience I know that self-forgiveness is by far the hardest thing of all.

But here’s the truth that sets us free; there is only one road to freedom from guilt, and that road is confession, facing the hard truth about ourselves whatever it may be. Confession is hard, but it is a prerequisite to forgiveness and nothing compared to the agony of carrying the backbreaking burden of guilt. No, I’m not talking about public confession; it’s probably too late for that, and my experience is that public confession is only possible after we experience the forgiveness of God.

So here’s the Good News of the Gospel: In the very next verse after I John tells us there is sin in the best of us come these marvelous words of Grace; “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Yes, it says ALL unrighteousness!!

However the Senate votes, whatever your professional future holds, for the sake of your eternal soul dear Brett, please know that confession before our God of grace and mercy is the ultimate and only truth that will set you or any of us free.

Grace and Peace, Pastor Steve Harsh