Helsinkigate?

I wonder if that is how history will remember July 16, 2018, the day of President Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki? Dare we hope that the Helsinki fiasco will finally awaken the sleeping giant of bipartisan patriotism enough for Congress to grow a spine and do their constitutional duty to provide checks and balances on the President?

For those too young to remember Watergate let me describe the parallels I see between the Mueller probe of the 2016 election and 1974, the only time in American history that a unified Congress forced a sitting president out of office. The Watergate affair got its name from the building which housed the Democratic National Committee. President Nixon’s paranoia inspired a botched break in at the DNC to steal information about campaign strategy for the 1972 presidential election. As is often the case Nixon’s flawed attempts to cover up his role in the foolish escapade is what eventually forced him to resign in 1974 before a remarkably bipartisan Congress could impeach him.

The Trump administration should take especial note of the fact that Nixon’s infamous “Saturday Night Massacre” when he fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox who was closing in on him was the final straw that tipped the balance in Congress and in the court of public opinion against Nixon.

It was a truly tragic and foolish ending to a long political career. Watergate wiped out any good Nixon had accomplished. All the 37th President is remembered for is Watergate and being the only President (so far) to be forced out of office.

The whole Watergate escapade was foolish because the Democratic Party was so dysfunctional in 1972 that Nixon would have easily won reelection without whatever information was acquired in the Watergate break in. The Democratic candidate George McGovern was a very good man, seminary trained, a World War II bomber pilot; but he was far too liberal for mainstream America in those bitter Viet Nam war days and only carried one state in the Electoral College. It was one of the most lopsided presidential elections in history.

John Kennedy called people with the moral courage and integrity to stand up for truth, even when it is a very lonely place to stand, “Profiles in Courage” in his Pulitzer Prize book by that title. Times like Watergate and Helsinkigate require such heroines and heroes who are willing to do what is right instead of what is popular; those willing to value their eternal souls and inner peace over political expediency, who care more about country than party or ideology.

That’s a very lonely place to stand as described in some lines from the wonderful play, “Inherit the Wind,” where attorney Drummond gives young teacher Bert Cates some wonderful advice. Cates is the character modeled after John Scopes who was tried for teaching evolution in a famous trial in Tennessee in 1925. Drummond says to Cates: “It’s the loneliest feeling in the world to find yourself standing up when everyone else is sitting down.”

One of my favorite hymns is one we rarely sing in United Methodist circles. It has not been familiar or popular in any of the 8 churches I’ve served. Written by Congregational minister S. Ralph Harlow in 1931 in the early years of the Great Depression some verses of the hymn were omitted from the 1935 and 1966 Methodist Hymnals because they were, as the title suggests, too prophetic. In other words singing these words makes us uncomfortable by holding up the mirror of truth in front of us and challenging us to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ.

How contemporary these 86 year-old words sound today:
“O young and fearless Prophet of ancient Galilee: your life is still a summons to serve humanity, to make our thoughts and actions less prone to please the crowd, to stand with humble courage for truth with hearts unbowed.

O help us stand unswerving against war’s bloody way, where hate and lust and falsehood hold back your holy sway; forbid false love of country, that turns us from your call; who lifts above the nation the neighborhood of all.

Create in us the splendor that dawns when hearts are kind, that knows not race nor station as boundaries of the mind; that learns to value beauty, in heart, or mind, or soul, and longs to see God’s children as sacred, perfect, whole.

Stir up in us a protest against unneeded wealth; for some go starved and hungry who plead for work and health. Once more give us your challenge above our noisy day, and come to lead us forward along your holy way.”

I read a great quote somewhere recently that said, “If you decide to follow Jesus the world will break your heart over and over.” Young and not so young prophets know that pain all too well, but they also know a deeper truth. The God who calls us to be profiles in courage is the great healer of broken hearts. That God is the one who looks at times such as these and says, “Whom shall I send?” And the world is waiting to see who has the courage to respond, “Here am I, send me.” (Isaiah 6:8)

If you are brave enough, read the rest of Isaiah 6 to see what Isaiah predicts for his nation if their hearts are too callous to hear and understand God’s truth and justice. Spoiler alert – it’s not a pretty picture. May we today have better ears to hear hard truth that Isaiah’s Israel did!

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The Sacred Responsibility for Children

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.” That’s Jesus in Matthew 18:6, and that verse came to my mind as I reflect on the awesome responsibility of relating to children. My world changed dramatically 47 years ago when my daughter Joy was born. Holding that precious new life and knowing I was responsible for her flipped a switch in me that meant there was no more pretending to be an adult; this was the real thing.

Unfortunately that switch didn’t always stay on, and there were many times I failed to be the kind of father I wanted to be. The fact that both of my kids turned out to be great people is part grace and mostly because they had a wonderful mother.

Jesus doesn’t mess around with describing the seriousness of how we treat children. If we harm a little one we deserve to be drowned “in the depth of the sea.” Thank God there’s also “a wideness in God’s mercy, Like the wideness of the sea” to stick with the sea imagery from Frederick Faber’s great hymn.

Like many of you my wife and I have been paying close attention to the rescue efforts of the soccer team. We check our phones for updates just before bed and first thing in the morning, and many times in between. As I write this eight of the 13 have been brought out through the treacherous waters, and we are praying hard that the other 5 can be saved before the monsoon rains can do their deadly deed.

Why is the world so fixed on these 12 children and young coach? None of us had ever heard of them three weeks ago. And yet a huge team of experts from all over the world have rallied around in an amazing show of international and humanitarian collaboration to save these young men. No one is even asking how much all this is costing because you can’t put a price tag on human lives, especially those of children.

Maybe we are so drawn to this story because we are starving for good news in a world gone mad with all sorts of pain and suffering. We are certainly in awe of the sacrificial love of these divers who are risking their lives to bring these kids out, and our hearts ache for the family and friends of the diver who lost his life last week.

I don’t want in any way to dampen the joy we feel for the success of this unbelievable effort, and my fervent prayer is that by tomorrow we will be rejoicing that the other five will be set free from the darkness they have lived in for far too long. But in the midst of all the emotion I feel for the Thai kids I can’t help but raise another painful concern. We simply cannot let this huge news story overshadow or distract us from the millstone being put around the necks of thousands of children by our government’s zero tolerance policy. The very term “zero tolerance” should be repulsive to us.

The separation of children from their families for political purposes, and that’s what this is, is a moral outrage; and we cannot let any other shenanigans by the President or even the Thai rescue take pressure off of Congress to find the political courage to force the administration to make reunification of these families a top priority. If the divers in Thailand can risk their very lives to save the soccer team, surely our elected officials can risk their political future to save thousands of refugee kids.

The big irony of all this is that the psychological damage being done to these kids will push them into the kind of violence and drug use that the administration claims to be so concerned about. Children need to be loved, to feel secure; they need more than basic physical needs to be met to develop into responsible, caring adults that are required when they become parents. Jesus understood how crucial loving families are, not just for now, but for future generations. He was a refugee too, and had parents who risked their lives to care for him.

No one can provide the emotional support kids need better than their families. These refugee parents risked their lives to try and escape the violence in their homeland. They love their children as much as those families waiting outside the cave in Thailand love theirs. If we can move heaven and earth to save those 12 kids and their coach, surely we can muster the compassion and political will to stop separating families and reunite all of those whose kids must feel as isolated and afraid as those trapped in that cave.

For those who don’t care, I’d stay away from millstones.

Like a Fatherless Child

To paraphrase an old spiritual, “Sometimes I feel like a fatherless child.” Today is my first father’s day as an orphan. My dad died 4 months ago, and I didn’t expect to feel the loss today as much as I do. My dad and I were not very close, and his last few years were not conducive to meaningful conversation. Fortunately I made a concerted effort in recent years to forgive him for the things I resented about his parenting; and we were on good terms before he died. But there is still emptiness in my heart today. He’s not where I can visit with him or call him and that hurts.

If I feel that loneliness as a 71 year-old reasonably stable adult, I can’t imagine what the immigrant kids being held by our government away from their parents in a strange country and place they’ve never seen before are feeling. It breaks my heart, and so does the legalistic mindset that says, “You do the crime, you do the time.” Yes, at times that strategy is necessary, but these kids are innocent. They didn’t come here on their own. Many are here because their parents in desperation risked arrest to flee for their lives from danger in their home countries. They threw themselves on the mercy of our country much as immigrants have done for centuries, only this time the quality of mercy has been strained to the breaking point.

The legalistic response from the current administration and especially from (I hate to admit) my fellow United Methodist Jeff Sessions reminds me of the Scribes and Pharisees who wanted to throw the book at Jesus for healing someone on the Sabbath. Yes, Jesus broke the law because he knew compassion and human decency trump the law at times. You don’t tell a person begging for healing, “Sorry, not on the Sabbath.” As Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.”

So what do we do now? Christians across the country and world have raised a hue and cry of righteous indignation, but so far the Republican President and Congress have been unmoved. Such desperate times call for desperate action. The damage being done to these children cannot go on. So here’s my suggestion to the Democratic leadership in Congress. Pay the ransom. Give the president what he wants. Pay for the stupid wall. The billions of dollars are a huge price to pay, but how do you put a price on the well-being of all the Dreamers and other children being held hostage? Pay the ransom for the sake of the fatherless and motherless kids. And then take the reins of government back in November or in 2020 and pull the funding for the worthless wall. It’s getting perilously late to save our democracy, but if a new birth of compassion is restored by the plight of these children it may be worth it.

Flags, Idols and Outrage Burnout

Because life has been busier than usual for me the last few weeks I have not posted anything here. I know, you conservative friends have been relieved, but it doesn’t mean I haven’t been reflecting on the myriad of news events in our broken world. I’ve been busy in part because my dear wife had rotator cuff surgery four weeks ago and has been unable to use her right/dominant hand and arm. I’m glad to be her “right hand man,” and I have a whole new appreciation for all she does and for the loving ministry of caregivers everywhere. She’s still got a few more weeks in her sling, but we are grateful that she’s recovering very well.

The other reason I’ve not written was something I couldn’t identify until recently. You know the feeling you get when you’ve got something wrong but you’re not sure what, and how it helps to get it diagnosed and have a name for it? Well I heard someone on NPR last week who gave a name to what I’ve been feeling about the current political malaise in our country and world. She called it “outrage burnout.” There is such a string of astonishing unjust and stupid actions taken by the President, his Attorney General, his cadre of crazy lawyers, ICE, etc. that before you can respond to one outrage there’s two or three more. I’m convinced it’s a very clever political strategy to simply wear down the opposition before the midterm elections. So with that caveat, here’s a post I started a week or so ago while waiting for my wife at a Doctor’s appointment. You will notice it is a bit dated but I believe it is still relevant enough to be worth your time.

When I was ordained a United Methodist pastor 49 years ago this month one of the traditional questions the bishop asked me and my fellow ordinands was “Are you going on to perfection?” We dutifully, if suppressing a chuckle, gave the acceptable answer which is “yes.” If asked that now in this penultimate stage of my life I’d have to say “Probably not!” The point of that question is that like any milestone event in life, e.g. graduation, marriage, bat mitzvah, ordination is just that, a milestone on a long journey and not a destination. It is also there as a not-so-subtle reminder that all of us, clergy alike and maybe especially clergy are FHB’s – fallible human beings standing in the need of God’s grace.

Since that day in 1969 I have learned many things about my own fallibility and the dark side of human nature that have convinced me beyond a shadow of a doubt that “perfection” is not achievable in this life—not even close.
In fact, one of the biggest issues I’m dealing with in my 72nd year of life is dismay that humankind seems to be moving further from perfection at an alarming rate. For most of my adult life I have been comforted and inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s statement that “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Lately however I find myself questioning which way that arc is bending. My biggest regret about my ministry is that both my church and the world seem even more divided and imperfect now than they did 50 years ago.

I will spare all of us the litany of evil and depressing events that bombard us daily like a biblical plague of locusts. It is hard to decide which of the seven deadly sins is most prevalent on any given day. But for the sake of argument let’s just tackle the first two the Ten Commandments. The top two of the Decalogue can be summarized: 1) Have no other gods but Yahweh, and 2) Worship no idols. I am thinking of those two just now because of the “to kneel or not to kneel” debate going on between NFL football players, NFL owners, and President Trump.
The NFL recently, in my opinion, violated the first amendment rights of their predominantly black players by threatening to fine anyone for not standing during the national anthem. President Trump raised the ante by harkening back to the good old “America love it or leave it” days of the 1960’s anti-war protests to question if anyone defying the NFL rule even belongs in this country! Do you suppose he will also deport all the Amish, Mennonite and Jehovah Witnesses who also refuse to bow down to any empire’s graven image? Those groups have been exercising their right to freedom of expression for decades, but then again they’re white so that must make a difference.

The Supreme Court ruled in the middle of World War II no less that Americans have the right not to stand for the national anthem. Why does it matter? Because God and God’s values of justice and equality for all of humankind trump, pun intended, any human law or allegiance. That’s what the “under” means in “One nation under God.” And by the way all national laws of any nation are human laws. For a more detailed discussion of what Professor Robert Jewett calls “zealous nationalism” vs. “prophetic realism” see my post on “Biblical Politics,” Nov. 5, 2012.
The flag controversy began as a protest against police using excessive and too often fatal force, against black people, especially those who are unarmed. That’s a legitimate justice issue and needs to be addressed in any and all peaceful means; and kneeling players succeeded in bringing attention to that cause. But President Trump and the NFL have misconstrued their protest by trying to make it about patriotism and respect for the military. Intentionally or not that is a diversionary tactic to avoid the important issue of racial justice, the central moral issue of all of American history.

When a flag or any symbol becomes more important than the divine issues of truth and justice it has become an idol. Whenever loyalty to country or party supersedes loyalty to truth we are worshipping a false god. When I was a Boy Scout many decades ago there was a badge called “God and Country.” I don’t know if there is such an award in scouting now, but I hope not. That title equates God and Country as if the two are synonymous. They are not. Every nation, tribe, race, organization or group of FHB’s is by definition imperfect–in other words needs to always be “going on to perfection.” We the people of the USA have not and will never “arrive,” and therefore always are in need of positive and constructive criticism. That is what the first amendment so wisely is intended to protect and why it’s number one.

As for the NFL, let’s just say I’ll have more free time this fall on Sundays and Monday nights as I exercise my freedom to boycott their ill-advised rule.

P.S. As I was writing this my wife asked me a very good question about freedom of expression. This was during Rosanne Barr’s fifteen minutes of fame where her show was cancelled by ABC because she tweeted some racist comments about Valerie Jarett who was a member of the Obama administration. The difference is that Rosanne’s comments were degrading and libelous, defaming the very being of an African American woman. The NFL protest call attention to a social justice issue in order for it to be addressed. Rosanne slandered another human being in the cruelest of racial stereotypes that have no redeeming or critical value (and was a repeat offender of such behavior). Yes, she later apologized, but hateful speech is like the proverbial toothpaste that cannot be put back in the tube once it is expelled. On the other side of the political aisle a few days later Samantha Bee was guilty of using very crude speech about Ivanka Trump, and she was just as wrong and perhaps more so because her comments were not a late night tweet but a scripted pre-taped commentary on her TV show. So far as I know Bee has gotten off with much less punishment than Rosanne, and that is yet another example of how justice and human decency are being eroded by the partisan vitriol polluting the environment we all live in today.

Bottom line is that freedom of e xpre4ssion has never been an absolute right. The over –used example is that no one is allowed to induce panic in a crowded theater by yelling “fire” when there is none. Freedom must be tempered by the higher values of truth and respect for the greater good of others and the community.

The flag debate is not new but an on-going dialogue that will always be going on to perfection, even when it moves one step forward and two back. Never has the need for the balance between individual freedom and communal responsibility been more needed than it is today. The secret is in the first commandment. If we truly put the higher power of being itself that we call God first and foremost in our loyalties and obedience then other issues fall into place and greed, materialism, nationalism, sexism, and racism will not rule our thoughts and actions. Of course humankind has been trying to live up to that high ideal for 4000 years or so. We’re not close to arriving, and that is discouraging; but by the grace of God we continue on the way, even when the goal seems hopeless. For to continue seeking God’s way when all seems hopeless is the very meaning of faith.

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.

Faith, Doubt and Playing Possum

My brain feels like a whirling dervish this week with all the scandal, intrigue and assorted craziness in the news. I feel like I’m living in a bad soap opera with FBI raids on the President’s lawyer, Speakers of both the US House and the Ohio House stepping down unexpectedly and military strikes on Syria that put us closer to a nuclear showdown with Russia than any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment but I can’t seem to stop watching and reading the news like the proverbial train wreck. I have managed to get engrossed in a couple of good novels as a respite from the 24-hour bad news cycle. One is a book on tape I listen to while driving, James Patterson’s “Woman of God,” and the other on my Nook, Dan Brown’s “Origin.” But of course both of those are full of conflict and profound theological questions about human suffering and human nature itself. And in my spare time I’m wading through a weighty and rather depressing tome entitled “What Are We Doing Here?” by Marilynne Robinson for a book club I’m in.

Mingled in with all that drama has been a personal struggle with guilt. On Wednesday of this week I had the painful task of dispatching a possum whose only offense was making his domicile under our deck. I’ve been trying to trap him or her for a few weeks and until this week had only managed to feed chipmunks who are too small to trip the trap and catch a stray cat. Every morning that the trap was by our deck I was relieved to find it empty, but Wednesday it was fully occupied by a sleeping possum who seemed quite content. It had finished off the apple that I used as bait and unlike the cat seemed quite content and even trusting when I carried him/her to a watery grave in our pond. It would have been much easier on me if she/he had hissed and growled at me, but that is not the way of the possum.

The possum’s capital offense was invading turf that belongs to us – we have a deed–but then I guess possums can’t read; so posting a no trespassing sign would probably not have done any good. Fearing he/she would attract or produce more furry friends that could do damage to the foundation of our house my wife and I felt justified in this dirty deed. I used to take such critters a few miles away and release them, but that is actually against the law of the land and increasingly impossible as urban sprawl takes over more and more habitat for our four-footed friends.

On this second week of Eastertide I couldn’t help theologizing a bit about this experience, and it occurred to me that there is a parallel here between my possum and what we did to Jesus a couple millennia ago. Their offenses were much the same– invading someone else’s space and making them/us uncomfortable. Just as the possum created conflict for me about his/her right and mine to occupy this space on Brock Road, so Jesus created such a degree of discomfort and cognitive dissonance by proclaiming a higher ethical standard of God’s reign that threatened the Jewish and Roman homeowners in Jerusalem that they set a trap for him and executed him on trumped up charges of blasphemy.

The big difference of course where these two tales of death diverge is in their outcome. And no I’m not suggesting Jesus was just playing possum in that tomb for 3 days. He was just as dead as my possum – ask his mother who watched him be nailed to that cross. Ask the centurion who ran a spear into his side to make sure he was dead. Jesus was dead!

But Eastertide is the season of resurrection – even in chilly Ohio where spring has been delayed. I saw a meme on Facebook that said “Mother Nature was late delivering spring because Father Time was driving and refused to stop and ask for directions.” But better late than never we had at least a teaser of spring this week. The daffodils, hyacinths and forsythia are blooming, the crocuses are croaking, and the robins are digging up earthworms in my yard.

I had an hour between two appointments on Thursday, our first warm day; so I went for a walk in one of Columbus’ lovely metro parks. I took exception to a sign that told me the trail I took was 1.1 miles. I know it had to be longer than that because it took me much longer to hike it that it used to. I was also struck for the first half mile or so by how dead everything looked. Dead trees and limbs were all over the woods, everything was the barren brown of winter. And then I looked a little closer and saw that there amongst the detritus of winter’s death there were tiny green leaves quietly emerging from some of the branches. When I walked by the lake there was a young couple facing each other on a picnic bench and staring into each other’s eyes as only new lovers can do.

Signs of new life are there even if they aren’t obvious to a casual observer. Even my poor departed possum will provide nutrients to the soil and food for some birds of prey. Even in the news there are signs of hope, but we may have to work to find them. Today’s headlines were all about the bombing of Syria and the most recent scandals in Washington. But back in the metro section was an editorial that gave me hope. One of my heroes in days gone by is a local preacher here in Columbus, Ohio who is often called the father of the Social Gospel.

Rev. Washington Gladden died 100 years ago this year after a long and illustrious career of championing social justice causes as the pastor of First Congregation Church on East Broad St. just a few blocks from the state capitol. Today’s editorial was about a memorial garden that the church is building on property next to the church to honor Gladden. The park, to open in August, will include “exhibitions on social justice issues, an artist-in-residence program to teach children about social justice, along with art, lectures and forums, community dialogues and performances.” Current Sr. Pastor Tim Aherns says plans call for “a refuge of waterfalls, public art, green space, trees and a pathway of quotes about the pursuit of justice.”

Gladden himself was an early advocate for ecumenism and church engagement in political reform. He was friends with Theodore Roosevelt, Booker T. Washington, and every prominent public figure in Columbus. “At the time of Gladden’s death,” the editorial concludes, “The Ohio State Journal—which regularly had published his social justice sermons on Page One—called him the ‘First Citizen’ of Columbus.” The full editorial is at http://www.dispatch.com/opinion/20180414/editorial-new-park-to-honor-columbus-social-justice-champion

My take away from all of this disjointed rambling is that there is always a spark of new life hidden in the darkest days. That’s what resurrection is all about. God is not playing possum. Spring may not arrive when the calendar says so, but it will arrive. Justice will roll down like waters, maybe not today but someday. Easter didn’t end two weeks ago, it just began, and that liturgical season lasts until Pentecost when God saw that even showing the disciples Jesus’ hands and side wasn’t proof enough and sent the mighty wind of the Holy Spirit to light a fire in those believers that no one, no thing, no how has or ever will extinguish. We believe Lord, help our unbelief.