When Oceans Rise

Earlier this year my wife and I joined another couple on an amazing five-week trip to New Zealand and Australia. We even had a bonus stop of 4 days in Tahiti on the way over. So many wonderful experiences it’s hard to even remember them all. We visited the bustling cities of Auckland, Brisbane and Sydney, took a tour of the fantastic Sydney Opera House, spent part of Ash Wednesday in awe as dolphins swam around the sail boat we were on in the harbor of Akoroa, NZ, sailed through Fiordland National Park on our cruise ship, petted some kangaroos and wallabies, saw glow worms in the Blue Mountains of Australia, toured the largest sand island in the world (Fraser Island), and spent time on the beautiful beach called the Gold Coast.

After all that I was pretty weary and getting tired of living out of a suitcase. Our trip involved 10 flights, staying in 12 hotels and a cruise ship cabin, more time zone changes than I can remember (not to mention crossing the International Date Line coming and going). We traveled over 22000 miles, had glorious weather everywhere, and thanks to our friends Barbara and Dave who did almost all of the planning and all of the driving on the left side of the road we were never lost, never had a delayed flight nor any lost luggage!! That in itself is a miracle!

But the best and most memorable part of the trip was saved till the end. All the tiredness was replaced by awe and wonder as we spent three days and two nights on Lady Elliot Island at the southern tip of The Great Barrier Reef. Yes we actually lived in this amazing eco resort on the reef! It’s an eco-resort because the owners are committed to stewardship of this natural wonder. They generate 80% of their electricity from solar power and will soon increase that figure to 100%. They desalinate sea water for their guests and staff. The island itself is tiny, just long enough for a bumpy air strip, and only 80 guests are on the island at any one time.

The picture here is a sunset on the west side of the island, one of two places where we could snorkel every day. The south end of the reef is in good shape still, unlike the north where rising ocean temperatures are threatening to kill it. So we rejoiced to see spectacular coral and more sea life than words can begin to do justice. We did not have an underwater camera, and on one level I regret that. But on another I am glad my encounters with huge sea turtles, hundreds of fish of every color in the rainbow and gorgeous, graceful and gigantic manta rays were unmediated by a camera lens. Those experiences are so vividly burned into my memory that I will never forget them.

The rich diversity of God’s creation, the peacefulness and majesty that appeared every time I moved from seeing nothing but water on the surface to simply putting my face in the water was transformative! God’s glory is right around us or below us in this case. All we have to do is pay attention. One day a huge sea turtle swam right under me so close I could have reached out and touched it. These big lumbering creatures on land move as gracefully as a ballerina in the primordial waters from which all life emerged

I have that sunset picture as wallpaper on my iPhone for several reasons: just for its beauty and as a reminder of the inspiring snorkeling we did there in that very water. But there’s another memory associated with that place that I have not really written or talked about much. We’ve been home over a month now, and we’ve told some family and friends about our last day snorkeling. It was memorable for a very different but equally moving reason.

We had snorkeled the day before out by the sailboat in that picture and had a marvelous time. It was the first time we saw manta rays, a real highlight of our time on the reef. The wing span of those rays is 8-10 feet, and even in a depth of 50 feet or more they dwarf everything else in the water. So of course on our final day there we wanted to relive that experience. We were in the same place that day, but what we didn’t realize while we were out in the water was that the current changed. It became so strong that we were unable to swim back into the one narrow opening in the coral where we could return to the beach.

Fortunately we were wearing life jackets so we were in no immediate danger of drowning, but no matter how hard we tried to swim toward shore we were gradually drifting further south, parallel to the coast but unable to get there. I am not usually one who prays for divine intervention in such situations, but I was just beginning to converse with Jesus about what in the world we were going to do when I saw a beautiful sight. One of the glass bottom boats from the resort had taken other snorkelers out nearby, and the captain saw we were in trouble and came over to rescue us.

He picked Diana up first and then came over toward me. When I swam over to the boat and grabbed onto its ladder nothing ever felt any better. The captain asked me if I was ok, and my reply was; “Now I am!” He probably had seen us and headed our way before I prayed, and I’m sure God had. They say God watches over animals and foolish people, right?

And now back to reality; another school shooting, number 35 of this school year. 49 years ago this week 4 students were killed at Kent Stated and this country came to a screeching halt. Now we barely notice. Our Secretary of State makes a fool of himself again by saying (to an Arctic conservation conference no less) that the arctic ice melt is “good for commerce” because it will open up new shipping lanes! I kid you not. Who does he think is going to engage in commerce with when our seaports are under water and climate refugees are overrunning the parts of the world that are left inhabitable? That kind of selfish short-sighted thinking will literally be the death of this planet, and it is of little comfort to me that I will die before the worst consequences of our stupidity are realized.

This week my grandchildren in Houston are reliving the nightmare of hurricane Harvey as their neighborhood streets and schools are once again flooded by torrential rains predicted to last the rest of the week! Does anyone in our so-called government care about these obvious impacts of climate change? No, they are all too busy trying to stay out of jail for their own lawless power grabbing behavior.

I realized this week why it has taken me so long to process our scary experience in the Great Barrier Reef waters. That experience ended well. We were rescued before our plight got really serious, but on a deeper (pun intended) level, who is going to rescue our nation and world from the morass of overwhelming problems we have created for ourselves? When nearly 50% of our population (according to latest polls 46%) supports our lying, power-grabbing president what hope is there for democracy? Many self-avowed Christians support Trump enthusiastically, even though he is on record as saying his favorite Bible verse is “An eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth,” a verse directly vetoed by Jesus in the Sermon on the. Mount. Yes, the Jesus who says “the greatest of all is servant of all.” Can you imagine Trump trying to wrap his mind around that one?

The Sunday after our trip to Australia our church’s praise team did a contemporary song called “Oceans” that touched my jet-lagged soul. In part those lyrics say:

“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 and You are mine

Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders
Let me walk upon the waters
Wherever You would call me”

It is so hard to have water-walking faith when the storms of life are raging all around us. I had a massage this morning, which is usually a very relaxing experience. It still felt good on my body, but my mind would not relax. The hate-filled rhetoric going on in DC and in my own United Methodist denomination, fears about the physical and emotional health of my kids and grandkids in Houston battled for attention in my mind with how to pay my bills and how to keep up with my yard work and getting my taxes done (we took an extension).

And yet in spite of it all the words of “Oceans” still float in the depths of my soul:

“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.”

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

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