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.

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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

Sex and Power

BREAKING NEWS: BELOVED NATIONAL LEADER CHARGED WITH MURDER IN SEX COVER UP. No that is not a headline from today’s news even though it sounds like it could be. It’s a summary of a salacious sex scandal in 2 Samuel 12 where King David has Uriah, the husband of his mistress Bathsheba, killed in battle so he won’t find out that David impregnated his wife while Uriah was off fighting David’s battles. David was even foolish enough to put his evil cover up scheme in writing: “In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. In the letter he wrote, “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die.” (2 Samuel 11:14)

Sex scandals are nothing new, nor do we seem to have learned much in the last 3000 years. Like many I am disgusted and embarrassed by the political theater playing out in the Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Like the Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill drama 27 years ago we have no process to fairly evaluate the accusations that have been leveled at Judge Kavanaugh by Dr. Ford. The members of the judiciary committee are divided along party lines and frankly unable to be objective and fair in settling this “He said, she said” matter.

As I write this we don’t know if Dr. Ford is going to appear before the Judiciary Committee or not. We do know that she and her family’s lives have been changed forever by this painful decision to come forward. Yes, the Democrats should have brought this whole matter up sooner, but that is only a problem because this whole process has been rushed through for purely political reasons.
We may never know the truth in this matter, and I know my own political biases cloud my thinking about it. But what I do know is that this is a teachable moment for all of us men. No matter what the outcome of the confirmation process Judge Kavanaugh’s reputation will never be the same. And the lesson we men need to learn and we need to teach our sons and grandsons is that girls and women cannot be treated disrespectfully.

The “Me Too” movement has shown us over and over again that there are consequences for sexual misconduct. We need to celebrate that the days of “boys will be boys” is being strongly and effectively challenged by women in all walks of life.

We will no longer get away with sexual misconduct. King David learned that lesson too when the prophet Nathan had the courage to confront him about his sinful behavior. Nathan does it indirectly by telling David a parable about a rich man who steals from his poor neighbor, and David is angry at that injustice. And then Nathan springs the punch line and says, “You are the Man.” (2 Samuel 12)

Like Nathan there have always been some voices willing to challenge abuse of power, but those voices especially those of women have been ignored. We are just now feeling the brunt of sexual abuse in every aspect of our society, in the church, government, and entertainment industry. And those are just the ones that make the news. God only knows how many women and girls are still suffering in silence.
David does confess his sin when Nathan confronts him, but Nathan tells him that even though his sin is forgiven there will still be dire consequences for his action.

The sooner we men can join David and say ‘Me Too,” I am guilty of treating women with disrespect, the sooner things will move toward justice for all. Most of us men are not guilty of adultery in the strict interpretation of that act, but we need to learn that how we think and feel about women in any way that demeans them, fails to value their ideas, pays them less than men, or tries to silence their voices because what they have to say makes us uncomfortable if we have to admit our own complicity in this age-old problem, all of those behaviors are flat out wrong.

No matter how the Supreme Court confirmation turns out there will be no winners unless we as a society can learn a lesson from this situation and take at least some small steps toward a better world where there is “neither male nor female” (Galatians 3:28) but where we are all one in God’s universal family.

John McCain

My wife and I just spent a couple of hours watching the funeral of John McCain. We weren’t planning to watch the funeral; too many other things to do. We turned the TV on to watch a little U.S. Open tennis while we ate lunch but never changed channel from the funeral. What a wonderful tribute to great man and lesson for our nation to learn about cooperation, compromise and collaboration. It was one of the best funerals I’ve ever seen, including the marvelous recessional to Frank Sinatra singing “I Did It My Way.” If you missed it find it on You Tube and watch. It’s well worth it.

What moved me most personally was the way Senator McCain lived with his pain and injuries all those years- serving his country when he had every right to be bitter and angry about his fate in life. I hope whenever I am tempted to surrender to my minor aches and pains the image of a smiling John McCain struggling to wave to crowds when he couldn’t raise his arms above his head will remind me that a little pain and suffering is no excuse to give up, no justification for surrender or self-pity, but the very source of courage, strength and faith to live each day with renewed determination to make a difference.

I didn’t agree with John McCain on many political issues; I didn’t vote for him for President; but I am so glad he and his family planned such a wonderful funeral service to help all of us appreciate what a great man he was. “Well done thou good and faithful servant.” Rest in peace Senator McCain.

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!