Dis-United: Realism vs Aspirations

May 2022 will go down in my personal history as one of the most difficult in my life. I have not written a post here for over a month for a number of reasons, including trying to work through my chronic pain to help care for our beautiful 2 acre property. My depression over my failing strength has coupled with despair over humankind’s addiction to violence. From Mariupol to Buffalo to Uvalde bloodshed has colored the news and my Eeyore-like emotional state.

Amidst all the terrible news of current affairs the unmerry month of May has been the scene of schism in the United Methodist Church, my church home for 65 years. That split along with the related political paralysis in our country got me searching for a common thread. There are several, but the one that captured my imagination is the semantic commonality shared by both my country and my church, namely that both share in their names a paradoxical claim to be “united.”

The UMC was founded 54 years ago in 1968 with the merger of two denominations, the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Evangelical United Brethren and is younger than the USA by almost 200 years. Realizing that the word “united” in both cases is more aspirational than descriptive, it still saddens me greatly that in both cases the divisions have widened over their lifespan rather than moved closer to living up to their names.

Case in point: “The United States may have been founded on the idea that all men are created equal, but during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, slaveholding was common among the statesmen who served as president. All told, at least 12 chief executives—over a quarter of all American presidents—enslaved people during their lifetimes. Of these, eight held enslaved people while in office.” (history.com)

The authors of the American experiment in democracy included the damning phrase in our constitution that enslaved persons only counted as 3/5 of a person because those authors were predominantly slave owners. That 3/5 clause was a compromise to “unite” the northern and southern colonies, but at a price we are still paying for today. Systemic racism had already been in existence for over 150 years in those colonies, and the battle over it dominated the country’s politics for 80 years ending in the bloodiest war in our history. But, unlike what most of us were taught in school, that war didn’t solve this existential problem. Systemic racism continued to poison our nation through lynchings, Jim Crowe laws, and outright genocide against Native Americans. That racism may have seemed to go underground for a few years after the successes of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s but reared its ugly head again in the 21st century in the twin evils of birtherism and Trumpism.

It frustrates me greatly that we weren’t taught about this disunited history in school. Our history text books never mentioned the Tulsa massacre of 1921or many other similar atrocities all over the country. We did not learn about the Trail of Tears or Wounded Knee or lynching of black folks for public entertainment sanctioned by the church. Those omissions were not our teachers’ fault. Those ugly parts of our history were so buried and censored that our educators didn’t know either and kept passing those lies along. “United” States? Not even close.

The disunity of the United Methodist denomination is a similarly sad story. I was ordained in 1969 in the first class of ordinands in the infant UMC. Three years later the exclusionary language condemning homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching” was inserted into our Book of Discipline, the rule book governing the UMC, by the first General Conference of the new UMC. And for the next 50 years that culture war has raged, leading to the schism in our denomination.. That Covid-postponed split began to unfold officially on May 1, 2022 with the launching of a new denomination called the Global Methodist Church by those who are opposed to ordination and marriage for LGBTQ people.

So we have these two “united” in name only entities with ever-widening irreconcilable differences. When stuck in that kind of relationship a married couple faces the painful reality that separation and divorce may be the lesser of two evils. Divorce is always messy but sometimes necessary for both parties to survive and flourish. Even Jesus instructed his disciples in Matthew 10:14: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.”

Are we at that point in either the UMC or USA? For me the answer is yes and maybe. In the case of the UMC I am convinced that a divorce is necessary. For 50 of my 53 years as an ordained pastor in the UMC the debate over LGBTQ equality in the eyes of God has dominated a large part of our corporate life and consumed so much time and energy that could have been used in more important forms of ministry. As one with first-hand experience with marital divorce I can attest to how much emotional energy is consumed by conflict and pretending to be something we are not. There comes a time in some marriages when the most loving decision is to set each other free, and the UMC is at that point.

As for the USA the issues are far more complicated. Our two major political parties are so far apart on most issues there is little common ground upon which to stand. The Gospel of John tells us that we need truth to set us free and we aren’t getting much truth. The Republican Party has descended to fear-mongering and lies to get or maintain power. Too many individuals are so concerned with inflation and losing our own privileged lives to see the bigger picture. Such short-sightedness means we keep kicking the can of climate change and other critical issues down the road and leaving our children and grandchildren with a bleak future. Any modicum of impartiality and non-partisanship in the judiciary at every level has succumbed to political gamesmanship. Any hope for real election reform to undo the damage caused by Citizens United would have to be enacted by the very lawmakers who benefit from existing laws. That seems to be an idealistic pipe dream.

When we can’t even manage a peaceful transition of power in a Presidential election it seems hopeless to think we Americans could engineer any kind of altruistic or amicable divorce.

For real or even semi-unity in either of these cases a healthy dose of conversion to comply more closely to our founding ideals in the Bible or the constitution respectively would be necessary. Unfortunately the only road to conversion is through confession and repentance, and I see little humility needed to make that happen in our church or nation. If we continue to bear the heavy burden of pretending to be something we are not instead of facing the hard truth of our real history we will never have the courage or energy needed to hear the truth.

But here’s the truth that sets us free. We are still loved even in our division and sinfulness. Our creator’s unconditional love is what sets us free to confess our failures and move toward a more perfect union. It’s that simple and yet so hard because it requires a leap of faith. The alternative is to keep widening the chasm of disunity until it is beyond repair.

Ukraine: Reaping the Whirlwind and Beyond

“Those who have sown the wind will reap the whirlwind.” Hosea 8:7.

The prophet Hosea wrote those wise words over 2700 years ago predicting the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel to Assyria. The wind they had sown in that case was putting their trust in foreign alliances instead of God.

Fast forward to 2022 CE to a confrontation between Vladimir Putin and the western world.  The civilized world is appalled at the brutal and indiscriminate slaughter of innocent civilians by the Russian dictator. There are many legitimate arguments being made comparing this invasion to Hitler’s takeover of Eastern Europe 80 years ago.

President Biden and the NATO allies are very reluctant to confront Putin militarily or in any way that Putin might construe as an affront to his fragile ego. The comparison of this “inaction” to British Prime Minister Chamberlain’s failed appeasement of Hitler in the run up to World War II is somewhat persuasive, but there is one huge difference. Hitler didn’t have nukes. Putin does, lots of them, and he seems unhinged enough to use them.

In other words, we sowed the atomic wind on Hiroshima and Nagasaki 80 years ago and launched a suicidal arms race with the ever so apt strategy named MAD (mutually assured destruction). Now we are reaping the whirlwind of birthing the nuclear arms race. Our ability to stop Putin’s massacre of Ukrainians is hamstrung by the fear of the very nuclear arms race we invented.

I have no solution to this conundrum. Even though I try to be a pacifist, if there was a way to blow Putin to kingdom come without escalating this whole mess I’d be all for it. No one wants to ignite WW III because we know there will be no WW IV. In my darker days, and there are more and more lately, I am beginning to believe that between humanity’s obsession with violence and our greed that fuels climate change the human race is doomed.

But here’s the thing, that is not as hopeless or as fatalistic as it sounds. Because the God of the entire universe is so much more, well, cosmic than anything our puny little planet amounts to that the loss of this 3rd rock from the sun would barely be a blip on the cosmic screen. That is a harsh pill to swallow for those of us who think we are created in God’s image, a little less than the angels (Psalm 8:5)! Ever since Galileo and Copernicus dared to question the anthropocentric belief that the earth was the center of the universe our knowledge of the infinite nature of space has made us more and more humble, or should have.

I hope and pray I am wrong about the future of humankind. At my age it doesn’t really matter much to me personally, but it makes me sick to think of that bleak future I’m leaving to my kids and grandkids. Is there still hope for humans to learn to live in peace with one another? Could the threat of climate change provide motivation for humans to finally band together to fight a common foe instead of each other? Based on our past track record I don’t see it happening. If the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki didn’t cure our warring madness, what will?

[Note: This post originally ended right here, but about 5 minutes after I posted it I heard that still small voice saying, “That’s not the end of the story.” So I unposted it and added the following.]

Here’s the good news—the whirlwind doesn’t get the last word. The name “Hosea” means “salvation.” And even though Hosea proclaims Yahweh’s anger at Israel he also shares God’s compassionate nature for the Souther Kingdom, Judah.

“But I will have pity on the house of Judah, and I will save them by the Lord their God; (1:7a). But listen to the rest of that sentence: “I will not save them by bow, or by sword, or by war, or by horses, or by horsemen.”(7b). God’s salvation does not come by instruments of death and destruction. Those ways are anathema to the One who dreams of a day when swords are beaten into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks, and the ways of war are learned no more. (Isaiah 2:4)

The biblical narrative has rightly been called the salvation history of humankind. How many times do the chosen people break their covenant with God? How many times is Jerusalem leveled like one of the horrendous images we have from Ukraine? Pick a number, any number, say x. And whatever number we pick the answer to the next question, how many times does God redeem her people, is x + 1.

Even as he proclaims judgment on Israel’s unfaithfulness just three verses later Hosea assures his readers that the alienation and suffering is not the final word.

“Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God.” (Hosea 1:10)

What does this say to our broken, fearful world today? We know not when, where, how or even why God will forgive humankind’s unfaithfulness, but in God’s good time, not ours, it will be done. Even if we destroy ourselves and this precious earth God has entrusted into our care, we and all of creation will live and move and have our being eternally in the cosmic source of all Being. Because we put our trust, not in weapons of death and destruction, but in resurrection that assures us that nothing in all creation, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

Amen

A Prayer of Lament as War Begins — Again!

O My God, the long anticipated and feared war in Ukraine seems to have finally begun. What a sad thing it is that humankind cannot give up it’s addiction to violence. Why do we keep doing the very things we know we ought not do? Why do we insist on labeling some of our sisters and brothers our enemies? My heart is broken that again we have turned our backs not only on lessons we should have learned from centuries of history but also again on your will for peace and justice for all of your children.


And my heart is laden down with regrets and feelings of futility. What can this old tired and retired preacher say or do that I have not done for decades? Did we not learn anything from the other two bloody wars in Europe in just over 100 years ago? How can partisan blinders keep so many American leaders from seeing that Putin is reprising Hitler’s playbook? How can support for Putin from an American former president not be treason? How can I love these enemies foreign and domestic when I want to damn them all?


I’m wrestling with a desire to speak out but fear the political backlash I may get from family and friends who want to keep me in the straight jacket of an apolitical and irrelevant pastoral stereotype? Is not your heart also breaking, loving one? Has it not been broken too many times to count since Cain killed Abel? Massacres, crusades and genocides often waged in your holy name have filled whole chapters of human history. We build monuments and deify military and violent heroes, but we crucify and assassinate messengers of peace. How in your name, O God, can we keep our faith when the forces of evil and darkness seem to be gaining thousands of blind followers each and ever day?


The Christian season of repentance is coming in just a week. Please may we celebrate a solemn and holy Lent this year and call upon the power of your Holy Spirit, the one force stronger than violence and human evil, to save us from our own sinful ways. Christ have mercy! Amen

Respectful Disagreement

Like many wiser minds I have been very troubled about the state of our nation and the world in general. In particular I’m most concerned about the chasm of polarization that seems hopelessly wide and deep, making any productive discourse almost impossible. This impasse is a huge impediment to resolving everything from American culture wars to Vladimir Putin waiting to pounce on Ukraine.

It may seem naive or trite, but what the Judeo-Christian world knows as “The Golden Rule,” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” seems like such a simple solution to most of the world’s problems. Knowing that words similar to Matthew 7:12 or Leviticus 19:18 appear in other world religions I googled that phrase and, please excuse the pun, I struck gold on my first try. Here’s what I found:

The Saturday Evening Post: cover, April 1, 1961 was a Rockwell collage of a group of people of different religions, races and ethnicity as the backdrop for the inscription “Do Unto Other As You Would Have Them Do Unto You.” Rockwell was a compassionate man, and this simple phrase reflected his philosophy.
“I’d been reading up on comparative religion. The thing is that all major religions have the Golden Rule in Common. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Not always the same words but the same meaning.” – Norman Rockwell

Here are Norman Rockwell’s notes on the way that the Golden Rule is expressed
in different religions…

Such a list is an example of what some contemporary theologians (e.g. Richard Rohr, Matthew Fox) would call cosmic or deep ecumenism.

All of that is wonderful wisdom, but I want to share with you a concrete example, a snapshot in time if you will, of what that kind of mutual respect looks like in action. In response to my blog entitled “Leading with Your Head,” (Jan. 30, 2022) I received this comment from a friend and colleague, Rev. Phyllis Fetzer. She wrote,

Hi, Steve, I enjoyed this blog post and thank you for the reminder re: being holistic and not just “leading with our head.” I mean no disrespect when I point out two things about your digression re: traumatic brain injury suffered by (football) players: (1) It’s not a “maybe;” it’s almost a certainty that players will experience damage to the brain. One recent (respected) study showed traumatic brain injury in 110 out of 111 players; that’s basically 100%. (2) May I gently point out to you (and hope that you would do the same to me) that having a lifelong habit of watching football doesn’t mean that that habit can’t change, right? Thinking of other ethical areas where people have said, “I just can’t change because it’s been this way my whole life.” E.g., men referring to women as “girls”. We *can* change in light of new learning, yes? I hope and think that you know that I respect you very much, and am also aware that I’m sure that I have (an) ethical blind spot(s) in some other area. Thanks for the good post.”

Wouldn’t the world be a much kinder and more productive and loving place if we could learn or relearn to disagree constructively and respectfully. I can tell you I certainly receive that kind of feedback with open arms and an open mind rather than putting up my defenses when I feel attacked. And I hope I have learned to live by that old golden rule just a little more thanks to Phyllis.

Toxic Masculinity

“They shall beat their swords into plowshares,
    and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
    neither shall they learn war any more.”  Isaiah 2:4

“Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth. “ Jesus, Matthew 5:5

Are Isaiah, Jesus and pacifists simply naïve optimists, or are they visionaries making a theological statement and not an historical one, a warning more than a prediction?  By worldly standards such comments by Jesus are not taken seriously because most of us cannot begin to entertain the notion, let alone understand, that meekness and vulnerability can be and are the ultimate signs of strength.  

Three of my favorite authors, namely Matthew Fox, Richard Rohr, and Brene Brown have addressed the important topic of toxic masculinity in their recent writings, and those words could not be more timely and critical.  Toxic masculinity is nothing new, but seems to be as rampant and contagious as the Omicron variant of Covid.  The standoff over Ukraine, the January 6 insurrection, the epidemic of gun violence in our cities, violent conflicts over masks on airplanes, and the populist posturing of Donald Trump and his merry band of followers are just a few examples from today’s headlines caused by the “might makes right” way of life. 

My wife and I went to see the new “West Side Story” movie last weekend, and as you probably know the whole plot of the movie centers on gang violence and turf wars between the Sharks and the Jets.  I knew that of course going in to the theater, but this version of that story seems to make the violence and tragedy more realistic and painful than the 1961 version. Or maybe it’s just that I know a lot more about the futility of violence now than I did when watching the original movie through the rose-colored glasses of my youth.  

For my 15 year-old self West Side Story was just a tragic love story.  I didn’t notice anything in the film about racism or social injustice because I knew nothing about racism or pacifism.  I grew up in a pure white community playing cowboys and Indians and war games with my neighbor Jim Shockey.  When I couldn’t be outside my bedroom floor was often covered with little army men on the floor (our video game violence then).  My life ambition as a 4th grader was to be a marine and I dreamed of attending one of the military academies.  My worldview was so narrow that I had no contact with any people of color until I was 20 years old.  

Since West Side Story is more than 60 years old I don’t think I’m giving away any secrets when I say the movie’s tragic ending is a perfect and very moving depiction of how absurd and futile trying to solve conflicts through violence is.

Toxic masculinity is as old as the Genesis 4 story of Cain killing his brother Able.  And in all the millennia since we have made almost no progress at learning to beat our swords into useful implements of peace.  The statue depicting that verse from Isaiah that stands in front of United Nations Headquarters in New York City was erected just three years after the Holocaust, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and all the other horrors of World War II ended.  Hitler and Mussolini and Emperor Hirohito were defeated through force the likes of which the world had ever seen.

The world had been naive or gullible enough to believe WW I as “the war to end all wars,” but only 20 years after the Treaty of Versailles ended that war the sequel debuted with Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland!  Sound familiar?  I do not mean to cast any dispersion on those who joined forces to oppose the Axis armies.  My father was part of that greatest generation who risked and/or lost their lives to stop the evil personified in Hitler.  

Force was met with greater force, but to what end?  History continues to repeat itself.  Hitler and Mussolini are replaced almost immediately by Stalin, the Kim Un gang, Pol Pot, Mao, and the brothers Castro just to name a few 20th century despots.   

We have cold and hot wars, guerrilla and urban warfare almost continuously all over the planet.  We have spent obscene amounts of money on deadlier and deadlier weapons of mass destruction, and greedy American capitalists lead the world in profiteering from making and selling those killing machines.  

How long will the human race pursue this madness?  Until we destroy ourselves and the planet we live on?  One can certainly offer plenty of evidence that our systems of patriarchy have failed to produce a world where we don’t learn war anymore.  I still hope that the emergence of more women in important leadership roles will help diffuse the toxic love of violence and force that has been the human race’s taken-for-granted business as usual for millennia.  But my hope is seriously tempered by the likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert who are just as power hungry, paranoid and militant as their male counterparts.

This is not just a gender issue; it is a moral and existential threat to the human race itself, and it must change because there will be no WW IV.  The U.S. 2022 defense budget is $700,000,000,000, and have you ever heard of any great debates in Congress about passing it?  We have huge partisan wrangling over what we spend on education, the arts, health care and other social programs which cost a small fraction of the defense budget.  The best way to start beating our swords into plowshares is to simply stop making bigger and more deadly swords and spears!  We have enough atomic fire power to destroy the world dozens of times over.  Why do we need more and more?  

Another example of toxic versus heathy masculinity can be seen by comparing these two statements:  1) “Happy is the one who seizes your enemy’s infants and dashes them against the rocks.”  2) “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.”  

Most people  may recognize the latter words as part of Jesus’ Sermon On the Mount in Matthew 5.  But you may be surprised to learn that the first statement is also biblical (Psalm 137:9). The two could not be more diametrically opposed and are exactly why when conflicts arise between Jesus and other biblical writings, as they often do, I choose Jesus.  Not because the way of Jesus is easy but because it is true and the only way to real peace.  As the world teeters on the brink of another cold or, heaven forbid, hot war over Ukraine, we better learn the difference soon.  

Election Blues and Faithful remnants

“The lame I will make the remnant, and those who were cast off a strong nation.”  Micah 4:7

Is it possible to be very pessimistic about the future of American democracy and simultaneously confident in the future of its ideals drawn from the best of Judeo-Christian values?  It is on the horns of that dilemma I find myself as I near the end of my 75th orbit around the sun.  The euphoria I felt a year ago when Donald Trump was soundly defeated in his bid to be re-elected dictator of the U.S. has given way to despair as I watch the democratic party described by Will Rogers when he said, “I don’t belong to any organized political party; I’m a democrat.”  Now that inter-party warfare threatens to doom the Biden presidency and in the process throw open the doors of the US Capitol so the failed coup attempt of January 6 can be successfully completed at the polls in 2022 and 2024.

I have voted faithfully in every election since 1968, but this year I am so discouraged by the way the bitter politicization in our country has infected even local elections for school boards, city councils, and township trustees that I am tempted to throw up my hands and not even vote. Politicians have always exaggerated and lied about reality to get votes, but this year 90,000 Americans have died unnecessarily because political lies have become more deadly than the Delta variant of COVID-19.

As the news plays on my radio or TV I hear Amos warning against the sins of Israel. I see Jesus weeping over Jerusalem because she would not listen to his words of salvation and peace. I see shock on the faces of those who have bought the lie of American exceptionalism as they try to wipe the mark of the beast off their faces on the day of Armageddon.

But deeper than my despair I also know that the reign of God is not dependent on sinful mortals. I feel in my dry bones the salvation history revealed throughout the Scriptures that there has always been a faithful remnant preserved from any tragedy that rises from the ashes of earthly kingdoms to carry on the eternal torch of God’s holy shalom.

There are 82 references to “remnant” in the Hebrew Scriptures.  These references are not about left-over pieces of fabric, but about those who are left out and powerless according to worldly ways.  Through flood, slavery, exile and even execution of the Messiah the solid rock of truth has survived as the foundation of life itself. The earthly power of Pharaohs, Jezebel, Nebuchadnezzar, Herod, Pilate, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and all the others named and unnamed in our history books is as flimsy as the fakery of the Wizard of Oz.

The creator of our universe will still prevail with or without us, even if we succeed in our blind foolishness and destroy the earth itself. Dr. King was right that the arc of the moral universe is long, so long that we cannot see the end. It is as unattainable for mere humans as the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. So just now we despair because that arc of morality seems twisted and malformed in our finite ability to envision the mystery of the future. But I still dare to believe that it bends toward justice, maybe not in the dwindling short term of my lifetime, but in God’s eternal kairos.

From the perspective of 3/4 of a century of life on this planet this much I know, maybe not in my feeble brain but “deep in my heart,” the great old protest song “We Shall Overcome” is true. That “someday” of justice may not be on any human calendar, but it will come in God’s good time; and on that hope I must hang my hat, especially in such trying days as these.

Spiritual Surrender: The Only Way Out

Hard to believe I’ve been blogging here for 10 years, and when I look back to my very first post I am a bit shocked to see it was about bringing our troops home from Afghanistan. I also originally did posts based on biblical texts from the Revised Common Lectionary; so today I decided to revisit that practice, and when I looked up the texts for August 22 I find God’s spirit moving again in mysterious ways. Several of these texts speak to the centuries old issues at work in the seemingly intractable conflicts in the Middle East.

The passage from Joshua 24 addresses Israel’s transactional “right” to occupy the land of their ancestors if they remain faithful to their covenant with Yahweh. Verses 15-18 say, “Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD. Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods; for it is the LORD our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the LORD drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God.”

Verses like that last verse one always trouble me—“…the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land.” Would a just God of the whole universe choose sides and violently force the occupants of a piece of God’s creation out of the land they have called home for centuries? Would a just God rationalize such an eviction just because Joshua says God told us we can have this “Promised Land” even though we’ve been living in Egypt for 400 some years? That is not a rhetorical question because the fact that Israel and her neighbors are still killing each other over that piece of real estate makes this an urgent contemporary issue.

Preachers can challenge and deepen their own faith and that of their congregations by wrestling with such challenging issues. Some of us fear that exposing contradictions in the Bible will destroy faith, but that is not true. I love the quote in one of Frederick Beuchner’s books that says, “Doubt is the ants in the pants of faith.” We don’t usually come to Scripture or worship because our faith is totally secure. All of us, preachers perhaps most of all, come thirsting for authentic encounters with God, and if what preachers are serving fails to meet that need folks will stop at McD’s on the way home for junk food. I cast my lot with the theologians who realize that certainty is the enemy of faith, not doubt. To ignore contradictions within holy texts in hopes that no one will notice is a fool’s bargain. Because real faith at its core always contains some mystery and is therefore a holy riddle inviting us into dialogue with the text and with God.

For example, another of the lectionary texts for August 22 is from I Kings 8 which describes part of Solomon’s dedication of the first temple in Jerusalem many years after Joshua led the conquest of the Promised Land. Beginning at verse 24 we find these words: “Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling place; heed and forgive. Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm–when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built.”

“Do according to all that the foreigner calls to you; so that all peoples of the earth may know you name….” What an about face from thanking God for killing off the Amorites! And what a great way to examine the evolution of faith over time as God inspires women and men in all generations with the wisdom of Solomon. God’s concern for the foreigner/alien/sojourner is of course interspersed throughout the Hebrew texts along side more nationalistic sentiments because we know the path to faith is not the wide comfortable one but the narrow mountain road with numerous switchbacks and challenges that require our devotion and honest intellectual curiosity.

One of my biggest regrets about my preaching career is that I have not always been brave enough to wrestle in corporate worship with the challenges of biblical interpretation. It has been poor stewardship on my part to withhold from my parishioners and others the marvelous gifts of historical-criticism and narrative criticism I was given in my seminary education.

When I taught homiletics I encouraged my students to focus on just one text per sermon and refrain whenever possible from trying to preach on two or more selections from the lectionary. But there are exceptions to every rule, and this set of texts interact so well with each other that it is at least worth exploring how they inform or expand each other. For me the epistle text from Ephesians 6 also speaks to me as both a preacher and a citizen of our broken world.

The familiar passage about “putting on the whole armor of God” is an excellent metaphor for those preparing to speak for God in these difficult days of pandemic and domestic and international conflict. But “armor” can be a two-edged sword (to mix metaphors?). Remember how David refused to put armor on when he confronted Goliath because it hampered his ability to use the shepherd’s tools at his disposal? ( 1 Samuel 17). It is rather like Brene Brown’s analogy I heard recently in one of her podcasts where she characterized getting defensive when we feel vulnerable as “armoring up.”

Those “weapons” described in Ephesians are also metaphors and not meant to for us to go out as “Christian soldiers marching as to war…” as one of my my childhood (but no longer) favorite hymns puts it. I invite you to instead focus on the qualities of discipleship described in Ephesians instead of literalizing the military memes. As the author of Ephesians 6 says, “… in the strength of God’s power put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness.”

In these days when lies, mis-information, and “alternative facts” bombard our ears and senses without ceasing I would argue that we need none of these parts of “armor” more urgently than “the belt of truth.” It is no accident that it is the first item listed for it is the truth that will set us free. But we know that truth can also make us feel very vulnerable and uncomfortable. We cannot question Joshua’s conquest of the Amorites, or the imposition of the nation of Israel on the Palestinians after World War II without also seeing in the mirror American genocide of indigenous people who lived on our “promised land” for centuries before Columbus sailed the oceans blue. No matter how much we divert our eyes we must eventually face the fact that our choices and actions as individuals and nation states have long-lasting consequences.

When I was in high school I excelled at history/social studies because I was blessed with a good memory that could regurgitate historical dates on demand. But it was not until I took a world history class in college that I had the first ah ha moment and began to connect the dots between one historical event and others that followed. For me my first revelation that the harsh treatment the allies imposed on the conquered Germans in the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I was used by Hitler to inflame German nationalism and racism by blaming the dire economic plight of the Great Depression on their European enemies. A huge part of that Nazi response was to unify their base by scapegoating Jews and anyone else who was different from the pure Aryan race. Tragically that strategy resulted in the deaths of 6 million Jews and thousands of others in dozens of extermination centers. And the next link in the chain of events was an attempt at repentance by the allies who far too long pretended the Holocaust wasn’t happening. That act of penance was to create a new/old homeland for the Jews in Israel, which in turn displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, and the viscous cycle rages on with 9/11, Desert Storm, killing of Osama Ben Laden, oil wars, Hezbola, the Taliban, etc. etc.

The gut wrenching headlines from Afghanistan right now defy any human resolution of the impact of brutal violence as city after city falls to the Taliban. It like all wars before it yet another gruesome illustration that peace can NEVER come through instruments of death. Violence ALWAYS escalates into more and more violence. The good news is that only when we reach the ultimate limit of our human wisdom can we surrender our fear, pride, ego and arrogance and call upon the cosmic power of the one we call God.

O Eternal Being, we have been told that your “Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26). This is one of those moments, O God. We confess our weakness. Intercede for us and bridge our foolish human divisions. Let all of us children of Abraham come together in weakness, trusting you as the only way, truth and life. Let believers, atheist, agnostics and all of your troubled children put down our weapons and raise our hands in unconditional surrender so your will and not ours will emerge from a world of chaos and death. Amen

Note: I would welcome comments and reactions. If you preach on one or more of these texts give me some feedback on how helpful or unhelpful this was. Thanks

The Dangerous Pursuit of “Happiness”

The current heated debates in the U.S. about personal freedom vs. the greater good for society when it comes to masks and vaccines has had me pondering for some time about a key phrase in the Declaration of Independence. That document authored by Thomas Jefferson and edited by a committee of five states in these familiar words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

As I have said numerous times lately I have been blessed during the pandemic by being introduced to the work of Dr. Brene Brown by my spiritual director and a book club I have been in. I am currently re-reading Brown’s 2011 book, “The Gifts of Imperfection” where she shares among other things the results of her research into joy and gratitude and describes what she has learned about the difference between two words we normally equate as synonymous, happiness and joy.

I was particularly pleased that Brown quotes a United Methodist pastor, Anne Robertson, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Bible Society, to explain the meaning of the Greek words for happiness and joy. Robertson says the Greek word for happiness
is Makarios, which was used to describe the freedom of the rich from normal cares and worries,
or to describe a person who received some form of good fortune, such as money or health. Robertson compares this to the Greek word for joy which is chairo. Chairo was described by the ancient Greeks as the “culmination of being” and the “good mood of the soul.” Robertson writes, “Chairo is something, the ancient Greeks tell us, that is found only in God and comes with virtue and wisdom. It isn’t a beginner’s virtue; it comes as the culmination. They say its opposite is not sadness, but fear.” (“Joy or Happiness?” St. John’s United Methodist Church, http://www.stjohnsdover.org/99adv3.html)

That understanding of those two words presents challenges to Jefferson’s “pursuit of happiness,” and our American obsession with doing so. I think it is no coincidence that Jefferson owned far more slaves (600) than any of the other 15 of our other U.S. Presidents who were slave owners. According to Statista.com only Washington and Jackson owned even 200 slaves. Given the Greek definition of happiness it’s pretty obvious to me that Jefferson was quite free of many normal “cares and worries” most of us experience. That in no way diminishes all of Jefferson’s amazing accomplishments, but it does help to explain how he had time to create all of the advanced technologies at Monticello along with his diplomatic and political accomplishments.

It also explains his favoring the philosophy of John Locke when he included “the pursuit of happiness“ as one of three unalienable rights. I would argue that our American settling for happiness instead of joy is at the heart of our current manipulation by consumerism, materialism, individualism and elevating personal freedom over community and compassion. And this all contributes to the attitude of those who refuse to be vaccinated against a deadly pandemic because it violates their personal liberty. If the value of joy that comes with compassion and caring for others were more central to our cultural values fewer people would be willing to risk harm to themselves and the most vulnerable in our nation and world for their own personal liberty and “happiness.”

Our mistaken notions of happiness as the absence of pain or suffering is fed by consumerism and the prosperity gospel, and these fail to satisfy because in those models there is never enough of anything in these individual, self-centered pursuits that will ultimately satisfy our deep human hunger for human or divine connection. Our failure to grasp the true meaning of the Gospel of Christ as one of compassion, which means suffering with others has led us down the wide path that leads to destruction; and we are dangerously close to the point of no return on that path.

As I am writing this I again found today’s (August 7, 2021) daily devotion from Father Richard Rohr to be right on point. He quotes Buddhist teacher Cuong Lu: “The way to free yourself from pain is to feel it, not to run away, as difficult as that may be. Pain and suffering make life beautiful. This might be hard to believe while you’re suffering, but the lessons you can learn from hardships are jewels to cherish. If you’re suffering, it means you have a heart. Suffering is evidence of your capacity to love, and only those who understand suffering can understand life and help others.”

Jesus teaches the same in word and example by urging his followers in all three synoptic Gospels to “Take up your cross and follow me” (Matthew 16, Mark 8, Luke 9), and by his own courage to practice what he preached. Brene Brown addresses the same phenomenon from a psychological-emotional perspective in “The Gifts of Imperfection:” “We cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.”

All of that wisdom from diverse perspectives is supported by our contemporary headlines. The Delta variant is running rampant threatening to overwhelm exhausted health care systems, a fragile economy, and kill thousands of more vulnerable people. What we are doing simply is not working, and unless we learn very soon to put aside our thirst for political power at all costs and our fear of each other we are headed for another bleak and dark winter of death and/or lonely isolation.

Dear God, give us ears to hear the truth that can set us free from fear and the pursuit of “happiness” that does not satisfy.

Critical Race Theory and the Road to Reconciliation

I spent part of the pandemic studying and discussing systemic racism with other Christians concerned about living out our faith as anti-racists. In that process I have learned many hard lessons about the dark side of American history that most of us did not learn about in our schools or churches. It is very uncomfortable work, and while there are signs of hope, the current pseudo-debate over Critical Race Theory reminds us how far we have to go to heal 400 years of injustice and the wounds caused by racism.

I know much of the anti-CRT rhetoric coming from the Republican Right is just more red meat for the Trumpist base, but it also occurs to me that part of the problem that has gotten us where we are must be owned by the Christian church. A large part of the reason we have not learned about the horrors of lynchings as public spectacles or events like the Tulsa massacre is a failure by the church to teach and live out the true good news of the Christian Gospel.

Most of us can think of events in our own lives or of our families that we would be very embarrassed to have made public. I certainly have plenty in my life. It’s no different for a nation to want to put the best face on our actions and accomplishments as a country. For example, if we are writing a history of 1969 we Americans would much rather focus on the Apollo 11 moon landing than the My Lai massacre. But both are part of that year’s history, and we can’t get an honest picture of American culture in the ‘60’s without knowing about both.

Criticism is never easy to swallow. A favorite push back against critics of the Viet Nam war was the slogan “America: Love it or Leave it.” Such a defensive reaction to having unattractive aspects of our history exposed is easy to understand, but unless we can get comfortable with being uncomfortable about those embarrassing parts of our lives as individuals or as a nation we can never learn from them or move beyond them.

Much of our failure to embrace all of our history stems from a misunderstanding of God and God’s justice. Father Richard Rohr describes the difference between human and divine understandings of “justice” this way in his daily meditation this week (7/6/21): “When we think of justice, we ordinarily think of a balance: if the scales tip too much on the side of wrong, justice is needed to set things right. But God’s justice does not make sense to human ideas of justice! We define justice in terms of what we’ve done, what we’ve earned, and what we’ve merited. Our image of justice is often some form of retribution, which we then project onto God. When most people say, ‘We want justice!’ they normally mean that bad deeds should be punished or that they want vengeance. But Jesus says that’s simply not the case with God. The issue is how much can we trust God? How much can we stand in the flow of God’s infinite love? How much can we let God love us in our worst moments?”

This means that understanding God’s grace as unconditional love, even if we can’t wrap our minds around it completely, frees us from the fear of being punished for our sin. It is what Jesus means in John 8:32 when he says “the truth will set us free.” The truth is God’s love for us is so much greater than our worst behavior, even centuries of systemic racism, that we can face the truth, confess our sin and be set free to live in right relationships with our sisters and brothers.

When we read the many stories in the Bible about God’s relationships with sinful humans we can experience for ourselves what God’s grace feels like. Time after time in Scripture God calls and uses fallible human beings to further God’s reign of righteousness. Jacob deceived his blind father to steal his brother’s birthright, Moses murdered an Egyptian, David was an adulterer and murderer, Rahab was a prostitute, Saul was a vicious persecutor of Christians before God turned him around on the road to Damascus. These stories and what we hear on the nightly news are all examples of how all of us fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).

The pantheon of American heroes is no different. Most of the brave men who pledged their “their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor” by signing the Declaration of Independence owned other human beings. Even our patriotic songs recognize that we are always in need of creating a more perfect union. “America the Beautiful” includes a line asking God to “mend our every flaw.”

We are a flawed nation made up of flawed human beings, but there is no shame or fear in showing God and ourselves that contrary to the famous line in the movie “A Few Good Men” we can and we must handle the truth. The alternative is that the lies about our history that we have passed down from generation to generation by commission or omission will continue to fester and poison our nation with hate and fear.

I John 1:9 Says it best: “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” But confession is the key word in that verse. Admitting our failure is the only way to be free of the burden of guilt and move on to a place that is closer to the peaceable kingdom God intends for all of creation. Friends, there is no reason to fear confession or humbly learning about the dark side of our history because God’s love and mercy are guaranteed. Thanks be to God!

Free At Last!

“And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32) Last week as we at long last commemorated the first official Juneteenth these familiar words from John’s Gospel took on new meaning for me. When the news finally reached Galveston on June 19, 1865 that our black sisters and brothers were free from the bondage of slavery the truth is that they had already been free for a year and a half and didn’t know it.

The Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Lincoln on January 1, 1863, and the fact that it took 18 months to reach Texas is hard for us in the 5G Information Age to imagine. But technology aside it is even more embarrassing to realize that it has taken 156 years for America to officially recognize this historic event.

The parallel observation for me when thinking about John 8:32 is that far too many of us who strive to follow Jesus Christ have been prisoners to sin, guilt, fear and the spiritual death those things bring for all our lives without knowing the good news that we are already free. In the words of Father Malcolm Boyd‘s book by the same title we are “Free to Live, Free to Die” because the chains of death were broken once and for all in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

What will we do with that freedom? It is not a gift to be hoarded as a personal prize, for if we do our efforts to protect our own privileges will poison the well of eternal life. If any of God’s children are enslaved none of us are truly free.

So recognizing Juneteenth is not an end in itself. It is one more step on the long road to liberty and justice for all, to the day when we all can say together, “Free at Last, Free at Last. Thank God Almighty we are free at last!”