The Big IF: Confession and Forgiveness

Good news: “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” I John: 1:9

Bad News: “If we say that we have not sinned, we make God a liar, and God’s word is not in us.”
I John 1:10

The smallest word in those two verses is the most important. “IF we confess our sins….” That’s a huge “IF” and a major stumbling block that gets us into all kinds of trouble as individuals and collectively. To state the obvious, one cannot fix a problem until it is recognized. If I ignore the check engine light on my dashboard I can’t get the problem fixed. Or if I disregard the signals my body is sending me that something is wrong until it’s too late for the doctors to cure it I’m in deep trouble.

When it comes to God and our sin it is such a waste to live in denial. Yes, grace may sound like one of those deals that are too good to be true, but it’s not. John doesn’t say “if we confess our little sins” we will be forgiven! He says, “If we confess our sins, period.” There’s no fine print. The deal doesn’t expire at midnight. It’s an unconditional gift, and all we have to do is admit we screwed up.

Why is that so hard to do? Because we don’t trust the offer! We know too many humans who when we admit a weakness or a mistake will never let us forget it. They’ll hold it against us forever as a tool to manipulate us with guilt.

But this is no human relationship. This is a promise from the God who made us and knows our every flaw. God created us as fallible human beings knowing we all fall short of perfection every day.

So what’s the price we pay for not confessing? That denial loads us down with guilt and shame. It undermines our self-worth and makes it impossible for us to learn from our mistakes and do better. It cuts us off from God’s peace and salvation. That’s horrible on the individual level, but on the collective level it’s even more deadly.

Our refusal as a nation and world to recognize and admit our stupid mistakes costs us precious time to change our ways. We know the clock is ticking before we can no longer reverse the damage to our environment from our selfish ways. There is no Planet B.

Denial of our sins and mistakes is biting us in the butt on so many fronts – racism, world peace, bigotry, and on how to control the current pandemic. The human race needs one giant Mea Culpa because as John knew 2000 years ago, “IF we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” BUT “If we say that we have not sinned, we make God a liar, and God’s word is not in us.” Seems like a no brainer to me!

Saving Ourselves and Our Democracy

It has become tragically apparent that having a U.S. President campaigning for re-election in the midst of several major crises creates an untenable conflict of interest. Very few people, and certainly not Donald Trump, can be altruistic enough to sacrifice their own self-interest for the greater good of the nation or world. I’m sure others must have considered this problem, but I have not read any discussion of what may be a better alternative.

If our presidents were limited to one six-year term the conflict between what is good for my re-election vs. what is the right thing to do for the American people would be somewhat mitigated. The current non-stop campaigning and the obscene amounts of money that corrupt our political process could also be curtailed. The founding fathers could never have conceived of the unhealthy effect super partisanship is having on our democracy or on our very ability to save ourselves from a dangerous virus. And sadly Trump’s unbelievable denial of the inconvenient realities facing his administration is literally costing thousands of human lives. We have the ability to amend our constitution when it isn’t working, and this is one of those cases.

ONE VOTE REALLY MATTERS

Until very recently if one of the most important names in Ohio history were to be a Final Jeopardy answer I would have been clueless. And I’m guessing that most of my fellow Ohioans who took the required Ohio History class in middle school would also not be able to identify Ephraim Cutler. I would still have no idea of the critical role Cutler played in shaping the history of my state if a friend of mine had not recently moved to Marietta, the first white settlement in what became the Buckeye state. Because this colleague of mine now resides in Marietta she made mention on social media of David McCullough’s recent book about Ohio’s beginnings, “The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West.”

I am a big fan of McCullough and am very glad to be reading this book. I must say it started slow and took me awhile to get into it, but it was worth the effort for one of the most relevant stories in the book that lit up for me like a Christmas tree because of our most recent unrest about the evil of racism in our nation. Cutler and his father were prominent leaders in establishing the first settlement in the 1790’s in the newly acquired Northwest Territory and because of their prominence in Marietta Ephraim was elected in the early days of the 1800’s as one of two delegates to represent Marietta and Washington County at the convention responsible for creating a constitution for Ohio statehood.

I was surprised to learn that one of the most heated debates at that convention held in the Territorial Capitol at Chillicothe was over whether slavery would be permitted in Ohio. And even more shocking to my naïveté was how close the vote was on the provision about slavery. Ephraim Cutler was one of the most vocal opponents of the slavery provision, but on the day of the critical vote on that item Cutler was so gravely ill that he could barely get out of bed. His friends pleaded with him and physically helped him to get to the chamber for the vote, and it was a very important thing they did; because the proposal for Ohio to be admitted to the union as a slave state was defeated by that one single vote.

My mind is still blown by that piece of history. I am shocked at how close my home state came to being a place where human slavery was allowed. I have been self-righteously smug that we Ohioans are better than that, but we came within the narrowest of margins of becoming a slave state. That history has helped me understand better the depth of the political divisions in our state and our country even today. I knew there have always been deep-seated disagreements about race from day one in these United States — which have never been united on that issue. But realizing how heated that debate was at the very inception of statehood here in Ohio helped me understand at a deeper level why it is so hard to resolve this issue.

Ephraim Cutler also taught me again that one life and even one vote can make all the difference in the world. Imagine what Ohio history would look like if we had become a slave state. Would we have joined the Confederacy? Would we have statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson being removed here in our state capital? I thank God that brave pioneer dragged himself out of bed to take a stand for justice that day in Chillicothe. His bravery and integrity inspires me to do my part in that on-going struggle for America’s highest ideals today. I hope I do not soon forget who Ephraim Cutler was, and I thank David McCullough for telling his story. It has never been more important to study and learn from our history.

Deja Vu All Over Again

A few weeks ago I thought about writing about a time 50 years ago when the National Guard was sent into Kent, Ohio to put down protests against the Vietnam war. I didn’t get that piece written, but now those scenes of violent clashes in American streets are playing out all over again on our 24/7 newsfeeds. I was a young seminary student that spring of 1970 and part of our response as a seminary community to the tragic deaths of four students killed by the National Guard at Kent State was to send a delegation to Washington, D.C. to share our concerns with our elected representatives in Congress. I made a whirlwind trip to D.C. with two of my fellow students. We were too poor to stay overnight; so we drove 8 or 9 hours through the night, visited with Congress people during the day and then made the return trip that night. I don’t think we had any impact on our reps, but that bonding experience turned good friends into lifelong ones I still cherish today.

One memory I have from that day on Capitol Hill was the response of our Congressperson, Sam Devine, to our concerns. He said something like, “Well, we can’t just let people destroy property.” Protestors at Kent had burned an abandoned ROTC building in their anger over President Nixon’s escalation of the war into Cambodia. That was certainly an act of vandalism and was wrong, just as the property destruction last night in cities all over America is wrong. That destruction hit at the heart of my hometown in Columbus, Ohio last night 700 miles from where George Floyd was killed on Memorial Day.

Here’s one of many questions running through my mind today: how do you compare the value of an old ROTC building with the lives of four young people and the damage done to the 9 who were wounded on May 4, 1970? How do you weigh the worth of buildings and other property against the life of George Floyd? Or against the nearly 400 years of racial injustice in this country? That comment from Rep. Devine came to mind when I heard about the President’s tweet last night which said, “When the looting begins the shooting begins.” That’s a deja vu quote from civil rights protests in the 1960’s, FYI. I much prefer a quote from another President, JFK, who once said, “When we make peaceful revolution impossible, we make violent revolution inevitable.”

You don’t have to condone property destruction to understand the cries for justice that inflame an oppressed people when those pleas are unheeded for centuries. Racism is alive and well in this country and has been from day one even though sometimes it recedes into the background when those with white privilege power think we have responded to it. As a child I was convinced that the Civil War and the adoption of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments had solved our American race problem for good. I was naive and the teachers in my all white community were negligent when they failed to teach me about Jim Crowe, “separate but equal,” the KKK and lynching of blacks. It does no good to grant a people citizenship and the right to vote if they are systematically denied access to a good education, adequate employment opportunities and decent health care!

I cannot begin to understand how it feels to be a person of color in this country. I also can’t understand those who feel so threatened by the loss of white privilege that they can kneel on the neck of another human being until he dies. What I do understand all too well is my own frustration that 50 years removed from the Civil Rights struggles of my youth we are reliving this nightmare of riot gear clad police, National Guard curfews and cities on fire. It makes me question what good my life has been, what more could I and should I have done to work for a more just and peaceful society?

Like many Americans I celebrated prematurely when we elected Barack Obama President just 12 years ago. Little did we know that having an African American in the White House did not mean we had arrived but would simply allow the likes of Donald Trump and Fox News to fan the smoldering flames of hatred and racism to a fever pitch. To those too young to remember Kent State or the Democratic Convention of 1968 or the riots after Dr. King’s assassination, some of us have seen this movie before. Only in this remake we’re being forced to deal with our racism in the midst of a pandemic!

It seems too much to bear! But this I know, the scourges of injustice and racism upon which this nation was founded will never be solved by curfews or armaments. Peaceful demonstrations turn violent when the burdens of injustice become too great. Riots and protests are not the problem. They are the symptoms of an insidious illness that can only be cured with repentance, compassion and understanding. Empathy for the oppressed, not bullets and tear gas to protect property are the only hope for a just and lasting peace in our culturally and racially diverse nation.

The Coronavirus pandemic has exposed the injustice and inequality in our nation in vivid terms as people of color lacking adequate health care and decent paying jobs have died at alarmingly high rates from COVID-19. American capitalism in the last 40 years has become a tool for perpetuating injustice. The American dream has become a nightmare for most of our citizens. The deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor are sadly just the most recent and well-publicized incidents of injustice for our sisters and brothers of color that have again ignited the smoldering anger of an oppressed people.

Will we listen to their pain and cries for justice this time or will we once more suppress them by superior fire power making the next version of this movie even more violent than this one? The answer is up to you and me.

Hanging Together: Collaborative Leadership

“Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the living of these days.” Those words from a great him by Harry Emerson Fosdick, one of the great preachers of the 20th century seem most appropriate for Memorial Day 2020 in the middle of a pandemic.

What does wisdom and courage look like today, and what kind of leadership provides it? All that got me to thinking about my own evolution in my understanding of what effective leadership is. My journey down memory lane took me back to the summer of 1962 when I was 15 years old and completely screwed up my first real opportunity to be a leader. I was an Explorer Scout, a part of the Boy Scouts of America for 14-18 year-olds, and our Post took an annual canoe trip to the Boundary Waters just north of Minnesota in Canada. Even though that summer was my first time making that trip I was made a patrol leader of one of the two small groups even though there were other scouts who had been on that trip before. I assume it was because I was one of two Eagle Scouts who were making the trip.

It was my first experience of the Peter Principle, though I didn’t know that term at the time. In fact the book by that title by Laurence J. Peter wasn’t published until 1969, but its basic premise that people in a hierarchy rise the “level of their incompetence” was a pretty good description of my week in Canada. For example, when we arrived at our first campsite and had our tents up a couple of the scouts came to me as their “leader” and asked me what they should do next. I didn’t have a clue and hadn’t thought about it, but I couldn’t admit that to them or myself; so I said something stupid like, “I don’t know. Go entertain yourselves.” I had missed a critical leadership moment when I could have said, “Look guys, I’m new here. Some of you have been on this trip before. Can we sit down together and you help me figure out a list of things we need to do and who is best equipped to do them.” What a difference in the tone of the whole trip that would have made, and better yet if we had begun those discussions before we left home or in the car on that long road trip. Ah hindsight!

And in retrospect here’s my analysis of why that didn’t happen. There was a serious flaw in the Eagle Scout program in those days which has since been addressed with the addition of an Eagle Scout Project requirement to attain the highest rank in Scouting. I’m not sure when the change was made but for many years now a Scout has been required to develop and carry out a community service project as the capstone of the necessary advancement through the ranks. The official language includes this statement: “Eagle Scout projects are evaluated on the benefit to the organization being served and on the leadership provided by the candidate.”

That leadership training was lacking in my days as a Scout. The only requirement back then for an Eagle award was the successful completion of a prescribed list of 21 merit badges, including basic scouting skills like camping, hiking, canoeing, swimming, lifesaving etc. and a number of elective merit badges. When we had met those requirements we had to be recommended by our troop or post leaders for the rank of Eagle and then successfully be interviewed and approved by a panel of District Scouting leaders. That was no small task, and it took me 3 plus years to get there; and I don’t mean to be critical of the experience I had. My 10 years in Scouting, starting as a Cub Scout at age 8, provided me with many of the core values I try to live by today. My observation here is simply that all of those 21 merit badges I earned were based on individual achievement. Many were done in groups of scouts, but each of us individually had to meet the requirements. I had to hike so many miles. I had to swim so many yards and perform lifesaving techniques by myself. The athletics merit badge meant I was the one who had to run a certain distance in a specified time, etc. In none of those activities was attention paid to intentionally developing interpersonal or leadership skills.

And that was not my only experience being chosen to lead in my youth, but the pattern is similar. I was elected President of our high school student council for my senior year, and again it was not because of any leadership skills. I didn’t play any team sports or play in the band where I could learn about teamwork. I was deemed a leader because I was an honors student who always ranked near the top of my class, and I don’t say that to brag. I got good grades because I was blessed with a gift to easily memorize stuff, and I knew how to play the academic game. But getting good grades, like earning merit badges, was an individual activity. Language arts, math, science and history were all good things to learn but they had nothing to do with leadership.

My other shortcoming was that the only models I had of what leadership looked like were all hierarchical. My dad was a second lieutenant in WWII and most of my heroes and role models were military leaders. Leaders in my mind then were authoritarian figures who gave orders that others carried out. So when I was given a leadership role in scouts, school or church youth group my default modus operandi was too often to scold people for their behavior or failures rather than offer any constructive criticism or promote collaborative teamwork.

But here’s the redemption in my lifelong, still-unfolding lessons in leadership. As fate would have it I made a mid-life decision to return to graduate school when I was about 38 years old and God led me to enroll in a doctoral program in Rhetoric. I was drawn there because of my love of preaching and because a member of my church, Dr. Bill Brown, was a member of the Rhetoric faculty at Ohio State University. Rhetoric has a bad reputation these days because it has come to mean empty political posturing, but in the classic Aristotelian sense in means the art of persuasion – not to be confused ever with “The Art of the Deal.”

I must admit that after 14 years in parish ministry I still thought of preaching as a solitary and yes authoritarian activity. The theological movement to narrative and more dialogic preaching unfortunately arrived in seminaries just after I graduated. So grad school for me was an opportunity to catch up with the most current thinking and research on public speaking and the place I learned finally about teamwork and persuasive discourse that comes not from a “sage on the stage/pulpit, but from a guide on the side,” a fellow seeker of truth sharing my experience rather than an expert sharing pearls of wisdom.

But it was not just in the classroom at Ohio State that I learned about leadership. There was a very practical matter of how to make a living and help support my family while I was pursuing my academic goals. And again God provided an opportunity for me where I learned as much and probably more about leadership than I did in the classroom. A good friend from my college and seminary days just happened to be directing a program at OSU called the Commission on Interprofessional Education and Practice. I looked Mike up one day when I was on campus just to catch up over lunch. When he learned I was back in school he asked me if I would be interested in working with him as a graduate assistant. That would not only provide me with much needed income but would also pay my tuition.

To make this long story a little shorter, I worked with Rev. Dr. Mike Casto at what became the Interprofessional Commission of Ohio for the next 18 years. No, it didn’t take me that long to finish my doctorate. That part only took 4.5 years, but by the time I graduated I was so intrigued and integrated into the mission of the Interprofessional Commission (ICO for short) that I stayed as part of that staff until I retired. The ICO mission was to teach and promote collaboration among people in the helping professions, i.e. Allied Medicine, Education, Law, Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy, Social Work, and Theology. We did that through academic classes and continuing education conferences for practicing professionals. That program is nearing its 50th anniversary of existence.

The basic reason the ICO was created was because some visionary leaders let by Rev. Dr. Van Bogard (Bogie) Dunn, Dean of the Methodist Theological School in Ohio and Dr. Luvern Cunningham, Dean of the College of Education at Ohio State, realized that the issues facing American society in the late 20th century were too complex for any one profession to address them on their own. Bogie loved to quote President Harry Truman who once said, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” I was reminded of that quote recently when Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, who has done an excellent of job of addressing this crisis because of the way he described his collaborative philosophy of dealing with the current Pandemic this way. He said, “None of us is as smart as all of us.”

These are unprecedented times that require the best leadership possible, and that means drawing on the expertise of professionals in every relevant field. It means learning from the experience of other countries through global collaboration with the World Health Organization and with experts in China who have been dealing with this crisis longer than anyone else. It means putting aside egos, jealousy and professional or political pride to achieve the common good. It requires both/and thinking and not the dualism of either/or. Specifically it means that we all know we need to save people’s jobs and livelihoods, but we also need to do that in ways that are safe and preserve as much human life as possible. It’s not just one or the other, and that means we all need to figure it out together. It means wearing uncomfortable masks, even it hot, humid weather because it’s the right thing to do for the greater good of other people who are more at risk that you are. Leadership in this time means bipartisan collaboration and compromise. With such leadership we may be able to learn to live with this virus as individuals and as a global community. Without such leadership, not so much.

One final quote comes to mind from the infancy of American democracy, and it’s even truer today. In those early days the red and blue colonies were just as divided on many issues as our red and blue states are today. Ben Franklin addressing the founders of our democratic experiment and the great odds they were facing said, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”

Moon Shot Memories

Fifty years ago this week, like most people who could I was glued to my little black and white TV watching coverage of Apollo 11’s journey to the moon. By a quirk of fate I happened to be living that summer of ’69 on Kelly Drive in my hometown. I was working that summer after my first year of seminary as the associate pastor of the church I grew up in. Kelly Dr. has been renamed since then, not because I lived there, but because the house the church rented for us that summer was next door to Steve and Viola Armstrong, parents of the first man on the moon. So Neil’s “one step” was especially memorable for me, living on what is now Armstrong Drive.

While I’m enjoying reliving that exciting time this week I am also feeling cowardly for not being more prophetic in my ministry all these years. Neil risked his life flying fighter jets in Korea, as a test pilot for experimental rocket planes, regaining control when his Gemini 8 was tumbling through space in a near fatal spiral, and of course commanding Apollo 11. And what have I ever risked for fear of conflict with others who see things differently, who in the 1960’s and still today shout “America, Love it or Leave It” at any who dare to offer honest criticism of our country?

The moon shot helped unite a badly broken country briefly for 8 days in July of ’69, but that was also a year after the MLK and RFK assassinations and the My Lai Massacre in Viet Nam. The country was plagued by civil rights and anti-war protests, the prelude to students being killed at Kent State and Jackson State the following year. And 50 years later it is so discouraging to see us reverting back to hate and division at this stage of my life.

And so I ask myself what difference have I made? The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice but it gets twisted like a pretzel on the way. Neil took one giant leap for (hu)mankind but came home to a broken world that is more fractured and battered now than ever. But the real question is not what I’ve done in the last 50 years for justice and mercy, but what do I do now, today and in the future? How do I deal with my thorns in the flesh and the drain of time and energy they demand of me when there is so much I want to write, say, and shout from the rooftops?

Hamlet’s question “To Be or Not to Be?” or Descartes’ assessment of human life, “I Think therefore I Am” don’t go far enough. Thinking doesn’t change anything, and just “being” as in existence means no more than the life of a hamster in wheel going nowhere. The question is what will I be, what will I become or do with however much time I have left? What am I willing to risk? I gave money yesterday to support our church’s brown bag lunch ministry and that was painless and easy – but I haven’t taken time to go pack one lunch or deliver one brown bag because I’m too busy stringing and unstringing my instrument instead of playing a tune; mowing my lawn, cooking my meals, shopping for stuff or stretching my old achy muscles.

Is that the report I want to give to God about what I’ve done to win the battle in my sector? No pain no gain doesn’t just apply to exercise – it also means that without risk and moving out of my comfort zone I don’t grow and don’t influence anyone else. God’s question to Elijah on Mt. Horeb is the same question she has for me and everyone – “What are you doing here?” “Don’t whine and tell me Jezebel is out to get you and you are the only one left. Go enlist Elisha and other allies. You’re not done till I say so.”

In Whom Do We Trust?

Note: I am republishing part of a post from 2/7/18 (“Power Parade”):

“Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses,
but our pride is in the name of the Lord our God.
They will collapse and fall,
but we shall rise and stand upright.” (Psalms 20:7-8)

If we want peace in the world and not just an excuse to pour more money into the military-industrial complex the answer is not more weapons. Ask Pharaoh how well his horses and chariots did against unarmed refugees at the Red Sea. (Exodus 14) Peace will not come by unpeaceful means. Life will not flourish by weapons of mass destruction.

This is not a new problem of course. I found these words I wrote in this blog 2.5 years ago: “The answer is not more horses and chariots or bigger bombs. The answer is not more guns. The answer is to examine our fears that drive us to build gated communities, to propose building walls on our borders to keep others out. Instead of repairing roads, educating our children, alleviating poverty, and addressing social injustice, we spend obscene amounts of money and resources on defense because we are afraid. The gun lobby sells more and more automatic weapons that have no purpose but to kill other people because we are afraid. Wealthy lobbies buy more and more congressional votes because our legislators are afraid to take courageous stands that will cost them their office and lifetime benefits. The church is silent about being peacemakers and turning the other cheek because we are afraid those unpopular views will cost us members and contributions.” (Aug 6 2015, Blowing in the Wind: Hiroshima and Our Addiction to Violence)

Our money says “In God We Trust” but,for too long we have put our trust in more and bigger horses and chariots. If we continue to do that the United States will go the way of every other empire in human history, just as the Psalmist says: “They will collapse and fall.”

Perhaps this is best captured in the words to a contemporary rock song by that very name, “Horses and Chariots:”

“Horses and chariots, churches and states
Devotion turns dangerous when armed with rules of faith
Prisoners and patriots, angels and saints
If minds are persuaded enough compassion turns to hate

So when the tide comes to bury us, together we must stay
Don’t let their horses and chariots drag our love away
No!

Borders and boundary signs drawn by red tape
Those who color outside of the lines define the human race
Warlords and suffering eyes, soldiers and slaves
The side of the fence that we climb determines who’s afraid

So when the tide comes to bury us, together we must stay
Don’t let their horses and chariots drag our love away
Until we swallow our pride our hearts will collide.” (Billy Talent, 2016)

Be Their Voice

Just wrote this to my congressional rep and senators: “The humanitarian crisis at the border with Mexico breaks my heart, embarrasses me and makes me furious. Innocent children are living in deplorable conditions for no reason other than the president needs to score political points with his base. I appeal to your basic human decency to address this travesty immediately. Work with the Democrats to adopt humane immigration reform with bipartisan, veto-proof support. America is better than the image we are projecting to the world because of this president’s racist policies and it must stop. I believe what we do to the least of these defenseless children is how we treat Christ himself. (Matthew 25:31-46) Please let me know what you are doing to stop this tragic misuse of political power. Thank you.”

Many of us feel helpless to do anything, and that’s just how oppressors want us to feel. I don’t expect my words to break through the political gridlock, but as discouraged as I am with our political leaders I still do believe there is a basic human sense of compassion (which means “to suffer with”) in most of our elected officials. Most of them went into public service with a real desire to actually serve the public good, but the forces of evil that corrupt even good women and men are very strong. The question is which is stronger?

Yes, the perks that go with elected office can warp the best of human motives. Once these people taste the benefits of insurance and pensions better than the rest of us, not to mention the heady aroma of power, it’s natural that their decisions are affected by the desire to keep their jobs. I’m not sure I could resist those temptations either.

So we are fighting strong, deep-seated powers, and I’m guessing that some of our senators and representatives feel pretty helpless too. But feeling helpless is no excuse to be complicit in causing human suffering by staying silence. Every elected official’s website says he/she wants to hear what’s on our minds. It may not change a thing, but it certainly can’t hurt. The good thing about political influence is that we the people do actually hold the ultimate power. The lobbyists and corporations may have the money, but if we who vote speak long and loud enough and in enough numbers, trust me, the folks in Washington will eventually remember who they work for.

If enough of us care enough to make our voices heard they will listen. Those kids living in squalor at the border, those broken-hearted parents who have had their children ripped from their arms, they can’t wait until 2020. They need those of us who can to speak up for them because they can’t.

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.”

Flags, Idols and Outrage Burnout

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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