No Short Cuts

I walked our church’s new labyrinth this morning after church. I think it is the most beautiful one I’ve ever seen and am so grateful to those who worked to build it. I know it’s true of all labyrinths, but I was struck again today by how close one gets to the cross in the center on numerous occasions only to turn away and double back in the other direction. Isn’t that true of our faith journey? We feel especially close to God one minute, and the very next life hits us with a body blow we didn’t see coming; and all of a sudden God seems so distant that we feel lost and confused. That’s when spiritual discipline is needed to stay the course and trust that road less travelled will eventually lead us back to the cross.

There are no short cuts in our faith journey, only perseverance and trusting the Holy Spirit to lead us home. If you notice in the picture the entry path very quickly takes you within a few feet of the cross before it takes a sharp left turn that leads to the far side of the labyrinth. It would be so easy to step right over that blue line and in two steps be right at the foot of the cross. No one else was there to see if I cheated when I took my walk, but I knew that those who promise a short easy way to salvation are false prophets. To take a short cut would have robbed me of precious time for communion with God and defeated the whole purpose of being there.

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.

Grief and Hope in Darkest Days

“In the Hebrew Scriptures, we find Job moving through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s well-known stages of grief and dying: denial, anger, bargaining, resignation, and acceptance. The first seven days of Job’s time on the “dung heap” of pain are spent in silence, the immediate response matching the first stage—denial. Then he reaches the anger stage, verses in the Bible in which Job shouts and curses at God. He says, in effect, “This so-called life I have is not really life, God, it’s death. So why should I be happy?”

That quote is from Father Richard Rohr’s daily devotion on August 2 of this year. I want to share the rest below because it speaks powerfully to the chaos of emotions I’ve be feeling for the last few weeks. Pressures of time, more physical health problems, depression about the resurgent Delta variant, and all the other “slings and arrows” of life have damned up my creative writing urges for weeks; so I apologize. In advance if this post gets too long. It has been worth it for me to ride it out, and I hope will be so for you as well.

After reading Fr. Rohr’s words that day I journaled the following dialogue of lament with God. “These words struck a chord with me about my anger and depression about my life and the mess our world is in. I have been stuck in unproductive anger for decades and its time to move along. Some connection there with shame the way Brene Brown discusses it. Help me Yahweh, the burden is literally breaking my back and I don’t know how to let it go. I feel trapped in a vicious cycle of pain, anger and shame that keeps me crippled and /or paralyzed with fear and doubt, layer upon layer piled higher and deeper over the years like a blind mole digging tunnels that go no where, afraid of the light that alone can overcome the darkness of gloom and despair. “My God my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Oh, you think it is I who have done the forsaking – but I have lots of good excuses – my parents, my church, my teachers all failed me and put me on the path of darkness and guilt trips that go nowhere but deeper into the muck and mire. I really want to turn around, I think, but I don’t know how. I am so deep in darkness I don’t know which way it is to the light.

“I am the way.! The path is narrow and full of challenges, but I will provide you strength you do not know you have. Trust and obey – choose and move. There’s no other way.”

It’s my move, and I will never be any closer to the truth than I am today.”

“Follow me.”

Fr. Rohr’s meditation continues: “W. H. Auden expressed his grief in much the same way in his poem “Funeral Blues,” which ends with these lines:

“The stars are not wanted now: put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the woods;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.” [1]

Perhaps some of us have been there—so hurt and betrayed, so devastated by our losses that we echo Job’s cry about the day he was born, “May that day be darkness. May God on high have no thought for it, may no light shine on it. May murk and deep shadow claim it for their own” (Job 3:4–5). It’s beautiful, poetic imagery. He’s saying: “Uncreate the day. Make it not a day of light, but darkness. Let clouds hang over it, eclipse swoop down on it.” Where God in Genesis speaks “Let there be light,” Job insists “Let there be darkness.” The day of uncreation, of anti-creation. We probably have to have experienced true depression or betrayal to understand such a feeling.

There’s a part of each of us that feels and speaks that sadness. Not every day, thank goodness. But if we’re willing to feel and participate in the pain of the world, part of us will suffer that kind of despair. If we want to walk with Job, with Jesus, and in solidarity with much of the world, we must allow grace to lead us there as the events of life show themselves. I believe this is exactly what we mean by conformity to Christ.

We must go through the stages of feeling, not only the last death but all the earlier little (and not-so-little) deaths. If we bypass these emotional stages by easy answers, all they do is take a deeper form of disguise and come out in another way. Many people learn the hard way—by getting ulcers, by all kinds of internal diseases, depression, addictions, irritability, and misdirected anger—because they refuse to let their emotions run their course or to find some appropriate place to share them.

I am convinced that people who do not feel deeply finally do not know deeply either. It is only because Job is willing to feel his emotions that he is able to come to grips with the mystery in his head and heart and gut. He understands holistically and therefore his experience of grief becomes both whole and holy.”

[1] W. H. Auden, “Funeral Blues,” Another Time (Faber and Faber: 1940), 91. 

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Job and the Mystery of Suffering: Spiritual Reflections (Crossroad: 1996), 53–55.

And today (Aug. 6) Fr. Rohr provided these encouraging words of hope: “It is essential for us to welcome our grief, whatever form it takes. When we do, we open ourselves to our shared experiences in life. Grief is our common bond. Opening to our sorrow connects us with everyone, everywhere. There is no gesture of kindness that is wasted, no offering of compassion that is useless. We can be generous to every sorrow we see. It is sacred work.”

I would add it is a life-long journey, and with God’s help we can embrace all of life and death in all it’s many forms. Thanks be to God.

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!

First Things First: Stillness

I was reflecting on the familiar words from Psalm 46 while meditating yesterday: “Be still and know that I am God” (Vs. 10) when it dawned on me that for most of my life I’ve been doing this backward.

Let me explain. For much of my life I was a professional student. Seriously, I finished my final formal education at age 47. Being a student came easy for me. It was comfortable because I knew how to play the education game. I like the pursuit of knowledge and hope I will always be a life-long learner.

But the psalmist put these words in the order they are in for a reason. “Be still” comes before “know that I am God.” In academic speak stillness is a prerequisite for knowing. Knowledge in the academic sense is mostly an intellectual exercise. But knowing God involves far more than our minds; it encompasses our whole being.

In Genesis 4:1 it says, “And the man knew his wife Eve and she conceived.” There “knowing” is a metaphor for total merging of one life with another. So it is with knowing God. To quote a contemporary theological statement called the “Hokey Pokey,” to really know God you have to put your “whole self in.”

And we cannot do that if our minds are racing hither and yon dealing with all the things modern life includes. How many times in the New Testament does Jesus go off to a quiet place by himself to pray, to commune with God? And that’s a problem for me. There are not many quiet places in my world. We live on two acres so there’s physical space for solitude, but even if I sit by our pond I can hear traffic from a freeway a half mile away; and urban sprawl is devouring most of the vacant land all around us.

So being still, really still in mind, body and spirit doesn’t come easily. It requires a conscious effort and discipline to find a place and dedicate time regularly to be still; so God can draw near and make herself known to us. That spiritual discipline requires us to put first things first. Be still, and then we can know God fully by surrendering our being into the mystery of Being Itself.

Righteous Indignation

“Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed.” (Exodus 3:1-2)

“One day, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and looked on their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people. He looked this way and that, and seeing no one, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.” (Exodus 2:11-12)

Most preachers would be ecstatic to know that a sermon they preached 30 years ago was still remembered. Most of us would feel great if anyone remembered what we said from the pulpit 30 minutes ago. The preacher I have in mind was no ordinary preacher. The Rev James Forbes was senior pastor of Riverside Church in New York City from 1989 until he retired in 2009. He also served at Union Theological Seminary where he was named the first Harry Emerson Fosdick Adjunct Professor of Preaching. His installment at Riverside made him the first African American senior minister of one of the largest multicultural and interdenominational congregations in the United States.

Forbes was the featured preacher at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio’s Schooler Institute on Preaching in the early 1990’s shortly after I began teaching at MTSO as an Adjunct Professor of Homiletics, and I must say he remains one of the most powerful and engaging preachers I have ever heard. It was Forbe’s sermon at that Schooler Institute that I still remember 30 years later.

The sermon was based on the Exodus story, and Forbes was masterful at weaving contemporary situations throughout and illuminate them  with the biblical narrative. One of the most memorable points Forbes made came to my mind today as I began another day today struggling with my anger at what is being done to our democracy by an unstable, vengeful and pitiful American president.

Forbes used the two texts quoted above from Exodus to make the following point. He reminded us that after Moses killed an Egyptian in a fit of anger for abusing one of the Hebrew slaves he fled to the land of Midian to avoid any repercussions from Pharoah. While in Midian Moses stood up for the daughters of the priest of Midian, Ruel, when they came to water their father’s flocks and other shepherds tried to drive them away. That act of kindness and justice ingratiated Moses into a friendship with Ruel and eventually to Moses’ marriage to one of Ruel’s daughters, Zipporah.

Forbe’s interpreted Moses’ time in Midian as a time of spiritual growth for Moses because “he wasn’t ready” for what God had in store for him. And it’s there in the land of Midian while simply doing his day job tending Ruel’s sheep that Moses encounters a burning bush. After all the wild fires we’ve seen recently all over the world there’s nothing very remarkable about a single burning bush. But notice two special things about this bush. It is near Mt. Horeb, also known as Mt. Sinai, and the text calls it “the mountain of God,” foreshadowing Moses receiving the 10 Commandments from God on that same mountain.

But the other extraordinary thing about this bush is that “it was burning, and yet it was not consumed.” That familiar Sunday School story is usually interpreted rather literally as the place that Moses receives his call from God to go liberate God’s people from slavery.

But Forbes found a more profound symbolism in that story and applied it as a metaphor for Moses’ (and our) readiness to stand up to injustice.

When Moses killed the Egyptian his anger overcame him, but, said Forbes, to be ready for God’s service Moses and all of us need to be like that burning bush – angry about injustices inflicted on the most vulnerable of our sisters and brothers– angry but not consumed by our anger.  Instead spiritually mature Christians learn to channel our righteous indignation into positive actions for justice.

I do not presume to claim such spiritual maturity for myself.  Far too often I let my anger at minor frustrations or societal injustices consume me instead of approaching each of them as an opportunity to face a  problem and look for creative and productive solutions to the situation.  

Gracious God, there is so much hate and division in our world, so much deceit and injustice it is so tempting to lash out at those we disagree with or at unfair restrictions imposed upon our lives by an invisible but deadly virus.  We do not want to stop being agents of justice who strive to right wrongs, but bless us with your spirit that enables us to angry without being consumed by our emotions.  Help us “speak the truth in love” to friend and foe alike that we can be peacemakers so needed in our world today.  Amen

Weeping Jesus

Almost anyone who grew up in Sunday School or is familiar with the Bible knows what the shortest verse in the Bible is.  John 11:35 says, “Jesus wept.”  In that instance Jesus was mourning the death of his friend Lazarus. In that case Jesus weeps because his friend Lazarus has died.  This was a very personal kind of grief that most of us have also experienced.  Death is a part of the human condition, and the incarnate Jesus knew all the heights and depths of humankind’s emotions. 

 Less familiar are the other two times in the Gospels that we are told Jesus cried.  In both of those cases he is again grieving but on a macro scale for the city of Jerusalem and the whole Jewish people.  Luke 13:34: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.”

And then on his final trip to Jerusalem and the cross Jesus weeps again. And no, Jesus is not weeping over his own coming passion and death.  He weeps not for himself but again for the city of Jerusalem and the entire Jewish community.  Luke tells us, “As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side.  They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”  (Luke 19:41-44)

The nation of Israel has had multiple chances not only from the Messiah but in generation after generation of prophets who have proclaimed the word of God to them.  But they have been tone deaf and in extreme situations have “stoned and killed the prophets.”  

I call those Scriptures to mind because I believe that Jesus is weeping again today over the United States.  Like the Jews 2000 years ago way too many of us have not had ears to hear the Gospel of unconditional love that Jesus lived and died for.  I can hear Jesus saying today, “Oh, America if only you had listened.”

We have refused to accept a boat load of scientific evidence about climate change for decades.  This dangerous denial and refusal echoes the way the church treated Galileo and Copernicus 500 years ago.  But our current situation is much more urgent and dangerous.  Look at the recent evidence: so many hurricanes in 2020 that we have run through our alphabet naming them and now are well into the Greek alphabet.  Devastating wildfires all over the western part of our country are still burning today because of years of drought due to climate change.  The scientific community has been warning us for years that we are running out of time to stop poisoning Mother Earth.  The rest of the world is taking this crisis much more seriously than we Americans.  We are much too addicted to fossil fuel consumption because of the corporate greed of big oil companies.  Our leadership still unbelievably calls the climate crisis a hoax because once more profits and stock dividends trump concern for the future of our children and grandchildren.  And Jesus weeps.

Scientists and public health professionals have warned us for generations about the possibility of a global pandemic.  Movie producers have frightened us with pandemic thrillers, but we have not been scared enough to admit and listen to the experts when we are actually living that nightmare.  Numbers of COVID cases all over the country and world are increasing daily at alarming rates exactly like the scientists told us they would.  Other pandemics like the Spanish Flu 100 years ago followed the same trajectory.  Public health officials warned us that the fall flu season would be deadly if we all didn’t do our part to control the virus.  Those warnings fell on far too many deaf ears plugged up with greed for political power and economic rewards superseding our value for human life.  We ignore the experts and reopen businesses, bars, and bistros much sooner than is wise.  The virus spreads like wildfire, and Jesus weeps.

When I reread the first Scripture about the death of Lazarus I noticed something I hadn’t before.  The Gospels are carefully organized to show truth with a capital T.  The stories in the Gospels are not randomly placed but are like pieces of a jig saw puzzle with each one making the total picture more complete and vivid.  So immediately after the dramatic raising of Lazarus from the dead the very next thing John tells us is that Jesus went immediately into Jerusalem and drove the money changers out of the temple.  

Why is that significant?  It’s John’s way of telling us that Jesus’ purpose here on earth was not just to work miracles and minister to individuals.  The complete Gospel message tells us that Jesus’ redemptive work then and now also includes confronting the systemic injustices found in our earthly institutions.  That part of Jesus’ ministry just like Amos, Micah, Isaiah and all the other prophets remains unfulfilled today.  Racism, endless wars, increasing injustice in the way economic power and wealth are distributed, and turning our fearful and angry communities into armed camps, just to mention a few, remain further from any workable solution than ever.  And Jesus weeps.  

I woke up this morning with the lyrics to one of the songs from the musical “Godspell” running through my head:  (I apologize for the weird formatting, but I gave up fighting with WordPress after multiple attempts. I hate the changes WordPress has made in its site.)

“When wilt thou save the people?

O God of mercy when?

The people, Lord, the people,

Not thrones and crowns, but men!

God save the people, for thine they are,

Thy children as thy angels fair.

God save the people from despair.”

Dear God, when will you save us from this interminable year of 2020?  When O God, when?  And even as I uttered that prayer I knew it was the wrong question to ask, because we are a people of free will.  God does not micromanage our lives but gives us freedom to make our own choices — and to take the consequences.  You might say that God gives us enough rope to hang ourselves, and that noose is now tightening around our necks.  God has given us the scientific knowledge to defeat this pandemic.  What we are asked to do is not difficult.  Yes it’s hard to give up all the activities we used to enjoy.  I miss seeing my friends and family.  I’m almost 74 years old and I hate having a year or more of the time I have left on this earth taken from me by an invisible enemy.  Yes, it’s a nuisance to wear a mask and social distance, but those are not difficult things to do in order to save the lives of my neighbors; and I will continue to do them no matter how many fools around me refuse to do so.  I’m sure Jesus also weeps for those who are too paranoid and taken in by conspiracy theories to do the right thing.

I too weep for our nation.  These are the darkest days in my lifetime, and yet to carry on honestly facing the realities of our lives in 2020 I must dig deep and humbly ask God to empower and guide my life.  And in those depths I hear words of faith like these from Psalm 30:  

“Weeping may linger for the night,     But joy comes with the morning.”

Or, as Maureen McGovern sang for the movie “The Poseidon Adventure” about a world literally turned upside down, as in a capsized ship:

“There’s got to be a morning after If we can hold on through the night 

We have a chance to find the sunshine, Let’s keep on looking for the light.”

No matter how deep the darkness or how long the night lasts, joy will eventually come in God’s dawning of a bright new day

A Prayer for Coming Home

Gracious and loving God, this prodigal child is coming home. I’ve been awaymuch too long. I can’t believe the welcome mat is still out after how poorly I’ve treated you. I’ve been lost in the wilderness, depressed, frightened and angry that life isn’t fair.

I’ve taken detours through doubt and lingered too long in places of sin. I lost my way in anger and self-pity, afraid to come home and not even sure I any longer knew the way.

The simple faith of childhood failed me in times of greatest need. I surrendered to to the demons of temptation that led me down the dead end paths of prosperity, power and fleeting pleasures of the flesh.

I knew better. I had been taught your Word from childhood, but rebellion against the bonds of legalism alienated me from my roots and my heritage. When once I felt closely held by your loving arms I grasped now only air when I reached out to you. My prayers for your help grew empty and hollow because I heard no answers, probably because I never stopped the pursuit of happiness long enough to listen for your reply. My vision was clouded by tears of frustration and fear; so I could not even see you in the beauty of creation. And I certainly couldn’t see you in the chaos and injustice in our world. I gave up trying to find you.

I drank deeply of the great American myth of individualism. I succeeded so well at school and work that i never learned the lessons that failure alone can teach. When things became to challenging rather than fail I simply quit. I gave up on relationships and career goals instead of doing the hard work of trying multiple ways to solve a problem. I played it safe rather than risk taking unpopular stands on social justice issues. I took the wide path that leads to destruction.

But now I’m coming home. I humbly throw myself on your mercy, trusting that you will catch me and hold me close, hold me until my fear gives way to peace. I’m coming home, not for a fatted calf, but hoping your Holy Spirit will ignite the fire of faith in me anew and send me out to invite other lost ones longing to come home but are too afraid and ashamed.

In the name of the one who overcame Satan’s temptation in his wilderness time. Amen

Servanthood

Jesus said, “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” That familiar quote comes at the end of a discussion between Jesus and two of his closest disciples. James and John have asked a big favor of Jesus, they want their faces carved on Mt. Rushmore. Oh, no, that was someone else who is even more foolish and full of himself.

James and John actually asked to sit at Jesus’ right and left when he comes in his glory. And Jesus, ever the patient teacher told them “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (Mark 10:38)

This story got me to wondering what Jesus meant when he tells us to become servants. What does it mean for us today to be a servant? In this election year when we will choose those who we want to be our public servants that’s a very important question. Those who run for public office do it for a multitude of reasons, but for many of them servanthood is not high on the list of their motivations. They may want power to shape government policy in ways that favor them or their friends. They may want the perks of government service like a cushy lifetime pension. They may want the kind of glory and fame that James and John thought they were worthy of even though they had no idea, as Jesus points out, what they were asking.

Jesus had rejected the temptations of earthy power and glory immediately after he was baptized and began his public ministry. (Matthew 4, Mark 1, and Luke 4). Satan teases Jesus and dares him to turn stones into bread, to throw himself off the temple to prove God will protect him, and then with power and glory over everything he can see from the mountain top. Of course those things are not Satan’s to give, just as Jesus tells his disciples that the kind of glory they are seeking is not his to give.

Jesus instead relies on his God-granted power to say a firm and definite “no” to worldly temptations of narcissistic grandeur and even to the basic comforts of home and family. In his novel “The Last Temptation of Christ” Nikos Kazantzakis tries to show that point, but it often gets lost in our obsession with sex. The movie version of that novel drew loud protests because part of the temptation for Jesus was to forgo the suffering the way of the cross leads to and to just settle down as a family man with Mary Magdalene.

My point is that service or servant leadership is the road less traveled because it requires sacrifice. Running for public office in our hyper partisan society means giving up all hope for any personal privacy and having every part of one’s entire life put under a microscope. It can lead to physical danger for the servant and his or her family. Dr. Amy Acton, former Director of Public Health in Ohio, served our state brilliantly in the first few months of this pandemic in a reassuring but scientific way, but she paid a price for her firm insistence on sound medical practices. Those who were primarily concerned about the economy and those who refused to accept her advice drove her from office. She even endured protestors armed with assault weapons outside her home.

Candidates for public service in the age of social media (which is often anti-social) are especially vulnerable to attacks that are spread by people on every side of the political spectrum without bothering to fact check. Lies and insults can go viral in minutes. For example, just 24 hours after she was introduced as the Democratic Vice Presidential candidate vicious, racist and sexist lies about Kamala Harris’ citizenship began circulating on the internet and in the White House briefing room. The same birther B.S. used against Barrack Obama has reared its ugly head again.

Senator Harris has devoted her entire adult life to public service at the local, state and federal level. She has overcome obstacles inherent in her gender and race, and she threatens the status quo, namely power in the hands of white males who have run this country for over 250 years. Why would anyone subject herself to such slander and lies? Why would Gandhi or Dr. King or John Lewis endure beatings, imprisonment and even death to be a public servant? Why not give into the temptation to live a safe, comfortable life at home with family?

The answer is in the words of Jesus, “One who would be greatest of all must be servant of all.” Those who lay up earthly treasures and glory that thieves can steal and rust consume are never satisfied. They always want more. More money, more power, more fame and glory because they have not learned the lesson of servanthood. They have rejected the truth:” For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 16:25). Too many of us have been so indoctrinated with the prosperity gospel that we can’t imagine putting our trust in a dark-skinned carpenter who refused to save himself when he could have. The tempter was still there even on Golgotha hanging on a cross next to Jesus begging Jesus to “save yourself and us.” But the other thief knew what it meant to be at Jesus’ side when he came into his glory, and Jesus recognized that request to be with him in paradise while ignoring the other thief who was only looking out for himself. (Luke 23)

Our nation is at a critical crossroads here and now where we must recognize the value of servant leadership and reject false claims of glory. If we fail to do so we will lose our national life by trying to rely on saving ourselves. To survive and thrive we must follow the example of the one who washed the feet even of those who would betray and deny him because he walked the walk as a true servant leader. He knew the truth that true greatness is found in service to others. Do we?