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

Memories and Life Lessons from November 22, 1963

When I asked my grandchildren this week if they knew what important event in American history happened on November 22 they of course didn’t know. They weren’t born until 40 years after JFK was gunned down on that dark day 53 years ago. And what’s more the parents of my grandchildren weren’t alive in 1963 either. What a difference a generation or two makes.

It was a watershed moment in American history for those of us who were alive and old enough to understand or sense that something big had happened. Memories of where we were when we first heard about the assassination are indelible. I was a senior in high school sitting in 7th period Algebra class next to a window that overlooked the faculty parking lot of our school. I happened to be looking out the window (apologies to Mr. Gross our teacher) when I saw Mr. Ratliff our principal pull into the parking lot at well over the speed limit and run from his car into the office. I knew that something major was wrong. I had never seen Mr. Ratliff run anywhere before. In just a few seconds the PA system in our class room crackled to life. Mr. Ratliff told us he had just heard on the radio that President Kennedy and Governor John Connally had been shot in Dallas.

Mr. Ratliff turned the radio on over the PA and for the rest of that school day all we did was listen to the news as it emerged from Dallas. When the bell rang to change classes we moved in solemn silence to our next classroom and continued quietly listening to the unbelievable news that the president was dead. I don’t remember any teachers or students saying anything. When the final bell of the day rang we again moved quietly to our lockers and left the building to go home and continue watching non-stop coverage on TV as Vice-President Johnson took the oath of office on Air Force One and into the night until we witnessed the President’s blood stained widow and his brothers escort the casket off of the Presidential jet in Washington D.C.

I just finished my previous blog post yesterday when I saw a picture on Facebook of the iconic screen shot of CBS television breaking into a soap opera so Walter Cronkite could tell the nation what was unfolding in the nation’s turbulent political atmosphere which was a soap opera in its own right. These were the days of Civil Rights movement and the Cold War. The McCarthy crusade on “un-American activities” was still a recent memory and the Cuban missile crisis had us all on the brink of nuclear destruction only a year before. Kennedy had won a highly contested bitter election three years earlier with charges of voter fraud and a torrent of religious prejudice because he was a Roman Catholic. He was in Dallas that day running for reelection.

What I didn’t know in 1963 as a naïve teenager in a rural Ohio community was that there were plenty of signs of danger in Dallas. Hatred of Kennedy was not hidden, and JFK’s closest advisers urged him not to make that campaign trip because they feared for his safety. That hatred and its tragic outcome are eerily reminiscent of today’s political atmosphere and how much we need to learn from the lessons of history.

We learned too late that November that it was not safe for the President to ride around in an open convertible. Denial of obvious dangers because of the animosity toward Kennedy was a factor in his death just as denial of the dangers of violence against the President contributed to the assassination of James Garfield just months after he took office in 1981. Even though Lincoln’s assassination was only 15 years earlier people we reluctant to believe that it could happen again. Lincoln’s death was written off as a casualty of the Civil War, and that conflict was over, right? So Garfield had no real protection in the D.C. train station where he was shot.

There have been dozens of conspiracy theories about if and why Lee Harvey Oswald killed JFK and why he was gunned down on live television just two days after Kennedy died. We may never know all of the answers to those questions, but this we do know and it’s a lesson we need to learn and relearn in every generation. Words and images have power. They can be used to heal or harm. Actions have their conception in thoughts and feelings expressed in language. Hateful words, chants, and slogans when taken to their logical conclusion give birth to acts of violence. In our social media age where many people’s primary source of “information” comes from posts and tweets the power of images and words is magnified 100’s of times more than they were in 1963. As hard as it is for my grandchildren to believe, there were only three major networks that provided us with our news 50 years ago.

Today rumors and propaganda go viral in a matter of minutes, and, as I said in an earlier post this week, the word “viral” is loaded with ironic significance. A virus in our bodies is harmful or even deadly, and a virus in my hard drive can be fatal to my computer. Both kinds of viruses can be contagious and have devastating consequences, e.g. Zika and HIV. Posts on social media can also have disastrous effects when they go viral. They are immediately out of the control of the author because even if one offers a correction or an apology or deletes the item it is already at large in cyber space and cannot be stopped from spreading across the country and around the world in a matter minutes.

The only vaccine for cyber viruses is to use extreme caution in fact-checking and verifying information before sending in out. None of us is immune from getting caught up in the emotion of a heated campaign or argument and saying things we regret. In an old fashioned face-to-face argument we have non-verbal or verbal feedback from other participants in the interchange that are not available to us if we go on an on-line rant. Face-to-face I know who is involved in the discussion and can reach out to those people to apologize or continue the discussion in a more rational moment. But if I post or share something hurtful on Facebook I have no idea who will see it or how many times it will get reposted. WordPress stats tells me that my blog posts get read at times as far away as South Africa and China, and while that is very exciting it is also a daunting reminder of the power and responsibility we all have to use our words with great care.

So now 53 years after those shots heard around the world from Daley Plaza in Dallas we can still learn critically important lessons. Modern communication techniques are a huge blessing that no one in my Algebra class that day in 1963 could even begin to imagine. They empower us with access to information at our fingertips that could only be found in encyclopedias and libraries back then. That information was obviously out of date before it could be printed and distributed. Today’s apps can translate languages to build bridges of communication across culture, enhance education, transform global commerce, and help us find where we are and how to get where we’re going, even in unfamiliar territory. I was in Boston earlier this year and might still be lost there today if it were not for the amazing ability of my phone to tell me how to get anywhere I wanted to go in that challenging maze of streets. It even told me which bus or subway to take and when it would arrive at my stop.

In 1963 no one but the creator of Dick Tracy could even dream of what we take for granted today. We all carry with us in our phones more computer power than Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins took with them to the alien surface of the moon in 1969. In many ways the world we live in today is as strange and confusing to us as the lunar surface was to those Astronauts. And yet some things about our human condition remain constant through the ages and we forget them at our peril. Ever since his thoughts and feelings of jealousy drove Cain to kill his brother Abel way back in the second generation of humankind we have known that what we think and say affects what we do and how we treat each other.

In today’s multicultural, diverse global village our devices that we rely on today for most of our knowledge and information should all come with a big warning: “Use With Extreme Caution.” And for us Christians there should be a footnote citing Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insul a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:21-24, NRSV)

Giving Up ALGAE for Lent

HolyLentThere are plenty of things I could give up for Lent this year that would improve my health and well-being, both physically and spiritually, but the one I have chosen to focus on is anger and frustration. This is a life-long struggle for me as a highly competitive and perfectionistic person. Those qualities are not all bad and even useful when trying to achieve some goals in life, but when it comes to being at peace and satisfied with my life, not so much. Maybe it’s an age thing, but being at peace has become much more important to me than winning a golf game or achieving economic or academic “success.”

I’ve done a pretty good job of concealing my angry side from most people. My professional persona is one of a caring, compassionate pastor and teacher. But my family and close friends have seen me break golf clubs in frustration, chase referees down the court at a high-school basketball game, or pitch temper tantrums when the difficulty of a home improvement project exceeds my limited skills or problem-solving ability far more often than I would like. So for all the times I have embarrassed any of you, my sincere apologies.

My decision to focus on anger as a barrier to peace this Lent is in large part because of an excellent course I am participating in called “Peace Ambassador Training 2.0.” Sponsored by the Shift Network, this is a 12-week web-based series of seminars focused on Mindfulness Meditation as a way to achieving more inner peace that can lead to peacemaking in the world. We are almost half way through the 12 weeks, and I had a breakthrough aha while meditating this morning as some things from our classes came together for me in a powerful way.

Last week’s class, led by Colin Tipping, was about radical forgiveness as a necessary ingredient in the recipe for peace. My insight this morning was how well forgiveness fits into the overall framework of this class. In our very first session Sister Jenna shared a helpful way to remember some basic shifts that are necessary to achieve a more peaceful state of being. She says we need to remove the ALGAE from our lives. ALGAE is an acronym that stands for Anger, Lust, Greed, Attachment and Ego. The quick, easier-said-than-done version of Sister Jenna’s teaching is that we need to replace Anger with Peace, Lust with Innocence/Purity, Greed with Satisfaction/ Joy, Attachment with Love, and Ego with Self-respect.

That’s obviously a God-sized transformation, but in my meditation today I saw more clearly how other the parts of that ALGAE formula contribute to anger for me: ego – not ever wanting to be wrong or out of control – being disrespected for my opinion or actions and not having “all my wisdom” given its due. If I replace ego with self-respect then I am not dependent on the praise or respect of others. To have self-respect I have to let go of regrets and painful memories, i.e. forgive myself and others. If I have self-respect I don’t need things I am attached to that feed my ego an unhealthy diet. There is also no need to lust after others or things if I’m at peace with myself, and therefore no need to be angry about not getting what I want/deserve, i.e. what I think I am entitled to. I love how that all comes together – now to just learn to live it and get it out of my head and into my being. “I believe Lord, help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24)

Footnote: I was reminded how challenging this can be even as I was writing this piece. In a hurry to capture my thoughts before they left me and dealing with competing family commitments that were impinging on my consciousness as I wrote, I made numerous spelling errors as my brain tried to rush faster than my fingers could type. My old default reaction of frustration and anger quickly kicked in, only making the typing that much worse. New habits take time. The experts in self-help say it takes 21 days to change a behavior pattern. My personal experience is that it takes longer to teach old dogs like me new tricks. And the bigger the changes, the more time and the more spiritual help I need. That’s why the 40 days of Lent are a great time for me to ask for God’s help in giving up the ALGAE in my life.

To that end I draw hope and inspiration from “Guide My Feet,” a wonderful African American spiritual we sang at a recent worship service:

Guide my feet while I run this race.
Guide my feet while I run this race.
Guide my feet while I run this race,
for I don’t want to run this race in vain!

Search my heart while I run this race.
Search my heart while I run this race.
Search my heart while I run this race,
for I don’t want to run this race in vain!


God as Puppeteer or Quarterback?

An important question about the nature of God was raised in a Bible study I am in last night. We are studying Exodus 2 and came to the scene where Moses kills an Egyptian who is abusing one of the Hebrew slaves. The question raised was, “Did God want Moses to kill that Egyptian?” Some argued yes, because it was necessary for the rest of Moses’ preparation to be a leader. Others said there are numerous stories in the Hebrew Scriptures where God tells people to kill someone. (Note: those stories were all written by the victors/killers who were interpreting God’s will from their perspective and likely to justify their actions. Jesus preached and lived a very different Gospel.)

I reject the puppeteer model of God’s control of our lives, and I do not believe it was God’s intention for Moses or anyone to kill another human being – sort of goes against the 6th commandment don’t you think? Rather I think God is more like a quarterback who has to call audibles and change the play a lot when circumstances require it. God takes our mistakes and makes the best of them, using them to teach us. In Moses’ case his homicidal outburst was the vehicle God used to get him out into the wilderness where God could work on him and get him ready for the work ahead.

Leslie Weatherhead’s great little book, The Will of God (based on a series of sermons he preached in London during World War II) is one of the best discussions of this topic ever. Weatherhead describes three dimensions of God’s will – God’s intentional will – what God really wants to happen; God’s circumstantial will – what God makes of the situation when human free will changes the game plan; and God’s ultimate will – what the eventual outcome is. In Moses’ case God’s intentional will would be a peaceful resolution of the conflict Moses witnessed and liberation of the enslaved Hebrews; God’s circumstantial will or Plan B was to use Moses’ escape into the wilderness as a time of spiritual formation and preparation, and God’s ultimate will was to empower Moses once he was ready to lead the liberation of God’s people. The ultimate result is the same as the original intention; it just took a different path and about 40 years to happen.

It took that long because Moses wasn’t ready. I heard Rev. James Forbes preach on the Exodus many years ago and still appreciate his insight into that issue. Forbes said we know Moses’ wasn’t ready for leadership when he killed the Egyptian. He had the motivation; he was angry about the suffering of his people, but he let his anger consume him. What God needed was the compassion for those who suffer, the passion for liberation, the fire in the belly, but the maturity not to let that passion consume him. Forbes said that’s part of the significance of burning bush story in Exodus 3 where Moses finally hears God’s call. The bush was burning but it was not consumed.

When that happens, our will is in harmony with God’s playbook, and God’s ultimate will is done. No one knew that better than Jesus who prayed the prayer we all must pray, “Not my will but thy will be done.” Amen.