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

21 Day Attitude Adjustment

For those who don’t know what this contraption is, it’s a post hole digger. And it doesn’t work. I put it in the ground and waited for it to dig a hole, and the darn thing just sat there. It didn’t dig a lick.

Now it happens I was working on this project on a beautiful fall Sunday afternoon; so maybe my digger was just trying to keep the Sabbath. But I’ve used it on other days of the week with similar results. Yes, I was working on the Sabbath, an occupational hazard for preachers. But I hasten to add that yesterday, a rainy football Saturday, was my day of rest in my recliner in front of the TV. I believe, especially in our crazy busy world, it’s more important to get some regular rest than to be legalistic about which day or days we do so. Jesus thought so too. When criticized for healing on the Sabbath he said, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” (Mark 2:27, NRSV)

But I digress. To be honest, I’m not very adept at manual labor — but even I know tools don’t work by themselves. Maybe someday, but not yet. My project in this case is putting a fence around our garden to deter or at least discourage rabbits, deer, and other critters from nibbling our produce. Fortunately I only need post holes for the gate, but digging even 2 post holes is hard work. So it didn’t take long before I was tempted to go negative about how hard it was and how I’d much rather be watching more football or playing golf on such a glorious day. And then a little voice in my head that sounded strangely like my wife’s was whispering in my ear, “Attitude is a choice. I can either feel put upon for working so hard— or I can enjoy being out in God’s beautiful creation, breathing fresh air, and getting some wonderful (and much needed) exercise!”

To be honest I don’t always or even often listen to that cheerful voice, but I’m trying to practice more gratitude and nourish a more positive attitude. Yes, I know there’s so much in our world today that is way too easy to be negative about, but I do have a choice. I can either focus on the negative or the positive. It’s really as simple, and as hard, as following the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Would I rather hang out with some David Downer or someone with a positive approach to life’s challenges? Pretty easy choice isn’t it? So if that’s who I’d rather be with then that’s who I need to be, even when I’m all by myself. Not only does my throwing a pity party for myself do me no good, it’s a bummer for those around me.

I continue to marvel at and be inspired by people who exude faith and positive vibes when life deals them so much unfair pain and suffering: people who are confined to wheel chairs who refuse to stop living and express gratitude for friends and family and good memories of lives well lived; parents who give nothing but unconditional love to children who break their hearts with rebellion and rejection; or someone like President Jimmy Carter who takes brain cancer and the limitations of being 95 in stride and keeps working to make the world a better place for his sisters and brothers. It’ a choice!

I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to my wife Diana at this point. The reason I said the voice in my head sounds like her is because she is one of the most positive people I’ve ever known. I don’t always appreciate it when she urges me to be more positive, but I know she’s right because she practices what she preaches; and I am blessed to have a front row seat to see how it works for her and the way she influences others.

On this day choosing a more positive attitude worked for me, and like any other discipline each time I practice that behavior it becomes easier to do it next time and eventually will become a habit that I don’t have to talk myself into. Easy? No, or I’d have mastered it long ago. You may have heard as I have many times that it takes 21 days of practicing a new behavior for it to become a habit, but I just learned recently from a Physical Therapist why that’s so. She told me that our brains continually replace old neurons with new ones. That process takes 21 days, and that’s where we get that number. In those 21 days we are actually training these new neurons as they grow to reprogram our brains and attitude, and we either train them to be negative or positive.

It’s a choice; and just like my post hole digger, it’s up to me to make it work.

Dueling Psalms, 130 vs. 19

No, that 130-19 is not a lopsided NBA finals basketball score! It’s the score of my attitude adjustment a few days ago when I awoke in one of those woe-is-me moods and thought of the lament known as De Profundis in Psalm 130. That’s Latin for “O crap I have to face another day of aches and pains and bad news!” My arthritis was nagging at me, my chronic back trouble was moving up the pain scale, and the news was full of more terrorist attacks and hate crimes. Reading the newspaper over my morning coffee used to be one of my favorite times of the day. I still do it out of a sense of duty to be an informed citizen, but it has become an increasingly depressing task.

Psalm 130 begins “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!” As tensions between our nation and others mount, as our president foolishly believes his own nationalistic rhetoric that we can shrug off our responsibility for climate change and go it alone, as fears of terror attacks increase, and partisan politics paralyze any attempt to address critical domestic and international issues responsibly, I often wonder if God or anyone is listening to the voice of my supplications.
Later that same morning I went out to work in our lawn and gardens still down in the depths. We are blessed to live on a beautiful property decorated with my wife’s gardening handiwork, a pond, trees and flowers. But the beauty requires hard work, especially this time of year when the grass and the weeds are being very fruitful and multiplying. It’s the work that prompts me at times to say that “yard work” is made up of two four-letter words. But the birds were in good humor that morning and serenaded me as I went forth to mow the lawn. And then I looked up at the blue sky dotted with huge languishing cotton ball clouds pictured above, a sight not seen nearly often enough in central Ohio, and my heart shifted gears from Psalm 130 to 19:

“The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” (Psalm 19:1-4).

In basketball 19 doesn’t beat 130, but in the game of faithful living it does. God’s presence is all around us no matter how far down in the depths we are feeling. We just have to look for it with all our senses. No, the skies are not always breathtakingly beautiful, but the loving God of all creation is always surrounding us if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. Even the author of De Profundis knew that while in the depths, and Psalm 130 ends with this statement of faith and hope:

“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.

O Israel, hope in the Lord!
For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel
from all its iniquities.”

The Journey from Bah to Aha

I am not a fan of the way we Americans do Christmas. Most everything about this season bugs me, as in Bah Hum-bug! How do I hate it? Let me count the ways: Black Thanksgiving week consumer mania, Christmas lights that mysteriously become tangled and dysfunctional while tucked in their storage boxes, frozen fingers putting said lights up outdoors, and temporary outbursts of December charity to quiet guilty consciences for another year so we can ignore the injustices in our society that keep people trapped in poverty, just to name a few.

I used to think my negativity about the Holidays was because my employment for most of my adult life required a lot of extra effort in November and December. I worked my way through college working for a florist and put in many long hours from before Thanksgiving until Christmas Eve preparing, selling, and delivering floral finery for festive occasions. And then I jumped out of the frying pan into the fire of being a pastor – writing sermons, planning worship services, caroling parties, collecting donations for those in need, visiting the homebound. Non-stop activity for the entire Advent season leaves little time or energy for doing all the “normal” things people do at home and with family and friends. The last church I served we had Christmas Eve services at 4, 7, 9, and 11, and by the time I crawled into bed early Christmas morning any Christmas spirit I had was pretty well spent. In fact, just writing that paragraph makes me want to go take a long winter’s nap!

There are of course many rewards to the Christian observances of Christmas, and I don’t mean to belittle those. Seeing the joy in a mother’s eyes when we made it possible for her family to have food and gifts for Christmas, sharing carols or communion with a nursing home patient, or singing “Silent Night” with my church family all holding lighted candles at midnight on Christmas Eve are priceless experiences.

2014 is my first year of full retirement from pastoral ministry, and what I’ve discovered is that it wasn’t my various holiday-intensive jobs that made me Grinchy. I still don’t like the way we do Christmas, and that realization helped me come to an Aha moment as I sat in worship on the 2nd Sunday of Advent this year. The sermon by Rev. Tom Slack was based on Mark 1 and stressed the urgency of John the Baptist’s call for repentance in preparation for the imminent appearance of the Christ. To repent means to turn around, to change the way I’m going, and when I applied that to my Ebeneezer Scrooge approach to Christmas I realized, as anyone else could have told me, that my attitude is a choice. I can continue to be a moaning and groaning critic of all the things that are wrong with the way we do Christmas, or I can do as Gandhi suggests and “Be the change I want to see in the world.”

The serenity prayer came to mind and as usual is very good advice. It asks God for “the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” I can’t change the way other people choose to spend their time or money at Christmas, and if I could, complaining and criticizing is never the most effective way to persuade anyone to change. Secondly, that prayer asks for “the courage to change the things I can.” The only thing I really can change directly is me and my attitude, and that is far more likely to affect others either positively or negatively than any words ever will. As someone once said, “What you do speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you say,” or as St. Francis put it, “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.”

How I relate to others one-on-one, be in a homeless stranger or family and friends, those I love most, or how I treat harried sales clerks and UPS drivers and restaurant servers who are just trying to scratch out a living is a powerful example of either Christ-like compassion or Grinchy grouchiness – and both are contagious. God not only loves a cheerful giver, God knows any other giving is not generosity at all.

Is turning an attitude around easy to do? Not for me. I need a guiding star or Rudolph with his red nose to guide me through the fog of clever marketing and the frustrations of crowded calendars and freeways and malls. Rudolph goes down in history for rescuing Christmas. That’s not my goal. I simply want to do my small part to share the Good News of God’s unconditional love for us by the way I choose to live in spite of and because of the holy busyness of this season.

Everyone in the Christmas story makes individual choices that are critical to the outcome. Some of those choices are blatantly selfish and evil. Caesar Augustus decrees that a poor peasant girl in the final days of her pregnancy must make a dangerous journey to Bethlehem and deliver her precious infant in a barn. Herod’s insecurity drives him to order the murder of innocent children. But those choices from people in power aren’t the choices we celebrate. An overwhelmed innkeeper provides the best shelter he has when there is no room in the inn. A frightened Mary says “yes” to God’s plan for her when she could have ignored or laughed at the audacity of that angelic announcement. And her amazing fiancé loves her enough to trust her unbelievable explanation of how she came to be pregnant. These are all simple individual choices that changed the course of human history.

Mark’s Gospel doesn’t waste any time with genealogies and background stories. John the Baptist and a grown up Jesus both burst on the scene in chapter one demanding that we repent and believe the Gospel. They call me to follow Jesus no matter how busy or frustrated I am or what fantastic doorbuster bargains Walmart and Amazon are dangling in front of me. They remind me that my job is not to judge how others celebrate the birth of Christ. God or Santa can decide who’s naughty or nice. My job is to know what I can control (me) and be the best star-following disciple I can be.