When, Lord, when?

Oh Holy One , I am feeling like pharaoh must have felt during the plagues. Fire, floods, Covid, monkeypox, and the stupidity of gun violence and war bombard me constantly from my newsfeed.

As the anniversary of 9/11 approaches once more I remember those pesky words from Jesus that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. That was hard then and still is, oh so very hard.

Never did I imagine back then that I would see the day when political foes in our own country would be the enemies that I struggle to love or even forgive!

I know it’s wrong but I find myself longing for the God of Exodus who drowned the Egyptian‘s in the Red Sea. Or even for the God of Mary who promised us that the rich and powerful will be sent empty away. When, oh Holy One? When will justice roll down like waters? When will we beat our swords into garden tools and never learn war anymore? When, Lord, when?

In the words of one who survived one of the darkest hours of human history, Corrie Ten Boom, “Lord if you want these people forgiven you are going to have to do it because I can’t.“

And yet I give you thanks, Lord, for modern day prophets like Diana Butler Bass, Brian McLaren, Nadia Bolz-Weber, and the dear departed Rachel Held Evans. They give me hope even in the depths of despair about the future of humanity.

And it’s not so much for myself that I pray, Holiest One. It is for those I love the most, my children and grandchildren, that I weep. They will inherit the mess my generation has made.

Please send your miracle-working spirit to renew a right spirit within us, to help us repent of the greed that is destroying our planet and the fabric of our society.

Oh how I hope that it is not too late. And I give thanks that in your eternal, cosmic power it is never too late. Amen

Namesakes

The sermon last Sunday at our church was about the first Christian Martyr, Stephen. (Acts 6-7). I have always been intrigued by this story because I share a name, but not the courage, with Stephen. True, I am “Steven” with a “v,” but that was not always the case. My birth certificate says I was originally named “Stephen” with a “ph.” I have often wondered why and when my name was changed to Steven, but I was never curious enough to inquire, and now that my parents and any other relatives who might know are dead it’s too late to find out.

I do know that there were several “Steven Allen’s” in my grade when I was in elementary school; so one hypothesis is that we were all named after Steve Allen, who was a popular entertainer and comedian back in 1940’s when I was born. There are no other Stephens or Stevens anywhere in our family tree that I know of; so that theory is as good as any.

I don’t remember when I first learned about Stephen, the Christian martyr. I do remember as a young boy thinking it would be really cool to die for Jesus. One of my early favorite hymns was “Onward Christian Soldiers.” I have long since abandoned a belief in a militaristic Christianity and have for many years known that it is much harder to live for Christ than to die for him. That is not to cast any aspersions on those who have the courage and faith to accept death rather than renounce their faith. In fact in today’s sermon I heard something in the Stephen story I don’t remember ever hearing before.

Acts 7:59-60 says, “While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.” Having that kind of compassion and grace literally under fire and in the final throes of death really blows m mind. In fact, one of my biggest regrets about my ministerial career is not having the courage to speak truth more clearly and emphatically than I did. It may just be an excuse, but one of the challenges professional clergypersons face is the conflict of interest between honest sharing of his or her interpretation of Scripture and theology while keeping those who pay her salary and often provide his housing satisfied enough to keep those salary payments coming. I have often felt like I sold my soul for a pension and a parsonage.

The job description for clergy itself contains the conundrum of how to be both prophetic and pastoral to a congregation at the same time. I have often likened it to patting someone on the back and kicking him in the butt at the same time. That requires a more mature faith and a skill set I am still trying to develop in retirement. I feel even worse when I see examples of colleagues who seem to do both of those ministerial functions far better than I ever have.

Part of my personal issue is being uncomfortable with conflict in any form. A case in point is that when I was in grad school in my mid 40’s studying rhetoric/persuasive discourse I wrote a paper entitled “They Shoot Prophets, Don’t They?“ As a child of the 1960’s I was all too familiar with assassinations in real time, in addition to such historical examples like Joan of Arc, Jesus, and Gandhi. That paper was an intellectual attempt that helped me articulate my theory of preaching, but it didn’t address my emotional fear of incurring the wrath of those who disagreed with me. Only twice in my 50 plus years of ministry did I have parishioners complain to my superiors about my social justice views. I’m embarrassed it wasn’t much more often.

The other thing about biblical names is that characters often get new names when they experience a life-changing encounter with God. Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah. Jacob becomes Israel, and Saul, witness to Stephen’s death, later becomes Paul. Maybe my parents did the opposite. Maybe they knew the story of Stephen the Martyr and wanted to save me from that fate by changing my name to make it a little less like his. Maybe if I had remained Stephen I would have had more faith and courage like the Stephen of Acts, We will never know, but what I do know is that the stories of brave witnesses to their faith and values and trust in the power we name Yahweh, Elohim, Abba or God is a call to all of us to emulate as much as we can that kind of courage and grace. And this too I know, when we come up short of that mark God, like Jesus and Stephen, offers us unconditional grace and forgiveness that empowers us to be a little braver and faithful the next time. Thanks be to God.

“Distracted Hospitality,” Luke 10:38-42

[I preached this sermon at an ecumenical vespers service at Wesley Glen Retirement Community in Columbus, Ohio, July 17, 2022]

Have you ever had someone drop in unexpectedly when your home wasn’t ready for company?  Tom, one of my clergy friends tells one of those stories that are funny when they’re over, but not so much as they unfold.  He and Elizabeth, his wife, lived in one of the tiny efficiency apartments on the campus of the Methodist Theological School.  They were one-bedroom apartments with a kitchenette that was half the size of a closet.  They were relaxing one Sunday afternoon when Tom got a call from his District Superintendent saying he and his wife were in the area and would like to stop in for a visit.  

When you are a Methodist in seminary you usually haven’t learned yet that it’s ok to say “no” to a District Superintendent because they are the people you depend on for a job when you get out of seminary.  So even though the apartment was a mess and the little kitchenette was stacked high with dirty dishes Tom said, “Sure, come on over.” When she heard that, Elizabeth went into a panic.  She said to Tom, “I haven’t showered yet; so since you invited them over you can deal with cleaning up the apartment.”

 Elizabeth took the fastest shower of her life and came out of the bathroom to find the District Superintendent and his wife chatting with Tom in the living room.  The apartment looked like a photo from “Better Homes and Gardens;” so the whole time they talked she was dying of curiosity about how Tom had pulled off such a miracle.  After a short visit their guests left, and as soon as they were out of earshot Elizabeth asked Tom what he had done with all the dirty dishes and other clutter?  He sheepishly led her into the kitchen and showed her where he had put all the dirty dishes – in the oven, refrigerator, and cupboards—and then to the closet where he had thrown all the magazine, books and things that had been on the tables, couch and chairs.  After a good laugh they started washing the dishes and reorganizing the books and magazines.

I don’t know if Martha and Mary were expecting Jesus in Luke’s account of his visit.  We can’t tell from these few verses, but I want you to notice something in the very first verse of that story.  We almost always list Mary first when talking about these two sisters.  Mary and Martha just flows of the tongue better than Martha and Mary, doesn’t it?  But when Luke describes this incident, notice that it is Martha who is named first.  She’s the one who invites Jesus into her home, and then we learn that she also has a sister named Mary.  

Mary gets Jesus’ praise at the end of the story because he says she chose “the better part,” namely to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to his teaching, but I think Martha deserves some credit too.  Which role in this mini-drama would you choose?  If Jesus knocked on your door, would you sit and listen to his every word, or would you be like Martha scurrying around trying to be the hostess with the mostess?  After all it would be a real faux pas to not offer a guest some food or drink, and an even bigger no-no not to offer the very best hospitality to Jesus!

Mary reminds me of a song from “Fiddler on the Roof” where Tevye sings about what he would do if he were a rich man.  After listing the fancy house he would build and all the privileges of being wealthy, he says, “If I were rich, I’d have the time that I lack to sit in the synagogue and pray, and maybe have a seat by the Eastern wall. And I’d discuss the holy books with the learned men, several hours every day, and that would be the sweetest thing of all.”  But Martha shows up in that song too.  Tevye sings about Goldie, his wife, having all the servants she needs to cook and do other household chores, that is take care of hospitality.

A very dear friend of ours named Sonnie died earlier this year after a long illness.  Sonnie was a great cook, and one of the things I said about her at her funeral was that Sonnie never met a person she didn’t feed.  I especially miss her carrot cake, which was the best ever.  But hospitality is so much more than food and drink.  My wife and I visited Sonnie in the hospital early on in her illness. While we there two women whom Sonnie had recently welcomed into our church the first time they came to worship also came to visit Sonnie.  The fact that these two women became active members of our church might have happened anyway, but not nearly as quickly if Sonnie had not extended hospitality to them on that first Sunday.

After the two women left the hospital room I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that I asked Sonnie if she knew if the two women were a couple.  You need to know some history before you can appreciate Sonnie’s response.  She grew up on a farm in one of the most conservative counties in Ohio – wonderful people live there, I know, but for many of them their hospitality includes only those who look and think like they do.  So, I was a little shocked and very pleased when Sonnie responded to my question.  She said, “I don’t know if they are a couple or not, and it’s really none of my business.”  That’s real hospitality.

Like all biblical stories, we need to put the Martha and Mary story into the larger context of whole Gospel.  Even though Jesus says Mary has “chosen the better part,” he often himself provides the Martha-like hospitality to those who need it.  He makes water into wine at the wedding in Cana.  He feeds the 5000 when his disciples urge him to send the crowd away to McDonald’s; and that story also says there was enough food for the women and children in the crowd, namely those who had no standing in society.  Jesus included them all.  Robert Frost was once asked, “What is the ugliest word in the English language?” His response was “exclusion,” the polar opposite of hospitality. 

Extending hospitality to people we love is easy, at least most of the time, but both the Old Testament and Jesus tell us and show us a much more radical kind of hospitality.  Even the book of Leviticus, one of the most rigid and exclusionary books in the Bible, also includes some of the best words of hospitality.  Leviticus 19 includes these words often quoted by New Testament authors: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”  I still remember teaching a Bible study on that passage, and the good church folks in the class said, “But that doesn’t apply to us today does it?”  Oh, yes it does, and it is never clearer than Jesus telling us in Matthew 25 that how we treat the “least of these,” including the strangers/immigrants/foreigners, even those we label enemies, is how we treat Christ himself.

So, the bottom line about Martha and Mary is this, like so much in the Scriptures and in life, the choice between listening to Jesus and doing acts of hospitality is a false dichotomy.  It’s not an either/or, it’s a both/and.  The letter of James captures that perfectly when it says, “Faith without works is dead.”  We need times of prayer, Bible study, and worship, but sitting at Jesus’ feet is meant to help us have an attitude of radical hospitality toward everyone we meet. 

Now I know you all don’t have to do yard work or cook and clean anymore, and I’m jealous of that.  But it’s because Wesley Glen (a local retirement community) is a place of hospitality for all of you at whatever level of care and service you need.  But that doesn’t mean you can only be on the receiving end of hospitality.  How you treat the people who clean your rooms and those who prepare and serve your meals can either be hospitable or not.  The way you interact with people here who may be hard to love can be hospitality or it’s opposite. 

Now I know very well that kind of hospitality can be hard to do sometimes.  When my chronic back pain is really bad, or when I’m stressed or overwhelmed with things I need do, it’s all too easy to be anything but hospitable to people who move too slow in traffic or even in the grocery aisles.  That’s because I’m “distracted and worried by many things,” just like Martha.  I don’t think Jesus was being judgmental about Martha’s acts of hospitality; he was concerned about her being distracted and worried by many things.

These days it is almost impossible not to be worried – about the sad state of affairs in our nation and the world; about what the future holds for our kids and grandkids and great grandkids; and about our own health and mortality.  How do we deal with all those concerns that distract us, all those things we really have no control over?  When we take time to sit at Jesus’ feet and hear the good news of salvation, we can trust God to be victorious over all the evil and sin humankind can create.  We can rest in awe over the incomprehensible pictures we’re getting from the Web telescope.  If our God can create such a magnificent and endless universe, God can certainly welcome us with unconditional hospitality.  And that is why no matter what happens to us or around us, we dare to sing “It is Well with My Soul.”  (This beautiful hymn was written by Horatio Spafford in1873 after he and his wife had experienced a horrible tragedy.  If you don’t know their story you can find it at https://www.bethelripon.com/life-stories/horatio-gates-spafford.)

Prayer for Freedom

O Eternal Author of all that is, on this Independence Day weekend we celebrate all the freedoms we have, including the freedom to gather here on line and in person to worship you.  We confess we often take our freedoms and privileges for granted.  Help us tap into the well of gratitude we owe to you first and foremost, even as we celebrate the visionaries who dared to declare their independence from Great Britain almost 250 years ago.  Our journey as a nation toward a more perfect union has been a very bumpy ride; so even as we shoot off fireworks and eat too much this weekend to celebrate our freedom, we also lift up our prayers for the broken and divided nation we occupy in this particular chapter of  American history.  

We have come a long way toward fulfilling the dreams of Jefferson, Lincoln, Sojourner Truth, and Dr. King, but we have miles and miles to go before we reach the high ideals of liberty and justice for all.  As we celebrate our own freedoms this year we also pray for those who are not free from food and financial insecurities.  Remind us to pray for those without adequate health care or opportunities for education and training for meaningful jobs.  We pray for those in our nation and others who are not free from the fear of violence in their cities, and for women and girls who still yearn for the wages, rights, and opportunities taken for granted by their male counterparts.  

We offer special prayers for those who are not free from racial profiling and stereotypes that threaten their very lives.  For homeless immigrants around the world and people living on the streets of our own city, hear our prayers, O God.  We weep for our sisters and brothers in Ukraine enduring naked aggression and suffering at the hands of a misguided bully.  But we also pray for all those who feel the need to oppress and are insatiably hungry for power over others.  

Jesus, our Lord and Savior, said he came to set the captives free, and so we pray for true freedom:

Freedom from extreme temperatures, droughts, and storms caused by climate change.

Freedom to be better stewards of your creation.

Freedom from systemic racism and discrimination against our LGBTQ siblings.

Freedom to offer hospitality to all of your children.

Freedom from addiction in all its forms.

Freedom to offer support to anyone struggling with disease and chronic pain.

Freedom from depression and. hopelessness.

Freedom to be open and vulnerable enough to share our own struggles with those who need a friend they can trust to hear their story without fear of judgment.

Gracious and loving God, you already know the cares and concerns of our hearts, yearning to be free.  Send your Holy Spirit to bring blessed assurance to each one worshiping with us.  

Remind us again that your reign of justice and peace does not come with swords loud clashing nor roll of stirring drums, but with deeds of love and mercy.  We know that true freedom will not come until we dwell again in heavenly peace with you.  But until that day comes empower us with the courage to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with you as we offer the freedom of your grace to all we meet.  We ask these things, as well as our unspoken prayers in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen

[Pastoral Prayer for July 3, 2022, Northwest UMC, Columbus, OH]

Ukraine: Reaping the Whirlwind and Beyond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

A Prayer of Lament as War Begins — Again!

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


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


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


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

Dream or Mirage?

There is so much on my mind and heart on this 2022 version of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  The demands of other commitments keep me from sharing those today.  Instead I want to share some less familiar quotes from King that are not from his monumental “I Have a Dream” speech.  These lines from King’s 1964 Nobel Prize acceptance speech were quoted in a powerful article by John Blake two days ago:

“I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history,”

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.” 

Blake goes on to say, “Those are words that lift the soul. How much will they mean, though, if the US becomes a performative democracy — a country with the veneer of fair elections but run by White minority rule? 

If that happens, January 6 — not January 15 — will be a truer reflection of what the US stands for.

And what King said in 1963 will no longer be a dream. It’ll be a mirage.”

John Blake, CNN, January 15, 2022, “MLK had a dream. Trump had a mob. How two days in January offer competing visions for America”

Election Blues and Faithful remnants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop, Hear, Do!

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27, Lectionary text for 8/29/21)

There are 29 references to “widows” and 16 to “orphans” in the NRSV of the Bible. They are mentioned so consistently throughout Scripture of course because without a male protector they are the most vulnerable people in patriarchal biblical society; and that means they need the most help. I get that, but sometimes I just need a rest from the Social Gospel.

This is one of those weeks. Call it compassion fatigue, burn out, or just too pooped to participate. This week’s 24/7 news cycle has gone over the top with natural and human catastrophes. I’m sorry, Lord, but I’ve just had to turn the news off. One more report of a hurricane on top of an earthquake, wind and wild fire, one more gut-wrenching video of Afghan refugees climbing on to a moving aircraft to flee their homeland, one more story about school-age kids and teachers being caught in the political theater of the absurd about masks and vaccines for COVID may just be the final straw that pushes me over the edge.

It’s the blame game that is wearing on me the most right now. In the midst of all this chaos instead of joining forces to solve any one of these crises our state and federal leaders are redoubling their tug of culture war to find some political advantage in the worst situations. They seem oblivious to the reality that we are entering COVID 4.0 because the whole pandemic was politicized from Day 1.

Maybe the first step for people of faith or political leaders should be “First, Do No Harm” from the Hippocratic Oath. Not only are we failing miserably in taking care of widows and orphans, self-serving decisions have produced more poor, more widows and orphans left behind by the 623,000 plus Americans who have died from COVID so far. One headline today said, “Couple from LaMarque, Texas Who Didn’t Trust the Vaccine Have Died Leaving Four Orphans Behind.”

With all the resources the United States has, leading the world in the number of COVID deaths is beyond inexcusable. Scoring political points has trumped the use of time-tested public health tools like masks and vaccines to protect the most vulnerable.

Sure some of the finger pointing and political posturing goes with the territory because we are all caught in the matrix of a never-ending campaign cycle. I remember thinking last November after the election that I would get a breather from requests for campaign donations bombarding my inbox! How naive I was! And the requests just keep growing, coming from all over the country, not just from my own state. Perpetual campaigning leaves no time for actual governing! It is madness, not to mention an obscene waste of time and money. And the constant struggle for power and influence by the wealthy class is threatening to erode the very foundations of our democracy. How absurd is it that we may still be litigating the election results of 2020 when it’s time to cast votes in 2022.

Back in 2005, a time that seems so quaintly simple compared to the 2020’s, my wife and I participated in an intensive personal development program offered by Klemmer and Associates in California. There were many great life lessons we learned experientially in those workshops, but there is one gem that stands out for me, especially in a time like the one we are in now.

The focus of that program was learning how to set SMART goals for oneself and learning skills to overcome the internal and external obstacles that stand in the way of achieving them. The blame game is one major hurdle most of us have to overcome to change a habit and get unstuck. To lose weight, to risk pursuing a new career, to be vulnerable enough to take a significant relationship to a new level of intimacy, whatever the goal may be one commonality is that blaming others for why we cannot achieve a dream or a goal is totally counterproductive.

The most helpful advice I learned from Klemmer is that instead of blaming others or circumstances for whatever we want it is much more productive to ask three simple questions: “What worked? What didn’t work? What next?” How different might the current catastrophe in Afghanistan look if we asked those pragmatic questions instead of just trying to pin the blame on somebody else. There is more than enough blame to go around for 20 years of killing and mayhem in Afghanistan, and that doesn’t even count the equally bad track record the Russians and the British had there before us.

Just like COVID war produces widows and orphans. For what? Victory? How does one keep score in the game of war? The long bloody trail of human history should have taught us long ago that there are no winners in war. Each war begets the next ad infinitum. What might it mean for Americans to ponder what it means that World War II was the last war where we can count any kind of victory? Could it be that war has finally outlived its usefulness 2500 years after Isaiah and Micah both dreamed of the day when we would “beat our swords in to plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks?” (Isaiah 2:4, Micah 4:3)

Isn’t that the word that James wants Christians to be doers of? Talk is cheap. We pay lip service to pious platitudes about loving our neighbors and even our enemies, but who among us is really brave enough to walk that walk?

What have we got to lose? The way we have been trying to use “power over” others, especially in a toxic version of masculinity, simply isn’t working. Gun violence, raping the very planet we depend on for life itself, bitter partisanship instead of collaboration to solve problems that threaten the existence of the human race itself are all symptoms of humanity’s terminal illness.

Is it to late to be doers of the word instead of just hearers? Maybe a better question is are we even listening to the Word any longer? Do we have ears to hear? Are the noisy gongs and clanging cymbals of greed, consumerism, zealous nationalism, and rugged individualism so loud they drown out the “still small voice of God?” (I Kings 19:12).

Matthew Fox describes our plight quite well in his Daily Devotion from August 9: “A prime idea of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is its very straightforward critique of misuses of power. From the very beginning, the Bible undercuts the power of domination and teaches us another kind of power: powerlessness itself. God is able to use unlikely figures who in one way or another are always inept, unprepared, and incapable—powerless in some way. In the Bible, the bottom, the edge, or the outside is the privileged spiritual position. This is why biblical revelation is revolutionary and even subversive. The so-called “little ones” (Matthew 18:6) or the “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3), as Jesus calls them, are the only teachable and “growable” ones according to him. Powerlessness seems to be God’s starting place, as in Twelve-Step programs. Until we admit that “we are powerless,” Real Power will not be recognized, accepted, or even sought.”

I love the quote attributed to Winston Churchill that says, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.” It seems to me we’ve about exhausted “everything else.” Maybe we’re about ready to be doers of God’s way – collaborating, sharing, caring more about all of humankind and creation than our own bottom line? That’s what James calls “pure religion.” Others call it the peaceable kin-dom that God has put within each of us. That beloved community can only emerge like a butterfly from its chrysalis if we can learn to be unstained by the deadly values of the world.

The other very familiar verse from James is 2:26 which says “Faith without works is dead.” Without a major shift in our values, so are we.

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!