A Doubting Faith: The Children, Mark 10:13-16

Little Johnny was asked to pray at a large family dinner. When he protested that he didn’t know how to pray his father said, “Just pray for your family, friends and neighbors, the poor, etc.” So Johnny prayed: “Dear Lord, thank you for our visitors and their children who finished off all my cookies and ice cream. Bless them so they won’t come again. And this coming Christmas, please send clothes to all those poor ladies on my Daddy’s phone who don’t have any clothes. Amen. Johnny was never asked to pray again, but don’t you just love the honesty of children?

That may not be what Jesus was thinking when he said “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” You’ll notice in our text for today Jesus doesn’t ask the kids to speak! But when we think about the qualities children possess that we can learn from isn’t their refreshing honesty one of those? Kids tell it like it is. Today I want to focus on what being like children can teach us about having an honest faith that admits we all have doubts about life’s mysteries – and it’s OK.

Imagination is one of those qualities kids have that we sometimes lose as we grow up. Imagination is powerful – nothing can ever be created until someone imagines what it might look like. Heather Sherrill on our tech team is the theater director for Darby High School, and she shared with me recently some great stats on the value of the arts in education where creative imagination is nourished. Here are just a few of those benefits.
Students involved in music, theater and art are:
• Less likely to drop out of school
• 3 times more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree

• Have better listening and speaking skills
• Are more likely to engage in classroom discussion and public volunteerism
• And are less likely to engage in delinquent behavior

The bad news is that only 28% of public schools in high poverty areas offer theater instruction, and I would add, even in our best schools there is so much emphasis put on testing kids in math and science that important classes in the arts and physical education are cut or eliminated. Math and science are important of course in our high tech global economy, but there needs to be a balance in teaching skills and values that make for informed and competent citizens critical to a democracy. No calculus formula will provide those skills that only a solid education in the humanities offers.

Not all creative ideas that kids have, or adults for that matter, are necessarily good ideas. When my kids were 1 and 4 we moved into a parsonage that actually had two bathrooms – one up and one down. The kids were fascinated by how that plumbing worked; so Joy decided one day to flush her brother’s pacifier down the upstairs toilet and then ran downstairs to see if the binky would miraculously appear in the downstairs commode.

And that spark of imagination doesn’t die at puberty. We attended a performance of Peter Pan last weekend by Worthingway Middle School in Worthington. Our great nephew was in the cast. Do you remember that moment in the story where Tinkerbelle the fairy drinks the poison to keep Peter Pan from drinking it? And the spotlight that represents Tinkerbelle flickers out. But then Peter remembers that fairies live whenever kids believe in them and he asks all the kids in the audience to clap to show they believe. Guess what; even us old kids on Medicare were clapping until Tinkerbelle’s light flickered back to life.

Kids are also full of curiosity – that’s how they learn, and as Pastor Chris reminded us last week a childlike faith does not mean one that has no doubt. Children are full of questions. As we run some pictures of our Northwest Children’s ministries I want to share some insights and comments about childlike qualities from our Children’s ministry team.

When learning about the Creation Story a 5 year old asked “Okay, I get all this, so how did God really create the entire world? Did it just happen like a flash?” And I thought the hard questions from my kids were where babies come from!

During a discussion about being the hands and feet of Jesus Christ and feeding others in need an 8 year old asked, “When will there no longer be hungry people in this world?” Thank God for kids who can still imagine such a world and share their hope with us.

In all kinds of activities we see older kids helping the younger kids. It’s great to see such mentoring happening in our children’s ministry.

During our own version of the Winter Olympics some of the kids were so curious- they had to touch all the supplies beforehand and try it out first. A 5 and 8 year old didn’t want to play hockey or ski at first. Apparently they were not familiar with the sports and decided to complain about it. So the teachers provided coaching and encouragement and a nurturing environment for the kids to trust their team mates and themselves. The children tried and struggled, but they all got to the finish line and scored for their team. Building team work is key for a successful and fun experience- even if we lose the game- there is much appreciation for the game and for one another.

Kids like to be useful; to be significant and make a difference. The NW kids are learning from Bible stories and from the examples of this mission-minded church to be servants and good neighbors by doing things like decorating cards and tying fleece blankets for OSU Star House. The children are creative and love to share their quality artwork with others. Many are artists and they know it too. They have generous hearts and giving spirits. Always willing to share with their neighbors.

The Children’s Garden is such a great learning experience – lessons about patience and teamwork, stewardship for God’s creation, compassion for hungry people, and gratitude for harvest. While Preparing the Children’s Garden one 6 year old commented-“come on already, we need to get these seeds in the ground, time is running, people are hungry. We need more sun.” This was the weekend when we got snow in early April. Can you hear their eagerness!!!

Another example of that was one day while getting ready for Brown Bag Lunches a 9 year old commented, “Wow, we can do this; we need more friends to help. If we could all do our part, more people can eat.” One of the best things about the Brown Bag ministry is that our new friends from the neighborhood are helping and are also getting involved in other church activities,. They feel welcome here at Northwest, and our children are a big part of that hospitality.

Kids live in the moment—they see a problem and they want to address it right now, no appointing a committee to study hunger – just find ways to feed people now. I was much older than these kids when I was working as a youth pastor while in seminary, and one thing I remember from that experience was my Sr. Pastor telling me more than once, “Steve, don’t lose your idealism!” Children have natural idealism and hope – life hasn’t drained it out of them yet, and we all need all the hope we can get. Hope is the antidote for the negative kind of doubt that sometimes keeps us from moving forward, from daring to dream and try.

I was in Westerville on one of the few nice days we’ve had so far this month and had some time before my next appointment. I was near Sharon Woods Metro Park and decided to take a short hike. While there I remembered a scary moment at that park many years ago when my son Matt was maybe 4 or 5. We were riding bikes as a family and he was on his big wheel – remember those? Cool low to the ground kind of a drag racer tricycle. We came to a rather long steep hill on the bike trail and before we could yell for Matt to stop he was flying down that hill heading for a curve at the bottom where there was a wooden bridge across a small creek. If you know big wheels you know they had no brakes! We were sure he was going to crash into the bridge and die, but thank goodness he was a good driver or got lucky and zoomed thru the bridge and coasted to a stop on the other side.

I asked Matt, who now has his own 4 year old if he remembered that incident. He said no, only from hearing us talk about it. But then he went on to say something interesting. He said, “Watching Brady, his son, do things like that is a lot scarier than it was when he was the one doing them.” I forgot to remind Matt about the time he went sledding off the garage roof. Kids are risk takers. They haven’t learned about all the dangers of life yet. That gives parents gray hair, but it is also an important dynamic of faith. Courage comes from trusting your own ability and the basic goodness of life so we can do what’s right instead of just what’s safe.


Speaking of risk takers, I came across this picture this week of Havana Chapman-Edwards, a first grader in Alexandria, Virginia who was the lone student at her school to join in the National School Walkout Day on April 20, the 19th anniversary of the shooting at Columbine High School.

Havana’s mom signed her daughter out of school because Havana said she wanted to participate. Her mom says she was crushed to see Havana sitting by herself, but then she became inspired by her daughter for standing up for what she believes in.

Havana told a news reporter that she was inspired by the Parkland High School students who have been pushing politicians to protect kids from school shootings.

For 13 seconds, Havana and her mom sat in silence to honor the 13 people who lost their lives at Columbine. Havana says that she wore her orange astronaut suit because she wants to show the world black girls are strong leaders.
Comedian Bill Murray in an interview with NBC news said this about student protests: “The thing that’s so powerful about students is that, when you haven’t had your idealism broken yet, you’re able to speak from a place that has no confusion [doubt?], where there is a clear set of values. Idealism is a voice that’s inside you, it’s your conscience. That can really deteriorate along the way… and it can become almost dysfunctional, but it’s there. Everyone has it.” I agree and would add that it’s the voice of idealism that children can help us all hear again.

Kids see the world with fresh eyes, unclouded by filters of status or rank. I saw a post recently from a childhood friend about his experience in the Vietnam War, and it reminded me of the great friendship we shared as children and youth. Blaine was one of my best friends. He was raised by his grandmother who I now realize was dirt poor. Their home was in a part of town that I’m ashamed to admit I would probably be uncomfortable to visit today. My family was lower middle class, but compared to the conditions my buddy lived in we were very wealthy. But I didn’t have those filters and lenses to see the world through then. Blaine was just my friend.

My point is that kids don’t come out of the womb with any kind of prejudices – those are acquired. When I was in high school we didn’t talk about racism or classism, even though they were very real in our little town. But we learned important life lessons in more subtle ways. We had an excellent choral music program that produced a popular musical every year. As you all know I can’t sing a lick now and I couldn’t then either, but I got to do the next best thing – I was on the crew that helped produce the shows. The one that I remember most is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific.” It’s set during WWII and centers around two love stories, one between an American nurse and a wealthy French property owner and the other between an America soldier and a Polynesian woman.

The romance and music are great but more important is the underlying story about prejudice and racism that threaten to keep these lovers apart. There is one memorable song called “Carefully Taught” that says “you have to be taught before it’s too late, before you are six, or seven or eight, to hate all the people your relatives hate. You have to be carefully taught.” Those important life lessons about human relationships could not be discussed openly in my school in the early ‘60’s, but by the magic of storytelling and imagination we could vicariously experience their power through those characters.

Finally there’s another really important reason Jesus welcomes and blesses the children that isn’t so obvious to us. We think of children much differently than people did in biblical times. Today we respect and encourage children, and because of that it is easy for us to romanticize this passage. We see cute pictures and all these positive attributes of childhood trust and enthusiasm, but the people of Jesus’ day saw children pretty much in the very opposite way. Children then were powerless, totally dependent liabilities. One commentator describes them as “non-persons.” They were on the very bottom rung of the cultural pecking order of the day.

So when the disciples saw people bringing their unruly, disruptive kids with them when Jesus was trying to teach important kingdom stuff the disciples tried to shoo the kids away. But Jesus says, “Wait a minute folks – don’t you dare chase those kids away. Everybody’s welcome in my kingdom – and that means everybody! The poor, the lepers, the sinners, the lame, and these precious little nobodies.” And you know what else, by welcoming the children Jesus also knew that he was making it possible for their mothers to also crash the old boys club and listen to the good news he came to share.

We’re really excited that we’ve had several new babies born into our church family recently. As I hear tales of sleepless nights and exhausted moms and dads I am reminded that to accept the blessed gift of a child means to becomes that child’s servant. Those helpless little bundles of humanity are totally dependent on someone to provide for their every need. Those who change diapers and wipe noses give up all claims to position or privilege – and that’s exactly how humble we must become to enter into God’s kingdom where all are equal.

Jesus and the disciples saw the same children, but Jesus saw them through the inclusive eyes of love; and that’s exactly how he sees you and me – runny noses, doubts and all, and he hangs out the welcome sign and blesses us and everyone who comes. Amen.

Advertisements

Reflections on Grief and Ennui

“I feel like I’m swimming in molasses.” That’s how my journal entry for today began, and it’s how I’ve been feeling for the last week or two. Everything takes more time and effort – running errands, figuring out what to do with my day—it all feels like I’m moving in slow motion.

If I ran a search for the word “ennui” in all my computer files I don’t think it would be found. Ennui is not a common word in my vocabulary, but from somewhere unknown to me it surfaced in my journaling this morning. Right after “swimming in molasses” my fingers typed “this must be what ennui feels like.” That of course sent me to the dictionary where “boredom” is listed as a synonym. That didn’t feel quite right. I’m not bored but the other suggestions did: “languor, world-weariness, dissatisfaction.” World-weariness especially struck a chord. I’m so depressed and angry about the state of the world and especially our nation that I want to scream.

The last 16 days have been strange and not wonderful. My father died on February 12 and two days later on Ash Wednesday the massacre at Stoneman Douglas High School occurred. My personal grief and my mourning for those young lives snuffed out have been so intertwined and yet so different that I’m not sure how to sort them out let alone process them.

My dad was 96 and at the end of a long life. His quality of life has been in free fall over the last year; so my predominant feeling for him and for me and my sisters is one of relief. Those kids in Florida and their teachers were nowhere near the end of their lives. There is no relief at their deaths, only pain and anger.

Like life death is complicated. My dad and I were never very close. He coped with his own demons by being very rigid in his faith and morality and was often judgmental and intolerant of others with a different perspective, including me. As I grew in my own faith and worldview I rejected his way and too often him as well. I am grateful that we both lived long enough to accept each other for who we are and heal some of those differences. I’ve also come to appreciate that my dad’s high expectations for me to achieve excellence in what I did with my life was a huge motivation. I didn’t like those pressures to please him as a youth or young adult, but in hind sight I have come to realize he did the best he could as a father, husband, provider and Christian. That’s all any of us can do.

I have not cried for my dad. I never cry easily. I don’t know if the tears will come when we bury his ashes 11 days for now. I wish the other grief for my violence-addicted nation wasn’t all mixed up with my personal feelings. A friend passed on a thought to me after my dad died that has been bouncing around in my head and gut. I can’t find the source of the quote but the gist of it is that we never really grow up until we are orphans. I think I understand part of that. As the now oldest member of my family I have a sense of needing to be a role model. I don’t think I’ll ever be the kind of patriarch my dad was, and I worry that I’ve gone to the other extreme to avoid the rigid, doctrinaire way he showed his love.

The running joke in our family is that almost all of us at one time or another received letters from my dad expressing his displeasure at something we had done or were doing. Those letters were not the most effective way to motivate us to change and usually created the exact opposite kind of rebellious response and sometimes painful alienation and broken relationships. From my earliest days as a father my wife and I chose a much more affirming and tolerant approach to parenthood—and we got letters from Dad advising us that we were sparing the rod and spoiling our kids. Sorry Dad, I still think we were right.

But how do I now as the elder of the clan be a responsible parent/citizen in a nation that I believe is going to hell in a hand basket? I have not written letters or emails to my Congressional representative or to one of my senators since the Parkland shooting because I know they are both intractable in their support of gun rights. They are in the pocket of the NRA and unmoved by the fact that the vast majority of people in this country want AR-15’s banned and background checks enforced. How they can sleep with the blood of innocent kids on their hands is completely incomprehensible to me.

So I’m angry, and I know anger is one of the stages of grief. But my question is how to break out of the ennui so I can function? Or do I need to live with it longer? I saw a sign on the news today as the Stoneman Douglas students and teachers returned to the scene of the crime. The sign said “Welcome Back Eagles.” The eagle is apparently their school mascot, but my mind immediately went to the Isaiah 40 reference that says “God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (Vss. 29-31)

We all have to swim in molasses sometimes. We all get weary. The exiles these words were written to had to wait decades in captivity before they were liberated. Waiting sucks, especially when our big problems of violence and racism and poverty seem to getting worse. Elderhood raises questions about the meaning of life. Have I made a difference? Is the world a better place for my having trod my jagged life journey? Those questions are more real for me this year because it will be 50 years this spring since I graduated from college. 1968 was not a normal year by any stretch of the imagination. My college graduation was just a few days after the assassination of Bobby Kennedy and two months after that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

It was a time of political and social turmoil much like today and I wonder what it all means? Have we/my generation, have I made any difference or left any improvements in life for the generations to come? In the molasses my own demon torments me with the cynicism of Macbeth: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more. It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.” (Act 5, Scene 5)

I realized this week that the advice of Isaiah to “wait for the Lord” does not mean giving up or doing nothing. Faithful waiting is active waiting. My generation has not achieved the idealistic dream of John Lennon that the “world will live as one.” (“Imagine”) But we have seen that idealism and energy burning brightly in articulate, determined students from Parkland and from schools all over the nation. It’s time to pass the torch of leadership to a new generation. It’s time to admit our generation has blown it. Instead of faithfully waiting for God’s way we have drunk the poison of materialism and with it the fear and isolation of protecting our stuff. Our role now is not to be the “sage on the stage” but “a guide on the side” standing with and supporting the idealism and enthusiasm of youth.

I don’t know if or when I will soar like an eagle out of the molasses, but I know I have in the past and I will again. I don’t buy Macbeth’s negativity. Just writing this reflection is healing for me. But I still need the patience to embrace my grief and learn from it, and in those moments or days when God renews my strength I will, to paraphrase Gandhi, be the change God wants to see in my little corner of the world.
What does that look like for me in this new season of elderhood? When I figure that out I’ll let you know. Part of the value of ennui is learning the lessons of waiting, of listening to what my heart is trying to say to my over-intellectualized brain–and keep treading molasses till I find solid ground again.

Do Not Say “I Am Only a Youth”

Like many I have been very discouraged about the prospects for the future of our nation. The re-emergence of latent hate and racism that have poisoned our country in recent months has made me despair about human nature itself. The shooting in Parkland, Florida only added to my depression. But this week as I listen to the impassioned pleas and protests of young people demanding action about the epidemic of gun violence in our nation I am encouraged about our future for the first time in much too long.

It often takes the idealism and passion of youth to force change upon adults too enslaved to the status quo. Young people were the prime movers that brought an end to the Viet Nam war when adult leaders could not. Some of those young people paid with their lives at Kent State and Jackson State along with their peers who died in Southeast Asia. Young Freedom Riders suffered and died in the civil rights struggles of the 50’s and 60’s just as their fathers did on the beaches of Normandy or in the Battle of the Bulge.

Freedom is never free, and freedom from the fear of deranged gunmen with AR-15’s for our students and teachers and parents is not free either. It has been bought and paid for by the blood shed everywhere from Columbine to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. It has been paid for by Gabby Giffords and her crusade for gun control reform. And now I hope the final payment will be made by politicians and gun manufacturers who may have met there match in the angry young survivors in Parkland.

These young people understand that truth and justice do not know generational boundaries. The God of peace and love is rejoicing at the witness of these students because whether they know it or not in the depths of their pain and grief over their friends and teachers these young prophets have caught the spirit and power of God’s words to Jeremiah:

Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”
But the Lord said to me,
“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord.” (Jeremiah 1:6-8)

These brave student survivors like Isabella Gomez and David Hogg have articulated beautifully the pleas of the youth of this nation for action, and their passion has struck a chord with young people all over the nation who have had enough empty adult talk. Will they be heard this time? History says “yes” because those on the side of peace and justice do not fear because God is with them and will deliver them.

Bump Stocks and Log in My Eye

Some of my readers have probably been pleased that I have been less “political” in what I’ve posted in recent weeks. There are several reasons for that, but one of them is not that I am less concerned about the state of our nation and world. I became a part-time pastor again this summer and that has affected my writing in a couple of ways. Given more pastoral duties means less time for other things, including writing. The writing I have done has been primarily sermons and prayers. Secondly with the privilege of being a pastor of a congregation comes an expectation to handle political matters tactfully and in a non-partisan way.

I did not realize how much I felt constrained by that non-partisan expectation until I retired and wasn’t serving a congregation. I felt liberated to speak my mind more freely, and now that I am back in a formal relationship with a congregation that freedom is one of the things I miss most. As a student of persuasive communication I know full well that effective communication requires a meeting of minds, a shared understanding and respect for one another’s ideas and feelings. That’s a quality of community that is sorely lacking in our bitterly divided nation and world.

No meaningful communication occurs across the chasm of ideological extremes where we view others as enemies (political or foreign) instead of as fellow humans doing the best we can to make sense of the lives we have been given and the world we inhabit. So my philosophy of ministry is one of trying to understand what people believe and why they hold those beliefs so I can then facilitate a process of faith development that moves all of us toward the peaceable kingdom God covets for us and all creation.

I am not always successful at being empathetic and understanding, and as one who is very uncomfortable with conflict I fear I have been too timid during most of my ministry to share my true thoughts and feelings because I feared that to do so would be unpopular. I greatly admire my colleagues who have the courage and faith to speak prophetically about controversial issues.

I recently saw a list of the 15 most popular hymns of all time. I don’t know how the list was compiled or how scientifically valid the methodology was for surveying people, but the list was pretty much what I expected it would be: “Amazing Grace,” “How Great Thou Art,” “In the Garden,” “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” “It is Well With My Soul” etc. All 15 hymns on the list focused on personal salvation and holiness. What was lacking was the other half of the Gospel, what John Wesley called “Social Holiness.”

I imagine that such a list might have inspired the prophet Amos to proclaim the lines that are part of the lectionary for this week: “Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an overflowing stream.” (Amos 5:23-24) I don’t know how long Amos would have lasted in a church pulpit but I do believe that we dare not ignore the biblical imperative to be agents of social justice.

I cringed this week when I saw a Facebook meme that hit much too close to home. To paraphrase it said, “Don’t be nice. Jesus wasn’t crucified for being a nice guy.” I often encouraged my preaching students to heed the advice of Ephesians 4:15 that tells us to “speak the truth in love.” Looking back on my career as both a preacher and teacher I fear that I have erred on the side of love in that equation and sugar-coated or omitted hard words of truth. As a pastor I often criticized myself for sacrificing prophetic truth in exchange for a parsonage and a pension.

Ironically it has almost always been the case that when I have dared to speak my true understanding of God’s will about controversial issues of social justice someone that I least expected to agree or appreciate those views has let me know they did. For example in today’s news there is not much that is more divisive than people’s views on gun violence and the second amendment. It has become a partisan political issue when it should be seen as a basic human problem to be solved. But most politicians are afraid of the NRA and dependent on financial support from the gun lobby. So even though a majority of Americans are in favor of stricter gun legislation a majority of Senators and Representatives are unwilling to risk their office and its perks to oppose a vocal and powerful minority.
This morning I read an article in the Columbus Dispatch that reported that Congress has passed the buck on dealing with the sale of “bump stocks” that transform semi-automatic rifles into automatic rifles/machine guns (which are illegal) to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives instead of acting on it themselves.

Immediately after the massacre in Las Vegas there was widespread agreement including even the NRA that those devices needed to be banned or “restricted.” But as the news cycle moved on to sex scandals and other mass killings, the mood shifted, the NRA changed its mind, and Congress lost its political will to act.
After reading that article I wrote the following note to my two Senators and my Congressional Representative: “I was appalled to read in this morning’s Columbus Dispatch that Congress has done nothing about bump stocks after the Las Vegas massacre. Stop passing the buck and do something to stop this insanity of gun violence. It is way past time for someone to have the courage to stand up to the NRA. We need to reinstate the ban on assault weapons but in the meantime banning devices whose sole purpose is to circumvent the law should be a no-brainer.”

I also posted that message on Facebook with some fear and trepidation that it would be too “political” for a preacher. But again I was pleasantly surprised at the number of “likes” and even some “loves” I got in response. Some of those positive responses were from people I didn’t expect would agree with me. I would never have known had I not had the courage to say what I was feeling.

I wrote the above part of this post in the wee hours of the morning, and then when I went to bed and couldn’t get to sleep I realized that I had been guilty of seeing the “speck in my legislators’ eyes and ignoring the log in my own” to paraphrase Jesus in Matthew 7:5 and Luke 6:42. As is often the case I am often most judgmental about things in others that I don’t like about myself. It’s easy to criticize political leaders for not living up to the profiles in courage standards I expect of them, but much harder to admit I do the same thing. I don’t always say what I truly believe, and I certainly don’t always live up to the values I hold dear. Peer pressure, societal or professional expectations and other human weaknesses get in the way of speaking the truth in love. If I am honestly and fairly judged by my ideal goal of living up to the profound standards of Micah to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God” I am in deep trouble.

When I shared my late night insight about being guilty of living out of integrity with my values with my dear wife this morning Diana cut to the chase as she does so well. She said, “That’s true of every job. We all have to make compromises and concessions to employers who control our livelihood.” If those compromises create too much cognitive dissonance or inner turmoil with our consciences we can say “no” to that employer and choose a different path. Those are very hard decisions that try our souls, and that is why we all stand in need of a generous helping of God’s grace.

Well, this blog certainly took an unexpected turn. It was good for my own introspection. Thanks for listening. If it was helpful for you too that’s a bonus.

The Dark Side of the Prosperity Gospel

“Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.” (Galatians 6:7).

It’s been a busy week since Monday night’s presidential debate. I don’t have time to say much but feel compelled to address something that struck me Monday night while it is still relatively fresh in our memories. There has been much debate about who “won” the debate and how you vote on that is pretty subjective. I think most of us heard what we expected to hear filtered through our own political lenses and that of the media analysis we choose to rely on for “expert” opinions.

What struck me most were two things. When Donald Trump said that not paying taxes makes him smart and that taking advantage of the foreclosures during the recession was “good business,” he showed again why he is the poster boy for the dark side of the prosperity Gospel and even of Capitalism itself. The prosperity Gospel is the misguided interpretation of Christian theology that emphasizes material blessings and rewards for those who proclaim their faith in Christ. It is responsible for the growth and success of many mega churches and television evangelists, but it is totally contrary to the teachings of Jesus.

There are too many examples to cite them all here but these quickly come to my mind. “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matt. 6:24, Luke 16:13). The parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21), the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3), and numerous times where Jesus says, “leave what you have and follow me.”

Mr. Trump said earlier in the campaign that his favorite Scripture is “An eye for an eye.” When one’s only concern for how to measure one’s worth is material wealth and power, that’s a great motto to live by, but I pray that some of Mr. Trump’s Christian followers will prevail upon him to someday learn what Jesus said about that desire for revenge by reading the Gospels or even just the Sermon on the Mount.

The Gospel of Christ has been twisted into the prosperity Gospel because it sells. Promising people they will have to take up a cross to follow Jesus, or to share what they have with the least of those as judged by the world’s standards, or to love their enemies and turn the other cheek – those just are not good marketing techniques. Promising potential church members they need to sell all they have and give it to the poor doesn’t entice many recruits to sign up. Maybe that’s why Jesus only had 11 faithful ones?

The spread of the prosperity Gospel also explains the conundrum many political commentators have wrestled with this year, namely how to make sense of Trump’s popularity among some Christians. Galatians 6:7 says it so well, “we reap what we sow.” Creating a flock of materialistic, wealth-worshipping “Christians” over the last few decades has produced this strange phenomenon of those who call themselves evangelicals enthusiastically giving their support to a man who is the antithesis of the values and lifestyle Jesus Christ calls us to live.

It also explains how those who claim the name of the Prince of Peace can be devout supporters of the NRA and gun rights. Fear of losing one’s prosperity leads to taking very drastic and unChrist-like measures to protect and defend those “things that thieves can steal and rust and moth can consume.” The rest of that advice from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount says, don’t put your faith in those perishable things, “but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt. 6:19-21).

God is not mocked. We have planted seeds of greed and selfishness, and now we are reaping what we have sown.

Will the Circle Be Unbroken?

I attended a Bluegrass Festival with some friends a few weeks ago and have been singing or humming “May the Circle Be Unbroken” ever since. Bluegrass is not my music of choice; so I’ve been pondering why that song has stuck in my head. There are good memories of singing that song around campfires when I was a youth minister many years ago. But it has taken on a deeper more pervasive meaning lately. Some of that became clearer to me this week after a depressing visit with my 94 year old father who has outlived his mental and physical faculties and is miserable. Is there a better day coming for him and his wife suffering from dementia?

I don’t think it’s in the sky but where? What? How? Those questions become more relevant as morality pounds harder on my door each day, in aches and pains, friends in surgery, cancer diagnoses and biopsies, longer list of things I can no longer do. I’ve toyed with the lyrics of that song by changing the “e” to an “i” in “better,” i.e., “There’s a bitter day a coming….” That’s what happens when we turn in on ourselves, we get bitter and go victim. “Why me?” “It’s not fair!” “Why didn’t I take better care of myself?” “Let’s try one more miracle supplement that flows out of the fountain of youth!” Fear springs from the unknown “in the sky” or in some place of darkness, from regrets over a lifetime of sin or just dumb mistakes we can never erase.

Fear is epidemic in our society. I was at a wedding reception recently where I was told one of the men at my table was carrying a concealed weapon “because you never know what might happen.” The next week my relatives at a family gathering were discussing preparedness drills for an active shooter at their little country church and in their schools where children are being taught to throw anything they can find at a shooter ala David versus Goliath–only Goliath didn’t have his NRA sanctioned AR 15.

A father was shot dead last Friday in front of his six kids and wife in a burglary in our affluent “safe” suburb. And today Ted Koppel was on the morning news talking about his new book Lights Out, about the coming cyber-attack that will paralyze our society. The temptation to buy some guns and a generator and become a survivalist is so strong even I feel it tugging at me. There is a little solace for me that I’m old enough I may not have to deal with the worst of the Hunger Games scenario, but I fear for my kids and grandkids and feel hopeless and helpless to do anything significant to help them.

Will the circle be unbroken? Or has human depravity and selfishness reached epic proportions that strain the bonds of civility beyond the breaking point? Is Jesus’ pacifist advice to turn the other cheek and put away our swords just naïve idealism? Those are not verses that fearful Christians cite when they turn to Scripture for comfort. I quoted Isaiah (2:4) and Micah (4:3) once to a life-long Christian, the verses about “beating our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks,” and she said that in 60 years of going to church she didn’t remember ever hearing those words! Unless prophetic voices stand up to the fear mongers and proclaim a message of hope and reason to a world gone mad, the circle may indeed be broken.

I remember being this depressed about the state of the world back in 1972 after Nixon’s landslide victory in spite of Watergate and the protests about the Vietnam War. I wrote a letter to the editor saying that all we could do now was “wait for the inevitable judgment of God.” 43 years later we are still here. We’ve survived that war in SE Asia, the resignation of Nixon and his Vice President, 9/11 and a host of other terrorist attacks, too many mass shootings to count, a huge economic recession, and at least so far several ill-advised wars in the Middle East that have only fanned the flame of hatred in that cauldron of religious and ideological conflict that is the eternal flame of human strife and animosity.

The circle is frayed and contorted out of shape, but it is still unbroken; and that last paragraph is a micro-second in the eternity of the cosmic circle viewed from God’s perspective. As we scroll backward in time through Holocaust, Civil War, Slavery, Genocide of native people, the Dark Ages, the Crusades, Roman, Greek, Syrian, Egyptian, Ottoman Empires, the rise and fall of numerous Dynasties in China and Japan, Exile and Exodus, Stone Age and Ice Ages, and all the other eras of our planet’s history that I missed in history class, our current fears and woes are put in better perspective.

In every generation there have been concerns about the elasticity and tenacity of the circle, and it is still unbroken. That is not an excuse to blithely bury our heads in the sand or in our parochial platitudes. We must counter the fear mongers with words and lives of hope and visions of peace in any way we can. And remembering the great circle maker and sustainer gives us the courage to witness to our faith even when fear and doubt threaten to overwhelm us.

“Tradition: Only Part of the Formula,” Genesis 29:15-28, I Kings 3:5-12

One of the all-time classic stories that highlight the lack of male observational powers is the account of Jacob’s wedding night in Genesis 29. Jacob has traveled 500 miles to find the love of his life. He has worked 7 years to earn the hand of his beloved Rachel. 7 years! And yet when his new father-in-law pulls the biggest bait and switch in history on him he doesn’t realize he’s consummating his marriage with the wrong woman until he wakes up with Rachel’s older sister Leah the morning after the wedding.

Jacob is certainly not the only newlywed to ask “what in the world have I done?” the morning after, but this story challenges our ability to suspend our disbelief. I don’t know what weddings were like in Jacob’s day. We learn in the New Testament that Jewish wedding celebrations lasted many days and involved much wine (John 2); so perhaps Jacob was impaired by too much wine. But beyond the practical questions of how this could possibly happen are the important issues the story raises about how we make tough ethical decisions. Jacob obviously has a problem, but so does Laban, his new father-in-law. Laban’s dilemma is his paternal obligation to both of his daughters. The traditions of his culture dictate that the older daughter must be married before the younger (v. 26); and Laban justifies his trickery by appealing to that tradition.

For the last 40 years I have not been able to think about “tradition” without hearing the loveable Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” sing “Tradition!” During that entire marvelous musical Tevye is caught in a tug of war between tradition and his heart. His struggle also involves daughters but is more complicated than Laban’s since three of his daughters challenge the traditions of their family and culture in progressively more radical ways. (Quick synopsis: Tzeitel, the first daughter, challenges the custom of arranged marriage; her sister Hodel falls in love with a revolutionary and moves “far from the home she loves” to Siberia where he is imprisoned; and another daughter, Chava, elopes and is secretly married outside their Jewish faith in a Russian Orthodox Church. For details, rent the movie).

Thinking about the “Fiddler” story side by side with Jacob and Laban’s dilemma exposes the sexism of the Hebrew text. While Genesis focuses on the ethical dilemma from the patriarchal bias of its time, “Fiddler” invites viewers to empathize with the struggles of Tevye, his wife Golde, and their daughters. Genesis pays no attention at all to the plight of Rachel and Leah. They have no voice at all in these life-changing decisions. They are merely pawns, property to be exchanged between Laban and Jacob for the agreed upon price of 7 years of labor per each. (See Gen. 29:27-28 for the details of how Laban and Jacob resolve their conflict by Jacob’s agreement to work an additional 7 years for Laban in exchange for the woman he thought he had married the first time around.) And yes, tradition sanctioned polygamy in those days, in case you’re wondering about Jacob having two wives, and if you read the rest of Jacob’s fascinating story in Genesis you will see that he never gets over his favoritism of Rachel at Leah’s expense.

Tradition! How often do we hear tradition used as the justification for why things are done in a certain way? “We’ve always done it that way.” “We’ve never done it that way before.” Tradition is important. We inherit important life lessons from our culture and our families, from history that enable us to move through life without having to reinvent the wheel every time we are faced with a decision. We Americans don’t have to decide which side of the road to drive on every morning or what a red traffic light means. Most traditions are valuable and useful, but that doesn’t mean all are. Slavery and denial of women’s rights were traditions that humanity in many cultures (including our Judeo-Christian tradition) lived by for centuries, and far too many still do. Why? Because well-entrenched traditions that benefit those in places of power and privilege are not easily changed. Such change usually requires great sacrifice and suffering on the part of brave prophetic persons who dare to ask why we have always done it that way.

John Wesley, one of the founders of the Methodist denomination developed a very useful paradigm for putting tradition in its proper perspective when it comes to making ethical decisions. Wesley’s quadrilateral, as it is known, lists four sources of input that should be consulted when making such choices: Scripture, Experience, Reason, and Tradition. I like the balanced model Wesley provides because it honors the importance of tradition while realizing that traditions are constructs created by fallible humans and therefore can be found to be in need of correction by the other three legs of the quadrilateral.

Making ethical decisions with fewer than all four components of the quadrilateral is like sitting at a table that has one leg shorter than the others, and therefore wobbles like a teeter totter every time anyone leans on it.
There are many examples of complex ethical dilemmas that we postmodern 21st century citizens of the global village must come to grips with. Traditions that worked in previous generations may no longer be viable when new knowledge provided by reason and experience is factored into the equation. Examples include biomedical decisions, the viability of military force to solve differences in a nuclear age, and attitudes toward people with a different sexual orientation. The latter provides a prime example that is dividing the Christian church and consuming vast amounts of time and energy from a church that should be addressing more pressing issues like poverty and immigration and global climate change.

There is no doubt that a few verses in the Judeo-Christian Scripture condemn homosexuality in no uncertain terms. That is the position of the Christian right that tries to make ethical decisions based on only two legs of the quadrilateral, Scripture and Tradition. But if we add reason and experience to the equation, namely the scientific and medical knowledge gained in recent decades, the solution to that dilemma changes. Where Scripture and Tradition base their ethical judgments about homosexuality on the assumption that sexual preference is a matter of choice, modern reason and knowledge teach us that such critical matters are predetermined by genetic coding. That may not explain why things are the way they are or how we feel about it, but it should change radically how we treat people of a different sexual preference and the kinds of basic human rights they should be afforded.

Tradition without the rest of the quadrilateral is too often treated as if it were written in stone. The U.S. Constitution is a good example. As insightful and inspired as our Constitution is, it is essentially a tradition created by human hands. The authors of that great document realized it needed to include a process for changing as situations and conditions required. That’s why they included a process for amending the constitution based on new insights and reason and experience and created a judicial system charged with interpreting the principles of that foundational document as they are applied to ever-changing situations. The Second Amendment is a case in point. The right to bear arms as a concept written in the days of muzzle loaders and militia obviously needs to be re-evaluated in a time when people carry AK 47’s into department stores and family restaurants.

To interpret laws and wrestle with ethical dilemmas by balancing Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience requires great wisdom. One of the other Hebrew texts in the lectionary for this week speaks directly to how important true wisdom is. In I Kings 3 a very young Solomon has just succeeded his father David to the throne of Israel, and the new King has a dream where God offers to grant him anything he asks for. Anything at all! What would you request if God made you that kind of offer? Health? Wealth? Fame and fortune?

Here’s what Solomon says, “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” (3:9).

That’s a great request—like one that a parent would be very proud of if his/her child asked Santa for something for a needy friend instead of more toys or gadgets for herself. And God is an equally proud parent. The Scripture tells us, “It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.” (3:10-12).

As parents, citizens, friends and foes, and especially as leaders of groups and nations wrestling with traditions and cultural situations changing at warp speeds, we all need the Wisdom of Solomon. We feel as overwhelmed as he did taking on the responsibilities of his kingship. And his request is a most relevant prayer for all of us: “Lord, give us understanding minds able to discern between good and evil.”