A World Communion Prayer

Jesus prayed that we might be one.
One in spirit
One in mission
In union and communion with each other and with You.
Today, God, we confess fumblings and failures in accomplishing unity, as we set aside yet another day to remind ourselves of the task.
On this World Communion Sunday, give us eyes to recognize your reflection in the eyes of Christians everywhere.
Give us a mind to accept and celebrate our differences.
Give us a heart big enough to love your children everywhere.
We thank you for setting a table with space enough for us all. (Africana Worship Book, Year B, (Discipleship Resources, 2007)

This year world communion coincides with the Jewish day of atonement, Yom Kippur. With our Jewish sisters and brothers we all stand in need of forgiveness and reconciliation with you Lord and with our neighbors. We give thanks that our sins have been forgiven by the sacrificial love of Christ, but please don’t let us grow complacent by taking your grace for granted. The good news of the Gospel must be shared to keep it alive and growing.

As we feel the unity of our spirits with Christians today from Myanmar to Minnesota, from Boston to Bolivia, let us renew our commitment to living lives worthy of Christ. Forgive us when we fail to love you with all our hearts and minds. Our broken world has never needed the Holy Spirit’s healing more. We pray for a new birth of human unity created in the image of Christ. Make us so at one with Christ and with you that we will be Christ for those who are sick, lonely, or grieving. For those who suffer hunger and thirst and those who are starving for the bread of the world offered to all who hear Christ’s voice and turn to him.

Make us instruments of your love, O God. May the way we live our lives each day be a witness to the unity of humankind we celebrate this day. May we grow in love and service to Christ who taught us to pray this prayer…… .

The Irony of Christ’s (still) Broken Body, I Corinthians 10:16-17

Our granddaughter Audrey celebrated her first communion today, and this grandpa was especially proud that she was chosen to be the reader for the Epistle lesson, or as the bulletin for the service said, to “Proclaim” I Corinthians 10:16-17. She isn’t tall enough to see above the lectern, but she read flawlessly Paul’s words so sorely needed in our broken world, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” There were other references to unity in the liturgy and hymns for the service, and the Monsignor did a great job of coming down into the congregation to talk directly to the young communicants. He reminded them to enjoy the celebration with family and the gifts they would receive on this important day but stressed that the real gift they were about to receive for the first time is the gift of Jesus himself.

He told them the best part is that they can receive Jesus anytime they choose to invite him into their lives. And then at the high point of the service these beautiful young children were invited to receive the sacrament of Holy Communion for the very first time, followed by the other members of the congregation. Except the invitation was not for the whole congregation. In keeping with Roman Catholic doctrine those of us who are not Catholic were not welcome at Christ’s table. We, even those of us who are devout Christians of other stripes, were excluded from receiving the gift of Jesus.

I thought I was prepared for that part of the service. I’ve been in Catholic services before, but this was different. To be able to share in that sacrament with Audrey would have been special and to be reduced to a mere spectator was painful; and the irony of it all having just heard her read that “we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” hit me harder than I expected.

Maybe it’s because I am already very discouraged and depressed about the hateful and divisive state of American society and the ratcheted up tensions between the U.S. and Russian and North Korea. Or maybe it’s just that I am still idealistic enough to believe that pious talk about Christian unity should translate into practice.

I was reminded of a wedding I helped to officiate early in my ministry. The bride was Catholic and the groom United Methodist. The marriage was celebrated in a Roman Catholic Church and the priest graciously agreed to let me share in the ceremony. We each did different parts of the marriage ritual and had agreed in planning the wedding that when it came time for Communion I would serve the groom and Father Maroon would serve the bride. We consecrated our separate Communion elements but before we served the couple Father Maroon interrupted the service to offer a commentary I’ve never forgotten. I don’t remember his exact words, but the essence of what he said was this: “It’s very sad we have to serve this sacrament from two loaves and two cups. I pray that someday we will be one and that won’t be necessary.”

That was 42 years ago, and the body of Christ is still broken. What kind of witness can the church possibly offer to a world starving for unity and peace when we Christians still can’t all feast at the same table? Please understand, I am not judging my Roman Catholic sisters and brothers, even though it probably sounds like it. This is not just a “Catholic” issue but an example of the brokenness in the church that we all must acknowledge if there is any hope of healing. As always I must remember Jesus’ advice to remove the log in my own eye before criticizing the speck in someone else’s. There are deep divisions in my own beloved United Methodist Church that may soon fracture the body of Christ yet another time. I am also painfully aware that Sunday morning remains one of the most segregated times of the week and that very few Christian congregations really reflect the rich diversity of our multicultural nation and world.

My prayer is that all of us of every faith and persuasion will be more aware of anything we do as individuals or as organizations that divide us or exclude others and keep us from being one body in practice and not just in words.

“How Can We Love Our Enemies?” Matthew 5:38-48

“God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” I heard Dr. Fred Craddock preach on this text once, and he observed most of us would not be so generous toward the evil and unrighteous. He said if he were in charge the rain would fall on the good farmer’s field and stop abruptly when it came to the property line of the evil farmer. He went on to say if God were really just that every golf ball hit by a Sunday golfer playing hooky from church would go straight up in the air and fall at the feet of the golfer.

This whole passage from the Sermon on the Mount is one of the most challenging in all of Scripture. And in particular Jesus telling us to love our enemies has to be high on the list of those things we wish Jesus hadn’t said. But those words are much needed in our bitterly divided nation and world today.

Before we dig into the practical problems of how in the world to live up to these teachings of Jesus I want to set the context by sharing a quote from Dallas Willard, a teacher of spiritual formation. Willard says, “The Gospel is less about how to get into the Kingdom of Heaven after you die and more about how to live in the Kingdom of Heaven before you die.” Let me repeat that: “The Gospel is less about how to get into the Kingdom of Heaven after you die and more about how to live in the Kingdom of Heaven before you die.” Those words are especially true of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus is describing to his followers what it looks like to live as faithful disciples and citizens of his kingdom here and now in a world that teaches the very opposite. In other words, too many Christians focus on what Jesus did for us on the cross but not enough on what he requires of us as his disciples. That is a little strange since it is Jesus’ high standard of ethical living that got him in trouble with the authorities who killed him.

And so Jesus begins by repeating what previous Scriptures have taught about living in the worldly kingdom. “You have heard it said…” Don’t get mad, get even! Revenge is a natural human reaction, and I’m guessing most of us have been there in one degree or another in recent days or weeks. “You have heard it said, an eye for and a tooth for a tooth.” Sounds fair, doesn’t it? Let the punishment fit the crime. In fact, at the time those words were written hundreds of years before Jesus they were designed to limit revenge; so victims would not demand two eyes for an eye, or a whole mouthful of teeth for a tooth. As someone has said, if we follow the eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth philosophy to its logical conclusion, we end up with a world full of blind, toothless people, and the cycle of violence and pain continues forever.

So Jesus reminds his disciples of the ancient law and continues, “But I say to you…” Look out whenever Jesus starts out with that phrase; brace yourself for a zinger. “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. If anyone strikes, you on the right cheek, turn the other as well.” O, Jesus, you’ve got to be kidding! We can’t do that! You can’t be serious. How can we possibly love those responsible for horrific acts of death and destruction? You don’t mean for us to love ISIS, or that creep who murdered and raped Reagan Tokes, or our political enemies do you? And you can fill out the rest of your list of those we find it hard if not impossible to love.

Let’s look at the big picture of how our understanding of God’s will changes and grows. God doesn’t change, but our ability to grasp the enormity of God’s grace and love increases as we grow in faith both as individuals and as a faith community. We’ve already seen how that process unfolds from the days of Moses to Jesus, but let’s look at some other examples of how God surprises us throughout the Scriptures. I found this wonderful summary of that process in a Facebook post from Bixby Knolls Christian Church:

“In Deuteronomy 23 we read that the people of Moab are bad and not allowed to dwell among God’s people. But later in the Old Testament we meet Ruth the Moabitess (who becomes the grandmother of David and one of the women listed in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus).
Jeremiah 25 tells us that people from Uz are evil, but then comes story of Job, a man from Uz who is the “most blameless man on earth.”
No foreigners or eunuchs allowed, again from Deuteronomy, and then comes the story in Acts 8 of an African eunuch welcomed into the church.
God’s people hate Samaritans, but Jesus tells one of his most famous stories where a Samaritan is the hero and the model for what it means to be a good neighbor.
The story may begin with prejudice, discrimination, and animosity, but the Spirit moves God’s people toward openness, welcome, inclusion, acceptance and affirmation.”

And our Judeo-Christian Scriptures aren’t when it comes to non-violent responses to those who hurt us. The Dali Lama, a leader of another of the world’s great religions, wrote these words shortly after 9/11, certainly one of the most trying times in our lifetime for those who take Jesus seriously. The Dali Lama was commenting on how America should respond to 9/11 and wrote, “It may seem presumptuous on my part, but I personally believe we need to think seriously whether a violent action is the right thing to do and in the greater interest of the nation and people in the long run. I believe violence will only increase the cycle of violence.”

The tragic fact that we are still involved in the longest war in U.S. history in Afghanistan 16 years after 9/11 underscores the truth that violence increases the cycle of violence. We’re not going to solve that eternal question today, especially on the international level, but let’s take a look at what Jesus is asking of us in our personal lives and relationships when it comes to living peaceful Christ-like lives.

It is hard to find silver linings in some clouds, but even in tragedy there are often some benefits. We see it in extended families that rally around each other when there is a death of illness. We saw it the sense of unity in the U.S. after 9/11. Patriotism was higher than at any time since WWII. That kind of unity as a family or church or a nation is wonderful, but Jesus asks us to take that sense of community one giant step further–to include even our enemies in the circle of God’s family.

The sense of unity and patriotism after 9/11 didn’t last long, and part of the division in our nation is because we differ over how to respond to evil. Some insist on an eye for an eye response and others advocate a gentler approach. Those differences have hardened into partisan political lines that make it more important than ever to love those we differ with politically. One way to do that is to pray for those we disagree with by name, and the stronger our disagreements, the more important those prayers become. Whoever you see as on the wrong side of the political fence or some other contentious issue, pray for them, and I find it helpful to do so by using first names. That makes the prayers more personal and meaningful, and I find it hard to be angry when praying for someone.

Fear of others is the biggest barrier to love. In today’s political climate immigrants of all kinds fear for their future. We can’t solve the immigration policy debate here today, but each of us can engage in simple acts of kindness, go out of our way to smile and be kind to others who are different from us. Let them experience the radical hospitality of Christ so they know they are welcome in this country.

As individuals we can also listen to those we have political disagreements with. Just this week I heard from a friend who is cancelling his newspaper subscription because his local paper took an editorial position he disagrees with. I also heard that political divisions are showing up in personal ads on dating sites where profiles include such phrases as “no Trump haters need respond,” or “No Trump supporters welcome.” People unfriend people on social media and refuse to watch news channels they disagree with. The battle lines are drawn, and important functions of government like feeding starving children, rebuilding crumbling dams and bridges, and fixing the water supply in places like Flint – things we all agree need to be done are the causalities of partisan gridlock. It seems so obvious but still needs to be said, the first step to loving our enemies is communication and sharing our common human needs. Until that happens the bigger issues that divide us can never be addressed.

Jesus did it. He practiced what he preached. He walked the walk all the way to Golgotha. He loved his enemies and forgave those who nailed him to the cross. But how can we mere mortals love our enemies, even while we deplore their horrible deeds?

I certainly don’t have all the answers–not even all the questions; but it seems to me there are two things that are necessary for us to have any hope of following Jesus down this path of loving our enemies.
1) We need to understand who are enemies are and who they aren’t so we don’t over-react in fear against all Muslims or against everyone who looks different and is therefore suspicious. There was an incident in my hometown in northwest Ohio last year where some parents pulled their children out of a middle school social studies class because there was a unit on the history of Islam. That kind of fear of knowledge is tragic. There is no hope for peace without understanding. We need to learn all we can about Islam so we understand better the complicated political and religious realities we are caught up in. We don’t dare oversimplify or stereotype.
2) Perhaps most important, we need to practice forgiveness. Someone has written that forgiveness is the key to happiness. The pursuit of happiness is one of our most cherished American ideals, and forgiveness is what it takes to be free of the burdens of anger and hostility that make happiness impossible.

Logan Cole is a student at West Liberty High School who was shot at school a few weeks ago by a fellow student, Ely Serna. After Ely shot Logan, Ely handed the shot gun to Logan and asked him to shoot him as well. But Logan refused to shoot his attacker because he knew an eye for an eye doesn’t solve anything. And a few days later Logan forgave Ely from his hospital bed at Children’s Hospital with buck shot still lodged near his heart. Fortunately the shot gun damaged Logan’s body, but it didn’t damage his heart and ability to love his enemy.

What about Brian Golsby, the ex-convict who raped and killed Reagan Tokes, the OSU senior from Maumee a few weeks ago. Does Jesus want us to love killers and rapists? The Scripture is pretty clear the answer to that question is “yes.” We don’t have to like them or approve of what they do, but no matter how awful life circumstances has made someone like Brian Golsby and deformed his basic humanity– he is still a child of God and invited to accept God’s amazing grace.

Where does the ability to love someone who has done us great harm come from?

My favorite story about that kind of love comes from another period of unspeakable terror and suffering in human society, the Holocaust. After the war, a young Christian woman traveled around Europe proclaiming the good news of God’s grace and love for everyone who would repent and give their life to Christ. Corrie Ten Boom was a death camp survivor. Her entire family had died in the Nazi death gas chambers, and yet she was filled with God’s love and anxious to tell her story. Until one night when she was giving her testimony and looked out into the congregation where she saw a face that made her blood run cold. Sitting there staring at her from the pew was one of the former Nazi concentration camp guards who had helped to execute her family. She could barely finish her talk and hurried toward the side door of the church as soon as she was finished, hoping to avoid any further contact with this awful man.

But he was anxious to talk to her and met her at the door. He extended his hand as he told her that he had repented and become a Christian, but, he added, it was so good to hear someone like her proclaim the unbelievable good news that God’s love was available even to such a terrible sinner as he had been. His hand was there, waiting for Corrie to take it in Christian fellowship. But her hand was paralyzed, frozen at her side for what seemed like an eternity. The silence was awkward, and even though she knew she should shake his hand, she could not. Finally, she said a prayer. She said, “Lord, if you want me to forgive this man, you’re going to have to do it, because I can’t.”

And just then, Corrie said her hand moved of its own accord. She took the former Nazi’s hand and says she felt the most amazing surge of warmth and power pass between them that she had ever felt in her life.
How can we love our enemies? On our own, we can’t. But with God’s help as followers of Jesus Christ, relying on and empowered by God’s Holy Spirit, we can, we must, and we will because we are already part of God’s kingdom.
Thanks be to God who gives us the victory!

Rev. Steve Harsh, Preached at Epworth United Methodist Church, Columbus, Ohio, February 19, 2017

Fear of Knowledge?

I usually enjoy seeing news about my home town, but not today. An article in the Columbus Dispatch via the Dayton Daily News caught my eye today when I saw “Wapakoneta” in the headline. Wapak, as the natives call it, is a small county-seat town in Northwest Ohio where I graduated from high school 50 years ago. The headline brought home to me literally how insidious Islamophobia is affecting not only our present world crisis but future generations as well.

The story reported that 21 7th-graders in Wapak are boycotting history lessons that include Islam. (Note: I have since learned from the editor of the Wapakoneta Daily News that the official number of students according to the School Superintendent is 10; so I want to share that bit of good news.) In particular they are opting out of one of 21 sections in their world history class that focuses on Islamic civilization from A.D. 500-1600. The good news is that world history is part of curriculum. It certainly wasn’t when I was a student there. For us history didn’t begin until Columbus “discovered” America in 1492.

According to the news article “Ohio’s state learning standards call for study of numerous civilizations and empires, and the impact of Christianity, Islam and other religions on history.” The section in question “focuses on the impact of Islamic civilization as it spread throughout most of the Mediterranean in the period following the fall of Rome and its later impact on the European Renaissance. Attention is paid to achievements in medicine, science, mathematics and geography.”

The bad news is that “the school policy that allows the Wapakoneta students to opt out is shared in some form by hundreds of other school districts statewide.” The policy does not allow students to opt out of entire classes, just certain sections if “after careful, personal review of the lesson and materials a parent determines that it conflicts with their religious beliefs or value system.” Maybe some of these 21 students have parents who know enough about Islam to make a careful review of this material, but I’m betting most of them only know what Donald Trump and Fox News have told them about these people who comprise 1 billion members of the human race.

I get the fear caused by recent world events, but even if we have reason to fear a designated “enemy,” doesn’t it make sense to know as much about them as we can. The impact of Islam on the European Renaissance has direct influence on our history in this country. Their story is part of our story, and if we fail to understand our history we are indeed condemned to repeat it. Like it or not we live in a multicultural international community. People who are different from us are literally our neighbors here and around the world.

The alma mater of Wapak High School has a phrase that sounds way off key to my ears today. It says, “Hail to thee dear Alma Mater, temple reared by God’s own hand.” I’m sure the author of those words many decades ago had only the Christian God in mind as the builder of said temple of learning. The God of the entire universe I know is weeping for those 21 students and everyone else who is being robbed of a chance to better understand the world we live in by fear and ignorance.

The final paragraph of the Columbus Dispatch article is especially poignant. It quotes the state’s seventh-grade history standard on civic skills which makes a case against opting out of lessons like this. It reads, “Skills in accessing and analyzing information are essential for citizens in a democracy. The ability to understand individual and group perspectives is essential to analyzing historic and contemporary issues.”

The American democratic experiment is founded on an informed citizenry, and ignoring important aspects of world and American history because we are afraid of what we might learn reminds me of the old adage, “Don’t confuse me with the facts. My mind is already made up.” Saddest of all is what these students are being taught, not by the schools, but by parents who are passing on their own fears and biases to their children.

This situation reminded me of a great song that I first heard at Wapak High over 50 years ago when our high school chorus performed Rodgers and Hammerstein’s great musical “South Pacific.” The song “Carefully Taught” in that show is about how people learn their prejudices. It’s long before we get to formal education. One line of that song says it so well, “You’ve got 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’ve got to be carefully taught!” (I wrote a full article on that topic last year entitled “Life Lessons I Didn’t Learn in Class,” posted February 24, 2014).

Fear of people and things outside our comfort zone is a learned behavior. Innocent children don’t come into the world with preconceived notions. We learn subtly or directly to label differences as “other” instead of understanding and appreciating the basic human needs and desires that make us part of one common species. I love it whenever I see the suggestion about how to answer the question we get on medical forms and other documents that asks for “race”? The answer that is never one of the choices is the one that really matters, and it is “human.”
All of us share the same basic needs for love and acceptance, for food and water and shelter, for clean air to breath, for a sense of security and safety. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs knows no ethnic or ideological distinctions. When we isolate ourselves from “others” geographically, socially, economically, and even by refusal to study our common history, those needs and commonalities are obscured by fear, ignorance and bigotry. Fear of violence is understandable. Fear of knowledge is tragic.

I became aware just recently of the peacemaking work of a fellow Ohio native, Marshall Rosenberg, a psychologist who died earlier this year. He was the creator of Nonviolent Communication, a communication process that helps people to exchange the information necessary to resolve conflicts and differences peacefully. One of the tenets of non-violent communication is that humans act out of unmet needs. So one of the first steps toward understanding our own behavior or that of others is to ask what unmet needs we may have. (I would add especially in this season of hectic holiday consumerism, these are real needs, not desires created by clever marketing or peer pressure.)

One of Rosenberg’s insights that speak so clearly to our current world situation is that “violence is the tragic expression of unmet needs.” That is not easy to remember when we are afraid for ourselves or others, but it is critical because it is hitting the pause button on our natural flight or fight emotions long enough to put ourselves in the place of another and ask what unmet needs that person has that might explain his or her actions. That understanding is what makes compassion possible in interpersonal and international relationships. And it is only possible when we take time to know about and understand others. That happens in multiple ways, from really listening to each other to cultural competence that comes from taking the time to learn about the history and customs and beliefs of our fellow travelers on spaceship earth.

That’s the way to unlearn those hurtful, dangerous things we were “carefully taught…. before we were six or seven or eight.” Those prejudices and fears passed on from one generation to the next by well-meaning but uninformed people. We can learn and change and grow, but not if we are afraid of knowledge and are AWOL from class.

Look, We CAN Communicate: Pentecost, Part 2, Acts 2:5-13

My Ph.D. in Communication is both a blessing and a curse. The curse is that when people know I studied communication at the graduate level they actually expect me to be able to communicate. My excuses that my research was theoretical and in rhetoric and public speaking, not in “normal” interpersonal discourse always fall on deaf ears. I sometimes feel like the undergrad who signed up for a course in interpersonal communication only to be very disappointed the first day of class when he discovered that the course catalogue description of a course about “human intercourse” was not exactly what he expected.

You don’t need a doctorate to know that communication is hard. Words are just symbols that represent objects or feelings or relationships. As symbols they can only point to the reality they represent. Communication goes through different filters of both the sender and receiver of the communication, and those filters are unique to each person. And of course communication occurs on multiple levels – verbal, non-verbal, emotional, rational, and all of those are culturally conditioned and affected by other environmental and genetic factors. This explains the popular success of John Gray’s book, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.

Sometimes the challenges of communication produce humorous and embarrassing results. For example, “The V-for-victory sign was immortalized by Winston Churchill in the early, dark days of World War II, and the proper form is with the palm facing outward. But, a simple twist of the wrist puts you in dangerous cultural waters. Throughout much of Her Majesty’s realm, the palm-in V sign is the equivalent of the more infamous middle-digit salute.” (See the article by William Ecenbarger of the Philadelphia Enquirer for many other valuable tips on cultural competence, http://articles.philly.com/2009-02-22/news/25280966_1_taxi-driver-mumbai-desk-clerk.)

The Hebrew Scriptures explain the origins of different languages in various parts of the world via the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11. In that story it is human pride, a belief that humans could build a tower tall enough to reach to the heavens and establish their importance that leads to this judgment from God: 6 And the LORD said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”

That story is a mythical way of explaining the reality that languages are unique to different cultures, countries and ethnicities. While I don’t believe God would throw that kind of monkey wrench into the communication machinery as a punishment for our pride, the language barrier is a major challenge to communication. There is a joke that defines “multi-lingual” as a person who speaks 3 or more, “bilingual” as a person who speaks two languages, and someone who speaks only one language as “an American.” That unfortunate state of affairs was demonstrated in a grocery checkout line when a woman finished a cell phone conversation in her native tongue. The man behind her in line said to her, “Excuse me, ma’am, but this is America and we speak English here. If you want to speak Spanish, go back to Mexico.” The woman calmly replied, “Sir, I was speaking Navajo. If you want to speak English, go back to England.”

The task of bridging cultural differences and communication challenges in our global village is very daunting. Technology offers help through on-line language lessons, apps and programs that automatically translate text from one language to another, and systems like the one at the United Nations where people from all over the world can hear a translation of a speaker’s words into their own language through a set of headphones. But those technologies do not solve the deeper spiritual divisions at the root of human suffering that manifests itself in prejudice, racism, economic injustice, terrorism and full scale war.

The on-going cultural and religious conflicts in our world are proof that we’ve a long way to go to overcome our failures to communicate. The Pentecost story in Acts 2 addresses those concerns, not from a technological or academic perspective, but from a spiritual point of view. Acts 2: 5-13 describes it this way: 5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

Jews and non-Jews from all over the world hear the apostles sharing their faith story in their own language. This is not some ecstatic, unintelligible speaking in tongues, but genuine communication made possible by the power of the Holy Spirit. These apostles are not educated linguists. They are common fishermen and tax collectors. They have not suddenly been empowered by Rosetta Stone; they are filled with the only force capable of overcoming human fear and division. At Pentecost the confusion of tongues from the Tower of Babel story is reversed and the response of those who have ears to hear the Gospel is both amazing and confusing.

People from all over the world have come to Jerusalem for the Pentecost Festival and some are apparently there on other business – Romans, Cretans and Arabs. The story shows us that as insurmountable as our communication barriers are, be they religious, cultural or political, we cannot just throw up are hands and say “we can’t do that!” Whatever happened in Jerusalem that day, this story makes it very clear the “this is impossible, we give up” excuse simply will not fly. It is easy to despair and say the hatred and divisions in our world today between Islam and the West, for example, are not amenable to any simple communication skills. Anyone who thinks so must be filled with new wine or smoking those funny weeds.

But this story counters with evidence that the Acts 2 audience is exactly like our multi-cultural world. A cross section of the whole world, people from Asia Mesopotamia, Judea, Egypt and Libya are identified; and the message is clear. Because they have received the gift of God’s spirit, a spirit of unity and love that is universal and offered to all of God’s creation, these apostles are able to overcome all of the cultural and communication barriers and share their amazing transformation stories in ways that are heard and understood.

That is a word of hope that our war-weary world desperately needs to hear. We may see no hope for peace and justice because we rely too much on human ways of dealing with our problems. We still think we can build towers or systems or networks that will make us the heroes and heroines of our story. The problem is it’s not our story. And when our best efforts fail, in desperation and fear we think destroying our enemies will bring peace in spite of centuries of evidence that violence and death only beget more of the same.

God’s answer that is blowing in the wind of Pentecost is that the transforming power of the God of the whole universe is the only hope for overcoming human differences and conflicts. The God of Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia is still the God of Americans and Syrians, of Islam and ISIS, of every soul that breathes; and those who dare to believe that are not crazy or filled with new wine. We are filled with the Holy Spirit of the Source of our being, and we speak a language of peace and grace that everyone can understand because it is the message that the world is longing to hear.

Peter’s summary of that message follows in Acts 2:14-36 and will be addressed in the next segment of this series on Pentecost.

(All Scriptures are quoted from the New Revised Standard Version)

Pentecost and Beyond: Christian Theology in Acts 2

We were out of town for Memorial Day weekend, and I was reminded again why Pentecost should not fall on the same weekend as a secular holiday. The empowering of God’s spirit is absolutely critical for faithful living; so for many Christians to be absent from church on Pentecost while traveling or doing other holiday activities is regrettable. Fortunately, Pentecost season in the church is like Eastertide, it is not a 24-hour event but a way of life.

To that end I am going to post here a series of reflections on Acts 2 which is one of the most important and complete summaries of Christian theology in the entire Bible. That one chapter covers a remarkable summary of the story of repentance, salvation, the power of God’s spirit to create both personal and social holiness, individual evangelism and conversion, and the resulting transformation of servant disciples into a model faith community.

Over the next few weeks I will reflect on different parts of Acts 2, and the outline for this 5-part series, at least at the outset, is as follows:

Verses 1-4: Obedient waiting for the Holy Spirit. If you are expecting a nice gentle dove be forewarned that the power of God’s spirit is not for sissies.

Verses 5-13: The communication barriers created at the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11) are miraculously removed and spirit-drunk apostles emboldened to preach the word.

Verses 14-36: Through the Holy Spirit all people of any age, race, and gender are capable of being God’s prophetic witnesses. As proof of that the former Christ-denying Peter’s first sermon summarizes salvation history culminating in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Verses 37-42: The overwhelming response to authentic preaching – 3000 people from all over the world repent, believe and accept the gift of God’s grace.

Verses 43-47: The proof in the pudding. True conversion and salvation are not one and done personal events, but result in an authentic community of social justice, compassion and holiness.

Good News from Good Friday Zombies?

Sometimes God opens our ears to hear something we’ve missed dozens of times before. Last Sunday morning our church choir’s cantata included part of the Good Friday narrative from Matthew 27 and I heard words from verse 52 that I do not remember hearing before. Matthew describes three world-changing signs at the moment of Jesus’ death, and for some reason the second one has escaped my notice for all of these sixty plus years I have been observing Holy Week.

That verse says, “The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.” That seems like a rather significant event for me to overlook, but I feel better after discovering that none of the other three gospels mention it either. My next thought was, “Why would anyone be surprised that Jesus arose from the dead on Sunday if all these other people had already done it on Friday?” Matthew answers that question for us in verse 53: “After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.” The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary explains that this way: “Since Matthew wants to connect the raising of the Israelite saints with the death of Jesus… but also wants Jesus’ own resurrection to be primary this results in the peculiar picture of the saints’ being resurrected on Good Friday but remaining in their tombs (or in the open country) until after the Easter appearances of Jesus. That we have theology in narrative form, and not in bare historical reporting is clear.” (Vol. VIII, p.493)

I have not had time to do any other serious research on this, but since I wanted to share it on Good Friday, here are my thoughts about this on the day when Christians remember the gruesome death and suffering of the Christ and reflect on what his life, death and resurrection mean for us today.

First, I have to move beyond the literal, historical filter my mind wants to use to understand this story. If a lot of once dead Jewish saints were walking the streets of Jerusalem, I’m sure someone would have made a zombie movie about it by now. So, there must be a deeper, symbolic meaning to this startling detail that only Matthew includes.

The other two signs Matthew describes before and after the tombs being opened may help; so here’s the three in context:
“51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.53 After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. 54 Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

The curtain of the temple refers to the barrier in the temple that separated the most holy place from the rest of the temple. This imagery foreshadows the destruction of the temple in 70 BCE which Matthew would have known about by the time these words were written. Symbolically they show how the death and resurrection of Christ destroy the barriers of the law and religiosity that separate the omnipresent spirit of God from human kind. God is not confined to the temple but is everywhere and always available to us all. The opening of the tombs shows that not even the final barrier of death itself can stop the life-giving eternal power of God.

And then, the more familiar third sign is the conversion of the Roman Centurion, the part of this narrative that is included in Mark and Luke’s gospels as well. That this Gentile is the first Christian believer to be liberated, not just by Christ’s sacrificial death, but by the faithful, calm, confident way he accepted and overcame his cross tells us that no false human barriers of race, creed, ethnicity, ideology or lifestyle can stop the love and power of God.

Jesus lived and taught and died and lives for all of God’s children. No matter what exactly happened on that hill far away 2000 years ago, the spirit of grace, love and mercy for us all lives and reigns for any and all who hear, see, and feel the power of resurrection and believe.

May whatever barriers are holding you back this day, whatever walls divide you from God or from your fellow human beings be blown away this Good Friday.


Note:  I wrote this story 22 years ago.  It breaks my heart that it is still as relevant today as it was in 1990.  The continued struggle of the Christian Church in general and my own United Methodist Church in particular to accept all of God’s children compels me to share it here now.  This story is fiction but painfully true.  It is part of the collection of stories and plays in my book Building Peace from the Inside Out: Stories for Peace Seekers and Peacemakers.”  

“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”  Micah 6:8

“The truth is lived, not taught.”  Herman Hesse


“The body of Christ, broken for you.”  I could hear the bishop repeating the words to each person as we got closer to the altar.  Larry was right in front of me, but just before he got to the bishop, he turned and hurried out the sacristy door, nearly knocking one of the communion stewards over on his way out.  Before I could decide if I should follow him, the bishop stuck a piece of bread in my hand and motioned for me to keep moving.

I found Larry back in the musty little room we were sharing for the week at our United Methodist annual conference.  He was sitting on his bed in the dark.  “You O.K.?” I asked, and when I flipped on the light I thought it looked like he had been crying.

“Yeah, I’m O.K.  I just had to get out of there.  You want to go get some ice cream?”

“You can’t get off the hook that easy, Larry.  We’ve been friends for what, fifteen years, now, and the only time I’ve seen you this upset was when Carolyn left you.  What’s wrong?”

Larry stared at the floor for a long time before he spoke.  “I thought maybe I could get through this without dumping it on you, Jim, but I guess I can’t.  I lost my … a really good friend last week; his name is Steve.  We met at the health club about four years ago and really hit it off – played racquetball twice a week, had dinner together all the time.  He was the best thing that’s ever happened to me…. Oh, what the hell – we were lovers.  Steve told me last week that he wanted out – he’s found someone else; said he’s sick and tired of me hiding behind my preacher’s robe.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me!”  But I could tell he wasn’t.  I swallowed hard and felt my stomach tighten.  I was trying desperately to stay calm, to hide my panic.

Larry shook his head as he continued, “I’m sorry… I know I should have told you a long time ago, but I’ve just never known how to do it.  I’ve started a dozen times, but it never seemed like the right time.  I guess I just kept hoping that somehow you knew.”

“Well, I sure as hell didn’t” I said, surprised at my own anger.  Larry buried his face in his hands. His shoulders started to shake, and I realized he was sobbing again.  My instinct was to comfort him like I would a frightened child, put my arms around him; but I couldn’t move.  I was paralyzed; too many questions were racing around in my own mind.  How in the world could I have been this close to Larry this long and not have known?  How many dozens of signals had I missed?  Who else knows and if they do, how many of them think I’m gay too?

Larry didn’t look up, but he finally broke the silence.  “I guess I knew you’d be uncomfortable; maybe that’s why I could never bring myself to tell you.”

“No, no, Larry, I’m not uncomfortable,” I lied, trying to buy some time to regain my equilibrium.  “I’m just thinking about what I can do, you know, to help.”

“Bull Shit!  You’re afraid to deal with it just like everybody else!  God, how I hoped it would be different with you.”

Larry’s words stung like a slap in the face, and the muggy summer night suddenly felt even more oppressive.  I wasn’t sure if it was the heat to blame for the sweat I wiped on my sleeve or if it was my growing discomfort.

“The communion service really got to me tonight,” he continued.  “I just couldn’t pretend any longer that I’m included in a fellowship that condemns me and my lifestyle.  It’s so damn hard, always living a lie, hiding, pretending.  Do you have any idea what it’s like to have to constantly deny who you are, even to your friends, because you know the truth could cost you everything  you’ve got, everything you’ve ever wanted, everything you feel called to do and to be?”

He paused, like he expected something from me, but I didn’t have it to give.  “And now I tell you my deepest secret,” he said, “and you can’t handle it.  I thought I’d feel better, be relieved, once you knew, but I guess I was wrong.”

“Damn it, Larry, that’s not fair.  If you’re such a good friend, how could you go all these years without telling me?  We’ve roomed together here for years, and I’m always staying at your house?  How the hell do you think that looks?  How many people in the conference know about this anyway?”

“Practically nobody, you fool, because there isn’t anybody I can trust – can’t you understand that?  I guess not!  All you can think about is your own precious reputation, you bastard!  I didn’t plan to tell you tonight.  It just hurt so much I couldn’t cover it up this time.”

“I’m sorry, Larry, I really am, but damn it, give me some time to get used to this, will you.  I guess I’m more uptight about this than I realized.”

“Oh, come on, Jim, be honest.  We’ve been debating homosexual ordination up here for what, at least eight or ten years, and I’ve never once seen you on the floor arguing for gay rights!”

“You know how people gossip about anybody who stands up for gays.  They think you’re one of them!”

“Oh, so you’re just a fair-weather liberal?  Do you realize what that chicken shit position does to people like me, especially when it comes from a friend?”

“I haven’t thought about it, Larry.  I thought things were getting better.”  I knew that was stupid as soon as I said it.

“Better?  For whom?  Not me!  That damn policy on gay ordination means that if the wrong people ever find out about me, I’m finished.  Not only is my career over, but they throw me out of my parsonage too!  No job, no home, nothing!  And the activists like Steve wonder why I don’t run around with a big “G” on my chest, proclaiming to the entire world that I’m gay?”

He picked up a Bible from the desk as he paced the room.  “I’ve heard you and a bunch of other so-called friends preach a great line about God’s amazing grace from here, Jim,” he said, holding the book under my nose; “but from where I sit, the only amazing thing about grace in the church is how amazingly scarce it really is.”

He flung the Bible into the wall behind my bed with such force that the faded picture of Jesus hanging there crashed to the floor, scattering shards of glass all over the room.

The intensity of his anger scared me.  “I’m going for a walk – need some fresh air,” I said, and left Larry picking up the broken pieces of glass.

The clock in the tower by the pier said it was almost1 a.m.as I walked by.  Our conference every year was in the little resort town ofLakesideonLake Erie, one of those places where, except for an all-night donut shop, everything closes by11 p.m., and for once I was glad.  I needed some time alone to think, and walking along the rocky shore was always a great place for that.  There was something reassuring about the rhythm of the waves splashing over the rocks and against the retaining wall.  Even the pungent odor of an occasional dead perch shipwrecked on the shore added to the atmosphere.

I was tired and confused.  I had always prided myself on being liberal about most things, but this was the first time I’d really been put to the test on the gay issue, and I had failed miserably.  After walking awhile, I sat down on a park bench in the gazebo near the shuffleboard court and tried to figure out why – to remember things that might help me understand the whole situation.

I remembered walking along the lake another night when Larry told me he and Carolyn were getting divorced.  I’d never really understood what happened to their marriage, but that, at least, was beginning to make sense now.

Larry and I both enrolled at Union seminary in the fall of 1968.  The day I moved in, he spotted myOhioStatesweatshirt and was so glad to see someone from his home state that he invited me for dinner.  He and Carolyn were newly-weds, living down the hall from me in one of those efficiency closets the seminary called apartments.  Larry was a great cook – did most of the cooking, even before the divorce, and I discovered that first evening that, among other things, we shared a great love for sweet and sour pork.  Those were wonderful years – we were two young, idealistic theologues, railing against the Vietnam War from behind the safety of our IV-D clergy draft deferments, preparing for parish ministry, sure we could save the church and the world, or at least the United Methodists.  I don’t remember much church history or systematic theology from seminary classes, and even less Hebrew, but I do remember Larry and me talking about burning eschatological issues well into the night, washing our profound musings down with cheap wine that tasted so much better because it would soon be forbidden by our ordination vows.  I’d always felt bad that Carolyn seemed left out of those bull sessions.  She wasn’t privy to all the inside jokes from class, and she’d almost always go to bed early.  She was a nurse and had to leave for work at6 a.m., but I worried about their marriage, even then.  It seemed that the closer Larry and I became, the less he and Carolyn had in common.  Now I finally understood how little they actually did have in common.  I wondered if he knew, even then.

In a strange way, it was a relief to know.  Ever since Larry told me they were getting divorced, I’d felt guilty, like I helped cause the problem way back in the early days of their marriage.  Now I knew that they had a much bigger problem than me.

All kinds of transformed memories were flooding my mind, like a clergy retreat atCampWesleyright after their divorce.  I was so impressed with the way Larry shared his pain with the whole group that I hugged him – told him I loved him, and I meant it, as a friend, but now all I could think about was how that sounded to everyone else.

I remembered visiting Larry shortly after the divorce in a little backwoods cabin nearIndianLake.  In those days the church still forced ministers who got divorced to take a year off, and Larry was living in this little God-forsaken place owned by a friend of his – no running water, the only heat was from a wood-burning stove.  But it was fine in the summer, and I spent a couple of days there with him, fishing and relaxing.  We even cut a cord of firewood one day.  That was the time – of course, I remembered now – Larry tried to give me a massage that night because I was so sore from wrestling that chain saw around all day – and I was so uptight that every time he touched me, I giggled like a twelve year-old, until he finally just gave up.

It was becoming clearer to me now.  Sure, that was also the time that I was so nervous about where I was going to sleep.  That cabin only had one bedroom, and I remember now that I was never so glad to see a hide-a-bed in the living room in my life.

Damn, maybe Larry was right.  Maybe I did know, and I just refused to deal with it.

More memories washed over me like the waves on the lake shore, only these felt more like the angry waves of a powerful storm, like the ones I’d seen come in off the lake and drop a fifty-foot oak like it was a toothpick.  They were memories of the tasteless jokes I told Larry about gays and the stupid cracks about AIDS.  And then there was Robby Johnson, the kid in our Boy Scout troop that we tormented mercilessly because someone told us he was “queer.”  We used to pants him or take his clothes while he was in the shower and then laugh our heads off while he ran back to his tent naked.

And that time on one camp out, I was probably twelve or thirteen, when we played strip poker in our tent, me and Johnny Crane and Danny Brown.  I lost of course.  I always was a lousy card player.  After I ran out of clothes, every time I lost a hand they made me run around the outside of the tent naked while they lifted up the sides of the tent and shined their flashlights on me.  After we got tired of that, Johnny suggested we “jerk each other off” before we went to bed.  I was really nervous, but I did it anyway.  I don’t know why.  I do know for a long time after that, for several years, I was sure I must be queer, but I was too embarrassed to ever tell anyone.

A shiver from a cool breeze off the lake brought me back to the present, and I was surprised to see Larry standing in front of me.  “I was worried,” he said.  “I was afraid you felt like you had to stay out all night.  I’ll find someplace else to stay tomorrow.”

“No, no, that’s not necessary.  I was just sitting here thinking and lost track of the time.”

“I thought you might be hungry,” he said, holding up a white donut bag.

Over coffee and donuts in the gazebo, I said, “I’m really sorry about what happened.  I thought I was pretty open about this issue, at least in theory, but it’s really different when it affects you personally.”

“You’re telling me?” he said, smiling.

I smiled too, glad for a break in the tension.  “That is funny, isn’t it?  But seriously, this has helped me realize that I’ve got a lot of things to sort out. I’m sorry I took it out on you.”  I told him what I’d been thinking about, everything – Robby and Johnny and Danny, even the hide-a-bed – things I’ve never told anyone before.  “Those are normal kinds of feelings, aren’t they?” I finally asked, trying hard not to sound too desperate for some assurance.

He chuckled, “Yes, very normal for you, and for ninety per cent of the population.  But not for me!”

He paused to dunk his donut and take a bite.  “Listen, Jim, I’m sorry about tonight, too.  I took a lot of anger out on you that didn’t belong to you.  A bunch of really heavy stuff has been piling up on me for months, and you just happened to be there when it finally blew.  Do you remember my friend Craig?  I think you met him one time when you were inCleveland.  He went out to dinner with us.”

“The one who was the minister at Trinity?”

“Yeah, that’s the one.”

“Didn’t I hear that he died recently?”

“Yeah, in February.”  He took a sip of coffee and looked very pensive.  “Craig was gay too and had a very hard time dealing with it.  He was like me – tried like hell to be “normal” and fit in, had a wife and kids.  He did his best to play the game, but it just didn’t work; and when the General Conference decreed again last year that gays are unappointable and unordainable, he just lost it.  He finally came out to his congregation one Sunday morning, if you can believe it, and then went home and gassed himself in the parsonage garage.”

“I’m sorry.  I didn’t know how he died.”

“It was the same week that Gary, another friend of mine, died of AIDS, a terrible, slow death.  I preached both of their funerals, Jim, in the same week and didn’t dare let anybody know how much I really cared.”

We drank our coffee in silence, surrounded by the darkness and the enormity of Larry’s pain.  “Ash Wednesday was just two days after those funerals,” he continued, “and I was still really pissed at God and the church.  We had communion that night, and I felt like a stranger in my own church.  I went through the motions and said all the right words, but I kept thinking that Craig and Gary would not have been welcome there if people knew them, and I knew damn well that most of my “sisters and brothers in Christ” would choke on their bread if they knew who was serving it to them.  It was like I was in a daze, serving the elements to dozens of nameless, faceless people parading by the altar.

“And then I came home to an empty house, no one to talk to but the dog.  Steve was out of town, or so he said, but I realize now that he was probably already seeing someone else.  Another friend, George, called, inviting me to a belated Mardi Gras Party.  I was so lonely I would have gone anywhere with anybody.  Well, it was wild party, let me tell you, and they weren’t serving grape juice like we did at church.  So, I got a little bombed, and I had sex with three or four guys before the night was over.”

“You what!”

“Now, don’t pull parent on me, Jim.  I don’t need you to tell me how stupid I was.  I’ve never done anything like that in my life, even before AIDS!  The point is that I am that desperate, and it scares the hell out of me.  I don’t even know who those guys were, and I sure hope they didn’t know me; but the weird thing was how that awful, anonymous sex felt the same to me as serving communion to all those people who don’t know the real me either.”

Tears were flowing again, but this time Larry wasn’t crying alone.  We embraced and held each other for a long time, until Larry finally broke the silence, “Want some more coffee?  I can go get refills.”

“Sounds good to me.”

As I watched Larry walk toward the donut shop, I realized the sun was already beginning to brighten the eastern sky.  I watched the gulls skimming the lake for breakfast, and then I saw something I hadn’t noticed in the darkness.  On the retaining wall in front of the gazebo, someone had spray-painted “DEATH TO ALL FAGS!”  Without hesitation, I scrambled down over the rocks, picked up a sharp one and tried almost frantically to scrape the ugly letters off the wall, rubbing so hard I scraped my knuckles and left a trail of blood across the “A” in “DEATH.”  But it was hopeless; the paint would not come off.  I leaned my head against the wall in frustration and exhaustion.

Just then Larry’s voice started me, “You’d better be careful.”  I turned quickly to see him standing there with the coffees in his hands, watching me.

With a little grin on his face, he said, “If some people see you doing that, they might think you’re one of us.”

“I know,” I said, “and frankly, my friend, I don’t give a damn.”