May the Fourth

There were lots of Star Wars jokes this week about “May the fourth be with us,” but in a time that seems like a galaxy far far away the fourth of May has a more somber meaning. Forty-eight years ago four students at Kent State University were shot and killed by National Guardsmen sent there to control anti-war protests.
I was a student in 1970 at a liberal seminary 120 miles from Kent. Most of us at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio were opposed to the Viet Nam War; so we felt the pain of that tragedy from a particular point of view. Like many campuses our school was shut down after the shootings. The difference at Methesco, as we called it then, was that classes weren’t cancelled because of student protests. The Administration and faculty did it and called us all together to pray and discuss what we might do to respond to this tragedy and the animosity and anger dividing our nation.

It was a time not much different than our own where America was divided over a war that had dragged on far longer and cost more lives than was acceptable. Two presidents had promised to end the war and failed, and two prominent peace advocates had been assassinated just two years before. The move that set that fatal May day into action was President Nixon’s decision to secretly expand the war by invading Cambodia. Campuses all over the country erupted in violent protests and civic and college leaders at all levels struggled with how to restore order. Tragically people died at Kent State and 10 days later at Jackson State in Mississippi where two were killed and 12 wounded. The latter never received enough publicity. Some say it was racism because those students were black, but whatever the reason the loss of life added to the whole tragedy of that decade.

I want to emphasize that no one I knew blamed the guardsmen for the Kent State deaths. Those young men were about the same age as the protesters, which means they were my age; and I know I would have been scared to death in their shoes. If there’s blame to be had it belongs to President Nixon and Governor Rhoades and the Ohio state leaders who put the guard in that untenable position. But the blame game was of no use, and I’m grateful to my mentors at Methesco who helped us learn that lesson but instead helped us brainstorm more constructive responses.
It’s hard to find silver linings to some clouds, but if there were any benefits from the blood shed on those two campuses one would certainly be that those deaths forced the nation to a deeper examination of why we were in Southeast Asia. I believe May 4, 1970 was a turning point in the court of public opinion that brought our involvement in that war to an end sooner than it would have happened otherwise.

On a personal level that week had a profound impact on me and my ministry. The way our seminary community came together and how we responded put practical flesh and bones on the lessons we had learned academically about the imperative of the church to be engaged in social justice ministry. It was thing to study commandment to “do justice” (Micah 6:8); pleas for “justice (to) roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24); visions of “beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks…and not learning war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4); or Jesus saying peacemakers are blessed (Matthew 5:9) and warning that “those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52) but quite another to apply those idealistic teachings to the nitty gritty of life and death issues.

After a good deal of discussion our seminary community decided on a two-prong approach to that May 4th. Knowing that there was deep division both within the church and the political community about the war we decided to try and address both. The decision was made that a delegation from Methesco would contact a nearby seminary with a much more conservative approach to theological and social issues to see if a dialogue between the two schools could help us both understand the other’s point of view. I was not part of that group so I don’t remember any particulars of what came from that discussion.

The other approach was for a group of us to travel to Washington DC and see if we could meet with Congressional representatives to express our concern and desire for peaceful resolutions of differences both within our nation and in the international community. We were young and poor then and full of energy; so three of us decided to save time and money we would drive straight through that night to DC, meet with whomever we could during the next day and then turn around and drive home the next night. I can’t even imagine doing that today, but it turned out to be one of the best bonding moments of my seminary career. The two guys I shared that 24-hour adventure with are still two of my best friends 48 years later.

We did meet with some representatives but came away feeling those men were much more concerned about protecting campus property and establishing law and order than they were about the human costs of the war or the issues the protesters were trying to raise. That too was a good lesson in patience and practical theology. Change and solutions to complex social issues do not happen overnight. Prophetic social justice ministry requires persistence. The issues change in each generation, but the need for people of faith to engage in relevant, messy, controversial issues never changes. There is always a need for the church to speak truth to power because the haves very rarely are willing to share their power with the have nots.

The three of us who were punchy and sleep-deprived when we completed our 24-hour marathon those many years ago are still active in retirement trying to discern God’s word for our day and trying as best we can to address social justice issues. May the force of truth and justice always be with us.

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Embrace the Squiggle: Fools for Christ, I Corinthians 3:18-23

[Note: 98% of this sermon was written before the tragic events in Charlottesville last Saturday. When I heard about Charlottesville Saturday evening I tried to figure out how I needed to change the message in light of the hatred and racsim on display in Virginia. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the message seemed very relevant to current events with only a few changes. We addressed the situation in Charlottesville directly in our prayer time on Sunday morning, including a reading of part of Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”]

When I saw the preaching schedule said I got to preach on being fools for Christ my first thought was, “I’ve been typecast!” Then I came across this old picture of me in my youth ministry days and thought, “OK, I guess the shoe fits.” But seriously, why would Paul advise us to be fools?

Do you know it says in the Bible, “There is no god?” It really does, and that particular verse is a great reminder that we cannot pick and choose things from the Bible and take them out of context. Psalm14:1 is where it says “there is no god,” but if you read the whole verse you discover it says, “Fools say in their hearts, ‘there is no god.’” That’s obviously not the kind of fool Paul wants us to be.

A friend sent me a list of some not so bright things people have said. They reminded me that some of the squiggles in life are caused by fools. Here are a couple of these squiggly quotes:
“Whenever I watch TV and see those poor starving kids all over the world, I can’t help but cry. I mean I’d love to be skinny like that, but not with all those flies and death and stuff.” Maria Carey
“I’ve never had major knee surgery on any other part of my body.” UK basketball player Winston Bennett
“We don’t necessarily discriminate. We simply exclude certain types of people.” Colonel Gerald Wellman, ROTC instructor.
“Your food stamps will be stopped effective March 1992 because we have received notice that you passed away. May God bless you. You may reapply if there is a change in your circumstances.” Dept. of Social Services, Greeneville, SC.

That’s not the kind of fools Paul is talking about either. Verse 18 says “Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise.” Come again Paul? How does one become wise by becoming a fool? That seems pretty foolish.
Verse 19 helps a bit. It says, “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness”; (Job 5) and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” (Ps. 94)

The Interpreter’s Bible commentary explains some of the confusion this way. Corinth, because of its geographic location was a very cosmopolitan city. Corinth, sitting in southern Greece and just across the Aegean Sea from modern day Turkey, was on the major trade route between the eastern and western parts of the Roman Empire. It was therefore made up of a diverse population and affected by a variety of religious and secular ideas. Among the key influences was the Greek philosopher Diogenes who taught that the “wise are friends of the gods and gods own all that is. Therefore the wise have access to everything.” It was an early version of what today is known as the prosperity gospel, namely that if we believe the right things we can expect God to reward us with material prosperity. It’s a favorite theology of those who start out to do good and end up doing very well.

By contrast Jesus taught the exact opposite, that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” and that we shouldn’t “store up treasures on earth where rust can consume and thieves break in and steal.” That’s not the kind of wisdom we hear from our financial advisers and retirement planners now is it?

As I read this text over the song that says “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread” kept coming to mind. But we have to give Paul credit. He practiced what he preached, getting imprisoned for his faith several times and once even refusing to escape from jail when he had the chance. He, like many martyrs and visionaries seemed to be a fool himself by challenging the wisdom of the world. In the church at Corinth Paul felt it necessary to do that because some of the members in that church were becoming arrogant and feeling self-important. Some who had particular spiritual gifts thought they were better than others who didn’t have the same gift. Paul addresses that specifically later in I Corinthians chapter 12 where he compares the church to the human body that needs all of its parts to work. And no one part is more important than any other.

Paul urges Godly foolishness because the ways of the world are not God’s ways. Worldly wisdom says “Good people finish last.” Jesus says, “The Last will be first.” The wisdom of world says, “Don’t get mad, get even.” “Do unto others before they do unto you.” The folly of Jesus says, “Turn the other cheek,” and “love your enemies.” Fools for Christ say, “The cycle of hate and revenge stops here.”

Paul is asking the church at Corinth and the Church on the Hill for moral responsibility. Moral responsibility requires self-awareness so we make conscious and intentional choices instead of really foolish ones based on worldly wisdom. There’s a great line in the old baseball movie, “Bull Durham” describing a clueless rookie pitcher named Ebby Calvin LaLoosh. One of the other characters in the movie says Ebby is “not cursed with self-awareness.”

When we are not self-aware it’s too easy to act irresponsibly. Instead of doing what we know to be right or stopping to think about that, we just go along with the crowd. Someone said recently that he was glad he grew up before cell phone cameras were everywhere because he did a lot of really stupid things in his youth and there’s no record of any of them. At its worst those who are not blessed with self-awareness can fall prey to what’s known as mob mentality. That can lead to horrible actions that most people would never do on their own but will when we lose our sense of self in the anonymity of a crowd. The violence in Charlottesville is an extreme instance. An example on a less dangerous scale is the term “fan” we use to describe a sports team’s followers. The word “fan” is short for “fanatic” and we’ve all seen or been one of those kinds of fools who get a little too carried away with team spirit, or some other kind of spirits. My family hated to sit with me at my son’s high school basketball games because for some strange reason they thought expressing my displeasure with the referees was embarrassing!

Without moral responsibility we lose track of our values and priorities. Like Pastor Chris said in last week’s sermon our own personal goals and bucket lists can become more important than doing what is right and good. I grew up a huge fan of the Cincinnati Reds in the days of the Big Red Machine. I suffered with them through two World Series losses to those darn Yankees and the Oakland A’s. And then in 1975 they won it all in one of the best World Series ever against the Boston Red Sox, and I thought my dreams were fulfilled. The Kingdom of God could come now. Somehow I expected things to be different because of a silly game played by overgrown and over paid kids. Of course it didn’t change anything.

The world doesn’t even change when the Buckeyes win a national championship or the right political party is in charge. In victory or defeat our purpose is the same, to be responsible moral agents for God’s will. We don’t base our behavior on peer pressure or majority rule. I think it must be in every Mom’s handbook to ask “If everyone else jumped off the bridge would you too?” And that’s solid advice. Being morally responsible means a constant process of learning critical thinking skills. It means we need to ask God to set us free from any selfish goals or priorities that prevent us from doing the right thing. We may have to say no to the consumerism of the world so we can pick up a cross and follow Jesus. When Jesus called his disciples he didn’t say, “Go home and pack.” He just said, “Follow me.”

There’s even a lesson we can learn from something as scary as the nuclear game of chicken going on with N. Korea. We’re all praying for a peaceful solution to this problem, but it’s a reminder that in the worst case scenario if there is a nuclear attack anytime we won’t have days or even hours to get our moral house in order. We need to be right with God all the time, even when it makes us look foolish in the eyes of the world.

Let’s not sugar coat it. To be a fool for Christ can be lonely. I was a Boy Scout all through Jr. High and high school, and it was a great experience. But I have to tell you I dreaded Boy Scout week each February because it meant we were supposed to wear our scout uniforms to school. It wasn’t cool to be a boy scout. The same thing happened when I got my call to ministry at a church camp my sophomore year in high school. It took me 3 years before I told anyone about that because I was afraid people would think I was some kind of goodie two shoes.

We all know bullying is a major problem for kids these days. Being a Christian fool means doing something to stop a bully, whether it’s intervening directly or getting a teacher or other adult to address the situation. There was an incident in Portland, Oregon recently where a man was yelling racist and anti-Muslim threats at two women on a bus. Three other passengers intervened and two were killed and the other wounded when the bully pulled a knife on them. What they did to put ourselves in harm’s way might seem foolish to the world, but the harm to one’s conscience when we fail to do the right thing is much worse. That’s an extreme case of course, but it illustrates the seriousness of Christian discipleship. And then the violence in Charlottesville happened yesterday, and the risks of standing up for truth and justice were written in bloody broad strokes for all of us to see. There’s nothing funny or silly about being a fool for Christ.

Christian fools pay a price for their faithfulness. John and Charles Wesley who started the Methodist church were thrown out of the Church of England because they challenged things in that church that they believed were wrong. Worldly values would call Mother Theresa foolish to go live among the squalor and disease in Calcutta, but we call her a saint.

I am so proud to be part of this congregation for all the foolish things we do. Worldly values often base decisions on what the ROI will be of a particular action. ROI stands for Return on Investment. By the ROI standard Northwest Church does a lot of foolish things. Our Kairos ministry shares the Gospel and delicious cookies with prisoners at the Marion Correctional facility several times a year. None of those men are likely to ever darken the door of our church. Where’s the ROI for the time and effort that goes into that ministry?
We send food and servants down to Broad St. UMC to serve meals to hungry and homeless people at the Manna Café. We even have some wonderful servants who get up very early some Sunday mornings to serve breakfast to hungry people at the Church for All People. None of those folks will ever contribute to our church’s bottom line. Where’s the ROI?
Same thing with Brown Bag Lunches and back packs filled with school supplies to kids in our own backyard. It’s unlikely that most of those people will come and sit in these pews so our attendance numbers look better for the bishop.

The world operates on a profit motive, but the church runs on a prophetic model. The world says “what’s in it for me?” Christian fools say “what’s in it for others?” Our ROI is the warm feeling of having done something good for one of God’s children. It’s seeing the joy and pure delight on the faces of hungry kids receiving their brown bag or backpack; watching them run out to meet our church van because it shows them somebody cares about them.

When I was youth minister at Worthington UMC we took our kids on mission trips every summer. One year we went to West Virginia to help with flood relief. We stayed overnight in a UM church in Morgantown, WV on our way home. It was a big downtown church with a two-story education wing. I went out that evening to pick up some pizza for the group and as I drove back to the church I was both amused and embarrassed at what I saw. Hanging from the upstairs windows of the church was a big sign that said “Love for Sale.”

I made the kids remove the sign as soon as I got in the church, and we had a talk about it while we ate our pizza. I don’t remember what I said to the kids way back then 30 years ago. I’m sure I said their sign wasn’t appropriate, but reflecting on it now here’s what I wish I had said. “Love is never for sale. When we love someone we don’t weigh the costs and figure out what we can get in return – that’s not love. It’s a business transaction.”

The wisdom of the world is self-centered. The foolishness of the Gospel says those who love must be servants of all. Christians are called to always reflect love and grace, not judgment and exclusion. I learned a simple prayer in a seminar on peacemaking a few years ago. It really helps when I remember to pause in a tough situation when it is so easy to lose my temper. It’s simply to repeat to myself these three phrases: “Let me be peaceful, let me be kind, let me accept myself and others as we are.” That’s really very hard to do, and I often fail miserably; but it’s what we are all called to do and be by the biggest fool the world has ever known.

Jesus spent his three year ministry breaking rules and challenging the wisdom of the establishment. He offended the wise leaders of both the Roman Empire and the Jewish hierarchy. By worldly standards Jesus had no qualifications to be wise – no degrees, no portfolio, and no 401K. He got himself in so much hot water he was brutally killed. The world says that’s the height of foolishness. One of the thieves crucified with him speaks for the worldly values. He says, “Jesus, use your divine powers Jesus to save yourself and us.”

Instead Jesus said, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And then, “Father into your hands I commend my spirit.” The wisdom of the world thought it had triumphed on Good Friday. Jesus’ mother and disciples grieved the death of Jesus and their hopes for the future. But on resurrection day God got the last laugh.

The basic ground rules for being a fool for Christ are captured in these words which reportedly were written on the walls of Mother Theresa’s home for children in Calcutta:
“People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered.
Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.
Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies.
Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you.
Be honest and sincere anyway.
What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight.
Create anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous.
Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, will often be forgotten.
Do good anyway.
Give the best you have, and it will never be enough.
Give your best anyway.
In the final analysis, it is between you and God.
It was never between you and them anyway.” Amen.

[Preached at Northwest UMC, Columbus, Ohio, August 13,2017]

“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

Prayer for the Human Family

As my regular readers know I have strong political opinions about the current situation in Washington and its repercussions around the world. I strive to make sure those opinions are theologically grounded. After prayerful consideration of the crisis over immigration policy that has unfolded over the weekend I have decided to offer a prayer for unity and compassion for everyone involved rather than add to the often polarizing debate about political positions and constitutional interpretation. The inspiration for this prayer comes from my understanding of Judeo-Christian Scripture but also from a very secular source.

That secular source is from a marketing slogan used by one of my favorite breakfast restaurants, Bob Evans. (Full disclosure note: My son is a V-P in marketing for Bob Evans, but I would like this slogan regardless of family ties.) Our church has been doing a sermon series on myths and sayings that aren’t in the Bible, and I’d like to propose that this one could very well be. The slogan which is on the walls of many of Bob’s restaurants is this: “We treat strangers like friends and friends like family.”

Dear God, creator and sustainer of all creation, God of radical hospitality, you have taught us in Scripture and through Christ and faithful Jesus followers to be people of love. You warn us that it is not enough to love those who love us back, but to love even our enemies and those who persecute us. You have instructed us via prophets and parables all the way back to Leviticus to love our neighbors as ourselves. But we often forget that love of neighbor extends to all the Samaritans and Syrians and Somalis longing to be free.

Forgive us when we forget that your inclusive love requires us to welcome dialogue with our political foes and to enter into those conversations with open minds free from judgment about the motives of others. Help us temper our zeal for justice with open ears that can hear the concerns and fears of those we disagree with. Help us to lower the decibel level of the discourse as we strive to treat others with the same respect we want for ourselves and those we advocate for. Forgive us when we are more concerned with being right than reaching peaceful solutions to complex problems. Gently remind us when we are more determined to win an argument than to know the truth.

Teach us your patience, Lord, and remind us to double and triple check our facts before we post or tweet or share any information that may be counterproductive to the ultimate cause of peace and justice for all of your children. Give us minds that thirst for truth and learn from history, to see the many logs in our own eyes before we judge others about the specks in theirs. We have much in our American history for which we need to repent, O God of mercy. You know us better than we know ourselves. Grant us the courage to search the depths of our own sin. Remind us of our own shameful record of injustice against people of color, women, and our LGBT sisters and brothers. Send your Spirit to help us not be shamed by guilt but to benefit from our past transgressions and from those of others so we can learn and grow in our faith from this political crisis.

Touch our hearts O God in ways that empower us to live up to your high expectations for us. May your Spirit burn within us with a compassion for families that are separated, for students and business travelers stranded in foreign lands, for everyone who fears for their uncertain future. Let us not become so embroiled in the political struggles of our own nation that we surrender to 24/7 news fatigue. Do not let us lose sight of the fact that millions of human lives are at stake and will be impacted by our own action or lack thereof. Do not let us belittle our own significance with a false humility that can silence the voices of the many crying in the wilderness. Do not cease to remind us that we are to treat the stranger in our midst as we would treat our own family and friends, that radical hospitality is not an unreachable ideal or a clever marketing slogan but Gospel Truth.

Lord, there is much fear consuming our nation and world. There is fear for safety and security, fear of political impotence and fear of excessive power. Help us acknowledge and face all those fears with the confidence of your children who know that only perfect love casts out fear. You are the unshakable foundation of our faith and the only true source of perfect love. Without you we cannot imagine how the overwhelming crises of our world can be resolved. But you are the God of exodus and exile, of crucifixion and resurrection. No political crisis has ever silenced your voice. In the tumult and chaos of protests and partisanship, whisper again to us the assurance once more that neither powers nor principalities, death nor life, nor anything else in all creation will ever separate us from your love. Thanks be to God.

Advent II, Candle of Peace

Denver International Airport (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)
Denver International Airport (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

[Traveler enters with suitcase] Oh no! Look at those lines at security! Why is it every time I’m running late at the airport the security lines are out the door?? TSA must have been designed to prove Murphy was an optimist!!
Do you suppose these security people can move any slower? I’ll never make it to my gate on time.

Just look at all those people! All those families with kids! They’ll take forever to get through the line. And that couple over there with the deer in the headlights look. They don’t have a clue how to manage this system. You have to take off your jacket, your belt, your shoes, and get everything out of your pockets. Even a quarter may set off the metal detector! Put away my cell phone, no, can’t do that yet my boarding pass is on my phone. And if you’ve got an artificial joint you get a free pat down.

Stupid terrorists. We didn’t have to do all this stuff before 9/11. It wouldn’t be so bad to wait if it made me feel safe and secure, but it doesn’t. We’re vulnerable anywhere. Look at what happened just this week at Ohio State!

[Sits on suit case]

OK Steve, calm down. Breathe. I know it’s not all about me. All those other passengers—they’re all trying to get somewhere just like I am. They aren’t here just to aggravate me. And the TSA folks are doing their very difficult job the best they can. I’m sure they aren’t getting paid enough to put up with grumpy travelers like me. And I’ll even bet a little respect and being nice to them gets me through faster than complaining!

It helps if I don’t just see the crowd but see other people like me. Look at that poor mother traveling with two little kids. She’s probably trying to get home for Christmas or maybe to see a sick relative or bury a loved one. And those soldiers are likely being deployed to somewhere dangerous far away from their families for the holidays.

Sure, waiting a few minutes is inconvenient, but we’re all in the same boat. I’m old enough I remember a time when it wasn’t like this. We could walk leisurely to the gate and other people could go with you to say goodbye. How long do you suppose we will have to wait till the world is peaceful enough that we can do that again, till we just learn to get along as friends and neighbors? I wonder how long. [Exits]

Lighting the Advent Candle:

As usual, the second Sunday of Advent comes as we enter the final month of our calendar year, but 2016 has been far from ordinary. The long, long campaign season is finally over, but the political and social strife continues unabated. We are promised security and peace from all sides, but we are still waiting for those promises to be fulfilled. And so we wait for God’s light to break into the darkness just as it did so long ago in another time torn by strife and oppression. Today we light a second candle, the candle of peace, to witness to the world that the light is still growing in all of us who dare to wait and hope and believe. Together our lights can make a difference, and in due time our waiting will be rewarded with the peace that passes all understanding.

Prayer:
O God, waiting is so hard. We read the words of Scripture from centuries ago that promise peace, and we start celebrating Christmas earlier every year desperately hoping that this is finally the year. We long for true peace but often settle for false security that doesn’t satisfy the yearning in our hearts. We take our shoes off at airports and go through metal detectors; security cameras record our activities all over town, and we install security systems at home. Our military is the mightiest ever known in the world. And yet people carry guns and pepper spray, and we lock down our schools on a regular basis. Even police officers are not safe from senseless acts of violence. Enlighten us O God to the ways of the Prince of Peace. Teach us again that we will not find true peace until our hearts find rest in you. Remind us that your eternal peace does not come with “swords loud clashing or roll of stirring drums, but with deeds of love and mercy.” Remind us again in the small glimmer of these candles that the light still shines in the darkness, and the darkness will never overcome it. We wait and pray in the name of the Prince of Peace, Amen.

A Lament for Unity

“Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses,
but our pride is in the name of the LORD our God.
They will collapse and fall,
but we shall rise and stand upright.” Psalms 20:7-8

I don’t have time to write much today but feel an urgency to respond to the disheartening news coming out of the UK this week. ISIS must be dancing in the streets. Their epidemic of fear has toppled the British Prime Minister and dealt a terrible blow to European unity. I find it very ironic and sad that it was the older population in Britain who voted in favor of leaving the EU. They should be the ones who remember how well Nationalism worked for Europe throughout history and most recently in the 20th Century.

European Nationalism engulfed the entire planet in two horrible world wars and left a trail of death and destruction throughout European history. Why would we want to try it again? Fear does terrible things to the human mind, and there is much to fear in this rapidly changing world we inhabit. But putting our trust in chariots and horses, i.e. strength and force and defensive isolation that turns its back on millions of refugees is not the answer. To resort to abandoning the most hopeful effort at unity and cooperation the world has seen in centuries because of current fear and hardship is short-sighted and tragic.

Those who put their faith in chariots and horses will collapse and fall, but those who put their pride in the peaceful, loving, cooperative ways of the Lord will rise and stand upright. It takes faith and a lot of it to believe that, but the alternative is to try and return to methods that have proven hundreds of times to fail. Come, Holy Spirit, and breathe courage and faith into every trembling heart.

Post Script: I went out to mow my grass after writing the above. I do some of my best thinking on the lawn tractor. Today I had one mowing meditation I want to add. It may be because I am neither young nor fearless, although it was a favorite of mine even when I was young and fearful, but a line from a great old hymn came to mind as I reflected more on the rise of nationalism in both Europe and here in the U.S. It was written in 1931 as nationalism was raising its ugly head in Germany. I’ve never served a church where it is a popular hymn because it is too challenging and uncomfortable, but I think it’s time we listen. The whole hymn is profound, but what echoed in my mind today is the third verse:

“O help us stand unswerving
against war’s bloody way,
where hate and lust and falsehood
hold back Christ’s holy sway;
forbid false love of country
that blinds us to his call,
who lifts above the nations
the unity of all.” “O Young and Fearless Prophet,” by S. Ralph Harlow

Musings of a Curious Introvert

inherit the wind
I am not by nature a curious person. Until recently I did not see that as a big problem. What sparked my interest in curiosity now is two-fold: 1) the Peace Ambassador Training I just participated in raised the issue a few weeks ago in two sessions, one on Nov-violent Communication and one on bridging cultural divides. The point was that curiosity is necessary for not being judgmental and fearful of things or people we don’t understand. Asking questions is an important part of active listening so others feel that one is genuinely interested in them, respectful of their point of view and willing to try and understand where they are coming from. The essential qualities for transforming a situation on an interpersonal or international level are self-awareness, nonjudgment, and curiosity. The speakers acknowledged that this is not a natural way to be for many of us and requires effort and courage. Especially in our polarized society, we need to remember that the basic human need is not to be right but to be heard and respected. To create a safe place for that kind of communication people need to know that we are willing to stay in connection with them, even if we disagree.

I can’t speak for extroverts, but I know for this introvert that kind of behavior feels risky. If I have to ask for information it means I have to admit I don’t know everything and I can’t figure it out in my own head. It means admitting that I need other people, and that means outgrowing the two-year old inside of me that still wants to say “do it self.”

2) My wife frequently comments on my lack of curiosity, e.g. when I fail to ask doctors important questions about my medical conditions, or when I am content to be unaware of what’s going on in the lives of friends and family members. She is much more of the “inquiring minds want to know” school while I often subscribe to the “ignorance is bliss” philosophy of life. I have often used my introverted personality as an excuse for not being curious, but when the Peace Ambassadors from the Shift Network made such a strong case for the value of curiosity to be a peacemaker, I got curious enough to explore that issue further.

My first question was why curiosity often has a negative connotation and that resulted in a quick Google search of the phrase “curiosity killed the cat.” I will summarize what I found but if you are curious and want more information the sites quoted from below are: http://www.phrases.org.uk/ and http://www.knowyourphrase.com/. The familiar proverb that curiosity can be fatal for felines began with a slight but very significant difference. “The ‘killed the cat’ proverb originated as ‘care killed the cat’. By ‘care’ the coiner of the expression meant ‘worry/sorrow’ rather than our more usual contemporary ‘look after/provide for’ meaning. That form of the expression is first recorded in the English playwright Ben Jonson’s play Every Man in His Humour, 1598: “Helter skelter, hang sorrow, care’ll kill a Cat, up-tails all, and a Louse for the Hangman.” One of the actors in that play was a chap by the name of William Shakespeare, and he borrowed the phrase for a line in “Much Ado About Nothing;” and the phrase stayed in that form for 400 years.

“The proverbial expression ‘curiosity killed the cat’, which is usually used when attempting to stop someone asking unwanted questions, is much more recent. The earlier form was still in use in 1898, when it was defined in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable: ‘Care killed the Cat. It is said that a cat has nine lives, but care would wear them all out.’” That same year, the earliest of the precise current form of the proverb in print is from The Galveston Daily News, 1898: It is said that once “curiosity killed a Thomas cat.”

The original phrasing seems to recognize the well-established negative impact of worry on the human spirit and body. Even felines with their nine lives can worry themselves to death. I get that, but why the switch to curiosity? I found no hard evidence to satisfy my curiosity about that question but I agree with The Phrase Finder, http://www.phrases.org.uk/ site when it says the phrase is “usually used when attempting to stop someone asking unwanted questions.” Anyone who has experienced a toddler’s persistent asking “why?” about everything from observing a stranger’s behavior to why the sky is blue understands that motivation.

When she was just learning about the differences in male and female anatomy our then three-year-old’s favorite question when seeing a male out in public was “Does he have a penis, Daddy?” Her curiosity didn’t kill any cats but it did create some embarrassing situations.

But stifling curiosity has much more serious ramifications, and while discouraging some curiosity may be for good reasons, e.g. sticking a metal object into an electric socket to see what happens, when we overgeneralize and frown on all curiosity the negative consequences outweigh the benefits.

Christian theology has been a major contributor to negative attitudes toward curiosity. As early as 397 CE Augustine wrote in “Confessions:” that, in the eons before creating heaven and earth, God “fashioned hell for the inquisitive”. John Clarke, in Paroemiologia, 1639 suggested that “He that pryeth into every cloud may be struck with a thunderbolt”. In Don Juan, Lord Byron called curiosity “that low vice”. That attitude is easily traced back to the dangers of temptation and resulting sin with its roots in the Genesis 3 account of the fall because of humanity’s access to the “knowledge of good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). It is interesting to note that the explanation of the tree’s appeal comes from the serpent, not from God. God just said, “Don’t eat from that tree.” It’s the serpent who convinces Eve they can become wise “like God, knowing good and evil” if they disobey and partake.

It’s not seeking wisdom that’s the problem; it’s trying to be like God. We are not like God. I have long been enamored with the other creation story in Genesis 1 where God creates humankind in God’s image (Gen. 1:27), but of late the overwhelming forces of human evil and cruelty in the world have forced me to seriously rethink what that doctrine of Imago Dei means. The divine spirit is within all of creation. It’s part of our genetic makeup, but that spirit has to be nourished to even begin to tap its potential. And curiosity and the pursuit of knowledge to be the caretakers and stewards of creation and of each other, seasoned with a healthy dose of humility, are all part of our human responsibility. (See my post from 12-13-15, “Fear of Knowledge.”)

My own experience with education and my family of origin was heavily influenced by the cat killer curiosity mentality. I didn’t learn to do any critical thinking till I got to grad school, and yet I was always praised as an excellent student. Why? Because I knew how to play the school game. I am blessed with a good ability to memorize, and I learned early on that “learning” what the teacher wanted on tests was the path to success in our educational system. Obedience to the rules kept me out of trouble at home and at school because I learned quickly to be accountable for what was expected of me. But there is huge difference between being accountable and being responsible. Responsibility requires critical thinking, adjusting to situations and applying knowledge and principles to new and unfamiliar circumstances. It means asking the right questions and pursuing where they lead rather than just obeying or repeating what we have been taught to do.

That reality struck me hard when I turned 18 and got ready to leave the safety of a well ordered, structured environment. My parents had always made it very clear what the rules were in our house and what was expected of us. Rarely did I test those limits but magically on my 18th birthday I was told it was now up to me to make my own decisions. It’s like handing the car keys to a kid and saying “here, you’re old enough to drive now” without providing any driver’s education.

When I got ready to enroll at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio some of our church members discouraged me because that school had a reputation for being too liberal. There was too much freedom of thought and curiosity there. But faith is strengthened by doubt. Our spiritual muscles or intellectual ones are strengthened by being exercised, just like other muscles. I didn’t know any of that 45 years ago. I wasn’t curious enough to ask good questions about the college and seminary I chose to attend. I went to Ohio State University and MTSO because they were close to home, i.e. not too far outside my comfort zone. Would I make different choices today about my education knowing what 69 years of life experience have taught me? Probably, but I am forever grateful for the grace of God or dumb luck that led me to both of those places where curiosity and inquiry were instilled in me.
Do I sometimes wish I could go back to not being curious? Sometimes I do because life was easier when the boundaries of my world were smaller and less filled with ambiguity. But curiosity is like toothpaste, you can’t put it back in the tube.

The other reason curiosity and non-violent communication seem especially important to me right now is the divisive and hateful tone of the political process in this country. It seems more and more people on both sides of the political spectrum are talking/yelling at each other and not much active listening is going on. Our instant gratification attention spans are much to blame. Curiosity takes time and a willingness to dig deeper than catch phrases, sound bites, and campaign slogans. Curiosity asks questions like what does “Make America Great Again” or “Hillary for America,” or “Feel the Bern” really mean? Curiosity requires working at understanding, not just reacting emotionally to grandiose promises.
Honest curiosity is not taking short cuts or settling for easy answers to complex problems. The Gospel of John (8:32) says, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” But that truth isn’t free and curiosity is the price tag.

One of my favorite quotes from literature about critical thinking and curiosity comes from “Inherit the Wind,” by Lawrence and Lee. The play depicts the Scopes evolution trial, but at a deeper level it’s about freedom of curiosity. Henry Drummond tells the following story near the end of the play in Act III to encourage the young teacher, Bert Cates, who is on trial for teaching evolution, to never lose his curiosity and zeal for seeking the truth. It’s about a toy horse in a department store window.

“I was seven years old, and a very fine judge of rocking horses. Golden Dancer had a bright red mane, blue eyes, and she was gold all over, with purple spots. When the sun hit her stirrups, she was a dazzling sight to see. But she was a week’s wages for my father. So Golden Dancer and I always had a plate glass window between us. But—let’s see, it wasn’t Christmas; must’ve been my birthday—I woke up in the morning and there was Golden Dancer at the foot of my bed! Ma had skimped on the groceries, and my father’d worked nights for a month. I jumped into the saddle and started to rock—And it broke! It split in two! The wood was rotten, the whole thing was put together with spit and sealing wax! All shine and no substance! Bert, whenever you see something bright, shining, perfect-seeming—all gold, with purple spots—look behind the paint! And if it’s a lie—show it up for what it really is!”

They say cats have nine lives, but we have only one; and this introvert is planning to use his one to look beneath some paint and show things for what they really are.

p.s. If you’re curious about the picture at the top, that’s a much younger me playing Bert Cates in “Inherit the Wind”.