Faith, Doubt and Playing Possum

My brain feels like a whirling dervish this week with all the scandal, intrigue and assorted craziness in the news. I feel like I’m living in a bad soap opera with FBI raids on the President’s lawyer, Speakers of both the US House and the Ohio House stepping down unexpectedly and military strikes on Syria that put us closer to a nuclear showdown with Russia than any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment but I can’t seem to stop watching and reading the news like the proverbial train wreck. I have managed to get engrossed in a couple of good novels as a respite from the 24-hour bad news cycle. One is a book on tape I listen to while driving, James Patterson’s “Woman of God,” and the other on my Nook, Dan Brown’s “Origin.” But of course both of those are full of conflict and profound theological questions about human suffering and human nature itself. And in my spare time I’m wading through a weighty and rather depressing tome entitled “What Are We Doing Here?” by Marilynne Robinson for a book club I’m in.

Mingled in with all that drama has been a personal struggle with guilt. On Wednesday of this week I had the painful task of dispatching a possum whose only offense was making his domicile under our deck. I’ve been trying to trap him or her for a few weeks and until this week had only managed to feed chipmunks who are too small to trip the trap and catch a stray cat. Every morning that the trap was by our deck I was relieved to find it empty, but Wednesday it was fully occupied by a sleeping possum who seemed quite content. It had finished off the apple that I used as bait and unlike the cat seemed quite content and even trusting when I carried him/her to a watery grave in our pond. It would have been much easier on me if she/he had hissed and growled at me, but that is not the way of the possum.

The possum’s capital offense was invading turf that belongs to us – we have a deed–but then I guess possums can’t read; so posting a no trespassing sign would probably not have done any good. Fearing he/she would attract or produce more furry friends that could do damage to the foundation of our house my wife and I felt justified in this dirty deed. I used to take such critters a few miles away and release them, but that is actually against the law of the land and increasingly impossible as urban sprawl takes over more and more habitat for our four-footed friends.

On this second week of Eastertide I couldn’t help theologizing a bit about this experience, and it occurred to me that there is a parallel here between my possum and what we did to Jesus a couple millennia ago. Their offenses were much the same– invading someone else’s space and making them/us uncomfortable. Just as the possum created conflict for me about his/her right and mine to occupy this space on Brock Road, so Jesus created such a degree of discomfort and cognitive dissonance by proclaiming a higher ethical standard of God’s reign that threatened the Jewish and Roman homeowners in Jerusalem that they set a trap for him and executed him on trumped up charges of blasphemy.

The big difference of course where these two tales of death diverge is in their outcome. And no I’m not suggesting Jesus was just playing possum in that tomb for 3 days. He was just as dead as my possum – ask his mother who watched him be nailed to that cross. Ask the centurion who ran a spear into his side to make sure he was dead. Jesus was dead!

But Eastertide is the season of resurrection – even in chilly Ohio where spring has been delayed. I saw a meme on Facebook that said “Mother Nature was late delivering spring because Father Time was driving and refused to stop and ask for directions.” But better late than never we had at least a teaser of spring this week. The daffodils, hyacinths and forsythia are blooming, the crocuses are croaking, and the robins are digging up earthworms in my yard.

I had an hour between two appointments on Thursday, our first warm day; so I went for a walk in one of Columbus’ lovely metro parks. I took exception to a sign that told me the trail I took was 1.1 miles. I know it had to be longer than that because it took me much longer to hike it that it used to. I was also struck for the first half mile or so by how dead everything looked. Dead trees and limbs were all over the woods, everything was the barren brown of winter. And then I looked a little closer and saw that there amongst the detritus of winter’s death there were tiny green leaves quietly emerging from some of the branches. When I walked by the lake there was a young couple facing each other on a picnic bench and staring into each other’s eyes as only new lovers can do.

Signs of new life are there even if they aren’t obvious to a casual observer. Even my poor departed possum will provide nutrients to the soil and food for some birds of prey. Even in the news there are signs of hope, but we may have to work to find them. Today’s headlines were all about the bombing of Syria and the most recent scandals in Washington. But back in the metro section was an editorial that gave me hope. One of my heroes in days gone by is a local preacher here in Columbus, Ohio who is often called the father of the Social Gospel.

Rev. Washington Gladden died 100 years ago this year after a long and illustrious career of championing social justice causes as the pastor of First Congregation Church on East Broad St. just a few blocks from the state capitol. Today’s editorial was about a memorial garden that the church is building on property next to the church to honor Gladden. The park, to open in August, will include “exhibitions on social justice issues, an artist-in-residence program to teach children about social justice, along with art, lectures and forums, community dialogues and performances.” Current Sr. Pastor Tim Aherns says plans call for “a refuge of waterfalls, public art, green space, trees and a pathway of quotes about the pursuit of justice.”

Gladden himself was an early advocate for ecumenism and church engagement in political reform. He was friends with Theodore Roosevelt, Booker T. Washington, and every prominent public figure in Columbus. “At the time of Gladden’s death,” the editorial concludes, “The Ohio State Journal—which regularly had published his social justice sermons on Page One—called him the ‘First Citizen’ of Columbus.” The full editorial is at http://www.dispatch.com/opinion/20180414/editorial-new-park-to-honor-columbus-social-justice-champion

My take away from all of this disjointed rambling is that there is always a spark of new life hidden in the darkest days. That’s what resurrection is all about. God is not playing possum. Spring may not arrive when the calendar says so, but it will arrive. Justice will roll down like waters, maybe not today but someday. Easter didn’t end two weeks ago, it just began, and that liturgical season lasts until Pentecost when God saw that even showing the disciples Jesus’ hands and side wasn’t proof enough and sent the mighty wind of the Holy Spirit to light a fire in those believers that no one, no thing, no how has or ever will extinguish. We believe Lord, help our unbelief.

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Prayer for Wisdom and Courage

[As we sang “God of Grace and God of Glory” at an alum gathering at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio last week I was impressed with how prayerful those lyrics by Harry Emerson Fosdick are; and those lyrics inspired my pastoral prayer for today.]

God of Grace and Glory, please listen to your people praying.  Pour your power upon us as we pray for the healing of brokenness and suffering everywhere – in our own hearts and minds and in relationships interpersonal and international in scale.  You have planted the seeds of love in every human heart, but those seeds are threatened by draught, wild fire, earthquake and the ravages of unbelievable storms.

Please let our time of worship nourish the one true seed of your loving presence in us and in those we hold up in prayer.  We feel surrounded by the forces of evil and long to be free from fears that shake the foundations of our faith.  Send your Holy Spirit here to the church on the hill to free our hearts to praise you and serve you.  Giving you the glory, let us not hide the Good News of your Salvation under a bushel, but let this congregation on the banks of the Scioto be a beacon of hope to a broken and discouraged world.

Lord listen to your people praying.  Empower us to set an example as peacemakers to a world too long enslaved to war and violence as our only response to conflict and threat.  Let us be leaders in finding ways to beat our guns into plowshares and our nuclear weapons into technologies to feed the starving masses and to power our planet with clean renewable energy.  Instead of rattling our sabers let us put on the whole armor of God – righteousness, truth, peace, faith, and salvation to win the struggles within us and around us with selfishness, greed, injustice, and all that divides the very oneness of creation.

Strengthen us please, O God within each of us, to not lose hope when illness or despair sap our human energy.  Remind us again that we can flip a switch with a simple word of prayer to connect to the one true source of hope that never fails us.

Lord, listen to your people praying and grant us wisdom and courage for the living of these days.  We humbly ask these things in the name of the one who is the way and truth and life as we unite in one voice to pray the prayer he gave us……

 

 

Why We Must Render unto Caesar

The water crisis in Flint has been troubling me on many levels for days, but I had one of those ah hah moments about it while listening to any NPR piece in the car today about a related but different issue. I’ve been having a depression inflicted writer’s block for several weeks, and was so glad when this light bulb lit up. I couldn’t wait to get home to write down my thoughts. Sorry church, Sunday’s sermon will be on hold for just a little longer.

The NPR story was about New Jersey’s former governor, Chris Christie, and his political career. Christie is a Republican I had hope for back in the Super Storm Sandy days, and have been dismayed as he has swung to more extreme right-wing views for obvious political reasons. Such views are what sell in our fear-laden society. But I got new insights into the pressures that cause such shifts in political positions and ambitions listening to the radio. (I apologize that I cannot cite the author who was being interviewed, but I believe it was on the “Fresh Air” program, January 25, 2016.)

The author described the great success Christie had early in his term as a Republican governor in a very Democratic state, and his skill at bi-partisan compromise, the very thing that is so sorely needed in government at every level these days. In particular Christie negotiated a deal with public employees that was designed to address the financial crisis in the state employees’ pension funds which had been created by government “borrowing” those funds for other purposes. As a public retiree in Ohio and a Social Security recipient, my ears perked up on that all too familiar and personal topic.

To oversimplify, the agreement was that the public employees agreed to take some cuts to their benefits from the state in exchange for Christie’s promise to put more money into the pension funds to stabilize them. It was lauded as a wonderful, pragmatic, bi-partisan solution that other states and federal governments should emulate. Combined with Christie’s exemplary leadership in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in the fall of 2012, his success in New Jersey launched him into the national spotlight as a potential Presidential candidate.

And that’s where personal ambition enters stage right (pun intended). The brilliant solution to the pension crisis was derailed. The public employees kept their end of the bargain, but in order to keep his Christie would have had to raise taxes. That of course is the kiss of death for any one hoping to succeed as a Presidential candidate in the increasingly conservative Republican Party. (Eisenhower, Lincoln, and even Reagan would not recognize the Grand Old Party they proudly represented, but that’s a topic for another day.)

You are probably wondering by now what this has to do with clean water for Flint, Michigan’s 100,000 predominantly black and poor citizens. (And Flint is just the most egregious example of this problem. A school system in Northeastern Ohio is closed today as I write this because of testing for lead in their water system.) These very serious health problems are just symptoms of a much larger crisis facing the American people. They are the tip of an iceberg of crumbling infrastructure that is being ignored while politicians fiddle. Instead of addressing failing bridges, highways, underground sewer and water lines, public transportation, and a host of other critical issues that would create jobs and put people back to work, politicians on both sides of the aisle are held hostage by an ideology that makes raising taxes so we can pay for essential public services an eighth deadly sin.

And in the process we are ignoring one of the real deadly sins, greed, or even promoting it as the private “free” market-driven solution to what are complex public problems. There is no free lunch. Like it or not, we need government to provide essential public services and structures that profit-driven companies cannot provide. And that’s why when asked about paying taxes, Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.” (Mark 12:17, Matthew 22:21) The answer is not to kill government but to reform it and make it work.

Bottom line, companies resent government regulation, but human greed and selfishness require it. Dostoevsky’s famous line from The Brothers Karamazov is applicable here, “If God does not exist all things are permitted.” The same is true without good government. A recent article in The Columbus Dispatch pointed out that the Ohio Department of Natural Resources was charged with developing regulations for the rapidly expanding fracking operations in Ohio in 2014. Nearly two years later they have created one minor regulation and are mired in political and bureaucratic wrangling over any significant attempt to address the potential health risks and dangers of this new technology. So do we throw the baby out with the bath because government is not working well? Or do we find a way to address the gridlock caused by political ambition, unfair gerrymandering of political districts, and fights over voter rights? I didn’t say it would be easy. Nothing worth doing ever is.

The truth is, we don’t have a choice. As appealing as it sounds, we cannot live without government. The streak of selfishness in human nature requires a structure of public responsibility and accountability. No human-created governmental system or structure has ever been or ever will be perfect. Anger and extremism are not the answer. Holding the responsible parties accountable for poisoning the water in Flint or creating earthquakes and contaminated ground water from fracking accountable should be done–but not just for retribution and punishment. The real reason for digging into such messes is not for revenge or political advantage, but to learn from our mistakes so we don’t make them again.

To play the blame game and demonize our political opponents simply makes the necessary work of bipartisan, collaborative communication more difficult once the much-too-long season of mud-slinging and character assassination is over. That’s why Benjamin Franklin said, “We must all hang together or we will certainly hang separately.” And it’s why Jesus said, to paraphrase, “I didn’t say you had to like it, but taxes are a necessary evil to maintain a workable society. So pay up and realize that to solve this country’s problems and the world’s is not going to be cheap. But ignoring them is not a viable option.”

“HEARING THE HEAVENS AND DOING THE WORD,” PS. 19:1-14

The heavens are telling the glory of God – without words – can you hear it?   Early morning bird song, gentle waves lapping at the sides of a canoe adrift on a lake at sunrise or sunset (if you aren’t a morning person!).    Most of us have felt the indescribable presence of God in nature at some time in our lives – as Robert Browning describes it in his famous poem, “Pippa’s Song:”

 “The year’s at the spring, and day’s at the morn,

Morning’s at seven; the hillside is dew-pearled;

The lark is on the wing; the snail’s on the thorn;

God’s in his heaven – all’s right with the world!”

We cherish such moments of communion with nature and the God who created it all – in part because it is extra-ordinary.  Such beauty transcends the mundane and ugly parts of life that are too much with us.  Partly because we don’t take time to seek out those special times and place, partly because it is increasingly hard to find such places in our hectic, crowded lives, polluted by noise and light and smog that tarnish our view of the heavens.  Yesterday’s Columbus Dispatch ran a story about air pollution being so bad in Beijing that they scored in the 700’s on a scale that is only supposed to go to 500!  A month after the Newtown massacre we know all too well that life is anything but peaceful and serene for far too many of God’s children.

Who was this Psalmist and what planet did he live on?  Would he or she have written such glowing idyllic words if he lived in the 21st century?  In our century of suicide bombers and devastation from storms caused by undeniable global warming and climate change?  What about the stagnant economy and congressional gridlock or senseless slaughter in Syria, starving kids in Darfur and Detroit?   The heavens may be telling the glory of God, but heaven is a long way from our troubled planet – and some skeptics say you can’t get there from here!!!

Given all that doom and gloom, even when we gaze at the vast expanse of the universe on a clear night and pray to our God in heaven, don’t we sometimes find ourselves feeling insignificant and lonely and asking what God’s done for us lately?

I know I do.  I can throw a great pity party – and then some friend on God’s behalf  reminds me that suffering is written large in every chapter of human history – from the crusades to the black  plague, from Roman imperialism to Nazi Germany and the Russian gulag, from the dark ages to modern day war lords, slavery and genocide.  And they also remind me that in every one of those generations a faithful remnant has heard and seen the cosmic goodness of God’s creation and refused to surrender to the forces of darkness.  Voices like Browning and our Psalmist have dared to affirm the goodness of creation and life, not because of turmoil and trouble, but in spite of it.  Luther, Augustine, Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Paul of tarsus, Jesus of Nazareth – just to name a few – too many voices of hope that have made too great an impact on the world to write them off as unrealistic optimists.

And that doesn’t even begin to address biblical history.  Like many parts of the Bible, we don’t know for sure who wrote this Psalm or when, but knowing what we know about the history of Israel, it doesn’t really matter.  To get a picture of Israel’s political and economic history – imagine a place like Ohio being an independent country and all of our neighbors – Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, even Canada and that state up north, all take turns overrunning the Buckeye state and taking over our government and economy.  At one point we Ohioans are driven by a famine to Kentucky in search for food, and end up being slaves there for several hundred years to the pharaoh of Lexington.   When we finally escape and cross the Ohio River again, other people have taken over our homeland, and we have to fight a bitter guerilla war to reclaim it.  A then a few centuries later Michigan invades Ohio and our leaders are carried off to exile in Ann. Arbor.

Pretty ugly, right?  Well that’s Israel’s history – Israel isn’t a great agricultural country – they don’t have lots of natural resources or wealth; but what they had, especially in Bible times was location, location, location.   Remember your geography and Israel’s location in that narrow strip of arable land along the Mediterranean coast.  It’s called the Fertile Crescent because everything for hundreds of miles to the west is desert.  So that narrow strip of land was the only trade route between the great political and economic super powers of the day.  The only safe way between Greece, Assyria, Babylon and Rome on the north and Egypt on the south went right through Israel; so everyone wanted to control it, and took turns doing so.  My point is that no matter when this 19th Psalm was written, it could not have been describing some utopian era when “all was right with the world” because no such time to this day has ever existed in Israeli history.  The Jews are fully acquainted with grief – to the point where Tevye in that great musical “Fiddler on the Roof” at one point asks God, “couldn’t you choose someone else once in awhile?”

And yet in this Psalm and throughout the calamities of slavery, exile, wars and rumors of wars, God’s people appreciate and witness to the glory of God.  They heard the heavens proclaiming the glory of God – do we?

Maybe the Hebrews were closer to the earth and creation than we are in our urbanized technological world, but that’s no excuse.  God is still speaking and the cosmos is as magnificent and awesome as ever if we take time to listen to its power and assurance.  As the epistle James (1:17) puts it, “Every generous act is from above, from God, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”   God and the universe don’t change, no matter how badly we humans mess things up – that’s the good news.

The temptation for some, even many of us, may be to withdraw into the beauty of nature and tune out the cacophony of human conflict.  When I hear the shouting matches going on in federal and local legislatures over fiscal reform or hear the litany of senseless violence and tragedy on the nightly news, I can see value in high tailing it to Walden Pond or a remote mountain somewhere and communing with nature forever.  But we know better.   It’s not enough to hear the heavens proclaim the glory of God; we are expected to put that heavenly assurance into action.  From Micah’s admonition to “do justice” (6:8) to James urging us to “be doers of God’s word, and not hearers only” (1:22), the biblical message is clear.  We need faith and hope and strength from God in any form we can get it – but it’s not there to hoard for a rainy day.  Love is only love if you give it away, or as James puts it even more forcefully later in this letter – “faith without works is dead” (2:26).

Talk can be cheap, and we know actions speak louder than words.  So what does doing God’s word look like for us as Jesus followers today?  To be doers of the word we need to surrender control and allow the ways of Christ to inform every decision we make–about vocations and vacations, how we spend our time and money, how we share our resources and care for mother earth.  And beyond acts of charity and kindness, to prayerfully examine how doers of God’s word can make positive contributions to public policies that shape and influence the lives of everyone in society, not just our own.

We could say, “I have health care and my family is taken care of, so let’s leave the system the way it is, it works for me!!!”   Or, “there’s enough money in social security to last my life time, global warming won’t get serious till after I’m gone; so let someone else worry about those complicated issues.”

No, what the heavens proclaim from our cosmic God requires bigger thinking and responsibility from us, and by the grace of God we are capable of bold, creative action, even if fair and equitable solutions to health care and other social justice issues seem currently impossible to achieve.

Yes, the heavens proclaim God’s glory, but we still know that all is not right with the world; and guess whose job it is to fix it?  When we think about the beauty of God’s creation, we need to remind ourselves that the Bible doesn’t begin with Genesis chapter 3, which is where Adam and Eve get booted out of the garden.  The Bible begins with Genesis, chapter 1 – where humans are created in the very image of God and entrusted to be God’s agents and stewards in the world.

Let’s be very clear that to be God’s agents and doers of the word is not advocating for some kind of works righteousness.  We aren’t called to be doers of God’s word to earn brownie points with God.  None of us can do enough good deeds to earn our salvation – that’s a gift of grace for those who repent and surrender to God’s word.  Faith produces good works, not vice versa.  People of faith can’t not do acts of justice and compassion, because once we truly hear the heavenly voice of God we know we are connected to each other – we are brothers and sisters in Christ, including those who don’t yet know we’re all kin.

Above the clamor and racket of modern life, the heavens are still telling the glory of God today.  Stop, look and listen for it – hear the power and the majesty – the power and the majesty beyond words, beyond human comprehension, beyond human suffering and injustice!

Stop, listen, hear the heavenly voices, and then go from the places of cosmic beauty renewed, refreshed and inspired to be doers of justice and compassion and hope for those who most need to hear what the heavens are proclaiming.