Romans 13:1

  What do Loyalists opposing the American Revolution, European Christians defending Nazi rule, conservative religious South Africans defending Apartheid and the Attorney General of the United States have in common? 

They have all cited Romans 13:1 as a justification for their actions.

It happens all the time. People use passages from the Bible to support their positions on abortion, immigration, LGBTQA persons, spousal abuse. Unfortunately those who do this betray their ignorance of the most important Biblical calls to act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with God and to love one another. 

Yes, Mr. Sessions used Romans 13:1 to justify the policy of separating children from their parents who have entered the country illegally, but only if you take the verse out of context.

Mr. Sessions apparently didn’t read the whole letter. 

For example, Paul writes in chapter 12 of Romans, “Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil, and hold on to what is good. Love each other like the members of your family. Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home. Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Instead, associate with people who have no status. Don’t think that you’re so smart. Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good. If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people. If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. By doing this, you will pile burning coals off fire upon his head. Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good.” (Romans 12 9-10, 13, 16) I would add that if we treat our enemies in this manner, we no longer have enemies.

So, what is Paul saying to the church in Rome about Christian living and civil authority? Chapter 13:1 though verse 7 is the second part of a two part exhortation on Paul’s part. The first section begins in Chapter 12:14 through verse 21, most of which is quoted above.

It is a given that civil authorities have been corrupt. But it is also the desire of God that there is civil order within the world. Christians are called to be among those who strive for that civil order. By acting out of compassion and love for others.

It is also mistaken to think Paul would have understood our contemporary concepts of separation of church and state. In fact, Jesus whole ministry was to announce the reign of God, a kingdom. Or, as a friend pointed out to me one time, it is not the Democratic Republic of God. It is the Kingdom of God. There are things we don’t get to vote on. Micah 6:8 for example. As well as John 15:12.

And so how do I, someone who claims Christ as the Savior of the world, respond to the current situation involving the policy of incarcerating entire families who illegally try to enter the country? First, I want to respect the authority that is vested in our elected officials. We have a process for making changes when they act out of their own self interests and not the welfare of the people. 

It’s called voting.

Second, I continue to pray for the welfare of our elected leaders, that they will govern with compassion, acting justly, loving tenderly and walking humbly with God. It is God’s desire that we all live in that manner. As Christians it is our obligation to do no less than that.

Whatever you do to these, the least of my brothers and sisters, you do to me. —Jesus of Nazareth.

Doing What We Can

This being an election week (I hope you all voted), I have been thinking about my time in college. I attended CSU Dominguez Hills. I graduated in 1973 with a double major, Political Science and Behavioral Science. I was in the third or fourth graduating class at that university. I grew up near there, in a little community called Dominguez, which is now a part of the city of Carson. Why I’ve been thinking about my college days in light of the recent elections are the similarities in some very divisive issues facing our country then and now. People were passionately divided on issues like the war in Viet Nam, and the Watergate Investigation in the 70’s much like the divisions over human sexuality, abortion, and patriotism today.

Like most college campuses we, too, held elections for student body officers. Two classmates of mine and I decided to form a political party that reflected our campus diversity. We called ourselves the “Doing What We Can” party. The goal was to engage in civil conversation about issues, recognizing that we could accomplish more together than we could by remaining apart. 

We went about the task of talking with the various campus groups to get their support. I was asked to talk with the leader of the Black Student Union.

When I met with him I wasn’t sure how he would respond. The BSU was quite active, but kept mostly to itself. I told him what we were trying to do and asked for his support. He looked at me and said, “All forms of prejudice break down in a one to one encounter.” That was it. And I never forgot that.

The BSU decided to support our efforts. The “Doing What We Can Party” swept the elections that year.

Fast forward to last Tuesday, election day. Our church was actually hosting a group of 20 bicyclists who were beginning their journey across America in an effort to raise awareness, and money, to end poverty and its resulting homelessness. They showered at Southwest High School, slept in our Olive Street Center, and enjoyed a Taco Cart dinner! Most of them had never had a really good taco until Tuesday dinner. The Taco Cart guy actually ran out of food!

I was saying my goodbyes for the evening and getting ready to head home when one of the riders, a black man from Atlanta, Georgia, came up to me and asked if he could have a word. He said, “We went to Calexico today, and I saw the fence. I’m from Atlanta and I never realized what that fence was like. Now I want to know what I can do to help you and your immigration ministry.”

All forms of prejudice break down in one to one encounters. 

We all have them. Prejudices. Some are necessary, and important. I have a prejudice toward being humane as opposed to inhuman, compassionate as opposed to judgmental. Inclusive as opposed to exclusive. And some, as you know, are divisive, hurtful and dehumanizing. Racism. Sexism. Misogyny.

If you take a good look at the Good Book you’ll find God has a prejudice toward helping the poor. God’s call to care for the poor is mentioned more times in the Bible than any other concern, over 2000 times. It’s called economic justice.

So, what does this have to do with the elections? Well, think about it. I heard a lot of hurtful things said by, and about, candidates. The discourse over our contentious issues is mostly demonizing, all sides claiming the high moral ground, condemning everyone else. And nothing is solved. Aren’t we better than that?

Jesus gave us one mandate, to love one another. It’s been 2000 years. Come on.

How to Drive a Boat

I taught high school when I was a young man. And in the summers I worked on a commercial fishing boat out of San Pedro. It was a purse seiner, eighty two feet long and 26 feet wide. It held one hundred twenty tons of fish. The boat was small compared to the tuna fleet that used to be based in San Diego. Those boats were huge in comparison. The boat I worked on was big enough for me. I was one of eleven crewmen. Purse seiners, as the name implies, fish using a net (sein is net in Italian). The net is gigantic, six hundred fathoms (a fathom is six feet) long and sixty fathoms deep. When we made a “set” we launched a small boat called a skif off of the back of the main boat and the main boat would encircle the school of fish. We would then connect the net and winch the attached cables that would close the bottom of the net much like a purse string. Hence the name purse seiner.

There were days we caught fish and days we didn’t. In either event we had to do the work of setting the net. We were a day boat, meaning we would go out mostly for the day, but sometimes we would stay out for several days or even a week.

On one such trip out to sea I was scheduled for my first turn at the wheel. I was pretty excited. When the captain gave me the wheel he simply said, “Keep her heading this way,” and pointed toward the open sea. I thought I was doing a pretty good job of doing just that, but after several minutes at the wheel the captain came up and said, “Let me have the wheel. You go aft and take a look. Come back and tell me what you see.”

I went aft and took a look. The wake I had created by my steering looked like I was a running back in a football game, zig zagging all over the place, trying to avoid tacklers. Zig zagging works really well in football, but not so well when driving a fishing boat.

I sheepishly went back to the wheel and told the captain what I saw, and how embarrassed I was.

The captain then explained how to drive a boat. “Pick a point way out there, and steer to that point. Don’t get caught up looking too much at what is right in front of the boat.” I took the wheel again and followed his instruction. After about a half hour the captain had me go look aft again, and I saw that my wake was straight and true.

Learning how to steer that boat became a valuable life lesson for me. We are told to live in the moment, and that is true. Each moment is all we have. We can’t get those moments back. But the question is what exactly are we living in each of those moments?

I believe we are living into a future. How we perceive the future gives direction to our present. When things had gotten really bad for the Israelites some twenty five hundred years ago a prophet named Jeremiah spoke to them about God’s plan for them. A plan for their welfare and not their demise. A plan for a future with hope. Their hope for the future was life-giving even in truly death dealing circumstances.

If we can keep our eyes fixed on a future filled with hope we will become people who are hopeful. And the world will change for the better. It won’t always be easy. 

But it will be worth it.

Jesus Loves the Little Children

(I am struggling with a new policy regarding families that are seeking refuge in the United States that are being separated from their children.)  

“Jesus loves the little children. All the children of the world. Red and Yellow, Black and White, they are precious in his sight; Jesus loves the little children of the world.” 

Many of us are quite familiar with these lyrics from the hymn composed by C. Herbert Woolston and George F. Root. Jesus was pretty clear about his love and concern for children. The Gospel of Matthew relates a couple of instances where Jesus puts children at the center of his thoughts about the Kingdom of God.

“People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.’ . . . And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.” (Matthew 10:13-14, 16)

And in another passage, “He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven’” (Matthew 18:2-4)

One of the true blessings being a pastor are the occasions when I baptize a child, and welcome her into the community of Jesus Christ. And on those occasions I remind the family as well as the congregation that we all have the responsibility to help raise that child so that she will know the love and compassion of Jesus.

We are the models of faith for our children. We are to be the nurturers of our children.

If that seems like a pretty big responsibility, it is. The problem is no one has given us the manual on how to do that. The thing I learned as a first time parent was, by the time I knew how to care for a two year old, that two year old had become five years old! Which is why, in many cultures, the task of raising the children is something the whole community is a part of. 

And so it is, it seems, with Jesus’ understanding of the role the faith community plays in raising children.

But Jesus also turns the tables on us by saying we must BE like children even as we welcome them, care for them, raise them. And so we ask what that means. What does it mean to be like a child? I’ve heard, and preached, many sermons on that topic. And like Oaccam’s Razor the simplest answer is usually correct.

A word about Oaccam’s Razor: The more accurate way of stating this principle is that entities should not be multiplied needlessly. That is to say, avoid adding information if the simpler explanation fits the observations. It is a process of pruning down information in order to more easily arrive at the truth.

There is a lot being written and spoken about children right now. Especially immigrant children. It’s a very emotional issue, one that most people have very clear feelings about. And also one in which there is a huge amount of disagreement. Information, accurate and not so accurate, is stacking up with no sensible solution in sight.

So, once again I turn to the model that helps me try to model what it means to be humane, to be human. Jesus Christ. He says be like a child. Children are vulnerable. They are trusting. They believe in miracles. 

And they are a lot closer to God’s kingdom than we seem to think.

E Pluribus Unum

One of the benefits of traveling outside of one’s comfort zone is the broadening of one’s thinking about the world and one’s place in it. I am reminded of that truth every time I am lucky enough to travel. On our recent vacation I was reminded again and again that, despite all we hear and read about that is wrong with the world, the world is still essentially a really good place, with really good and decent people simply trying to make their way in life. I think one of the gravest dangers we face today is the hyper-yet-hollow patriotism that is cloaked in the so-called Christian garment of self righteousness.

Take, for example, the phrase, “God bless America.” What exactly does it mean to say “God bless America?” Actually, the phrase is from a very famous song by that name. But, do you know the history of the song?

The original version was written by composer Irving Berlin during World War I, in 1918, and revised/updated in 1938, the eve of World War II. Kate Smith is credited with the most famous recording of the song, and it became her signature song.

Woodie Guthrie criticized the song and, in response, wrote “This Land is Your Land.” The Ku Klux Klan, a prominent anti-Semitic Christian sect rejected the song because it was written by a Jewish immigrant.

Irving Berlin gave his royalties from the song to the Boy Scout and Girl Scout organizations in New York City. The manuscripts of the song show that it evolved from the theme of victory to the theme of peace. The manuscripts are in the Library of Congress.

The song is in the form of a prayer. The little known opening lyrics begin with, “While the storm clouds gather far across the sea/ Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free/ Let us all be grateful for a land so fair, / As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer.”

The song was sung during the Civil Rights Movement and at labor rallies. Franklin Roosevelt claimed it as his campaign song. The Philadelphia Flyer hockey team had it sung often as a “good luck” charm during their Stanley Cup winning season of 1974. 

“God Bless America” is sung at all kinds of sporting events now, most notably it rose in use during the Vietnam Era, and as a response to 9/11. My Rotary Club sings it almost every Thursday at our luncheon meeting.

If we think of it as a prayer, the words take on a special meaning: 

“God, bless America, land that I love. Stand beside her, and guide her through the night with the light from above. From the mountains, to the prairies, to the oceans white with foam: God, bless America, my home sweet home. God bless America, my home sweet home.”

This coming Thursday is the National Day of Prayer. God Bless America just might be sung a lot on that day. We will be holding a prayer service that evening, at 6 p.m. in our Olive Street Center. Our National Day of Prayer service is an Interfaith Service, recognizing the strength of unity we Americans have because of our diversity. I believe that all Americans ought to be able to gather together to pray for our nation, the land that we love, our home sweet home. 

A home where a Jewish immigrant can write a song that is sung by millions of Christians, a song sung by Americans of all faiths. Or maybe no faith preference at all. And our prayer will hopefully rise up that day with the affirmation that our national motto, E Pluribus Unum really still means something. Especially now.

Out of many, one. 

Cinque Terre

IMG_2009.jpegIMG_1977.jpegRight now I’m on vacation with my wife. Italy. I call it our second second honeymoon. When we got married we agreed we would take a big vacation trip every five years. For the past year we have been planning and saving for this. Vacations can be a lot of things. Adventure. Discovery. Insight. Rest. I think a good vacation has all of those things. So far it’s been all of that and more for us. Especially our time in the Cinque Terre. Travel guide Rick Steve’s calls the Cinque Terre (CHINK-weh TAY-reh), “a remote chunk of the Italian Riviera, a traffic-free, lowbrow, underappreciated alternative to the French Riviera. There’s not a museum in sight—just sun, sea, sand (well, pebbles), wine, and pure, unadulterated Italy.”

We stayed in a place called Luna de Marza, high on the hill overlooking the village of Manarola, in a village called Valostra. The views were spectacular. It was quiet and peaceful. A great beginning to our second second honeymoon.

And I also learned something about the people of the Cinque Terre that gives me hope. 

You see, the first inhabitants of the Cinque Terre we’re looking for a place where they could live in peace, absent of the war and violence that existed a thousand years ago. The steep cliffs and rugged terrain protected them from invaders, pirates and bandits. 

The downside was the terrain made it really difficult to make a home. 

They realized it was through cooperation and sharing that they could make it there. This realization is what makes the Cinque Terre unique. You see, the Cinque Terre is a huge wine region in Italy. The vineyards grow on acres and acres of terraced land that stretches up the steep hillsides. 

The terraces are held in place by rock walls of dry stone, that is walls that have no grout. Consisting solely of rock and dirt, these walls provide irrigation not only for the individual farmer, but allow drainage to the other farms below as well as help create a biodiverse ecosystem. 

What makes this unique is the whole system of terraces was not built by slave labor, but by the cooperative effort of the people living there. A system that has lasted for a thousand years.

And, by the way, the wine is exceptional!

I’m talking about walls. Not the kind of walls that divide and exclude, but walls that give life. Walls not built out of fear, but walls that provided a way out from fear. Walls are not the problem. It’s how we use them that can be the problem. 

Two thousand years ago a teacher, a rabbi taught that when people place value in things people suffer. But when people put value in sharing and cooperation everyone benefits. He gave an important example of this when his disciples, thinking they were doing the proper thing, warned him to send the thousands that had gathered to hear him teach away so they could get food before it became dark and the markets closed. 

He said in response, “You feed them.” You feed them. They were stunned. How could they ever feed so many. They only had five loaves of bread and two fish between them. So the rabbi took what they had, blessed it, broke it and gave it back for them to share. And all were fed that day. And there were leftovers. But it turns out the world in general keeps saying “no” to the ways of this rabbi. Even many who claim to follow him. 

But, because of the people of Cinque Terre I have hope for the world. And because of the people of the Imperial Valley I have hope for the world.

 

The Power of Love

Twenty years ago I read A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. I was in seminary and taking an elective class titled Religion and Science in Dialog. It was a seminar format class, meaning there were twelve students and professor, and we spent the class discussing the various assigned readings from scientists and theologians. The class was rigorous. It was also exhilarating.

Stephen Hawking died this last week. He was 76 years old. He had ALS, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. His death reminded me of that seminary class I took in 1998, and the current debates about the role of science in our lives. There are Christians who want to debunk science. For some reason they think science is primarily a vehicle used to discount religion, especially Christianity. I can see where they might get that idea.

Hawking questioned the need for God. Initially supporting the theory of a “Big Bang” that brought the universe into existence, he later reversed his position to claim that the universe was a self contained entity that, like the Earth’s surface, has no edge or boundary, no beginning or end.

“The universe would not be created, not be destroyed; it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?”

His ultimate quest was to discover a theory for everything, a grand unification theory. Hawking referred to this discovery as knowing the mind of God. He never got to complete his work on this.

So maybe there is good reason to debunk science.

I’m just kidding.

One of the conclusions that came from my seminary class was that, more and more, scientists use a language of faith in their discourse while religious people use a language of science. That is, scientists speak theoretically while many religions folks speak factually. Yes, scientists speak in facts, but those facts lead to the realization that some things will always be just beyond facts. Hawking’s ironic theoretical reversal about the universe didn’t account for the eternal creativity taking place in the universe.

Isn’t that what creators do? They create. Of course if you believe in God as anthropomorphic (think old man with white beard sitting on a throne somewhere) you might miss the Biblical claim that God is Love. Love isn’t a noun, it’s a verb, an action. Creativity. Then it might make sense to say that knowing the mind of God is already available when we love.

Or as Stephen Hawking put it, “Science is not only a disciple of reason but, also, one of romance and passion.” Or, “While physics and mathematics may tell us how the universe began, they are not much use in predicting human behavior because there are far to many equations to solve. I’m no better at understanding what makes people tick, especially women.”

The other word that comes to mind in this conversation is mystery. What would life be like without mystery?

I’m grateful for mystery, for wonderment and questioning. Can you imagine what it would be like if everything was so set, so laid out that we knew the outcomes of everything? There are those who believe we are all predestined, that our lives are set. If that were true, why bother to look both ways before crossing a street? I’m grateful that I don’t have to have proof of God’s existence, or the resurrection of Jesus or that we will live forever.

Claiming proof of such things eliminates the need for faith. In my observation, claiming something to be absolutely true, to claim ownership of the absolute truth can lead to exclusivity, judgmentalism and hypocrisy. And the absence of doubt which can lead to faith.

So instead of trying to prove God’s existence I choose every day to celebrate God’s power of love.

 

 

April Fools’ Day

Sunday is April Fools’ Day. There are many theories on how this day came into being. Probably the most persuasive is that, in the 1500’s, the Western world switched from the Julian calendar to the current Gregorian calendar. New Years began on March 25th on the old Julian calendar. Since Holy Week fell during March, April 1st was celebrated as the new year. The Gregorian calendar marked the new year on January 1st. When the switch was made, the story goes, those who forgot or didn’t realize the change were called April fools. Eventually April 1st became a day to pull pranks on friends. Have you ever been sent to get some elbow grease or 50 feet of shoreline?

Sunday is Easter Sunday. The most important day on the Christian liturgical calendar. The celebration of Easter, the death and resurrection of Jesus is the heart of Christian faith. As a pastor I have been preparing for this day for months.

This year’s preparations have been especially exciting for me. Easter falls on April Fools’ Day!

The last time that happened I was in the sixth grade. 1959. It will happen again in 2029. It will happen one more time in this century. So this Sunday is it for me. My one chance to celebrate Easter AND April Fools’ Day.

I wrestled with the title of my sermon. “Fools for Christ’s Sake” was a front runner.

After all, The Apostle Paul once wrote that, “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified...For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” (1 Corinthians 1:18-19 and 2:1-2)

“For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” A message the wise deem “foolish.”

What was it about Jesus’ death by crucifixion that so stirred Paul? It helps to understand Paul’s faith in Christ by understanding what crucifixion meant in that First century in the Roman Empire. Romans believed there were five ages of humankind. They also believed they were living in the fifth and final age, and that it was their destiny to rule. Their motto was “Peace through Victory.” Which worked really well as long as you were Roman, but not so well if you were the other guy.

Maintaining peace meant having the most powerful army. It also meant those who challenged Roman authority had to suffer so badly it would serve as a deterrent to others. Crucifixion was beyond painful. It was dehumanizing. It was public. It was the worst way to die.

It was also a proclamation that Rome owned to most powerful weapon in the universe, the power over life.

So when Jesus proclaimed that the Kingdom of God had arrived it was only a matter of time before Rome would do away with him. Only a matter of time before Jesus would be crucified. Despite his message of inclusion, of love and forgiveness, of freedom for slavery to the false gods of power, money, fame, and violence.

Jesus entire life was a non violent resistance to the conventional thinking of the worldly wise. It still is. He spoke truth to power. The powers of the world spoke back. And executed him. But there was a third voice that had yet to speak.

And on the third day God spoke, and said, “Fooled ya!”

The Myth of Redemptive Violence

So, where are the voices of Christian pastors speaking out against gun violence? Do you know of any? If you do, great. If you don’t, why aren’t you asking the same question? I mean, how can a person say they are a follower of Jesus Christ and think violence is a good answer to anything? Yes, I know that there are violent people in the world. Yes, I know we need police forces to protect our citizens, and the military to protect us from those who wish to harm us. That is not what I’m talking about here. What I’m talking about is the fact that the only difference between the amount of gun violence in America and gun violence anywhere else within industrialized nations (which isn’t even close to the gun violence in America) is that we own exponentially more guns.

And since most Americans who identify a faith preference identify themselves as Christians I am puzzled that we seem to believe that the way to solve gun violence is to get more guns. How in the world did we get there?

Actually, the belief in violence as a means to redemption is a myth that has been around 5000 years. “What is this myth of redemptive violence?” you ask. It is the belief that violence is the only way to achieve peace and security. For example, the motto of the Roman Empire was Peace Through Victory. Which worked really well if you were Roman. Not so well if you were the ones conquered by the Romans.

The 20th Century has been called the bloodiest in human history. We had a War to End All Wars. Which was followed a mere 20 years later by World War II. As a nation we’ve been at war for the last decade and a half. And no end in sight.

Our answer to violence is more violence.

The myth goes like this. It’s the outline of every Popeye cartoon or every Western. The “bad guy” seems to be in control until a “good guy” kills him. (Except in Popeye’s case Bluto is never totally killed. He is always back in the next cartoon. And why doesn’t Popeye ever figure out that if he eats the spinach before he fights Bluto he will do much better!?)

Many Christians take that myth of redemptive violence and apply it to the death of Jesus, a violent death that redeems the world. Jesus takes on the punishment of sin we deserve in order to satisfy a just and judgmental God. Violence becomes redemptive.

It’s a myth.

On the other hand, what if Scripture is saying that 1) The sin we need to be freed from is idolatry; 2) Jesus practiced non-violent resistance as he confronted the powers of the world that depended on the idolatry of violence in order to reveal the lie; and 3) Did all of this deliberately, was never a victim, and in doing so launched a revolution in how we are supposed to live and act.

Then maybe his command to love one another, and to love even our enemy become the same command. After all, if we love our enemy, then we no longer have an enemy. Then maybe Christians would speak out against gun violence.

There are reasonable, effective ways guns can be owned in America that protect 2nd Amendment Rights. Most other industrialized countries do that. And they don’t even have a 2nd Amendment. Why can’t we even try to make changes? The NRA? Money? Lobbying? “Playing to the base?”

Our answer needs to be different this time.

Or, we can just keep on practicing the idolatry of guns and the myth of redemptive violence.

Faith and Fear

Every time your fear is invited up, every time you recognize it and smile at it,  your fear will lose some of its strength. —Thich Nhat Hahn 

Thich Nhat Hahn is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk. He now lives in the south of France at a retreat center, and is a well known peace activist, poet, and author. And while some would question why I, a Christian, would use a quote from a Buddhist in an blog about faith, I would answer, “Why not?”

Why would I want to close myself off from learning something from someone unlike me? What is to fear in that? I think we are diminished each time we fail in trying to understand those who are unlike us. Compassion is too often lacking in our human discourse.

Which is ironic given that every religion in the world has at it’s core the Golden Rule: Treat others as you want to be treated. You might call this the central faith statement of world religions.

Faith. How do you define faith? The letter to the Hebrews says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1)

Assurance. Hope. Conviction. Things not seen.

In the film and play Doubt the theme was faith. And one of the quotes in drama was, “The opposite of faith is not doubt. It is certainty.”

“What’s the problem with being certain?” you might ask. It might not be a problem, especially if it really means assurance or conviction, and is tempered with compassion. I have the assurance and conviction that Jesus Christ is Lord, the Son of God. My assurance and conviction is an act of faith. I can’t prove that Jesus rose from the dead. I believe he did, and that because of his death and resurrection the world is renewed, transformed. I live in the hope and joy and love and peace of Christ.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary.

The potential problem with certainty is its resulting arrogance. And judgment. And lack intolerance, especially for other explanations and beliefs. Certainty can create a loss of humility.

And fearfulness. Speaking of fearfulness.

18.7, 22.2, 17.0, 17.8, 17.8, 20, 18.2, 16, and 15.7 are my numbers for the last year. They represent my elevated white cell count, reminding me I have leukemia. A normal high end white cell count is about 10. But notice the last two counts. My doctors were amazed, and happy. They told me to, “Keep doing what you’re doing!”

I can’t prove this, but I know one of the most important things I’m doing is living faithfully as best I can. Faith in the prayers I am covered with. Faith in the future. Those first numbers led to feelings of fearfulness when I was first diagnosed. All of my hopes and dreams for the future were shaken.

As one of my friends put it, someone who is a cancer survivor, “After a while you get used to the possibility that death is near at hand.” Death is indeed near at hand.

I realized I had a choice, had been given a choice by God through my faith in Christ. I could give up. Or I could keep on living. So I decided to live my life. My new normal.

No, it doesn’t guarantee me anything. When Dr. Aribi said my numbers were really good, that they were going down, I said, “So I don’t have leukemia anymore?” “No, you still have leukemia.” (Darn.) And so I continue to choose to live life. As fully as I can. Faithfully. Knowing that reality, and recognizing it.

And now I just smile at it.

Postscript:

I had my annual physical last week and had another set of labs done. To my surprise my WBC was 11.5! That is only .7 above the high normal. My doctor told me my numbers are still high, of course, but are close enough to normal that I am functionally normal for now. Praise God, from whom all blessings flow!

Psalm 51

Have you heard the story of the Granddaughter, Mother and Grandmother cooking together? The Granddaughter was making a roast, a long time family recipe. She prepared the roast by first cutting off the ends of it, two perfectly good ends as she was taught by her mother. “Mom, why do we always cut off the ends of the roast?” Mom answered, “Why not ask your Grandmother. She’s the one who taught me.”

So the Granddaughter asked. Grandma answered, “Oh Granddaughter, I HAD to cut the ends of the roast off because the pan I used was too small for the whole roast!”

A newly released poll by the Barna Group asking Christians if they knew what liturgy was produced the following answers: About one third answered that they knew. And about one in five said they had no idea what liturgy was.

It seems that, along the way, some Christians have cut off the ends of the roast and don’t know why.

Why do I say that? Ash Wednesday was last week, the beginning of the Season of Lent. How many Christians do you know who practice Lent as their preparation for Easter? Did you know that Easter was celebrated over three days in the beginning of Christianity? The Latin for the celebration of Easter is Triduum, which simply means three days.

Many Christian congregations only celebrate Easter for one day. Easter Sunday. Traditionally Easter lasts for fifty days and ends on the Sunday of Pentecost.

My point is, I believe we need Lent more that ever right now.

We held a Service of Ashes on Ash Wednesday. One of the Scriptures we recited together was Psalm 51. It is a traditional Psalm for Lent. It says, in part, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”  We recited this Psalm fully aware that earlier in the day a nineteen year old, armed with an AR-15 assault rifle, murdered seventeen high school students and adults in South Florida. Seventeen families that have been assaulted. And now grieve, asking, “Why?”

But we are not even surprised. Perhaps rightly so. A study done by the Journal Health Affairs concluded that America is the most dangerous of wealthy nations for a child to be born into. The most dangerous to be born into. Gun violence in America is 49 times higher than other wealthy countries.

Those students who died on Ash Wednesday, indeed all of the children who have died from gun violence simply had the bad luck of being born in America. Oh, we’ll pray for the families, pray for the children. But prayer absent of action is meaningless. As the saying goes,”If you’re going to pray for potatoes, you’d better have a hoe in your hands.

Psalm 51 concludes with this verse, “Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. O Lord, open my lips and my mouth will declare your praise.”

We Christians need Lent. We need to keep the whole roast, not just the part that we’re used to. You see, Lent is about what it means to die with Christ so that we might be raised into new life in Christ. Lent reminds us that we don’t have to wait, had better not wait, until we actually die in order to experience the gift of life eternal that Jesus presents to us through his own death. Through Jesus’ death, at the hands of those who believed that violence and death were the ultimate powers in the world, God affirms the power of non-violence. The power of love, the power that holds all things together.

If we only truly believed that.

Deliver us from bloodshed, O God.

Talking Bible

We recently had our monthly Men’s Prayer Breakfast. There were some new men attending so I decided to have them all go around and introduce themselves and share their favorite Bible verse, or a favorite Bible story. That seemingly simple introduction led to a lively discussion about the Bible itself. The Bible. A word that means library. A collection of writings that span 1000 years of human history. The Rule of Faith for Christians. The Old Testament is actually the Hebrew Bible, and almost did not become part of the Christian Bible. The debate among Christians over what constituted Scripture lasted until the late 4th Century when Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria issued an Easter letter that named the 27 books of the New Testament.

Very few people owned a Bible until the invention of the printing press in the 15th Century. This new technology led to, among other things, the Protestant Reformation. Bibles were being printed in several languages by then, and in 1604 the work began on an English translation of the Bible that concluded in 1611. The King James Bible is probably the most popular Bible today.

Two 20th Century discoveries rocked the world of Biblical scholarship, the first, discovered in 1945, was a collection of early Gnostic Christian writings in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. The second, and better known, is a collection of Jewish writings we call the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in 1946/7 and 1956. Among the Nag Hammadi writings were several gospels that are not in the Bible, including the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of Jesus’ sayings.

There are no autographs of the Biblical writings. That is, there are no originals that we know of. There are only copies of the scriptural texts. The earliest full copy of the New Testament is in the British Library in London. It is called the Codex Sinaticus and is dated to around the middle of the 2nd Century.

By far most of the texts we know of are written in Greek. Which make some sense when we realize Alexander the Great conquered the entire region some three hundred years before the birth of Jesus. The Greco-Roman influence was everywhere.

The work of translation from this ancient language (it is not the Greek spoken today) as well as some texts written in Coptic and/or Hebrew is ongoing. In fact, the Nestle Aland Greek New Testament, the authority used to translate into English and other languages, is in its 28th revision. Which means Biblical scholars are still seeking the most accurate translation of the ancient texts. The 28th revision.

This is some of what I’ve learned as I have studied the Bible for over 50 years, including five years of advanced Biblical studies in seminary.

The reason I wanted to share all of this is my hope that some of you who might not have read a Bible for some time, and even for you who, like me, read it every day might engage the Bible again for the first time.

For me, reading the Bible is a practice of faith, and not of reinforcing certainty. The Bible challenges me, encourages me, leads me to question things about how I live my life, why some things matter and others do not.

The Bible is theology, a compound word that means words (logos) about God (theos). It has authority for those who have faith in it. It is not some kind of idol that we set on the coffee table and somehow worship. The Bible is the story of God, of God’s love for all creation, especially for the human family.

And that love is more powerful than even death.

The Work of Christmas

Christmas is almost over. Many people think is’t over on December 26th, but the Christian Tradition says Christmas lasts from December 25 to January 6. It’s where we get the idea for the Twelve Days of Christmas carol. Christmas did not become a major celebration in Christianity until the 4th Century. Easter has, and always be the primary Christian celebration. As the birth of Jesus became more important, the season of Advent/Christmas became part of the Christian calendar. I say Advent/Christmas because the season mirrors the Season of Lent/Easter in its design.

Lent is preparation for Easter and lasts 40 days. Easter is celebrated during Holy Week and the celebration Easter actually begins on Holy Thursday and lasts through Easter Sunday. The season of Easter then continues for 50 days and ends on Pentecost Sunday, the celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit.

Advent is the preparation for Christmas and lasts for four Sundays. Christmas is celebrated for twelve days and ends on January 6, Epiphany, and celebrates the arrival of the Magi.

The heart of Christianity is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and Christmas reflects that in the Scriptures used during the season. What I mean by the scriptures is the scriptures outlined for use in the Revised Common Lectionary, a three year cycle of Sunday readings that covers pretty much the whole Bible during that time.

The scriptures for Epiphany emphasize the arrival of the Magi. But it is the Sunday scriptures before Epiphany that bear reflection. The Gospel for both Sundays is Matthew, which is where we meet the Magi. On the Sunday before Epiphany the Magi have come, given their gifts of gold, Frankincense and Myrrh and gone home.

The week before we hear about what happens after the Magi leave. I know this sound sort of backwards, but that is how the lectionary is laid out.

Joseph and Mary are forced to leave their home in Bethlehem and flee to Egypt because King Herod is intent on killing Jesus.

Jesus and his parents become refugees.

When Herod dies they are able to come back to Israel, but cannot return to their home in Bethlehem. They travel north into the district of Galilee and settle in a town called Nazareth. This is a much different narrative than the one in Luke’s Gospel.

Check it out. Matthew 2:13-23.

“Why is this important?” you might ask. For some it may not be. For some it is enough to feel nostalgic about Christmas, a sentimentality that, as Rev. Gary W. Charles puts it, “bleeds over into the church’s theology as baby Jesus rides with Santa on the way to battle the Grinch.”

Advents themes: joy and hope, peace and love, confront the reality that the world we live in often isn’t joyful or hopeful or peaceful or loving in Matthew’s nativity.

Christmas is almost over for this year. For this new year many of us have made resolutions. I hope and pray that Christians everywhere will make a resolution worthy of the Christmas story.

Sure, we can pledge to lose weight or not watch so much TV.

But what if the people of God resolve to live out the promise of Christmas every day, their prayer being, “I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, because of all that the Lord has done for us.” (Isaiah 63:7a) And in our recounting we respond with grateful hearts by extending the gracious deeds of the Lord to all people.

Or as my friend Jim Strathdee put it years ago,

“When the song of the angels is stilled. When the star in the sky is gone. When the Kings and shepherds have found their way home, the work of Christmas has begun.”

The First Christmas

I have a Christmas quiz for you. Ready? Where did Jesus’ parents live before he was born? Where was Jesus born? How many wise men were there? Got it?

And the answers are—it depends on which Christmas story you are reading. There are two stories, one in Luke and one in Matthew. And they are different stories. In Luke Mary and Joseph live in Nazareth and go to Bethlehem for a census ordered by Augustus. In Matthew they live in Bethlehem. Jesus was born at home in the Matthew story, and born in a manger in the Lucan version.

We really don’t know how many wise men there were, but we know there were three gifts. And the wise men are only in the Matthew story. The shepherds and angels are in the Luke story. The star is in Matthew.

In Luke the main characters of the story include Augustus, Mary, angels and shepherds. In Matthew the main characters are Joseph, Herod, the wise men and the star.

Why am I bringing this up? I think it’s important. Very important. You see, we have homogenized these stories into one grand narrative of Jesus’ birth, which might be nice for children’s plays, but not so good when it comes to thinking about that first Christmas and what Luke and Matthew were saying about Jesus’ birth.

For Luke and Matthew it meant two different things that maybe aren’t so different after all.

Each story is a commentary on power. Political power. Augustus on the one hand and King Herod on the other. Did you know that the name Augustus means “one who is to be worshipped?” Some of his other titles were “King of kings,” “Savior” and “Son of God.” In Luke’s birth narrative those titles are given to Jesus.

In Matthew’s story the wise men ask King Herod where the King of the Jews is that has been born. Jesus is named as the real king, not Herod. Which is why Herod slaughtered innocent children in Bethlehem. To protect his power, a false power to be sure, but a perceived power nonetheless.

These Christmas narratives were subversive. They were counter cultural. They flew in the face of conventional wisdom. Isn’t that after all what God usually does? You know, turns things upside down. And isn’t that the point of Jesus life? To turn things upside down, to bring down those in power and lift up those who are the least and lowest?

If you don’t believe me, read Luke 1:46-56 and 1:68-79.

And the three gifts from the wise men? They weren’t your everyday Christmas presents. They foreshadowed Jesus’ kingship, divinity and death. A death that led to life for all.

In the midst of all of our Christmas preparations, all of our shopping and partying and spending time with family and friends it will be good to think about that first Christmas, what it meant then and what it can mean for us today.

In the four Sundays that lead to Christmas Day churches often use themes to talk about the meaning of Christmas. Hope. Peace. Joy. Love. Too often we are tempted to look back nostalgically at this time of year, longing for something, looking at our lives and our world and sighing, wondering what might be next. We long for a world where there really is hope and peace and joy and love. We look to a future when that might be.

Looking back nostalgically is memory experienced through disproportionate emotion. Faith is memory experienced through feelings of gratitude. Christmas is not about looking back. Jesus IS the hope and peace and joy and love.

The future is now. We just need to live that way.

Thanks. Giving.

I love Thanksgiving. Always have.  There are the memories of my family getting together, aunts and uncles, grandparents, and cousins. Adults at the "big table" and us kids around card tables in the living room. We'd make up and put on plays for the adults, sneak extra helpings of whipped cream for our pie and watch "The Wizard of Oz" for the umteenth time. Thanksgiving was the first time I drank coffee and had an "adult" conversation with one of my aunts. She was young and hip and I was in high school. I felt like a grown-up.

The other thing I love about Thanksgiving is that it is one of the least commercialized holidays of the year. Don't get me started on the over indulgent, over commercialized so-called Christmas Season. The season we Christians enter next week is Advent, and the Christmas season does't officially begin until December 24th and it ends on January 6th.

As I said, don't get me started.

Anyway, Thanksgiving is really about the food. A meal. That's it. People coming together, families and friends, to share a meal. At the heart of Christian faith (actually most religions) is a meal. Jesus, on the night before his death takes bread and wine and identifies himself with it. "This is my body," he said; "This is my blood."

He not only identifies himself with the bread and wine, he challenges his followers to do the same. "Whenever you do this in remembrance of me." We even refer to ourselves as the "Body of Christ," a body that is fully recognized, and realized in the breaking of bread.

Meals are important, obviously, but what might not be so obvious is the role of meals as acts of hospitality, of reconciliation, of forgiveness, of love.

I have come to understand those meanings as I have become the chief cook in our family. I do most of the cooking. Unlike most women, who have traditionally been expected to cook, I got into cooking, first because I was single and got tired of junk food, and, second, because as I began to learn about cooking I discovered it was therapeutic. I enjoy cooking. It's a creative and energizing experience for me. So I cook.

My most important discovery about cooking is the reality that, when I pass the food around the table, I'm passing myself. And when the food is received, I am being received. Anyone who cooks knows that. It's a very human thing. And in a world where there is so much inhumanity this becomes even more important.

I believe that is one of the beautifully mysterious things about Jesus and his identification with the bread and wine. For that insight I am forever grateful.

One last thought about Thanksgiving. This is the time of year when people are most mindful of those who go without. Lots of effort by lots of people is made at this time of year to feed the homeless and hungry. That's a good thing.

But the people who go hungry, and in our valley a third of the population is food insecure. Almost half of our children are food insecure.

Every day. Every month.

So, you know what I going to do? I’m going to the IV Food Bank website, ivfoodbank.org and make a donation. Not just for Thanksgiving. A monthly donation. Now my donation won't feed all the people who need food each month, but it will help. Imagine if everyone who had the means to do so made a monthly donation to the food bank. Giving thanks for all they have been given.

Imagine that.

Getting Out of the Fog

“Here I am moving from point A to point B to point C — in a fog. I turn to God and say, ‘How do I get to point D?’ But God gently replies, ‘Take my hand and I will lead you out of the fog.’ Then I get stubborn and say, ‘You didn’t answer my question!’” (Hugh Prather, Spiritual Notes to Myself)

It’s been a difficult week. In the midst of a difficult year. The hardest part is that people look to me for signs of hope. I’m like the man who went to visit a spiritual guide, and said, “I don’t know what to do with my life. Sometimes I wonder if it’s all worth the effort. I feel lost. I don’t know how to move forward.”

And the guide said, “The circus is in town and there is a clown who is a part of the show. This clown is so joyful and purposeful. He makes people feel good. He’s full of life. Why don’t you go visit the circus, see the clown in the show.”

And the man answered, “Sir, I am that clown.”

Isn’t that how it goes sometimes? Maybe for you too? We can get so involved in whatever it is we are doing that we get lost in a fog. Sometimes we are so intent on what we are looking for that we miss the thing we actually find.

So, what is a person to do? How can we stay grounded? Centered? How can we get out of the fog? I have become convinced that we are not capable of getting out of the fog on our own. We must be led out of the fog. By one who knows the way.

It’s ironic that some pastors, persons of faith, can become so lost. But it happens. I’ve seen it happen to colleagues who self destruct, burn out, become unfaithful. Perhaps you have seen this as well.

Back to my original question, “What is a person to do?”

All I can share here is what I do. I can’t speak for anyone else. What I offer may not make sense for you. That’s ok. You may not like my way, so it is important that you come up with your own way. I’d like to hear about how you stay grounded and centered. If you haven’t done that yet, then I humbly say I like my way better.

I stay centered in the belief that, apart from God, nothing exists. That the most powerful thing in the whole universe is NOT fear or hate or hopelessness or even death. The greatest power in the universe is love. And love never fails.

I also believe that life isn’t fair. But I also believe that all difficult things will pass. The power of love always finds a way to bring something life-giving out of even the most death-dealing of experiences. Always.

To sum up all of this is to say the worst thing that can happen is never the last thing that happens. Our scriptures say God is love. They also tell us that Good Friday was initially seen as the worst thing that could happen. But then there is Easter.

I believe the power of love is something we can choose to embrace. Love calls us to itself, but we need to answer. Some would say we must surrender to God’s love. This is counterintuitive for many of us, the notion that we give up our freedom to choose in order to experience the freedom of being fully alive. And we are led out of the fog.

Truth is, choosing is easy to do. It is also easy not to do. It’s your choice.

Reformation Day

(Note: This blog was originally posted on October 26th.) This Tuesday marks a very important event in the history of the world. No, I’m not talking about Halloween. On October 31, 1517, Rev. Martin Luther nailed 95 protests of practices of the Catholic Church to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.

This Tuesday marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.

As we commemorate this event it is important to acknowledge that this movement has given shape to the world we live in. “What do you mean by that?” you might ask. Here are some ways in which the Protestant Reformation changed Christianity and the world we live in.

While most of us are only vaguely familiar with the arguments Luther put forth in his theses, I think the concept of indulgences would be what we know best. To refresh, indulgences were payments made by a contrite Christian to a priest in order to be forgiven of particular sins. In other words, indulgences were believed to be a way of buying oneself into heaven.

But beyond that practice Luther was really raising questions about what it meant to be a Christian, what a Christian was supposed to do, how they were to live and function in the world. Why Christians believed what they believe. Questions that are still relevant today.

One way he answered the question became an important Protestant concept: The “Priesthood of all believers.” One’s relationship with God did not require a mediator. One’s relationship with God was personal.

Secondly and thirdly, Luther made the claims that a person obtained salvation through faith alone, and that scripture was the means by which an individual could know faith. These claims could only be made because of a new technology that had developed.

Movable type. The printing press.

In fact, one of the first publications the Gutenberg Press put out was the Bible. Which meant that for the first time people could actually read it for themselves. Which also meant people needed to become literate! Education became valuable.

Martin Luther translated the Bible into German, his common language. Others did the same for their people. All of this led to a new way of community interaction. The Lutheran understanding of Christian living, that each individual has responsibility for their salvation, each has accountability, led to the concept of democracy.

Democracy.

I think most of us would agree that democracy is a good thing. That being so, it follows that we ought to recognize there are dynamics created in democratic settings, and how they affect our relationships with one another, how they create conflict as well as cooperation.

Think about it. The Protestant Reformation did not produce a single theological or credal entity called Protestant Christianity. Today it is estimated there are over 45,000 different Protestant denominations. 45,000!  You see, once you realize you can think for yourself the process of interpretation takes a primary role. And don’t think that there aren’t differing interpretations within those 45,000 denominations.

This leads me to observe that there are two primary characteristics of Protestants. The first is our passion for God. The emphasis on a personal relationship with God. Most of us do that through our relationship with Jesus who taught and lived the example of personal relationship with God. Jesus. Emmanuel. God with us.

Personal. Intimate. Relational.

The second characteristic of Protestants is we argue about everything. And I mean everything. The Protestant Reformation was a bloody affair for decades. Different interpretations based on the desire to get it straight. And we still disagree even now.

But, though we may not think alike, can we not love alike? After all, isn’t that how Jesus summed up the Law and the Prophets? Love God, love your neighbor, love yourself.

Happy anniversary Protestants!

Lessons Learned From Geese

These past few weeks I have noticed a trend in the conversations I've had with friends and neighbors. A sense of despair hangs in the air as we talk about the hurricanes, fires, shootings, dysfunction in our nation's capitol, even the politics that have impacted the N.F.L. Speaking of football, I have this image of the late Vince Lombardi stalking the sideline in a game, yelling out to his team who apparently aren't doing very well, and shouting, "What the hell's going on out there!?"

It is indeed a time when many folks are asking that same question.

And yet. I'm reminded there have been times such as these in which the people of the Bible faced uncertainty, raising doubts about their faith and their future. Exile. Good Friday. Persecution. The story of Job.

And through it all another theme emerges. One of hope, assurance, courage. God never gives up on us. Even when we throughly mess things up. And God finds so many different ways to remind us how to be the people God intended us to be.

Even ways that don't seem that obvious, but are right in front of us. If we just take the time to think about them.

Take geese, for example. This time of year I love watching them make their way South. Instinctively. Faithfully. Have you ever thought about how geese travel? Dr. Robert McNeisch did. He was a science teacher in the Baltimore area. He was also a man of faith. He saw in geese a metaphor for human living, how God wanted us to live. Through good times and bad. How we might move from despair to hope. And he shared his thoughts in a sermon he gave at his church in 1972. Maybe you've heard this before, but like a lot of things we've heard before we sometimes need to be reminded of them once in a while.

This is what he shared.

Geese fly in a V formation, right? Well it turns out that by flapping their wings the leaders create an uplift for the followers, and their range of flight is extended by a whopping 71%. We were meant to work together, and working together makes things easier for all.

If one goose falls out of the formation they soon realize how much more work they are doing to get where they are going. And they join back in with the group. The sensibility of geese can teach us about the value of community. Even the Lone Ranger had a partner.

When the lead geese tire they move to the back so others can take their turn at lifting cup the group. Leadership is a shared activity. A shared responsibility.

If a goose is injured or wounded or shot down, two others follow their fellow member down and stay with them as protection until he or she either flies again or dies. Then they continue their journey with another flock or catch up with their own. You see, we're all in this life's journey together. No one should be left alone. Or left out.

Finally, the geese in the back of the formation constantly honk encouragement  so that the leaders up front maintain their speed. They honk encouragement. We need to make sure our honking is encouraging, not something else.

So there it is. Lessons we can learn from geese. Who knew?!

Well, now you know. And now it's up to you. Let's get out there and fly! Honk, honk!

 

Willpower

I cannot for the life of me remember the last time the news cycle did not have something about immigration, LGBT rights, health care, Planned Parenthood, Right to Life, or Freedom of Choice. I think a lot about such things. I have to. It doesn’t take much interaction with folks to realize these issues aren’t things that happen to “other people.” They hit home. Whether we like it or not, whether we have somehow lived under the impression we are immune from them.

Thirty years ago I wrote a song for a friend that was dealing with cancer. He was from Holland and called himself “an old Dutchman.” The song is called “The Dutchman,” and is styled after a sea chanty. It is influenced by a book by Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are. If you don’t know the book, get it.

It’s a wonderful story of a boy named Max, who was wild. His mom sends him to his room, but he leaves home and sails to the island where the wild things live. He becomes their King. But, eventually, he finds his way back home. It’s a children’s story, but I think it’s really a book about baptism, of the journey from death to life. My song is about overcoming one’s difficulties by facing them, living in faith, trusting in God’s never ending love and grace.

Little did I know that this song would have special meaning for me at this time in my life.

You never know when one of these flash-point issues hits home. And so I continue to think about and reflect upon them.

In doing so I am fully aware that not everyone agrees with my take on how to resolve any of these issues. Even within my own congregation. I remember when the shootings took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Personally I am in favor of better regulations when it comes to purchasing guns. But I had to think long and hard about how I would address my congregation about the event, knowing that many of my members were gun owners. Responsible, reasonable gun owners. It made no sense to lump the gun owners I know in with the killer at Sandy Hook.

Do you think health care is a right or a privilege? Is it fair that healthy people should help pay for the care of people who are sick? That is, after all, what insurance is. We do it for our homes and our cars, our businesses and families.

Good paying jobs? How do we find a balance between a fair wage and business profit? How about the rights of people who are not just like you? Not the same gender or sex or ethnicity or religion or political party?

What about someone who wants to come here to live the American dream of freedom and opportunity? Did you know almost half of the Fortune 500 companies in America were started by immigrants or by their offspring? Would you like it if the government prevented your family from living with you?

I told you I think a lot about these things!

And here is what else I think about. These questions are really asking whether you are a person who supports things that are lifegiving. Or death-dealing. We toss around phrases like right to life and freedom to choose without acknowledging that each and every one of us favors life AND freedom of choice. It just depends on what it is we are talking about. The problem is we don’t always agree. There’s the rub. I believe responsible, reasonable people can always solve whatever the issue is. Always.

We have the means. The real question is do you have the will?

 

Katrina and Harvey

I remember waiting anxiously for news of Hurricane Katrina. It was August 29, 2005. Hurricane Katrina was considered the first massive storm evidencing the possibility of climate change affects and weather. The real problem was it was advancing toward New Orleans, a city built below sea level and protected by a series of levees. We all know now that the levees failed. In the days and weeks after Katrina made landfall the world learned of its massive devastation. 1,833 deaths. A million people without power. 275,000 homes destroyed. Response services overwhelmed.

Like so many others around the country, I wanted to help. I talked with my church leaders and we decided to put out a call to our members to form a work team. We made contact with Trinity United Methodist Church in Gulfport, Mississippi who was doing their part to help with the recovery.

Gulfport is close to where the “eye” of the storm hit.

We put a team together and made arrangements to go to Gulfport and help out. Over the next two years we sent four work teams to the region. On our first trip we met, and learned about John Kelly.

John Kelly was a retired Army veteran and member of Trinity United Methodist Church in Gulfport. We learned that in the hours after the eye had passed through the area, John made his way to the church, along with several others, checking on families and friends. Many more people showed up wanting to get any kind of news. Several of the people shared they had food that was going to spoil without refrigeration, and didn’t know what to do.

John Kelly knew what to do. He knew the church had barbecues and charcoal. He organized the folks, got them to set up the barbecues and, for the next couple of weeks, provided hot food for the surrounding neighborhood. The church became a place where people could check up on one another, get news, and find support.

At one point a grocery chain semi truck pulled up at the church, asking if this was the place where food was being provided. John Kelly said it was. The driver of the truck said, “Well I’ve got a truck load of food, but no market to deliver it to.” The market had been destroyed by the hurricane.

One of my great memories of those work trips was the fact that those who took part came to me at some point during the trip and would say, “THIS is what church is all about!”

Indeed.

One other thing that hit home was the fact that the United Methodist Committee on Relief, or UMCOR has for decades been one of the first responders to tragedies all over the world. When the Red Cross left the Gulf region it was UMCOR that was tasked by FEMA with the long term recovery work. Tens of thousands of people were helped through the recovery of the Gulf region.

A week ago Hurricane Harvey made landfall at Rockport, Texas. We’ve all read or heard about the ongoing devastation, the deaths, the flooding, the displacement of thousands of people. We’ve also heard a lot of pleas for help. I’ve even gotten emails asking if I would turn in air miles or hotel miles to help out. Which I did.

But I also did something I believe will be even more effective in the long run. I made a monthly commitment to relief efforts through UMCOR. It was easy. I went to UMCOR.org and made my pledge.

The best part of this is 100% of what I give goes directly to relief efforts and NOT to administrative costs.

Every gift, and every prayer goes a long way to help those in need.