Save Us From Our Plastic, Jesus

Save Us From Our Plastic, Jesus

Few movie scenes are more memorable than “Luke” Jackson singing Plastic Jesus while sitting as a convict in a Florida prison.   Cool Hand Luke, starring Paul Newman, was a 1967 classic, a favorite, a parable about corruption and the abuse of power.  It was the story of a poor man convicted of a minor crime and sentenced to two years in a prison work camp.

Luke is shown singing the song Plastic Jesus after finding out about the death of his mother.  It is a forlorn, haunting portrayal.  You can see this scene here.  Perhaps you already know the song, or the first lines at least: 

I don’t care if it rains or freezes; Long as I’ve got my plastic Jesus; Sitting on the dashboard of my car; Comes in colors pink and pleasant; Glows in the dark cause it’s iridescent; Take it with you … when you travel far.

The song was a parody, written a few years before the movie.  It is a spoof, an over-the-top critique, of a “Christian” radio station in Del Rio, Texas in those years that sold prayer handkerchiefs and other phony spiritual artifacts.  One could purchase “actual splinters from the cross of Jesus.”  Yes, there were dashboard figures for sale — ones that glowed in the dark — representations of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.  This “border busting” high wattage radio station, when not selling religious wares, featured a disc jockey known as Wolf Man Jack.  To learn more about the song Plastic Jesus and its evolution, click here.

Without doubt, the most memorable and repeated line from the movie Cool Hand Luke is “What we got here is a failure to communicate.”  It is spoken by the warden and one other in the film.  For those who haven’t seen the movie, I won’t spoil this by offering more information now.

The idea of a “failure to communicate” and “Plastic Jesus” came to mind this month when I read that on June 7th, several United Methodist conference representative are planning to pass out plastic water bottles in downtown Indianapolis — as a Christian witness.  Help!  Talk about a failure to communicate.  Save us from our plastic, Jesus!

These plastic bottles are to be “relabeled with a message of hope.” Hope?  It seems what was intended was a symbolic action referring to the giving of a cup of cold water mentioned in Matthew 10 or Mark 9.  Unfortunately, for many, this is more an act of pollution.  Please check out this brief You Tube on Plastic pollution.

Should the church encourage such blight on creation? I know, I know, it may only be a small number of bottles — 500 or 1,000 and this is only a tiny part of the more than 35 billion water bottles used and discarded in the U.S. every hear.  What witness are we to give to such a danger to us, our children, and all our relatives?

Most bottles are used once for perhaps ten or fifteen minutes and then tossed away.  (There are health dangers from repeated reuse.)  Most plastic bottles don’t fully degrade for 700 to 1,000 years.  Ten percent of plastic bottles end up in our oceans and waterways killing millions of animals annually and over 2/3rd of our fish now test positively for plastics in their blood streams!  We eat the fish… and so on. 

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I write this as a small plea, a tiny protest to those who think it is a witness to pass out plastic water bottles in the name of Jesus.  Is it too late to reconsider? To repent?  To offer a more positive witness?  Think of the greater witness that could be made if there was an act of repentance, a public turning around.  A call to the local newspapers could generate quite a story of faithfulness, of Christians who care enough to change. 

This would be a real sharing of Gospel news, that actual cups of cold water are given and not polluting plastic bottles that will despoil our environment and diminish the health of our planet and our children’s children. 

Sometimes what is meant for good instead communicates an opposite message.  These folks who plan to give out plastic bottles are good people and their message is well-intended.  Sadly it is at the same time a misguided effort.  One can’t blame these good folks entirely.  The Indiana Annual Conference has avoided taking a clear stand on the importance of caring for God’s creation.  In fact for years there has been an effort to avoid working together on critical justice issues.

Last year, in June 2017, a simple legislative proposal that each congregation study a document calling for “Environmental Holiness,” for the care of creation was put on hold.  Some thought it was “too political.”  Others, among them some Conference leaders, thought it would take too much extra work.  So it was decided that consideration should be delayed. 

This year, June 2018, we have plastic bottles offered as our witness.  I know that good folks haven’t thought very clearly about how we care for God’s good creation.  What we have here is a failure to communicate… Unless we repent and believe.  So we pray — Save us from our plastic, Jesus.

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From the United Methodist Bishop’s pastoral letter entitled God’s Renewed Creation: Call to Hope and Action, 2009.

The Council of Bishops made the following pledges: “With God’s help and with you as our witnesses—

  1. We as your bishops pledge to answer God’s call to deepen our spiritual consciousness as just stewards of creation.
  2. We pledge to make God’s vision of renewal our goal.
  3. We pledge to practice dialogue with those whose life experience differs dramatically from our own, and we pledge to practice prayerful self-examination.
  4. We pledge ourselves to make common cause with religious leaders and people of goodwill worldwide who share these concerns.
  5. We pledge to advocate for justice and peace in the halls of power in our respective nations and international organizations.
  6. We pledge to measure the “carbon footprint” of our episcopal and denominational offices, determine how to reduce it, and implement those changes. We will urge our congregations, schools, and settings of ministry to do the same.
  7. We pledge to provide, to the best of our ability, the resources needed by our conferences to reduce dramatically our collective exploitation of the planet, peoples, and communities, including technical assistance with buildings and programs, education and training, and young people’s and online networking resources.
  8. We pledge to practice hope as we engage and continue supporting the many transforming ministries of our denomination.
  9. We pledge more effective use of the church and community Web pages to inspire and to share what we learn.

            From God’s Renewed Creation: Call to Hope and Action, 2009.

Reclaiming Jesus

Reclaiming Jesus

When the history of the church in the U.S. in the early twenty-first century is written, there will be a question as to exactly who the one known as Jesus of Galilee was understood to be.  There will be questions as to whether what he taught made any difference in the way folks lived their lives today.

My prayer, my hope, is that the history will include the sermon that Bishop Michael Curry preached at the wedding of Britain’s Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.  Bishop Curry’s powerful message captured much of the teachings of the Jesus long ago.  It was a vision that is far from much of what passes for Christian teaching in too many American churches. 

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Bishop Michael Curry, Reuters photo

While the wedding sermon for Prince Harry and Meghan Merkle was heard by perhaps two billion people around the world, Bishop Curry joined hundreds of other religious leaders in the United States only four days later in an even more important event focused on “Reclaiming Jesus.” 

They marched on the White House and proclaimed that the ‘America First’ slogan adopted by national leaders in the U.S.  is “a theological heresy for the followers of Christ.” [See: Reclaiming Jesus in a Time of Crises]

It is the sermon Bishop Curry preached at National City Church in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday evening that deserves even more attention.  Cur5b0830e51a0000cd04cdfc71.jpegry said we are called to: “Love the neighbor you like and the neighbor you don’t like. Love the neighbor you agree with and the neighbor you don’t agree with. Love your Democrat neighbor, your Republican neighbor, your black neighbor, your white neighbor, your Anglo neighbor, your Latino neighbor and your LGBTQ neighbor. Love your neighbor! That’s why we’re here!”

Yes, that is indeed why we are here.  When the story of the church in this century is written, I pray it will be of the church that decided to Reclaim Jesus.

 

Whitsun Walks

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Whitsun Bride, Pieter Brueghel the Younger

Whitsun Walks

Yesterday, I walked from meeting to meeting.  I had lunch with a Pentecostal minister; confided with a United Methodist pastor; participated in a planning meeting with a Baptist, a Jew, and a Buddhist; and completed the day conversing with a Roman Catholic layman.  It seemed right, this visiting with such a diverse group of folks.  My meetings were a “getting ready”… ready to move, to be led by the Spirit to new places of discovery.

Today we have arrived at the eve of Whitsunday (Pentecost Sunday), a celebration Christians call a moveable feast.  (Whitsunday is celebrated on the seventh Sunday following Easter.  Since the date of Easter changes from year to year so does the date of Whitsunday.)   I consider Pentecost a moveable feast for another reason – it is our call to new places, new understanding, new language.  Whitsun Walks occur in communities across the world, especially in Europe.  These walks, or parades, traditionally take place on almost any day in the week following Whitsunday — but Friday is a favorite.  The Whitsun Walks typically end with a community-wide party.  You see, Whitsuntide festival is a time of new beginnings — marriages are often are scheduled, crops are typically in the ground and graduation ceremonies abound.  Folks are in motion. 

Across Europe there are still vestiges of these Whitsun Walks in Italian, British and German towns.  Sadly, as commercialism, and its inevitable secular shadow, reach across these cultures, Whitsun Walks have diminished and in many places have disappeared.   In Great Britain, such festivities have largely been replaced by a fixed day, appropriately and ironically known as Bank Holiday, which is set on the last Monday in May.

Might we reclaim the week ahead (and the year ahead) as a time of Whitsun Walks?  Our world needs to remember the gifts of the Spirit set in motion at Pentecost.  We need a time to look around, all around, and see the gifts in the smiles of friends, to laugh, to hear the aria of the nightingale and thrush at dusk, to revel in the rich tapestry of music, language, art and to grow with the insights from multiple spiritual sources.

It was heart-breaking this past week, the week before Pentecost, to see the images in the Holy Land.  The celebration of the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem this week is a picture that is the very opposite, a reverse image, of the stories we read of the first Pentecost.  This week, folks of wealth and privilege gathered to congratulate one another on the opening of the new embassy in Jerusalem.  Only a few miles away, others who differ in culture, physical appearance and faith commitments were protesting.  There were more than fifty deaths and hundreds of injuries while the elites in power were giving one another high-fives. 

Both groups — those protesting in Gaza and those celebrating in Jerusalem are imprisoned.  Those in Gaza are trapped by unemployment and horrible living conditions.  They are trapped by a history many of their leaders helped create over decades of failed negotiations, broken promises and the heartless oppression from Israeli practices.  They are trapped by an inability to move past the physical and ideological fences and barriers that prevent migration to a place of greater security and opportunity.

Those who were celebrating the new embassy are trapped by arrogance and bigotry, horrible theologies and a foolish trust in economic and military power.  Some of this bigotry not only condemns all others to hell, now and in the future, but serves to daily undercut, ever more deeply, the prospect for a lasting peace.  This trap has become a never-ending cycle of fear, violence and retaliation, followed by new fears. 

Whereas the folks at the first Pentecost were able to communicate across divisions that separated peoples in the ancient world, the celebrants at the embassy opening seem to have lost any common language that speaks of hope, vision or the true source of human power.

It is amazing to see “Evangelical” pastors baptizing this embassy with their prayers and simultaneously condemning the rioters only a few miles away — persons they do not know.  Do they not know, for example, that there are tens of thousands of the Christian Palestinians in the Holy Land and there are hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Christians in diaspora? (See Richard Mouw’s To My Fellow Evangelicals, Richard Mouw.)

So we pray for peace; but we must also walk.  I do not oppose an embassy in Jerusalem — but at what price?   The decades of promises of a two state solution, of Jerusalem also being an international city, a capital city for both Jews and Palestinians, may have been permanently erased as a possibility.  We not only pray — we must walk — keep moving — keep learning from and about others.

If there was any movement in Jerusalem this week it was in the wrong direction.  Tomorrow across the world, Christians will read from the second chapter of Acts, the story that recounts how persons from diverse backgrounds were drawn forward by the Spirit into a new community.  These early followers of Jesus were known as People of the Way.  Too many of us today have become People of the Fence, or People of my Same-Ole-Stuck Place

It is a challenge for we humans, who have adapted to the power of fear, to act out of love for the stranger.  The early Jesus followers certainly had reason to hide, to protect themselves, to cluster in ever smaller worlds of kinship.  However, the hope of the Resurrection or the power loosed at Pentecost required risk.  Even when there is not clear path ahead, we walk — by faith more than sight.

 

 

 

Pentecost Lost… and found

Pentecost Lost… and found

Light the candles, sing the songs, cut the cake, burst the piñata — it’s a birthday.  Laugh, dance, tease, shout out “Many Happy Returns!!”  WAIT A MINUTE… Which Birthday is it?  PENTECOST?  Where?  What if the gifts of Pentecost go missing this year?  Shouldn’t we send out a missing feast day alert?

Pentecost is said to be the birthday of the church.  Why celebrate the Spirit first unleashed two millenia ago?  Should I wear red on Pentecost Sunday, May 20, 2018 as in other years?  Perhaps not.  Scanning the international, national and ecclesial horizon, there is little evidence such celebration is in order or that Pentecost will have much of a season in our world today.  Pentecost has gone missing.

The Pentecost Season in the church is to last several months.  It is when we read some of the greatest chapters in Christian scripture —  Acts 2, Ezekiel 37, Romans 8, Psalm 104, Galatians 3.  And, the most reiterated word (and theme) in these passages? It is “ALL,” as in “EVERYONE,” “EACH TOGETHER.” 

Here is the core identity of church, the basic DNA of God’s people.  In these texts it is made clear — God includes all persons.  Further, we are to love and protect ALL of creation.  Francis of Assisi had it right — we indeed are relatives to brother sun and sister moon.  Pentecost is about including, renewing, accepting, out-reaching.  It is about creating community and not simply talking about community. In Pentecost we learn the meaning of neighboring with God and with one another.

Romans 8 speaks of all creation groaning in B+Pentecost+Acts+02_17+No+2new birth.  The work of the Spirit is about new life, addition to our social fabric and our communities of friends.  It is not an excluding or dividing.  Rather, Pentecost passages include, extend, restore.  Like the dry bones in Ezekiel, this is a focus on that which has been separated or torn asunder being made whole.  God’s heart in any Pentecost celebration is about inclusion. 

If the word “All” were to be left out of these passages, they turn to gibberish.  Or, if words like “everyone,” “each,” or “every nation,” “every tongue” or “all flesh” were to be omitted, Pentecost vanishes.  No need for celebration, no call for many happy returns — Pentecost would drift away, vaporize, disappear.circle-312343_960_720

At a national level, in the U.S. today, Pentecost may have gone missing.  The preachers who affirm the mean and divisive ways of this president, have missed the story and meaning of Pentecost for our world.  Instead of a Pentecost vision we are offered border walls, white nationalist rhetoric, the separating of children from undocumented parents, thinly veiled racism that smoothly falls from the lips of national leaders.  Pentecost seems hidden by ugly bigotries.  On so many fronts the vision of Pentecost seems erased. 

Racism and Patriarchy continue to plague our nation and blind us to the story of Pentecost.  We are still discovering the enormity of these curses on our national psyche and our people.  Racism and sexism is baked into all we do and who we are as a nation — it masks any signs of Pentecost among us. 

Take for example the tragedy of the maternal and infant mortality rates in the United States.  These percentages are growing and are almost exclusively due to the increased percentage of deaths among African-American mothers and their children.  “We are the only developed country the [mortality] rate is going up.” (https://www.nytimes.com/podcasts/the-daily.  The Daily, New York Times podcast, May 11,2018).

Our “infant mortality rate is high…  It is 32nd out of the 35 most developed countries… A black woman is 2 to 3 times more likely to die in child-birth than a white woman and a black baby 2.2 times more likely to die than a white baby… This racial disparity is larger now than it was in 1850!” (Listen to “A Life-or-Death Crises for Black Mothers” on The Daily podcast, May 11, 2018 at https://www.nytimes.com/podcasts/the-daily).   

Today there is now overwhelming research that demonstrates this disparity in mortality is grounded in the racism of our institutions and cultural life in the United States.  Such disparity does not exist to this extent in other countries.  One of the most astonishing discoveries has been named the “weathering” of African-American women.  (Again, Listen to “A Life-or-Death Crises for Black Mothers” on The Daily podcast, May 11, 2018.) Weathering is language that speaks of the results of chronic toxic stress on African-American women.  This is the impact of racism on the body of women facing day-in and day-out challenges and diminishment in this society due to their racial identity.  Put simply, our racism damages the bodies of our sisters.

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Or take, for example, the patriarchy that still distorts the church from genuine expressions of the gospel — from the meaning of Pentecost.  Southern Baptist leader Paige Patterson has finally apologized from insensitive and dangerous remarks about women needing to stay in homes where they are being physically abused so that “they might be a witness” to abusive husbands.  Patterson only recently also acknowledged that some sermon illustrations about young women were “hurtful.”  It is tragic.  Still this denomination and many others exclude women in leadership in multiple ways.

In my own denomination, United Methodism, we live under our own distortions of Pentecost.  Jeremy Smith has argued that “the Gay Panic” has also harmed women and equality throughout the denomination.  In his most recent posting Smith outlines the ways the United Methodist Church is damaged by an inability to welcome all people. (Gay Panic Harms Women and Equality, Jeremy Smith, May 11, 2018.)

In a stunning, dispiriting outcome this past week, United Methodists learned that a constitutional amendment stating that woman and girls were to be equals in the church, narrowly failed to receive the two-thirds vote from the world-wide denomination necessary for its approval.  A re-vote is scheduled due to some mistakes in the original stated language of the amendment.  Still, no matter.  Damage done.  Patriarchy clearly asserted, riding the coattails of Gay Panic in the church.  Where is Pentecost in this?

Still I confess to being a prisoner of hope.  Just when I believe Pentecost has been lost or gone into permanent hiding, there are experiences that renew and restore.

As in so many other places in my life, I have discovered that I was looking for Pentecost in all the wrong places.  Our nation and our churches seem to be drifting away from the SPIRIT BEING A GIFT TO EVERYONE.  Still there are Pentecost tracks and genuine sightings all around.  Last Sunday I saw evidences of Pentecost at St. Paul United Church of Christ in Chicago.  And, I know that such signs are bubbling up in churches like Broadway United Methodist in Indianapolis and St. Marks United Methodist in Bloomington Indiana (where I worship).  I see it there — almost weekly.  There it is — the Spirit given to ALL.

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Then today, I caught what will be an enduring glimpse of Pentecost for me.  It was the dedication of two Habitat for Humanity Houses in my town.  Two homes — one for Colleen and her daughter Juliana;  another for Rachel.  Two houses — built by women and for women.  There were women crew chiefs and three-hundred-and-forty (340) local women working on these builds!  These women raised the money, hammered the nails, put on the roof, painted the walls and finished these homes.  They completed two homes in two weeks (take that Paige Patterson)! 

I watched as the crew leaders passed the keys along a line of celebration — each one a contributor — and then to the new owners.  I watched Colleen and Juliana accepted the keys to their home.  They have worked hard to get to this point — their own homes, their own mortgages — after years of living it difficult, counter productive situations. 

Then keys were passed to Rachel.  When I heard Rachel say “I have worked hard but you women have taught me more than building, you have taught that we need each other.  Hey, this is MY House but your love is in every board,” I caught a glimpse of Pentecost.  It has been in hiding for me, but I might see it more clearly yet.  I may even wear red on May 20, Pentecost Sunday!