Earlier this year, the book “Blood Letters: The Untold Story of Lin Zhao, A Martyr in Mao’s China” written by Lian Xi was published (New York: Basic Books, 2018). I commend it to you. Lin Zhao’s story is that of a young woman who confronted with tyranny, regained a centering point by reexamining and recommitting to her Christian faith. She moved from being a dedicated member of the Communist Party, then experiencing the tyranny of Mao Zedong, to become a voice against totalitarianism. Awakened again to her Christian faith she rejected the deceits and brutality around her exhibited by authorities.
In seeking to find a life of integrity and truth amid the brutality and despotism, this remarkable woman drew on the Christian faith she had learned as a youth when educated in Methodist Schools. Her faith became the source of hope — and truth. She wrote letters and essays that circulated among the faithful outside of prison.
In prison, authorities took away her paper and pens. Lin Zhao continued to write. She wrote on torn pieces of bedding, using her own hair and blood from pricked fingers to compose her letters and reflections. Later, when she was given writing implements again, she often continued to write with her blood. Lin Zhao was martyred in 1968 for her beliefs. She is seen as the most famous of the martyrs of this time. Today, thousands in China continue to be inspired by her resistance to evil.
As intolerance, bigotry and suppression of descent rise in our world today, the witness of Lian Zhao becomes especially significant. As attacks on a free press surge threatening to overtake truth and decency, this singular voice is a gift to us all.
We are arriving at the Reign of Christ Sunday (Christ the King). It is the conclusion of the seasons known as Kingdomtide and Pentecost. 2018 is one of the unusual years when the Reign of Christ Sunday comes after Thanksgiving.
The scripture lesson is from John’s Gospel, the 18th chapter. The lesson tells of Jesus’ encounter with Pilate — the Roman Governor who questions Jesus and has yet to be answered verbally for two millenia. Pilate asks “What is truth?” Jesus is SILENT — He just stands there. He has already given the answer by how he has lived. Truth is discovered in right relationships rather more than in right answers.
Parker Palmer in To Know As We Are Known writes “In prayer I begin to realize that I not only know but am known.” Palmer says “Truth is in relationship… “The hallmark of a community of truth is in its claim that reality is a web of communal relationships, and we can know reality only by being in community with it.”
So the sermon tomorrow will focus on the mirrors of truth I have known over the years — those who included me in the conversation toward truth. [You can find it on the church’s webpage at http://www.fumcsd.org.] I will be speaking of Olive and Sidney Anderson. We knew them in Atlanta when in graduate school and teaching at Emory. They worshiped, as did we, at Trinity UMC in downtown Atlanta. Here is a part of the story that unfolded slowly as we knew them: Anderson, Sidney (An Disheng) (1889 ~ 1978) – Methodist Mission Bicentennial.
Their amazing lives – the lives of these two were mirrors into the Reign of Christ which came into view as we were blessed to know folks like these and call them friends.
Folks like Sid and Olive Anderson and the Bob Wilson, each in their own special way, leave behind a legacy that answers the question “What is truth?” They answer through their lives, each in his/her own unique way.
Yeats speaks of the truth of legacy-making through relationships in this poem.
Though leaves are many, the root is one;
Through all the lying days of my youth
I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun,
Now may I wither into the truth.
William Butler Yeats, The Coming of Wisdom With Time
Members and Friends of First United Methodist, San Diego,
We learned on national news of the terrible assault on members of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Immediately our thoughts turned to friends in the Jewish communities here in San Diego. I want us, as members of First United Methodist, to speak with a loud and clear voice against any such anti-Semitic acts of terror. In this time, we will stand with these our neighbors.
I ask you to join me in prayer. We will have special prayers in our services tomorrow and we will continue to raise a voice against such crimes in the days ahead. For nearly forty years our congregation has joined in an annual Thanksgiving worship with friends at Beth Israel of San Diego. Just this past week members of our staff met with Rabbis Michael Berk and Arlene Bernstein to plan for our service together on November 21st at Temple Beth Israel. Dr. Fanestil will be preaching at the service this year. Let’s show our solidarity with our neighbors by joining in this service.
First United Methodist Church will stand against such intolerance and violence. It is evidenced so frequently in our nation and world today. I want us to be such a voice for any group targeted for abuse or discrimination in our city. Especially now, however, we stand with these friends at Beth Israel and Jewish communities around the globe.
Week by week we gather at First United Methodist Church in San Diego. I learn more about this good congregation and the ministries they provide. The photo shown here is of the church shortly after it moved to the Mission Valley area over 50 years ago. At the time it moved to a place of dairy farms and orchards.
Today, it can truly be said this is a place that reflects the old hymn “Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life.”
This past Sunday we spoke of the importance of leaders who serve — HANDS OF THE STRONG. Little did I know when I chose this topic back in June that it would also be a week of indictments, guilty pleas, new disclosures of the abuses of Catholic clergy or the tragic misguided leadership at Willow Creek Church, the well-known and influential mega church in Illinois. Nor, did I know that this would be the weekend we would grieve the passing of Senator John McCain. In the sermon preached on 8/26 we spoke of leadership and remembered the remarkable life of integrity and humility lived by Senator McCain. It can be read here: HandsofStrong BLOG 8-26-18.
So, what of the future? The photo to the right was taken last week. It is image of the church taken from a department store parking lot across the busy I-8 freeway. Elaine, my spouse, is pictured here. As I consider our future and the leadership that will be required, my prayers go out to the people who will continue the great ministries of this congregation long into the future. As the United Methodist denomination seems to have lost its way — and is caught up internal controversy — in what Bishop Ken Carder has rightly described as “tacky” (with attribution to Will Campbell). It is places like San Diego FUMC — and hundreds of churhes across the nation — in the middle of the busyness all around that offer hope. Here the vision of a world beyond the corrupt present will endure. In such places.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Exploring, this time, lands me in the pulpit at First United Methodist Church in San Diego as Interim Pastor. I have preached in this great church in the past; however, this time is different. This time, I will have a weekly assignment. To show up, listen, learn, study and then seek to share truths about the transforming love of God.
This is not an easy task in any season. Yet, as I face the task now, it seems more challenging than any time in my 52 years of ministry. Attached is the sermon entitled “Simply Beginning” preached on August 12, 2018.
Prayers are appreciated for this fine congregation — and for the “weak reed” who will be giving his best in the year ahead.
New York Times reporter Julie Hirshfield Davis describes the detention centers for refugees in Texas border towns as being “a little like a prison and a little like a day care center.” (The Daily podcast 6/19/18). A little like a day care center? Really?
What nonsense. How can these holding tanks be benignly described as daycare facilities? Ms. Davis, however, should be cut some slack. She suffers from the same national cognitive dissonance disorder millions of us suffer. What we see, we think, can’t be real. We are facing the sinister riddle of who we have become as a society. We ponder over how it happened. Who are these people, mirrored back to us on television? Pogo was right — We have met the enemy and it is us! How did we arrive at this place? Is this me, my nation?
Let me help Ms. Davis — these are NOT daycare facilities. These are prisons — for children. Children sleep on the floor, have little choice in how to spend their days and are kept in floor-to-ceiling fenced cages. No matter the rosy stories told by the “care givers” this is a prison… this is incarceration. Families are torn apart because they feared for their lives and they sought a safe place where they might begin again and scratch out a living. Babies, toddlers, wee little children are being used as pawns. Can our cruelty deter others? Might we trade better treatment of these families for a political win — something about this likes a wall.
We didn’t arrive in this place overnight, or over an election cycle. We have come a long way from President Reagan’s first inaugural address describing the United States as a shining city on a hill. He spoke these inspiring words: “And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”
Sadly, what we have believed deep in our bones, that the United States was a place of refuge, of new opportunity, is being lost, sacrificed to political expediency. There has always been an uglier side to our identity. This broken reality of our humanity is now on full display in our treatment of the refugee.
Reagan’s soaring language was, sadly, tied to a “Southern Strategy” of thinly veiled racism and jokes about welfare queens. The uglier side of our nation’s story was also at work when George Herbert Walker Bush who understood the U.S. to be a moral leader, nevertheless was elected in part, by his appeal focus to television spots about Willie Horton, an ex-con who was said to have been released on society early and then committed fresh acts of violence. Be afraid… This became a potent symbol of racism designed to elicit fear, especially among white working class folks. But now we have fallen further — we have forgotten those fundamental values to which we aspire and now live under the sadly misguided focus on new enemies who offer us new fears. From every podium of the White House we are told, in one way are another, that we should “be afraid, be very afraid.”
How is this possible? What to do? I confess to being confused myself — almost confused enough to call a prison a daycare center — but not quite. What does it mean to be a citizen in these times? Prayers are essential, as are protests. This is not who we are as U.S. citizens. This is not who we are as people of faith. We cannot allow this to be the definitive word on how we treat “the stranger in our land.” The nation is not quietly accepting that children should be separated from mothers and fathers in a journey from terror without dissent.
There is an upside-down, inside-out quality to what is occurring. Let’s be clear — I have not been blind to the drift in our nation’s identity in recent years. People in cities, small towns and countryside across the U.S. have been struggling. Tens of thousands of manufacturing and mining operations have been closed over the past twenty years. Small farms continue to disappear. Investments in education have dwindled. Our nation has become better at hiring people to run prisons than building much-needed infrastructure. No wonder, then, that our imaginations turn to incarceration rather than welcome centers.
We have allowed false dichotomies, false economies, to be used as political theory and practice. This is a complex issue and the demagogues want us to believe that there are only two choices and one simple answer. Just a little thought about the situation on the border causes a rational person to say — how do we bring imagination to this? What other alternatives are there? What might be done in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras that can alleviate this? There must be dozens of ways to allow entry and do close monitoring of refugees that are less expensive than imprisoning mothers, fathers and children.
The stage was set for our foolish binary choices years ago. It did not begin in 2016. Many so-called “leaders” especially on the right, preached a narrative of “me first” and “fear the other” for years: us or them… either/or… my way or the highway. When one lives in a binary world regarding social interaction and possibilities, every choice is a false choice. Cable television and talk radio have laid out the predicate — a world was composed of distrust, soft prejudices, implicit and sometimes outright racism.
Meanwhile churches focused on entertainment and worried about numerical decline — they were too busy with this to speak on behalf of the immigrant or the poor among us. The tragic, sickening, self concern of Christian leaders, scurrying to “fix” our broken institutions, without stopping to consider the inevitable changes related to secularization and demographic shifts, meant that important voices on the behalf of the most vulnerable were silent or muted at best.
Years ago, Parker Palmer, anticipated our current state. It is almost as if he knew Attorney General Jeff Sessions was going to pull Romans 13 out of context last week and use it to justify the tragedy on our borders. Palmer wrote “traditional Christian language has been taken hostage by theological terrorists and has been tortured beyond recognition” (Parker Palmer, The Promise of Paradox, p. xxi).
A type of theological malpractice has found ascendancy in the rhetoric of our public life. When there are pictures of pastors endorsing and praying over the POTUS, who on the same day is implementing horrific policies, I want to shout out in protest: “there has been identity theft!” In this, Biblical Christianity has been traded in for a cheap imitation of the faith — something that may sell as comfort in the short-term but will bear little long-term fruit. Like the POTUS, these religious leaders are day-traders, seeking to ride the cultural swing of the moment. The life-giving, life-transforming language of restoration and reconciliation has been replaced with a distorted gospel giving license to exclusionary, selfish, violent and war-condoning ideologies.
Here is one way to recast what is occurring and offers some guidance as to how we proceed — every time some national official suggests that there are drug dealers, gang members, thieves or rapists coming across the border and this justifies the cruelty we see, we need to stop and shout “who do you think you are kidding? Where is your evidence?” Evidence is scant, almost nonexistent, you see. Good research shows that refugees contribute much more than they require of their new home. They are, like ALL PEOPLE, to be cherished more than feared. How we treat them and their children reflects how we ought to be treated… Yes, that is Biblical… and also the guidance of other faith traditions.
Is there no hope of redemption or restoration for those who might bring their own set of brokenness or troubles? We should and must screen those who would do us harm. The calculus, however, isn’t even close. There is enormously more potential for good than evil arriving at our portals. Do we have such limited imaginations that we will simply define everyone arriving, even children, as our enemy? When I see the young ones standing, crying as their mother side, as she is being taken away, I believe I see in that little one a future medical doctor, a chemist, a university president, a journalist, a teacher or a pastor — and, if we are lucky, that little one may one day be a friend to one of my grand children. That is what I see — that is what our nation must see.