Sunday School and Poker

Sunday School and Poker

Recently I visited an adult Sunday School class in a nearby town. It was, well – unusual, surprising, and helpful to my understanding of some of our current culutural divides. In this class leadership is shared among the members.  Folks volunteer and can schedule their time as “teacher.” Greet Idea with lots of benefits.  You can learn about musical instruments, Buddhism, jogging, or one of the Biblical Prophets.  The class is filled with thoughtful and faithful people. It is in my mind one good model of excellence in congregational life.  It is a place of sharing and care.  One quickly can tell that there is much mutual affection in the group as there is an abundance of teasing and laughter. As John Wesley put it, there is a generous dollop of “watching over one another in love” stirred into the weekly fellowship. All to the good.

It is also a place where the divisions and distortions of our current political situation are offered. Among the many points of view, the many topics covered, sometimes a heavy dose of MAGA partisanship is brought to the lectern by the volunteer teacher.  I visited one Sunday morning when the Gospel-linked understandings of faith got more than a little garbled by Fox News “truths.”

That’s okay, good even.  I knew that there would be open conversation and a range of perspectives in this class.  Here is an opportunity for dialogue and the gentle corrections possible through friendship.  I have often thought that Sunday School classes and post-church-parking-lot-conversations serve as a seedbed for improved democracy.  I saw some of that in the class that day. I also witnessed the ways strongly held beliefs or ideological frameworks can disfigure the core message of Jesus of Nazareth.

I knew that members of the Sunday School class cared for this good man, filled with worrisome opinions and muddled prejudices. They knew of his real-life challenges. They were neighbors to one another. They offered each a place of respect. We all face challenges, whether betrayal, addiction, loss of health or loss of a spouse. We all know the dilemmas of fractures with friends or family. We all face loss of health or opportunity.

The volunteer teacher that morning proclaimed that from his studies, there was no guarantee the scriptures were the authoritative word of God, or that Jesus ever told the Good Samaritan story.  He then offered that the best framework for life is found in a poker game. “Each person at the table is dealt a hand at birth; that is the hand we play in life.” The cards one is dealt limit options, but he said this “will also offer some opportunities. The idea is to play the hand you are dealt as best you can when sitting at the poker-table-of-life.  Trying to help people can only hurt them if they haven’t been dealt the right cards.”

Wow!! Quite a framework. Quite a set of assumptions, all wrapped at the edges in the class-warfare encouraged by the Trumpian politics of our time.  In A Farewell to Arms Ernest Hemmingway writes: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”  I prefer the answer Jesus gives to the question “And who is my neighbor?”  It begins, “There was a certain man…”

Pondering this in recent weeks, I come to two conclusions: 

  1. There is no coherence to the MAGA movement. It is polyform, a muddle of prejudice, half-truths, wishful thinking, grievance and a struggle for self-esteem. As much as it may claim Christianity as source, it is often (mostly?) untethered from the Gospels.  It is also thickly covered over, cocooned, if you will, by the belief that others are cheating, getting something they don’t deserve. Interestingly, it is a modern Gnosticism, – a belief in a special knowledge each individual may garner by watching the correct rightwing television or a scouring of questionable internet sites.
  2.  Such gatherings at this Sunday School class, and other venues where diversity is welcomed and where all are respected, are all too rare.  These places are a most needed antidote to our current social/cultural/religious divides.

I will plan to return to this class – in part because all the other Sunday School classes I know of near me are filled with folks who all think alike.  I guess this is the poker hand I have been dealt.

Thanksgiving Prayer for the Taming of Our National Soap Opera

Thanksgiving Prayer for the Taming of Our National Soap Opera

Thanksgiving Prayer: Creator of all that is good, true and beautiful, we pray that this Thanksgiving can be a time when personal fear and grievance are abated. Help us choose a calm and gracious way. Even when greeted with words, signs and actions of contempt, inspire in us a gracious spirit.

Release the air from the overblown angers toward those with whom we differ. Help us recovery from our national addiction to a soap opera of easy categories, where heros and villians are identified. Forgive our tendency to divide the world up as our prejudices are cycled and recycled in each news cycle. When we forget, may we be reminded of our own failures, frailties and misguided hungers and appetites. O God, in your mercy, heal us as a people.

Give us calm hearts to act with unusual grace toward those we love and even toward our most diagreeable neighbors. Stay the hands of those who would do violence. As we gather at Thanksgiving tables, rekindle our imagination and care for one another. Help us remember, with St. Augustine, that “God loves each one as if there is none other in all the world to love and God loves all as God loves each.” Then, in the days that follow, after we have overdosed on turkey and football, give us the wisdom, courage and imagination to address the mean-spirited language, customs and social status concerns. Help us find ways to end discrimination so prevalent in our world. Help us, as we call on all to act in terms of God’s great narrative of reconciliation and care for all creation. Amen.

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Context of prayer:

Driving along the highways in Amador County California this week there were road signs that bespoke our national trauma. It is almost as if a national “self sabatoge” is taking place. Discourse is overly simplistic, rude and crude, and based on persistent falsehoods; or, to quote a John Prine lyric, “When you’ve got hell to pay, put truth on layaway.”

As I pass the road signs, it is painfully clear there are no easy answers to our national brokenness and distrust. Yes, I have strong opinions about how truth has been subverted. It is not, however, only the fault of one man or one political party. Truth is more precious than some purveyors on cable networks advertize. This brokenness will take decades to address — and, in fact, the tensions and social fractures are decades old, make that centuries old. May our lost sense of OUR STORY been restored and a grand narrative again find purchase in our respect for one another, even when we disagree. The core features of our commonwheal as a nation will require a sense of hope and commitment to the good, true and beautiful — even when it seems forever undermined by the ugliness that surrounds.

Amador County, CA, Nov. 2021

From the internet, same day

I close with another quote from the great prophet, John Prine, who died this past year. He put his hope in these words:

If by chance I should find myself at rest, 
By falling from this jagged cliff, 
I look below and I look above, 
I’m surrounded by your boundless love. 
Surround me with your boundless love, 
Confound with your boundless love,
I was drowning in a sea, lost as I could be 
When you found me with your boundless love,
You dumbfound me with your boundless love, 
You surround me with your boundless love.

Revelation: Carnage, Complicity and Community

Revelation: Carnage, Complicity and Community

Democracy in the United States of America came to the edge of survival on January 6th, 2021. We watched in horror as our nation moved perilously close to a chasm, a coup d’etat. In fact, there are concerns that widespread anarchy may be exhibited in coming days. I pray not. A mob of insurrectionists, egged on by a psychologically disturbed and morally bankrupt president, invaded and occupied the capitol building for several hours. Others will investigate the “whys” and “wherefores” of this totalitarian-near-miss. It is time to hold the invaders accountable. For all citizens this is the time to consider the “thenceforth.” What now? Where next? How might we gain our bearings? How shall we, as citizens of this remarkable republic, proceed?

With no small irony, January 6th is also the day we Christians annually celebrate the Feast of Epiphany. It is a season of light, of discovery, of realization, of seeing new things, in new ways. In 2021 Epiphany became a day of treachery and tragedy. Insurrectionists sought to destroy our democracy. While some may seek revolution, let us understand that Epiphany is better employed as a time of revelation.

Over the next few postings, let’s think together about what has been and might be revealed. We will do this under three categories: Carnage, Complicity and Community.

I. Carnage

Trump Inauguration 2017

“American Carnage” is the way Donald Trump chose to describe our nation and its institutions in his inaugural address on January 20, 2017. Former President George W. Bush was heard to comment afterward, “That was some strange sh*t.” Trump was elected as the champion of grievance and revenge. He has built a governing philosophy based on lies, division and self promotion. Even listening to him at the inauguration in 2017, I found myself thinking of the axiom from sociologists W. I. and Dorothy S. Thomas: “What we perceive to be real becomes real in its consequences.” What was perceived then as carnage has ricocheted in genuine death and tragedy from Charlottesville to Seattle to Minneapolis and finally landing at the Capitol building on Epiphany 2021.

Social philosopher and Catholic priest Ivan Illich was asked by journalist David Cayley “Given what you suggest about institutions, what is the best way to make change, violent revolution or gradual reform?” Illich responded, “Neither. The best way to bring change is to give an alternative story.“**

Ivan Illich, source Wikipedia

Illich, was an iconoclast, a Christian visionary, a prolific writer — widely read in the last decades of the Twentieth Century.  His brilliant critiques of our counterproductive institutional practices, still provide a clear-eyed challenge. He offered valuable wisdom, about our easy customs, traditions and ideologies.  Schools, hospitals, courts, governments and churches were all subjects of his sharp analysis. 

Illich was a truth-teller. He saw the failures of our schools, our broken economies, our media and strategies that continued to ignore and crush the underprivileged, our distortions of faith traditions, our inability to see. He understood the conditions of despair that became the source of Trump’s appeal… he understood the power of fear and misplaced anger.

Illich’s call was not to anarchy, nor was it an invitation to some set of “fixes,” or an elaborate new strategy whereby those in power can better serve their “clients.”  He was about something much more basic — as basic as the streets where we walk and the tables we share (or don’t share).  His call was to reinvest in the original “revelation,” the motivating principles behind our “helping” and “governing” institutions and the essential importance of neighborliness (see Tools for Conviviality).

Illich was silenced for years by the Catholic Church, prohibited from teaching through official church media. He writes of a church that has lost its highest calling in The Corruption of the Church.

Donald Trump’s claim that he “alone” is was the chosen one to end the Carnage in our nation found a home in the narrative of the Religious Right. Donald and his religious enablers turned Christianity away from narratives of grace and mercy into a faith that was rooted in individual salvation alone, into a struggle for a “religious freedom” to discriminate and faith as a tool of retaliation and censure against those who differed. It became a way to promote, even baptize, exclusion, racism and greed. Religious leaders like Eric Metexas and Franklin Graham were so bold as to suggest that anyone, Christian or not, anyone who didn’t follow Donald Trump was demon possessed (The Atlantic, “To Trump’s Evangelical’s Everyone Else is a Sinner,” November 25, 2019).

Metexas, who like Senator Josh Hawley, is Ivy League educated and can be an attractive, engaging spokesperson for a narrow and corrupted narrative. It is a narrative that cocoons the message of Jesus of Nazareth inside a political ideology. In the process it transforms the Gospel message into something distorted and limited. Folks like Metexas, make the parable of the Good Samaritan into a tale about how fortunate it was that the Samaritan was wealthy so he could assist the one found beaten on the road! The parable becomes a story in praise of wealth and tax cuts for those in power.

Here is a good test question for us all about our core narratives and Epiphany. Does your ideology capture your faith, limiting and containing it? Or is your ideology continually challenged and transformed by your faith? Compare the way Eric Metexas and Ivan Illich understand the Good Samaritan story. For Illich, this is an ever opening revelation. It is about “an untrammeled freedom to act” turning all strangers into a neighbor where “no category, whether of law or custom, language or culture, can define in advance who the neighbor might be.” (Caley, David, “Rivers North of the Future: The Testament of Ivan Illich,” p.30).

Capitol Building, Summer 2018

In the summer of 2018 I walked along the Capitol Mall on a number of occasions. I had joined a group of colleagues to work on a revision of The Social Principles of the United Methodist Church. In random conversations with strangers on the Mall and in the hotel lounge, it was apparent something troubling was already taking place — an attempt to reshape the nation’s story into one of Donald Trump’s (and his enablers) making. The American Carnage motif had taken root. Persons were out to remake the nation. As one proudly told me, “There is a new sheriff in town.” When I spoke about the offices of the Board of Church and Society, where we were meeting, being the only denominational presence on The Hill, I was told that, “Sorry, that is no longer true, we are on the inside.” Inside and outside language was strange to me as I still carried some notion of the separation of church and state. The “We” had to do with a certain brand of Evangelicalism busy making Faustian bargains with Donald Trump.

At the time I didn’t foresee the tragedy coming on Epiphany Day 2021. However, I sensed then there was a dangerous change underway. Some were seeking to challenge our national self understandings into ones shaped by a small, restrictive vision for our nation and for the faith.

Father Richard Rohr speaks of the import of story, of revelation, on January 10, 2021. He writes of an alternative journey defined by a “Christ map” that can shape who we can be as a people when he writes: We might not really believe it or surrender to it, yet if we could, we would be much happier people because the Christ map holds deep and unconscious integrating power for us as individuals and for society as a whole. A Great Story connects our little lives to the One Great Life, and even better, it forgives and uses the wounded and seemingly “unworthy” parts of our lives and others’ lives (1 Corinthians 12:22). What a message! Nothing else can do that. Like good art, a cosmic myth—like the Gospel—gives us a sense of belonging, meaning, and most especially, a personal participation in it. (Rohr, Richard, “Stories are Essential,” Center for Action and Contemplation, 1/10/21)

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**A fuller expression of the idea by Illich is “Neither revolution nor reformation can ultimately change a society, rather you must tell a new powerful tale, one so persuasive that it sweeps away the old myths and becomes the preferred story, one so inclusive that it gathers all the bits of our past and our present into a coherent whole, one that even shines some light into the future so that we can take the next step… If you want to change a society, then you have to tell an alternative story.

The Temper Tantrum Alliance

The Temper Tantrum Alliance

It is generally understood, among adults at least, that temper tantrums are not a healthy or enduring way of approaching life. I can recall, with some embarrassment, times when anger got the better of me in preadolescent years… Okay, okay, I can anticipate what you might be thinking, good reader… yes, there were times in my adolescent, and even post-adolescent years as well, when my emotions drug my reasoning abilities into places I didn’t want to go. Older now, and sometime wiser, I know that anger, wrongly focused, is ultimately counterproductive.

Most of us who have lived more than a couple of decades, and survived our bouts of adolescent egocentrism, have learned this lesson. However, in the United States in recent days we are witnessing adults who are forming what might be called “The Temper Tantrum Alliance.” Grievance is substituted for governance; and self-centered passion overrules reason.

It is precisely in such moments that virtuous leadership matters most. However, when U.S. Senators decide to set aside their duties as those who represent all the citizens, and walk away from basic civility and logic in order to please “dear leader,” they fail the basic test of acting as reasonable adults. President Trump in his five-year-old whining behaviors, calls on them to join in a tornado of denial and destruction. What is being trashed and discarded for our democracy in this process? As the old adage goes, “It is an ill bird that fouls its own nest.” Gentlemen (yes, all these senators are white, sadly not surprisingly, eleven of them white men), what are you doing? What are you thinking? Brain to gut… “danger ahead, please engage.” These men, elected to lead, have become followers in the Temper Tantrum Alliance.

When persons I know and love speak proudly of disregarding basic neighborly acts like wearing masks and staying socially distant as COVID now rages in our land, what are you doing? What are you thinking? Brain to gut… “danger ahead, please engage.” You dear ones, I fear you too are joining the Temper Tantrum Alliance.

Let’s call it what it is — we are watching childish journeys into preadolescence. Instead of calling our people to the best we have been and aspire to be, one hyper-narcissistic angry president has unleashed something even more destructive as a pandemic than COVID. There are attempts to baptize these behaviors with “Christian” talking points about religious liberty or personal freedom. No, sorry, doesn’t pass the smell test. Can’t forget the Sermon on the Mount or the part about loving God and neighbor as oneself this easily. This isn’t related to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Instead, I fear many in the Temper Tantrum Alliance act out of the gospel of selfishness as virtue preached by Ayn Rand. No careful follower of Jesus, Moses or Mohammad will find an enduring and sustainable home in the alliance. As the two pandemics of COVID and narcissism lay waste to many parts of our commonweal, there is good news. We know a better way… Our nation’s constitution and lessons from history offer evidence of this. The teachings of our faith traditions offer a better way.

2021 has arrived, time to put away childish things (I Corinthians 13). Per our freedoms, Oliver Wendell Holmes had it right, “My liberty ends where another person’s nose begins.” Let’s find a way to live together without throwing temper tantrums — perhaps an Alliance for the Beloved Community. There are leaders in the U.S., Democrats and some Republicans, who know that the adult project of building toward a beloved community is the best way forward. Brain to gut….. please engage.

Veterans Day 2020

Veterans Day 2020

Veterans Day 2020 came with cloudy skies and a nation struggling with the highest yet number of COVID-19 cases. Walking across the campus of Indiana University, young women and men in the ROTC were raising the U.S. and Indiana flags. I was struck by the ways our proud nation is enmeshed in a sad drama around the recent presidential election.

We wait to unite in common purpose to address the corona virus pandemic. We wait to regain a sense of shared national identity after a period of tragic division and authoritarian misadventures. We offer a sad spectacle across the globe. Others, rightly, view us with pity. The U.S., beacon of democracy over the centuries, is humbled and divided. When our electoral process is treated like a realty television show (in reruns) and persons who have sworn an oath to uphold the constitution spout unproven charges of voter fraud, we struggle with a pandemic greater than that of the corona virus. It is a pandemic of mistrust and deceit. I watch as “Old Glory” is raised and ponder where we, as a people, are headed.

Indiana University, Veterans Day 2020

After pausing and praying, I walked on wondering what little bit each one of us might do. I composed letters in my mind to my congressional representatives from Indiana. All Republican. None of them with sufficient courage as yet to honor our democracy by acknowledging the obvious — Joseph Biden has been elected as the 46th President of the United States.

A column by Thomas Friedman kept playing across my mind. https://nyti.ms/2GSAdtc. It is entitled “Only Truth Can Save Our Democracy.” Let me quote Friedman here: “We need to restore the stigma to lying and liars before it is too late. We need to hunt for truth, fight for truth and mercilessly discredit the forces of disinformation. It is the freedom battle of our generation.

He is right. We are passing through perilous times when truth itself has been devalued. Deceits and scapegoating of those who disagree or are at the margins of our society threatens the common life within history’s greatest democracy.

Upon return home, I wrote letters to each of my representatives. Below is a copy of my letter to Senator Michael Braun. I encourage you to write — letters of challenge and letters of gratitude. I encourage you to pray — write and pray — do it today.

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Senator Michael Braun                                                       November 11, 2020 374 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

Dear Senator Braun,

I write to you on this Veterans Day, 2020, to express my disappointment with your dismissive and dangerous response to the election of Joseph Biden as the next President of the United States.  Sir, the people of our state and nation deserve better than such poltroonery from you in these stress-filled times.  As I presume you know, there are issues of national security at risk, not to mention the potential for the undermining basic democratic processes.  We are too great a nation, and you, too intelligent a senator, not to perceive the dangers of encouraging and enabling a president who continues to behave like a tinpot dictator. 

We are better than this.  You are better than this.  At least I thought so until I heard your comment that the nation’s popular vote “was basically a tie if you take out California.”  Since reading this statement by you, on this Veteran’s Day, I have thought you might want to propose a new Braun-approved version of the Pledge of Allegiance.  Let’s see:

I pledge allegiance to the flag 
of the United States of America, 
And to the Republic(ans) for which it stands, 
One nation, under God, indivisible (except for California), 
with Liberty and Justice for all 
(except those Trumpists wish to exclude). 

We deserve better and I think you know it. Why is it, in these days, that the core Republican strategy seems to always seek to exclude and/or scapegoat others?  Perhaps we could say that the number of U.S. Senators in congress is basically tied if you take out Indiana. My family and friends in California think of you as a senator (some even speak of you as a person of intellect and decency); perhaps you might consider thinking of them as fully enfranchised U.S. citizens.

Most sincerely yours,

Rev. Dr. Philip Amerson

Fortnight – Day14: Truth and Wisdom

Fortnight – Day14: Truth and Wisdom 

A democracy can die of too many lies. I remember hearing those words from Bill Moyers, nearly a year ago. “A Democracy can die of too many lies,” he said. “And we’re getting close to that terminal moment, unless we reverse the obsession with lies that are being fed around the country.” (see Bill Moyers on Truth).

I recall the impact of hearing this then — these words still resonate strongly in my soul today. On the eve the presidential election 2020, I am stirred by the deep desire to return to a place where gas-lighting and fabrication are no longer the taken-for-granted tools of a nation’s leader. Even so, I have become aware that something more important than truth has been devalued — something more essential to our society’s health and future well-being. There was a time, not that long ago, when we were able to value truth and understand that an even larger human gift was WISDOM.

Will we again come to value both and know the difference? How long will it take to remember that wisdom involves a “speaking truth in love?” Or, that wisdom carries an ability to weave the facts of the moment into a larger constructive narrative. Truth may help you know where you are, while it is wisdom that will help you know where you need to go.

Writing in the Christian Scholar’s Review, Professor Lambert Zuidervaart (Oct 18, 2018) points us to the essential value of wisdom. He writes: “The love of wisdom needs the wisdom of love.” His article begins with a poem by Miriam Pederson “Hold Your Horses.”[1]

Lasso truth
like a run-away steer
and you will find its veins
running cold.

Approach it like a lover
with a ribbon for her hair
and truth, in time,
will lean in your direction.

Wisdom is more than knowledge… It is not knowing a truth so much as allowing the little truth we do know to take residence in our daily lives. It is how “our truth” is further enhanced by the gifts of compassion, mutuality, hospitality, hope — and, yes, love. Might we know, as T S Elliot put it that “Truth on our level is a different thing from truth for the jellyfish“? Truth is not always singular and shapeless.  It is often difficult to fully capture and this is where wisdom is beneficial.

Earlier this summer, Ken Sehested wrote that: “almost every breakthrough begins with a breakdown.” (Sehested, Prayer and Politics, 6/12/20) Something will be broken by the election tomorrow. Might it lead to a breakthrough? What might result from this shattering? For me? For those with whom I disagree? Might we each be too quick to proclaim an un-lived truth, that lacks the fullness of wisdom? Or, will we choose a retaliation that will inevitably follow — if our sole goal is arguing for our particular set of truths?

In writing on All Saints Sunday, yesterday, I was reminded of a tale I once heard about Oliver Cromwell. While the story may be apocryphal — and certainly deserves a wider historical rendering — it may illustrate my hopes for how many might behave in the post-election season. The story goes that when the treasury ran out of silver to provide coinage for the nation, Cromwell sent troops to the cathedrals to find the precious metal.  Returning, they reported, “The only silver we can find is in the statues of the saints stationed in the corners of the cathedrals.”  Cromwell responded, “Good, melt down the saints and put them in circulation!”

Good friends, VOTE, PRAY, and ACT, as saints who have been placed in circulation. In these days when singing is often limited to a few singers in our churches — I say we go to the street corners (masks in place) and sing for WISDOM. Let’s VOTE, PRAY, ACT and SING for WISDOM!

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Reading the fine article by Professor Zuidervaart, I was delighted to see him reference a hymn lyric by my friend, Ruth Duck. Professor Duck is a retired distinguished professor from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois.

Come and Seek the Way of Wisdom, Ruth Duck

Come and seek the ways of Wisdom, 
she who danced, when earth was new. 
Follow closely what she teaches, 
for her words are right and true. 
Wisdom clears the path to justice, 
showing us what love must do. 

Listen to the voice of Wisdom, 
crying in the market-place. 
Hear the Word made flesh among us, 
full of glory, truth and grace. 
When the word takes root and ripens, 
peace and righteousness embrace. 

Sister Wisdom, come, assist us; 
nurture all who seek rebirth. 
Spirit-guide and close companion, 
bring to light our sacred worth. 
Free us to become your people, 
holy friends of God and earth. 

Ruth Duck, 1997 The Pilgrim Press

Fortnight – Day13: All Saints

Fortnight – Day13: All Saints

All Saints Day 2020 arrives two days ahead of the Presidential Election. We remember lives well lived — and others lived not so well. We consider the fraying of our national identity and the evident threats to our commonweal. Mortality lurks as a backdrop on the nation’s theatrical stage this year. I think of the friends who have died. Many wonderful folks. There are 230,000 others in the United States and 1.2 million around the world who have died in the COVID-19 pandemic since February. We know only a handful of their names or life stories. Still, this is ALL SAINTS DAY.

The New York Times today (11/1/2020) carried an opinion piece entitled “Obituaries for the The American Dream 1931-2020.” It was inspired by Lizania Cruz, a Dominican artist and museum curator, who asked other artists When and How The American Dream Died For You? The Times opened the question to a wider audience and invited readers to respond.

One of the original responses was from, Marsha McDonald who wrote: “The American Dream died for me when I realized how many of my fellow Americans valued selfishness over community, power over justice, prejudice over generosity, demagoguery over science. For me, the 2020 pandemic is very real, but also a metaphor. How sick our national soul is! The old dream should pass away. Isn’t it time for us to dream new dreams, better dreams, that include us all?

Since All Saints Sunday 2019, I have spent countless hours looking into the history of Methodism and the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana.** This research led to libraries, books and articles, old newspapers along with dozens of conversations and email exchanges. There are mysteries yet to be solved. Even so, I have sadly learned more of the broad swath of racism and religious bigotry that infected (and still infects) the church. At the same time my research uncovered the lives and witness of dozens of remarkable persons of faith in the early 20th Century who opposed the Klan and worked against this corruption of the Gospel and human dignity. In their day, these women and men dreamed “new dreams, better dreams, that included us all.”

If I were I to write my letter as a part of an Obituary for the American Dream today it would be a rolling set of dates — times of death, trauma and despair — and times of hoped for rebirth. Scores of times, a refrain, recurring rhythms of loss and return. Times when the dream died – along with Dr. King or the Kennedy brothers in the 1960s, or the twenty children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, or the treacheries of hunger, violence, betrayal and death witnessed while working in impoverished settings filled with saintly people in the U.S. and Latin America, and on and on and on. THEN – times when hope was rekindled.

Shortly after the death of Pope John XXIII in 1963 author Morris West wrote an appreciation titled “Good Pope John” for Life Magazine in which he wondered: “Will they canonize him and make him, officially, a saint in the calendar?  In a way, I hope not… I want to remember him for what he was — a loving man, a simple priest, a good pastor and a builder of bridges across which we poor devils may one day hope to scramble across to salvation.” In 2014, Pope John XXIII was canonized — so much for the wishes of Mr. West.

I don’t know that any one American Dream should be canonized. In truth all of our best dreams will end up in some graveyard of good intentions. In fundamental ways, our society and culture are flawed and destined to continuing corruptions — as are all human political and institutional designs. Our hope is not in finding the perfect president, or political ideology or government program. In truth, there is no “draining of the swamp”; instead we require an honest assessment of the human dilemma and self-critical response — where better oversight and care of all of our swampy places is required — social and personal. The future is not yet clear, even so I join in cautious hope.

I pray that Jon Meachem is correct in offering that: “In our finest hours…the soul of the country manifests itself in an inclination to open our arms rather than to clench our fists; to look out rather than to turn inward; to accept rather than to reject. In so doing, America has grown ever stronger, confident that the choice of light over dark is the means by which we pursue progress.” (The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels)

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Thomas Merton wrote: “What makes the saints saints is a clarity of compassion that can find good in the most terrible criminals. It delivers them from the burden of judging others, condemning others. It teaches them to bring the good out of others by compassion, mercy and pardon. We become saints not by conviction that we are better than sinners but by the realization that we are one of them, and that all together we need the mercy of God.” (Merton, Thomas. New Seeds of Contemplation, p 57)

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Ordinary Saints, Malcolm Guite

The ordinary saints, the ones we know, 
Our too-familiar family and friends, 
When shall we see them? 
Who can truly show 
Whilst still rough-hewn, 
the God who shapes our ends? 
Who will unveil the presence, glimpse the gold 
That is and always was our common ground, 
Stretch out a finger, feel, along the fold 
To find the flaw, to touch and search that wound 
From which the light we never noticed fell 
Into our lives? 
Remember how we turned 
To look at them, and they looked back? 
That full- -eyed love unselved us, and we turned around, 
Unready for the wrench and reach of grace. 
But one day we will see them face to face.

(Malcolm Guite, From Plough, March 22, 2018)

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**[My interest was in part linked to my appreciation for the research by retired Indiana University Professor James Madison, whose book The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland arrived in September 2020. Madison rightly argues that the Klan was made up by more than the “hillbillies and Great Unteachables” as some claimed. Klan membership extended into the ranks of community and church leaders. My interest, of course, was given more urgency by the tragic murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the past year.]

Fortnight — Day12: Hope and Freedom

Fortnight — Day12: Hope and Freedom

Hope and Freedom are inextricably linked — twin sisters of the great experiment in democracy known as the United States of America. Both are best defined and lived out in the future tense. Mark Twain put it this way, “Lord save us all from old age and broken health and a hope-tree that has lost the faculty of putting out blossoms.” In three days, I pray a tidal wave of voters in the United States will choose Hope and Freedom. It is a critical moment for the nation to move forward and step away from the politics of division, despair and fear.

I miss the easy sense of hope and freedom I knew before the COVID-19 pandemic savaged our nation. Still I am most fortunate; I know this. I have benefited fully from HOPE and FREEDOM. So my struggles in this time of pandemic are minimal, modest. My challenges center in a missing touch with family and friends, mask wearing, safe grocery shopping or the absence of gatherings like Sunday worship.

In a strange way, pandemic offered opportunity to join others in online worship. On a typical Sunday, I check in on my home congregation and then roam across the internet. Sometimes checking out three or four other congregations. Okay, I know this is atypical — make that downright strange! Call it an occupational hazard of a retired preacher. Better, know it is the joy of discovering gifts other women and men offer as they lead worship. From New York to Colorado to California I watch. There is the exceptional pipe organ offerings of Jaebon Hwang in San Diego or the profound words of my friend Michael Mather in Boulder.

Most Sundays since the pandemic began, I drop in on music and preaching at St. Andrew in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. This past Sunday, October 27, I sat straight up in my chair as Mark Feldmeir quoted from Toni Morrison: The function of freedom is to make someone else free.” Yes,” I thought. That is what makes this election so important! Freedom should never be quarantined to self absorbed, individualistic, personal freedom — or, even to the idea that freedom should be restricted to the boundaries of one nation. Freedom is to be shared. Hope is to be shared. So, borrowing from Morrison, let’s say that the function of hope is to offer others hope!

Barbara Brown Taylor reflects on the two disciples walking along the Emmaus road having just left Jerusalem. They are heart-broken by the crucifixion of Jesus. A stranger joins them who asks why they are so downcast and defeated. According to Taylor they reply:  “We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel.” She then notes: “We had hoped Hope in the past tense, one of the saddest sounds a human being can make.  We had hoped he was the one.  We believed things might really change, but we were wrong.  He died.  It is over now.  NO more fairy tales.  No more illusions.  Back to business as usual.” (Gospel Medicine, p. 21)

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Hope is a thing with feathers,  
That perches in the soul, 
And sings the tune without the words 
And never stops at all.   - Emily Dickinson 

Prayer:  Remind us, O God, that the warp and woof of creation are hope and freedom. It is in these we discover joy. In these we are called to delight and praise. May we know the tremors of bliss, the winks of heaven, the whispers of hope, the pathways of freedom that signal the grand consummation of all things. Amen. (adapted by P. Amerson from Thomas a’Becket) +++++

Fortnight – Day11: Doubt and Hope

Fortnight – Day11: Doubt and Hope

Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. This well known aphorism from Frederick Buechner comes to mind as the presidential election approaches. Four days now, four days until the presidential election. Few things puzzle me more than the rigid certitude I hear from so many voters. They trust their candidate, without doubts, even when there is evidence to the contrary. Many seem to live in a world “beyond the shadow of doubt.” Has grievance erased the ability to doubt?

A fuller quote from Buechner’s volume Wishful Thinking reads: “Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep.  Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith.  They keep it awake and moving.”  (Wishful Thinking, p. 20). So, today I pray for an awakening in our body politic. No matter who is elected (and it is clear I have my preference) we need a good dose of skepticism at play in the future of our democracy. We have gone for too many years with a president who asks, “Who you gonna believe? Me or your lying eyes?”

Doubt is a gift when paired with hope — for religious faith and for a vibrant democracy. The opposite of faith is not certainty. Rather it is lively and discernment that rests in hope. I would argue a healthy democracy isn’t secured by uncritical allegiance to one leader or one ideology, rather healthy democracy requires healthy doubt. Such doubt rests in hope. Doubting is a gift that other institutions (the press, the faith community, the educational, judicial and the heath care institutions, the corporate and research worlds) must also provide. Doubt builds heft into democratic behaviors… especially if it can move us to be more trusting. Hope and doubt are the oppositional muscles needed for a healthy democracy.

Perhaps the apparent reduction in “doubters” is a sign of confirmation bias. Receiving information (news, sermons, radio talk shows, social media, etc.) from sources that almost exclusively support a person’s preconceived beliefs. It is astonishing that as the band-width of information available has dramatically increased in our digital worlds, our circles of received information tend to become more and more narrow. Much of this is due to the algorithm that pres-sorts what shows up on our screens. As Google has learned, why expand the options for a person when you can own their choices through their data?

It is reported that Albert Einstein regarded scientists who were unimaginative as “stamp collectors” of science. He then quickly apologized to stamp collectors.  Einstein regarded science as brittle and dreary without doubts, imagination, vision and creativity.

Vance Morgan writes of Confronting the Sin of Certainty, Patheos, June 16, 2020: “Certainty without doubt has been the argumentative gold standard for centuries in logical arguments, and such arguments have their place—but not in the life of faith. A lived example is far more convincing.”

J Ruth Gendler, in The Book of Qualities, “Doubt camped out in the living room last week. I told him that we had too many house guests. Doubt doesn’t listen. He keeps saying the same thing again and again and again until I completely forget what I am trying to tell him. Doubt is demanding and not very generous, but I appreciate his honesty.” (p21)

Tennyson wrote “There lives more faith in honest doubt than in half the creeds put together.”

Whatever ever happens in the coming election, I will look for a doubting that rests in hope as an indicator of vitality. We need more doubters, more agnostics.  Along with hope, we will need people who will suspend judgment and then see the signs more clearly.

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Natalie Sleeth offered language for people of faith in Hymn of Promise (#707 in the United Methodist Hymnal):

In the end is our beginning; 
in our time, infinity; 
in our doubt there is believing; 
in our life, eternity. 
In our death, a resurrection; 
at the last, a victory, 
unrevealed until its season, 
something God alone can see.

  (From Hymn of Promise, Natalie Sleeth, #707 in U.M. Hymnal)

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My God my bright abyss
Into which all my longing will not go
Once more I come to the edge of all I know
And believing nothing believe in this.
                               -- Christian Wiman

Fortnight – Day10: Forgiveness

Fortnight – Day 10: Forgiveness

Forgiveness is the last thing I want to be reminded of with five days until the 2020 presidential election in the United States. When considering the racism, the lying, the demeaning of women, the denial of climate change, the damage to our national and international reputation done by Donald Trump and his minions, I find little room for the idea of forgiveness. It is a word I don’t want to hear, a concept I want to deny, a theological category I don’t want to consider. Still, I must. I must consider and pray toward forgiveness BUT I cannot forget.

Tragic as it is, the human dilemma remains — we can be shaped as much, or more, by what we hate as by what we love.

One of the liberators of a Nazi death camp found a note near the body of a child — written on a piece of wrapping paper, ” O Lord, remember not only the men and women of goodwill but also those of ill will. But do not remember the suffering they have inflicted on us. Remember the fruits we brought to this suffering, our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, the courage, the generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this. And when they come to judgment, let all the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness.  Amen. (Passion for Pilgrimage, Alan Jones, p. 134)

I am haunted by such prayers and the one I pray often: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It seems so complex and then I recall J. Ruth Gendler’s opening sentence in a reflection on Forgiveness: “Forgiveness” she writes, “is a strong woman, tender and earthy, direct.” (Gendler, The Book of Qualities, p. 54).

DIRECT — right in front of me — Forgive? Can I ever? Will I ever, forgive? I have preached so many sermons on forgiveness and counseled so many people toward that act that I should know the way. However, I don’t. Perhaps it is the shrill voices all around and the wounds to our body politic that I see that have been inflicted. I can’t muster the desire or energy to forgive the damage that has been done to our nation, to democratic institutions but mostly to people. Of course, forgiveness doesn’t mean acceptance. Forgiveness doesn’t mean I won’t continue to confront those who seek to destroy or wound. It doesn’t mean I won’t oppose evil and injustice. Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation.

So, it is paradoxical — I wish to forgive and I will remember not to forgive. David Augsburger spoke to this dilemma in book, published nearly forty years ago. If you have seen it, you will know it is two books in one binding. Reading in one direction there is attention to the idea of “Caring Enough to Forgive” and turning the book around is another set of ideas entitled “Caring Enough to NOT Forgive.” [Later, Augsburger wrote a companion piece entitled “Caring Enough to Confront.”]

In the Epilogue of the volume Augsburger offers these insights:

Although in "forgiving", release unfortunately may be easier to achieve than reconciliation--       
Although one in error may choose to move over, away from, against the other --                 
Although one in weakness may attempt to live off of, without, in spite of the other --                 
Yet we dare not hesitate to take any step toward forgiving, no matter how faltering or fallible.                 
Yet we must not refuse to move toward another in seeking mutual repentance and renewed trust.                 
Yet we cannot despair of forgiveness and lose hope that reconciliation is possible.                 
So let us forgive as gently and genuinely as is possible in any situation of conflict between us.                 
So let us forgive as fully and as completely as we are able in the circumstances of our misunderstandings.                 
So let us reach out for reconciliation as openly and authentically as possible for the levels of maturity we have each achieved.               
So let us forgive freely, fully, at times even foolishly, but with all the integrity that is within us.    
[David Augsburger, Caring Enough to (Not) Forgive, 1981.] 

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Enemies  
If you are not to become a monster, 
you must care what they think. 
If you care what they think, 
how will you not hate them, 
and so become a monster 
of the opposite kind? From where then 
is love to come — love for your enemy 
that is the way of liberty? 
From forgiveness. Forgiven, they go 
free of you, and you of them; 
they are to you as sunlight on a green branch. 
You must not think of them again, except 
as monsters like yourself, 
pitiable because unforgiving.
-- Wendell Berry

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I take literally the statement in the Gospel of John that God loves the world. I believe that the world was created and approved by love, that it subsists, coheres, and endures by love, and that, insofar as it is redeemable, it can be redeemed only by love. I believe that divine love, incarnate and indwelling in the world, summons the world always toward wholeness, which ultimately is reconciliation and atonement with God.” (Berry, Wendell, The Art of the Commonplace: the Agrarian Essays)