I Choose Stories for Good

I Choose Stories for Good

Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”  I chuckled when I first heard this — and understood the truth it contained.  This wisdom, first heard years ago, is both whimsical and helpful in appreciating the gifts of insight and delight offered by a good story. 

Stories provide a doorway to new understandings, new vistas on human realities and may even offer broader faith understandings.  Jesus of Nazareth knew the value of parable — story laid alongside life’s experience and opening the listener to deeper truths.  Stories are durable and can both deepen mystery or provide clues to one of life’s many puzzles.

What of the converse?   Can we say, “Never let story get in the way of fact?”  As the impeachment hearings in Congress began on November 13th we heard Ukrainian Ambassador William B. Taylor and George Kent, long-time expert on the Ukraine, speak of dueling narratives, competing stories.  These career civil servants were troubled by a counter narrative being peddled among certain American leaders based on conspiracy and contrary to the deep expertise of those committed to our national security.

What is a good story, for you, dear reader?

A deep, and I believe, good narrative has guided our nation’s best actions for decades.  Based on our constitution and constructive alliances with other nations it encourages the strengthening of human rights, democratic goals around the world.  Do we sometimes get it wrong and stand with the tyrant — I fear we do and we have.  However, the core narrative we share runs counter to tyranny and oppression.  The current “irregular narrative” dismisses our nation’s long-held values and seeks to divide, destroy common understandings and undermine trust relationship. 

What irony that on the day impeachment hearings begin, Mr. Trump entertained President Erdogan of Turkey and said he is “a big fan.” A big fan?  A fan of a man whose strong-arm tactics destroy democracatic institutions, who jails those who disagree, whose recent aggression in Syria destroyed a delicate peace in the middle east and has set the stage for the reemergence of ISIS?  A big fan?  What irregular narrative is being promulgated?  Why?  Who benefits in the larger history being written for our grandchildren?

The idea ofNever let the facts get in the way of a good story,” contains the word “GOOD.”  And, what is lacking in an “irregular narrative” is a link to our values and a moral compass.  A good story is built on that which is constructive and beneficial to human communities and societies.  The good story is one that encourages freedom and seeks to diminish tyranny.  Compass&Bible Abraham Lincoln used good stories as a critical part of his political legacy.  Even though his legacy is imperfect, overall he chose to resist the temptation to divide and destroy those who disagreed.  The alternative, the irregular narrative is based on a mountain of lies, of half-truths and a poisoned concoction of bigotry and deceit.  Ambassador Taylor identified this story as dangerous to our security. 

What makes a story good?  Good for you?  Good for your neighbor?  Good stories are, at root factual, they contain truths, even though some of the “facts” may be elaborated.  Good stories seek to help and not harm.  Good stories build up and strengthen others.

Falsehoods are being dressed up and widely shared on social media. Memes and tropes are invented that are specifically designed to undercut that which is good.  Truth is victimized and a search for the “good” is jeopardized.  We are living through a time when false narratives are employed to hold gain and hold power and do harm.  The temptation to accept the torrent of lies that come from politicians, tyrants and even television commentators seems too strong to be countered.  However, I will live believing truth will prevail.  What is “good” may appear to be lost in the tsunami of false information that seems to go unchecked. Still I choose a commitment to the commonweal, the beloved community, a community that includes all people.

Good stories are powerful things — at a fundamental level they reinforce and magnify the truth.  In the end, I believe the good in stories will prevail… but this good is fragile and under attack.  How do we know the good?  Well, there is being attentive to our history and our ongoing struggles with tyranny.   There is also the identification of truth-tellers.  I believe the narratives shared by patriots and long-time civil servants like Bill Taylor, George Kent, Fiona Hill, and Alexander Vindman will cut through much of the disinformation and deceit.

There is our faith… and with it, there is joy.

img_0759-2Like the license plate I saw on a crimson pickup truck years ago driven by a theology school dean which read “JOY N IT.”  Good stories, stories of faith, typically bring new insight, laughter and delight.  I choose stories that are good, in large measure because they also lead to joy.  The gift of honest exaggeration, of teasing, of hope-filled truths will always make clear the gift of sisters and brothers who can smile, and understand it when they say, “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”

Rhyming Omar and Donald

The Rhyming of Omar and Donald

Each morning I read the news and think “I’ve seen this play before.” On a smaller stage but with the same general plot and same speeches by the lead actors. I was in the Republic of Panama in 1969 and 1970, teaching at the Methodist school, the Instituto Pan Americano. There, I had a front row seat to watch one of the early reality television stars, General Omar Torrijos Herrera.

Torillos came to power in 1968. It was a “soft” coup d’etat. It came following his involvement in election fraud, the formation of alliances with other dictators, an appeal to campesinos with legitimate grievances and the backing of a major news outlet, La Estrella. Torrijos was ridiculed by the elites as a “tinpot dictator.” He was known for his womanizing even as he posed as the devoted husband and father. He was open to playing all sides against the middle as long as he was the winner. Sound familiar?

“History doesn’t repeat itself, it rhymes” is an aphorism attributed to Mark Twain. There are differences between Omar and Donald; however, they play the same games of distraction, bullying and corruption. Watching POTUS every day, I am reminded of Torrijos. The only difference in these daily productions is that Omar was the better actor and did claim some moral minimums beneath which he would not bend. He had no need to claim to be a stable genius — he was smart enough to know that. Torrijos was self confident enough to allow the great novelist Graham Greene to write a book about his time as “ultimate leader.”

As I watch Donald’s tactics of prevarication and distraction I see parallels to Torrijos. (“You’re not really seeing what you are seeing. Look over here, no I meant over there.”) It is all theater of the absurd. It saddens me to watch the Grand Old Party turned into the practitioners of Banana Republicanism. Each day in this nation and time our moral influence is reduced, our constitutional commitments reduced to ashes. What’s next?

In 1970 Torillos felt his power waning, so set up what Latin Americans call an autogolpe — a phony, self designed and manipulated coup d’etat. I remember it well. The general was out of the country in Mexico for the horse races. The alleged take over was dramatically reported, although oddly the “rebels” didn’t plan to take over the television stations or the country’s second busiest airport in the city of David some 300 miles away. Aided by other nations, Torrijos flew back to David. He then made a triumphant journey down the spine of the country. The military was pre-positioned to welcome him as he was cheered in every town back to the capital. There was some gunfire in the capital city and a few arrested — but it was a carefully scripted television event.

I wonder, might our nation be experiencing something similar — an autogolpe in plain sight? Might POTUS, sensing a potential loss in the upcoming 2020 elections, be engaged in his own little deception? Let’s see, he needs an enemy who can be painted as corrupt who is trying to overthrow him. He needs a major news outlet to support his phony allegations. Uhm, let me think?

Torrijos, brutal and venal as he could be, did have some redeeming qualities and left some enduring accomplishments for his nation. I could name several like the agreement with President Carter for the Canal to be turned over to Panama and Torrijos’ commitment to help the underprivileged with universal health care and education. Torrijos died in a mysterious airplane crash in 1981 at a point where he “seemed” to be moving in support of more democratic institutions.

Donald may leave behind a few accomplishments (I struggle to name many just now)… but at what expense to our moral and constitutional underpinnings? POTUS started with a nation rich in reputation, legacy and a commitment to pursuit of an ever more humane future for its citizens. He has spent many of these moral assets with little to show in return. In this way, the legacy and roles of these two men do not rhyme. One was a dictator who desired, in the end, to be honestly elected in a more democratic state — the other was surprised to be elected and has since evidenced increasing desire for dictatorial powers.

Why Seek a King Cyrus?

Why Seek a King Cyrus When We have a King Jesus?

In a recent piece in the New York Times, Katherine Stewart writes of what she has been discovering among many right wing, Christian Nationalist groups.  [See Katherine Stewart, NY Times.]  Having read her thought-provoking report, I can’t help but wonder why Christians would seek the re-emergence of a King Cyrus when we have the far more appropriate witness in life, death and resurrection of King Jesus, as our guide?  

I also stop and consider what recent socio-cultural trends mean for the church.  While United Methodism has been distracted by folks seeking a heretofore undesired “doctrinal purity” on issues like “homosexuality,” our core message of multiple ways for faithful disciples to “Know God in Christ” has languished… and in some places nearly disappeared. All the while, our distractions have kept our attentions from the deeper cultural realities. Basic assumptions about liberty and faith provided by folks like the Niebuhrs, ML King, Jr., E. Stanley Jones, Georgia Harkness and Dietrich Bonhoeffer have been undercut. A profound shift in understanding of the nature of Christian citizenship has eroded beneath our feet.

This, I believe, was (and continues to be) a well-planned, well-funded and well-executed effort by persons who have little or no interest in encouraging a Wesleyan spirit. I don’t believe many of my sisters and brothers caught up in the so-called “Good News” movement or the so-called “Wesleyan Covenant Association” intended this. Even so, they are in my view the seminal actors in this tragedy. I do also wonder, at the same time, if they (and we) haven’t “been played” by nationalistic and anti-democratic forces over the past several decades. Have we unwittingly made space for some to suggest that POTUS is a modern “King Cyrus?” Alas.

I believe our foolish warfare over welcoming our gay brothers and sisters has contributed, in some significant measure, to the current season of intolerance and authoritarianism that passes for Christianity. Can United Methodism recover it’s voice? Can we move back to a focus on living lives based on the teachings of Jesus? Can we again practice basic democratic, respectful and honorable civic dialogue? This was once a part of Methodist annual conference sessions — in many places in recent years it has been lost.  Can we mend the soul and witness of our church?  The soul of our nation may stand in the balance.

 

… A Little Like a Day Care Center

… A Little Like a Day Care Center

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?

17006355_G

Texas Border Youth Facility, AP 6/18/18

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.”

th

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.

th

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.

Shared Laughter: A Missing Vital Sign

Shared Laughter: A Missing Vital Sign

Has shared laughter gone into hiding?  Shared laughter has become a stranger to our nation and the church.  I miss the merry heart, spoken of in Proverbs 17.  Expressions of common joy are secluded, perhaps kidnapped or a part of a gaiety-witness-protection-program buried underground somewhere.  Shared laughter, healing laughter, earnest and sustained laughter, seems hard to find.

IMG_4796I still laugh, but too often alone… or with people who think much like me.  Such singular pleasure is a place to begin.  Small signs of whimsy, mirth and delight are starting places.  When I miss those, I quickly get lost in my prejudices and despair.  I lose the lightheartedness that can serve as a lubricant to God’s desired wholeheartedness for me.  A little laughter keeps my ideological GPS in tune and my prejudice-constructed life-maps from being read upside down.  Recently I had a reminder of such a gift.

On a winding road in central Kentucky, the junction ahead at first confused me, then delighted.  I could turn left and go NORTH or turn right and go… uh… NORTHAnd the path straight ahead (NORTH by the way) was posted with a NO TRESPASSING sign.

If I wished to go NORTH, which way should I go?  I laughed out loud.  This reminded me of the certainty as to direction I hear from pundits and preachers who speak confidently of the only true way forward — their way.  Traveling this day and familiar with this particular road, I knew the path I would take.  I wondered about others who followed, who arrive at this junction — first timers.

I believe the certainty, that there is only one way, a best and only road ahead puts the nation, and the church, in hands of humorless demagogues.  For our nation  such certainty means that every choice is binary with no ability to value and learn from those who have different perspectives or life experiences.  Any sense of a commonweal is set aside.  In the church such certainty turns the theological task into a marshaling of doctrinaire pronouncements.  Instead of theology being “faith in search of understanding” we have one narrow set of understandings setting the limits of our faith.  Not much shared joy here.  I believe laughter can be medicine for the soul and oxygen for a suffocating nation and church.

On my wall is Wendell Berry’s poem, Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.  Near the end, he counsels, “Laugh.  Laughter is immeasurable.  Be joyful even when you have considered all the facts.”

I am asking what has happened to shared laughter — among friends and with those who disagree?  I don’t mean the little individual chuckles coming from late-night television parodies or the smile after reading ironic memes about the state of the nation.  I mean the sense of well-being that is born of a shared hope beyond our calculations.  What I miss is the ability to laugh at ourselves, to visit with others who may hold differing opinions and enjoy each other’s company.  It is the joy of discourse and community that is creative and constructive and larger than our personal prejudices and proclivities.  Laughter is not sufficient for our salvation but I believe it may be a necessary vestibule to hope and renewal in finding a way forward.

Aimee Laramore writing in the March 7, 2018 blog Voices on Stewardship  helps me when she writes, “The great theologian Dave Chappelle introduced a concept that made me laugh out loud when he spoke about imperfect allies. In his most recent special, he offers a poignant description of not understanding some of the differences in societal demographics and ended with his personal truth on the matter. Is it possible in our faith communities to be honest about the things we don’t understand? He repeatedly said, “I don’t want to harm you. I want to support you. I just don’t understand you.” I believe we should do a lot more earnest laughing about our own discomfort about diversity in giving. At the very least, a heartfelt response is authentic.”

Much more shared EARNEST LAUGHING with IMPERFECT ALLIES is called for in the nation and church.  In these time of “Fake News,” made-up statistics and certainties that avoid scientific evidence, we might look again to the realism of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.  In response to the horrors and potential devastation from threats of fascism he wrote “Laughter is the no-man’s land between cynicism and contrition.”  In his Children of Light, Children of Darkness, Niebuhr argues “Humour is, in fact, a prelude to faith; and laughter is the beginning of prayer… Laughter is swallowed up in prayer and humour is fulfilled by faith.”

In an effort to offer something constructive for churches (and our society) I recently wrote a paper on what I see as the mistaken, and humorless efforts to repair the church by implementing certain business practices.  This is a well-meaning effort but of little purchase if it simply is composed of one perspective, outside of dialogue with those who view the church differently (see: FruitFixPubShare02-01-18).  My long and rather tedious musings needed the benefit of EARNEST LAUGHTER WITH IMPERFECT ALLIES.

I did find a chuckle when I read a quote from St. Louis area United Methodist pastor Diana Kenaston who captured my paper’s conclusions when she wrote:

So we look at statistics and we call them ‘vital signs.’  We commission a report and draw an electrocardiogram on the front.” 

IMG_4799

In two sentences, Rev. Kenaston covered what took sixteen pages and forty-nine footnotes for me to say…  and this without ever reading my paper!  I LAUGHED.

I knew my research paper was insufficient.  (Even so, I inflicted it upon many friends and my students.)  Reading Diana’s quote helped.  However, some other uncommon laughter was needed.  Some candor from imperfect allies might help.  The ability to learn of my mistaken understandings, and laugh with those who had another view, might help each.  Until then I don’t believe much progress is made. 

Might I sit with those who disagree and talk, and learn?  Might we make a common alliance to agree to disagree?  Until then, good as any research might be, it would be of modest value.  Yes, I have reached out to my imperfect allies — several times asking to hear from them.  Might those who offer their products, known as “fruitful congregation” initiatives be open to dialogue that might lead to understanding?  As yet, no response to my multiple requests.  Still waiting.  Even more, I am eager to experience a little shared laughter.

Until then, or even if such shared conversation never arrives, I am helped by the poetry of the fourteenth-century Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart.  He gives me a joy-filled perspective at this junction for our society and church.

He writes:

Do you want to know

what goes on in the core of the Trinity?

I will tell you.

In the core of the Trinity

The Father laughs

and gives birth to the Son.

The Son laughs back at the Father

and gives birth to the Spirit.

The whole Trinity laughs

and gives birth to us.

[Meister Eckhart, Meditations with Meister Eckhart, translation and editor Matthew Fox (Bear and Company: 1983), p. 129.

Lent — What Fast Might Be Required?

Lent Arrives — What Fast Might Be Required?

I write this post on Shrove Tuesday, Fat Tuesday, the day known for Madi Gras or Carnival in many parts of the world. It is a time for play, for “letting go,” for silliness… and preparation.

Years ago, when teaching in the Republic of Panama, I discovered that in that culture at least, Carnaval lasted for days – make that weeks – with music and dancing till dawn every night and tricksters roaming the streets by day ready to smear the unsuspecting passerby with makeup or face paint.  This frolicking was a counterpoint to what followed, the Lenten season.  These forty days of Lent (excluding Sundays) were the days prior to Easter and were to be a season of fasting, mediation and self-denial.

As an adult, I have come to value the remarkable gift of the alternating seasons of the liturgical year, and alternating opportunities to live more fully, more deeply, into the dimensions of human experience.  Over the course of every liturgical year there are seasons of celebration and times of preparation, reflection and penitence.  This rotation captures the human reality — no fake news here — we humans live with the complications of joy and sorrow, sickness and health, solitude and community.  At best, at our most whole and holy center, appropriate belief and value systems will reflect this alternating dynamic.

Shrove Tuesday, for our family at least, usually means pancakes and perhaps a silly mask or costume… not much more.   No dancing all night or smearing with face paint.  We typically eat pancakes with lots or syrup, fruit and maybe even whipped cream on top.  We do this knowing that the next season will include some times of sacrifice, discipline and prayer.  Tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, begins a time of meditation and, perhaps, fasting and self-denial.

images-2

 

Some traditions speak of “giving something up for Lent.”  Perhaps it is sweets that are “given up,” or not going to the movies, or giving up attending a sports event (well, not basketball in Indiana!)  Perhaps some change in diet or giving up some other pleasure is practiced. 

In recent years I have appreciated those who suggest that perhaps we should think about what we might ADD to our daily life patterns during Lent.  Perhaps we should add some acts of kindness, charity or justice.  I like it.  Our pastor, Jimmy Moore, suggests this idea of adding something at Lent.  Then, jokingly, he says that when growing up, he had already given up all the pleasures and excesses of life, because at the time he was a Southern Baptist and had already given up all such temptations.  I laughed, and understand, because growing up in a strict conservative Methodist home, we had already given up dancing, movies, rock and roll music and, of course, smoking, alcohol and playing cards!

As Lent 2018 begins, two realities collide. 

There is scripture that speaks of God’s desire for humanity and there is the proposed national budget presented today in Washington, D.C.   From scriptures, think especially of Isaiah 58:1-11, where the prophet asks what sort of fast does God require of the faithful?  Hear these words written hundreds of years before Jesus of Nazareth, and referenced by him in his ministry.  They still carry a force for shaping the lives of believers today.

Isaiah 58:6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
Then the righteousness of the Lord will go before you;
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
 9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. 
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.
[New International Version]

 

Ironically, tragically, these words of guidance and reminder to the faithful, read during this 2018 Lenten season, COLLIDE HEAD ON with the national budget from the White House presented TODAY!  There are deep budget cuts proposed to efforts that provide food, housing and health care for the poorest among our people in the U.S.  [Less than a month ago, deep tax cuts were made that benefited the richest among us.]  Instead of building up our foundations, instead of seeking to strengthen our COMMONwealth here is a focus on walls, on further depleting our environment and the exclusion of those who differ.

So, what fast is required of us?  We shall pray and reflect; however, this is not a season for quietism or passivity.   We will need to find alternating patterns of action and prayer during Lent this year.  Richard Rohr appropriately calls his ministry a “Center for Action and Contemplation.”  These two emphases seem right this Lent.  Perhaps this is one of the sacrifices required this Lent — to do both — act and pray.  Some time normally given to meditation, may be time that will go to writing a congress person.  Maybe the money saved from having no desert should go more directly to offer food to the hungry.

This Lenten season I invite you to add some act of kindness and justice to your normal routine.  I invite you to daily prayer and meditation.  If this is not a part of your routine — this is your opportunity. 

There are many fine resources.  You might subscribe to the insightful reflections of Richard Rohr at the Center for Action and Contemplation CAC Daily Meditation; or, look to the Upper Room Upper Room for the daily devotionals there.

Perhaps you would wish to join some in New Harmony, Indiana on March 23 and 24 for a “Finding New Harmony” retreat (check out: www.mycalmcard.com ).

How will you observe this Lenten Season?  What might you give up?  What might you add?

 

 

 

 

 

An Untamed Pastor’s Fifty-Year Window

A Leaf from the Notebook of an Untamed Pastor: A Fifty Year Window

2018 marks my fiftieth year as an ordained pastor.  Five decades!  Many fine memories, good friends and much learning.  Wonderful, loving people have been teachers for me at every stop.  As former Indiana University President Herman B Wells once told me, “One sees things more clearly when viewed in fifty year blocks.”  Dr. Wells then laughed — he was 93 years old at the time. 

So, what do I see more clearly in 2018?  What might I share from a fifty-year window into this vocation?

IMG_4376
Five pastors of Broadway UMC regather in 2016: left to right -Phil Amerson, Rachel Metheny, Michael Mather, Mary Ann Moman and S. Baik.

A year has passed and I have shared strong words about Mr. Trump as a citizen; this year, 2018, I speak as pastorIt’s time to speak as a person of faith in an untamed fashion.  What we face in our nation is SIN — a clear and present danger to the spiritual health of our society and believers.   I have been too cautious in not speaking in terms of faith and in scriptural language.  I have not clearly called for repentance — from DJT.  Nor repentance for myself and so many in our nation. 

Clearly, ideology and grasping for power have replaced decency shaped by biblical and faith understandings.  Have we had other presidents who were sinful? — Of course — in fact, this is a character flaw, sin, we all are challenged by.  More to the point — it is the acknowledgement of sinfulness that marks movement to maturity and spiritual health.

In DJT we are witnessing an assault on truth, on the poor, on the immigrant, on God’s creation.  It is sinful.  This is a daily assault — sometimes hourly assault.  Our judicial and legislative systems, designed to align with highest religious values, are continually being threatened and undermined. Name-calling has become more normative than honest dialogue.  Those who disagree with the president are threatened with verbal abuse, even jail.  This is wrong.  Accepting it is a partnership with evil.  Sadly some support comes from those brothers and sisters who claim to be Christian — yet, little of what they argue appears to be established on scriptural basis or on principles of disciples.

On July 15, 2016, when Mr. Trump announced he was seeking the presidency, I was almost immediately troubled.  My pastoral radar sounded an alarm.  Bluntly, the fears unleashed, the thinly veiled racism and factual distortions, layered higher and higher, were anti-Christian.  My experienced eyes saw a person who was clearly a troubled, angry and manipulative man.  He belittled others so easily and thought far too highly of himself.  Over the months that have passed these initial indicators of the man’s soul-sickness have only become more tragically and dramatically evidenced by sinful decisions and impulses. 

I have decided to become an unleashed pastor because what we are witnessing is dangerous to our future and that of our grandchildren.  What we see unfolding comes straight out of Stalin’s play book — it is a pattern of disinformation, demonization and displacement.  (See Anne Applebaum’s fine book Red Famine.)

Let me offer a pastor’s call for repentance.  My own confession first.  I have been too timid to speak of the sinfulness of Mr. Trump’s words and actions.   I have been too quick to allow those who argue a false equivalency, his defenders, suggesting that the 2016 presidential election was between two equally flawed candidates. No. This is simply NOT TRUE, based on any fair-minded look at the options.  Was Secretary Clinton plagued by her own failings? — of course.  However, I am bold to claim we have journeyed in the ways of the devil after this election far more than had there been a different outcome. What we face now scriptures speak of as the evil of principalities and powers.  The spiritual well-being of our nation is at risk.

As a pastor, every year I would meet with the church’s nominating committee.  Our task?  To propose leaders the upcoming year.   Honestly, if Donald Trump were a member and his name proposed for any leadership task, I would quickly speak against him in almost any role.  I would speak about his not being a “good fit.”  No place for such a man as an assistant usher or a parking lot attendant, until there was evidence of more spiritual health.  And I certainly wouldn’t want him anywhere near the finance committee, youth work or buildings and grounds committees.  His evident narcissism and duplicity would be my guide — based on experience.

Fifty years have sharpened my radar about people.  Yes, I have made mistakes in this judgement — and keep learning from them.  And, yes, I know people can change — I have witnessed this.  However, my experience has taught that change comes with personal awareness of brokenness and the knowledge of the need to accept God’s transforming gifts in one’s life.  None of which are evident in this man.  If any role were offered, it would be the opportunity to spend a year working (silently) alongside the poor and studying scripture with a good teacher.  That would be an appropriate place for DJT – a place to begin a journey to healing and renewal… It would be an invitation to conversion.  I do not know the wounds contributing to his arrogance, masked low-self-confidence and sinful actions — but they are not helped by the enabling going on by many politicians and alleged religious leaders.

We are a nation struggling under the spell of a narcissistic, sin-burdened, con-artist.  A man who lies so frequently that truth and falsehood are continually blurred.  Can anyone account for a need to claim to be a “stable genius.”  Such hubris, such arrogance!  Can you imagine Abraham Lincoln or Ronald Reagan making such a claim — with a straight face? My dear Republican friends, what have you endured… and so many of you accepted as normal?  We have a self designated “stable genius” who doesn’t read, has almost no understanding of geopolitical historical realities and bases our nation’s future on own self-aggrandizement.  I do give thanks for Republicans like Steve Schmidt, Jeff Flake, David Jolly and Mitt Romney.  Perhaps they will help the party and our nation — save it’s soul.  However, they may not be enough.  More is required of us all.

Wesley_United_Methodist_Church_Urbana_Illinois
Wesley UMC, Urbana, Illinois — One of the many great centers of campus ministry for the denomination.

The United Methodist church once claimed a mission to “Reform the nation and spread scriptural holiness.”  Sadly, our recent response to the assault on our nation’s highest values, and Christianity itself, has been muted at best.  We do speak a word on behalf of the immigrant and the poor — but we say nothing about the sinfulness of our nation’s leaders at this critical time. So much for reforming the nation and spreading scriptural holiness. 

We have known greatness.  Our work in education and mission offer remarkable hope.  There have also been times when we have been an embarrassment to ourselves and our nation.  Now, as we are silent, I believe is a time when we should be embarrassed.

We have failed before — Methodists back-tracked from our early impulses against slavery or took too long to support our courageous women seeking suffrage and equality.  Still, like Legion in scriptures, upon being confronted by the Christ, we somehow turned around and came to our senses on these matters and many others.  This is the way sinful persons and institutions change.  But there is also potential for movement in another direction — it is this sinful downward movement I fear for our nation (and church) just now.   I speak as an untamed pastor, shaped by this denominational tradition and filled with awareness of many of my own shortcomings. 

Still I speak as one with experience — experience in recognizing sin-sickness and the need for repentance.  One sees things more clearly when viewed in fifty year blocks.