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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

Hoosiers Finding Voice

Hoosier United Methodists Finding Our Voice: A Call and Confession of United Methodists in Indiana

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Revs. Maureen Knudsen Langdoc and Bryan Langdoc recognized as new ordinands, Clergy Covenant Day, 10/25/17.

I awoke this morning with an all too familiar thought about the church in the United States.  It is this: The United Methodist Church (and other denominations like it) still act as if we are the Mainline church when, in fact, we have been moved to the sidelines.  Must we remain silent in the false hope that we might regain our power position in society?  NO!

With a sense of lost status, we employ business models and church growth strategies as if we still haven’t learned that our best hope is to once again be the church based on the leading of the Holy Spirit and the gifts of believers in each local setting.  In the process, seeking not to rock the boat, we have remained silent to the realities all around.  We have become cowardly in acting to address the national fevers of fear and division that threaten our future and undermine our best selves. 

Where is there hope?  In many places — mostly not recognized by the “church development experts.”  I see hope in our young clergy, folks like Maureen and Bryan Langdoc.  I see hope in the faithful folks sitting in the pews of our local churches that are so easily overlooked because they are in the “wrong neighborhood” or are “congregations too small to make a difference.”  I see hope in the older clergy, many now retired, but who continue to offer their gifts.  You GO — Maureen and Bryan; You GO — younger clergy across our nation; You Go — faithful lay persons in local churches; You GO — older clergy often ready to serve but overlooked; YOU GO — HOLY SPIRIT.

If we are true to our faith and not simply believing in some set of misguided techniques and strategies, we would be saying something about the challenges to our civil society.  We would let God be God and stop trying to be soft-pedalling mediators.  Admitting that the Gospel calls us to give witness against fear and division, whether we are mainline or sideline, we would seek to speak Gospel truth to the meanness and irrationality perpetrated on our people.  So, I asked friends to join in putting together a petition. See: Hoosier United Methodists Speak Out.

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Pastors at Broadway UMC in the 1980s re-gathered at memorial for Rev. Frank Sablan, 9/7/17.

There was a memorial service for one of those good retired pastors, Rev. Frank Sablan at Broadway UMC, one of the places Frank served.  At this memorial service were several of the lay and clergy persons who had joined in ministry at Broadway.  We gathered for a photo and I realized the treasure that is all around but often overlooked.  Good people, still sharing their gifts.  Mainline or sideline it doesn’t matter. 

We call on Hoosier Untied Methodists to speak out.  Our church needs this witness, even more than our nation.  If you are not in Indiana, we encourage you to join with others in giving voice to our true hope.

A copy of the petition by Indiana United Methodists is here: Hoosier United Methodists Speak Out.

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A Call and Confession of United Methodists in Indiana.

We the undersigned United Methodists speak a word of concern for our nation; and we confess that we have been silent for too long.

In our nation’s body-politic we are witnessing behaviors that are fundamentally at odds with our most basic faith expressions and creeds. A culture of fear, personal attacks, disregard for the truth and denial of scientific research now undermines our most cherished covenants as a nation and people of faith. Daily there is an assault on our deepest values of respect and human equality through administrative language, policies and practices. This language and these practices undermine our commitments to honest dialogue, equal justice, decent speech, fairness toward our neighbor and care for our earth. In the process, our nation is losing its critical role as the most important actor in favor of basic human rights around the world.

The bullying, bigotry and exclusion which seek to overwhelm our better angels, run counter to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Our children and grandchildren are watching, and sadly, learning. How will we give Christian witness? We cannot remain silent any longer. We join Senator Jeff Flake and other men and women of courage and good will in saying “ENOUGH” of this course and destructive behavior.

We call on all of our congressional leaders, especially those in Indiana, to move toward greater civility, respect and desire for practices of justice for all upon which our nation’s greatness rests.

Standing Behind the President?

Standing Behind the President?

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Our pugilistic president has once more sought to bully his way past the moral and legal heritage we together claim as a nation.  Much has already been said about his pathetic performance in Trump Tower on Tuesday, 8-15-17.  He spoke his mind.  In the process truth, his presidency and our nation’s standing in the world were diminished.  It was a shameful moment that will, I suspect, become a central moment identified as the end any prospect to provide ethical leadership.

Increasingly, however, my concern is not primarily about Mr. Trump’s bigotry and failings.  He is clearly not up to the job, intellectually or morally.  His ignorance and intolerance are, sadly, no longer astonishing.  My concern is now with those folks who continue to stand behind him. 

It was rather graphically portrayed on Tuesday.  There, in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York were several Cabinet Secretaries standing behind as he spoke — each one of whom would be on the enemies list of the hate groups marching in Charlottesville.

The question before us all now is where do we stand?  Political leaders — Republican, Democrat and Independent — have spoken out against the moral equivalency arguments misused by the president yesterday.  However, this still begs the question about WHERE THEY WILL STAND GOING FORWARD?

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White House “leaders” playing Musical Chairs — Who will be left?    Photo by USA Today,
February 17, 2017

We watch as one by one, folks leave their posts in the White House.  Increasingly, many of these folks, fine people they, leave this administration with their reputations in tatters.  They have, as the old joke goes, “Tried to teach a pig to sing.”  The futility of this effort is identified as follows, “it only wastes your time and it annoys the pig.”  As we have already seen there is a pathetic kind of musical chairs being played out in an administration that has no guiding set of principles other than the hope of returning us to a world that never existed — to the mythical land of “Make America Great Again.”

Romans 12:21 commends the faithful as follows: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  How then shall we live?

Is Mr. Trump redeemable?  Yes, of course, as a person.  I am a Christian pastor, after all, and I do believe in conversion.  However, there is another question which we must consider: “Is this presidency redeemable?”  To that I would answer “NO.”  We have now passed the point of no-return for this administration.   I speak for myself, and I regret to say, I suspect this is now the sentiment of a majority of others in our nation.

What then to do?  Yes, you guessed it — we begin with ourselves — let’s start there.  If we are not going to stand behind this fatally flawed president what will we do? 

Years ago there was an Open Housing campaign that ran ads in national newspapers with the headline “Your Heart May Be in the Right Place But Are You?”  As I suggested earlier this week on this blog, we need to reach across the many divides in our society (there are more than two, Mr. President) and build and rebuild what Dr. King called the Beloved Community.

(I am avoiding the question of what wasn’t done that allowed us to get to this place.  I look around my denomination — United Methodism — and see our failures.  We were so busy trying to grow our congregations that we missed what was happening in our communities.  We allowed racist perceptions, fears of the undocumented and discrimination against gay persons to distort our Christian witness.  We sought to “grow” our congregations by filling them up with people like ourselves.)

We need to be honest about the ways economic exclusion and racism have denied opportunities and allowed our nation to value crony capitalism and violence as our tools of choice when facing complex problems.  For those of us who are perceived to be “white” and have thereby benefited from this underlying racial advantage, we need to rethink how we spend our time and resources.  We may need to rethink our paternalistic styles of “helping the poor” as these often do more damage than good.

And, yes, we must support corporate, civic and political leaders who will no longer stand behind this president’s misguided set of words and actions. 

We saw some corporate leaders take that step away in recent days, leaving the president’s manufacturing council.  In every place now possible, I am prepared to argue that folks need to step away.  Find a political leader who has a clear moral compass.  Encourage and support him or her. 

Send words of support to those corporate and political leaders who do step away and say, “Thank you for modeling true patriotism and the best of our citizenship by no longer following this misguided, confused man.”  I believe our democracy is up to it.  I pray our democracy is up to it.

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Post Script — Why My Strong Words:

I have wondered if I should respond to the president’s words yesterday.  After all, I don’t have much in the way of authority or agency.  My words might only do damage or cause pain… perhaps even be painful to persons I love and respect.  However,  I haven’t exactly been a wilting violet in the past — and, there is a sense that each one of us needs to now join in seeking to be a bit more bold and honest if we are to seek a peaceful and healthy nation and world.  I also decided to write after seeing the video attached below.  It is chilling to see the intentions of hatred from the inside white supremacists.  So, I have added my small voice — more, I pledge my actions on the behalf of reconciliation and stronger communities.

Perhaps Mr. Trump mistakes loud verbal fisticuffs with moral strength.  Sad.  He stepped off script and spoken his mind yesterday.  Among the many utterly foolish things said a the press conference in Trump Tower yesterday (8-15-17) were these words: “I only tell you this, there are two sides to a story.”  No, Mr. President, you are wrong. There are many sides.

As persons from MANY sides are saying today, there is no moral equivalency between Neo-Nazis, KKK and other supremacists with those who were counter protesters.  The president says he took time to gather the evidence before he spoke.  Really? Has this been our experience over the months of this twitter presidency?  I wonder if he took the time to see the images in the video on White supremacists on Vice News video on HBO.  This remarkable coverage, from inside the hate group, gives a clear picture of the violence intended leading to the tragic events.  Surely Mr. Trump could and should have this information — AND MORE.  He is, after all, the president of the United States.

There are multiple sides to our nation’s story.  Perhaps Mr. Trump is only able to work in a binary world of either this / or that.  However, this is a nation that continues to benefit when our leaders have a moral center and when they seek to unify rather than divide.

Some have recently suggested to me that I should be equally concerned about the hatred and violence expressed by groups on the left.  All such hatred and violence must stop — I am concerned, yes, but not equally.  The reality is that the actual criminality, on the streets, is not comparable in threat or in our response to it.  White supremacists represent more than 90% of the violence visited on us by terrorists-made-in-America in recent years.  Most tragically, these supremacist groups have been validated and sustained by the beliefs and actions of staff persons currently serving on the White House.  When David Duke praises the courage of Donald Trump for his words yesterday, there is no clearer witness needed to the danger that is at hand.

 

Living Beyond Embarrassment

Living Beyond Embarrassment

My spouse, Elaine, lives with the belief that there is nothing that can’t be improved with duct tape.  She is right — about 10% of the time!  It is a running joke for us.  Examples abound: screen doors, chipped flower-pot, refrigerator shelf corners, or uneven table legs can all be “fixed” with duct tape.  Occasionally when there are efforts to repair a clock or extend a hotdog roasting stick, I confess to being embarrassed.  Mostly it is fun discovering the duct-tape-inventions of my frugal spouse.

Attachment-1Such small embarrassments are more than outweighed by my love for her and knowledge that she has many more reasons to be embarrassed by me.  My shirt may carry too many spots from spilled food from recent meals, I may greet someone by the wrong name, or ask for a comment to be repeated the seventh time, when I can’t acknowledge my hearing loss, I know I am an embarrassment for her.  Much more so than a little duct tape here and there could fix.  Elaine deserves the “most embarrassed by a spouse” award.

Embarrassment is on my mind recently.  Serious embarrassment, not the sort easily ignored, laughed away, or mended by duct tape.  We all, or most of us, know about embarrassment. I think of the big institutions in my life — my nation, my state, my church.  I was helped by Neil Gross who writes, Americans embarrassed by President Trump are experiencing vicarious embarrassment not for him but for the country. They’re embarrassed that, with Mr. Trump as president, the country’s claims to virtue, leadership and moral standing ring hollow.” (see Neil Gross, New York Times, 6-16-17, Does Trump Embarrass You?)

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It is not the shameless pettiness, the vile language, or the ill-considered tweets that are most embarrassing.  As Gross names it, it is an embarrassment related to our national standing in the world.  We are all painted by the brush of Donald’s obvious ignorance and intolerance.  He is our representative, our national voice and when he behaves like a six-year-old, each American loses something precious, something immeasurable for our nation and world.

Week after week there are multiple examples of Mr. Trump’s lack of knowledge, non-existent curiosity, or his disregard for basic decency.   I am embarrassed “early and often” as they say.  However, methinks the behavior of this seventy-one year old adolescent is not the core issue.  We have not been carried to this current sad emotional valley by Donald Trump alone.  There are multiple reasons we have arrived at this place.

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Congressman Steve Scalise was shot last week while practicing for the annual baseball game between Republicans and Democrats in Congress.  Scalise was apparently chosen because he is in the Republican leadership in Congress.  A deeply troubled man from Belleville, Illinois, is said to have shot Scalise and others out of his anger over the political direction of our nation.   What tragic madness!

Fortunately, congressional leaders responded with calls to lower the rhetoric, end the vitriol and display our national unity, despite our political differences.  Good.  This is a much-needed message.  However, our problem is not just mean-spirited language and the damage it produces.  Our nation didn’t arrive at this place suddenly.  The ugliness and embarrassment didn’t begin in 2016.  Year after year, we have lived with denials and multiple embarrassments.  We have considerable makeup work to do to regain our sense of national pride.

Sadly, the horrible scenes played out on the practice field in Alexandria, Virginia last week were the 154th mass shooting in the United States in 2017.  Over 6,800 persons have died due to gun violence in the first six months of 2017 (see: U.S. gun violence in 2017).   Might it be that we should have acknowledged this reality and our embarrassment sooner?  Might it be we should be persistent and ever more diligent in demanding change?  I do not claim that stronger gun laws would have prevented the shooting on that Virginia baseball field.  We will never know.  However, I am convinced that having restrictions on who can purchase guns, especially assault weapons, would have reduced the number of mass shootings this past year.  This is our continuing embarrassment.gun-166507_960_720

The fact that our nation did not take strong measures against gun violence following the deaths of twenty children and six adults murdered at Sandy Hook School in Newton Connecticut, just prior to Christmas in 2012, makes it clear that our problems, our embarrassments, go much deeper than the divisive actions and language of Donald Trump. 

Years ago, former Speaker of the House, Richard Gephardt, told me he believed that “politics is our best substitute for violence.”  I agree, mostly.  Still, when four out of every five adults in the nation want stronger gun laws and yet nothing is done we have a problem.  We should all be embarrassed.  Whether it is the vast sums of money now distorting our elections, the abuses of social media, the use of fake news, voter suppression, gerrymandering or all of the above, we should be embarrassed. 

What can we do?  Let me suggest four things:

  1. Take personal responsibility.  Let’s not get stuck in our embarrassment and pretend these problems will be resolved by others. This is our nation.  In large and small ways we need to stay active in seeking leaders and institutions that exemplify the best of who we are as a people.  Now is not the time to retreat into safe enclaves.
  2. Plan and act locally.  Find ways you can make a difference where you live.  For some this will mean working with civil institutions and people of good will nearby.  Others of us live in what might be called “citizenship deserts.”  In Indiana, my home state, there is a selfishness and meanness (even in our churches) that makes working on the behalf of the poor or seeking environmental holiness difficult.  In places like this our work is more basic.  We need to build new networks of courage and encourage small communities of care to thrive and expand. 
  3. Speak on the behalf of the poor, the vulnerable, the stranger.  Perhaps it is to end gun violence, perhaps to welcome the immigrant, perhaps in support of Medicaid coverage for the poor, perhaps to protect our threatened environment.
  4. Act now.  Channel that embarrassment.  Do something today.  It may be as simple as calling your congressman, your mayor or governor.  Support measures that build up rather than destroy our civil society. 

Drop the duct tape and join in helping our nation move past our many current places of embarrassment.

Hollow Promises, Real Threats

Inauguration Day, January 20, 2017. 

Donald J. Trump takes the oath of office to be president of the United States with his hand on TWO Bibles!  (More on that later). 

He is now our president, my president.  Donald Trump?  How could this happen?  How, in this nation I love, could this occur?  I understand many of the dynamics, sociologically speaking: lost jobs, lost status, lost centers of cohesion.  Religious congregations and denominations have been narrowed into enclaves for the like-minded.  Patriotism has been turned into a category that is narrowly defined by a few talk radio hosts and Fox News.  But, am I not a patriot too, one who loves and will sacrifice for the country?

It was Bill Coffin who said “Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country, a reflection of God’s lover’s quarrel with the world.”  Parker Palmer reminded me of this quote by Coffin in a recent interview with Krista Tippett (Parker Palmer on Patriotism and Trump).

Parker helped me better understand the emotional vertigo I was experiencing when he said, On January 20, 2017, the country I love will inaugurate a man who embodies many of our culture’s most soulless traits: adolescent impulsiveness, an unbridled drive for wealth and power, a taste for violence, nonstop narcissism, and massive arrogance. A man who has maligned women, Mexicans, Muslims, African Americans, immigrants, members of the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities, and Mother Earth — a man who’d sooner deny the obvious than apologize for the outrageous — will become President of the United States.

When time for the inauguration came I couldn’t watch — not in real-time.  I believe this is a day of tragedy for our nation. Actually, I pray fervently that I am wrong.  However, as one of my wise friends says, “There is no wrong way to do the right thing.”

Instead of watching the inauguration I read passages of scripture (Isaiah 43, Luke 4, Matthew 5-7, Psalm 30)  Psalm 30:5 reminds that “Weeping may linger for the night but joy comes with the morning.”   These passages offer a much more compelling inaugural — one that better fits the shape of our hope as human beings.

And I read passages from Rebecca Solnit’s book Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities.   It was here I read “And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated, and isolated, joy is a fine initial act of insurrection.” 

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President Trump’s Inaugural
In the end, I did look at video clips of Mr. Trump’s inauguration address — with the sound OFF.  Then I read it.  It was watching the address in silence that I noticed something for the first time.  Where had I seen these behaviors before?  These facial expressions, the gestures, the snarls, the gesticulation?  It was familiar, and threatening, apart from any words.  If I had never seen him before, this was clearly an angry man — diffuse anger.  Expressing disgust over something.    Something deep in my psyche said “don’t get near him.”

I searched my memory.  Why was this truculent image so compelling?  Then I recalled the places it had been seen —

  • Troubled parents yelling at their children from the sidelines of a baseball game or soccer match. 
  • Crowds caught up in so-called professional wrestling matches or soccer matches.
  • A certain angry basketball coach yelling at the refs — or worse, his players.
  • School board meetings or city council meetings where angry citizens want to “protect their children” or “protect their property” from others, unlike themselves, — usually the less fortunate.

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Photo by Will Counts of Elizabeth Eckford on way to Little Rock High School, September 4, 1957
I was reminded of my own adolescence, of my anger and soul-sick past efforts to denigrate or belittle others, that I fell into.  Thankfully this mostly occurred in my preadolescent years… so I recognized the fear laden, petty impulses I saw in those images.

And, mostly, I was reminded of the famous photo taken by my friend Will Counts depicting the angry mob following Elizabeth Eckford of the Little Rock Nine as she was on her way to school.  One of the persons shouting at her is Hazel Massery.  (Forty years later Hazel sought forgiveness and reconciliation with Elizabeth.)

Angry words are easily spoken, especially by the immature, but typically they result in false promises and dangerous threats.  To fulfill the promises made will require some compromises, apologies, new alliances with perceived enemies.  It is the threats that are more easily made and laced in bigotry that are real. Threats indicate an inability to think beyond binary categories of good and evil or us and them.

The scripture passages I read tell of the power of anger to destroy others — and in the process one’s own self.  The scriptures speak of a need for forgiveness (no matter whether one thinks it is needed).  The scriptures speak of a God who loves ALL and calls us to love others as we are loved.  You can swear on two, or ten, or one hundred Bibles but the real importance of the Bible is to know the stories and truths it contains… and to incorporate those into a person’s living and behaviors. 

Hand on the Bible, Mr. Trump is now caught in a web of his own making.  He will be expected by us all — including those who voted for him — to do more than merely shout insults from the sidelines.  Either/or views of the world won’t do much good when the complexities of modern life and governance confront.  Can a seventy year old grow up emotionally?  The world watches and hopes.


Dr. King, Congressman Lewis and Other Creative Extremists

Dr. King, Congressman Lewis & Other Creative Extremists

I was up in the air on the 2017 Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Flying somewhere over Iowa, between Clinton and Waterloo, our flight pattern took us over the Skunk River.  For some reason then my thoughts turned to the presidential inauguration this week.

What might Dr. King say about our nation’s current dilemma in leadership?  Only a few days ago Congressman John Lewis indicated he would not be attending the presidential inauguration of Donal Trump and said he considered the election of the president-elect to be illegitimate.  

What might Dr. King say?  Would he agree with Mr. Lewis?  No one can know for certain — however, let me respond as one who was around when Dr. King was active. If anything, Dr. King might say that John Lewis was too timid — that he should have said more about resisting the impending disregard for fair elections, truth and transparency on the part of anyone who would seek to serve as president.  

I remember well Dr. King’s courage.  I remember that at the time of his death most white folks in the United States thought he was too radical and disagreed with him.  I remember his commitment to the poor, the immigrant, the disenfranchised.  I remember his care for the U.S. Constitution and the need to stand against those who would seek to distort justice.  Dr. King, like Mr. Lewis today, was considered by many well-intentioned persons to be an extremist for justice.  

Writing from the Birmingham Jail in April 1963, Dr. King responds to eight clergymen who indicated that the activities in the struggle for civil rights in Birmingham were “unwise and untimely.”  Does this sound familiar?  Aren’t we hearing the same thing about Congressman Lewis’ comments.

Here is a passage from Dr. King’s letter to the clergy in Birmingham in 1963:

So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime—the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists. [From “Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963]

Prior to re-reading the text of Dr. King’s famous Letter From the Birmingham Jail while flying 32,000 feet in the air, my tendency was to think that perhaps Congressman Lewis had overstated — gone too far.  However, I now think Congressman Lewis’ statement was right, and was that of a courageous extremist.

For what might Mr. Lewis be called “an extremist?”  For asking us to “love the neighbor?”  For asking that our elections be fair and voter suppression to end?  For thinking foreign governments shouldn’t meddle in our democracy, nor be invited to do so by any candidate?  What about Donald Trump, where is he an extremist?  

Always before in my adult life, when I disagreed with the incoming president, I made the distinction between the person and the office.   However, what does it mean that most Americans today seem to respect the office of the presidency MORE than the man who was about to take the oath of office?  What does it mean that patterns of lies and deceptions have become normative?  What does it mean that this person will not be transparent with tax returns, seeks to find a dodge around potential conflicts of interest, challenges the intelligence experts of this nation, denies climate change, seeks to make alliances with known totalitarian practitioners and sees them as preferable to President Obama?

Reading an article by Ned Resnikoff in ThinkProgress (11/27/17) there was research that helped confirm my doubts and Congressmen Lewis’ concerns (see Ned Resnikoff, ThinkProgress, 11/27/16).  What we are facing is a constitutional crisis.  One that Dr. King would have recognized.  Resnikoff speaks of the coming administration’s style as “managed democracy.”  It is a perspective hostile to open, egalitarian standards of governance.  It is the preferred way suggested by Steve Bannon, now White House Chief Strategist, who famously said, “Darkness is good.  Dick Cheney, Darth Vader, Satan.  That’s power.”  Bannon hates a government based on compromise and consensus.  Borrowing from Putin’s crony Valdimir Serkoff, it is an approach that seeks to destabilize, distort, encourage contradictions and lies — always pointing to another as the true enemy or liar.

What happens when no news is to be trusted and all news is called “fake.”  What happens when press conferences turn into diversionary attacks on others or the media?  What happens when judges are accused of bias if you disagree?

The strategy is not new to our electoral process.  Karl Rove was a master at inversion or diversion whereby one’s own candidate’s weakness is projected on to the opponent preemptively.   Okay, that is politics, and as they say “it ain’t beanbag!”  

However, what is underway now, in our current experience, is so much more pernicious and dangerous.  It has been called inverted totalitarianism: All news media are said to be fake, so trust your prejudices over facts.  Who can know the truth? There are so many distortions and points of view… Or, all politicians are crooks and liars, our guy is so much more entertaining!  He is, so to speak, “a crook, but our crook.”  Reality television comes to Washington and truth is fractioned out of our institutions.  Schools, courts, churches, scientists, the press — all civic institutions are not to be trusted. 

When there is no truth to be trusted and when the people doubt their own moral compass with so many competing and confusing points of view — then those who can continue to distort and create confusion in a post-factual world, they can claim the power to keep their machinery going to their benefit.  It is no wonder that Mr. Trump admires Mr. Putin so fully.

I believe Mr. Lewis spoke and continues to speak a courageous word.  It is a word that is uncomfortable to hear.  John Lewis still has a strong moral compass.  He is still a creative extremist.  I stand with Congressman Lewis.