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?
A year has passed and I have shared strong words about Mr. Trump as a citizen; this year, 2018, I speak as pastor. It’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.
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.