Saturday, September 16, 2017

Dressed In Hope

Sometimes a lot of things come together in my head and produce a kind of "thick theological reflection."  This week has been one of those times.  I'd like to try to tease the bits of this tapestry apart a bit and share them with you before stepping back and showing the whole weaving.

Some week's ago I picked the scriptures for this week's worship.  They are the story in Genesis 3 of Adam and Eve leaving the Garden; with a particular emphasis  on Genesis 3:21: "And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife Garments of skins, and clothed them."  And Galatians 3:27-28, "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." My thoughts about these passages have been heavily influenced by Lauren Winner's Wearing God, and I am grateful to her for her writing.  Where I wind up is, of course, my own responsibility.

Recently, I agreed to do a workshop in October on suicide for the Annual Meeting of the DC Baptist Convention.  In preparation for that I began reviewing clinical writing and talking to friends of mine at the Hyattsville Community Crisis Services who deal with this issue daily through the Hotline and other contacts. Thank you Jamie Brill, Bill Leary, and Tim Jansen for all taking the time to talk (over really good meals by the way) about this.

Frighteningly there is approximately 1 suicide attempt every 38 seconds and 121 successful suicides every day.  High on the list for these attempts and deaths are veterans who have significant issues such as homelessness or less than honorable discharges; LGBT youth; those with untreated depression; and persons who have had childhood trauma. 9 out of 10 are linked to mental illness with a very high correlation to bi-polar disorders.  What these all seem to have in common is a sense of being overwhelmed and a feeling of hopelessness.  

Adam and Eve must have felt that way.  There they are, they've been living in this blissful place, and suddenly they realize that they are "naked."  That word, by the way, is used to refer to a city without fortifications.  It is vulnerable.  They were suddenly aware of their vulnerability in a way they were not equipped to handle.  Things could hurt you!  Bees could sting, animals that you frolicked with yesterday have teeth and claws, the river you splashed in could drown you, and plants could be poison.

Anyone who has ever known or worked with victims of childhood trauma will see reflections of this.

God saw everything that God had made, and behold, it was very good.
Even the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Then why can't they eat?
Because it's not time
It's too soon
You're not ready
One day
God would have spread a picnic under that tree
And sliced the fruit for them God's Own Self

But instead...

Who told you that you were naked? That you were vulnerable, that you could not trust the providence and loving protection of God?

The moment they ate
Their eyes flew open
Suddenly, they KNEW
Their tongues burned with the taste
of Good and Evil
The slashing agony of torture
the bitter tang of racism
the dark emptiness of hunger
the ripped openness of physical and sexual abuse
The stinging salt of lonely tears
The KNEW the fear, the terror
of experience and understanding
gained too soon.
And in their anxious, terrified state
The grabbed what they could
To hide their vulnerability.

To keep them from the Tree of Life
Might have been an act of compassion, lest they spend eternity in this terrified state.

Knowing that they must leave, God stayed up all night, hunched over God's sewing machine, making them clothes of skins to protect them in the world that they had to go out into.  The agony and pathos of this moment is palpable; as is the tenderness of the moment when God gave them these gifts, wrapping these frightened, overwhelmed, hopeless feeling, childlike creatures in the product of God's labor of love.

To a later world struggling with it's feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness, Paul will say, "You have put on Christ like a warm coat" (my paraphrase).  "See in this care and this love a reason to find Hope."

Interestingly enough, the next line does away with divisions that are/were often marked by clothing: male and female; slave and free; Jew and Gentile.  They do not exist for Christians any more because, clothed in Christ Jesus, we are all wearing the "school uniform" of the Way, the Kingdom, of Jesus' family.

Roll back up to look at the things that raise suicidal risk.  What if we took that list and now said, "We have put on Christ Jesus.  Dressed in that love we not longer see a division between sane and mentally ill, between straight and LGBT, between traumatized and "normal", for we are all wrapped together in the warm blanket of God's love for us in Christ Jesus."

The third step in this picture is, of course, that you and I are called to be the Body of Christ.  We are that warm blanket.  Clothed in Christ, we are called to "cloth the naked" in whatever form that takes.

I don't remember whether I read it, or one of my friends said it to me this past week, but I was struck by the comment that "a caring person is the first line of referral."  The first line of defense against suicide is our personal empathy for those who hurt, who feel overwhelmed, who feel that all hope is gone.  We are called to embody that hope.

Another friend marked the end of Suicide Prevention week by thanking the friend who found them when they had cut their wrist and gotten them help.  47 years ago this person helped my friend.  This friend helped me when my life was doing a crash and burn.  It is as though we are passing around the blanket of God's love so that in it's warmth we may all find Hope and Trust to move forward.

If you read this, and are thinking of hurting yourself, please don't.  We need you.  There is Hope.  There is help.  And by continuing to live, you, like my friend, may one day save the life of another.


Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Insanity, Sin, And The Repeal Of DACA

I am generally reluctant to say, "Thus Says The Lord."  I am more likely to say, "this is how I read scripture, what do you think?" and to add, if we disagree, "We're Baptists, we can do that."  But today, I don't think I can do that.

Today, the Trump Administration did away with DACA in a way that demonstrated an extreme level of cowardice and cruelty.  But beyond that, and this IS The Word of the Lord, in a manner that is sinful. Sinful and in "If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn't do it, it is sin for them" (James 4:17) sinful.

I would like to point to just a couple of passages and then tell a Bible story.  I want to tell that story because it is a warning; and it's a warning we need to hear, because if we let this decision go by without the Church taking a stand alongside these "Dreamers," these oppressed ones, we become complacent in the sin.

Let me begin with Deuteronomy 24 where we find a set of laws governing the treatment of the "widow, the orphan, and the alien."  Among them this (vs. 14-15) You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns  You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt. (emphasis mine)

One of the easily overlooked comments that Attorney General Sessions made today was that Dreamers were allowed to participate in Social Security.  That means that these folks, many of whom have been working for years, have been contributing to Social Security.  What will happen to their money?  Will they be eligible to draw SS in whatever country they are living when they reach the eligible age?  Will that money be returned to them in a lump sum upon deportation?  Watch this closely over the next weeks and months.  Raise this question every chance you get.  Because to fail to make provision for those funds is to steal the wages of the worker.

In my opinion (and I break now for a "me" comment...if Paul could do that, so can I), Lawsuits should begin NOW to seek to ensure either the guaranteed payment of those funds upon eligibility or their immediate return to the Dreamers who have put into Social Security.  Tie up the Courts with this and get Orders blocking the deportation of any Dreamer who has put anything into Social Security until the issue is resolved as a Class Action.  
And do not fall for the "we're only going after "outlaws" line.  Because this Administration and ICE have demonstrated that, in their mind, being an "illegal/undocumented" alien fits their definition of a crime and equals "outlaw."  Think Jim Crow and the definitions of "loitering" and "vagrancy" that filled Southern chain gangs with Black, rentable, virtual slave labor and you'll see what I mean.  If you read this and have any capacity to help those suits begin, PLEASE go to work.  If you don't have, share the idea with someone who does.

Now back to the Scriptures.

Few of us need to be reminded that Jesus said, with absolutely no ambiguity at all, that "If you do it to the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did to me." (Matthew 25:40)  The consequence of failing to care for these oppressed, marginalized folks was horrific.  But it has a basis in other Scriptures.  And so now to the Bible story with a brief digression to Ezekiel that lays the groundwork for the story I want to tell.  In Ezekiel 17 the Lord says that He will plant a tender shoot on the mountain height of Israel

"in order that it may produce boughs and
         bear fruit,
   and become a noble cedar.
Under it every kind of bird will live;
   in the shade of its branches will nest
   winged creatures of every kind.
All the trees of the field shall know
  that I am the Lord.
I bring low the high tree,
  I make high the low tree;
I dry up the green tree
  and make the dry tree flourish.
I the Lord have spoken;
   I will accomplish this." (Ezekiel 17:23b-24)

God's people are told that they will, even after exile, become this great nation which is to become home and shelter for all kinds of people.  Because God does what God wishes...and this is what God wishes.

Holding that thought, look at Daniel 4.  I will let you read it for yourself.  But the story goes that Nebuchadnezzar had a dream.  It was a dream that terrified him.  This dream was about a great tree that was home to all these birds and animals and then it was cut down.  Daniel interpreted the dream saying, "that tree is you."  He went on to tell Nebuchadnezzar that he would go insane and eat grass like the cattle, "until you have learned that the Most High has sovereignty over the kingdom of mortals, and gives it to whom he will."

Nebuchadnezzar's arrogance has condemned him.  He will be judged by God for his oppressive behaviors that he believes he is entitled to enact.  Daniel does something incredibly courageous and says to Nebuchadnezzar, "Therefore, O king, may my counsel be acceptable to you: atone for your sins with righteousness and your iniquities with mercy to the oppressed, so that your prosperity may be prolonged."

Nebuchadnezzar, of course, does not do any of this.  And within a year he goes insane.  He stays insane until he acknowledges that God is the source of all power and goodness.

This story is not a "one and done."  We are in this story.  We are seeing this story reenacted before us right now.  The insanity has begun.  Yet, there is still time to repent.  Trump could fix his Executive Order repealing DACA. He could direct that a way be found to fix the Program.  Congress can make decisions about this repeal that can protect those Dreamers who will be harmed by this decision.

We, as Christians, in partnership and fellowship of other people of faith can help to force this issue.  We can write blogs.  We can write Congress.  We can march.  We can suggest and support Court actions.  We can pray.  We can be islands of Shalom in the ocean of insanity.

 Make no mistake.  The insanity is just beginning.  It is bad, but it will get worse.  Unless "sins are atoned for with righteousness" and "iniquities with mercy to the oppressed," we will see the insanity increase.

I'm not talking about God punishing with hurricanes, etc. (we've heard that before).  I am talking about the realities that God's commandments and Jesus' teachings about Justice and Mercy are either followed, or there are consequences that come in the wake of that sinfulness.  One need only look at the history of oppressive regimes to see this.  And when we add, as people of faith, our belief that when the oppressed cry out, God hears and comes, we can see where our tasks lie.  We need to do our work for Justice and labor for Mercy.  We need to be on the lookout for what God is doing, and is going to do, and join ourselves to it.

As Galatians tells us, "Don't be deceived, God won't be mocked."  Believing that you can live in injustice, denying mercy to the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the alien is the way to madness.

The Word of the Lord

Saturday, September 2, 2017

A Response To The "Nashville Statement"

Sometimes it is necessary to write or speak, not because you're going to say anything particularly wise or important, or even new, but because to fail to speak would be immoral.  This writing is such a moment.

I have been impressed lately in terms of responding to a number of social situations, by the words of Martin Luther King Jr. that "In the end , we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."  This is a time when we are bombarded by so many situations that cry out for Christians to respond, that it is easily to be overwhelmed and say, "it's okay, there are enough people speaking out, I don't need to say anything."

This past week the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood released a document titled the The Nashville Statement. This document focused on sexuality as a (perhaps the) primary sign of Christian faith.  It was signed by over 150 evangelical leaders.  It represents a heresy that has gained a lot of play and done incredible damage to both the Christian faith and to LGBTQ persons who love Jesus and seek to follow Him.

Some of the best responses to this document can be found here:

and here:

But, as a  person of faith and a Christian Pastor, I need to add my voice to those who are expressing their difficulty with this statement.  

I stated above that the statement represents a heresy.  "Heresy" is defined as a "belief or opinion contrary to orthodox belief" or to "revealed truth."  As noted in the first article above, the conservative evangelicals who signed on to this document appear to be redefining what the Christian faith's primary behaviors and beliefs are.  They appear to be no longer "I was hungry and you gave me food, naked and you clothed me..." but to define the requirements of Christianity by speaking about a subject that, frankly, Jesus never mentioned.  So though they claim they are representing "traditional" belief, they are not.

A second problem that I find with the document is that I can find no support for the idea that Jesus would say to anyone that they were unwelcome to follow Him.  I just can't find it.  Jesus was gathering the wounded and the hurt to Him, not pushing them away.  As one who has a very Christo-centric faith, the first place I look for guidance is the life of Jesus.  I do not see this exclusion reflected there.

All of these problems are addressed much better than I can address them by others who have spoken and written this past week.  But that is not an excuse for silence in the face of those who are claiming to speak exclusion on behalf of Jesus and the Christian Church at large.

So, let me simply be clear.  Though I pray for their hearts to be opened to love and welcome their Christian brothers and sisters who are gay, lesbian, and trans....I am very clear that those who signed on to the Nashville Statement do not speak for me, they do not speak for many in the Christian Church, and I sure as hell do not believe that they speak for Jesus.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Sermon I Don't Want To Preach, The Blog I Don't Want To Write

I have been on vacation for a little over a week now.  I have almost a week to go.  It's raining and so I'm thinking about Sunday's sermon....and the world.....and Jonah....and Daniel....and why taking Jesus seriously is so damned hard.

I call this the "sermon I don't want to preach" and the "blog I don't want to write," not because I don't believe it; but because once you say it, all wiggle room is gone. No excuses are left.  And I like having room to maneuver.  Even with God, I try to have a little wiggle room (I can hear God doing a Dr. Phil imitation now, "How's that working for ya?")

Sunday's sermon is the final one on Baptismal Identity.  It is about the responsibility of speaking truth to power.  That's part of our identity.  Part of our responsibility.   Standing tall and naming racism and all kinds of bigotry and cruelty for what they are.  And pointing out the consequences of the failure to listen.  Which brings me to Daniel.  Daniel who must have had at least a twinge of fear when Nebuchadnezzar called him in to interpret the dream in Daniel 4.  Why? Because Daniel had to tell Nebuchadnezzar that he was going to go insane.  He would soon be eating grass like a cow and his appearance would make Howard Hughes look like a beauty queen.  But it is the loss of his humanity that is the greatest horror.  It is that loss that many theologians have described as the primary quality of Hell.

Why was this going to happen to Nebuchadnezzar?  Because he had decided that it was all about him.  He had done it all, and he did not need to answer to anyone.  If that reminds you of anyone, or any group of people in our current world, that similarity is not accidental.  Empires always think that they are independent, that they are beyond even the demands of Torah.  Our world is fast going insane, and many of our leaders with it.

But it is easy to lose track of the fact that in the midst of all this our task is also to "speak the Truth in Love" (Ephesians 4:15) and to "Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you." (Ephesians 4:31-32, italics mine)

Why?  Because, Paul reminds us in Ephesians 6:12, "Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places."

I would much prefer it be about flesh and blood.  I want to let my rage at the Joe Arpaios of the world run rampant....along with the Donald Trumps who pardon them. Who excuse their racism and cruelty and the corruption of all my country stands for by calling them "patriots" and in so doing giving that word a vile and nauseating meaning; one similar to calling the keepers of the ovens in Nazi Germany "patriots."  I know my heart.  And my heart sees these evils and thinks that maybe putting on a black and a mask and meeting the Nazis in the street with the same violence that they bring could be a good thing, a purifying thing, a comforting thing.  Because I, like many, was raised on this myth of redemptive violence and have never quiet shaken it.  It is the "thorn in my flesh" (one among many if I am honest).

In John 18:36, Jesus tells Pilate, "My Kingdom is not from here.  If it were, my followers would fight."  This Kingdom, the one I pledged myself to at my Baptism, the one in whose citizenship I find my Baptismal Identity, doesn't work by violence.  And there is a reason.  The reason is that the purpose of this Kingdom is the rescue and redemption of us ALL.  Even Donald Trump.  Even Joe Arpaio.  Even torch welding Nazis.

Episcopal Bishop Michael B. Curry is fond of quoting the hymn There Is A Balm In Gilead: "If you cannot preach like Peter, and you cannot pray like Paul, you can tell about the Savior, and say He died for all."  FOR ALL.  I'm sorry, but that sucks some days.  Because the "sin sick souls" that need to be healed aren't always people I like. I need to be reminded that the sin sick soul I am most acquainted with is my own.  And if that balm could come for me, it can be present for them as well.

Truth be told I am much more like Jonah than Jesus.  I WANT Nineveh to perish.  I understand why Jonah bought a one way ticket for Tarshish (the totally opposite direction).  Jesus wants to add these people to the Beloved Community.  I want them to rot in hell.  Thanks be to God, what I want doesn't matter in this case. 

The Koran, when it tells the story of Jonah, says that the digestive juices of the whale burned Jonah's skin.  When I let myself be swallowed by my own rage, I will be injured.  Being barfed up on the beach isn't just God putting Jonah where God wanted him; it is an act of mercy taking place before Jonah is destroyed in the belly of the beast.

Some weeks ago I quoted in a sermon the words to Once To Every Man And Nation by James R. Lowell.  I quote them again here because I believe that the choice we make isn't just to speak truth to power, but to do so in Love.  To combat Evil even while we try to bring those trapped in it's grasp to the Table where Christ's Body is broken for us all:

Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side.
Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever, 'twixt that darkness and that light

So here is the sermon I don't want to preach and the blog I don't want to write in a nutshell:

The Beloved Community which is our true home.  The Body of Christ which is our Baptismal Identity, begins for us at the point of our own forgiveness.  The place where we discovered that there is a balm for our own sin sick soul.  We do not get to say who else that Body and Blood were given for.  But we are called to speak the truth.  And that truth is that our world is going insane.  The Principalities of Evil will not win the war, but they are certainly winning some battles.  We have to stand and speak the Truth.  Sometimes we will need to put our own bodies between Evil and the vulnerable.  But all the time we need to be speaking that Truth in Love...calling those who have given themselves over to the rage and the hatred and the greed of this age...calling them to repentance and redemption.  Because Jesus loves them too.  There is no guarantee that they will listen.  There is no guarantee that they will not try to hurt us, or that they will not succeed in that.  What we lay claim to is our faith in the ultimate victory of Jesus Christ.  A world redeemed and restored.  In the meantime, living this faith, placing our bodies and His Bread and Body in the gulf between will always be a call to "take up your cross and follow Me."  But this is the task of the Church.  And we claim the words of Jesus that, finally, "the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it."

Monday, August 28, 2017

Dangerous Cup, Terrifying Bread

Against the cry of "blood and soil,"
We raise the cry, "Body and Blood."
"The Body of Christ, broken for you."
This Body
should you take it,
is a Body of color;
unwelcome in the big house
and profiled at the border.
This is the Body broken for you.
Take, eat and be comforted.
This Blood
you would turn down for transfusion,
because it is is not Aryan. And yet
In it is the New Covenant.
Drink and show His death til He comes again.
Reach out and take this Bread
This Cup
and see beside you
Neither Gentile nor Jew
Servant or free
Woman or man
Black or white
Gay nor straight.
You cannot tear this Body from the loaf,
if you need to ask whose hand was there before you;
you cannot take this Cup,
and be unwilling
To pass it to lips different from yours.
Oh Jew, replace us,
That being in You we might be made
New creatures.
This Body, this Blood
Changes all who take It
Otherwise they eat and drink
Their own damnation.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Mowing Over Virginia Creeper

Heather Heyer. We called her name as a victim of racist terrorism.
White supremacy is sin. We condemned it and stripped away the greasy "Alt-Right" label that was, essentially, just "Nazism in Black tie."

But we cannot stop here. We cannot stop here. We cannot STOP here.

To stop here would be the greatest sin that we as comfortable, white moderate Christians could commit: to think that because we took a single Sunday to label Evil and honor a martyr and pray for her family...that our job is done.

My yard is beset (what a lovely word) with Virginia Creeper.  An insidious plant that grows underground as much as on top and is determined to take over my yard.  I have yet to find a real solution for this problem.  I am most successful when I pull this vine up and keep pulling...tracing it along the soil where it has grown underground in it's never ending effort to own my yard.  What DOESN'T work is the thing I am most tempted to do....that is to simply mow over the top of it.  This will make the visible sign of the vine go away for a little while, but it does nothing to rid my yard of the actual problem.

We as a culture, a society, and particularly as middle class, moderate, white Christians need to focus on getting to the roots of 21st century racism.  Risk the discomfort.  Get our hands dirty.  Dig into the issues.  Otherwise we're just mowing Virginia Creeper.

This has always been the big temptation (at least in my mind).  To declare the evil of racism when it shows up armed and wearing a swastika, but to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear when it is expressed in sentencing trends for drug offenses, lack of decent housing, where toxins are dumped and water impurities ignored, or disparity in income.  It is critical and necessary that violent racism like that expressed in Charlottesville be condemned.  But to do only that and not condemn the systemic expressions of that same racism that lie just under the surface and get expressed in "polite and acceptable" ways is as sinful on our part as the violence that occurs in the street.

I do not always agree with Eugene Cho, but his comment that "Everyone loves the idea of reconciliation...until it involves truthtelling, confessing, repenting, dismantling, forgiveness, and peacemaking" rings very true to me.  I am convinced that the task of healing, restoration, and reconciliation in America is going to call for lifetime commitments and huge personal costs.  Ask John Lewis. This battle will call for the radical altering of an entire cultural milieu.  It's interesting to me that we are ready to applaud that when it applies to South Africa's battle with apartheid, but we give no thought to the need for engaging in our own, American version of Truth and Reconciliation.

Otherwise, we're just mowing over the vine.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Apocolypse 2017

And the angel took me
and showed me
a nation torn apart by the hatred
of those who could not acknowledge their brothers and sisters.
They gathered in the streets
accompanied by a makeshift militia armed with assault rifles and hand guns
They had dressed themselves in helmets, elbow pads and sap gloves
they carried baseball bats
for they had come to wage war, not to demonstrate
And they screamed, "don't hurt me" as they attacked unarmed people

They attacked those who disagreed with them
who sought peacefully to call them to repentance
They drove iron chariots into crowds of innocents
and some of the innocents died.

And I saw slick spokespeople
speaking of hatred and violence being "on all sides"
while others excused the actions of "disaffected young white men"
There were many who were deceived

I saw the saints gathered in a line
faced off against the militia of darkness
Their faces glowed as they sang
"let our light so shine that they may see our good works
and glorify our God who is in heaven"
or was it
"This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine"?

While far away I saw
two men, faces puffed and angry
screaming words of distain at one another
while reaching for fire and fury to hurl at one another
to prove they were not afraid
not caring that such would destroy millions

And I said from beneath my pillow
O spirit, this is too much for me to bear
Can these things not be changed?  Or are they doomed to come?
Let me wake from this evil dream.

And I heard a voice
like unto the Son of Man
These things are already here
pull your head from your....pillow
and take up your cross and follow Me.
For if they are not to destroy you all
it is time
to stand up
in My Name
to be willing
to lay your life and body down
To risk everything for the Kingdom

Then the saints sang louder
reaching out their hands, inviting me to join them
And I had to decide