Saturday, October 13, 2018

Hear The Word Of The Lord


America stands
under the judgement of God
We have robbed the widow
We have defrauded the orphan
We have denied justice to the vulnerable
We have slain the innocent
Our hands drip with the blood
of our brothers and sisters.
We have excused the violence
of other nations
for the sake of their oil
We have made friends of tyrants
and coveted their power
Israel wanted a king like other nations
We have envied their despots
Thus says the Lord
If those who claim that they are My people
will turn from their wicked ways
I will hear and heal their land
If not
The day is coming
When they will cry out for the end
but the end will not come
They will have made their choice
and I will not rescue them
from the consequences of their sin
But know that if they turn
It will be a long and painful turning away
from all they have wrongly worshipped
Yet should they choose to do so
to walk in the way of justice
I will take their hand
And walk with them
and teach them the delights of My Love

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Poems Meditating On Job

This will be the third week in my sermon series on God And Human Suffering.  The first sermon was on the issues related to victims of sexual abuse; last Sunday began a discussion of Job as an example of innocent suffering.  This week the examination of Job continues with a sermon entitled The Man Who Sued God.  
Studying the issue of human suffering and faith is a struggle for me.  It demands looking at some very dark places in human experience and very dark places in the human heart.  Out of that work this week has come a set of poems.  They are stand-alones, but they are interconnected as well.  I offer them to you below.  And, by the way, I do not believe you can get to the second poem without walking through the first.


If He Knows


If He knows every sparrow that falls
How come so many
Writhe in agony
Before death comes to claim them?
Why does the child
Who once ran to hug me
When I picked up his half siblings
Now
Transgendered
Stick a needle in her arm
And drift slowly away in the soft dusk
of the evening?

A doctor spends a lifetime
fighting disease
The diplomat seeking just piece
The minister combats hunger
and bigotry
Only to have their grandchildren
Starve, 
ravaged by illness
in a nation ripped apart
by racial hatred.
The little ones
Who carried their hope and heart
Lie side by side in the bloody dust.

It is true that
So many of us, including me
Avoid the reality of how much of the evil
in the world
Can be laid at our doorstep;
Even much disease
is the result of choices we've made.
We leave lead
In Flint's drinking water
and then bemoan
the individual child with cancer
"Where is God?" we cry,
"when an innocent child suffers"
We avoid the questions
Of corporate guilt and natural consequences
our sins of greed and short sightedness.
When a five year old
is raped
Repeatedly
By an uncle
In a house full of relatives,
Don't blame God
Blame the grown ups who refused to see
what was right in front of them
and were deaf to the cries in the night

All of this is true
And more
But when we peel away
all the layers
For which we are responsible,
When we take responsibility
for having blown the world apart,
The randomness of who is hit
by the flying pieces
Still robs my sleep with it's terror.
There is still
The question of innocent suffering
and an answer too big
maybe too terrible
to comprehend


Job Won His Case


Job won his lawsuit
Though it did not seem so
At the time
Though God responded
With unanswerable questions
And nothing
Not even a new family
Can make up for the ones lost
Job won
God walked out of the courtroom
And into flesh
Shared the dust and blood
of Palestine
Climbed on a cross
Died
God
Died
God
Tasted every bitter God damned tear
Job wept
Screamed beneath the lash
and spit blood throu tortured lips
Hanging there
Helpless
While the crowd walked by
shaking their heads like Job's friends.
Then kicked open death's
To end the final bondage.
God's final answer to Job's lawsuit
Begins, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me."

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

STILL BEARING THE LOAD #WhyIDidntReport

I want to sidestep the political discussion in this particular entry.  I understand that it's there and that it is important; but it's not what I want to talk about right now.

What I want to talk about is the reality that roughly 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men will be victims of some form of sexual assault by the time they are 18.  The actual numbers may be even higher as we remember that these offenses are highly unreported.  The allegations coming out this week against Brett Kavanaugh; the sentencing of Bill Cosby; and the myriad of other sexual scandals involving high powered folks have brought this issue, once again, into the spotlight.

The truth is, however, that most victims of sexual abuse and sexual assault are not offended against by someone famous.  The are assaulted by a parent or another family member; a teacher or coach; a pastor, youth leader, or scout leader; a friend; sometimes by a stranger.  Most assaults are committed by someone known to the victim.  This is one of the reasons, along with the social stigma involved, that reporting of these assaults is so low.

The other truth is that every time one of these stories comes out; every time a scandal makes the news; the number of calls to suicide crisis lines and organizations like RAINN's National Sexual Assault Hotline goes up.  They go up because victims are reminded (the psychological term is "triggered") of their victimization.  And when they are reminded, the feelings of shame and fear often return.  Nightmares and flashbacks that may have been under control previously, reemerge.

I think one of the biblical images that resonates with their experience is the woman described in Luke 13:10-17.  She is "bent over" and "unable to raise herself" as though she has been walking for a very long time carrying a heavy load.  The cause of this infirmity is unknown and is referred to as "a spirit of weakness that had crippled her."  This designation appears to indicate that no one could find a medical reason for her condition.  Her emotional/psychological condition was being expressed in her physical body by her inability to stand straight.  She was so bowed that she could not lift her head to look someone in the eye.

The next passage I would like for you to look at comes from 2 Samuel 13.  It is the account of the "Rape of Tamar" by her half-brother Amnon.  It is a dark account of an incestuous rape that was planned and carried out with the help of a cousin (Jonadab) who is described as "crafty."  This is a word used for the snake in the garden of Eden.  Jonadab is a snake.  And it is an assault that may have had the subtle approval of the father of both Tamar and Amnon...King David.  Amnon grabs Tamar and she tries to talk him out of raping her.  She appeals to religion, to her reputation, to his reputation, and finally suggests that she could marry him if he just asks their Dad.  None of this works, and "being stronger than she, he forced her."
David fails to punish Amnon for this rape after he finds out about it; even though he is described as "very angry" because "he loved him, for he was his firstborn."
David was not the first parent to mistake "love" for "license" with his children.  It is also true that Amnon learned a clear lesson from watching his father with Bathsheba and the slave girls around the palace: "if you see something you want sexually, take it.  You're special.  You're entitled."

Three other bullet type points I want to make.  First, Amnon's response after the rape is to loath Tamar.  The Hebrew is more honest that most translations.  The Hebrew for what Amnon said to his servant is, "put this thing out of my presence."  Second, Absalom, Tamar's brother, tells her to be quiet about the rape.  He attempted to silence her as surely as if he'd put his own hand over her mouth. And third, Tamar disappears.  She goes to her brother Absalom's house (why go back to David, he's the one who sent her to Amnon in the first place) and is never heard from in scripture again.

There are three things in this story that are common to the experience of many victims:
  1. Their attacker doesn't listen-Twice we're told that Amnon doesn't listen: once when she plead with him not to rape her; and again when she plead with him not to put her out.
  2. They're told to be quiet-When Absalom sees Tamar wailing in grief with ashes on her head, he tells her, "don't take it to heart and don't say anything.
  3. The powerful excuse their attacker so that the offender is not punished or held accountable. David does nothing to Amnon.
These two passages combine to describe the experience of so many of the sexual assault victims who posted #WhyIDidntReport on their social media in the past few days.

But that is not the end of the story.

Jesus saw the woman enter the synagogue and He called her to Him.  He makes the point that she is "bond" by Satan; what has happened to her is something evil done to her.  She doesn't need forgiveness, she needs liberation....to be untied.  And He does.  This is what our friends who are victims of sexual assault need: to be liberated; untied from the shame and memories that they carry like a weight, like a burden they can't lay down.  Jesus set her free.  And Jesus desires to set them free as well.  We can help.  We can help by listening...by acknowledging that something happened.  By not telling them to be quiet.  We can help by supporting holding people accountable for their behavior.  And we can help by finding ways to assist people in doing the work they need to do to be set free from the traumatic memories and trauma related behaviors that often come with these experiences.  They are "sons and daughters of Abraham," which is to say, they are God's children.  As such they are entitled to the care we believe God wants for us all.

When her brother Absalom died
all that time after her rape
She packed her bags and left his house
began to walk
As she walked the memories
tied themselves to her, she could not shake free
and with each memory came shame
and the sound of her own voice crying to Amnon
"where should I carry my shame?"
And the sound of his voice snarling to his servant,
"Put this thing out of my sight."
With each step
her back bent under the load
until she could not even lift her head.
She walked for 500 years
until she appeared in the synagogue
silently, trying to draw no attention to herself
Yet Jesus called her to Him
Cut her loose from the bonds of shame
let the memories drop from her shoulders
and with His own hands
lifted her to stand straight again.
There was a crowd that had walked with her
shadowing her steps in the darkness
bent beneath their own load
of the violence done to them
They enter our sanctuaries every Sunday
slide quietly into the pew
Waiting for Jesus to use
our ears to say I hear you
our voice to say I stand beside you
and our hands to lift them free of their burden.
Even if it kicks up a stir
There is no other day but this day
no other time but this time
let us make a way for those who have said
#WhyIDidntReport
to stand like the old bent woman
and praise God saying
"Have I got a story for you."


Monday, September 24, 2018

What Jesus Did

Jesus
Touched a leper,
Healed a blind man.
Restored a man who'd lost his mind.
Forgave, and stood up for, a woman caught in sexual sin.
Fed multitudes
Spoke to a woman who was "unclean" for 12 years, called her "Daughter," claiming her as family.
Heals another woman, a cripple, on the Sabbath, and calls her "a Daughter of Abraham"

He also
Heals the slave of a centurion,
Discusses God's love with Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedin who helps bury Him.
Raises the daughter of a religious leader.
Confronts people of wealth who cannot care for the marginalized,
but welcomes the political outcast, the rich Zacchaeus, as a Son of Abraham.

He parties with the poor
And banquets with the rich

Jesus's fight wasn't with people,
He loved them.
His fight was with the things that
Marginalized them, denied them life
in all it's fullness
So much so that he took on even sin and death.

He opposed the misuse
and worship
of wealth
But even then, His love is for individuals
So he lunches with Zacchaeus
And invites a rich man to sell all he has,
Give it to the poor, and follow Him

There doesn't appear to be a line He isn't willing to step over
To get to those He came to seek and save

And He lived in such intimate relationship with God
That He called God "Abba," "Daddy."
He did not push God out at arm's length
With theological jargon, or flowery speech
He let God draw Him into the heart of God's Own Self
Even if it killed Him

O God, help me be more like Jesus

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Stewardship And Justice For The JOY Of It

I've been preaching a series on "stewardship."  It's not topic that pastors really enjoy...to put it mildly; and those of us in congregations where we know that our folks are struggling financially tend to find it really difficult.

But I've been helped a great deal by Walter Brueggemann's book Money and Possessions.  Some of the ideas below are rooted in that reading.

I picked my scriptures for this week to reflect two different responses (in my mind) to giving and economic justice.

Nehemiah 5:1-13 is the story of how, while trying to rebuild the wall to Jerusalem, Nehemiah encounters "a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish kin."  This is because between paying the taxes to Persia and trying to survive famine, they have mortgaged land and livestock and wound up selling their children into slavery.  Nehemiah says, "I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these complaints."  One has to wonder.  This was the first he knew of this?  Really?  But the truth is, he needed the people all working together if he was going to accomplish his goal.  So suddenly "discovering" this great injustice and becoming angry worked for him.  He brings the nobles and officials together and forces them to take an oath that they will abide by the Jubilee which he is declaring and "Restore to them, this very day, their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the interest on money, grain, wine and oil that you have been exacting from them."  The nobles couldn't have been very happy with this; but they complied.  Nehemiah carried the weight of the Persian government behind him.

Is forced justice "good justice?"  I don't know.  I know that given a choice between forced justice and no justice, most of us will take the justice.  The same goes for justice that is motivated by political concerns rather than compassion.

So if you compare this situation to the "rich fool" who died before he could build his bigger barns; and the "rich young ruler" who could not let go of his wealth to follow Jesus; I guess you have to say that a Jubilee declared for political reasons and upheld by a forced oath is still the better of the three.

Luke 19:11-27.  Here I think that we see something incredible and better....so much better as to be considered miraculous....in the story of Zacchaeus.  Zacchaeus climbed a tree.  Now I know that most of us know this, and we know that he climbed the tree because, as we sung as children, "Zacchaeus was a little wee little man and a wee little man was he...."  But think about it.  He climbed a tree. Kenneth Bailey, in his work on the parable of the Prodigal Sons, reminded us that the father running down the road was so amazing because no Middle Eastern potentate ran anywhere; that would involve lifting your robes and showing your legs.  And one would not be moving in the stately manner required of adult men of a certain age.  So here's Zacchaeus.  He's willing to climb a tree, with all the undignified, unseemly exposure involved, just for the chance to see Jesus.  Zacchaeus was hungry for something...he probably didn't even know what...but he knew that the chance that Jesus was what he was hungry for was worth all this.

Jesus stops under his tree. Invites himself to lunch.  Goes home with Zacchaeus.  Funny how that works.  We reach out with this vague hunger (the one Fred Craddock described as like standing in front of an open refrigerator knowing that we're hungry but not knowing what for)...and Jesus invites Himself home with us.

We don't know what that conversation was at lunch.  We do know that when it was over, Zacchaeus looks at Jesus and says, "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back for times as much."  WOW.  The normal "payback" for defrauding someone was x2.  The only example of a x4 I can find is about cattle...and one can imagine that this was because cattle/livestock were so close to the livelihood of the nomadic people.  But here is Zacchaeus going, "if I have defrauded anyone of anything..."  He makes this move on his own.  And he makes it, I believe, in JOY.

This is finding the Kingdom.  The "pearl of great price" that makes you sell everything you have for the joy of that find.  He's found Jesus.  He doesn't have to be forced into a Jubilee...he declares it himself.

Here's another thought.  We'd rather have forced justice than no justice at all.  But what about the kind of economic justice that Zacchaeus is going to exercise moving forward?  Jesus doesn't say, "follow me."  He doesn't say, "give up being a tax collector."  It seems to me that having Zacchaeus for a regional chief tax collector would be a really good thing after he met Jesus.  The taxes are going to be collected.  Rome isn't going away.  I'd much rather have Zacchaeus than the rich fool of Jesus' earlier parable...wouldn't you?

I believe that the Song of Solomon is in scripture because experiencing, truly experiencing, God's love is a lot like falling in love.  It's hot, sweaty...it takes our breath away.  It reaches in and grabs us by the heart and the guts and leaves us gasping.  I actually think that when we get to the "marriage of heaven and earth" that the hottest sex we ever had here is gonna be nothing compared to what happens to our total being in the presence of the Living God.  Don't believe me?  Think I'm blaspheming? Go read Song of Songs...then tell me I'm wrong.  I think a bit of this reached out and grabbed Zacchaeus by the lapels when he sat down for lunch with Jesus.  I don't think he though twice about it....he gave up everything.  Like the guy who comes home from a first date and burns his little black book and never looks back.

Stewardship, giving, justice, love for one another....at their best, these are spontaneous acts of JOY, not commandments we're scared to break.  And it's scary.  Like scripture tells us, "it is a fearful thing to fall into the Hands of the Living God."  It is an awe filled thing; it will undo us completely; it will make us over again.  And we, like Zacchaeus, will never be the same.F

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Courage in Stewardship, Fidelity, and Quality of Life

My last post had to do with courage.  This one has to do with both courage and anger....hang with me.

I was running errands today and flipping through the radio channels.  I landed on a preacher who was expressing his anger...lots of it...over a number of issues: he was angry that people wanted to save animals, but didn't get upset over abortion; he was particularly angry that a building addition (a "Christian Life Center" if I remember correctly) to his church had to wait for research on the impact of the building on fish in a nearby stream; and then he wanted to talk about "protecting the family" and went after those "sinners" who engage in a "same sex lifestyle."

Now, to be honest, all three of these are trigger topics for me.  And preachers like this kick off my anger as well.  They rain down judgement on people who are not part of their congregation (or if they are, will be deeply wounded and never speak out in this setting) from a simplistic platform.  Their speech costs them nothing, and only serves to ramp up the emotions and support of those who drop money in their offering plate.  It takes no courage to speak this way.  It takes no love.  It takes no searching to understand scripture.  They are the Donald Trumps of the preaching world. (Did I say they kick off my anger?)

But then I have to ask myself about my own courage.  This is where it gets difficult.  Why? Because the complexities of all three of these areas make talking about them difficult.  But I do believe that preaching the Gospel calls for us to try.

I'll start with the easiest one first: the fish in the stream.  Biblical faith calls us to stewardship and care of a world that was created to brim with abundance.  But for that abundance to be maintained, we have to be careful of our impact on that creation.  Sometimes that calls us to check out whether things that bring in income, or even built up numbers in congregations, will impact creation negatively.  This is why so many Christians oppose certain pipelines and off shore drilling.  But are we, am I, as careful when we look at the impact of our own behaviors on the created world?  Do we pay attention to where our money goes and how food is managed?  There is a wonderful program called the Food Recovery Network which was originally started in 2011 by four University of Maryland students who were concerned about the amount of food that was being thrown out in their college dining hall.  It is now a national movement.  It happened because these people paid attention to the stewardship issue around food in the cafeteria.  Now I know nothing about the faith stance of any of these four students; but I know a multitude of churches and hungry folks in Maryland where I pastor who are benefiting from what they began.  What if we had this kind of "stewardship eye" for everything around us?  Looking for the impact and trying to maximize positive potential in caring for all creation....whether it is the food insecure or the fish in the stream.

Moving to what is, for me at least, a more difficult topic (but not the most difficult of the three), the whole "family values," "traditional family" discussion.  Biblically, of course, there is no "traditional family."  Family in scripture could include slaves, concubines, and multiple wives.  The "same sex lifestyle" that scripture rails against (and rightly so) was that of homosexual prostitution in the temples of various gods and the homosexual rape of slaves by their masters.  Jesus Himself says nothing about homosexuality; and the world of Paul knew little or nothing about gay and lesbian relationships like those in our culture.  The attack was on the abuse of the powerless by the powerful.  And I am in agreement that forced sex by anyone on someone with less power, less voice, less ability to give informed consent, is a sin.
I am also aware of wonderful same sex couples who have provided stable, secure homes for both foster children and children in need of adoptive homes.  That seems to me to be a real "family value."
But I also believe that the Church needs to take a stand about fidelity in relationships.  Gay or straight, an attitude that relationships are attached with Velcro is contrary to biblical principles.  I believe in marriage....I believe in gay marriage and straight marriage.  I believe that fidelity in marriage is what we are called to.  I say this out of my own failures in this arena, so I have no room to judge, only to talk about where we might want to focus.  And one of the places for us to focus would be to create ways for all Christians gay or straight to be supported in their fidelity.  What if we focused on supporting faithful relationships rather than passing judgement on who people love?

Finally, we come to the biggie...and it is a hot topic right now because Roe v. Wade is clearly part of the focus of the Trump plan for the Supreme Court.  But I would like to move from the simple to the complex.  And the whole question is complex.
First, there is the question of control over ones own body.  I favor that.  I'm not na├»ve enough to believe that abortion is always the best choice....but I don't think it's my choice as a male to be making legislatively for women.  If a woman comes to me to talk about a difficult pregnancy situation (and it actually does happen, even with us old guys), I will help her explore all the options.  But I believe that the choice needs to be hers.  Sometimes, I believe that abortion is a reasonable option: rape, incest, the life of the mother, or profoundly severe defect in the fetus.  I believe that these are times that a woman could make that choice, painful as it might be, in good faith.  But let me say again, that the choice needs to be hers.
I am, personally, opposed to abortion as a form of birth control...but I don't think I can even say that without saying that this means that I am in favor of birth control being available to every one who desires it.  "Right To Life" is laughable if you don't include the availability of the means to avoid pregnancy.  It is further laughable (and this is where my own anger is stirred up) when you deny pregnant mothers and newborns adequate medical care.  When you deny adequate food and housing to children after they're born.  When you poison the drinking water of communities of color.  When education is denied to the poorest and the school to prison pipeline flows out of black communities.  When we continue to execute human beings in our prison systems.  When hospital and hospice care for the poor is dismal.  When care for the profoundly disabled amounts to warehousing in places designed to make money for wealthy corporations (we could revisit our prisons here as well).
Truly being supportive of life is to be supportive of quality of life for all human beings. 
And finally, a wee bit of a rant.....men can stop 98% of unwanted pregnancies; and we don't even have to give up having sex; just wear a damned condom!  

My point in all of the above discussions is to point out that real courage means taking the time to deal with the complexities of the challenges in question.  The rabbis used to argue for hours....days....centuries in some cases...about the meaning of the Talmud.  Why? Because if it is truly the Word of God, we need to get it right.  And it's not always cut and dried.  In fact, an even cursory reading of scripture will demonstrate that it rarely is simple.

We study, we pray, we attempt to teach.  In stewardship of creation, in fidelity in relationship, and in caring for the quality of life for all we seek to follow the one who said, "I have come that they might have life in all it's fullness."

Monday, September 10, 2018

Reaching For Courage

It is
Cowardly
To write a memo
that takes no account
Of impact and anguish.
To hide behind "All I said/did/ enforced" is betrayal
When it erases
terrified children reaching for parents.

It is
Cowardly
To write a poem
when my words
hold at arm's length
the anguish of the moment
While pretending that it has been spoken.
Though some emotions
May never totally find voice,
I must try;
And not claim that I have shared all;
when in fact, I have hidden
behind the veil of my skill in evoking the emotions of others.

It is
Cowardly
To weep for the hunger of others
while hold
the food that could feed them
clenched in my hand.

There are so many ways
to let courage fail;
To scream "mine, mine"
Like the seagulls in
Finding Nemo.
To "tear down my barns
And build bigger barns"
For fear of a scarcity that isn't there.

Oh God,
I confess that
The greatest scarcity
Is in my courage
Give me more of that