Friday, November 10, 2017

Their Blood Cries Out

After Adam and Eve left the garden
and their children lived outside
the first cry that God heard
long before telling Moses "I have heard the cry of my people in Egypt"
was the cry of the blood of Abel
screaming out from the dust turned to mud by it's sticky red stream.
And Cain wanted to know
"was it my day to watch him?"
Trying to front off with prehistoric snark
the crime he had committed.

The blood still cries out
from Charleston to Sutherland Springs
from small black churches in Alabama
to the streets of Las Vegas
The years and the blood spread out like a pool
And God asks us
"where are my children, your brothers and sisters?
"their blood cries out!  What have you done?"
And we reply, "it's far to early to talk about doing anything,
but we did send thoughts and prayers."

A field soaked in blood
cannot produce a crop.
Nor will God accept the offering
of a nation devoid of justice.
Til our prayers grow hands and feet and votes,
and our thoughts turn to ways to curb the violence,
we should not be surprised to hear the judgement given Cain
handed down to us as well
and our nation become a fugitive and a wanderer
among all the nations of the world.

How Hard Is My Heart

My doctor said to me
You've reached a certain age
Where I want to know what we're up against
moving forward.
And so he sent me off for a simple test
That measures the amount of plaque
That has built up in the vessels
leading to my heart.
Time and diet and history
Apparently have been good to me;
my risk is only minimal
For contracting a disease of the heart.
And yet I wonder
Early in the morning
In the wake of another shooting
While Puerto Rico sits in darkness
And Flint's water still isn't safe to drink,
Whether the plaque build up
In the compassion leading to my nation's heart
Doesn't make a stroke imminent
if surgery doesn't happen immediately.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Promise

What do you do when you don't like the poem you've written, or the blog you've just penned, but they're already posted?  Do you take them down?  Offer an apology for such terrible writing?  My feelings about the poem and the blog post that were my last two postings fit those categories.  And, when my wife, who is my most honest critic, said......"I really didn't think much of them," I knew.

But I decided to leave them because they are, and were, an honest expression of the struggles I've been having with the violence and the tragedies of the past few weeks; violence and tragedies that don't seem to motivate those with the political power to make changes to do much more than offer the hot air of "thoughts and prayers," while religious leaders talk about arming their congregations.

This morning though, I got some help.  Wednesday is the day that I spend time with each of the classes in our church's preschool.  We sing, play with puppets, and tell Bible stories.  While I was looking for material to use this morning, I stumbled (okay, maybe this is God's sense of humor showing) across this page in Marie-Helene Delval's book Images of God.  It became the focus of our time together


Like many of us, I can get caught up in the "How long O Lord?" and forget that there IS still a promise.  That God's word to Abraham, to the prophets, and to Mary....the promise of Jesus, is that, finally, there will be a New Heaven and a New Earth.  Sometimes holding onto that promise is "believing upstream."  But hold on is what we're called to do.  And not just to hold on, but to be, ourselves, a part of the promise.  As the Body of Christ, to be, in some small way, part of the answer to the world's pain and a piece of the Kingdom.

But it isn't always easy.  Our lives are short when compared to the shelf life of Evil.  The days go by slowly.  And so the kids and I talked about a bird....a bird that wasn't particularly beautiful, waiting for the promise of it's becoming to be fulfilled.


It found Hope in the promise of knowing what it's Daddy looked like.  Maybe I need to remember what Jesus said, "if you've seen me, you've seen the father."  We know what our "Daddy" our Abba looks like....and it isn't violent tragedy, and it isn't the triumph of hatred and Evil.

Like I said earlier....I think God has a really funky sense of humor.  But I'll take it.  Because I need to reminded that this isn't my story....it's God's story that I'm invited to be part of.  God will write the last lines and scripture tells me that those lines include things like "every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire." (Isaiah 9:5) and "See, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away." (Revelation 21:3-4)

It means little when I trust that promise while everything is going well.  It's when everything seems to speak against it that maybe it's time to reach out and grasp the promise and hold it tight.

So if yesterday's blog means anything, it's that, like many of you, I struggle with the pain and the tragedy.  I bend myself into a pretzel looking for answers to the deaths of the innocent.  And maybe in knowing that about ourselves we find grace in the God who reaches out to say, "In all of this, remember the Promise."

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Writhings

"You can't love her and me, you cannot have us both"
is a statement we'd all understand,
even if it broke our hearts.
"You can't love God and mammon"
is a little harder,
but if we make it just about money
we can manage to twist it around enough
that we can find a way to sorta work with it.
But don't let mammon be about power
don't let it be about control.
Never mind, we think, we only hear this one on Stewardship Sunday.
"You cannot love guns/violence/my belief that might makes right and Jesus"
What kind of pansy, pinko crap is that?!?
But what if it comes down to that?
Can I love something so opposed to who He was, and is, and is to be?
"Will there be assault rifles in heaven sweet Jesus?"
Can I keep one in the pew, just in case.
Oh Jesus forgive us
we've strayed so far from what You taught
and Who You were
that we think we're supposed to be the protected few
instead of the ones who lose their lives for Your sake

Guns, Idolatry, and Sutherland Springs

On December 15, 2012, almost 5 years ago, Garry Wills published an editorial in the New York Review entitled "Our Moloch."  This was after Sandy Hook.  You can find his comments here
http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2012/12/15/our-moloch/
Wills makes the point that America's love of guns has become our "Moloch," the Canaanite god associated with child sacrifice.  Five years later, in the wake of the shooting at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, it is an image worth raising again.  What are the gods we worship?  What are the demands they are making on us?  Are we sacrificing our children, our vulnerable, our own being, at their alter?

What do I mean by this, and how do I keep this post from turning into a rant about the evils of guns and the need for gun control?  I'm not sure, to be honest...the shootings, both in Las Vegas and in Sutherland Springs have left me a bit numb.  Where do we begin?  How do we untangle the complicated questions involved?  Again, I'm not sure.  But I DO know that we have to start.  We cannot continue in the way we are going.  And so, in an effort to try to speak to this, I want to raise a single issue...one that is coming up over and over in the last couple of days:  the link between mass shooters and domestic violence.  The statistics vary somewhat, but approximately 56% of mass shooters (including the perpetrator of Sutherland Springs) have a history of domestic abuse.  That number goes higher if one factors in what is called the "boyfriend loophole" which means that a non-married ex who goes after an ex-girlfriend and her family or worksite will often not factor into the stats or, sometimes even be considered a domestic violence incident.

So imagine the impact that could be made on shootings in this country by a national law permanently restricting gun possession by convicted domestic abusers and putting a hold on possession by those individuals with domestic violence restraining orders (thus taking out the differences in state laws and slips made in military reporting to states about convictions in military courts such as happened with the recent perpetrator in Sutherland Springs).  No arguing about gun types (save that for later if you want) or any of the other things that the NRA wants to rant against.
Think of it as the equivalent of losing your drivers license for your 3rd DUI (the domestic abuse conviction) and having a "blow and go" on your car for your first (the possession hold associated with the restraining order).  

But you might say, "domestic abuse is a complicated issue as well, almost an overwhelming one."  My response would be, "It is.  But this action focuses on a specific problem, a specific behavior associated with that issue...the potential for gun violence.  If, however, you're concerned with attacking the issue of domestic violence, then good for you.  Also contribute to a shelter.  Help your local YWCA start a group for battered women.  Advocate for treatment groups for partners who batter.  There are a multitude of ways to become involved in 'bite sized' fashion in tackling this issue.  But this on, taking guns out of the hands of domestic abusers will make an immediate, positive difference."

So what has this got to do with Moloch?  How does this relate to our faith?

In Leviticus 20 God speaks of those who "give their offspring to Moloch, defiling my sanctuary and profaning my holy name."  The worship of this Canaanite god was particularly forbidden because, in addition to grains and animals, sacrifices of children were made to it as a regular part of the worship of this Baal (fertility god).  Apparently, however, the Israelites had a hard time letting go of  this god. Solomon, we're told in 1st Kings 11:7, built an alter to Moloch...compounding the sins he'd already committed by using slave labor to build the Temple and becoming an arms dealer to the rest of his known world.  Amos in 5:25-27 explains that this worship is the reason for the exile and God's rejection of "feasts and fast days."  Finally, in the NT, Stephen stokes the wrath of those who will eventually stone him to death by reminding them that even on the march to the Promised Land there were those who were carrying alters to other gods, included Moloch.  And there is the rub....

The rub is that we "hedge our bets."  That we want to have an "ace up our sleeve" that isn't our trust in God's promises about the Kingdom and what it will mean.  So we worship other gods.  Our own national favorites seem to be Race, Power, Sex, and Money....singularly or in various combinations; with a myth of "redemptive violence" tossed in for good measure.  This allow even some pastors to talk about how helpful it is to "arm parishioners to protect congregations"....or the more civilly worded, "a good man with a gun can stop a bad man with a gun."  As though Jesus had said, "A new commandment I give unto you, that you arm one another as I have armed you."

But the false gods we worship want more and more from us.  Like a drug addiction, they keep demanding bigger pieces of our soul and giving back less in return.  Until what we are finally giving is our children.  Our refusal to address our worship of violence and our love affair with guns takes out a school, then a church, and then even those things quit moving us to anguished tears.  When that happens, God won't need to send us in to exile in some far off land....we'll already be in exile, right here in America


Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The World Is Watching

Sometimes there are folks that you wish you'd encountered earlier; but when you finally encounter them, the grab you in a very powerful way.  For me, one of those people is Howard Thurman.  Much of what he says in Jesus And The Disinherited continues to ring so true in our day as to be shocking.  He speaks of the oppressive tools of Fear, Deception, and Hate.  Over against these he offers an "Interpretation of Jesus" and a chapter on Love.  These are our weapons against the oppression of the disinherited and marginalized.  And they bring us into intimate contact with Jesus the Christ.

Three quotes from his book stand out to me:

"The masses of men live with their backs constantly against the wall.  They are the poor, the disinherited, the disposed.  What does our religion say to them? The issue is not what it counsels them to do for others whose need may be greater, but what religion offers to meet their own needs. The search for an answer to this question is perhaps the most important religious quest of modern life."

"For years it has been a part of my own quest so to understand the religion of Jesus that interest in his way of life could be developed and sustained by intelligent men and women who were at the same time deeply victimized by the Christian Church's betrayal of his faith."

Then, this quote, which though addressed specifically to the situation of Black Americans can be appropriately and correctly applied to not only Blacks in America, but POC and other marginalized people in this country:

"The striking similarity between the social position of Jesus in Palestine and that of the vast majority of American Negroes is obvious to anyone who tarries long over the facts."

Thurman makes clear that most people live with their backs against the wall.  Poor, marginalized, victimized by even the Church that bears Jesus' name.  But the truth is that Jesus, as a Palestinian Jew, had more in common with these disinherited ones that with those who are "doing just fine, thank you."  What does the Christian faith have to say to them?  How do we express and live out a faith that is faithFUL to the calling this marginalized Jew who was also the Christ?

Thurman tells two stories of his grandmother.  One in his book and one in an interview with Landrum Bolling before his death (you can find the interview here

 https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=Howard+Thurman&view=detail&mid=FB3C56EC8F6B8934E2C1FB3C56EC8F6B8934E2C1&FORM=VIRE

The first occurs when Thurman asks his grandmother why she never wanted him to read to her from the writings of Paul.  She replied

"Old man McGhee was so mean that he would not let a Negro minister preach to his slaves. Always the white minister used as his text something from Paul.  At least three or four times a year he used a text: 'Slaves, be obedient to them that are your masters...as unto Christ.' Then he would go on to show how it was God's will that we were slaves and how, if we were good and happy slaves, God would bless us.  I promised my Maker that if I ever learned to read and if freedom ever came, I would not read that part of the Bible."

The second is a story that Thurman remembers her telling over and over again, especially when times were tough.  It was of her encounter, at some point during her slavery, with a Black preacher who said to those listening to him, "You're not slaves, you're not n*****s, you're a child of God."

It has always been so that there are those who wish to hijack the Gospel to support their positions of power.  And there have always been those preachers who grow rich and powerful by helping them do that in one form or another.  But this is not the way of Jesus.  The way of Jesus often leads, as it did for the disciples in this week's scripture passage in Acts 5:27-42, to arrest, incarceration, and public shaming.  It does so because faithful witness remembers that Jesus stood, and the Risen Christ stands, not with providing proof texts for those in power, but a way of liberation for those who are oppressed.  And it does so because it continues to echo Jesus, the Black preacher who moved Thurman's grandmother, and every faithful follower of Jesus before and since who look at struggling humankind and said, You're not your social condition, you're not the insults they call you, YOU ARE A CHILD OF GOD."

It is a choice every individual, every generation, every congregation must make.  And the world watches to see where we will come down.

Friday, October 20, 2017

When Faith Becomes A Killing Word

There is a scene in the movie Dune, when the main character says, "my name had become a killing word."  Something like that seems to have happened in the scripture we're looking at this week.

There's this strange story in Acts 5:1-11 about how a man named Ananias and Sapphira held back some of the profit they had made from the sale of a piece of property.  When confronted with this, Ananias first, and his wife about three hours later, both fell down dead.

This is an incredibly difficult passage for many of us.  Our assumption on first read is that this was something that God did to punish them for lying.  Peter, when he confronts Ananias, tells him, "you did not lie to us, but to God!"  But Luke doesn't say that God killed Ananias.  And I believe that is important.  Scripture has no qualms in other places saying that God slew someone.  All we're told here is that "when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died."  Then, when Peter confronts Sapphira, he says, "Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out."  Immediately she fell down and died as well.

I think that Luke, and the early Christians knew something was horribly wrong here.  Why?  First of all, because nothing like this happens ever again in the book of Acts.  If this was how God is going to operate in the New Age of the Church, how come we don't have people who lie to God dropping dead right and left?  Second, this event has absolutely NO parallel in the life of Jesus.  Unless you want to go to one of those stranger gospels outside of the Canon in which the child Jesus kills playmates he becomes upset with, there is no time when Jesus slays people.  In fact, He is constantly forgiving, intervening, and telling people to "go and sin no more."

Then what has happened here?  And what does it matter to us?

What I believe happened is that Peter misused his power.  Did it happen on purpose? I don't know.  What we do know is that with the coming of the Holy Spirit, the disciples had received a tremendous amount of power ("You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you...").  Part of that power appears to have been the ability to discern that Ananias and Sapphira had held back part of the proceeds.  But Peter also says, "before the property was sold, it was yours. After it was sold, the proceeds were yours."  What if Peter, knowingly or unknowingly, found that the power of his anger at this lie, strengthened by this "power" that he had received, was enough to kill?  And what is the collateral result?  Fear.  "And great fear seized all who heard of it" v.5  "And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things" v. 11.  The additional result is that even though there were signs and wonders being done, "None of the rest dared to join them" v. 13 as they met on Solomon's Portico, even though v. 14 says that "Yet more than ever believers were added to the Lord..."  Folks might be "added to the Lord," but they avoided the community that met together.

Now what I'm suggesting isn't the only possibility.  Folks might have been scared by the resistance that the disciples were beginning to get from the Temple authorities.  It may have been both.  But this interpretation bears some looking at in our day.

An African American grandmother comes to a Sunday School class I'm teaching.  In tears she asks, "Is this what Christians believe?"  She has listened to the wife of a television evangelist, a wife who has her own TV show, and heard this woman say, in response to Black protests, "They (Blacks) should be grateful to be here."  If this is truly what Christians believe, she tells us, she doesn't know if she can hold on to the faith that has meant so much to her.  Disturbed by this, I ask some other African American members of the congregation if they encounter this a lot and am told that they are frequently in conversation with friends who have given up on the Christian church because its story has essentially been hijacked by the conservative right wing evangelical movement.

Have we so misused the power of the church that people are afraid to be part of Christ's body because it means giving up who they are? Do we need to explore this as part of the reason why so many chose to be "spiritual but not religious?"   Do we realize, as Fred Craddock used to say, that "what we say in a whisper often comes through like a shout?"

The Church claims to speak for, and is understood by many to speak for, the Living God.  Perhaps we should be very, very careful when we use words of judgement and exclusion.  Like our Lord said, "judge not that you are not judged; for whatever judgement you use will be used to judge you."

Are we losing the power of our history as a force for liberation and healing and building for the Kingdom when we allow our faith to become a "killing word?"