Sacrificing for the poor & afflicted

I cannot get past the first clause in Isaiah 61, the scripture reading for this week.(1)

The LORD God’s spirit is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me.
[God] has sent me
to bring good news to the poor (Isaiah 61:1a CEB)
Specifically it is the “anointed me” and “good news to the poor” that bogs me down. This passage is deeply unsettling. I perceive the the presence of the still speaking God, of the Holy Spirit in my reading of these ancient words of the prophet Isaiah. We are embarking on an era (at least in the US) in which compassion and supports for the poor are likely to be rolled back rather than improved. They are not good now. There is very little good news for the poor (or oppressed, or meek, or afflicted depending upon translation) in 2016.

The good news for the poor/afflicted/oppressed will very likely have to come from outside government. In an era of declining revenues, the church would appear to be wholly unprepared for picking up the slack and speaking good news in action for the poor.

Yet…that is what I perceive God calling us to become. Jesus was not a landowner. He didn’t have a home and a paying profession. He sacrificed all that — and his life on the cross — to bring good news to the poor and afflicted living on the margins of ancient society.

BUT it is more than just the role of the church.

This stuck in my craw feeling feeling I have is personal. It should be personal for all of us claiming to follow Jesus. Our baptisms, whether with water or just spiritual, are our anointing. Isaiah was speaking to our ancient kindred suffering humiliation and discrimination 400 to 500 years prior to the birth of Jesus.

Liberation theology rightly claims tells us that Jesus has a preferential option for the poor. Both the Hebrew texts and the New Testament emphasize care and compassion for the orphan, widow, poor, and others living outside the power structures of his day. In the fourth chapter of Jesus reads this very passage from the prophet:

He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
    to proclaim release to the prisoners
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
    to liberate the oppressed,
    and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. 

He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him. 21 He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.” Luke 4:17-21 CEB

This is our task if we are to follow the Christ. Like Jesus, our task requires sacrifice. Bringing good news to the poor, the afflicted, and the oppressed has always been threatening to the powerful.

___

(1) This is a reflection on the narrative lectionary reading for Sunday, December 11, 2016. The full reading is Isaiah 61:1-11.

Creating Santa in God’s Image

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Image Source
The way we characterize Santa Claus with our children reflects our image of God. The Santa we create for our children mirrors how we perceive God.

 

This was manifest for me in two recent exchanges with my regular grocery cashier. In the first, she joked about the toughness of my job as a local pastor. “You’ve got a tough boss to please,” she kidded me. A few days later we were talking about her three-year-old’s behavior. “She’s behaving better because she’s afraid Santa won’t bring her anything. I think I freaked her out last night, though. I told her the elf-on-the-shelf I put over her bed was telling Santa all the bad things she’s done.”  Indeed, in a photo the mother shared of her daughter’s rigid body and suspicious eyes posing beside Santa’s spying Elf  looked to me like a child frightened of an invisible deity.

Leaving with my carrots, grapes, and potatoes I thought about the presentation of Santa Claus as the arbiter of childhood justice. Many adults create an image of Santa of a magical being focused on judging naughty or nice. They use him as a threat to get compliance from children. “You better behave or Santa won’t bring you anything!” This image is much like the God created by rigid, rule-bound versions of Christianity.

Like the old man with a naughty and nice list, the harsh and severe God of fundamentalist Christianity is a demanding task master. God’s love like Santa’s toys are earned by following regulations at the expense of our personality and humanity. The path to Christmas and God’s embrace is narrow with many pitfalls. Love the wrong person, go to Hell. Perceive God differently than fundamentalists, languish for eternity. Let your child nature get the better of you, lose a gift.

But not all St. Nicks are about lists. In some families, Santa is an opportunity to give with as much abandon as budgets and good sense allow. Santa gives gifts because it is in Santa’s nature to do so. Santa becomes a teacher of how to give generously. Adults give children  opportunities to pick out toys to donate to Toys for Tots and to choose the color of socks to give to the local homeless shelter. This Santa is about extravagant love.

The Santa of generosity and giving reflects a very different understanding of God. God loves flamboyantly, extends undeserved grace, and lures us to live in a community of love and justice, becoming our true selves, because that is the nature of God. God desires us to be generous, loving, and compassionate with all people, especially those rejected by society. Christmas marks the beginning of the story of the Bethlehem babe who will grow up to expand circles, stand with those on society’s margins, and love as God dreams we can all love.

 

 

Clergy Couple’s Lament

screenshot-2016-12-03-09-40-21IF…

IF…you assume that the Spirit needs me here and you there for whatever inexplicable reasons…

THEN..

THEN…it behooves us to find joy in the journey, in the service of the One who loves us and brought you and I together.

ALAS…

ALAS…I struggle with finding the joy when the sun begins to set and you are not beside me for the evening meal and sleeping.

STILL…

STILL…IF…THEN… joy is necessary and is actually present when I look for it.

SIGH…

SIGH…just SIGH.

Love you.

How Long, O Lord? A Sermon in a Rural County Following the Election

Isaiah 6

We must hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. –Karl Barth

Election numbers

  • County 2/3
  • State 40%
  • National slightly less than 50%

Protests across cities

Fringe Trump supporters overtly threatening

We are a deeply divided people

Our hope that we would somehow magically come back together after Tuesday was naive.

***

Result of election of one who was openly

  • Racist
  • Misogynistic
  • Blamed immigrants and Muslims

Stories from circle re fear

Text: ”Half of this country just threw my life under the bus”

Election served as a trigger for sexual assault victims

Hateful “go home” notes left in people’s work mailboxes

Synagogues hiring security

Screamed at on way to work: “Trump! N****r!”

I spent much of Wednesday counseling, listening 

***

Others celebrate shock to polarized system

Needs have been ignored

Voting for him doesn’t mean you did so because racist

Some of you voted for him despite these things

***

View the world through the Bible,  faith, love

love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength…The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.” Mark 12:30-31 CEB

As followers of Jesus we are obliged to stand with those the powerful have attacked.

I sat down to write the scripture email late Wednesday. I came up with something not quite reflection.

I share some of that with you now:

***

“How long, O Lord?” asks Isaiah. “How long, O Lord?” must I fruitlessly prophesy to your people.

And God tells him that he must prophesy until the cities lay in ruins and the land lay devastated.

And, still, Isaiah goes where God sends him.

This is a discouraging story. 

The descriptions of the people turning away from living in accordance with God’s requirements,

their obstinate refusal to listen to the prophet warning of the pitfalls of their chosen path,

and, still the voice of Isaiah calling to them, is reminiscent of an apocalyptic movie. Love of neighbor be damned!

I have seen some horrible things as an educator and as a pastor.

I’ve been privy to some of the worst of what humanity has to offer.

I’ve often felt like following God’s requirements “to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8 CEB) is futile.

Too often I’ve felt beaten down by shortsighted bureaucrats or politicians more concerned with bombing and killing others than feeding our own children!

My words of “you are God’s beloved” seem too little when the church — THE CHURCH! — spews hatred and rejects children of God.

In the face of an incoming president who has made fun of a disabled reporter, bragged about sexual assault, who has a racist history,

and who blames and threatens to discriminate against all Muslims — our sibling Abrahamic religion — all while claiming the Christian faith, I am discouraged. 

Does our faith even matter?  On the morning following the election I was counseling multiple people who are terrified that their rights are at stake now.

One young woman said to me, “I am scared for my personal safety!”

An individual one step removed from me was the victim of someone yelling, “Trump! N****r!” as he journeyed to work.

I imagine Isaiah saw some of the same underbelly of humanity happening all around him.

God does not seek prophets when humanity is loving neighbor and caring for the least of these (Matthew 25:44-45).

God saw the state of the world all too clearly in the time around King Uzziah’s death, in Isaiah’s time.

Then I heard the Lord’s voice saying, “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?” I said, “I’m here; send me.” Isaiah 6:8 CEB

Isaiah volunteered to take God’s message to the people!

His response reminded me of a little girl who, as Hitler was spreading through Europe, wrote in her diary:

“It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart” (Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank).

Just as Isaiah responded to God’s call to a seemingly fruitless task, we must not give up on God’s call to be the realm of God in the world.

If we are to call ourselves Christians, we must stand on the margins of society as Jesus did.

We must strive to manifest the extravagant love of Christ.

We must protect the vulnerable even when others empower hatred.

[Isaiah] said, “How long, Lord?” And God said, “Until cities lie ruined with no one living in them, until there are houses without people and the land is left devastated.”  (Isaiah 6:11 CEB)

And I suppose there is the Good News:

Even when we don’t deserve it, even when the only thing that remains is a holy seed, God does not give up.

Amen.

How Long, O Lord?

“How long, O Lord?” asks Isaiah. “How long, O Lord?” must I fruitlessly prophesy to your people. And God tells him that he must prophesy until the cities lay in ruins and the land lay devastated. And, still, Isaiah goes where God sends him. (Read Isaiah 6 here.)

This is a discouraging story. The descriptions of the people turning away from living in accordance with God’s requirements, their obstinate refusal to listen to the prophet warning of the pitfalls of their chosen path, and, still the voice of Isaiah calling to them, is reminiscent of an apocalyptic movie. Love of neighbor (Mark 12:29-31) be damned!

I have seen some horrible things as an educator and as a pastor. I’ve been privy to some of the worst of what humanity has to offer. I’ve often felt like following God’s requirements “to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8 CEB) is futile. Too often I felt beaten down by shortsighted bureaucrats or politicians more concerned with bombing and killing others than feeding our own children! My words of “you are God’s beloved” seem too little when the church — THE CHURCH! — spews hatred and rejects children of God.

In the face of an incoming president who has made fun of a disabled reporter, bragged about sexual assault, who has a racist history, and who blames and threatens to discriminate against all Muslims — our sibling Abrahamic religion — while claiming the Christian faith, I am discouraged. Does our faith even matter?  On the morning following the election I was counseling multiple people who are terrified that their rights and personal safety are at stake now. One young woman said to me, “I am scared for my personal safety!” An individual one step removed from me was the victim of someone yelling, “Trump! N****r!” as he journeyed to work on public transit.

I imagine Isaiah saw some of the same underbelly of humanity happening all around him. God does not seek prophets when humanity is loving neighbor and caring for the least of these (Matthew 25:44-45). God saw the state of the world all too clearly in the time around King Uzziah’s death, in Isaiah’s time.

Then I heard the Lord’s voice saying, “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?” I said, “I’m here; send me.” Isaiah 6:8 CEB

Isaiah volunteered to take God’s message to the people! His response reminded me of a little girl who, as Hitler was spreading through Europe, wrote in her diary:

“It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart” (Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank).

Just as Isaiah responded to God’s call to a seemingly fruitless task, we must not give up on God’s call to be the realm of God in the world. If we are to call ourselves Christians, we must stand on the margins of society as Jesus did. We must strive to manifest extravagant love. We must protect the vulnerable now and especially if our president-elect continues to empower hatred.

Isaiah said, “How long, Lord?” And God said, “Until cities lie ruined with no one living in them, until there are houses without people and the land is left devastated.”  Isaiah 6:11 CEB

And I suppose that’s the Good News, even when we don’t deserve it, even when the only thing that remains is a holy seed, God does not give up. As faithful people we must not give up either.

Norm

On this All Saints Day, I am remembering Norm Ellington. Norm changed the trajectory of my faith and spiritual journey. Below is an excerpt from a paper I wrote about him for a seminary class seven years ago.

In the summer of 1967 my family moved two thousand miles from the white, middle class neighborhood, school, and church in Salem I had known for four-years. I recall asking my parents as we approached our new home, “Why are there so many black people in St. Louis?”  I was about to have some of my first experiences with race during a turbulent time in this country in a city with deep racial rifts. I walked to a predominantly African American public school during the week and on Sundays attended a new Disciples of Christ church within walking distance of my family’s new home. It was at this church that I met Norm.

“Why are there so many black people in St. Louis?”

Norman Ellington was an African-American man to whom my younger brother and I gravitated before church and between Sunday School and worship.  Norm put up with our silly jokes, our brotherly rivalry, and our incessant questions and comments. Without becoming pedantic, Norm took advantage of teachable moments to mentor our understanding of Christianity in a broken world in which racial hostility and violence was never far from our doorstep. Living in an urban renewal, intentionally mixed-race, mixed-income rental community near some of the most dilapidated slums in St. Louis, I was faced at eight-years old with processing what was happening around me. Fortunately, I had Norm to help me do that processing.

I recall his patient explanations about what it meant to be black in late 1960s St. Louis and what it meant to be a Christian during those violent times. When I was being bullied daily by an African American classmate, being called “honky” and other epithets for whites, it was Norm who helped me perceive what was happening through a Christian lens. When my best friend’s African American father was shot and killed on the job by a mentally ill man, it was Norm who helped me to understand that Jay’s father had been doing God’s work striving to help poor blacks and whites find employment despite the risks to his personal safety which was created by society-wide racial tensions.

“I learned the importance of a Christian faith of action that does not shy away from the truth of racism and poverty.”

[Norm] reminded me that Jesus was never afraid to go where those who were in need lived and struggled. When my mother was the victim of harsh language and hateful words from the Black Panthers, I listened as Norm counseled her with love and compassion while helping her to understand the deep pain that was a part of the black experience in the late 1960s.  In my interactions with Norm as well as those I overheard him have with family and other church members, I learned the importance of a Christian faith of action that does not shy away from the truth of racism and poverty. I learned that as someone born with light skin, I benefit from systemic racism.

As our church heeded the call of Christ to go where the “least of these” live Norm also helped me to see the Holy Spirit manifest in our work. For example, he helped me to understand the power of Christian love when the suspiciousness turned to joy on the face of the African American children I played with prior to our church’s movie night on a vacant lot. Norm explained to me that when whites showed up in this particular neighborhood, even though I only lived a few blocks away, that the experience was rarely positive for the poor, African-Americans who lived in the crumbling buildings. He helped me understand the importance of blacks and whites getting to know one another.

“…when whites showed up in this particular neighborhood, even though I only lived a few blocks away, …the experience was rarely positive for the poor, African-Americans who lived in the crumbling buildings.”

Norm was never my Sunday School teacher, my pastor, or my youth leader. He was my friend who, using Jesus as our reference point, helped me to interpret both my positive and negative experiences in such a way that racism spared me its harshest sting—internalized hatred of the other.

 

 

David & Donald: Does God Use Imperfect People to Be Great Leaders?

Jerry Falwell, Jr. compared Donald Trump to King David in March of this year. Explaining his endorsement Falwell said,

“God called King David a man after God’s own heart even though he was an adulterer and a murderer.” (1)

Given the nature of political leadership, the argument that God uses flawed human beings for good, for God’s purposes is a legitimate topic. Did God use the extremely imperfect David for good? In our own time is God using another imperfect man, Donald Trump, for good?

***

Despite his reputation over the millennia as a great king, David was a human being. He was a sinner who did terrible things. From our twenty-first century vantage point he was despicable.

David lusted after Bathsheba who was bathing on a nearby roof, as was ancient custom. And, though, lust in and of itself can be a normal human response, like other men (and women) he did not have to act upon that physical urge.

One evening, David got up from his couch and was pacing back and forth on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful.

So David sent messengers to get her. When she came to him, he had sex with her. (2 Samuel 11:2, 4a CEB)

You might remember, this was no innocent hook up between consenting adults. This was a king who at best abused his wealth and power to have sex with a married woman or at worst raped her. Both interpretations can be legitimately argued.

David wasn’t done, however, with his despicable abuse of power and wealth. He covered up his actions by having Bathsheba’s husband killed! David used his power to satisfy his sexual urges at the expense of a woman and then abused his power as commander of the army to assure the husband died in battle.

God was certainly angry with David. God took his wives and gave them to others. God allowed the child born to Bathsheba to die. David was publicly humiliated as God took his patriarchal privilege away in a way that left him open for ridicule. God said,

“You did what you did secretly, but I will do what I am doing before all Israel in the light of day.” (2 Samuel 12:12 CEB)

What was David’s response when he was called out?

“I’ve sinned against the LORD!” David said to Nathan. (2 Samuel 12:13a CEB) 

A contrite David humbled himself before God. And God forgave and offered grace to David, to one who admitted his sin, humbled himself, and showed contrition. But God did not take away the consequences of David’s sin.

Because David admitted his sins and was contrite and received God’s grace, he became a great king. Though God would still love David whether he was contrite or not, it was his humble response and admission of his sin that allowed the God-David relationship to move forward.

Ultimately David will restore Jerusalem to the Israelites. Yes, God does use flawed human beings for good, for God’s purposes.

***

In our time we have Donald Trump, a financial king who would like to become the leader of his people.

Like David, Donald has a history of allowing his appetite for power and sexuality lead him astray. He was caught on tape belittling women, discussing sexual assault because, he bragged,

“…when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything … Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.” (2)

What was Donald’s response when he was called out?

As accusations (and corroboration) from numerous women have surfaced about his abuse of power to sexually assault them, he has not confessed in anything near contrition. Instead, he has doubled down calling them liars. He has pointed his finger at others who have misbehaved as a five-year-old might: “Todd did it first!”

So, no. Donald Trump is not like King David.

Yes, David was an extremely flawed human being who went on to become a great leader. The difference, however, was that David admitted and confessed his sins when called out. David showed immediate contrition! He didn’t call Bathsheba names or point his finger at other leaders.

No, Donald is not at all like King David.

***

  1. http://www.christianpost.com/news/jerry-falwell-jr-trump-bible-king-david-a-man-after-god-own-heart-russell-moore-159143/
  2. http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2016/10/07/donald_trump_2005_tape_i_grab_women_by_the_pussy.html

Rewriting Synapses

Rewriting Synapses

I am an American, which is to say that our culture of goals, work, outcomes, and more work is well-written in my brain. Too often I measure my worth by the things that I do rather than who I am. My struggle to worry less about doing and focus on being is a continuing area for growth.

morning-runRunning is about being of the earth with each footfall. It is about being as my spirit soars as the sky opens up. Running is the sacred entanglement of the Imago Dei within, my physicality, and the Gaian whole.

And so being sidelined by an injury impacts my mind, body, and spirituality. This unwanted segue off the gravel, trail, and pavement is about being. Letting go of doing more distance, more speed, or more runs is miserable as I yearn for a good run like non-runners yearn for chocolate. The American cultural drive to perform and achieve trifles and philanders with self-worth.

Though I do not believe that the one I call God tests anyone, all moments and experiences provide the opportunity for learning. I can choose during this time of healing and rest to idolize goals, work, and outcomes. I can wallow and strengthen the brain synapses that support our unhealthy culture within myself.

Instead I choose to sit in the moment with those unhealthy feelings, neither wallowing or fighting, but letting them dissipate. I recall the lessons I learn running beneath transcendent skies and through embracing woods. I opt for being.