Sunday, March 3, 2019

So how does transformation of the world actually happen?

There are likely but a few pastors in this faith we call “Christian” who have not counseled others to find a way forward from some endless variety of “why God?” questions.   We can all get stuck in a learned helplessness upon asking “why?” only to miss out on the far more helpful question of “how?” involving our faith.   It’s the kind of missing out that can turn our highest faith into our deepest doubt.

That said, it may or may not be helpful to bring up the question of “how” in relation to our Christian mission of transformation in today’s world.

How to achieve such a transformation in our world is a question that may for sure take us down one of two major metaphorical roadways.   The first road is one I would simply label “fearful control.”   This roadway contains two distinct lanes.  One lane involves our fear that either we transform them to be like us or they will transform us to be like them.   Said differently concerning our Christian mission of global transformation, “we must Christianize them or they will paganize / secularize us.”  Either we “make” them into disciples of Jesus Christ, or else.  It becomes a power struggle for control.   This lane of the “fearful control” roadway is paved by our Old Testament scriptures and our over-identification with the ancient Israelites of yore. 
The second lane of this roadway of “fearful control” to achieve our mission of global transformation may involve not so much our fear of “them” as of "Him," aka “fear of the Lord.”  More succinctly, this involves a “fear of God’s wrath” if we fail to take control over “them” as our rightful favor to God.   It assumes “when we fail God, He will fail us” and our fear of failure and loss becomes our principle motivator.   Because we assume God to be in control over us, we then view our control over others as a form of righteousness or Godliness.   Again, this lane of the “fearful control” roadway is paved by our Old Testament scriptures and our over-identification with the Israelite people and the Matthean conscript we call Christ’s Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations.”    Implication: either “make them” or else we “fail” to obey all that Christ has commanded us.  Doubly scary.   

Thankfully, there is another roadway.   May take longer to reach the destination, may have only one lane, and may indeed be the road less traveled.   But I would label this second road as “loving influence.”   It compares quite well with the old single-lane route we might take across country through the assorted villages, towns, and inner cities.   It risks getting behind that slow-moving farm implement or loaded truck.   It means Mom & Pop motels – restaurants - gas stations, whereas the wider Interstate means familiar brand names and the rubbing of elbows with other hurried tourists instead of those slow-moving locals. 

This road called “loving influence” means lower speed limits, for sure, and is the last place those with “fearful control” want to find themselves if ever afraid of failure and judgement and being late.   But it is precisely “how” our Lord Jesus seemed to go about transforming the world for his own part.   Upon reading Luke’s Gospel, it seems to take forever and a day for Jesus to reach Jerusalem.   Wandering through Samaria.   Stopping to heal a crippled woman on the Sabbath day of all times?   You’ve gotta be kidding.  Lunch with a tax collector?   Oh, come on, now.   Who has all day to accomplish this mission of transforming the world?

Who else but Jesus?

How else but Jesus? 

The Jesus I personally have chosen to follow is famous for asking questions first before presuming to make speeches.  And for hearing others’ questions first before presuming to give answers. Takes longer that way.   Doesn’t “make” other people think a certain way.   Yet it seems to transform in 3 rather deliberate steps: 

1.      Conform  --    join, accommodate, learn, engage.
2.      Inform  --       offer an outside perspective or insight using a relatable parable.
3.      Transform  -- serve, model, teach, challenge. 
Reminds me of a therapy session I once observed many years ago in which my family therapy mentor was asked by the father of a highly dysfunctional family, “then how am I supposed to even be a good parent?” to his miscreant offspring.  My mentor’s answer?  “There are actually three ways you can be a good parent here:

1.      Be an example
2.      Be an example
3.      Be an example.”

All of this brings me to a consideration of what is now happening inside the United Methodist Church where I have my full Elder’s membership.  I see us as united in the mission to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of this world” and yet stepping all over ourselves trying to figure out “how to” get there from here.   I see a lot of “fearful control” in what amounts to two lanes of noisy traffic.   But I also see some “loving influence” taking place in what may be called the “back roads.”   And along this “other roadway” to global transformation, I see us discovering three ways we can be a good and missional Church here:

1.      Follow Christ’s example
2.      Follow Christ’s example
3.      Follow Christ’s example.  

Thursday, February 7, 2019

On finding a lost plot by having a new conversation

Amidst the ongoing impasse between American conservatives and liberals with regard to politics, I cannot recall hearing much in way of any conversation about responsibility.    Whatever happened, I have to wonder, to that word?  Responsibility.

As an aging boomer, I carry this old memory in mind of how freedom is roughly equivalent to responsibility.  That was what I was raised to believe.   As a teenager, my parents took great pains to teach me both their correlation and causation.  I got the message.  But where is this same message today?

As I look about and among my fellow Americans today, I see two groups of responsible people fighting off their differently perceived threats to our freedom as a nation.   I see conservatives arguing for personal responsibility as if defending our rights to freedom as individuals.   I see liberals arguing for social responsibility as if defending our rights to a free society.   I see a lot of arguing, but I don’t see a lot of listening, or understanding, or giving credit where credit is due.

It seems as though we have reached an impasse in some misguided quest for a zero sum victory in all of this.   One where victory is situated in either personal or social responsibility but never both.  Which then begs the question: why not both?

Having dedicated my own tandem careers of mental health counseling and Christian ministry to the aiding of individuals through introspection and communities through intervention, I have a critical example that more Americans, especially those of the Christian faith, might well consider.   It goes like this.

The Christian scriptures bear witness to the ancient Hebrew people in their own quest for a free society.     Threats to their freedom were numerous, but always their defense was to act responsibility, both personally and socially.   Or at least that was the plan or the plot as laid out by the Jewish Torah with reinforcement by their own prophets.
The story of Christian scripture largely centers around what goes wrong whenever that plot is lost and people abide by only half a loaf, personal but not social responsibility or else social but not personal responsibility. 
The Christian New Testament bears witness to the man, Jesus, who enters the scene as a Jewish rabbi intent upon fulfilling the Jewish Torah and restoring the plan or plot he named the Kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven.   He took nothing away from the conservative Pharisees of his day, practitioners of personal but not social responsibility.   He did nothing to abolish their own side of the law.   But he did rile up those conservatives by insisting that if they wanted any kind of free society or entry into God’s Kingdom of heaven on earth, they would have to add social responsibility to their repertoire.    In other words, Jesus proclaimed the Gospel of the both/and, not the old zero sum game of either/or. 
I wonder if that’s not what is missing from our own contemporary land of feuding liberals and conservatives.  (Not to mention our own churches.) I wonder if we Americans have not lost our own plan or plot.   Have we gotten ourselves boxed in to thinking either we are personally responsible on the conservative side or else socially responsible like the liberals?

Have we lost the message of freedom that comes from both sides of the responsibility equation?  Have we lost our balance and fallen for some all-or-nothing politics of personality or society, win or lose?   If so, we will all lose and perhaps deservedly so.

It seems to me this is the time for restoring our lost plot as a nation. (And as Christians alike.) Time for another conversation.   One that reinforces the strengths of both our conservatives and our liberals, emphasizes both personal and social responsibility, and holds to account those who would fight against the other instead of for our positive sum and common good.   We still have time for a win/win if we’re only willing to have both this old and this new conversation.   

About responsible freedom.                       

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Footprints revisited

You know it well. 

It’s been around for a long time.

It’s one of the most beloved poems ever written.  Mary Stevenson was the author, and it was first published back in 1936 during the height of the Great Depression.  Goes like this:

One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord. Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky.
In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand. Sometimes there were two sets of footprints, other times there was one only.
This bothered me because I noticed that during the low periods of my life, when I was suffering from anguish, sorrow or defeat, I could see only one set of footprints, so I said to the Lord,
“You promised me Lord, that if I followed you, you would walk with me always. But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life there has only been one set of footprints in the sand. Why, when I needed you most, have you not been there for me?”
The Lord replied, “The years when you have seen only one set of footprints, my child, is when I carried you.”

I thought of this poem recently upon seeing a young family walking through a shopping mall.   A young boy about 3 insisted on running ahead of his parents, only to trip and fall.   Down he went on the brightly polished floor’s surface.   It was a hard floor, and no doubt a painful fall.

“Carry me, Daddy.   Carry me!   I want you to carry me!  Carry me, Daddy!” the little fellow persisted.   

Instead, the young Daddy did something I found most admirable.    He asked his older son to reach down and take little brother’s hand, holding it carefully as the two of them walked along.   Side by side.   Hand in hand.   Safely together once again.   And then, in a while, big brother let go and here’s what happened.  I watched as the little boy walked along independently, safely, placing himself in between Daddy and big brother.   Not racing ahead as before.   But walking alongside.   Safely.

This helped me realize something about myself.

And about God.

The God who I cry out to “carry me!” during my weakest and darkest of times.  Only to find that God doesn’t pick me up and carry me after all.   Instead, he has the older son, the one named Jesus, reach down and take my little hand, holding it carefully as the two of us walk along.  Side by side.  Hand in hand.  Safely.


During ”the low periods of my life, when I was suffering from anguish, sorrow or defeat,” I've probably had the wrong idea about God.   I've probably assumed God picked me up and carried me.   Saved me by doing “for” me.   And in so doing I've probably missed how it was God instead asked Jesus to take my hand and walk with me.  You know.  To make two sets of footprints.   To save me by doing “with” me.  Instead of carrying me.

And so my faith now has it that Jesus died with us on the cross.   That God knew we each one had a cross we’d have to carry in this world.  One that would pull us to the hard floor or surface and leave marks or wounds or tears or other signs of brokenness.   Where “the fall” of humanity was concerned, God knew it was inevitable.   That running ahead on our own would eventually cause us pain.   The kind of pain where we’d cry out, “carry me, Daddy.  Carry me!”  

So what do you think?

Is it possible that Jesus carried his own cross in this world, was pulled down, marked, wounded, and broken?    And then resurrected by the hand of the Father?   So we could be saved by following his example, and doing likewise?   Atoned.  At-one-ed in our brokenness.  And our resurrection. Not because of what he did for us.   But with us.   Refusing to carry us.  But always offering a hand to walk with us.  

Leaving two sets of footprints.     

Must Jesus bear the cross alone,
and all the world go free?
No, there's a cross for everyone,
and there's a cross for me.

Thomas Shepherd, 1855

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

My Martin Luther King Day Confession

I was a white racist.

Yes, racism is a national sin here in the United States, whether white privilege and white power has influenced our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in ways overt and covert.   But hiding behind my dominant culture and its chosen norms and narratives is not the answer.

The answer that, to me, makes far more sense as this Martin Luther King holiday 2019 nears is to face and account for the racist norms and narratives I personally lived out in the years between 2019 and 1946 when I was born into the nearly all-white world of rural northeastern Colorado.   The American sub-culture I was born into might better be labeled “otherism,” but it most definitely included racism as a common sub-story.   “Other races” then included for my curious eyes the watching, always at a distance, of those we labeled “Mexicans (meaning anyone of Hispanic origin), coloreds (then meaning Negro Americans), Japs (then meaning anyone of Asian origin) and Indians (all native Americans). 
My young eyes as a boy would stare at such racial “others” as if looking into a cage at the zoo.    By the way, the closest zoo to where I lived was also where the closest “coloreds” lived (125 miles away in Denver).    Denver is where my family locked our car doors while driving through “the colored neighborhood” of east Denver on our way to the City Park zoo.  

I learned to be afraid of dark skinned men in particular after Uncle Eddie was beaten up and robbed one time on a Denver street when I was in 3rd grade.   He was the first white person I knew who used the words, “they all look alike,” when he repeatedly told of being robbed by “these colored men” he admittedly could not identify for the police.

My first close up of a “colored boy” was, believe it or not, when as Freshmen at the same Kansas college, Herschel Thomas let me see how white the inside of his hands were and feel how coarse his hair was on top during a Freshman orientation exercise.   I shudder to reflect on that experience now, but it was real and I cannot deny my own ignorance through my first 17 years of life.

During my first decade of life in my area of rural Colorado, the worst racial fears had to do with Mexicans.    My racism then would do Donald Trump proud today.    They were “wetbacks” who came to work on other farms and then “drink up their paycheck,” my Mom explained, before “going to church on Sunday with those Catholics,” she and my Dad also had no use for. My sister's boss, Vern, told me at the State Fair down in Pueblo that "those people would rather stab you in the back than look at you."  Only when visiting a playground in Greeley where sharing the equipment with Hispanic peers in approximate age did I hear my first words in a “foreign language,” Spanish.   My cousin, Jerry, explained that those kids were “spiks.”   What’s a spik? I wondered.   Jerry, my wise cousin an entire year older, pointed out “they no spika the English.”  We would both Lol. 
Of course, I joined in the watching of TV westerns during the 1950’s, where the cowboys were always the good guys and the Indians………well, they were good at starting wars of ambush, scalping the heads of our people, and making some ill-mannered sound involving loudly audible hand to/from mouth gestures when they were on their warpath.  They were “savages,” I learned.   And so, if in game-playing as a child, I had the misfortune of being chosen to be an Indian in relation to the superior cowboys, I knew my place.   I was to start an ambush with my rubber hatchet and knife only to be properly shot and killed by the local cowboys.   I learned that playing dead on the ground was my fate as an Indian.

The Japs?   Well, for me as a boy in the decade following WW II, these were just all-around bad guys.  None of my friends knew too much about them.    They bombed Pearl Harbor.    They had slanted eyes.   And in the years to come I would learn that they made junk.   Always cheap junk.   Stuff you’d never want to buy.
Putting it altogether, I learned in Church that our missionaries were sent to teach the bad people of other races and nations about Jesus.    They were all to be considered “foreign” and somehow “pagan” in need of Jesus, where they could then, red and yellow black and white, be considered precious only in his sight.  Not ours, of course.    Jesus alone could love these unlovable people, these “other” children of the world who didn’t belong here with us.  

That I was racist to the point of assuming I belonged here in America somehow more than “they” did, defines a narrative I grew up believing and living.    I was wrong for both, the believing and the living.   Because doing so mean fearing.     And in recent years I’ve grown to finally comprehend that more fearing always means less loving.  

That’s right.

We can’t truly love those we fear.  We fear loving them will somehow come back to hurt us.   So for many years my racism kept my faith mostly in fear and my doubt mostly in love.  Love was, I thought, too good to be true.   Love was, well, what you did after the war was over and the enemy had somehow surrendered to us white folks here at home, in the good old USA.   Where I/we belonged at least a little more than “they” did.  

Which is where Martin Luther King, Jr. comes in.

Here was a man who made love triumph over fear.    Fear, you see, had to do with violence and self-defense, and fighting fire with fire.   Faith in fear meant faith in fighting back.   Yet, Dr. King was a man who had doubt that fear would work in any kind of long run.   Rather, he placed his faith in love.  Just like Jesus in his Jerusalem.  King in his Washington……his Memphis.    Shining all the light I needed in order to see.........

........that I was a racist.

Monday, December 24, 2018

My Christmas Confession

“All right then, the Lord himself will give you the sign. Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means 'God is with us').”  --  Isaiah 7:14 NLT

On this Christmas eve of 2018, I have a confession to make.  

I don’t like the word Immanuel, or Emmanuel, and would much prefer it being cut out of the Bible.    Eliminated from all Christian faith, or at least my own faith.  And I say this not because I lack faith in God.  Rather, I lack faith in myself.

Let me try and explain.

See, the world Emmanuel, which means God with us, suggests in my mind that God is reaching down to take my hand and walk with me when I would much rather He pick me up and carry me.  I’ve stumbled and fallen down on my own and, in my humble opinion, it’s time for God to come and pick me up and just take over control of my life for me.   I want God to be “for” me, not “with” me.

I lack faith in myself to do this “with” business that the word Emmanuel challenges me to expect.  I don’t need God’s hand to walk with me.  I don’t need God’s influence.  I need God’s arms to carry me.  I need God’s control.   

Or, at least that’s what I want.  I think I need it, but I really want it because I lack faith in myself.   

What I want for Christmas is a God who will pick me up and carry me, and who will control this dark world in these troubled times and make it all better and brighter.  A God who will do “for” and not “with” us.   A God who will be "the" light, not tell me to also be the light or let "my" light so shine.  

I confess that where Christmas is concerned, I don’t want a human baby who will come and live with me.   I don’t want the Christ-child of Bethlehem.   I want the Christ-adult of Calvary.   I want a divine Savior who will go straight to the Cross and die for me so I don’t have to die.   I don’t want to have this Christ who lives here to teach and preach and say I should take up my own cross and follow him.  I want a Christ who will do things for me, not say things with me.   

I want a sky-God who will take control, not an earth-God who will give influence.  

I want God to come and condemn this crazy world, not save it.   Or, put another way, I want a God who will save the world “for” me or save me “from” the world.  Not a little baby of Bethlehem who will save the world “with” me letting my own light shine and taking up my own cross.  I want a simple divine Christ who will say “believe me,” not a complicated human Christ who will say “follow me.”   I want a Christmas God who will come down, pick me up, and carry me out of this place of stumbling and fallen humanity.  That’s what I want for Christmas from God.

Instead, the Bible uses the term Emmanuel. 

Perhaps God knows what I want but also cares even more about what I really need this Christmas. I need Emmanuel.  I need to follow the child of Bethlehem.  I need that human hand in mine to walk with.  That human ear and that human voice to pray with.  I need a God I can do things with.   I need a God who empowers me, not overpowers me.   I need a God who influences me, not controls me.   I need a God who enables me to help save the world, not condemn it.   Who helps the world survive, not end.   Who helps transform the world into God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. I need a God who dies with me, not for me.   A God who leads me to a cross where, in losing my own life I am saved. 
I need Emmanuel.

Yet, I confess that’s not what I’ve asked for.   No.   I’ve been asking for that one set of footprints in the sand where God is carrying me.   Where I don’t have to stand back up and walk “with” God’s human hand in mine, feet alongside mine, and making two sets of footprints after all.

O come, O come Emmanuel.   God, give me all that I need this Christmas, even if it’s not what I’ve always wanted.  Give me back those two sets of footprints after all.                

Friday, December 7, 2018

About getting through the getting through

I made a lot of mistakes as a Pastor.

Even prior to my second retirement, while serving as an Associate for Pastoral Care in our local parish, I made one having to do with the annual Longest Night service I was in charge of on the evening of Dec. 21, 2014.  I can still remember it well, but there was as in most mistakes a helpful lesson to be learned through it all.

I had four ladies from our Grief Ministry team all set to read four scripture passages during the service from what we call the Psalms of Lament.   I would then key in a message of how, like the ancient Hebrews, we might celebrate God’s presence even in our darkest of times.  

Fair enough.  

But what was unfair to these ladies is that ahead of their readings came a song I had asked our Men’s Quartet to sing.  It was that old secular classic by Billy Hayes and Jay Johnson titled, “Blue Christmas.”    Yes, that one.   The one Elvis made famous, with lyrics such as:

I'll have a blue Christmas without you
I'll be so blue just thinking about you
Decorations of red on a green Christmas tree
Won't be the same dear, if you're not here with me

And when those blue snowflakes start falling
That's when those blue memories start calling
You'll be doin' all right, with your Christmas of white
But I'll have a blue, blue blue blue Christmas

By time for them to stand for their readings, all four of our ladies were bawling and sniffling and struggling to stay composed enough to handle their parts in the service.   Their anguished memories of loved ones lost was more than enough to ruin their presentations no matter how many times they had privately rehearsed their respective readings beforehand.

I had messed up by putting that song in just ahead of their parts.   Worse yet, I’d failed to warn them in advance.  Even at the age of 68, I was still making my share of Pastoral errors. 

My message that followed may or may not have redeemed me in some fashion that evening, but I do remember at least trying to make clear this one point:  being blue today does not mean having to stay blue tomorrow.   This, too, can pass.   We really can get through the getting through, at least to some positive extent.  

As Pastors, we even get through our own mistakes and move on.  Still making our share of errors in the field, but at least different ones next time.   And in that respect, we all are or can be like the Hebrew people who in exile could find no way to sing a happy song.   They had every reason to cry out their laments of woe.    Every reason to be blue.   But being blue today doesn’t mean having to stay blue tomorrow.   There is such a reality as a return from exile.   Not to how things had been before but to how they can become again, if that makes any sense.  

And with God’s help, I think it does make sense.

For those of us going through a tough time this month in anticipation of Christmas.   For those finding it hard to sing a happy song in a foreign land, as it were.   For us we may indeed be blue today.   But we don’t have to stay blue tomorrow.  

We can be like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.   That’s right.  The poet.  Who back in the year 1863 found himself on the verge of having a very blue Christmas.   It had been a bad year.  And Henry had every reason in the world to lament.  

Approaching Christmas day and the bittersweet sound of those church bells to come, Henry couldn’t get over thinking about even his first wife, Mary, who had died all the way back in 1835 during her miscarriage.   Then just two years ago he had buried his second wife, this time after a fatal fire.  They had but one child, a son named Charles, who earlier that year had left home against Henry’s wishes and joined the Union Army.   Our nation’s Civil War was raging on, and now word had come that Charles lay wounded in an Army Hospital far from home.  

It would be a blue, blue, blue Christmas. Or so Henry thought as he penned these words of rhyme onto paper one day: 

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair I bowed my head
'There is no peace on earth,' I said,
'For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.'

But here’s what made the difference for Henry.  Here’s what made it possible for him to get through the getting through.   It’s what helped him be blue today but not stay blue tomorrow.  It’s a verse we can all rejoice in reading together even now out loud.   Yep.  I know it’s just a blogpost that you’re reading, but go ahead and let yourself read these words aloud even now.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
'God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.'

Whatever your year has been like.   Whatever mood you are in today.   Whatever mistakes you may have made in the past.   There’s always more to your story.   And it will be about getting through the getting through.    

Thursday, November 22, 2018

The United Guests of America

We are most honored to be the Thanksgiving guests of Karl & Linda Mattila today.   Thank God for friends who are inclusive enough to welcome us as family!

This brings to mind, for me at least, the origins of our nation’s thanksgiving mythology.   The one where our so-called American Indian hosts welcomed our European “caravan” as guests. Well, actually that’s the alternative myth.  In our telling, we “white folks” were the hosts and Tisquantum, aka Squanto, was a guest of “our” pilgrims. 

I’m thankful today for our native American forefathers and mothers.  And for our pilgrim guests and their legend of gratitude upon this north American continent.

The rest is history in terms of our pilgrim heritage.  Not long after their dubious entry into that original native American community, these pilgrims developed what we’ve come to call our “ownership society.”   And with ownership, we’ve accumulated slaves and “possessions” that were beyond foreign to our native American forefathers and mothers.    You see, those wise folks such as Tisquantum understood that the earth was God’s to own and ours to borrow.   Planet earth was here to provide its own resources for our use, starting with food, shelter, clothing, and natural energy.  (Think wind and solar.) We were, they rightly believed, all guests of our common God.  And in being “guests” we became most “honored.”  

Guests become united as one, and out of such unity comes honor.  Then gratitude.

That is the lesson I choose this day to draw from our nation’s thanksgiving mythology.  

The idea of owning what God alone owns places us not in atonement or unity with God but, well, it makes sinners out of us.   Sinners in need of salvation.   Salvation to be found as guests in God’s all-inclusive family.  Honored guests.  Thankful guests.

Our choice as a nation today is between claiming as our forefathers and mothers those who owned the land and its bountiful produce, who would love things and then use people, or those true native American forefathers and mothers who assumed the role of guests upon God’s land, living instead as those who loved people and only used things.

Such a choice represents perhaps our greatest of all freedoms today as Americans.   The choice of foreparents between those who lived as “owners” and those who lived as “honored guests.”

So here’s a toast to Tisquantum, aka Squanto, and to his Patuxet people.   We are honored to be their guests today.     And to be the United Guests of America.