Living the Spiritual Life

It’s been said that comedians don’t live funnier lives, they see the humor that other people miss.  We train ourselves to see the world through particular frames.  Some people train themselves to see market principles at work in every interaction.  It isn’t so much that they live more commercial lives.  They simply understand normal interactions through a cost-benefit frame. Some people train themselves to see what’s wrong and they see it everywhere.   It’s not that there’s more dust around them than anyone else.  It’s just that they see the dust.  I think this is true of spiritual people also.  God doesn’t touch the lives of spiritual people more than other people.  Spiritual people are more aware of the ways God touches our lives.

There are some ways we can train ourselves to experience God’s presence more consistently.

  1. Begin the day looking for God-moments.  God-moments are those moments that we identify as times that the reality of God, God’s creative genius or compassion toward us is apparent to us.  If we begin our morning with a prayer and scripture, it tunes our hearts and minds into the possibility of God moments.  I knew of a a piano teacher who would give her students double credit for the piano practice they did before 8 am.  Thirty minutes of practice at 6:30-7:00 would equal on hour of later-in-the-day practice.  She knew that a student would give better concentration right after waking than they would when the day gets going.  More importantly, playing the piano first thing in the morning reinforced the student’s identity as pianist.  Similarly, a little time spent early in the morning focused on God’s presence reinforces our identity as Christians.
  2. Keep an account of how God has touched your life.  Journaling is one of the most valuable things a Christian can do.  My problem with journaling has always been how nice most spiritual journals look.  I have t-e-r-r-i-b-l-e handwriting.  Then I gave up on the nice, attractive, leather-bound “spiritual” journals and went to the composition books—cardboard cover, remarkably durable, found at any office supply store.  I prefer the ones with grid paper.  Once I was free to be honest rather than feeling compelled to write legibly, I was able to maintain the practice of journaling more consistently.
  3.  Find opportunities to share your experiences.  I find that many thoughtful Christians are reluctant to express gratitude for the ways God has touched their lives.  They have experienced people who put others off being, as my Dad used to say, “So heavenly-minded they’re no earthly good.”  Many Christians worry about the implications of giving thanks for something that God has apparently not chosen to give someone else—i.e., healing, opportunity, resources.  Yet, gratitude is the primary posture of the spiritual life. It is called forth even when things are not going as well as we’d like (Habakkuk 3:17-19).  It is through such a capacity to give thanks for what we do see that we train our eyes to see even more reasons to give thanks.  You may not live a more spiritual life, but you can live life more spiritually.

Peace I Leave With You . . . Make it!

needtotalkPeace is both a feeling and a project. Jesus told his Disciples in John 14, “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid . . . Peace I leave with you.” The Apostle Paul invited the Philippians to experience the “peace that surpasses understanding.” When I think of the “feeling” of peace, my mind goes almost immediately to the Eagles 1972 song, “Peaceful Easy Feeling.” The song is about a young man’s love of young women. The statement, “I know you won’t let me down” is ironic. He sings of a young love that does pass pretty quickly. But it feels like so many songs sung at church camp as a roaring fire—too hot for Texas in Summer—slowly died down to embers. This relief from anxiety and calming of our spirits is indeed a gift from God.

But, there’s another side to the biblical witness of peace. Jesus said blessed are the peace makers in the beatitudes (Matthew 5). Jesus taught people to live at peace with one another (Mark 9:50). And early church regarded Jesus’s ministry as one that preached peace to those who were separated by religious and ethnic differences (Ephesians 2:11ff). Peace or Shalom—to use the transliterated Hebrew word Jesus would have used—is more than a cessation of violence. Peace is enough food and water for everyone, justice and righteousness for all. It takes work to accomplish peace. I’d call this the “project” of peace.

The project of peace and the feeling of peace are not separate entities—two different meanings for the same word. They are related. The reality of peace—security, justice, provision—without the feeling of peace, leads people to paranoia, greed, and an emotional neediness we’ve all encountered but never enjoyed. The feeling of peace absent the reality of peace is a seductive mask placed over dire realities. Peaceful feelings without peaceful conditions is a favored tool of manipulation for con artists and dictators. What Christ left us in leaving us peace was not the peaceful easy feeling Glenn Frey sang about. It is the sense that we are not left without strength in the face of pressure. We are not left without wisdom during times of confusion. Through Christ, we have the strength to bear fruit (John 15), the Holy Spirit as our guide and teacher (John 16), and our fellow believers to serve alongside in unity (John 17). The peace felt in John 14 is the peace created through the resources in detailed in the chapters that follow. The peace project and the peaceful feeling are God’s call and God’s gift. May they live together in our own lives.

Cyber-Monday and Marketing Myths

amazingIt’s “Cyber Monday.”  A television ad for a large (may I say “dominant”?) on-line retailer showed a dad dropping off his son at kindergarten (maybe Pre-school).  The child appeared to be dressed a little oddly and no one played with him.  The dad peeked through the window and his eyes showed the heartbreak of his excluded child.  So, the dad pulled out his smart phone, ordered his son a new outfit–a Superman outfit–and when the son wore it to school, it made him instantly popular.  The same company has an ad showing a Priest and an Imam sharing a visit, commiserating over aching, aging knees, and ordering one another knee braces–from the online retailer.  Parenting and interfaith dialogue all boiled down into thirty-second ads and tied up with simple purchases.

As a religious professional and as a dad, I watch these ads and the eyes of my heart roll a little . . . a lot.  Interfaith dialogue is tough and parenting is tougher.  Advertisers want you to believe otherwise.  They want you to believe that through a few clicks on your phone, you can send a message and solve a problem.   These are nice stories.  They just aren’t truth stories.

Truth:  there are organizations that are genuinely committed to doing good in this world.  They seek to help struggling parents, bring religious people together, aid the hurting and feed the hungry.  Such organizations cannot afford carefully crafted commercials with national distributions.  They have made mistakes.  In some cases, they have made a lot of mistakes.  Perhaps so many that their public images will never recover.  They work with inadequate personnel and resources.  They have incomplete answers.  They are scarred and bruised from having fallen down, gotten back up and fallen again.  They have been used, mismanaged, manipulated, and squeezed.  Still, they keep going.  And they are real.

I know I’m being defensive.  I work for such an organization–a local church.  My wife works for another similar organization–a public school. I have friends serving in various non-profit organizations and social service agencies.  We struggle.  We get accused of failure and do not have time or energy to mount our defenses.  But we are real.  We are not the online retailers.  We are not the brick and mortar retailers.  We are the flesh and blood and face-to-face servants of the least, the lost, and the lonely.  And if you want to know more, try coming alongside us in our service.  You’ll discover for yourself that no matter how sweet the ads are, they simply are not true.  The crushing of sentimentality is the hard part.  The beautiful part is discovering the truth that can take their place–the real pictures of imperfect people participating in the work of a perfect God.

Economics, Race and Our Current Crossroads

When a group experiences collective depression and economic hardship, they search for a cause for their poverty.  Conditions that create poverty are both complex and personally difficult. Economic hardship is often caused by both external factors and personal behaviors.  It is emotionally and intellectually easier to blame a person or group of people than to think about conditions and behaviors.  This preference to focus frustration on another group of people rather than on conditions and behaviors is a feature of human nature. By itself this preference is dangerous enough.  However, the history of mob violence and genocide has been marked by unscrupulous leaders who have manipulated this feature and intentionally encouraged class-based violence.  Two specific examples: post-emancipation lynching in the South and the conflict in Rwanda between Hutu and Tutsi.

In post-Emancipation South, lynching became increasingly prevalent and increasingly racial.  Vigilante justice had always plagued us as a people, but after Emancipation it morphed into an uglier tool for race-based hatred.  James West Davidson wrote in his book They Say:  Ida B. Wells and the Reconstruction of Race, “Between 1880 and 1930 at least thirty-three hundred African Americans were murdered by mobs.  During the 1890s and early 1900s, two or three blacks on average were hanged, burned, or otherwise killed every week” (p. 8).    Ida B. Wells-Barnett exposed the practice of lynching.  The prevailing lie that sustained lynching was that a black man lynched was guilty of raping a white woman.  Wells exposed this myth and revealed that often the feeling of being economically threatened by African-Americans advancement was the motivation.  Reconstruction created difficult economic conditions for both White and Black Americans in the South.  Rather than collaborating on mutually beneficial solutions, struggling Whites directed aggression toward emerging Blacks and the ones who benefited were the established, economically powerful White leaders.

In 1994, the Rwandan genocide took the lives of somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million Tutsi Rwandans.  The violence emerged from the Hutu-class and was directed toward the Tutsis.  The distinction between Tutsi and Hutu Rwandans goes back to the 14th Century when Tutsis migrated to that region.  In the 17th Century, Tutsis established rule over the area and in the 19th Century Tutsis unified the region.  Also, in the mid-19th Century, European explorers arrived in the area, in the early 20th century Belgium was granted control of Rwanda–granted control by a Western-driven League of Nations.  The Belgians stirred the conflict between Hutu and Tutsi–people who had intermingled, inter-married and more or less coexisted for centuries.  Before the Belgians arrived the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi was distinguishable, but it was less sharp.  While they were there Belgians favored the Tutsi and ruled Rwanda through them.  As the Belgians left in the 1960s, they contributed to the Hutu anger toward the Tutsi and inflamed the violence.  We cannot know what the history of Rwanda would have been without Western presence.  What we do know is that Western colonizers did accentuate the differences between two groups and exploited them to their own advantage and when they left these differences erupted into horrendous violence culminating in 1994 Genocide.

Here’s what these two situations have in common:

  1. Harsh economic conditions.
  2. Groups of people with economic similarities and ethnic differences.
  3. Governing or economically profiting classes who encouraged the ethnic clashes between the groups who had economic similarities but salient ethnic differences.

In the last two days, I’ve read  articles suggesting that white working-class frustration with a system that does not benefit them motivated them to vote for Trump.  These articles have suggested that it is economic frustration and not racism that has come to the surface in this election.  I can understand the reasoning as far as it goes.  I, for one, have never accused Trump-supporters of racism.  My reading of history tells me that the two things go hand-in-hand.  Again understand, I’m not suggesting that poor whites are themselves racist.  I am suggested that we’ve been here before and the way it’s been handled before is that those in power have left unaddressed the conditions that lead to poverty.  They have chosen instead to fuel the perception that our problems come from a who and not a what.  This leads to inevitable reactions that whoever has been identified as the problem deserves people’s ire and their efforts.  Racist violence has been carried out most often by mobs containing people who feel economically vulnerable, but the direction and moral sanction for such violence has been given by those with material wealth and political power.  The combination of economic hardship along with ethnic groupings is a deadly combination by itself.  This natural tinder box can either by ignited through rhetoric that plays one group off another or it can be mitigated through a needed attention on people’s circumstances.

We are at a crossroads.  This election has exposed the deep-seeded struggles and frustrations of many Americans.  We will either continue to blame someone else for these problems or we will do the hard work of addressing the conditions and, yes, our own personal behaviors that create the mess we’re in.  President-elect Trump has seemed to provide fuel for both directions.  At times, he has villainized one group and then another.  At other times, he has focused on conditions that create the problem: inadequate employment opportunities, failing infrastructure, and a lack of communication between governing and governed people.  Many people want to keep the focus on the inflammatory rhetoric from the campaign.  I understand that.  People targeted by this rhetoric are scared.  While officially the new administration seems to be stepping back from the extremism of the campaign, the shadow this rhetoric has cast and the threatening potentials remain. It doesn’t help a situation for people to be safe but not feel safe.  Moreover, too many people have taken this election as permission to act out independently.  Silence does not help.  We must say clearly and directly that violence is rarely the answer and even when it is, it’s an incomplete one.  Initiating violence toward someone because of ethnicity, skin color, sexual orientation, or religion is a sin.

At the same time, we must encourage and support the focus on conditions or what I have called the Problem-Cause-Solution trajectory of reasoned argumentation.  We may not agree on specifics on how to fix the problems with the Affordable Care Act, the problems with trade agreements, the problems with the management of the Federal government.  Nonetheless, if these problems and the proposed solutions are indeed the problem-cause-solution analysis of the duly elected administration, then we must accept that this is what the democratic system has asked the in-coming administration to address.  We can ask the President-Elect to say again and with greater clarity that his election does not represent the triumph of white nationalism nor of discrimination nor of bigotry.  We can urge them to keep their focus on the conditions and causes of so many people’s frustrations and to direct the nation’s attention that our problems are not generated by people who appear to be different.  Our problems are complex and we contribute to them in ways we may be unwilling to admit.  And we can focus our attention on these problems as ourselves.  The articles I read said repeatedly that people like me–college educated, economically empowered, work-within-the system types–have not been listening to the struggles experienced by the masses.  I thought I had, but I’ll humbly confess that I’ve not listened deeply enough.  I pray that we will not slam the door in each other’s faces and further entrench ourselves in class conflict, but will instead take the wake up call as an invitation to try again.


Ecclesiastes 1:1

The Hebrew text identifies Ecclesiastes as the words of Koheleth (also written Qohelet and Qoheleth).   The word appears seven times in the text (Ecclesiastes 1:1, 2, 12; 7:27; 12:8, 9, 10), but it appears no where else in the Old Testament.  The Greek translators of the text believed Koheleth related to a more common Hebrew word that means to assemble or assembly.  Perhaps that meant that this one assembled sayings or perhaps it meant that the writer was one who assembled people for a hearing–a teacher or a preacher.  The word Greek ekklesia meant a political assembly or gathering or meeting.  It came to be the word the New Testament writers used to call the church.  It is this interpretation of gathering people together as the possible meaning of Koheleth that caused the Greek translators of the First Testament to name this book Ecclesiastes.

The author was thought to be Solomon since Ecclesiastes 1:1 attributes the book to the “son of David, King in Jerusalem,” and Ecclesiastes 1:12 also makes the claim that the writer was a ruler in Jerusalem.  However, the language makes a Solomon authorship unlikely.  Or if Solomon was the original writer it was highly edited.  It’s more likely that it was written in the fourth or fifth century B.C. I assume that the author likely took the persona of a ruler over Jerusalem, but that this was not a historical fact.  It is a book of Wisdom literature.

Benefitting from a study of Ecclesiastes requires us to release our preoccupation that each Bible passage can be tidily integrated into an optimistic system.   The book is pessimistic, despairing, and at times closed to heretical.  Yet Ecclesiastes’s inclusion in the canon is its own ironic refutation.  It decries the futility and ephemeral nature of human existence, but here it is 2500 years after its writing still included as part of God’s Holy Word.

Do We Have Our Priorities Turned Around

Consider the following statements and decide which of them are true and which you feel are false.

  • God cares about you as an individual.
  • Even the little things matter to God.
  • You can talk to God about every concern you have.
  • God calls you to focus less on yourself and more on the needs of the hurting.
  • God’s purpose for you is that you would join God’s worldwide movement for justice.
  • Following God’s plan is a matter of being nice to the people you meet.

Were any of the statements false for you?  My guess is, probably not.  If so, forgive me for presuming.  Now, which of the statements tend to be things you think about most often?  Why do you want to hear on a regular basis?  My hunch is that most of us (myself included) enjoying hearing the good news for us–God loves, forgives and cares for us as individual people.  My hunch is that many of us do not think as consistently about God’s expectations that we will be willing participants in God’s plans that may require our sacrifice or effort.  Our priorities may be too skewed to our own wants and we may be overlooking God’s will.

What I Did Preach When I Preached Politics

Faith’s Family Tree

2 Timothy 1:1-7

November 13, 2016

When my father died, I felt the need to preach his funeral sermon. I felt I needed to do this because my father, who faithfully attended worship, tithed and lived out his faith in many ways, didn’t really like most ministers.  I don’t think it was the ministers themselves.  My father had been called to the ministry.  He chose not to answer the call.  And like many who are called and choose not to respond, I think he projected some of his own discomfort onto the clergy he knew.  Even so, my father’s pastor spoke at my Dad’s funeral and I think my Dad would have been surprised to know just how well his pastor knew him and loved him.  I say this as a way of beginning this sermon.  I know you and I love you. You may not know how proud I am of you, or how often I pray to God for you.  And you may not be particularly fond of me.  I get that too.  Yet, I’ve never felt a lack of support even from people who I knew were mad at me about one thing or another.  But, I just want to set the stage. Paul was Timothy’s Pastor. And that is a role I have.  I want to speak to you the way Paul spoke to Timothy.

Paul’s heart was breaking for he knew the tears Timothy had shed.  He was aware of the context out  in  which Timothy functioned.  Timothy’s context contained anxiety—Paul had been arrested and imprisoned not for a crime but because he was a Christian.  The other followers of Jesus Christ were scared that the same fate may befall them.  Timothy’s context fanned conflict–Timothy was distressed by the divisions that were beginning to occur.  Some of the followers had distanced themselves probably out of fear that they would be found guilty by association.  Timothy had stood by Paul at a time when many had walked away, but it caused distress.  Timothy’s context involved separation.  Timothy wanted to see Paul and Paul wanted to see Timothy.  They knew that their reunion would represent more than old friends coming back together.  It would mean Paul’s release and his safety.  It would have brought joy to Timothy.    There’s a touching statement at the end of the book in which Paul said to Timothy Come to me before Winter.

In 1939, the German Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who would be executed in Finkenwalde Concentration camp in 1945 was living in New York working at Union Theological Seminary.  He had already irritated the Nazi regime and was already in danger.  He could have stayed in America and survived but, he read this verse in church and it compelled him to return.  Come before winter.

Paul took this opportunity to remind Timothy of his origin.  Timothy had grown up in a household of faith—his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois.  Because of his upbringing he had a specific understanding of the gospel and what the gospel meant in his life.  Timothy heard the songs sung in his home. Paul took the opportunity remind him of his faith’s family tree.  His mother Eunice and grandmother Lois had given him an inheritance of faith.  This is what caused us to choose this text months ago when we scheduled this sermon series. However, the concluding verse of our scripture reading is, for me, inescapably related to what’s taking place outside our worship context.

He said, “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”  

What has been on display this week in our culture has been the opposite of those qualities—Love and Self-Discipline.  The portrayal of those who voted for the democratic nominee for President is that they lack self-discipline:  protesting in the streets, burning the President-elect in effigy, screaming, “not my President” and other more obscene epitaph’s, OR your crying inconsolably, asking to be excused from work or, expecting some safe perimeter of silence.  The portrayal of those who voted for the republican nominee for president is that they lack love. We have reports of violence against Arab-Americans, of kids chanting “build the wall; build the wall” at Hispanic classmates, bigoted notes on the windshields of gay and lesbian people.

I know you have not done any of the things.   know you are kind and compassionate. I know that you are self-disciplined and civil and responsible.  I have seen the way you give for children and youth to have amazing summer experience—for those you know and for those you don’t know.  (NOTE to people who are not members.  In addition to supporting youth summer camp and mission trips, the church also provides a large number of scholarships to College for Kids, an exciting summer educational project at Tarrant County College).  I have seen your compassion for the poor, the grieving, and challenged.  I have read your 1979 report that declared we will not exclude anyone from the Lord’s table or from the fellowship of the church on the basis of sexual preference.  I know these things about you because I know you and I love you.

Yet there are many who do not know these things about you. Who may assume that you applaud the protests or approve of the violence or condone the bullying.  You may ask, “well why should we care what people think about us?  We know ourselves.  We know we have not given in to the spirit of division.  We have not acted irrationally or aggressively.  We know this about ourselves.  Our pastor knows this about us.”  Yet, we are not simply called to avoid doing bad things.  We are called to serve as witnesses in a world that is anxious and divisive.  Hear these instructive words Paul wrote a little later in this letter.

2 Timothy 2:22-26, “Shun youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. Have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth, and that they may escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.”

We live in a world that is dividing, shouting at each other, seizing this opportunity to do violence to someone else.  And we have a choice about how we will respond.

Just as Paul reminded Timothy of his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice, I remind you of the people who bore your faith.  I remind you of Mike Lakey who taught you to hold true convictions with an open heart to those who disagree.  I remind you of Pat Harry who believed that we should engage with our world with serious minds.  I remind you of Art Digby who taught you to bring your Christ-formed character into the public sphere’s where you can make a positive difference.  I remind you of Colbert Cartwright who said we will not, in the name of Jesus, allow anyone to be pushed aside.  I remind you of Alexander Campbell and David Lipscomb who said we would not be divided as a church even as the nation was rip apart in civil war.

I remind you that you were were lowered into Christ’s death and raised to walk in newness of life.  I remind you that you have been called by Jesus Christ to be salt and light in this world.  Salt preserving and preventing things from disintegrating into chaos. Light giving sight to those who walk in darkness.  Being salt takes self-control and being light takes love.

This is who you are.  I know that your capacity to be self-controlled, rational, compassionate and accepting emerge out of your identity as followers of Jesus Christ.  There are people who don’t know all these things about you but, they do know that you are a Christian. They see you leave your home on Sunday mornings.  They see you arriving here to 910 S. Collins a few minutes later.  They know you are a Christian.  They simply do not know what that means.

Our lack of participation in the madness in this world is not a witness to the truth.  It is an acquiescent signal of permission.   God has not given us a spirit of passivity or cowardice.  God has given us a Spirit of Power and of Love and of Self Discipline.

How does anyone know that though you may have voted for a different candidate, you are still willing to be in community with them?

How does anyone know that you will actively seek to prevent inhumane violence and coercion?  How does anyone who does not know and does not love you know that because the Spirit of God is at work in you, you do not fit the stereotypes of what you’re seeing?

How does anyone know that you see each person as someone made in the image of God and at the same time marred by human sin?

How does anyone know that you will look at them, as best you can, as fellow creatures within God’s good creation?

How does anyone know that you believe in Christ there is forgiveness of sins and welcome for sinners?  How does anyone know that about you?

Softly beneath the shouting matches of angry protests and racists’ parades, there have been those—including  both candidates—who have said we need to heal.  We need spaces where people of differing backgrounds can come together and unite.  We need places where people listen to each other, respect each other, acknowledge one another’s human dignity.  You say, that’s what we do in this church, that’s who we are.  I know that about you because I know you and I love you.  But how does anyone else know that.

We have about 60 people who serve on our church’s general board.  That’s about a quarter of our average worship attendance.  One out of four of you are asked to interrupt your weekly schedule four times a year and come and hear reports, updates, and make decisions. Who will say Tuesday night, “Budgets and nominations and reports are important but, of exceedingly greater importance is our witness to the world.”?  Who will say on Tuesday night, “I move that the board of First Christian Church rededicate itself to our originating vision of making unity our polar star, acting as agents of reconciliation in a world of division”?

Who will say, Pastor, on behalf of this church write to every newspaper and media outlet you can find and declare this as a place where people of differing convictions can share a common communion?

Rabbi David Wolpe from Sinai Temple in Los Angeles said, “The nation will not be healed from the White House.  It has to be healed in backyards, in halls of worship, in public parks and club houses.”  If that’s true then we as a hall of worship, have this choice before us—will we as First Christian Church in Arlington, Texas claim our birthright, our inheritance, the values of our faith family tree, and step into the breach of division and aggression and serve to be agents of reconciliation and dialogue.

Option 1—Is that we remain silent.  We do nothing.  Silence means we forfeit our inheritance.  We say—we once believed that unity was our polar star, but not any longer.  We were once a movement for wholeness in fragmented world but not anymore.  We were once a church that built its life around Christ-centered relationships but now, not so much.

Option 2–We can make the choice that we often do of saying, “It’s an individual’s choice as to how they respond to the world’s crises.  We may encourage people to do what’s best, but we will not take a unified stand.”  That may sound noble, but in reality it is a choice to baptize division by saying that even within this tight community we’re not willing to say yes to unity and healing and no to division and protest and aggression.

Option 3–we can make the choice as a church to serve as a context for discussion, acceptance, and reconciliation. We can say we do not support lawlessness and rebellion.  We do not support racism or bigotry of any kind.  NOR DO WE CONDEMN THOSE WHO ARE INVOLVED IN THESE THINGS.  Rather we open our doors up and say—let us see if we can’t find a better way to respond than the way we have chosen. We can say to the protesters—you do not have to act destructively to be heard.  In this church, all you have to do to be heard is show up, show respect and open your mouth when it’s your turn to talk.  We can say to violence-makers—you cannot accomplish your objectives through bullying and coercion.  Christ died to bring an end to such enmity.

I don’t know what kind of difference it would make if we decided to act as a whole church at this time.  I think it could make a world of difference if we found a public and formal way to declare that First Christian Church welcomes all but I don’t know.  I do know what kind of difference our silence makes. OR rather, I know the difference we don’t make when we don’t act.  If your church board were to say something formally, I know what I would do.

I would start with the people we call our Timothy’s and Priscillas.  Those who have been ordained in this church and I would contact as many of them as I could to say—this is what the church who ordained you has decided to do.  I think they would be proud of you.  They’d say that’s the church I know and love.

Bill and Heather would gather our children and youth at Logos and youth group and say—this is what this church has decided to do.  I think your children would say—that’s the church we know and love.

I think Dana would tell her network of colleagues—this is what my church has decided to do.  And those who know you and love you would say, that’s the church I know and love.  And the others would say—I’d like to get to know this church, I think I could love this church.

And you could do it too—you could get on the phone to your friends and neighbors especially the ones who are anxious and afraid and you could say—this is what my church has done.  And they’d start to know you and start to love you.  Yes, we would still need to determine the next step after that.  We would have to find tangible ways to make good on our pledge.  But still, wouldn’t it be worth the sacrifice of time to come to a board meeting and to say, we did something that justified all of us being present as we said we will work for unity in unity?

What I Would Preach if I Preached Politics

The cover of Time magazine this week is an undoubtedly photo-shopped picture of a smiling Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton standing side by side holding a sign that reads, “The end is near.”  I read the magazine, it didn’t actually say the end of what . . . or if it did I missed it.  Did they mean the end of the election?  OR did they mean the end of American democracy?  OR did they mean it as some sort of ironic parody of the stereotypical street preacher predicting the end of the world and the impending, apocalyptic wrath of God? Whatever they meant, Wednesday morning is not the end; it’s the beginning and American Christians should prepare for such a beginning.

If I were to preach a political message, here’s the message I imagine people want to hear would sound something like:  In a few short days we’ll be able to put all this behind us, we’ll join hands, take communion, enjoy some hymns, say some prayers, remind each other that we still have heaven when we die and conclude with a satisfied, “They can’t take that away from me.”  I imagine people would like me to encourage unity despite differences, agree to disagree as long as we disagree agreeably and to see our common humanity. There are elements of truth in this expected message.  It’s just not enough for me today.

I cannot say, “the end is near.”  I do not believe in deus ex machina endings.  Not when the deus is the God revealed in scripture.   Yes, God fixes all our messes but, we need to be prepared for God to fix the messes by fixing us through repentance and humbling.  There are some tough realities we must face.  I asked former Arlington police chief what he thought of the militarization of the police—this in the wake of some riots and tactics being used to disperse them.  He said to me, “You have to remember, communities get the police force they want.”  It’s true.  City governments are reflections of citizenry’s character.  I happen to think Arlington has an outstanding police force and it’s one of the things that gives me hope for the community as a whole.  But what he said of a community’s police force is true of so many other things as well.  States get the budgets they want.  The electorate gets the candidates they want.  A nation gets the president it wants.  We like to pretend that we have reached a place where none of us wanted to go.  Yet, we have willfully marched directly to this place. What we have demonstrated repeatedly is that this is what we want by tuning in to the scandals and tuning out analysis, by listening to the shouts and eschewing the conversation.

We have created this system by rewarding the behavior we say we deplore.  Behavior that’s rewarded continues.  The political mechanisms of character assassination will have worked for the winning side of every race except the uncontested races and even some of them have probably relied on tearing down someone. The 2016 elections will be won by the candidates who have most effectively generated hate for their opponents.  We will reward the most effective character assassins with political office.  We will punish integrity, compassion, reason and decency by choosing their alternatives.  We will punish them by making them the butt of jokes on late-night talk shows, morning “news” programs, and the dreadful sea of talk radio, or we will forget about the losers entirely which is a worse fate than ridicule. We have rewarded the vendors of hatred with lucrative salaries and celebrity status.  We may think we want a better system but, we don’t want it badly enough.

We don’t want it badly enough to stay focused on the problem-cause-solution trajectory.  Any half-aware High School policy debater can tell you that there’s a basic structure to reasoned argumentation.  You have to identify the problem and demonstrate that it is significant.  You have to correctly locate the agent or agency that has governance responsibility relative to the problem.  And you have to propose a practical and effective solution that the agent or agency can implement to solve or ameliorate the problem.  It’s that simple except that it is not simple.  It’s incredibly complex.  It’s work that has to be done issue by issue.  It is work that has to be approached with reason, evidence, humility, and courage (and integrity and prayer and honesty).  What is simple is getting distracted either by the cult of personality or the culture of personal attack.  We do not want a different system badly enough to work our way from problems to solutions around questions of race and racism,  poverty and sustenance, the appropriate use of military force or if there is such a thing.  We grow weary or get confused and give up and indulge our appetite one-liners, rumors, and doomsday scenarios.

The end is not near.  We have spent decades cultivating the system we now find painfully acidic.  It will take decades to construct something else in its place.  And before we can do that, we have to want something else.  And we really don’t want something else.  We have the system we want.  We continue the system we reward.  We maintain the system through how we behave.

Second, and more importantly, the end is not near . . . the Lord is.  I don’t say that in some sort of comforting way.  It frankly scares me to pray right now because I am embarrassed by my contributions to the system we have.  As I read scripture, the nearness of the Lord has usually meant someone’s confrontation and call to repentance.  When the Lord came near to Samuel, it meant that Eli and his sons would be confronted (1 Samuel 3-4).  When the Lord came near to Isaiah he cried out, “Woe to me, I am undone” (Isaiah 6:1-8).  When the Lord came near to Mary, she foresaw the ripping down of the powerful from their thrones (Luke 2:46-55).  When the Lord came near to Saul, he was blinded, interrogated and converted to Paul (Acts 9).  When the Lord is near, repentance follows–Biblical examples abound with the nearness of God leading to the repentance of people.

Repentance involves confessing sins. Our mistakes did not begin with the primary seasons of 2016.  They are not isolated to the two people now running for President of the United States.  This presidential election may be the most salient manifestation of our mistakes but, they are not the sum total. Unless we own our mistakes, we will continue to make them and we will suffer the consequences for our decision not to work for a better system.  We will suffer the consequences until we choose to repent. And even then it will take a long time for life to take the place of death.

Repentance can and should happen within our political parties.  I believe we must work within our own parties to change the nature of politics.  We should quit pretending that we are not partisan.  We are.  The American system is partisan because the American people want a partisan system.  So, we have to communicate to the party we claim as our own our desires to have statesmen and women who are less strident and more collaborative. Repentance means we stop acting like children, pointing fingers at the other party saying, “they started it.”  We started it.  It’s our fault.  We are the reason we can’t have nice things anymore.  Political repentance means expressing our intention to work for the nomination of those who act with the greatest integrity within our parties.  If we willingly accept gross immorality from nominees so long as they have demonstrated effectiveness on whatever metrics we think matter, we will continue to be deceived that those metrics have been honestly identified, assessed, and reported.  In our system we have rewarded the candidates who have finely honed skills to portray that which makes them look good and guard that which reveals their gaps.

Someone will say, “not all politicians are bad. Some are good.” I say, two things are true of every candidate—they are made in the image of God and marred by human sin. We need to evoke more of the image of God and hold accountable the manifestations of human sin. This is true of all of us—we must want it for ourselves as much as we desire it of politicians.  We bear the responsibility because we have not identified, celebrated and expected the best–that which reflects the image of God–from the people we elect to public office.  When candidates have sought to act with integrity, they have not received our support.  The system we have created is one that frightens good people into remaining silent.  This too is what we want.  Engaging requires effort and risk. We are to blame when we have retreated in fear and hid behind any false spirituality. Democracy affords each person a resource, a treasure.  Treasure squandered is bad stewardship.  Bad stewardship is sin.  We are accountable for the decisions we make.  We are accountable for taking our eyes of issues which need to be addressed and engaging in the regularly scheduled popularity pageant and mud-slinging contest.

Someone else will say, “What about separation of church and state and we don’t live in a theocracy so how can you expect behavior that conforms to faith-based morality within a system that is explicitly not based on faith?”  Yeah, I’m still working that out.  I certainly do not want a system where people are coerced into worshiping God in some uniform way or coerced into worshiping God at all.  I value the first amendment.  I don’t reverence the way I once did.  Still, I think we can have an electorate and elected officials who operate from faith-based ethical systems without having a government that’s governed by religious institutions.

Repentance within our political system means prioritizing our expectations of government.  As I seek to be both faithful to scripture and responsive to my contemporary context, here is what I think we should expect of our government.  This is my contribution to a conversation I think we ought to have about the role of government.

  • Governments are judged on the basis of how they respond to the most vulnerable. We do not receive specifics from scripture about how we protect the vulnerable or strengthen the weak.  Systems that create dependence and apathy in the name of compassion are not more virtuous than those that withdraw aid.  There are multiple ways to ethically respond to another person’s need but, the least ethical response is to show favoritism to the wealthy and apathy toward the poor.
  • Governments have the responsibility to see that children receive adequate education and are raised in as healthy, safe, and wise a context as is possible.
  • Governments must entrust into the hands of a chosen few the power to enforce the laws that protect one person from being victimized by another person and must hold those entrusted with that power to the highest standards of fidelity.  Abuses of power, at any level, in the form of coercion, unjustified violence, manipulation, or profiteering is grounds for the governed to remove power from the hands of the abusers.
  • Governments have responsibility to develop court systems that enable citizens to adjudicate their grievances with one another in accordance with the law and without individually enacting retaliation.  Governments have responsibility to locate and empower fair, impartial, reasonable judges to oversee our court systems.
  • Governments have a responsibility to sustain the systems they have put in place.  There’s nothing in scripture that calls for the government to be responsible for our roads and highways.  However, our government has accepted the responsibility to build roads must fulfill they obligations they have accepted.  Moreover, the government should acknowledge that the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.  Stewardship for creation is a moral responsibility for the government because the government has accepted so much responsibility for imprinting creation with what we call infrastructure.
  • Governments have a responsibility to enact diplomacy whether that be between adjacent communities, in interstate relationships, or between nations.  The government should seek understanding, peace, and the well-being of all people to the extent that such is possible.
  • Governments have responsibilities for their military. If military force is necessary, the government should order that such force be sufficient to accomplish the mission and nothing more.  Military force should never be used gleefully, haphazardly, or as an option of first resort.

If you don’t agree with my list of responsibilities, suggest something else.  If my prioritization is misaligned, offer correction.  If I have left off something that needs to be included, recommend amendments.  Let’s do this with reason and intelligence and dialogue rather than with attacks on one another.  One of the primary reasons I chose not to preach this sermon is because I think we need to engage in dialogue about the difficulties we face.  Dialogue that is not handwringing.  Dialogue that is truth spoken in love not the repetition of talking points from cable news.  Divisive campaigns lull believers into withdrawal.  Seeing no savior on the ballot, we retreat and hope our salvation will come without our working it out with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12).  Yet, God calls us to be present in our time and place and to continue to work for something excellent.

No government made by human hands will ever come anywhere close to embodying the vision of God’s Kingdom.  This does not mean we should abandon the quest to have human governments that we can own before God without embarrassment.  The Lord is near and therefore we must daily acknowledge that we have the system we wanted.  We have the system we helped forge.  And if we are embarrassed by that in front of God, God can hear us confess our sins.  God can and will grant forgiveness.  God will enable us to convert, repent, want for something better and work for something better.  This is the offer of grace. God does not excuse our sins.  God forgives them and enables us to try once more to do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with our God, to care for widows and orphans in their affliction and to keep ourselves unstained by the world.  In a few short days we have all this in front of us, we can work together and work toward something better than what we have, we can let communion be our guide instead of our opiate.  In communion we work to share with one another the blessings we have received from God.  We serve as one another’s memory.  We declare the Lordship of Christ.  Communion can guide us.  We can let the words of hymns penetrate. We can confess with the hymn writer, “Prone wander, Lord, I feel it.  Prone to leave the God I love.”  We can pray.  And we can agree to disagree and disagree and disagree until we agree, until we come to a place of consensus.  Until we come to discern God’s will.  And we can remind each other that our vision is for God’s will to be done on Earth as it is in heaven.  Wednesday morning is not the end, it is the beginning.  There’s a word for what can happen after a season of ugliness, after our sins have been put on display, and goodness has been tortured, ridiculed and crucified.  That word is resurrection.  May this be our prayer, our hope, and our call.  Amen.