Prayer of Justice

I am part of a weekly study/discussion group. We close each session with the following prayer, the author of which is anonymous:
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Grant us, Lord God, a vision of your world as your love would have it:

  • a world where the weak are protected, and none go hungry or poor;
  • a world where the riches of creation are shared, and everyone can enjoy them;
  • a world where different races and cultures live in harmony and mutual respect;
  • a world where peace is built with justice, and justice is guided by love.

Give us the inspiration and courage to build it, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

“She’s Been Loved to Life”

Clasping hands 2Linda entered Bethany, the memory care facility, in May 2015. It was a painful decision for us.  The subsequent eighteen months were the most excruciating I have experienced as she declined cognitively and physically.

By April 2016, she had lost 20 pounds and was becoming increasingly frail. After extensive medical evaluation, Linda was approved for hospice care.

She remained in Bethany for another six months. Confusion, fear, disorientation increased. She was gradually forgetting how to eat and walk. Her weight loss continued.

She was unable to perform minimal personal care, which made her ineligible for “assisted living.” She had to either be transferred to skilled nursing or taken home with full-time care.

I wanted her home! I asked the nurse practitioner for a prognosis of time remaining. Understandably, she was reluctant to project a time. But she said, “Perhaps six months to a year.”

It is now October 2018, thirty months since Linda was admitted to hospice care.  Although she can no longer walk and is confined to the bed and dependent for her personal care, she is more peaceful and less fearful.

“I would never have thought that she would still be with us!”  The nurse practitioner said with amazement during a recent visit.

As I stroked Linda’s hair and caressed her forehead, a pleasant smile and twinkle in the eyes appeared.

The usually stoic nurse said with evident emotion, “She’s been loved to life!”

Tearfully I responded. “We are determined to provide three things for her–physical and emotional safety, appropriate comfort, and the assurance that she is loved just as she is.”

“It’s obvious that she has all three. I just wish everybody could have what Linda has,” remarked the experienced and compassionate nurse.

I feel enormously blessed that Linda and I are both surrounded by love, and it is love that gives us life.

We are blessed with two daughters who love their mother with the unselfish love they received from her; and their families, including our grandchildren, share that love.

We have the help of caregivers to whom caring for Linda is a sacred vocation.

A couple from church bring a meal each Thursday, simply because they care.

A neighbor couple drop in almost every day to lend support.

I, too, wish everyone could have what we experience! Is that not what God desires for the human family–safety from unnecessary danger, comfort amid loss, and unconditional love and care?

We all need to be “loved to life!” Isn’t that why the church exists?

 

Prayer for Deliverance from Perils of Privilege

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O Jesus, you did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited. Rather you emptied yourself in humble, self-giving love to and for the world.

How desperately we need your presence among us in these troubled and anxious times! Our nation and church are locked in tribal, partisan  battles for dominance and power, each side claiming “truth” and “right” and determined to prevail at all cost.

Burst our bubbles of privilege which blind us to the hurts of others and cause us to exploit you in our own pursuit of power and privilege.  Deliver us from the perils of our privileges

  • wealth that cuts us off from the poor
  • positions of power that blind us to the suffering of the powerless
  • education which discounts the wisdom of the uneducated
  • prestige which presumes entitlement
  • health that leads to insensitivity toward the frail
  • religious convictions that leave no room for mystery

Create in us, O God, the mind that was in Christ Jesus–

  • a sympathetic mind that feels the pain of the violated and wounded
  • a humble mind, emptied of arrogance and boasting
  • a generous mind, filled with love and goodwill toward all
  • a courageous mind, willing to challenge injustice and cruelty in high and low places
  • a searching mind, embracing mystery and wonder and awe
  • a hopeful mind, trusting in the triumph of justice, compassion, goodness.

In the name and spirit of the One who is the Mind of God in human flesh, Jesus the Christ. Amen

Principalities and Powers of Sin and Death on Display

The principalities and powers of sin and death were clearly on ugly display before the world in yesterday’s Senate hearing. Will the exposure lead to repentance?

  • turning away from protecting the privileges of the privileged and toward solidarity with the vulnerable and violated;
  • away from the love of power and toward the power of love;
  • away from bombastic bullying and toward compassionate conversation;
  • away from tribal partisanship and toward justice for the common good.

It may be difficult to believe in the moment, but God has already won the decisive victory! Compassion, justice, and peace will win!

Let us live now in the light of God’s victory already won by engaging “the powers” at the ballot box, in our congregations and neighborhoods,  and in solidarity with and advocacy on behalf of the violated and vulnerable.

 

 

Why I Changed My Mind about Homosexuality and the Church

As a delegate to the United Methodist General Conferences in 1984 and 1988, I voted to reaffirm and expand the restrictive language regarding homosexuality. I did so out of sincere conviction as the right thing to do, even though the issue was an abstraction to me. I knew no one who was admittedly gay, and the notion of same-sex attraction was foreign to my experience.

I now deeply regret those votes! Over the intervening thirty years, I have changed my mind and now support the removal of all restrictive language in the United Methodist Book of Discipline here. The following are the factors that contribute to my change of mind.

First, I got to know people who fall into the category of “homosexual.” I came to realize that many of them had long been in my circle of relationships but were afraid to share this important component of their identity. Some are beloved members of my own family!

Many are faithful, devoted, life-long church members who can’t be open within the body of Christ for fear of rejection and condemnation. Some are parents of LGBTQ children who shared stories of bullying and abuse of their kids.

A few were colleagues on the staff of congregations I served, and their ministries reflected the qualifications identified by John Wesley—grace, gifts, and fruits. Many were exceptionally gifted, devoted seminary students whose call to ordained ministry seemed evident to me.

Some are people in same-sex marriages who are committed Christians and faithful to the church, faithful to one another, and faithful to Christ, and who possess “the gifts of the Spirit.”

Hearing the painful stories of these beloved children of God cut me to the quick. The issue of sexual orientation was no longer a theological or ethical abstraction. It became embodied in people I loved, from whom I learned, in whom I experienced God’s grace-filled presence!

Secondly, the evidence is overwhelming that sexual orientation is not a choice. I have yet to meet a heterosexual who can tell me when he/she decided to be attracted to the opposite sex; nor have I met a gay person who decided to be attracted to persons of the same sex.

Sexual identity and desire are complex realities with biological, social, environmental, and psychological components. While the Discipline labels “the practice” of homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching,” the implication is that a person’s being is contrary to the Christian gospel. That is incompatible with our doctrine of creation.

Thirdly, by the 1992 General Conference I had not only begun to change my mind about the language of incompatibility and exclusion, I had become convinced that legislation is the wrong way to deal with the issue.

The pivotal decision was made in 1972 when the language of incompatibility was added to  Social Principles Study Commission Report, by an amendment from the floor with limited debate.

The consequence of that political parliamentary action has disproportionately dominated subsequent General Conference agendas and expanded legislative restrictions. It now threatens to split the denomination.

We have legislated ourselves into a box, maybe into a regrettable schism. Whatever our position on this issue, legislative action will not resolve it!

Fourthly, I came to realize more fully the meaning of Martin Luther King’s words in his letter from the Birmingham jail:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

During my first eight years as a member of the Council of Bishops, I was deeply immersed in the Initiative on Children and Poverty. I felt that the persistent discussion of homosexuality within the Council and other denominational circles was distracting us from fully addressing economic injustice.

I shared my concern with a friend, a theological consultant to the Initiative. His response lodged my conscience: “But, Ken, you can’t portion God’s justice for one group and ignore it for another.”

I realize that some injustices are beyond our ability to remedy immediately, but to ignore those that are within our immediate sphere of influence cannot be excused. By removing the discriminatory language, we can take an immediate step toward correcting an injustice inflicted on our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.

Fifthly, I’m convinced that the discrimination against LGBTQ people is being justified by inadequate biblical interpretation. I’ve read arguments from the Bible used by southern preachers to justify slavery, and I see a similar hermeneutic operating in support exclusion of gay persons.

Using the Bible to support misguided causes is a long-standing scandal in the church. Scripture has been used to justify such evils as the Crusades, genocide, slavery, the subordination of women, persecution of scientists, and burning of “heretics.”

I firmly, unapologetically believe in the primacy and authority of Scripture! What we mean by “the authority of Scripture” determines how we use it.

Here is my understanding: The authority of Scripture lies in its authentic witness to God’s mighty acts of salvation supremely in the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and in its power through the Holy Spirit within community to transform individuals, communities, nations, and the entire cosmos into the likeness of Christ.

The test of commitment to the authority of Scripture is this: Is it shaping us into the likeness of Jesus Christ and enabling us to love as Christ loves and to witness to his present and coming reign of compassion, justice, generosity, hospitality, and joy?

The influence of the Gospel over the centuries has enabled us to see Scripture through the lens of the Word-Made-Flesh, Jesus Christ. Such a lens enables us to avoid misusing  some troubling passages in the Bible.

Three glaring examples: massacring of religious opponents as did Elijah with the prophets of Baal (I Kings 18:40); slavery which was taken for granted in many Old and New Testament narratives; women keeping silent in church (1 Corinthians 14:34).

Finally, my understanding and experience of what it means to love as Christ loves has deepened and widened over the years. People whom society relegates to the margins have taught me about the nature, depth, and expanse of God’s love. I have experienced profound faith among the incarcerated, the homeless, the frail elderly, orphans, immigrants, the poor, and LGBTQ persons.

I have met the Crucified and Risen Christ in my relationships with those whom society treats as “outcasts.” I know from experiences with them that Christ has broken down ALL dividing walls between us. Paul makes it clear:

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

ALL includes gays and straights, LGBTQ and heterosexuals, “progressives” and “traditionalists.” Christ died for ALL, includes ALL, and invites ALL to “love one another as I have loved you.”

It is the quality of our love and its imitation of Christ’s love that is definitive, not gender or sexual orientation. As committed couples, our LGBTQ brothers and sisters should be able to love each other in ways mutually fulfilling to them, as surely as we who are heterosexual.

I’m still growing in my understanding and my ability to love as Christ loves. God grant me the humility to keep learning and growing toward the fullness of God’s perfect love!

How We See Others Matters

Stanley Hauerwas, (here) my friend and colleague at Duke, writes this about Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, a community of persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities (here):

“. . . where I see an enemy to be defeated, he [Vanier] sees a wound that needs to be healed. That’s a big difference.”

Indeed, it is a big difference!

What if we were to consider ourselves and others as bearers of common wounds that need healing, rather than as adversaries to be defeated or competitors to be outdone?

What if we were to see the hurt beneath others’ anger, rather than as aggressors meriting our retaliation?

What if we were to view every person as a potential means of grace to us, rather than as an object of our correction or  charity or evangelization?

What if we were to approach those with whom we disagree as mutual explorers of the ineffable mystery we call GOD, rather than as misguided dupes in need of our superior insight?

What if we were to consider every person as a beloved child of God with infinite worth and dignity, rather than as an object of our desire or a means to our ends?

What if we were to see “the other” through the eyes of Christ, rather than through the lenses of partisan politics, racial prejudices,  and national borders?

The lens through which we view others really matters!

Who I Fear Most

We hear a lot about the role of fear amid current cultural, political, and religious wars. Pundits theorize that we tend to vote our fears, hoping someone will defend us against all threats and make us safe and secure.

“Fear of the other” dominates–those of different race, ethnicity, socio-economic class, sexual orientation, political ideology, religion, nationality. . . .!

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I have an uneasy feeling that the person I fear the most is not “the other!”

The person I fear the most is myself! 

Maybe what I am most afraid of in the other is projection of my own woundedness, my own inadequacies, my own insecurities, my own prejudices,  my own  sinfulness.

Stanley Hauerwas put it pointedly:

“The fear that dominates our lives is not in the first instance the fear of an enemy, unless it is acknowledged that each of us is the enemy, but rather the fear that is the source of violence is the fear that makes us unwilling to acknowledge the wounded character of our lives.”

Overcoming my fear of the other requires that I honestly, humbly, and courageously confront my own woundedness. Projecting fear onto others only compounds its destructiveness.

God, grant me the courage to face the fear of myself in the light of Your Grace; and  may Your Love heal my wounds and cast out my fear! Amen.

“Anyone Who Comes to the Table Becomes Family”

Linda has a marvelous team of caregivers! With the exception of one substitute, they are members of the same family–grandmother,  two daughters, and a granddaughter. They lovingly, efficiently, and faithfully care for Linda around the clock, seven days each week.

I marvel at their skill, patience, and attentiveness. They can change the bed with Linda in it! Linda’s resistance and agitation never rattles them. Her slightest sounds and movements get their attention.

They treat Linda with utmost respect and dignity.  They have learned her unique mannerisms and sounds. She’s treated as a person with a story rather than as patient with symptoms. It is not uncommon for me to overhear one of them say, “I love you, Miss Linda.”

To them, “family” means more than biological relatives. That’s evident in their annual cookout.   Each year they have a huge cookout and invite all who wish to come.

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The event began a few years ago as a way of expressing appreciation to their neighbors who had helped them during a difficult time.  It has evolved into a joyful celebration of and for community.

Here is some of the food prepared this year: 16 racks of barbequed ribs, a roasted pig, 4 cases of chicken, two cases of turkey wings, several boxes of hot dogs, 10 gallons of baked beans,  10 gallons of green beans, 10 coconut pies, 10 sweet potato pies, 10 pecan pies, 2 sheet cakes that would feed a hundred people, dozens of cupcakes, scores of deviled eggs, and more! What a feast!

As many as 150 people show up! Black, brown, and white! Rowdy kids and frail elderly! Married and single! Gay and straight! Religious and non-religious! Educated and uneducated! Employed and unemployed! Parolees and police officers! Strangers and familiar neighbors! A motley gathering of diverse humanity!

“Anyone who comes to the table becomes family,” said the host. “It don’t matter who they are; they’re welcome!”

Now, as we pastors say, “That’ll preach!”

Caring for one another and all of God’s children seems to be in the DNA of this family! I know little about their religious affiliation and their understanding of religious doctrines.

What I do know is this: They embody Christlike love and their lavish table and generous hospitality are visible signs and foretastes of the kingdom of God.

Is this not what the church is called to be? Have we not been made one family? Is that not what we celebrate at The Lord’s Table?

God grant that the church would open wide its doors and announce to the world: “Anyone who comes to the Table becomes family!”

 

 

Artist Captures Mystery of Love’s Connections Amid Dementia

I was deeply touched by this ceramic work of art created by my daughter’s friend, Olga Yukhno. This particular sculpture was inspired by our family’s story of what we call “the birthday miracle of 2016.” Olga’s thought-provoking creation captures the mystery of the diseases that fall under the category of “dementia;” and it is testimony that the very BEING of people with dementia call forth our creativity, love, and gratitude. Below is Olga’s description of “The Sleeping Mind.”

Sleeping Mind

Sculpture by Olga Yukhno, Five Peaks Studio Art

Sleeping Mind

My best friend’s mother has dementia, and sadly she is no longer able to recognize any of her family members or even remember their names. One year, when the family went to visit her on her husband’s birthday, like a miracle, she opened her eyes, gave a big smile, and remembered everyone. She remembered their names and how they were related, and it was the most special birthday gift. When my friend told me this story, with tears in her eyes, that is the moment that inspired this piece. You can see the mind is asleep, but

there is still a connection to the heart. A long path, though difficult to traverse, can still sometimes be used. The big bell in the heart, all of the love and affection from decades of life, can reach the small bell in the mind, all of the memories and happy thoughts, and together they can wake up the sleeping mind.                   — By Olga Yukhno

Linda awakens to know her family and dog!        November 18, 2016

 

This sculpture, along with other sculptures by Olga Yukhno, is part of a series called “What Moves Us” and is now on display through September at Anastasia and Friends Art Gallery (more information here on gallery and Olga Yukhno)

Prayer for Those Who Have Too Much

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Abundant and generous God: your goodness is beyond measure; your power knows no limits except that which you impose; your bounty includes all that exists; your truth exceeds our comprehension; and your beauty is inexhaustible. We stand in awe before your inexhaustible greatness.

We acknowledge your provision for us and your preferential presence with those to have too little–the poor, the oppressed, the powerless, the vulnerable, the sick.

We pray today for those who seem to have too much, and thereby suffer from spiritual, moral, and ethical poverty:

  • those with so much wealth that they are blind to the plight of the poor
  • those with so much power that they exploit the powerless
  • those with so much health that they think they are invincible
  • those with so much intelligence that they lack wisdom
  • those with so much prestige that they lack humility
  • those with so much religion that they fail to be good
  • those with so much hate that they no longer love

Forgive us, merciful God, for assuming we are god and failing to live as though life is a gracious gift. You call us to be faithful stewards of your gifts and to welcome ALL to your table of abundance.

Grant us the mind that was in Christ Jesus–the humble mind, devoted to loving, seeking, and serving those who have too little. Remind us again that without self-giving love, we have nothing. Amen.