Sermon on Mount: My Lenten Discipline

This is the fourth year that daily engagement with the Sermon on the Mount has been part of my Lenten discipline.

Each morning I read and reflect on about half of one of the three chapters, which means that it takes six mornings for me to complete the Sermon. Once I complete the chapters, I repeat the sequence. Only this time I read the passages in a different translation or paraphrase.

I ask myself these two questions each morning: Where do I see this being lived by me and/or others? In what situations have I failed to live this way? Throughout the day, I look for examples of faithfulness to and betrayals of Jesus’s vision.

Intentionally holding up my life against Jesus’s life and teaching sensitizes, inspires, and challenges me toward what John Wesley called “holiness of heart and life” and “the entire love of God shed abroad in our hearts.”

I am reminded of the quote from General Omar Bradley from the mid twentieth century:

“Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living. We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount.”

The contrast today is even more stark! Values, behaviors, and practices opposite those clearly expressed in Jesus’s Sermon and his life have become normalized. The contrast is nowhere more publicly obvious that in today’s political discourse and behaviors by prominent people.

If the Sermon on the Mount contains the vision of life as Jesus lived and invites us to live, it is essential that Jesus’s disciples make the Sermon the basis of our decisions and actions.

The Sermon on the Mount, however, is more than a statement of ethical expectations. It is a revelation of the very nature and action of God. It reveals how God acts in the world.

Therefore, the Sermon is an invitation to live as God lives in the world. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas states it clearly:

The basis for the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount is not what works but rather the way God is. Cheek-turning is not advocated as what works (it usually does not), but advocated because this is the way God is – God is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. This is not a stratagem for getting what we want but the only manner of life available, now that, in Jesus, we have seen what God wants. We seek reconciliation with the neighbor, not because we feel so much better afterward, but because reconciliation is what God is doing in the world through Christ.

Perhaps the Sermon on the Mount won’t “work” in a world like this. That’s the point! If we live the Sermon on the Mount, the world won’t be like this!

 

Prayer in the Aftermath of the Nashville Tornado

Having experienced a tornado while living in Nashville and knowing something of the shock waves of grief, loss, uncertainty, and hard work resulting from such devastation, I offer the following prayer. I know that individuals and congregations in that great city will pull together and courageously reach out to one another with compassion and helpfulness.

O God, our help and hope in every time of distress, we bring before you our concern and grief over the devastating losses experienced by the people of Nashville from the powerful tornado. We know not even how to pray, for our groans are deeper than words can express.

Assure us that you know our thoughts, that you accept our inaudible petitions, our prayers of anguish and lament, and bewilderment in the face of incomprehensible tragedy. Remind us and the suffering people of Nashville that you do not desert us; but in times of desperate need, you are ever present to comfort and restore.

Console those who mourn, give shelter to those who are displaced, reunite those separated from loved ones, and give hope to those who seem to have lost hope. With your healing power, touch those who are injured, and grant confidence to those now uncertain about the future.  To all rescue workers and recovery volunteers, give wisdom, endurance, patience, and perseverance.

We pray  for pastors and congregations who embody your presence in ministries of compassion and mercy among the displaced people left homeless and defenseless by the ravaging winds. May they know the peace that passes understanding and be strengthened by supportive embraces and expressions of love from colleagues and friends.

O Crucified and Risen Lord, remind us that love triumphs through suffering and no turbulent wind can destroy the bond of love.  Because of your decisive victory over the powers of sin and death, life will prevail over death, hope over despair, love and justice will win over indifference and exploitation.

For you, O God, are “our help in ages past and our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast and our eternal home.”

We pray through Jesus the Christ, who’s present and coming reign of compassion, justice, generosity, and joy, we celebrate and anticipate with hope. Amen

 

“From Dust to Dust”

Ash Wednesday

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return!”

I’ve said those words countless times as I placed ashes and the sign of the cross on the forehead of worshipers. And, I’ve had them spoken to me at the beginning of Lent for decades.

But this year the words have a particular poignancy. Linda, with whom my life has been deeply intertwined in a profound bond of love for six decades, has too quickly returned “to dust” from which she came.

Within the last five years, death has claimed my wife, my mother, sister, brother, brother-in-law,  uncle, aunt, several friends, colleagues, and neighbors.

On this Ash Wednesday, “To dust you shall return”  sounds and feels more like a personal medical prognosis than a routine religious ritual.

The circle is drawing closer. Life is narrowing. Energy is lessening. Capacities are diminishing. Frailty lies on the horizon. Time is running out.

I know this seems grim and foreboding. But, Ash Wednesday and Lent are about confronting the reality that we all live with the dust from which we came and the dust to which we return.

Life is always Frail! Fragile! Fleeting!

Yet, there is a strange freedom in acknowledging our own frailty and mortality. The idols of control, self aggrandizement, and invincibility are stripped away.

What’s left amid the ashes of crumbling idols is Grace! Gift! God!

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” are words spoken in community as we are marked with the sign of Cross.

The One who breathes into the dust from which we came redeems the dust to which we return.

So, we are not alone on our journey from dust. . . to dust!

And, we journey toward a new heaven and new earth where “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more . . .” (Revelation 21:4).

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Criminal INJUSTICE System



In the late 1970s, Tennessee Governor Ray Blanton promised to pardon the son of a political ally who had been convicted of the murder of his ex-wife and her male companion. A firestorm of protest erupted, embroiling the Democratic governor in controversy that transcended political affiliation.

In an attempt to calm the political storm, Governor Blanton appointed a “Blue Ribbon Committee” to make a recommendation regarding his decision to pardon the convicted man.

I was asked to serve on the committee, which included a forensic psychiatrist, a Vanderbilt law professor, a couple of state senators, persons experienced with the pardon and parole system, a newspaper publisher, state representatives, and a couple of business people.

After thorough review of the case and hearing from relevant witnesses, the committee recommended against the pardon. We unanimously agreed that he did not meet the standard guidelines and that the proposed pardon was clearly a political payoff.

We felt that granting a unilateral pardon for obvious political payback subverted the criminal justice system and undermined confidence in its fairness.

Contrary to his promise to the committee, the governor pardoned the man along with more than fifty others during his last week in office.

Governor-Elect Lamar Alexander was sworn in three days prior to the official inauguration in order to prevent more such pardons.

Republican Alexander’s early swearing in was made possible by the U.S. attorney representing the Department of Justice, the lieutenant governor and state Speaker of the House, both Democrats.

After leaving office, Governor Blanton was convicted of mail fraud, conspiracy, and extortion for selling liquor licenses, and he served twenty-two months in a federal penitentiary.

Memory of this episode from forty years ago resurfaced with the news of President Trump granting pardons and/or clemency to duly tried-and-convicted, high-profile, white-collar criminals.

As Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

The recent actions by President Trump clearly rhymes with the Blanton experience. Both reflect the gross inequities within the criminal justice system and the abuse of power for purely political purposes.

1186px-Johnny-automatic-scales-of-justice.svg

The scales of justice are demonstrably weighted in favor of the economically and politically privileged. It’s more about how much money you have, the color of your skin, and who you know than what you do that determines your fate in the current system.

A glaring difference between the Blanton case and the current president’s actions is public response.

Forty years ago, Republicans and Democrats in Tennessee together demanded action from their political leaders on behalf of fundamental justice. Now, protest is largely muted and clearly partisan.

Has advocacy for simple fairness and equity become merely a politically partisan issue?

I wonder if Senator Lamar Alexander remembers that he was inaugurated governor three days early because leaders of the opposing political party put justice above party?

Are corruption and cronyism now acceptable, if it is done by OUR party?

Have we now normalized a criminal injustice system?

Is political party affiliation now the final arbiter of what is right?

Have we become a nation “where nobody is above the law,” EXCEPT the economically secure, politically connected, and racially privileged?

Is the Pledge of Allegiance a meaningless ritual for opening sports and civic events? What about “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for ALL”?

The prophet Micah lived in a time when justice was weighted against the poor, and religious leaders were complicit with the prevailing injustice. Micah cautioned that such injustice has disastrous consequences and warned of impending national collapse.

But the prophet’s warning included God’s alternative:

[God] has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God (6:8)

And this word from the Psalmist merits our attention:

Blessed are those who act justly, who always do what is right.” (106:3 NIV)

May our actions rhyme with the words of the Prophet and the Psalmist, more than with our partisan politics.

Moving from Grief’s Tears to Love’s Smiles

It’s been three and half months since Linda’s death. The grieving continues!

C. S. Lewis in his classic A Grief Observed writes that grief is like a bomber flying overhead. At times you are only faintly aware that it is there. Then, without warning it drops a bomb, shattering your world once more. The sobbing and disorientation return.

Those waves of grief come unexpectedly, like a sudden bolt of thunder on a clear day! They are triggered by a site, or fragrance, or a rediscovered memento, a reminder of an experience from the past.

Painful images of Linda’s diseased-induced distress, anguish, confusion, disorientation, and fear open the floodgates of grief’s tears. They trouble me, sometimes torment me!

Experts remind us that the memories with the most painful emotion attached to them are the hardest to heal.

Those negative images accompanying our journey with dementia are difficult to dislodge from my memory.

But healing is happening!

Our daughter created a collage of photographs of happy times over our sixty years together.

Collage

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The collection of joyful images sits in my sunroom where I spend much of the day. Other photos are attached to the refrigerator.  Two months ago, those photos brought tears, too. They reminded me of what had been but can be no more.

Yet, something important has been happening.

The painful images from the last few years are slowly being balanced by memories from six decades of love and laughter.

Our new community chaplain, Kathleen Miko, stopped by this week for a visit. Since she had not known Linda, I pointed to the collection of photographs and explained why they were there.

Kathleen observed, “I notice that you smile every time you look at those photos.”

I hadn’t realized that gradually grief’s tears are being replaced with smiles of gratitude for love shared.

I know that more bombs of sadness will fall, waves of grief will come crashing over me.

Yet, grief’s tears are slowly giving way to love’s smiles.

 

Hope for the Past

As dawn breaks on this first day of 2020 and a new decade, we rightly seek glimmers of hope for the future. I wonder, however, if it is past for which we need hope.

A friend sent me a poem this week by David Ray. It is a tribute to the famed poet Robert Frost:

Do you have hope for the future?
someone asked Robert Frost, toward the end.
Yes, and even for the past, he replied,
that it will turn out to have been all right
for what it was, something we can accept,
mistakes made by the selves we had to be,
not able to be, perhaps, what we wished,
or what looking back half the time it seems
we could so easily have been, or ought…
The future, yes, and even for the past,
that it will become something we can bear.
And I too, and my children, so I hope,
will recall as not too heavy the tug
of those albatrosses I sadly placed
upon their tender necks. Hope for the past,
yes, old Frost, your words provide that courage,
and it brings strange peace that itself passes
into past, easier to bear because
you said it, rather casually, as snow
went on falling in Vermont years ago.

Yes,  I need hope for the past!

  •  mistakes of the past are redeemed.
  •  guilt from the past is forgiven
  • grief of the past is comforted
  •  memories of the past are claimed without pain
  • broken relationships from the past are reconciled
  • prejudices of the past are purged
  • hatreds of the past are eradicated
  • lessons from the past are learned

Since the One who creates, redeems, and sustains is LOVE, there is hope for the past and future. Living that hope is the challenge of today!

 

Grieving at Christmas

1140-candle-lights-holiday-grief-family.imgcache.rev52a41fcdbdce3ee489e7aaaa08bf98cf

Grief dominates Christmas for me this year! Sparkling decorations, joyous music, holiday parties, and upbeat festivities just don’t fit where I am.

I was a teenager the last Christmas I celebrated without Linda. That was six decades ago!   Even though she was not cognitively aware of the last five Christmases, she was still present.

I could see her! Hear her voice! Hold her hand! Kiss her forehead! Comb her hair! Feed her! Brush her teeth! Sit silently beside her and listen to her breathe.

Now she’s gone! Memories remain, but they are accompanied by sadness for what is no more.

Part of me is missing, too.  Adjusting to who I am without her means reorienting my identity, redefining my vocation,  re-ordering everyday living.

But there is a mysterious goodness in grieving at Christmastime. It’s hard to explain.

The pensiveness I feel seems to be stripping away the superficiality of the season and confronting me anew with the profundity of the Christmas story:

The infinite God, the source of all life, who brings this magnificent and ever-expanding universe into being, entered human flesh with all its frailty, vulnerability, death, and grieving. Thereby,  God has claimed all matter, including human life and death, as bearers of divine presence and love.

The ultimate meaning of our existence is to be extensions of the incarnation, birthing and nurturing God’s presence and love amid our living, grieving, and dying.

Grief is love weeping, evidence of love shared. The longing for presence, yearning for recovered memories and lived expressions are signs that love still lives and grows. Gratitude that love remains amid death and loss gives perspective to the grieving.

But Linda is no longer present for me to tangibly share love. That still hurts deeply!

Christmas speaks to that hurt, too! It doesn’t take it away, but it offers a means of redeeming the absence and hurt: I can enter the loss, grief, and longing of others!

There is comfort in solidarity with those who suffer. Some are in our families. Others are neighbors. They need a gentle embrace, a whisper of comfort, perhaps a gesture of forgiveness, a word of encouragement.

There is also comfort in extending hospitality and advocating on behalf of the vulnerable and wounded who also bear God’s image, presence, and love.

Christmas is about God coming in a helpless baby, born of a young peasant, unmarried and pregnant teenager, made homeless by a cruel governmental decree.

The Christmas stories in the New Testament proclaim God’s radical hospitality and prophetic advocacy on behalf of the powerless, despised, and vulnerable people of the world.

Grief has energy, passion! I pray that the energy and passion of my grieving will be channeled into friendship with and acts of mercy and justice on behalf of those with whom Jesus so closely identified that we meet him in them.

That’s what God wants! And, I think that is how Linda would want me to grieve her absence!

Christmas, after all, is about God entering our grief, redeeming our sorrows, and inviting us to join Emmanuel in “the least of these.”

 

 

 

Christmas: A Different Politics

OIP7L7BFVIE“I’m tired of politics and politicians! Maybe Christmas will give us a break!” That’s a comment I overheard in the grocery store this week.

We could all use a reprieve from the rancorous partisan wrangling going on in Washington and on social media.

It seems that hate, cruelty, violence,  greed, dishonesty, deception, and disrespect have been normalized and now dominate political rhetoric and practice.

Can’t we just put politics aside–sit beside a warm fire, wrap gifts, sing “Jingle Bells,” and dream of a white Christmas?

Perhaps such an escape from the world of ideological warfare over taxes, immigration, poverty, homelessness, religious divisions, and abuse of power would help us all.

But there is a problem! Those same realities exist in the first Christmas as recounted by the Gospels. Emperor Augustus issued an executive order requiring that everyone  register to be taxed. Compliance required that everyone return to their birthplace.

A young pregnant unmarried peasant girl, Mary, and her fiancé, Joseph, had to travel to a remote hamlet. Unable to find housing, they lodged in a barn.

There in the darkness of the night, surrounded by farm animals, Mary gave birth to a son, without the aid of medical care. She wrapped him in a common cloth and placed him in a cattle trough.

Rumors circulated that this child of Mary and Joseph, Jesus, was the Messiah, God’s anointed, from the lineage of mighty King David.

Threatened by a potential rival, King Herod ordered the slaughter of all males under age two. To escape the violence in their home country, Mary and Joseph became immigrants in Egypt.

So, as recounted by Luke and Matthew, the first Christmas was a political event! God entered the messy, divisive, violent world of worldly politics.

Politics is about power, its definition and use. Christmas is about God’s politics, God’s definition and exercise of power.

Here are the  images of God’s power:

  • a baby born among the homeless,
  • an immigrant child escaping violence,
  • a carpenter/preacher speaking truth to prevailing religious and political power,
  • a compassionate healer of the sick who welcomes outcasts,
  • the crucified Jesus extending forgiveness to thieves and a violent mob,
  • the Risen Christ, still bearing the scars of crucifixion,
  • the Living Christ present in the longing for wholeness, justice, and peace.

The answer to our current politics of destruction and dysfunction is God’s Christmas politics of compassion and justice. We most properly celebrate  by

acts of mercy and justice toward the poor, vulnerable, and powerless

welcoming the outcasts and strangers

caring for the sick and frail

comforting the grieving and dying

 visiting the imprisoned and lonely

practicing forgiveness in a culture of vengeance

living and demanding honesty and integrity

trusting the power of love over coercion and domination

cultivating confidence in the ultimate triumphant of God’s love!

God’s Christmas politics WILL win!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lessons from Seminary Class on Dementia

December 5 was the concluding session of “Dementia through a Pastoral Lens” which I teach at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary.  It was an eventful and poignant time as students shared evaluations and insights from their fourteen weeks of academic challenges and personal engagement with people living with dementia.

I asked, “Name an insight or formational experience you will take from this course.” Among the responses are the following:

  • We can’t think our way to God; God comes to us in experiences of love.
  • “I became more patient.” Discipleship requires slowing down, being fully present in the moment.
  • Ministry means presence more than doing.  We aren’t problem solvers; we are mediators of grace.
  • People with dementia are full members of the church and not mere objects of charitable ministry. They are no less faithful disciples than we are.
  • Human identity and worth do not lie in capacities, intellectual or otherwise, but God’s claim upon us and our relationships in community.
  • People lose their memories only if they lose community, for memory is held in community, not simply in our brains.
  • The presence of the weak and vulnerable are essential for the church to be the body of Christ and faithful to its nature and mission.
  • The vulnerable belong at the center of the church’s life and mission and not on the margins. Jesus shifted the margins with the outsiders becoming the insiders.
  • Baptismal vows to support and nurture one another have no expiration date. The covenant extends into our frail years!
  • Theology is lived more than thought.
  • People with dementia teach us more than we teach or serve them.
  • To love and be loved is to know God, whether we can cognitively comprehend or verbally articulate thoughts about God.

During a “commissioning”the students assumed the following vows:

Will you be intentional in ministering with people affected by dementia, especially those with the disease, their loved ones, and those who care for them?

I will, with God’s help

Will you be present with people with dementia, learn their stories, receive their gifts, and enter their worlds?

With God’s help, I will seek to be an extension of the Incarnation

Will you relate to each person with dementia as a unique, precious child of God, made in the divine image, whose personhood and worth are in their identity in Christ?

By God’s grace, I will relate to each person with dignity, respect, and love as a brother or sister in Christ.

Will you honor the persons with dementia as fellow disciples and nurture their ministries with support, guidance, and access to the means of grace, including the Sacraments?

With the guidance and presence of the Holy Spirit, I will honor them as colleagues in Christ’s ministry and among the priesthood of all believers.

Will you seek to form congregations in which people with dementia and their families truly belong as equal participants and members of the body of Christ?
With God’s help, I will seek to order the life of the congregation to be the body of Christ, reflecting the unconditional love of Christ for ALL people.

The students received special stoles provided by Lynda Everman and Don Wendorf who have developed the marvelous “stole ministry” as outlined in the book, Stolen Memories.

 

This book can be ordered on Amazon; 100% of sales support the work of the network, ClergyAgainstAlzheimer’s (order here).

 

“Thanksgiving While Grieving”

Thanksgiving is different this year.  It’s the first Thanksgiving in sixty years that Linda and I haven’t been together. Her absence is keenly felt. Grief remains raw.

Admittedly, gratitude isn’t the prevailing emotion. Lament prevails over praise. Tears surface more readily than laughter.  Sorrow’s night time still awaits morning’s joy.

Then, I read the Apostle Paul’s exhortation to the Thessalonians, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:18).

My first response is “Paul, you’ve got to be kidding! This sounds like a pious positive-thinking platitude propagated by a prosperity preacher.”

I realize, however, that the admonition comes from one who knew far more hardship, suffering,  grief, and struggle than anything I have experienced. He chronicles some of his challenges:

. . . countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I have received. . .forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from bandits, danger from my own people, . . ., danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many sleepless nights, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked” (2 Corinthians 11:23-27).

So I can’t easily dismiss his admonition that I “rejoice always” and  “give thanks in all circumstances.”  He knows some things I need to remember and practice amid my sadness and struggles.

For one thing, the present circumstance is not the whole story. Loss and grief can feel all-consuming, the tragic end of the story.

But the Apostle Paul knew that our stories are emeshed is a much larger narrative. We are all part a Love Story that encompasses all creation. The Eternal Power that brings creation into existence is ever working to renew, reconcile, heal,  and bring to completion all things.

Therefore, we can rejoice and give thanks that within the worst of circumstances, God is present, working to comfort, heal, reconcile, renew, and bring wholeness. In this Love Story, the most painful and debilitating experiences are woven into the fabric of a new future we call Resurrection!

As participants in this eternal Love Story, we are never alone. We are connected to one another and to all of God’s creation. Paul states it boldly, “Nothing in all creation, in life or in death, is able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:19).

On this first Thanksgiving Day without the physical presence of Linda, I rejoice and give thanks for

  •  love shared for six decades and which continues to bind us together
  •  family and friends who lend their loving support
  •  joyful memories of tender and carefree times
  •  suffering relieved and wholeness gained
  •  hope that “joy will come in the morning”
  •  love that endures
  •  lament amid loss, comfort amid sorrow
  •  being part of God’s ongoing Love Story!

Thank you, Paul, for helping me rejoice and give thanks on this first Thanksgiving Day without Linda’s physical presence.

Hands crossed in prayer