A Decisive Moment

I feel like I’m back in the 1950’s and 1960’s! Hateful crowds shouting racist, anti-Semitic insults! Angry whites accusing blacks of being “trouble makers!” Armed police officers trying to keep order! Torches lighting the dark night! Politicians scrambling to justify their silence or outright support of racism and white supremacy! Pastors struggling to know what to say and do! The upper echelons of the churches speaking out against injustice, while most local churches remain oblivious!

But there is a frightening difference this time: the KKK members don’t wear hoods and white supremacists happily show up in the media espousing their hatred and violence. Hatred, white superiority, and moral bankruptcy have gone mainstream.

The politics of hatred and economics of disparity have formed an unholy alliance. White privilege dominates public policy, including medical care, taxation, voting regulations, criminal justice, education, even drug addiction concerns.

In the name of “personal choice” or “individual freedom,” those with economic and political clout further limit the choices of the politically and economically powerless.

There is no overarching vision being articulated by our political, religious, and civic leaders. Moral leadership has gone by a.w.o.l! Rather than contributing to a common vision, peace, and clear moral direction, the President publicly channels and exacerbates the racism, bullying, and disrespect that are poisoning our society.

Mere condemnation, however, is no solution, although naming the evils is an important component of healing. Deeper self-examination and genuine repentance are called for, especially by those of us who are among the privileged, privilege built on the backs and from the blood of the poor, the enslaved, the exploited, and the vulnerable.

Self-examination and repentance are hard work and costly! Confronting our own complicity in systemic evil and facing our personal demons takes courage and vulnerability.

We white folks have a long history of benefiting from oppression, exploitation, and violence. Our forebears came to this land, claiming to “discover” it and with violence and deception took the land from native peoples. We forced them on “a trail of tears” and onto reservations.

Our predecessors from Europe went to Africa, captured men, women and children, ripped them from their families and cultures, brought them on slave ships to this country, and treated them as mere property subject to abuse and discarding. A whole economy was built on the bent backs and steaming sweat of black and brown people.

Repentance involves facing the harsh truth that we continue to benefit from being white in a country that has “white-washed” its history.

An immediate question before us is this: Will we use our privilege to work for justice, equality, and peace?  Or, will we continue to protect our privileges by remaining silent and complicit in the face of current bigotry, violence, and injustice?

Will we move out of our economic, racial, political, and religious bubbles and enter into solidarity with the marginalized, the powerless, the pushed aside? Or, will be remain in our exclusive enclaves and demonize those who call for inclusion and belonging?

Will we concede to political partisanship and moral bankruptcy of our current elected officials? Or, will we demand truthfulness, justice, and moral character of our leaders?

Will our churches persist in their racial and class segregation and pursuit of what one historian calls “expansion by evasion”? Or, will congregations intentionally reflect the diversity of the human family and become centers of respectful dialogue and advocacy on the issues that threaten our common humanity under God?

Signs of hope seem remote this week. However, Christians affirm that the decisive victory has already been won in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. May we as individuals and congregations be visible signs of God’s ultimate triumph of compassion, justice, hospitality, generosity, and peace!

 

A Threat Greater than Terrorism

Not since the era of the Civil War has our nation faced such a threat from within, a threat far more insidious than terrorism or a military attack from beyond our borders.

The threat is the erosion of commitment to the common good, especially by the political leadership of our nation.

Partisan political ideology, personal ambition, financial clout, narrow self interest, and lust for power dominate our political process.  Dysfunction, polarization, falsification, and fear mongering determine policies related to healthcare, taxation, the environment, access to voting, financial regulations, and who serves on the courts.

Bullying and intimidation have become preferred images of leadership, and political influence is controlled by special interests of the financially advantaged.

The efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act is emblematic of the loss of concern for the common good.  Flaws in the Affordable Care Act need to be addressed; but opposition to the ACA has largely been based purely on political partisanship and rigid market ideology.

The failure thus far of  divisive efforts providesCongress with an opportunity to move beyond the self-serving, partisan political and personal agendas and work for the good all citizens. Doing so may provide a more effective healthcare system and take a step toward restoring confidence in the ability of the government to function as intended, “to provide for the common welfare.”

We all share the responsibility for restoring a vision of and commitment to the common good. Preoccupation with gaining a personal advantage and advancing our own narrow political, religious, and economic agendas contributes to the problem.  We must be willing to sacrifice personal benefit for the well being of others, particularly the vulnerable and under resourced.

At the heart of the biblical vision is a covenant community in which ALL have access to that which enables people to flourish as beloved children of God. The nations are judged on the basis of what happens to the most vulnerable, “the orphans, the widows, the strangers (immigrants).”

The common good begins with insuring that the poor, the powerless, the marginalized receive preferential consideration when it comes to public policy. Biblical justice doesn’t trickle down from the powerful to the weak; it bubbles up from the weak to all segments of the community.

The church is called to embody God’s alternative community. Regrettably, churches tend to reflect the political partisanship, ideological divides, and class distinctions of the society. We have become conformed to the world rather than being agents of transformation.

How might we contribute to a vision of and commitment to the common good? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Get in touch with the vision of covenant community portrayed in the Bible, especially in the Prophets, the Sermon on the Mount, and Paul’s image of the New Creation.
  2. Break out of our ideological, political, theological, economic, and racial conclaves and respectfully listen to the dreams and aspirations of those different from ourselves.
  3. Develop ongoing relationships/friendships with the poor, the physically and mentally ill, immigrants, the incarcerated, the frail elderly, at risk children.
  4. Help our local churches to become centers of dialogue on crucial issues confronting the world–economic disparity, poverty, criminal justice, immigration, healthcare, climate change, war and violence, addiction, nationalism, etc.
  5. Proclaim and live the one Gospel with its personal and social ramifications.
  6. Advocate on behalf of the weak, vulnerable, and powerless.
  7. Practice the means of grace with others who will hold us in love and hold us accountable to the common good.

 

 

 

In All Things God Is at Work for Good

A young student in seminary preached a sermon on Romans 8:28: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose”(NRSV).

He waxed eloquently on how all our circumstances are God’s gifts; and, though we don’t understand, God has a reason for those circumstances and events. He made a compelling case for the sovereignty of God and the importance of simple trust.

The professor wasn’t impressed! “You may not have lived long enough to preach on that text,” Dr. Ferguson commented.

“I’m not sure you have suffered enough to proclaim with authenticity what Paul is saying,” he added.

“The man who wrote that endured shipwreck, beatings, imprisonment, rejection, and eventual execution,” the professor went on to say.

Then, he asked, “Are you saying to him, ‘just suck it up. God had it all planned for your good? Or, is Paul inviting us to join God’s efforts to bring good from bad circumstances?”

On July 5, 2002, Dr. Ferguson’s critique and my interpretation of Romans 8:28 were put to the test

In May 2002 I underwent triple by-pass surgery to avoid a blockage in the left anterior descending artery (LAD) in the heart (the “widow maker”). The surgeon said that I should be back to full speed in ten to twelve weeks.

After a month of cardiac rehab, the cardiologist released me to travel to Lake Junaluska for further recuperation.

All was going well until the morning of July 5. I suddenly developed chest pains. I was having a heart attack and was rushed to the hospital. The cardiologist tried unsuccessfully to penetrate the blockage in the LAD. He then proceeded to put a stint in another area which relieved the pain.

I had survived the collapse of “the widow maker,” but the extent of the damage to the heart awaited further evaluation. It was an uncertain time, with the preferred future now in serious doubt.

After several tests, the results were in. Significant damage had been done to the heart muscle. A six month leave from my duties as the bishop in Mississippi followed. Those months were filled with lament, uncertainty, questioning, grief, searching, and discernment.

Will I be able to continue as an active bishop? Will I be disabled? Will I continue to have heart attacks and die? If I can’t continue in the position to which the church has called me, what will I do? Where is God in all this?

I never assumed that God caused or willed my heart attack, though I admit to some anger toward God for not preventing it! What is God’s will in these circumstances? What good can possibly come from my now damaged heart?

During the subsequent months of prayer, conversation with family, friends, and doctors, it became apparent that continuing beyond the quadrennium as an active bishop was untenable. But what will I do?

Thanks to Greg Jones, a friend and Dean of Duke Divinity School, a new door was opened. I was invited to be considered for a faculty position at Duke. Then came eight of the most fulfilling years of my life and ministry!

In 2009 came another life-changing blow! Linda was diagnosed with Frontotemperal Dementia, a progressive neuro-cognitive disease which would gradually rob her of independence and normal capacities. What were we to do?

Again, lament and discernment moved to the forefront and another vocational change was in order. I relinquished my cherished faculty position. We moved near our daughters and I became caregiver to my beloved wife and partner.

Where was God now? How can I fulfill my calling as an ordained clergy while being a care partner for Linda? One way was to be the best care partner possible. That meant learning as much as possible about her disease. Also, I was invited to teach part time at the Lutheran Seminary. Then, I was asked to be the chaplain in the memory care unit in the retirement community. A couple of friends and I developed a course entitled “Dementia through a Pastoral Theological Lens.”

The last seven years have been an intense period of growing in love, patience, and compassion for those with dementia and their families. Joy has deepened. Love has matured.  The circle of relationships has been expanded to include more of the forgotten people. Trust in God has grown. Deep friendships have been formed.

Furthermore, I have been able to be with children and grandchildren in ways that would have been impossible had Linda’s disease not motivated us to move near them. Grace abounds! Life is good!

I now have a better understanding of Romans 8:28, “In all things, God is at work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”  And, Dr. Ferguson’s comments now make more sense!

The Sacrament of the Present Moment

Catepillar1In response to a photo I posted which captured a moment of connection with Linda, a friend, Betty Cloyd, replied with the title of a book by the eighteenth century priest Jean-Pierre Caussade, The Sacrament of the Present Moment. The phrase captures the profound and transcendent nature of each moment.

Sacrament is often defined in the words of St. Augustine of Hippo as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” The English word comes from the Latin sacramentum, which means to make holy, or to consecrate. The term is also derived from the Greek New Testament word “mysterion,” or mystery.

So, how does the present moment rate as a sacrament? Each moment becomes a mysterious gift within which the holy and transcendent is present as grace, the loving power of God to create, renew, reconcile, and transform.

Pastoral theologian John Swinton contends that people with dementia do not lose their “sense” of time; they lose their “tense” of time. The real time is the present moment. Those who care for them must learn to be present in the moment.

Regrettably, I have never been as contemplative in my spiritual quest as I have wanted to be. But people with dementia, including my wife, are teaching me to be truly present in the moment. It’s hard work! I have to slow down, concentrate, pay attention to little movements and subtle expressions.

Celebrating the present moment is an art and craft. It is learned and honed with practice, requires disciplined attentiveness, mindfulness.  It is one of the gifts Linda is giving me now! She is teaching me the sacredness of the present moment.

We often speak of the ministry of presence. I frequently hear pastors, laity, and family members express hesitate about visiting people with dementia. “I don’t know what to say! They don’t know me when I arrive or remember when I leave. So, why visit?”

It is a devilish temptation which robs people with dementia, their pastors and family members of the sacrament of the present moment. From my experience as a caregiver and pastor, I am convinced that the feeling/experience of a momentary connection lasts far beyond the cognitive awareness.

People with dementia are hyper sensitive to emotions. Linda senses moods of which I am unaware. I cannot hide my frustration or stress from her! It may be that as people with visual impairment become more sensitive to sounds, people with cognitive impairment develop added sensitivity to feelings/emotions/attitudes.

With very few exceptions, the one reality to which people with dementia respond is LOVE, even those in the severe stages. And you can’t fake it! They know if you care! They sense if you are afraid of them or uncomfortable with them. They sense if a caregiver really values them as persons or only relishes the paycheck or if a pastor or family member is only visiting out of a sense of duty.

What is the sacred within the present moment? It is LOVE! Love transforms the present moment into a sacrament!

A gentle touch, a clasp of the hand, a warm embrace, a silent presence, a  spontaneous smile, a compassionate act—these become sacraments, outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace.

As we fill a moment with compassion we experience the sacrament of the present moment. After all, we experience God, the source of all love!

(Photo by Norma Smith Sessions)

A Convert from Christianity to Judaism Teaches Us about Jesus

“As a former Christian who has converted to Judaism, how do you now see Jesus?” I asked a speaker in our Sunday school class.

The speaker grew up as Southern Baptist.  After studying comparative religions in college, she converted to Judaism. She openly and humbly shared her journey from a faithful and devout Christian to an equally devout Reformed Jew.  It was a long process of discernment through study, conversations, and involvement in both Jewish and Christian practices.

She grew up affirming Jesus as the Son of God, her personal Savior and Lord. She was baptized and received into church membership.  Now, she no longer affirmed the creedal affirmations of her childhood and youth.

“I see Jesus as a reformer,” she replied to my question. She elaborated that much of Judaism of Jesus time had become rigid, focused on rules, and controlled by religious elites.  Jesus, however, sought reform based on the vision of the prophets and God’s covenant with Abraham and Moses.  His focus was on the spirit of the law rather than the letter.

There followed a discussion of the relationship between what Jews celebrate in the Exodus and Christians celebrate in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It was a rich and informative discussion in an atmosphere of mutual respect and appreciation.

I wonder if we Christians have jumped too quickly to lofty creedal affirmations about Jesus and missed the radical nature of his reformation. Is it possible that the contemporary church in North America resembles the leadership elitism, rigidity, and legalistic focus of the speaker’s assessment of first century Judaism?

Without diminishing the importance of our creedal declarations about Jesus, viewing Jesus as Reformer has merit, especially in this era of institutional preoccupation and reliance on legislation and judicial processes.

Danger exists in the emphasis on Jesus as personal savior and relegating him to a theological or doctrinal category.  The invitation to “accept Jesus as your personal savior” can be an appeal to selfishness! The focus is on what Jesus does for me! He can become my personal possession and the champion of my individual needs or desires that masquerade as needs.  Salvation becomes my personal ticket to heaven when I die.

Or, Jesus Christ can easily become an abstract theological/doctrinal affirmation, locked in a creed and rationally defended against “heresy.” We can praise him with our lips while he is far from our hearts and actions.

The first disciples began their journey with Jesus in response to the simple invitation, “Follow me.” They accepted him first as Lord, master, teacher, and reformer! In following him, believing what he said, going where he went, welcoming those whom he welcomed Jesus became their Savior.

One of the great tragedies of Christian history is that many who believe the right things about Jesus fail to be reformed by him. For example, Frederick Douglas reports that his slave master became even more cruel once he was converted!  Affirming Jesus as personal savior and treating others as less that children of God falls woefully short of Christian discipleship.

Focus on getting to heaven while ignoring the hell in which people currently live misses the mark of what it means to accept Jesus. A more faithful response is that of Moses, so concerned about the people that he prayed, “But now, please forgive their sin–but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written” (Exodus 32:32).

What would it mean if the contemporary church in North America looked to Jesus as Reformer, as well as Savior and Lord? I offer a few modest suggestions and invite your own reflection.

  • Focus on the present and coming reign of God’s justice, compassion, generosity, hospitality and joy rather than institutional survival and triumphalism. God’s preoccupation is the healing and transformation of the world, not the statistical growth of the institutional church.
  • Shift the margins so that the poor, imprisoned, the weak, the outcasts, the sick and vulnerable are at the center of the church’s fellowship, ministry, and worship rather than being mere objects of charity at best and despised at worst.
  • Turn away from legislation and judicial processes as primary means of dealing with conflicts and differences and practice reconciliation, forgiveness, and hospitality.
  • Give priority to the formational role of doctrine whereby the test of orthodoxy is orthopraxis; that is, let’s focus on doctrine’s role in shaping persons and communities who reflect God’s reign as brought near in Jesus the Christ rather than using doctrine to determine who is in and who is out.

Yes, I affirm Jesus as my Lord and Savior! But he’s also the radical Reformer of the status quo in church and society!

 

Speaking the Languages of Love

“How do we tell someone who has lost language comprehension that we love her?” I asked the worshippers at Bethany, the memory care facility where Linda was a resident for eighteen months.  Beside me stood a resident whose speech has been reduced to incoherent babbling. She looked into my eyes as though longing to speak.

“Hug her,” came a response from a resident who struggles with hallucinations as well as lost and distorted memories.  I  put my arm around her and she embraced me in return.

Looking into her sad eyes and calling her by name, I said, “I love you!”

Suddenly, the sadness in her eyes turned to a sparkle. With a faint smile, she said plainly for all to hear, “I love you!” Babbling turned to the language of love.

It was Pentecost Sunday!  We had been singing such hymns as “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” “Kum bah Yah”, “Surely the Presence of the Lord Is in this Place,” and “There’s a Sweet, Sweet Spirit in this Place.”

We heard the story of Pentecost in Acts 2 where people with different languages and cultures and traditions understood one another. “Tongues of fire” descended on diverse and multi-lingual people and  God’s Spirit created a new community.

Bethany became a new community as the barriers once again crumbled!

Present among the residents were various religious traditions: American Baptist, Assemblies of God, Southern Baptist, Catholic, Episcopal, Holiness, Lutheran, Presbyterian, United Methodist, and Jewish. A few claim no religious affiliation. Some present in the service have forgotten God and no longer remember who Jesus is. Perhaps a few have never consciously known God.

All share a common characteristic: Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia.  They are at various stages in their disease but all are unable to live alone and care for themselves.

“What made it possible for the people present at that Jewish festival to understand one another even though they spoke different languages?’ I asked the worshipers.

“They loved one another,” a resident called out.  A conversation about how love enables us to understand and accept one another followed.

Other languages are present at Bethany. One couple speaks Portuguese. Another’s native tongue is Spanish and another is Italian. A staff member speaks Swahili. A volunteer present for the service knows French and German.

“Let’s learn to say “I love you” in different languages,” I suggested. So, we tried to speak words of love in Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, French, German, and Swahili.  With varying degrees of success, we tried to speak love in multiple languages.

It was during those exchanges that the resident whose language skills have been destroyed by her disease came and stood beside me.  How do we say “I love you” to someone who can’t speak or understand words?

There followed a time of practicing love without words—hugs, handshakes, an open hand, a smile, a pat on the back, a warm smile. Other love languages were mentioned—helping, protecting, encouraging, feeding, bathing, just being with. . .!

They got it! Beneath all our hyper cognitive theological talk and creedal statements is the simple reality that God is LOVE. To love is to know God! Pentecost happens when people express the multiple languages of love!

The worshipers at Bethany are a microcosm of our world! They are black and white and brown. They are Christian, Jewish, and none of the above. Their behaviors are sometimes offensive and difficult. Intellectual abilities vary broadly. For some the filters are gone and they cross boundaries of affection and relationships.  Some have been highly skilled professional people. Others have a background of common labor.

They are just like the rest of us! As I listen to the rancor in our society and churches and the talk about dividing as a denomination, I pray that we learn and practice the languages of love.  One thing that binds us all together: We are God’s beloved children!

Within the embrace and “I love you” from the worshiper at Bethany on Pentecost Sunday was another voice! It was God’s Holy Spirit speaking the language of Greater Love, declaring to us all “I know you by name. I have redeemed you! You are mine!”

We are surrounded by God’s ever-present language of love, and “speaking” that language with one another is our highest calling.

Needed: Humility Shaped by Mystery

“You know, Ken, nothing is simple. Every molecule, every drop of water, every blade of grass, every light ray is filled with mystery. We never unlock the secret of anything, including the atom. We only discover a secret and each unlocked door opens into new doors inviting us to unlock them.”

These comments came in a personal conversation with Dr. William Pollard, a renowned physicist and Episcopal priest who lived and worked in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

One of the great joys of serving as a pastor in Oak Ridge was getting to know Dr. Pollard. He was, undoubtedly, one of the smartest people I have known. Coupled with his intellectual brilliance was an extraordinary humility. While his genius could have been intimidating, his gentleness and modesty put others at ease and invited them into his world of wonder and awe.

What accounts for such humility combined with intelligence? Perhaps the secret lies in the title of two of Dr. Pollard’s books, Faith and Science: Twin Mysteries and “The Mystery of Matter.”

Dr. Pollard had a keen sense of and appreciation for mystery! He saw the complexity in the simple, the mysterious in the minuscule. He said in one of our conversations, “Science doesn’t remove mystery; it only deepens it. Every answer we discover raises new questions.”  He added that dogmatism in science or religion is dangerous and idolatrous for it truncates knowledge and eliminates transcendence.

The highly respected scientist and priest saw everything, from the microscopic neutron to the constellations of galaxies, as inexhaustible mysteries and revelations of Transcendence (God). Indeed, for him, Rudolph Otto’s description of God as Mysterium Tremendum or “Tremendous Mysterious,” is foundational for science and religion.

A great calamity of fundamentalism in science or religion is rigidity which eliminates humility rooted in mystery. When truth is conceived as closure or final, dogmatism is the results. Continued discovery is curtailed. Sustained searching gives way to defending present perceptions. Truth becomes static certainty rather than a dynamic journey toward the infinite mystery.

Certainty and firm conviction have their proper place. We need the courage to affirm, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” Faith involves firm commitment to enduring truth, conforming to lasting values, and adherence to noble convictions.

The problem arises when we lose the mystery inherent in truth, values, and convictions. The consequence is arrogance, closed mindedness, and smug judgmentalism. Without humility grounded in mystery, we prioritize defending dogma over being formed by it. We speak without listening, attack without understanding, and coerce instead of invite.

If mystery is at the heart of matter, how much more it is inherent in theological affirmations about God and human beings.  No person or group has a monopoly on the truth on any subject whether it be human sexuality or economic policy, immigration or racial justice, the Trinity or the doctrine of the Atonement.

In a religiously and politically polarized world, we desperately need more humility springing from a sense of mystery. Arrogance rooted in dogmatic certainty splits communities, churches, and governments.  And, it shuts us off from one another, blinds us to yet undiscovered insights and beauty, and reduces God to the limits of our little minds.

With humility grounded in a sense of mystery, we would do

  • more listening than pontificating
  • more searching than defending
  • more inviting than demanding
  • more loving than legislating
  • more uniting than dividing
  • more worshiping than exploiting!