Prophetic Civility

I’m in awe of Amos, that farmer-turned-prophet from Tekoa publicly denouncing the sins of Israel from the steps of the temple at Bethel. I can hear his thundering words of judgment:

Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals–they trample the head to the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way; father and son go in to the same girl, so that my holy name is profaned; they lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge; and in the house of their God they drink wine bought with fines they imposed”(Amos 2:6-8).

Every generation needs women and men who courageously, publicly, and unequivocally expose injustice, oppression, idolatry, hypocrisy, and corruption.

Prophets offer an alternative to present realities by articulating God’s dream for the world and announcing God’s judgment on the principalities and powers that threaten the divine vision.

Amos provides a model of such prophetic confrontation!

But an additional model is desperately needed today. In this harshly polarized and rigidly partisan world, civility and dialogue represent a prophetic way forward.

Prophetic civility requires courage, humility, vulnerability, persistence, and patience. Ongoing relationships and risky conversations provide the context for such prophetic work.

Rather than in public pronouncements and tweets, prophetic civil dialogue is likely to occur around the dinner table or living room, in Sunday school classes or small group gatherings, and in neighborhood conversations.

Prophetic civility preferences probing questions over dogmatic answers. Listening prevails over speaking. Shared personal experiences are encouraged over correcting others. Self-awareness of one’s own complicity and vulnerability temper all responses.

Empathy borne of entering the hurts, struggles, and convictions of others softens judgments and eschews condemnation. Understanding the other’s perspective precedes advocating one’s own.

Prophetic civility requires incarnation, entering the world of others with attentiveness, humility, and love. Incarnational presence is risky, painful, and hard work.

Jeremiah models prophetic ministry characterized by incarnational presence with its vulnerability, self-awareness, courage, and persistence. His pronouncements are basically the same as those spoken by Amos. Yet, he lived among the people, wept for and with them, and suffered abuse and even exile with and on their behalf.

Several years ago, L. Harold DeWolf, prominent theologian and mentor/friend of Martin Luther King, Jr., spent the weekend in the local church I served. At the time,  Dr. DeWolf was actively involved in criminal justice reform. I shared that the local sheriff had barred me from visiting in the jail because of my public denunciation of the inhumane conditions in the local jail.

Dr. DeWolf cautioned that I may have to decide in particular contexts between public policy advocacy and personal pastoral ministry within the facility.

“Both are needed and legitimate,” he said. “The tragedy is people often pit one against the other as to which is more faithful. Both are faithful when done with integrity and courage; and they need to be mutually supportive.”

Amos and Jeremiah were not enemies! They both were faithful to their prophetic calling. They spoke on behalf of the same God and we are the beneficiaries of both expressions of faithfulness.

The current situation in American needs both Amos and Jeremiah. But I suspect that the model most needed today is Jeremiah, the who was pastorally prophetic and prophetically pastoral.

We need prophetic civility formed in humility and solidarity with the wounds and hurts of others coupled with a clear vision of God’s present and coming reign of compassion, justice, hospitality, and peace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Healing Scars

The older I get the more scars I have! Scars from multiple medical procedures add to those lingering from childhood scraps. Some are more visible and pronounced than others. The scar on my chest from by-pass surgery reminds me that there is also an unseen scar on the heart itself.

Then, there are the less visible scars resulting from wounds to the psyche. Those blemishes lurk inside and surface in our behaviors and moods. Anger, guilt, grief, even violence often are outward signs of hidden scars.

To be human is to be scarred! Our scars tell our stories. Each mark reveals an event. Frequently, the story is one of loss and grief. A cancerous growth removed. Surgery to repair a diseased organ or fractured bone. An accident or fall. Maybe a battle wound, an act of violence.

The Apostle Thomas fixated on Jesus’s scars/wounds. Unless the wounds were visible, he could not believe the resurrection. Apart from Jesus’ scars, we miss a central meaning of the crucifixion and resurrection.

The  visible wounds represent more than empirical evidence that Jesus was raised from the dead.

The request to see the “mark of the nails” expresses Thomas’ profound theological longing. He wants assurance that the Resurrected Christ is the Crucified Jesus.

No phantom Jesus who only pretended to suffer can be the Savior! Only a wounded and scarred Jesus can save a blemished and scarred humanity!

Jesus’ scars declare the profound message that God is in solidarity with humanity’s wounds. Our wounds are seen, understood, accepted, and healed! God takes on our wounds and redeems them!

“By his stripes (scars) we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). Jesus’ scars tell the story of forgiveness, reconciliation, love, justice, hospitality, and peace.

Scars themselves indicate healing. The open wound has closed, the malignant cells removed, the broken bone mended, the diseased organ healed.

Jesus’ scars proclaim:

  • Our wounds are shared, understood, accepted, healed
  • Forgiveness heals vengeance
  • Love cures hate
  • Integrity counters political and religious expediency
  • Justice prevails over exploitation and oppression
  • Courage triumphs over apathy and conformity
  • Hospitality rectifies exclusion
  • Peace reigns over war and violence.

My friend, Dale Sessions, assists with worship at Bethany, the memory care facility at the Heritage at Lowman. He bears two clearly visible scars on his head.Dale outside

Dale was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Both his father and his brother died of the dreaded disease.

Wanting to contribute to research, Dale voluntarily entered a trial program at Emory University. Two holes were drilled into his skull, leaving sizable scars.

When we serve Communion together, Dale holds the cup. As he bends toward each seated participant, his scars are plainly visible. Those scars have come to symbolize his courage in the pursuit a cure for Alzheimer’s . But they also are visible signs of self-giving love on behalf of others, a fitting reminder of the Sacrament itself.

Dale at Bethany

Another friend’s face is badly scarred from a wound inflicted by racists in the 1960s. He put his body on the line on behalf of racial and economic justice. Some might refer to his scarred face as “ugly.” To the contrary, the scar beautifully tells the story of courage on behalf of compassion, justice, and inclusion.

I’m glad Thomas asked to see Jesus’ wounds/scars. Those scars testify to compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation, justice, hospitality, and peace–SALVATION!

Perhaps Jesus asks to see our scars of healing in this wounded and flawed world!

 

“You’re Only as Good as Your Word”

My grandfather, Dave Walker, was one of my heroes. He died in 1961 at the age of 67. He was a simple man who could neither read nor write; yet, he was perhaps the wisest, kindest, and most honorable person I have known. Granddaddy Walker

The memory of a childhood incident resurfaced recently. I was about nine years old.

Granddaddy asked me to walk to the store with him. It was a mile walk up the country road in eastern Tennessee.

He bought me a candy bar along with his purchase of a bag of flour. We left for our trek back home. As the house came into site, granddad reached into the pocket of his bibbed overalls to count his money.

“We have to walk back to the store,” he said. “He gave me an extra nickel and I’ve got to return it.”

“But it’s just five cents,” I protested. “He’ll never even know he gave you too much.”

“But I’ll know,” he responded in his typical gentle voice. He added, “Always be honest. You’re only as good as your word.”

Granddaddy could have used that extra nickel, probably more than the owner of the grocery store. He was “dirt poor,” working at odd jobs, plowing gardens, growing his own food on a rocky little farm.

When he died unexpectedly of a stroke, that rural community mourned his loss. People gathered in masses for his funeral at the McKinley Methodist Church. These were among the most frequently heard compliments:

  • “He was honest as the day is long!”
  • “His word was his bond!”
  • “If he promised something, you could count on it.”
  • “He never lied; he always told the truth!”
  • “You could trust him with your life.”

I’ve thought a lot about my grandfather during the current climate of runaway dishonesty: Charges of “fake news” by those swimming in untruths and distortions. Social media’s dissemination of false narratives for partisan political or selfish personal gain.

Dishonesty in high and low places has reached epidemic proportion and is increasingly accepted as the norm in political and social discourse. Lying has become a sanctioned political strategy. Character has been disjoined from policy as though winning surpasses personal and corporate integrity.

Granddaddy Walker considered honesty the core of character. Dishonesty he viewed as symptomatic of diseased character. He learned that from Jesus. “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much” (Luke 16:10).

Fred Craddock shared an experience in the buffet line at an airport food outlet. He watched a man in front of him hide a pad of butter under his plate.

The butter only cost five cents!  A harmless or inconsequential dishonest act! But Dr. Craddock commented that he kept his eyes on his luggage when that man showed up at the same boarding gate. All trust was gone!

Dishonesty infects the soul and poisons every aspect of life. It destroys trust, taints kindness, fractures relationships, undermines community, and subverts the common good. Lies are like termites eating away the foundation, or malignant cancer cells destroying vital organs.

Would you trust the man who hid the butter under his plate with your children? Would you vote for him for sheriff, or city council, or president? Would you feel secure with him having access to the nuclear code? Would you trust him with your life!

Character matters mightily! Granddaddy Walker was right, “Always be honest! You’re only as good as your word!”

“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.”

Easter Living in a Good Friday World

It’s a Good Friday world! Hatred, bigotry, division, anger, violence, suffering, and death dominate!

Injustice, poverty, disease, exploitation, oppression, political expediency and corruption, religious power plays, and war abound.

Cries, “Crucify him, crucify him,” ring out across the lands.

  • “Deport them!”
  • “Execute him”!
  • “Lock him/her up!”
  • “Bomb them!”

Most of the cries for crucifixion are less explicit. They are in the form of attitudes and policies that create disrespect, suffering. and death.

  • Vilifying survivors of school shootings for their advocating an end to gun violence
  • Making unlimited access to guns more important than human life
  • Tax policies that favor the already rich at the expense of the desperate poor
  • Healthcare systems that deny the most vulnerable access to treatment
  • Churches fostering division, exclusion, hatred, and rejection in name of doctrinal purity
  • Tearing families apart under the guise of “protecting our borders”
  • Claiming superiority because of our race, nationality, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or religion
  • Trusting armaments for security while ignoring God’s justice and mercy as paths to peace

The Crucifixion dramatizes the intrinsic consequences of individual, institutional, and systemic evil. All the forces wreaking havoc in our world were present on that first Good Friday. And it appeared evil had won!

But we know the rest of the story! There is more at work in the world than the evil, suffering, and death that surrounds us!

In Jesus the Christ, God took on all the powers of sin and death. . . .and God won! Easter celebrates God’s everlasting  “NO!” to hate, bigotry, exploitation, oppression, deceptive religious and political maneuvering injustice, and violence.

The Resurrection is God’s eternal “YES!” to compassion, mercy, truthfulness, hospitality, generosity, reconciliation, forgiveness, integrity, humility,  justice, non-violence, and boundless love!

Easter is a way of life more than a one-day of celebration. It is living God’s “Yes” in this Good Friday world!

  • Countering hate with compassion and love
  • Welcoming the stranger with hospitality
  • Treating ALL persons as beloved sons and daughters of God with inherent worth and dignity
  • Seeking reconciliation and unity while shunning division, vengeance, and violence
  • Working for policies and practices that enable the least and most vulnerable to flourish
  • Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned
  • Protecting and nurturing “the least of these” from violence, deprivation, and premature death
  • Practicing integrity, honesty, justice, and compassion in private and public life

We can courageously and hopefully live Easter in a Good Friday world! God has already won the decisive victory!

God’s reign of compassion, justice, hospitality, joy, and peace is on its way! It’s already here for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear and courage to act!

 

 

“Betrayed with a Kiss and a Sword”

Jesus asked the piercing question of the disciple-turned-conspirator: “Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?” (Luke 22:48)

Why a kiss? Would not a slap or pointed finger or clinched fist be more appropriate means of betraying Jesus into the hands of his opponents? But, no! Judas betrayed with a sign of affection!

Upon closer reflection, however, Jesus’ question is appropriate for all who claim allegiance to him. We rarely, if ever, hear expressed outright hatred or denunciation of Jesus. Yet, we all betray!

Most often our betrayal takes the form of declared affection for Jesus. Here are a few ways we betray Jesus with a kiss:

  • Singing “O How I Love Jesus” while hating those who are different
  • Declaring “Jesus Is Lord” while prioritizing partisan politics above the common good
  • Claiming Jesus’ forgiveness but holding grudges and seeking vengeance
  • Affirming love for God while despising neighbors near and far
  • Singing “Jesus Loves the Little Children, All the Children of the World” while failing to provide all children with access to education, medical care, safety and love
  • Proclaiming “God is Love” with anger in our voices and hate in our actions
  • Honoring him with our lips while our lives are far from him
  • Saying “Lord, Lord” and failing to do what he says, go where he goes, and welcome those whom he loves

Judas resides in all of us!  We, too, betray with a kiss!

But Judas wasn’t the only disloyal disciple present in the garden when Jesus was arrested. Luke tells us, “One o f them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear”(22:50).

Jesus responded resolutely, “No more of this!”

The kiss and the sword have much in common as forms of betrayal. History is replete with efforts to violently defend Jesus.

The Crusades were fought in name of loyalty to Jesus. Scientists were burned at the stake under the guise of protecting religious doctrine. Preachers used the Bible to promote slavery! Klansmen terrorized and murdered with burning crosses and prayers of devotion to Jesus. The Bible has been used as a sword of discrimination against women.

Defending Jesus with physical, verbal, and emotional swords is a pervasive means of betrayal. Could these be subtle contemporary examples of betrayal with swords?

  • Using Scripture as a weapon for exclusion, hatred, and discrimination
  • Promoting hatred of Muslims, immigrants, gays, and others in the name of defending the Christian faith
  • Applauding the Sermon on the Mount while defending possession of assault weapons as a “God-given right”
  • Proclaiming God’s preferential presence in “the least of these” while advocating public policies that damage the poor, vulnerable, and powerless
  • Increasing spending for weapons of war while decreasing support for education, healthcare, housing, and food for the under resourced

But the final word in the Christian gospel isn’t betrayal! It’s forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing.

In Matthew’s account of Judas’ betrayal, Jesus calls him “friend.” Judas’ kiss may have been betrayal, but Jesus’ response was one of steadfast love.

After admonishing the disciples against violence, Jesus healed the victim. The final word was/is healing, not violence.

From the cross, Jesus spoke the ultimate response to all forms of betrayal: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

Whether betrayed with a kiss or a sword, Jesus forgives, reconciles, transforms.

To Whom Shall We Listen

“I don’t know who to believe anymore,” remarked an exasperated friend. “You can’t believe the media! Certainly politicians can’t be trusted with the truth. The president says the media is “fake news” and yet he regularly lies. So, who should I listen to?”

It is a vital question confronting us in this age of media overload, “alternative facts,” “fake news,” partisan political propaganda, flashy advertising, and competing religious voices.

We are shaped by the voices we listen to. Words matter! They shape how we feel and act.

For followers of Jesus, the Transfiguration Story provides the answer to the question, “To whom shall we listen?”

Jesus and his disciples were at a crossroads. They had left the serene Galilean seaside and were on their way to Jerusalem, the center of religious, political, and economic power.

Ahead loomed confrontation and conflict as the values of the reign of God as proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount clashed with the values and policies  of established religion and the prevailing government.

The disciples were in for a test of their loyalty and the source of their authority. To whom will they listen to form their loyalties and actions. Their lives and destiny depended on their choice. Will they listen to the one who had called them to “come, follow me;” or will their actions be governed by the voices of expediency, safety, hatred, bigotry, and violence?

Mysteriously Jesus was transfigured before eyes of Peter, James, and John as one with ultimate authority.  The transcendent voice from the heavens declared, “This is my Son, the beloved; listen to him” (Mark 9:7)!

It’s time for us to decide to whom we will listen in these uncertain, polarizing, hate-filled, violent times. What voices are shaping our actions and relationships? FOX News? MSNBC? Talk radio? Politicians and their spokespersons? Religious celebrities and power seekers?

Widespread hostile attitudes and behavior directed toward the poor, immigrants, homeless, refugees, those of other races or political persuasions or sexual orientations indicate that professed followers of Jesus have been listening to other voices.

What does it mean to really listen to the One who is the Word made flesh?

It certainly means that we become familiar with what Jesus said and take it seriously. A good place to begin is the Sermon on the Mount.

I wonder what difference it would make if we were to begin every day of Lent by prayerfully reading Matthew 5-7. That is going to be my Lenten discipline this year. And, I’m going to evaluate all other voices by how they resonate with the voice of the One who spoke on the Galilean hillside.

What if all who claim the name “Christian” spend at least as much time listening to Jesus in the Gospels as to Fox News or MSNBC? Or, if we pay more attention to the voice of the Christ than to the voice of Rush Limbaugh or Rachel Maddow?

We’ve listened to the voices of insult, hate, division, demonizing, exclusion,  prejudice, deceptive partisan political rhetoric too long!

Let’s really listen to Jesus when he says

Blessed are the poor in spirit…those who mourn….the meek, those who hunger for righteousness…the pure in heart…the peacemakers…the persecuted…

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you

Turn the other cheek, go the second mile

Judge not that you be not judged

You cannot serve God and wealth

Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness

Whoever would be great among you must be the servant of all

The first shall be last and the last shall be first

You shall love God with your whole being and love your neighbor as yourself

Whatever you do to the least of these you do to me

“I will be with you to the close of the age.”

To whom shall we listen? That may be the most important question of our time!

 

 

 

 

 

A Prayer That Changed My Life

It was the weekend of July 5-7, 2002. Six weeks earlier I had cardiac by-pass surgery and had gone to our home at Lake Junaluska for an expected routine recuperation. On July 5th crushing chest pains developed. Linda rushed me to the nearby Haywood County Hospital. I was then transported to Mission Hospital in Asheville.

All attempts to open the blocked Left Anterior Descending (LAD) artery failed. Doctors had warned that the surgery was necessary since the LAD was “the widow maker.” Now, it was totally blocked. Finally, the cardiologist was able to stent a small vein at the bottom of my heart and the pain ceased.

The weekend was spent in ICU with constant monitoring and tests. The future was uncertain. Would I survive? How much has the heart muscle been damaged? Will I be able to continue as an active bishop? More definitive prognosis had to wait.

With family and some friends keeping vigil, I spent the weekend contemplating an uncertain future, even the prospect of another attack and death. Unexpectedly, all assumptions and plans were called into question. Life hit a brick wall!

Sunday morning I was surrounded by family. We were mostly silent. No words seemed appropriate. Sadness prevailed. The grief of a lost preferred future had already set in. The gravity of the situation weighed heavily.

Suddenly, a knock came to the door. In walked my friend, David Lowes Watson! He was carrying a loaf of bread and a chalice! He had made his way from Nashville and through the corridors of Mission Hospital bearing Communion. What a welcomed sight!

With our permission, he proceeded with the familiar liturgy and the serving of the bread and juice. Then, this Wesley scholar and valued friend and colleague caught me surprise. He invited us to pray. And, in his distinctive British accent he prayed from memory the Wesley Covenant Prayer:

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or trodden under foot for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.
Amen.

I began to feel very uncomfortable and almost wanted to ask David to stop. I wanted only half of the prayer answered:

“Put me to doing,” YES! “put me to suffering!” NO!
“Let me be employed for thee!” YES! “laid aside for thee!” NO!
“Exalted for thee!” YES! “trampled underfoot for thee.” NO!
“Let me be full!” YES!   “let me be empty.” NO!
“Let me have all things” at least life! YES!   “let me have nothing!” NO!

My discomfort exposed the limitations of my own commitment. I wanted a covenant on my terms. I wasn’t ready to pray:

“I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.”

But I wanted to be able to do so! With David’s encouragement, I decided to make the prayer part of my daily devotions. Maybe I would come to embrace the whole prayer.

The news came Monday that there had been significant damage to the heart muscle. I would need longer recuperation and rehab. So, I was granted six months of medical leave from my episcopal duties.

Every day began with the Covenant Prayer, along with reading Psalms, primarily the laments. Ever so gradually, my discomfort was replaced with acceptance.

Uncertainty continued about the future.  It became evident that the pace and stress of the active episcopacy was too much for my weakened heart. Being laid aside from that position was necessary.

But new doors opened. I joined the faculty at Duke Divinity School and was “ranked” with a marvelous community of students and scholars. For seven years, I relished my new vocation!

Then we hit another brick wall. Linda was diagnosed with Frontotemporal Dementia, a progressively debilitating disease.The Covenant Prayer again came to the forefront of my daily prayers. This petition was repeated several times daily:

“I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.”

Being laid aside from the full time faculty position followed. A move to South Carolina “ranked” us with family and subsequently with some of society’s most vulnerable citizens, those with dementia diseases.

Wesley’s Covenant Prayer continues to challenge and enrich my life. The future remains uncertain. Amid the uncertainty is the confidence that whatever circumstances emerge, I will be able to more faithfully affirm

“I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.”