Open Letter to My Congressmen

To: Senators Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott
Representative Joe Wilson

I received your canned responses to my previous communications of opposition to the tax bills passed by the Senate and House of Representatives. You have made no substantive response to my concerns but, rather, provided an unsupported and deceptive rationale for your support of the bill. I am disappointed in your failure to respond adequately to the concerns, questions, and opposition to the bill by many of your constituents.

The fallacious claims of providing a tax cut for the middle class is intentionally or unintentionally dishonest and misleading. For many of us, both versions before Congress will be a major tax increase as the result of removing important deductions.

One example is the House’s provision for removing the deduction for long-term medical care. My wife of fifty-seven years is in the severe stage of Frontotemperal Dementia and requires full time nursing care. The cost is rapidly diminishing our savings and pension accounts. Removal of the deduction will hasten the depletion or our resources. Additionally, the anticipated cuts to Medicare will add to the financial crisis in our family and millions of others.

Perhaps an analogy is appropriate. The claim that I, and millions who are in similar circumstances, are getting a tax cut is comparable to saying, “We are giving you a steroid injection for your weak arm; but to do so, we are amputating your legs.But don’t you feel good about the steroid injection?” You are crippling me while claiming to strengthen me. Such action is deceptive at best and outright cruel at worst.

There is insufficient data to support your contention that the tax cut for corporations will result in increased wages and job growth; and there are no provisions in the current bills to hold corporations and businesses accountable to use the tax windfall to increase wages and expand employment. Data exist to indicate that the proceeds from the cuts will more likely go to share holders (the already more affluent) and corporate executives. This is redistribution of wealth, taking from the under-privileged and transferring it to the already privileged, a reverse “Robin Hood” approach.

I can give additional reasons for opposing both versions of the bill; but it is obvious that your positions are shaped by the failed ideology of “trickle down” economics and narrow partisan politics.  You seem to be more interested in a quick partisan “political win” than listening to the concerns of your constituents.

I assume you are honorable men and I appreciate your willingness to serve in Congress. However, when it comes to tax policy and approach to economic policy, I feel that your positions fall short of the vision of justice of our Jewish-Christian heritage. The proposed tax legislation demonstrably favors the most economically and politically powerful at the expense of the most vulnerable in our society.

Justice as defined in the traditions of the major religions disproportionately favors the weakest and most vulnerable and enables them to have access to that which is necessary to thrive as children of God. The current tax bills clearly fail the test of our sacred scriptures. Additionally, they fail the test of long-term sound economic policy.

I am readily available to discuss any of this issues with you and/or your staff.

Sincerely,

Bishop (Retired) Kenneth L. Carder
Williams Distinguished Professor Emeritus
Duke University Divinity School and
Senior Visiting Professor of Methodist Studies
Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary
Columbia, SC

In All Things Give Thanks! Really?

“In all things give thanks!” That sounds like superficial pious nonsense, a sugary platitude spoken by an armchair philosopher or prosperity gospel preacher surrounded by gilded opulence.  Who would dare offer such advice to a world filled with suffering, conflict, evil, violence, poverty, and death?

Before we dismiss the counsel, we best listen to the author’s description of his life’s experiences:

“Five times I have received. . . the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods.  Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, 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 a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked” (2 Corinthians 11:25-27).

While he was languishing in prison, waiting execution, he wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Philippians  4: 4).

So, we can’t dismiss the Apostle Paul’s advice as some Pollyanna denial of reality or escape into a fantasy world of contrived positive thinking or feigned faith. He knew something we desperately need to know!

We all know hardships and struggles. Sometimes life’s suffering and anguish overwhelms us. For many, loss and grief are constant companions and tears frequently flow uncontrollably.

We live in troubled times: lost public decency and civility, hateful political warfare, desdaain for people who are different, mistrust of institutions, widespread shameless deception and crudeness, violence and threats of violence, needless poverty and injustice.

It is hard to hear someone admonish us to “in all things give thanks”.  Perhaps, though, we need to learn some of the Apostle’s secret.

Paul doesn’t say that we are to be thankful for all things! He wasn’t giving thanks for shipwrecks, persecution, violence, suffering, hunger and poverty, dangers, and his own imprisonment and future execution.

He said in all things give thanks! The preposition makes a significant difference. Paul was convinced that within all circumstances there is potential good for which gratitude is an appropriate response.

The Apostle’s advice is grounded in his faith. The core of that faith is expressed in these words: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28 NIV).

There is more at work in our circumstances than meets the eye. God, whose very being is Love, is working with us to bring some good from whatever befalls us and the world. He was adamant that nothing in all creation, in life or in death, could separate us from God’s love (Romans 8:18-19).

I can’t comprehend the mess the world’s in today. Things are happening that I thought impossible only a few years ago, especially in the realm of politics, public policies, popular discourse, personal behavior.

What possible good can emerge?  What is good is God working to bring? Maybe the failure of our politics and policies, the collapse of civility, and the exposure of personal immorality will point us toward God’s vision of a new creation. It is a world of compassion, justice, integrity, generosity, hospitality, and peace.

Neither can I explain the personal suffering, grief, and tragedies which encompass so many lives.  I do know that from my own experience that love outlasts everything, that what the brain forgets, the heart remembers.

I know that when all seems to be lost there comes an unexpected and fleeting smile, or a moment of recognition, or a squeeze of the hand, or a passing glimmer in the eyes. And, just when I feel all alone, a note arrives or the phone rings or a knock is heard at the door.

Yes, I am learning that it is possible to “in all things give thanks”!

Can Doctrines/Beliefs Become Idols?

Our Sunday School class had just concluded a session on idolatry. Martin Luther’s statement had launched our conversation: “Whatever your heart clings to and trusts in is your god.”

We defined idolatry as making ultimate that which is finite and intermediate, elevating the finite to the infinite; or mistaking symbols for the reality they point toward.

We proceeded to name values, practices, and realities that our hearts cling to and which shape our decisions, priorities, and character. You can imagine the “gods” named: consumerism, sports, politics, the media, success, productivity, etc.

After the class dismissed, a member approached with a question. “Can Christian doctrines and beliefs themselves be idols? Can creeds become more important than God?” Good questions!

If the answer is “yes”, the follow-up question is when do creeds/beliefs become idols?

No doctrinal formulation or theological affirmation totally captures the essence and reality of God. The Infinite cannot be compressed to fit into the finite. The best our language can do is point toward God. There is always more to God than can be confined to human understanding and experience.

Therefore, creeds and beliefs become idols when no room is left for mystery and further theological exploration. If no questions remain, growth ceases and dogmatism becomes god. Airtight certainty that we know God fully means we have the wrong god.

When doctrines/beliefs are locked in rigid intellectual compartments with little or no impact on our character, actions, and relationships, they have become idolatrous.

Religious beliefs and affirmations can function similarly to the notion of life on other planets. Such life may exist but it has no impact on daily living.  That’s what John Wesley referred to as “practical atheism”— intellectually acknowledging the existence of God but the affirmation has no influence on behavior.

Doctrines/beliefs can become weapons of coercion, manipulation, and domination of others. In so doing, they become idols. The history of Christianity is replete with illustrations of such idolatry.

The Crusades were fought in the name of evangelism. Slavery was defended by idolatrous interpretations of Scripture. Women have been denied equality and subjected to abuse by religious doctrines/beliefs. Scientists have been burned at the stake in defense of an idolatrous doctrine of creation.

Persons of differing sexual orientations and identities have been treated with cruelty, violence, and rejection in the name of faithfulness to the Bible.

When doctrines and beliefs motivate hatred, disrespect, and violence toward others, those doctrines and beliefs are idols. Any belief that denies the inherent worth and dignity of every person as made in the image of God fails the test of true orthodoxy.

Here is the test of all Christian doctrine and belief: Does it promote love for God and neighbor? Any theological affirmation that promotes and motivates hate becomes a form of blasphemy against God made known in Jesus Christ.

The real test of doctrine is the character it produces in individuals and communities. Sound doctrine and strong character are integral to one another.

Christian doctrines and affirmations in the hands of persons with malformed character become distorted and dangerous. And doctrines/beliefs that sanction hate, superiority, and exploitation form persons and communities that hate, exclude, and exploit.

Gore Vidal’s historical novel, Julian, captures the essence of beliefs that become idols. Following a scene in which a violent argument breaks out over the doctrine of the Trinity, the author proclaims:

“Even a child could see the division between what the Galileans (i.e., Christians] say

they believe and what, in fact, they do believe, as demonstrated by their actions. A

religion of brotherhood and mildness which daily murders those who disagree with

its doctrines can only be thought hypocrite, or worse.”

Yes, doctrines and beliefs can become idols!? We would all do well to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1John 4:1).

What is the test? Do my doctrinal affirmations and beliefs form persons and communities in love, compassion, humility, hospitality, and justice?

That Which Endures

A friend whose wife died from Alzheimer’s disease said, “Living with dementia is like having a perpetual funeral.  Every day brings another loss until nothing remains but grief.”

I can relate to the feeling! Dementia diseases gradually strip away memories, ideas, decisions, mobility, initiative, bodily control, recognition of family and friends, and finally breath itself. Each loss triggers grief and the one you miss is sitting beside you. We lose them a brain cell at a time!

Of course, it isn’t just dementia that strips life from us. Everything passes away—our looks, our intellect, our abilities, our energy, our mobility, our health, our independence, our cherished relationships, our productivity, and finally life itself.

Is there anything that survives through all the losses? Is there a constant which holds us together amid perpetual change, persistent loss, and death’s finality? Or is grief all we have left?

Living and working among people with dementia has confirmed for me that one reality not only endures but actually thrives amid loss of cognitive and physical functioning. Dementia erases memories, strips away knowledge, garbles or mutes language, diminishes abilities, narrows relationships.

But this remains:     L    O    V    E          hands_11.4.2017

The Apostle Paul declared it more than twenty centuries ago: “Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end”(1Corinthians 13:8).

Love is not sentimentalism or warm fuzzy feelings.  It is entering the messiness, anguish, resistance, and hostility of the beloved with a non-anxious, gentle presence. It is action on behalf of the wellbeing of the other. Love is radical acceptance when behaviors feel unacceptable; compassion without expectations; continuing to care when the caring is not returned.

The expressions of love change, but the reality endures. I have known scores of people with one or more of the dementia diseases. I have yet to meet one who did not respond to being loved, even those in a comatose state. And even when the ability to express love is gone, love is generated with those who enter the person’s story.

Linda no longer comprehends the word “love.” Yet, she expresses and responds to love! Language now fails her; but gentle touch, brushing her hair, a smile assures her of value and worth. She can no longer feed herself, so slowly placing food in her mouth becomes a sacrament of love. Mobility is gone! Turning her in the bed or smoothly transporting her to a recliner become means of bearing her in the arms of compassion.

She no longer has control of bodily functions. Washing her and keeping her clean is an exercise in love’s humility and servanthood.  Her filters are gone and emotional control is lost. Being with her, absorbing her anger and frustration with non-anxious presence enfolds her in unconditional love.

The love is reciprocal. Linda’s expressions of love are rarely verbal. Occasionally, she will say “thank you” to a service rendered.  But her more typical expressions of love are these: a fleeting smile, reach for my hand, raising of an eyebrow, look of recognition in her eyes, calling my name or that of our daughters, growing calm with a caress of her face.

Love endures because love is God! The Scriptures clearly declare: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (1 John 4:7).

Love is that which is ultimate and the most permanent reality in the universe! Everything else may pass away. LOVE is as permanent as God for God is Love!

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!

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