Communion at Bethany

Yesterday, we celebrated Holy Communion at Bethany, the memory care facility. The mystery of the Sacrament is magnified when celebrated among people with dementia.

Two long-time, non-verbal residents who seldom respond when approached, eagerly received the elements for the first time during the three years I have served as chaplain. The look in their eyes communicated beyond words: “This is the bread of life!”

Being assisted by my neighbor and friend, Dale Sessions, is a special means of grace. Dale is an American Baptist clergy who is in mid-stage of his Alzheimer’s disease. He now lives totally in the present moment and his once extensive vocabulary has been reduced to very few words.

Dale and Communion

Dale’s very presence is a form of ministry; and the cup of salvation being held in his hands is a visible reminder that God’s salvation comes to and through the vulnerable and powerless among us.

Prayer for Lovingkindness

Clasping hands 2God of steadfast love and mercy, whose lovingkindness gives us life and fills the world with beauty and goodness: From the fountain of  your steadfast love flows forgiveness, patience, and forbearance toward us. We have drifted far from the boundless mercy and kindness which spring forth from the depths of your very being. Cruelty and crudeness, disrespectful and demeaning rhetoric dominate our public discourse; and we disregard the humanity of those with whom we disagree. Tame our vile tongues, soften our calloused hearts, open our closed minds, humble our arrogant spirits, and fill our whole lives with your lovingkindness. Create in us the mind and spirit that were in Christ Jesus, in whose name we pray. Amen

Prayer for God’s Dream

Prayer ImageRighteous and compassionate God, whose goodness and truth are unwavering and whose compassion remains steadfast: We cringe today before private and public corruption and blantant cruelty that threaten our nation and world. Dishonesty, greed, and hate are applauded while personal integrity, generosity, and compassion are viewed as weakness. Disturb our consciences, purge our greediness, and melt the hardness of our hearts. Grant us a renewed vision of your dream for the world:

• Where all people are treated with inherent worth and dignity as your beloved children
• Where all barriers among us are removed and the human family is one
• Where integrity and honesty prevail in private and public life
• Where creation is healed and enabled to flourish as you intend
• Where justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a cascading stream and all are welcomed at your table of abundance
• Where your kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven!

Through your grace, O God, empower us to live now in the light of your dream brought near in Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen

The “Voices from Below”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is well known for his resistance to Nazism and subsequent martyrdom. Less is known about the influence on his thinking by a small community of disabled people called Bethel. Bonhoeffer spent significant time among these castaways as German society moved toward creating a “super race” by eliminating those with perceived genetic defects rending them as “life not worth living.”

The people who were considered “defective” because of their physical, psychological, and intellectual disabilities helped to shape Bonhoeffer’s basic principle for understanding reality.

In a world that worships at the altar of the hyper-cognitive and physically dominant, we would do well to hear Bonhoeffer’s call to learn “from below.”

“It remains an experience of incomparable value that we have once learned to see the great events of world history form below, form the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed and reviled, in short for the perspective of the suffering. . . .That we come to see matters great and small, happiness and misfortune, strength and weakness with new eyes: that our sense for greatness, humanness, justice, and mercy has grown clearer, freer, more incorruptible; that we learn, indeed, that personal suffering is a more useful key, a more fruitful principle than personal happiness for explaining the meaning of the world in contemplation and action.”

Until we hear the voices “from below,” from “the least of these,” we will not hear the voice of God!

After all, God’s eternal Word became flesh in a helpless baby born of an unwed peasant teenager, who became an immigrant fleeing politically motivated violence, lived in obscurity for thirty years,  and was executed as a convicted criminal.

Perhaps we would do well to turn off the television, get off Facebook, silence talk radio for a while; and visit a homeless shelter, holding center for migrant families, the local jail or prison, nursing home, Alzheimer’s facility, hospital emergency room, or attend an AA meeting.

Yes, God’s voice may come “from above” but most often it comes “from below,” from the vulnerable, the powerless, the silenced!

 

Splitting Asunder What God Joins Together—Truth and Love!

Aside

 

A battle rages within The United Methodist Church! It’s ostensibly between “Traditionalists” and “Progressives” over homosexuality, authority of Scripture, and adherence of doctrine. But I propose that the conflict may expose an underlying, festering heresy: the severing of truth and love.

“Traditionalists” seek to preserve the truth of the Bible and doctrine as contained in historic creeds and the Articles of Religion, and they call for enforced adherence to established norms.

“Progressives” advocate for continuing divine revelation and the prioritizing of love as the core of Christian doctrine, and they call for expanding the circle of inclusion.

The stage is set for the apocalyptic showdown at General Conference in February 2019. The weapons of inflammatory rhetoric, proof-texting, political strategizing, and either/or dichotomies have been mobilized.

It’s either truth OR love, doctrinal faithfulness OR cultural accommodation, biblical authority OR philosophical relativism, traditional marriage OR sexual sin, my way OR the highway!

Let’s be reminded that dialects are integral to the gospel as viewed through the Wesleyan tradition

  • faith AND works
  • knowledge AND piety
  • personal AND socialtruth-and-love
  • justification AND sanctification
  • doing no harm AND doing good
  • sin as person AND systemic
  • church as local AND Universal
  • doctrinal standards AND theological exploration
  • sound doctrine AND holy living
  • discipleship as belief AND practice
  • truth AND love

In the Bible and Christian tradition, truth and love are inseparable, integral to one another. They are conjoined twins, each giving life to the other. Either without the other is neither authentic truth nor Christian love. When they are severed, the gospel is truncated with calamitous consequences.

In the name of defending truth, people have been persecuted, jailed, banished, and killed; and countless people have been demonized, demeaned, marginalized, and ostracized.

In the name of love, people have engaged in all kinds of exploitative, degrading, dehumanizing behaviors and activities; and devastating personal and social evils have gone unchallenged.

Methodists have long struggled with the tension between maintaining sound doctrine and living Christlike love. John Wesley’s sermons, “On Schism” and “Catholic Spirit” document his own internal battle. He holds fast to the church’s doctrines grounded in Scripture and Tradition while giving priority to holiness as “the love of God shed abroad in our hearts.”

For Wesley, the truth of doctrine lies in the character produced in its adherents. Lives filled with the love of God and neighbor are the evidence of doctrinal truth, not biblical prooftexts or scholastic arguments. And the truthfulness of one’s love is how closely it resembles the self-emptying love (agape) of Christ.

“You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” is an often-used mantra in the academic world. The statement from John’s Gospel, however, has a condition attached to knowing the truth.

Here is the statement in context: “Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciple; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free’”(8:31-32).

The truth that sets us free is not abstract formulation about Jesus. It is relationship with Jesus. In Jesus Christ, truth and love are perfectly and inextricably joined. Truth and love flow from relationship with the One in whom the two are one.

What does this mean for United Methodists searching for a way forward as a denomination. I certainly don’t have a definitive answer as to the best institutional configuration for the future.

But I am convinced that splitting into “traditional” and “progressive”, “conservative” and “liberal” is NOT the way to bear witness to the unity of truth and love. The dichotomy implied in those labels is false, a betrayal of the One who is Truth and Love. To form denominations around those labels would be to institutionalize heresy.

Truth and love are woefully lacking in our polarized, deceitful, and violent world. Untruth and hate are being normalized in the prevailing culture. Our social fabric is being ripped asunder. The common good is being trampled underfoot.

The witness of a community that embodies truth AND love is sorely needed. The church can’t be that witness by splitting asunder what God joined together in Jesus the Christ.

We need “a come to Jesus” meeting and declare to the world that Truth and Love are inseparable in Jesus Christ. By God’s grace, we can together find our way to truthfully love and love truthfully.

Early Morning Prayer

Sovereign and ever-present God, whose love is steadfast, whose truth is inexhaustible, whose beauty is boundless, and whose goodness is without blemish: You have called us into a new day filled with occasions to share love, to explore truth, to delight in beauty, and to embody goodness. Open us to your redeeming presence so that your love, truth, beauty, and goodness will flow freely and untarnished through us. May we not restrict the flow of your love with hate and malice. May our narrowness of mind not confine your infinite truth to our limited intellectual grasp. May our busyness and self-preoccupation not blind us to the inestimable beauty that surrounds us. And, may our sin and brokenness not distort the purity of your goodness. Through your grace enable us to be beacons of love, truth, beauty, and goodness in a world filled with hatred, deceitfulness, ugliness, and evil. We offer our prayer in the name of the One who is the incarnation of boundless love, infinite truth, limitless beauty, and perfect goodness–Jesus the Christ. Amen

Advice from a Long-time Champion for Justice

Gil Caldwell is a friend with a life-time commitment to justice and compassion. He knows firsthand the pain and suffering inflicted by hate, prejudice, and exclusion. He also knows from experience the power of the Christian gospel to transform human hearts and communities. Below is a reflection on the current challenges within The United Methodist Church.

“African United Methodists and African American United Methodists; Important To The Future of a United – Not Divided United Methodist Church”

Years ago these words have guided me as a now 84 year old Black United Methodist; “We have no permanent friends-no permanent enemies-just permanent interests”.

The separation of immigrant children from their parents in today’s immigrant struggle in the USA reminded me of another time of parent-child separation: the selling and separating of the children of African slaves in the USA.  And during racial segregation in the American south black children were separated in school buildings and classrooms that Grace and I attended; inferior to those of white children.

Black children in the USA and Africa have suffered in negative ways because they are black. The United Methodist Church many of us believe should be the world’s “Racial Justice Church”.

If we go back as James Baldwin suggested; “Go back to where you started from and tell the truth about it”. (From “Go Tell It From the Mountain”) We who are black Christians remember how a son of Ham- Simon the Cyrenian carried the cross of Jesus to the crucifixion. Countee Cullen the poet son of a Pastor of Salem Methodist Church in Harlem wrote this;

“They twisted tortured then hung from a tree
Swarth victim of a newer Calvary.

Yea-who helped Christ up Golgotha’s track
That Simon who did not deny-was Black”

My bonding as a black American with my black African brothers and sisters started early. When I was a student at all black North Carolina A. & T. College in Greensboro North Carolina 1952-55 I with other students made a class trip to Washington DC. While there we met the brilliant and gifted young Kenyan politician-Tom Mboya. Years after that he was assassinated in Kenya. It was said of him-“He was the best President Kenya never had”. Mboya’s intellect and character made an impression on me as a college student I have never forgotten.

In the summer of 1971, I with United Methodists Cornish Rogers and his family and Thelma Barnes traveled with others to Dar Es Salaam Tanzania for a Consultation of African and America American Church and Government leaders. The late Dr. James Cone was with us. We who were black from the USA were deeply impressed by how President Nyerere and his government had established Umoja Villages where persons as the Bible states; “Shared all things in common”. We from the USA said why not do the same thing in the USA?

And then the month Grace and I spent at Africa University with Dean Yemba-now Bishop Yemba and the students and faculty at Africa University was a beautiful reminder of our student days at our black colleges in the American south. Grace at Bennett College and I at NC A. & T. How sad it would be for the black United Methodist educational institutions in America and in Africa if the United Methodist Church weakened its mission and ministry by dividing!

The February 1988 Circuit Rider magazine published my article; “Courage-Confession-Creativity; Essentials for an Inclusive UMC”. At the time I was Pastor of St Daniel’s United Methodist Church in Chester Pennsylvania. The article was focused on racial inclusion; “Recognize our God-given uniqueness-and embrace our Christ-given oneness!” But the article is timely for this God-given moment in the history of our denomination.

COURAGE: We who are black United Methodists are present as members of all of the Groups that are being described by some as being traditionalist or moderate or progressive. But our experiences as black United Methodists in America-Africa or anywhere else in the world have helped us realize that in each of these groups there is recognized/unrecognized racial insensitivity-at times anti-black racial prejudice; even racism. We therefore in all of these groups pray and work for deeper understandings of the importance or racial justice. Often it takes courage for our sisters and brothers who are not black to resist racism-but many of them do. It will take a United Methodist Church to confront the racism that tragically still exists all over the world. A Divided UMC cannot do that. Only a Church that is United can.

CONFESSION: Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his “Life Together” reminds us of James 5: 16- “Confess your faults one to another” My preacher father used to say; “The Church is not a Rest Home for saints. It is a Hospital for sinners”. We can be so focused on what we deem are the sins of others that we ignore our own sins. We separate/segregate those whom we view as “incompatible with Christian teaching”. Martin Luther King in his Letter From Birmingham Jail” writes this about segregation; “It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority”. A Church that would be authentically “United” understands that “The ground at the foot of the cross is level”. Bonhoeffer reminds us “The message of liberation is through truth. You can hide nothing from God”.

CREATIVITY: James Russell Lowell reminds us “New occasions teach new duties. Time makes ancient good uncouth”. A United Methodist Church for the 21st century stands on the shoulders of the Church of the past. It could not had there been no Church on whose shoulders we could stand. But we will cease to be if we seek to become the Church of the past rather than the Church for the present and the future.

Black Liberation Theology enabled me to remain in a predominantly white Methodist/United Methodist Church. It transcended the theologies that were abstract rather than concrete. It allowed me to affirm a God who through Jesus understood the particularity of Black History and Experience with its tribulations and triumphs. I spoke at both the North Carolina and Virginia Conferences in June about the need for a “Southern Liberation Theology” that addresses God’s presence amidst the tragedies of slavery-segregation-lynching and the triumphs that transcended those atrocities. Black and white southern United Methodists have a “God Story” that all of United Methodism ought embrace.

I end these words with a quotation from Janes Cone’s “The Cross and the Lynching Tree”. What he writes about blacks and whites applies as well to United Methodist “traditionalists” and “progressives”.

“No gulf between blacks and whites is too great to overcome-for our beauty is more enduring than our brutality. What God joined together-no one can tear apart”. Amen and Amen!

Gilbert H. Caldwell

A retired member of the Mountain Sky Conference
He retired from the active ministry as Senior Pastor of Park Hill UMC
in Denver in 2001. He retired because of physical disabilities resulting from two operations to remove a non-malignant brain tumor. He says of himself: “Although I now walk with a cane sometimes a walker and drive with a left foot accelerator-I as the old folk say-each morning I “wake up in my rightful mind’ and “Write On And Write On!” We must be United Methodists rather than divided Methodists if our “permanent interest” is to “Make disciples for the transformation of the world”. Amen and Amen!

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 of 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!