Prayer for July 4th

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God of power and love, whose sovereignty is over all nations and whose love enfolds all people, we pause to celebrate the birth of our nation.  We are grateful for the vision of “one nation under God, indivisible, and with liberty and  justice for all,” a vision worthy of our allegiance and aspiration.

We confess our failure to live the vision by

  • promoting a nationalism that elevates nation over God
  • limiting “all” to members of our political party, our race, our religion, our group
  • worshiping the idols of military might and wealthy display
  • exploiting the vulnerable while protecting the privileges of the privileged
  • treating as less than human “the orphans, widows, and sojourners (immigrants)”
  • extolling violence while eschewing humility, gentleness, kindness, and compassion

Forgive us, God of all nations, and free us to live courageously toward your vision of the world as you intend:

  • where all people know and live their identity as your beloved children, made in your image
  • where all barriers are removed and the human family lives as one, with dignity and respect
  • where all of creation is healed, from the scarred mountains and poisoned air to the microscopic diseased cell
  • where justice permeates all relationships and all have access to your table of abundance
  • where hatred and violence are no more and all creation lives in harmony and peace.

“This is my prayer, O Lord of all earth’s kingdoms: Thy kingdom come; on earth thy will done. Let Christ be lifted up till all shall serve him, and hearts united learn to live as one. O hear my prayer, thou God of all the nations; myself I give thee; let thy will be done.” Amen.

 

A Special Time with Two Friends

One of my favorite memories as a bishop was a retreat with the extended cabinet in Mississippi. I invited two special friends and natives of Mississippi who have courageously championed justice and inclusion for at least six decades.

We spent two days engaged in conversation with Will Campbell (here) and Tex Sample (here)! They shared their experiences growing up in Mississippi and their own struggle to counter prejudice, racism, and exclusion. What a memorable experience!

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With disarming wit, intriguing stories, and prophetic insight, Tex and Will invited us to confront our own racism and exclusion and to expand our circle of justice and hospitality.

I first met Tex in the 1980s when we served on the General Board of Church and Society. We have been friends for more than thirty years; and I treasure his continuing support, guidance, and inspiration.

Tex is equally at home swapping stories with “hard living” folks in a local hangout, delivering lectures at top universities, and organizing local communities to challenge city hall. He has spent his life on the frontlines and in the trenches in the struggle against injustice and exclusion in both church and society.

Will Campbell and I met in prison! I had read his Brother to a Dragon Fly. Now, here he was sitting across from a condemned man awaiting execution! He lived what he preached. His circle of compassion and concern was wide enough to include Klansmen and leaders of the civil rights movement, a convicted murderer and a United Methodist pastor.

During my years as bishop in Nashville and Mississippi, Will would show up unexpectedly at an event or call on the phone. Every encounter left me laughing and inspired. I always felt that I had been visited by one of God’s choice prophets and angels! Though he died June 3, 2013, he continues to inspire and challenge me to broaden my circle of hospitality and deepen my commitment to justice.

I give thanks for holy friendships that challenge my prejudices, widen my circle of compassion, and call forth courage to seek justice for ALL people. Special thanks today for Tex Sample and the late Will Campbell!

(I am indebted to John Moore for this photo taken at the retreat.)

 

Is Only Unborn Life Sacred?

This week Alabama enacted a law against all abortions. Other state legislatures have enacted strict restrictions with the goal of criminalizing all abortions. My home state of  Tennessee is among them.

Thursday evening Alabama and Tennessee intentionally, with premeditation, strapped two men to a gurney, injected poison into their restrained bodies and watched them die.

Michael Samra’s last words were a prayer to Jesus and Don Johnson sang a hymn as he drew his final breath.

Both men had been convicted of murder. They had cruelly taken the lives of others and inflected terrible grief on their loved ones.

Advocates for the criminalization of abortions defend “the sacredness of the unborn” and the “sanctity of life.”

State-sanctioned killings (‘capital punishment’ is a convenient euphemism) are done in the name of “justice” and compassion for victims.

Protecting and affirming the sacredness and sanctity of life and practicing justice and compassion are core values in civil society and the Christian faith.

But much of the rhetoric and action around abortion and the death penalty exposes a deep, deadly hypocrisy and inconsistency.

Some argue that anti-abortion is protecting “innocent lives” while state executions is justice delivered to the guilty and that comparing the two is a false equivalency.

But are only unborn lives “sacred”? Does birth end human sacredness? Does guilt, even of murder, nullify the sanctity of human life!

According to my understanding of God as creator, redeemer, and sustainer and the universality of God’s prevenient  grace, ALL life is sacred!

Although the image of God is distorted in ALL  of us, God continues to claim us as beloved sons and daughters, with inherent worth and dignity, unborn and born!

Furthermore, justice from a biblical perspective is assuring that ALL have access to God’s abundance and to the resources necessary to flourish as God’s beloved children.

Therefore, I hope the state and national political leaders will be diligent in assuring that those who have been born will have access to medical care, adequate housing, quality education, and loving community.

And, I pray that we will not create more victims of violence by killing those who have killed and calling it “justice” and “compassion.”

Having been present with families of sons who were executed by the state, I know that grief is only compounded and injustice multiplied.

Let’s cease the hypocrisy by practicing justice and compassion for ALL, the unborn and already born!

And let us demand that our politicians stop reducing “sanctity of life” and “justice for victims” to campaign slogans while enacting policies that wound and kill the most vulnerable among us — those the Scriptures call “the orphans, widows, and strangers (immigrants)” and “the least of these”!

 

The Ugliest Word

Ugly

During an interview in the 1950s, the famed journalist Edward R. Morrow asked Carl Sandburg, “What’s the ugliest word in the English language?”

I know a lot of ugly words! Many are considered profanity and aren’t spoken in polite company. Admittedly, those crude words have become more acceptable in public discourse and popular entertainment. I won’t mention them here. You know them, I’m sure.

But the Pulizer prize winning poet didn’t select a profane word. This master of the use of words chose this as the ugliest word: EXCLUSIVE! 

Well, I’m not so sure about that! Many find the word and its implication quite attractive. After all, we seem to prefer

  • to live in exclusive neighborhoods,
  • drive exclusive cars, eat at exclusive restaurants,
  • vacation at exclusive resorts,
  • attend exclusive universities,
  • occupy exclusive leadership positions,
  • shop at exclusive stores,
  • be inducted into exclusive organizations,
  • be part of an exclusive religion,
  • worship an exclusive God,
  • belong to an exclusive church.

I suspect that the ugliness or beauty of the word depends on whether we are among the included or the excluded. The included have power, privilege, prominence, prestige. They determine who is in and who is out.

But if you’ve ever been among those who are excluded, you know how ugly the word is! Being excluded stings, embarrasses, devalues, demeans, rejects, isolates, marginalizes, coerces, bullies. It hurts to be excluded!

Jesus must have considered exclusive to be an ugly word and an evil practice. At least, he redefined who’s in and who’s out. He turned the tables on the excluded and the included.

The excluded became the included: the nobodies, the poor, the disreputable, the powerless, the sick, the imprisoned, the vulnerable!

Those who considered themselves the exclusive found themselves on the outside– religious legalists, political power brokers, the rich, the morally pure, the piously judgmental.

In God’s upside-down kindom, no one is excluded from the reach of divine compassion and presence. Those we exclude from our circles of compassion, justice, and hospitality are the very ones at the center of God’s circle of hospitality.

If exclusive is the ugliest, I wonder what the poet would consider the most beautiful word in the English language?

I don’t know about you, but a word that comes to my mind is WELCOME! When combined with ALL, the beauty is magnified: ALL WELCOME! WELCOME ALL!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I Won’t be Attending General Conference But . . . .

UM-General-Conference1920x485-1024x259I’m going to miss an important event in Methodist history–the called session of the General Conference in St. Louis, February 23-27.

A lot is at stake as delegates wrestle with ways to deal with the important matters of homosexuality and the interpretation of Scripture. The decisions made will chart the denomination’s future for decades.

Missing the conference makes me sad! I feel some guilt for my absence.  Although as a retired bishop I have no official duties,  I do feel responsible to be present in support of colleagues and delegates.

I know from previous General Conferences that significant things happen apart from the formal sessions. Old friendships are renewed and new ones formed. The vast diversity of the denomination is on full display.

Great music! Outstanding preaching! Challenging speeches! Profound worship!

I’ll miss all of that!

I must forego the experience. But, I’ll be pursuing my current primary vocational calling, care-partner for my wife of 57 years.

What I will be doing seems small and insignificant when compared to the history-making decisions. Nothing I will be doing will get publicity or make the history books.

I’ll be doing little things–holding Linda’s hand, combing her hair, feeding her, brushing her teeth, assuring her she isn’t alone, just sitting quietly as she sleeps.

There are important connections between what I’ll be doing and what’s happening in St. Louis.

We both will be doing sacred work!  Both will involve strong emotions, including grief and disappointment. God will be present with us!

Both have to do with what it means to love! Who to love! How to love! What it means to love faithfully, as Christ loves us!

Love isn’t an abstraction for me. She’s lying in the bed nearby, with her hand in mine. Love, in the final analysis, is an embodied practice rather than a pontifical pronouncement.

I hope love isn’t an abstraction in St. Louis. May it be embodied in

  • ears that listen attentively,
  • tongues that speak tenderly and truthfully,
  • hands that clasp and serve joyfully,
  • arms that embrace hospitably,
  • hearts that beat compassionately,
  • minds that exhibit the mind that was in Christ Jesus,
  • actions that manifest the breadth of God’s love and justice.

I won’t be trying to convince Linda that she is wrong, or less than, or inadequate, or sinful, or outside the norm.

Instead, I will be trying to empathetically enter her world, see the world as she is seeing it, assure her that she is valued amid her confusion, and loved unconditionally by God and by me.

I genuinely pray that what happens in St. Louis will be akin to what will be happening in our home, and in the countless homes across our world as people seek to love one another as Christ loves us, regardless of

  • race,
  • ethnicity,
  • political affiliations,
  • theological perspectives,
  • sexual orientation, or
  • physical and intellectual capacities.

I won’t be physically present in St. Louis, but I’ll be watching and praying. . . . and continuing to love!

 

 

 

“Not What Do You Believe, But What Do You DO?”

It was an unlikely place for a theological discussion! I was undergoing a medical test that required a lot of waiting and interaction with a technician.

Noting a book I was reading by Walter Brueggemann and having seen on my chart that I had taught at Duke, he asked, “Are you a liberal or conservative?”

“I don’t  really like labels. I’m liberal on some things and conservative on others,” I responded.

“Well, what do you believe?” he retorted.

“Believe about what?” I asked.

“About God, Jesus,  and the Bible,” he said.

“Wow, that’s a lot to cover. I have lots of beliefs about those topics, but I’m not sure that what I believe about them is the most important thing.”

“Oh? Then, what is most important about being religious?” he inquired with interest.

I replied, “I think a more important question is, What do you do? What do you practice? How do you behave, treat people?”

There followed several minutes of conversation about treating people with respect, dignity, compassion, justice, and hospitality.

“But beliefs are important, aren’t they?” he pushed.

I responded, “Definitely! They should motivate, form, and guide what we do. The validity of our beliefs is what kind of persons they produce. The test is what’s in our hearts more than what’s in our heads.”

Continuing, I added, “You asked me what I believe about God, Jesus, and the Bible. Here it is in a nutshell. I believe God is love and that love became flesh in Jesus who shows us what it means to love and empowers us to love one another as God loves us. The Bible is the story of the unfolding of that love.”

With calmness, he reflected, “So, you’re more concerned about what I do than what I believe? Right?”

I remarked: “I’m interested in both, but our actions reveal our true beliefs. Your kindness, respect, and compassion indicate to me that you know God as love, kindness, and justice. You may not even call that “God” but to practice love, generosity, hospitality, and justice is to “believe” in God as I understand the term.”

As the tests and wait continued, the conversation turned to our shared concern for loved ones living with dementia. He was no longer curious about whether I was “liberal” or “conservative,” and I still don’t know what his religious formulations are.

I do know that in that brief exchange two people treated one another with mutual respect, compassion, and dignity. In so doing, we pointed to what the Lord requires: “to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8 NRSV)

 

Prayer after the Election

 



praying-hands_1027_1024x768Sovereign God of justice and compassion, who judges all peoples, nations, institutions, and political parties: We pray for your mercy and guidance in the midst of our nation’s political turmoil and division.

Reconciling God, heal the painful wounds inflicted by our sharply partisan politics which elevates winning elections above honesty, respect, and the common good. Free us from narrow self-interest, insensitivity, and arrogance so that we can be agents of reconciliation in our families,  neighborhoods, and congregations.

Compassionate God, replace our hearts of stone with hearts beating with your life-giving mercy and kindness. Open our eyes to the hurts of others, clear our ears to hear the anguished cries of those who suffer,  transform our clinched fists into hands of generosity, and widen our arms to embrace all whom you love and for whom Christ died.

Righteous and holy God, whose righteousness is unyielding justice and whose holiness is unblemished love, empower us to defend “the orphans, widows, and immigrants” and purify our love of the blemishes of exclusion, superiority, and privilege.

Resurrecting and triumphant God, who in Jesus Christ conquered the powers of sin and death and is ever bringing order from chaos, liberation from bondage, reconciliation out of brokenness, strength from weakness, hope from despair, life from death: Grant us a renewed vision of your present and coming reign and a deepened commitment to seek first your kingdom and your righteousness.

To you, O Christ, belongs our final loyalty and through the power of the Holy Spirit, enable us to love you more dearly, serve you more faithfully, and praise you more joyfully. Amen

 

A Plea for Honesty

honesty

The normalization of dishonesty and deception threatens our common life. Lying has become an accepted political strategy and an applause line at public events. Whether done by Democrats or Republicans, it is just plain wrong!

Dishonesty destroys trust, rips apart the social fabric, and infects society with the deadly diseases of cynicism, corruption,  fear, and animosity.  Like an open infectious wound, lying contaminates the environment and threatens the health of others.

Honesty is an indispensable quality of character, and character does matter! Albert Einstein stated it succinctly: “Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters.”

Jesus said it long before Einstein: “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much” (Luke 16:10 NRSV).

We have a right to demand that our leaders tell the truth! Lying for political gain is dangerously corrosive to more than politics. It threatens the survival of civil society and diminishes our basic humanity.

Restoring truthfulness and integrity to our life together begins within our own hearts and relationships.

My prayer today is that God will deliver me from my own temptation to put personal gain above honesty and free me from complicity with the normalization of dishonesty.

 

 

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!