We Have Reason to Hope in These Troubled Times

While attending Wesley Seminary in Washington, D.C. in the 1960s, I had the privilege of hearing an array of guest lecturers and preachers. Well known theologians, preachers, and politicians regularly spoke in chapel or the lecture hall. Even President Kennedy spoke on campus only a few weeks before his tragic death.

The most transformative guest during my three years on campus was Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist who survived the Nazi concentration camps. He shared his struggles to survive the daily stench of death and the loss of family and friends in the barbaric gas ovens.

Dr. Frankl’s very presence was testimony to courage and hope amid unimaginable cruelty and death. While the holocaust reveals the raw evil of humanity, Viktor Frankl’s life bore witness to the triumph of hope over despair.

Dr. Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, has inspired countless people for more than half century. He affirms that although we may have limited control over what happens we have freedom to determine our attitude toward what happens. He contends that humans can live with almost any what if we have a why, a meaning amid the circumstances.

I have been reminded over the years of these words from Dr. Frankl: “[Man] is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”

We live in troubled, uncertain, and dangerous times. Hatred and harshness, cruelty and crudeness, greed and grossness, viciousness and violence have been normalized. Injustice, prejudice, and exploitation are defended as virtues. Indifference to and scorn for the poor, the imprisoned, the homeless, and the immigrants has become public policy.

Cynicism and despair are luring temptations in such a time as this. We can succumb to the temptation and be paralyzed by hopelessness. Or, we can choose the way of hope and action.

This weekend we celebrate the reason for hope! In the crucifixion of Jesus the Christ, God took on all the hatred, cruelty, greed, violence, injustice, prejudice and exploitation humanity can muster. Jesus entered his own death chamber upright, with the prayer “Father, forgive them” on his lips.

Evil did not, does not, have the last word! On Easter God delivered the everlasting “No!” to humanity’s evil! The Resurrection is God’s eternal, cosmic “YES!” to everything Jesus was, said, and did!

Love triumphs over hate! Compassion defeats cruelty and indifference! Forgiveness disarms vengeance! Humility undermines arrogance! Freedom wins over bondage! Life conquers death!

We, therefore, can live these troubled times with our shoulders straightened, our eyes on the future triumph of God’s reign of justice, compassion, generosity, and joy. We know that the decisive victory has already been won in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ!
 

 

Insight from the Sightless and Wisdom from the Confused

“Let’s pray for those who have eyes but can’t see,” requested a worshiper during the Prayers of the People. It was an appropriate petition in light of the Gospel reading from John 9, when Jesus healed a marginalized blind beggar and exposed the blindness of the respected religious leaders.

What makes the petition especially noteworthy, however, is that the petitioner is a man who lost his sight as a child. Additionally, he has lost much of his memory and ability to reason. He now lives in the memory care facility at the Heritage at Lowman.

He, like the man in the Scripture, is doubly marginalized. He is locked in a world of darkness and his ability to remember and reason has been severely limited by a form of dementia.  Yet, it was this sightless man with cognitive confusion who grasped the insight and expressed the wisdom in the Jesus story.

He wasn’t the only one! During the “homily,” I asked, “What are some things that blind us, even though we have eyes to see?”

“We are too busy with other things,” responded a woman who periodically battles frightening hallucinations.

“Prejudices,” called out an African American whose mental confusion has not blinded her to the experience of discrimination.

“Privilege” was another identified form of blindness, being blinded by the bubbles in which we live.

Then came the most pointed declaration: “We are blind when we don’t see people for who they are, children of God!” And the people said, “Amen!”

We talked about and sang the hymn “Blessed Assurance” having been written by a blind woman, Fanny Crosby whose insight was deepened by physical blindness.

We shared that John Newton had been freed from spiritual blindness though he had sight.  He declared, “I once was blind but now I see,”  a verse in perhaps the best known and most sung hymn in our society, “Amazing Grace.” We joined Newton’s praise of Grace that opens blind eyes by singing the hymn,

We paused to pray, using the hymn “Open My Eyes, That I May See.”

Open my eyes, that I may see glimpses of truth thou hast for me;                               place my hands the wonderful key                                                                                     that shall unclasp and set me free.

Chorus: Silently now I wait for thee,                                                                                      ready my God, thy will to see.                                                                                               Open my eyes, Illumine me,                                                                                                        Spirit divine!

The service concluded with “Be Thou My Vision,” accompanied on the flute:

Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart;                                                                           naught be all else to me, save that thou art                                                                      Thou my best thought, by day or night                                                                             waking or sleeping , thy presence my light.

As I greeted each worshiper, I paused to look into their eyes.  Some were unfocused. A few were now closed in sleep.  Others had that stare as though seeing into another world. I saw sad eyes, lonely eyes, longing eyes, smiling eyes, tear-filled eyes. Most of all, I saw loving eyes, eyes yearning for love and eyes filled with love.

I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the petition by the sightless and cognitively confused resident at Bethany, “Let’s pray for those who have eyes but cannot see.”

God grant that the blindness created in us by our preoccupation, prejudice, and privilege be healed by the One who entered the world of the blind and ostracized, opened their eyes, and welcomed them into community.

I Have Given up Labels

I’m giving up labels! I flinch every time I read or hear these words in referring to people: “Progressive,” “Evangelical,” “Conservative,” “Liberal,” “Orthodox,” “Revisionists.”  Immediately upon hearing or seeing them, I sense ideology, partisanship, and divisiveness rather than theology, cooperation, and community.

Labels can be helpfully descriptive when they are precisely defined and modestly employed.  Yet, when used prescriptively as a means of categorizing, condemning, and disengaging from others, labels become vicious and outright sinful.

Labels tend to reduce people to categories to be resisted, demeaned, and perhaps eliminated.  They blur our vision of others and force them into ideological boxes.

We live in a society and in churches polarized by labels.  United Methodism is in danger of splitting over labels as members are lumped into “progressives” or “revisionists” and “evangelicals” or “orthodox.” In so doing, the denomination is mirroring the broader polarized society which lumps people with the same or similar labels and categories.

Labels invariably over simplify issues and diminish people.  No issue can be defined in a single word and no one can be reduced to a category.

Progressives can be evangelical. Evangelicals can be progressive. Liberals can be conservative. Conservatives can be liberal. Orthodox can be revisionists. Revisionists can be orthodox.  Even Democrats can have republican ideas and Republicans can embrace democratic principles.

Words are critically important. Words do shape our relationships and influence our treatment of others.  Labeling another as “enemy,” “foe,” “heretic,” “threat,” “terrorist,” “alien,” “criminal,” and a multitude of other offensive names, leads us to behave negatively toward the other. Dehumanizing is the first step toward rejection and violence.

We aren’t saved by words any more than we are saved by works. But words and works motivated and shaped by grace and used grace-fully heal, reconcile, and transform persons and societies.

Jesus was never impressed with labels as tools for categorizing and excluding folks. He was always turning the tables on those who pushed people into boxes and labeled them as unworthy or outside God’s circle of redemption. He welcomed “outcastes and sinners,” commended a “pagan” Roman soldier for his faith, extolled a “Samaritan” as the model of neighborliness, and promised a “thief” a place in paradise.

Jesus’s disciples were very label and category conscious.  They observed a man with the wrong labels and group loyalties casting out demons. Offended by his apparent “orthodox” or “progressive” associations, they told him to stop. He doesn’t fit their labels and categories. Jesus, however, had a much broader understanding of God’s activity. Jesus admonished, “Do not stop him . . . Whoever is not against us is for us”(Mark 9:38-41; Luke 9:49-50).

There are labels we might try using more often, especially in speaking about and with those with whom we differ: “brother,” “sister,” “child of God,” “friend in Christ,” “colleague in Christ’s ministry,” “sinner redeemed by grace,” “wayfarer on the way to God,” “citizen of new heaven and new earth,” and “beloved partner in ministry.”

We would do well to pause before using labels and meditate on Jesus’ caution in the conclusion of his Sermon on the Mount:  “You shall know them by their fruits. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:20-22).

What are the fruits? They are summarized in the Beatitudes—humility, meekness, hunger for righteousness, mercy, integrity, striving for peace, magnanimity, and courage. Paul describes them as “fruit of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatian 5:22).

So, I’m giving up labels! I hope to spend more time and energy nurturing “fruit of the Spirit” in myself and others than putting others in simplified categories with restricting labels.

Is Love a Practical Way Forward?

My blog, “Schism Is a Failure of Love and Leadership,” sparked considerable discussion. Many thoughtful questions and challenges merit continued reflection on my part and additional discussion across the church.  (https://shiftingmargins.wordpress.com/2016/10/12/schism-is-a-failure-of-love-and-leadership/

On the surface, the call to love seems piously superficial and naïve. One respondent indicated, my suggestions are more like “a sermon than a practical solution to our current divisions.”  I would argue that sermons are “practical.” Otherwise, we dismiss the “Sermon on the Mount” as impractical and naïve.

The comment reflects a serious problem. Legislative mandates, organizational directives, and juridical penalties have come to have more authority than liturgy, theological reflection, and spiritual discernment.  Our liturgy, theology, and discernment have tended to become instruments of legislative coercion, bureaucratic maneuvering, and judicial threat.

It is appropriate to revisit Jesus’s farewell discourse in John’s Gospel. Two statements of Jesus have largely been ignored:  “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12) and his prayer “that they may all be one” (17:20).

Admittedly, we suffer from a cheapening of the term “love,” thereby reducing it to sentiment that “we just get along.”  “Getting along” isn’t a bad thing in this age of vitriol and polarization. However, to love as Christ loves us is far more radical than being “nice” to one another.

What does it mean to love as Christ loves us? From the words and actions of Jesus, love is more than a sentiment. It is a revolutionary and dangerous way of being in the world.  Loving as Christ loves may very well get you killed!

To love as Christ loves us means to shift the margins of our concern and preoccupation from the centrality of the privileged and powerful to the vulnerable and powerless.  Throughout the biblical witness, God’s preferential presence and mission are among the “orphans, widows, and sojourners (immigrants).”  (https://shiftingmargins.wordpress.com/2016/07/22/shifting-the-margins/)

Jesus moved the center of God’s reign to include the outcasts, the poor, the sinners, the children, the sick, the imprisoned, the infirm, “the least of these.”  To love as Christ loves us is to join him among those whom Charles Wesley called “Jesus’ bosom friends.”  It means to see and nurture the divine image in everyone and to challenge the systems, policies, and practices that diminish the inherent worth and dignity of all God’s beloved children.

Love is an action more than a sentiment or emotion or intellectual construct. Love seeks, includes, nurtures, gives, helps, supports, serves, corrects, and promotes the wellbeing of the beloved. It is inseparable from justice and the dogged effort to overcome oppression, exploitation, and cruelty.

According to John’s Gospel, Jesus’s priority was that his disciples would love as he loves and that they would be “one” in expressing that love in the world.  What would it mean for us to respond to those priorities?

It would mean at least this: we and the church would turn our attention and presence to the most vulnerable, neglected, powerless, and despised in our congregations and communities. They would be the center of our concern and presence.  Preoccupation with church growth, preserving doctrinal purity, labeling one another as “progressive” or “evangelical,” and denominational triumphalism would move to the margins. The love of Christ would become central and would make us one!

 

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Christmas: A Stark Contrast to Prevailing Values

Believing and living the Christmas stories is dangerous, especially today!  But that is precisely what we are called to do. I have an uneasy feeling that the coming months will test the seriousness with which Christians in America take Christmas.

What does it say to us that God chose to come among us as a vulnerable brown baby, born of an unmarried peasant teenager in a smelly barn in a remote village in the Middle East? What are the implications that the child was born among the homeless, his family having been forced out of their home by the taxation policy of the political powers of the times?

According to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus spent the first two years of his life as an immigrant in Egypt, fleeing the slaughter of the innocents by a power -obsessed  autocrat.   Among the first people to pay him homage were foreigners. They had a different religion, a different way of knowing.  And, they came “from the East,” the country from which terrorists had attacked.

Regrettably, we have so sentimentalized and domesticated the story of God’s entrance into the world in Jesus of Nazareth that we now have normalized values and actions that blatantly contradict the message of Christmas.  That is a frightening judgment on our failure to faithfully live the Christmas story.

Christmas confronts the Americans with a stark contrast to prevailing values as exposed in the recent elections. Matthew declares that Jesus is “Emmanuel,“ God with us, and his name means “he saves.”  The participants in that first Christmas are timeless vehicles of divine revelation about where God is and through whom God saves.

The parallels to current realities are striking! Prevailing political rhetoric and policies favor the Herods, the rich, the privileged. Immigrants are walled out, denied access to necessities. Foreigners are suspect. Brown and black people are disproportionately victims of injustice. Women are subjects of “locker room talk” and powerful men’s sexual gratification.

If the Christmas stories are true, God is especially present among the very people stigmatized and insulted in the recent political campaign. God is still coming among us in the lowly victims of political power grabs, taxation policies that favor the rich, and practices that exploit the poor.

In the midst of the immigrants fleeing oppression and death is Emmanuel, God with us. Those young women denigrated as sex objects are called “blessed” by the One who comes to save.  And God continues to show up in places we label as “enemy” or “terrorist” territory, where people read a different sacred book.

Although we are surrounded by the darkness of cruelty, hate, violence, and exploitation, we remain hopeful. Christmas also declares that “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it!”  Emmanuel is still with us!

We, therefore, can live the Christmas story with courage and hope.  We do so by joining Emmanuel among the homeless, the foreigners, those with different religions, and the exploited so that what is done to them is done to us.  We can challenge the Herods because we know that the baby in Bethlehem’s manger is Emmanuel, the One who saves and prevails over all the world’s despots.

Schism Is a Failure of Love and Leadership

Talk of schism in The United Methodist Church abounds, exposing an already distracted church. Contemplating split precisely when the world needs an embodied message of reconciliation is a transparent betrayal of the church’s nature and mission.

John Wesley in his sermon “On Schism” declares:

To separate ourselves from a body of living Christians, with whom we were before united, is a grievous breach of the law of love. It is the nature of love to unite us together; and the greater the love, the stricter the union. . . . It is only when our love grows cold, that we can think of separating from our brethren. And this is certainly the case with any who willingly separate from their Christian brethren. . . The pretences for separation may be innumerable, but want of love is always the real cause.[1]

As Christ’s followers, we are commanded to love one another with the same love with which Christ loves us. Love is precisely the criteria by which the world knows we are disciples: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another”(John 13:15).

However we may rationalize schism as faithfulness to truth and orthodoxy, or as the cost of bold prophetic witness, the world correctly sees it as the failure to love. A church that cannot struggle together with conflicts over sexuality, interpretation of Scripture, and orthodoxy has little to say to a violently divided world.

The failure to love is also a negation of the church’s leadership. History is replete with examples of the church’s failure to provide leadership in times of polarization and division.

A historian of American religion, C. C. Goen, provides a relevant case study. His book Broken Churches, Broken Nation: Denominational Schisms and the Coming of the American Civil War chronicles denominational schisms as precursors to the violent breech in the nation.

Though he does not contend that the churches caused the split, Goen argues that the denominational divisions represented a tragic “failure of leadership.” The Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians opted for retreating into homogeneous ecclesial enclaves rather than engage in difficult conversations on slavery and human dignity. Attempts at persuasion gave way to legislative coercion. When legislation failed, division and violence became the attempted solutions.

Rather than leading the nation toward justice and reconciliation, the denominations simply mirrored society’s brokenness. By splitting into self-justifying enclaves of like-minded congregations, the denomination opted to mirror the brokenness in society.  The church, thereby, provided an ecclesial model and theological underpinning for a broken nation and subsequent civil war.

The United Methodist Church is once again positioned to provide leadership to a world dreadfully divided and retreating into dangerous ideological ghettos. Will we once again exhibit a failure of love and leadership?

I am finding a hopeful alternative in an unexpected place. I have the privilege of providing a pastoral presence with approximately forty people living with some form of dementia, their families, and staff who care for them. Those marginalized children of God embody reconciliation and oneness that transcends uniformity.

Every worship service is Pentecost at Bethany, the memory care facility. Although each participate is unique and the religious backgrounds include Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and “none,” we gather as one community. Many have lost verbal abilities and comprehension. Theological and creedal abstractions elude them. Behaviors are unpredictable. Disruptions are accepted in stride.

It is not uncommon to hear a resident sing “Amazing Grace” in her native Portuguese or another in Spanish or Italian. A Jewish man joins in praying the Lord’s Prayer. People who can’t remember their own name recite Psalm 23 in unison. Some who have forgotten who Jesus sing “Jesus Loves Me” with gusto.

Much of the language is babble and incoherent. Yet, there is an understanding that transcends cognition. I asked, “How is it that you seem to understand one another?” A woman whose persistent petition during intercessory prayers is for world peace, responded: “We love one another. We communicate with the heart.”

That is leadership! That is love! Loving one another and communicating with the heart! That is the way forward for a denomination that claims as its mission “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

 

 

 

[1] Albert C. Outler, editor, The Works of John Wesley, Vol. 3(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1986), p. 64.

“Why Don’t You Get on with Your Life?”

“Why don’t you get on with your life?”That was the question raised to a friend whose wife is in a memory care facility.

For six years, he has visited her daily between 1:00 and 3:00 p.m. Since the disease has taken her language, he mostly sits silently beside her, gently holding her hand. She responds with an occasional smile or a momentary twinkle in her eyes.

The casual observer assumes that she no longer knows her husband, rendering his visits meaningless. As I often hear from medical staff, family members, and friends, “They aren’t there anymore. She/he is already gone.”

If they are already gone, why continue to invest time and energy in relating to them?  Or as one daughter said about not visiting her mother, “She’s not the mother I’ve known. I want to remember her as she was.”

A pastor remarked, “They don’t recognize me when I visit or remember that I’ve been there. I have so many other things to do. They aren’t really there, so what purpose does a visit serve?”

Pat Robertson suggested in response to a caller on his television program that a husband can justifiably divorce his wife with dementia. His reasoning:  “. . . I hate Alzheimer’s. It is one of the most awful things because here is a loved one—this is the woman or man that you have loved for 20, 30, 40 years. And suddenly that person is gone. They’re gone. They are gone.“

Since the person with Alzheimer’s is “gone,” it seems permissible that “you get on with your life!”

The advice may be well intended.  Neurocognitive diseases do change people, stripping from them capacities to remember, communicate, and reason.  Personality changes are real and often dramatic. Difficult behaviors emerge.  Reciprocity vanishes or diminishes. Dependency escalates with ever-weighty demands on spouses and family.

Caregiving can be all consuming, with devastating physical and emotional consequences for the spouse.  Relentless grieving and pervasive sadness take their toll. Therefore, there is some value in suggesting that “you get on with your life.”

The advice, however, is based on a devastating myth:  Identity and worth lie in our capacity to think clearly, remember rightly, communicate plainly, and behave appropriately. It is the popular acceptance of Descartes’ dictum, “I think, therefore, I am.”

My friend responded succinctly and firmly to the suggestion that he get a life. He said simply, “This is my life!” He added that he enjoys spending time with his wife. Love is central to who he is. She may not always cognitively know him, but he knows who she has been and who she IS; and he loves her for all she has been AND for all she is! Love gives life, joy, connection to both!

Those of us who refuse to live by the myth know something very important: THEY ARE STILL THERE!  We are more than our thoughts or capacities or behaviors. We are distinct, beloved children of God, whose worth and identity are held permanently by God!

Those who take the time and energy to be attentive, to get inside the world of loved ones, to listen to the feelings behind the incoherent language, to really BE PRESENT know the person is still there!

Sometimes we see it in a faint twinkle in the eyes, or a characteristic gesture, or a fleeting smile, or a slight squeeze of the hand. When it happens, there emerges a profound joy which may last only a moment.  But the joy is real for both, and the residual effects endure longer than can be measured.

On the rare days when my friend does not arrive at the memory care facility at 1:00, his wife can be seen standing at the window looking out toward the parking lot. Mysteriously and inexplicably, she knows it’s time for her husband to come. She is STILL THERE! And he knows it!