“You’re Only as Good as Your Word”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

 

 

 

 

 

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”!

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 provides Congress 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.

 

 

 

Saved by Story

I had settled in for the evening after a long day. The phone rang as I was about to drift off to sleep. “Is this Reverend Carder, the preacher who is quoted in the newspaper as being against the death penalty?” the irate woman asked. I had gone on public record in opposition to executions in the Tennessee.

“Yes, I am opposed to capital punishment,” I calmly replied. What followed kept me awake most of the night and taught me a lesson that is being relearned in my relationships with people affected by dementia.

“Tell me why you are against it,” demanded the caller. I began to explain that the death penalty is not a deterrent. Before I could make my point, she interrupted, “It would deter that one murderer!”

Next, I stated that the death penalty runs counter to my religious faith. Again, she would have none of my argument. “The Bible says, ‘an eye for an eye’,” she retorted. I countered with quotes from the Sermon on the Mount: “Turn the other cheek. . . Love your enemies.” The debate was on!

Our verbal clash went back and forth with ever-escalating emotional intensity. Then, she blurted out something that abruptly ended the arguing!

“If your daughter had been murdered, you’d think different,” she yelled while sobbing uncontrollably.

I had totally missed her! I had seen her as an opponent, one with whom I disagreed. I missed her as a person, a grieving mother of a murdered child. I was bent on winning an argument. I should have been listening to her story, especially her pain.

“Oh my goodness, I’m sorry,” I said with embarrassment. I shared that as the father of two daughters I couldn’t even imagine the pain of one being murdered. I apologized for my insensitivity by arguing with her. For another hour I listened to a heart-wrenching story of horrific loss and harrowing grief.

She ceased being an opponent and became a person with a story I needed to hear. We both moved from an abstract argument to sharing stories behind our ethical/theological perspectives.

We like to think that our ideas, doctrines, affirmations, and understandings are derived purely through rational thinking. We assume that our truth is totally objective, universally applicable, and detached from our personal stories.  But behind every theological, ethical, and political proposition is a story; and we never fully understand another’s perspective until we hear his/her story.

The caller’s position on the death penalty couldn’t be separated from her experience of having a child murdered. My opposing position is inseparable from having a friend awaiting execution and earlier having sat with a mother whose son was executed in another state. The mother whose son was executed loved him no less than the grieving mother of the murdered daughter. Both had children who were intentionally killed, one by a boyfriend and the other by the state.

Our church and society are awash in arguments—political, theological, ideological. Placing opponents within the margins of our dismissive categories prevails over seeing them as persons with stories. And, we would rather lead with our arguments than with our vulnerabilities and hurts. Consequently, we compound the polarization, deepen misunderstanding, and intensify suffering.

We organize into groups of those who fit within our margins of preferred categories—“progressive,” “evangelical,” “liberal,” “conservative.” It’s easier to control the margins than to listen to the stories of others, especially the painful ones. But we can be sure that no one fits neatly into any of the categories, if we know their stories.

In reality, truth can never be severed from story. Arguments over abstract propositions are more about winning and losing than about understanding and growing. Positive change emerges from shared stories of pain and struggle more than from quarrels and contentious debates.

God didn’t redeem the world with an argument. God saves the world by entering our stories with The Story of a Love that shifts the margins outside our prescribed categories.