Sometimes you hit a wall

beach tideWhen the ocean is warm, I like to wade toward the waves from the shallow edge of the beach, my feet scratching a hold into the sandy bottom, feeling the water slide around my ankles, then shins, then knees. About the point when it gets really sensitive, I have to decide whether to keep walking toward London, or jump in headfirst and get soaked all at once.

If I dive in, I come up sputtering and shaking the water from my eyes. If I decide to keep walking, I lift my shoulders as if I can tiptoe past the sensitive and somehow get soaked without getting wet.

When I’ve reached water about waist depth, I can pause and enjoy, feeling the ebb and flow of the ocean, rolling to the beach to fill the little sand castle moats built by kids with red plastic shovels, and then drag them flat. When I turn to do a little body surfing, or at least to challenge the waves a little further out, I fight the water’s resistance, plodding resolutely forward where the surf breaks.

That is where the short walls of water curl up, spitting little white caps, and burst over me, whacking me backward and I have to retrace a couple steps just to get back to where I was.

In a windy spring season like this one, cycling sometimes feels like those days in the waves. Invisible walls of wind roll out from the horizon and buffet me. Side winds are most dangerous as they can make me wobble and lean the wrong direction at a most inopportune time.

Leaning over the handlebars, trying to carve a lane through the curtain of steady wind, a sudden burst hits me with every bit the force of a wave of water. It doesn’t knock me backward, but it feels like my wheels suddenly rolled into a vat of mush and I have to grind on the pedals to regain momentum.

Sometimes my daily news feed hits me like that.

Learning this week about the suicides of two young people who had survived the Stoneman Douglas High School massacre in February 2018 hit me like that blast of wind. In the same day, I learned the father of a child who had been slaughtered at Newtown had taken his own life after six years of dealing with his awful pain. Combine that with news of a dear friend whose life is suddenly upside down and my typically stoic countenance flipped onto its back, as well.

How much can we feel? How wide an opening should we tear in our hearts to absorb the world’s pain, in the vain belief that by doing so, we can somehow soothe it?

Much, if not most, of the information that hurts, enrages, mystifies, baffles and saddens would have passed unknown to us a half generation ago. But now, we know. With how much of what we know, can we engage? I don’t have the capacity to empathize with all the sadness of which I’m aware.

Yet, I want to share the pain of those I love because sharing is a salve that hurries the healing of open wounds. I want my ears to absorb their sorrows and my shoulders to offer pillows of comfort.

But, a hurting world is too much. Its pain is a flood. If I allow each swell of sorrow to whack me like a wave of wind or water, I’ll never move forward.

Each of us has capacity to care. None of us can carry the burdens of the world. Nor should we feel we must.

Because social media and news outlets pour into our senses a steady stream of pain, theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, says too many pastors –those called to care –are “a quivering mass of availability.”

What to do? I’ll not cloak myself in a curtain of despair because I know that God loves His creation – so much so that He took on the form of man to help us understand the depth of that love.

Rather than be paralyzed by any tide of tears, I will try to let myself be moved only by those things about which I can do something.

And then, I will do something.

 

 

 

 

Play the music, not the notes

classical-music-1838390_960_720 (2)We enjoyed an orchestra at church Sunday, to accompany our choir and lift our spirits with the resounding crescendo that instruments provide. I noticed that orchestra members get involved with the music at different levels.

The first chair violinist sat on the edge of his seat, one foot behind him, leaning toward the music stand. Every stroke of his bow pulled his body left and right. His head moved up and down, his mouth close to the instrument as if whispering, coaxing it to produce glory like a jockey leaning over a horse’s neck, urging it to go faster, harder.

Fingers on his left hand pressed the strings in various combinations against the instrument’s neck and his hand shimmied to draw forth a plaintive vibrato.

Two rows behind him another violinist played, a young man not yet as accomplished, not yet as sure. He sat stiffly in his chair, leaning toward the music stand as if he couldn’t quite make out the notes. The bow was more an implement in his hand, rather than an extension of his own fingers. Nothing moved as he played except his arm and the bow.

He was just playing the notes. The first violinist played the music.

When I played baritone in the high school band I practiced hard for the annual competition at which a judge would listen, grade us and grant an appropriately colored ribbon – blue for A, red for B, white for C. White was kind of a “thanks for coming” award.

Eager and ready when my time came to play, I pressed the mouthpiece to my lips and ran through those notes perfectly. Didn’t skip or misplay a single note. Hit them all in tune and on time. And got a white ribbon for the effort.

Shocked, I looked at the judge, my face begging a reason. “Anyone who practices can play the notes,” she said. “I’m looking for someone to interpret the music.”

I just played the notes. I missed the music.

An old story tells of a curious lad coming to the site of an enormous construction project in his medieval village. He wandered from workman to workman, each busy with his various tasks, and asked them what they were doing.

The first wiped his brow, grunted impatiently and said, “I’m sawing timbers for cross beams.”

The second didn’t pause from his work pouring mud into forms, scraping off the excess and lifting heavy weights onto a trailer. “I’m making bricks,” he said with a scowl.

The third, when asked, paused, looked over the construction site with exposed beams and holes for windows and the nascent beginnings of a spire reaching into the sky and told the boy, “I’m building a cathedral.”

Our Bible study class was in Romans 7. There, the Apostle Paul encourages the new church in Rome to realize the law is no longer their standard for living. They have died to the law, as Jesus died to free them from it. Instead, they are to live in freedom, under grace.

That is our charge, to live under grace. To live in freedom. Ours is not a check box religion: Don’t smoke. Check. Don’t lust. Check. Don’t cheat on your taxes. Check. And on and on and on, each box a note, each check mark a note played.

The goal of Christian living is not to check the boxes, to just play the notes.

To live under grace is to play the music.

 

 

 

 

Didn’t we just DO this?

Ornaments

Photo ornaments trigger memories worth lingering over.

“Didn’t we just DO this?” I asked my wife rhetorically as I opened the plastic bins containing our Christmas decorations. Appropriately for the season, they’re big red bins with green covers.

I’d already hoisted the gloriously pre-lit Christmas tree and assembled its three parts to reach seven feet toward the ceiling. An old friend, now in at least its fifth season with us, it brings unalterable joy because when I insert pole A into receptacle B, the lights come on. Glory.

Married nearly 43 years, we’ve accumulated lots of ornaments for our tree. Glass, plastic, wood, hinged, felted, furred, tacky and holy, most carry special meaning because of who gifted them to us, our circumstance in life at the time and because each ignites a special memory.

Of all our special ornaments though, none are more precious than the very simplest. Prompted by a children’s project at Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas where we attended when I was a seminary student, we’ve made simple paper ornaments with our children’s picture on them – and now our grandchildren’s.

This night, as I sorted through the decorations, untangling hooks and surreptitiously dropping the Mickey Mouse ornament back into the bin, I reached for a nearly ragged paper ornament featuring a tow-headed 10-month old. I reached to hang it onto the tree for the 39th time and a realization of how quickly time passes washed over me like a fog rolling in on an early morning bike ride.

I’m not sentimental about things. I’m not a big historical preservationist. If there’s something in my closet you want, take it. But moments that seared themselves like a hot grill into the raw meat of our minds are precious and I’m going to keep them, and I’m going to cherish them.

I don’t know what brings certain things to mind. Circumstances, events, smells, accidents, the way sunbeams, thick enough with dust to walk on, lay a slanted beam across a field. But when that precious memory comes, when it invades your conscious self and demands that you stop whatever you’re doing and linger there awhile, do it. Don’t resent it. Don’t hasten its passing. Don’t regret the time you devoted to it when you could have been doing something “more productive.”

We hang nice ornaments, too. Colorful glass, embossed and shiny plastic, wooden figures. But it’s the simplest ornaments, made by the kids or featuring the kids, that we appreciate most. Simple, like the manger.

I’m kind of a scrooge until the last couple of weeks before Christmas. I resent the trinketized trivialization of the season. But if I will trudge through the motions riding the momentum of tradition it will hit me. That moment when I realize how much I’ve lived and what a glorious wonder each of those photo ornaments represents.

And my ice coated Scrooge heart melts and I’m awash with the blessedness of Christmas again. Merry Christmas to you, and may every happy memory be a carol in your heart.

This IS America

If you like to play on the lake you probably keep your gear in a water tight container in case it falls into the drink. We like to protect our stuff.

In the dinosaur days of photography, I developed my own film in a dark room constructed to be light tight. We like to protect our images.

After more than six decades lived absorbing, assimilating, criticizing and ultimately acquiescing to the culture in which I swim, I’ve accumulated plenty of stuff and developed an image of America that is culture tight. We like to protect our own bubble.

Last night my gear fell into the water, my pictures were ruined and my cultural bubble burst and splattered all over me.

By accident of birth I’ve lived in the American experiment all my life. I am happy to live in this country, rather than in many others. If it’s a privilege, I freely admit I did nothing to earn it.

Raised in the north, I’ve lived my adult life in the south and have always felt like the irritating grain of sand in the oyster that eventually suffocates in the secretions emitted to coat the irritation. I’m still not southern and few would call me a pearl.

Regional, cultural differences blossom in this country, but that’s part of what makes it beautiful. It’s what gets us in the car to see things unfamiliar. We can eat ethnic food anywhere, drive through coal country, cattle country, mining country, prairies, mountains or deserts and say, “This is America.”

We can see the world’s largest twine ball, or Mount Rushmore, or Hoover Dam, or China Town or the Bronx and say, “This is America.”

We can rejoice in our differences, our diversity, in our inclusiveness, in our historic open arms, in our different houses of worship, accents, or food choices and say, “This is America.”

But now, after every horrific massacre, school shooting, hate crime, mass murder of gays and Jews, and shootings of unarmed black men, some microphone jockey will urge us to stay calm and not despair because “this isn’t America.”

How many times can you say “this isn’t cancer” before you admit that seeping, bleeding scab on your forehead really is cancer and its ugly and you need to do something about it?

I’ve come to the horrible realization that this IS America.

What was a silent, deadly undertow of distrust, prejudice, economic superiority, income polarization, selfish nationalistic identity and hate of “other” has become the tsunami that is washing our nation into the sea.

I’ve felt it for some time, but I was forced to admit it Monday night (Oct. 29) when I sat among many hundreds of Winston-Salem citizens gathered in vigil at Temple Emanuel in mutual support of our Jewish neighbors following another massacre by a middle aged white man. This one over hatred of Jews.

It’s always hatred of something “other” isn’t it, someone who is not like me, someone who threatens to come and get something I think is rightfully mine, and only mine.

The synagogue last night was filled with “other.” Other faiths, colors, genders, styles, languages. It’s a beautiful thing to participate in an atmosphere like that, bound tangentially to each other by common concern.

Thoughtful, sincere speakers who did not look like me opened my eyes to the level of discrimination prevalent in this country. I thought Jews were being hyper-sensitive to feel anti-Semitism everywhere; that we’d made big progress in black-white relations; that LGBTQ persons were finding it easier to live who they are.

Not.

This was not a political rally but neither speakers nor participants tried to gloss over their conviction that the tiny hand pulling back the curtain on America’s pervasive prejudice belongs to the president. Any reference to his divisive rhetoric that waves the permission stick over our innate hates and prejudices drew loud applause.

We were not alone. Per PRRI’s 2018 American Values Survey, 54 percent of Americans believe the president’s decisions and behavior encourage white supremacist groups.

Although those in the room were nearly universal in their perception, we still wonder, of course, “What can we do?” Resoundingly, we were encouraged to vote!

And be kind. Be wise. Don’t let those win who incite fear to keep us apart, to keep us leery of “the other.”

And don’t despair or this brief era actually will become the new definition of America.

God forbid.

 

 

Evangelicals sell authority for a pot of stew and a photo op

On the night of my deepest misery eight weeks after I’d been conscripted as one of America’s last draftees, I walked through Fort Sam Houston to a bank of phones and called my dad, 1,300 miles away. I tried to relate to him how miserable I was – a conscientious objector in medic training with a whole platoon of men fresh out of basic, fired up and ready to go “kill some Charlie Cong.”

I related this as well as I could to dad, who never understood my stance against war, but nothing helped. I hung up the phone and started walking back toward another toss-and-turn night in the barracks, when I passed a post chapel. There was nothing special about the modest, white, steepled box, except on this night it was lit up and pulsing with happy sounds. Drawn by the light and the sound, I walked in.

On the platform was a group of bright, attractive young people presenting some kind of musical. I was enchanted. The music was good and the girls were pretty. Afterwards they invited us to church – Baptist Temple in San Antonio. They offered to come get us in a bus.

Several of us went. There, I heard probably my first “come to Jesus” sermon, outside of a televised Billy Graham crusade. It was convicting and I was almost persuaded. They served us lunch after church and I tasted my first iced tea. We drank milk in Wisconsin. They embraced us, welcomed us, served us. Made us feel at home.

That was my introduction to evangelicals.

I learned that “evangelical” referred to a Christian who felt strongly enough about Jesus declaring the kingdom of God was at hand, and that Jesus holds the key to that kingdom, that he or she felt compelled to tell others about it. You know, to “evangelize,” like the young people from Baptist Temple had done for me. An evangelical took Jesus’ example to heart, reached out and served “the least of these” through selfless acts.

An evangelical took seriously biblical truths as guidelines for living so that to an evangelical, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28). By definition evangelicals loved their enemies, spoke truth to power, were slow to rush to judgement and willingly accepted slights rather than instigate fights…or war.

Evangelical was a theological term that described a body of Good News telling believers.

Today “evangelical” is a political term that describes a voting block who want government to legislate their spiritual worldview. And sadly, that worldview has somehow dropped over a horizon that does not reflect Jesus’ character.

Rather than loving the foreigner among us, “the other” is demonized, drawn as a caricature we then are to fear – or to deport.

Political evangelicals appear to love guns more than children; privilege for their own, more than opportunity for all; unborn children more than desperate mothers; their narrow perspective more than tolerance that facilitates a peaceful society.

Rather than an aura of love there seems to be a halo of hate in the way “evangelicals” rejoice in the dismantling of environmental protections; the rejection of science; deification of business; deportation of ethnics who have lived in this country for decades and who are parents and spouses of American citizens, and in how they resist the idea of health care access for all, as if someone has to earn the right to see a doctor.

These political evangelicals shout obscenities at news media covering public events. They succumb to manufactured displays of patriotism and denigrate others who don’t. Their leaders don formal dress for a state dinner at the White House, sacrificing their prophetic voice to rub shoulders with empire.

One of the earliest biblical stories explains that Esau sold his birthright to his brother Jacob for a bowl of red stew. (Genesis 25:33) It seemed logical at the time, Esau was desperately hungry and what good was his birthright if he starved to death?

Voting block evangelicals today sell their prophetic birthright to Caesar, for the tinsel and spice of the arm of empire draped over their shoulder in a photo op – a photo that cost $10,000 at a Charlotte fundraiser Aug. 30, by the way.

In Second Samuel in the Old Testament, the prophet Nathan set forth a scenario before King David to secure David’s ruling. In the scenario, a very rich man took the only lamb of his poor neighbor to feed a traveler. David “burned with anger” and told Nathan “the man who did this must die!”

“You are the man,” Nathan told David in no uncertain terms. Because of his courage, and because he did not keep house in the court of David, Nathan was positioned to speak truth to power, and power repented.

Evangelicals today have sold that position for a cot in the court, and a photo op.

 

China exposes toxic effect of Church/State cohabitation

No rule in America says preachers cannot talk politics from the pulpit. No rule says congregations cannot vote to endorse a political candidate. There is no rule that says a politician cannot speak or even “preach” to a congregation – or to a national denominational gathering.

The only “rule” that keeps these obscene church/state liaisons from soiling the carpet in the narthex is something called the “Johnson Amendment” a provision in the U.S. tax code, since 1954, that says any501(c)(3) non-profit organization that endorses or opposes a political candidate can lose its tax-exempt status.

So, with our Constitution still intact at this point, nothing “prohibits” a church from endorsing or opposing a political candidate –except the potential loss of tax exempt status. If you feel it deeply, thenspeak, sing, shout all you want for or against Barrack, Hilary, the Donald or anyone else. No one can stop you, jail you, kill you or eat you.

Since this “prohibition” is in the U.S. tax code, it does mean you put your tax-exempt statusat risk. Gifts to your organization wouldno longer be tax deductible by the donor, and your organization may well have to start paying taxes – something for which the non-religious already areclambering.

Of course, if you really, sincerely, deeply believe Politician X’s promises to make America a safe place to pray again, or that somehow this or that promise maker will protect the church or the good people of your persuasion, a little thing like endangering your organization’s financial future should not stand in the way, should it?

Among those longing for a Johnson Amendment repeal – so that non-profit organizations, specifically churches, can endorse or oppose candidates without financial fear – is the current occupant of the White House and several high profile pastors and theo-political gadflies. A few sane heads are trying to pull back on the reins and help them understand that such an unseemly liaison can only produce bastards.

In the maelstrom and milieu of the maddening desire to prostitute the church on the altar of politics those elements of the Church in America could take a lesson from the Church in China.

According to a recent Associated Press story the Chinese government, under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, is working hard to “Sinicize” all the nation’s religions by infusing them with “Chinese characteristics” such as loyalty to the Communist Party. That includes stripping religious buildings of symbols unique to that religion, closing house churches, and even encouraging Christians in at least one township to replace posters of Jesus with portraits of Xi.

All of that is discouraging enough for God’s children of all faiths.  But this paragraph from the Associated Press story throws up a red flag, neon signs and fireworks warnings to Christians in this country:

“The (Communist) party has long been wary of Christianity because of its affiliation with Western political values.” (emphasis mine)

In other words, entangling your religion with your politics threatens the ability of your Christian brothers and sisters in other lands to worship. Besides being bad for your own church – and nation – it’s bad the world over!

I lead a large adult Bible study class at a church with 500-600 in attendance. During a teacher training session last year, our staff minister asked all teachers what our single greatest issue is while teaching adults.

Every teacher said that it was the intrusion of party politics in any discussion about Jesus’ ministry. When Kingdom issues coincided with news headlines, discussion descended into the secular – interpreting the ideals of scripture through the discord of politics, rather than allowing scripture to speak to the issues and to paint our perspective with the brush of faith.

As said the pastor of a church in Washington, D.C., any time the sermon is about Jesus’s care “for the least of these,” congregants railed against the pastor for supporting Democrats. When the sermon touched on personal responsibility or respect for government officials, other congregants railed against the pastor for supporting Republicans.

Modern preachers for whom the spotlight of their own pulpits burns not brightly enough, are easily manipulated by U.S. presidents who invite them to the White House, ostensibly to seek their counsel and to assure them the president will work the levers of state to facilitate their religious goals.

Although Billy Graham regretted his own fall into that seductive cauldron, many religionists respond to the current occupant’s beckoning to the bright lights. What he really wants is photo ops so that it appears their constituents/congregants support his unchristian assault on immigrants, the environment at many levels, the poor and the disenfranchised among whom Jesus declared the Kingdom of God.

While religionists bask like moons in the reflected light of politicians, such comingling of church and state in this country is the very attribute that makes it difficult for true religion in other countries – and in our own.

 

 

 

Is your trust mechanism trustworthy?

Any call from the “fraud department” of anything will make your stomach clench.

When my credit card company said my account showed unusual charges, and went through them one by one, I knew immediately they were right.

I didn’t buy those things. And I never was at the place where someone else bought them…with my card. I also knew my card was in my wallet and not lost.

I’ve lost my card before, left it in a gas pump. Some trustworthy soul got it back to me. But I hadn’t lost it this time. It was never out of my sight. Or was it?

Dealing as a victim with credit card fraud helps me understand how much of our society functions on trust. And how much trust we’ve lost.

Sitting in a restaurant, we casually drop our credit card onto the little folio that contains our bill. The wait staff takes the card out of our sight, debits our account for the agreed upon amount, and returns the card to us. Right? With no shenanigans while it was out of our sight?

We trust that is so.

We trust a car zooming toward us at 60 miles per hour on a two-lane road, separated from us by only the width of a painted line, to stay in its lane.

As a cyclist, I trust cars and trucks zooming up from behind to see me and wait for an opening to pass without running me off the road.

We trust our produce in the grocery store – laying shiny and naked under bright lights and a misting spray – to be clean and pesticide residue free.

We trust the preacher to interpret the Word correctly when s/he admonishes us and encourages us righteous living. We trust that no one will burst into the service with a gun and kill us en masse.

We trust our spouse to be faithful to his/her vows; our children to tell us the truth; our boss to be fair; our car not to break down; our gauges to tell us how many miles we have left until empty; youth ministers not to molest teenagers; doctors to know what they’re talking about; the gas line into our house not to leak; our politicians not to lie. Oh, wait…

In 1992, we hosted some new Brazilian friends during a professional exchange relating to residential child care. These were worldly wise, educated people from a modern society so this country did not present for them some marvelous revelation of a splendiferous world to which they could only aspire.

But one thing really amazed them: self-serve gas stations. That would never work in Brazil, they said, because people would just drive off. Here, we trusted people to pump their gas, return the hose to its position, walk into the station and pay for the gas they just pumped into their vehicle.

This was before the ubiquitous use of credit cards to “pay at the pump.” We don’t trust people not to drive off anymore. If you’re not paying with a credit card, you have to pay before you pump.

While we lament the departure of trust in our society, we’ve earned its loss. Spouses aren’t faithful, corporations don’t care about their employees, ministers do shatter lives, unlocked cars are victimized, politicians remain politicians.

As trust erodes, we shrink. We stay inside, we hover, we watch and worry, we grow callous and cynical. When we can’t trust the world, we avoid it, rather than explore and embrace it.

And yet, think about how much we actually depend on trust for our society to continue to run smoothly.

We stay in our lanes, put letters into a mailbox, loan a neighbor a tool, send our kids to camp, swim in a community pool, proceed on a green light, flip on the switch, gather in crowds, eat food we didn’t prepare, purchase online, believe what we’re told.

We’re still naïve enough to be shattered when someone abuses our trust. Except, it’s becoming so common we’re getting hardened to it. We avoid disappointment by lowering our expectations. Rather than trusting them, when those persons who command the daily headlines declare – with aplomb and bombast – that they alone hold our best interests at heart, it’s time to lock your doors, hold onto your wallets, and huddle the children beneath your arms.

Trust me.