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.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

At my best, I’m muslim

When I’m at my best, I’m muslim.

Now, before you write First Baptist Church, High Point, and demand they rescind my ordination as a Baptist minister, take a deep breath and hear me out.

I helped to organize a “Stranger to Neighbor” event held Feb. 11, at Anoor Islamic Center in Clemmons, NC. Its sole purpose was to break barriers and to make friends.

About 50 Christians from at least four area churches gathered in the education building behind the mosque willing to put themselves into a new, likely uncomfortable situation to show their neighbors that at least some Christians do not consider them “the other.”

I wanted friends who seldom experience a situation in which they are not the privileged white majority to get a taste of what it might be like to stick out from the crowd. I wanted our Muslim neighbors to know that they have friends in the wider community.

Funny things is, apart from the hijab worn by the ladies, this could have been a Sunday night fellowship dinner at your local church, or lunch at your Rotary Club.

I arrived early to help set up the folding tables, and arrange 10 plastic chairs around each in a loud room with tile floors and cement block walls. We passed out waters and napkins and plastic forks, made sure the sound system worked from the podium, greeted each other, slapped on name tags with table assignments, ordered the pizza and wondered who would show up.

Wide eyed and smiling, my friends old and new came through the door and mosque members greeted them with handshakes and similar smiles. There really was no ice to break. Kids were on their smart phones, adults were asking teens to help with the computer, a teen in an hijab wrote names on adhesive strips and made table assignments.

Aladin Ebraheem opened the conversation and unknowingly provided my opening statement above. “Muslim,” he explained, is an Arabic word that means “fully submitted to the will of God.” So, at my best, I’m muslim. God knows, I’m not muslim enough.

How is it those who follow Islam have become such a target of hate in this country? It is to the advantage of those with a vested profit interest in the machinery of war to keep us on edge, to make us wary of “the other.” The “other du jour” is “Islamic terrorists,” two words stated so easily and frequently together that “Islamic” has become the generic adjective describing “terrorist.” Like Kleenex has become the generic name for a soft paper nose wipe.

The effect is for us to see any practitioner of Islam as a terrorist. That mindset is wrong, misguided, impractical and ignorant. It taints and stains our reactions when we see someone who obviously is Muslim. They know it. How nerve wracking must it be to feel your eyes on them, and to hear the muttering directive to “go home to your own country.”

Since the last national election, our new friends said, a lot of people “have been emboldened” to let their prejudiced, hateful feelings bubble to the surface. The result is hate crimes against innocents.

An armed, uniformed police officer parks at the entrance to Anoor Islamic Center for each service.

So, modeled on a “Stranger to Neighbor” event held by area Methodist churches to get their Anglo and Hispanic congregations talking with each other, I approached the Anoor Islamic center to see if we could have a friend making event. They were immediately open to it, and suggested that they host it, to really push the envelope of comfort.

“We’re cousins,” Ebraheem told the Muslims and Christians in the crowded room, noting that both look to Abraham as a patriarch of their faith. One line descended from Abraham’s son, Isaac; the other line from Abraham’s son Ishmael.

We all bear the nature of Adam, the first man. The weather and the economy affect us equally.

Islam respects Jesus as “a mighty prophet” but does not recognize Jesus as God incarnate, God con carne, God with meat. We worship the same God, but understand and relate to God differently.

There was a question about how and why Christianity is divided into Catholic and Protestant camps. They learned about the universal church, Martin Luther and “faith alone.”

We asked them about Sunni and Shia sects and learned their worship is the same, their divisions are political.

Terrorism? Speaker Dr. Handy Radwan came to the U.S. from Egypt. On each of his first five days as a physical therapist in a Washington D.C. hospital, it was locked down because of an active shooter. His family at home was terrified for him.

This event worked for me. I confess, going to meet mosque leaders for the first time, just as prayers were finishing and I was swimming upstream against a flood of Muslims coming from the mosque, I was intimidated. I was obviously not one of them, and given their logical nervousness over previous threats from people who looked like me, I felt their stares.

All of that lasted only as long as the first handshake. The first shared smile. The first laugh that shredded the curtain of separation.

From a stranger, to a neighbor. It just takes an extended hand.

 

It’s the presence

Sue Ellen agreed over the telephone to marry me.

She lived in Colorado. I was a poor college junior in Oklahoma. Two years earlier, we grew to know each other as volunteers at a Spanish Baptist mission in New Mexico, fell in love, then went our separate ways.

She brought me to my senses a year later, when she came to visit her sister at the same college I attended. We ended up spending a lot of time together, talking about the things that mattered to us. Hours after she left, I woke her dad in Colorado to ask if I could marry his daughter. He asked, “Which one?”

When I told him, “Sue Ellen,” he asked only, “Do you love her?” My “yes, sir,” satisfied him and he went back to sleep. So I called Sue Ellen as she was getting ready for work, 600 miles away, to ask her to share the rest of her life with me.

Of course, I didn’t have a ring to give her, no symbol of my adoration and commitment. She had no diamond for friends to notice, no rock to wave so they could exclaim, “Oh, Sue Ellen,you’re engaged!”

Her mother to this day says she never was engaged. Wearing no symbol, she had only my word…and sure knowledge of our mutual love.

A month later, at Thanksgiving, I saw her for the only time during our engagement. We picked out our plain gold wedding bands in a discount store and dreamed of our future.

In another month, we married at the mission in Española, N.M. Lack of an engagement symbol could not negate the reality of our marriage and of our waking in each other’s presence each morning.

Nor, does the world’s largest diamond guarantee the man who gave it will love you in the morning. Ask Marla Maples or Jennifer Anniston, or any number of women in lawyer’s offices filing for divorce.

After the Israelites had their tails kicked at Ebenezer (I Samuel 4) they sent men back to Shiloh to bring the Ark of the Covenant to camp. “When the ark of the Lord’s covenant came into the camp, all Israel raised such a great shout that the ground shook.” (I Sam. 4:5)

Chin up everyone, God has arrived.

When the Philistines learned the Israelites had the Ark, the symbol of God’s presence, they trembled, remembering the power the Jewish God displayed against Egypt.

But the Philistines reasoned if they quit the fight they would be subject to the Jews, as the Jews had been to them, so they joined the battle. That day, Philistines killed 30,000 more Israelites, and captured the Ark.

Turned out, the Ark guaranteed neither God’s presence, nor His favor.

A few years later, Philistines have another Israelite army pinned down, hiding in their tents from a giant named Goliath. A young shepherd comes to bring some bread and cheese to his brothers in the army, and is embarrassed for them and their comrades because they cower before one man.

When David volunteers to fight the giant, King Saul puts his own armor on the boy, a symbol of authority and strength. Instead, the symbol is heavy and useless for the real battle and he sheds it.

David picks up five smooth stones from a creek bed as he trades trash talk with Goliath, telling him he will cut off his head “and the whole world will know there is a God in Israel.” He runs toward Goliath and drills the first stone into the giant’s forehead and drops him like pulpwood.

David dropped the symbols before he dropped Goliath and enjoyed the presence of God.

Israelite soldiers of the previous generation mistakenly thought the symbol was the Presence.

Sue Ellen never had a diamond, but we’ve enjoyed each other’s presence for 41 years.

In relationships, it’s not the token, it’s the trust.

In worship, it’s not the symbol, it’s the Presence.

Have you ‘settled?’

Because Abraham figures prominently in the origins of the world’s three major religions most of the world knows the story of how he responded without protest to God telling him to “leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.” (Gen. 12:1, NIV)

His unquestioning action – while he was yet named Abram – is held up as an example of how we should respond to God’s calling: immediately, unquestioningly, without reservation. Much is made of the implication that he did not know his destination when he started his journey. “Go to the land I will show you,” says the verse.

We know from further reading that the target land was Canaan.

As God is laying out the challenge, God promises to make childless Abram, age 75, “into a great nation,” and to make him a blessing for “all peoples on earth.” Chapter 12, verse 4 says, “So Abram left, as the Lord had told him.”

One reason Christians argue so much about points made in the Bible is that such points and quotations are read out of context. Reading Abram’s story a little further back, into chapter 11, we see that as a younger man, he had set out for Canaan with his father, Terah, but when the clan got to Haran, the Bible says in Gen. 11:31, “they settled there.” (NIV)

Haran is coincidently a region with the same name as Abram’s deceased brother.

How often have you started on a journey, toward a goal, but you got part way down the road, found good grass and water, and you “settled,” far short of your goal? Maybe you looked back to what you were leaving and halfway was so much better that you were content to plop right there.

Are you living a “settled” life?

If Abram had stayed in Haran, only part way to Canaan, we wouldn’t even know his name today. It’s easy to lose sight of the dream destination. Haran was close enough, good enough, until God said, “Go.”

Going meant leaving behind familiarity, comfort and security. Going meant forging ahead to the unknown. It also indicated belief in God’s ridiculous promise that a childless 75-year-old man would become father to a great nation, and be a blessing to all nations.

Haran was good. “Go” was far better than he ever could have guessed. Haran was three square meals and a warm bed every night. “Go,” was nomadic and uncertain.

Haran was settled. “Go,” was claiming a ridiculous promise, the outcome of which was unknown. Haran was safe. “Go” was fraught with danger, hardship, moral dilemmas and previous occupants in the land Abram was promised.

I don’t know why Abram’s father Terah settled in Haran, without continuing on to Canaan. I suspect he found good grass and water. But a settled life – when God has bigger plans for you – will never bring you deep satisfaction.

There are no old windows in Mainz

During a special anniversary trip to Europe this spring, we visited the ancient German town of Mainz. As with all excursions from our riverboat, we connected with a local guide glad to share his encyclopedic knowledge.

As he led us to the Mainz Cathedral, we entered to admire this gorgeous, active and functioning worship center on which construction started in the year 975. For those of you scoring at home that makes the cathedral 1,041 years old.

It stood during the Crusades. In fact, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa officially announced his support of the Third Crusade from this cathedral in 1188.

Surely the building buzzed with the excitement of Columbus’ discovery of a new world, and it was 500 years old at the Reformation started by Martin Luther.

Just saying that reminds me of how I laughed when President Reagan hosted an international economic summit in 1983 in what was continually referred to as “historic Williamsburg” Virginia. Some of the European attendees worked in office buildings older than Williamsburg.

Moments like these, embraced by walls that hold the secrets of 1,000 years, make travel an extraordinary experience.

We visited the Johannes Gutenberg Museum, honoring the Mainz native who invented moveable type, and viewed some of the most valuable and historically important books in the world.

But Mainz is more than the cathedral, museums and history. During WWII it was an industrial center producing war material for Germany. Because of that, allied bombers tried to turn it to dust.

The war ended for Mainz in March 1945 when the Third US Army occupied it without a fight. Eighty percent of Mainz had been destroyed.

Consequently, as our guide said, “There are no old windows in Mainz.”

That line stuck with me ever since.

Our guides in Germany talked about the war in matter-of-fact tones. They didn’t apologize, justify or defend Germany’s aggression that plummeted the world into war. Simply, “when the war was over” the industrious residents of Mainz understood their city was blown apart. Few elements remained of its life, identify and character.

Everything fragile was gone. There are no old windows in Mainz.

They understood that rebuilding their city was a chance to start over. And starting over meant deciding what to keep, what to restore, what rubble to haul away, what remnant to patch.

They knew that the part of their history created long before there was clearly a Germany or a France was the core of their identity. It was to be the magnet for visitors – like me – to come and marvel at the majesty of the ancient. Their restoration of center city reflects Mainz as it was long before German aggression rained destruction on it.

Today Mainz is a modern economy, centered on tourism and industry once again. It thrives because people are attracted to its core.

No one wants his or her life to be blown apart. But sometimes, exterior circumstances, decisions made by others, mistakes and bad choices of your own cause everything that’s fragile in your life to shatter.

When the majority of everything you’ve known has been blown to dust, but yet you live, you rebuild. Those elements of your life that were fragile are gone, and only the core remains. Is your core strong enough to become the base upon which to rebuild?

Is there a cathedral at the center of your life that stands tall and strong in whatever chaos rains around it? Or have you spent too much time installing glass windows, and putting on display fragile things that will not stand when bombs fall?

Identify your core before the wars which will come. Strengthen it. And when the dust settles, you’ll be standing, still.