Welcome to Lent

This is my favorite introduction to the season of Lent, taken from a book by Henri Nouwen called Show me the Way. Lent is a hard season for us because it represents a call to repentance, reflection and a handful of other things we’re not so good at. Still, taking 40 days or so to think about Christ’s work in our lives before we dive into the happy hymns and chocolate bunnies of Easter can’t be a bad thing. Here’s the quote:

“God’s mercy is greater than our sins. There is an awareness of sin that does not lead to God but to self-preoccupation. Our temptation is to be so impressed by our sins and failures and so overwhelmed by our lack of generosity that we get stuck in a paralyzing guilt. It is the guilt that says: ‘I am too sinful to deserve God’s mercy.’ It is the guilt that leads to introspection instead of directing our eyes to God. It is the guilt that has become an idol and therefore a form of pride.

Lent is the time to break down this idol and to direct our attention to our loving Lord. The question is: ‘Are we like Judas, who was so overcome by his sin that he could not believe in God’s mercy any longer and hanged himself, or are we like Peter who returned to his Lord with repentance and cried bitterly for his sins?’

The season of Lent, during which winter and spring struggle with each other for dominance, helps us in a special way to cry out for God’s mercy.”

Isn’t that beautiful and haunting and challenging all at the same time? I tend to think so much of my own failures that I forget that my sin is not the point. God’s grace, given to us through Jesus Christ, is the true point of my life’s story, and yours…and yours…and yours.

We live out that struggle between the seasons on a daily basis, between the cold and death of winter and the restored and rediscovered life of spring. Between the awareness of just how far we stray from God, and the shock at what he has accomplished in order to draw us near. Lent is our time to pause and take notice of what is happening around us and in us. It’s not just for self-reflection, though that’s a key part of it. Lent is a time to sharpen our focus on Christ and his world, on the needs of people around us, on the gifts we’ve been given to meet those needs, and to discover all over again the hope that we have because of the Easter miracle.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Easter will come, but for now we try to re-create the sense of conviction that being in God’s presence prompts in each one of us. To repent and ask for forgiveness. And to anticipate that day when life wins the battle once and for all.

Welcome to Lent.

Neck-Deep in Privilege

Let’s get into it.

The events in Charlottesville deserve the special attention and sense of immediacy they’ve provoked over the past week or two. Why? Because the issue of racism in America is persistent and destructive, of course, but also because so many of us have the option of turning our face away when it doesn’t directly affect us. Maybe that’s the most important new lesson I’ve learned in this—I may bristle at the jargon that litters the rhetoric of social activism, but I have no doubt about this one fact:

My life is an example of what it means to be a privileged white American.

I’m a 54-year-old white guy from a nice suburb. In the dictionary under “privileged”, there could be a picture of me with my family. A few months ago I was pulled over for speeding while driving with my teenaged son. As the officer came toward the car I showed my son what he should do if this ever happened to him—I put my hands on the wheel and I narrated everything I did before I moved a muscle. When the officer went back to his cruiser I told my son that black dads had to have a very different conversation with their sons—that a simple ticket for speeding could lead to some pretty awful outcomes. I tried to communicate how unfair that was, which doesn’t always ring true when you’re on the lucky side of unfair. But it’s more than that.

The simple fact that I can turn my focus to something else if I choose is what the concept of privilege is all about. As a seminary president and pastor of a church, if I chose tomorrow to launch a series of talks or articles on what it means to be a Christian, without reference to the call to take up the cause of the marginalized and oppressed, the overwhelming majority of the people I serve would be just fine with that.

The essential privilege of being a white American is the freedom to choose what outrages me, and to look away from the rest.

It’s not enough for me to say that my privilege is accidental. Of course that’s partly true, just as it’s true for those who are born tall or smart or pretty or strong. But my accidental privilege has its roots in something intentional and evil. We still need to be reminded that the African-American experience in this country is different from other immigrant narratives. My grandparents came to America from Italy to build a better life and to escape from the Second World War. Most blacks in this country are the descendants of men and women who were kidnapped, sold (and re-sold), and bred for lives of brutal slavery. It’s for that reason alone (though there are others), the only proper Christian response to being unfairly privileged is to recognize it and wherever possible, surrender it. At the very least I believe the call on me is to exploit my privilege to benefit someone else.

All of this is rooted in the Christian faith. We believe as Christians that the person we know as Jesus existed eternally with the Father and the Spirit as an expression of God. The choice to become human—the Incarnation—was also the choice to give up the benefits of being God; in Jesus, God “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant”, and through that sacrifice showed what God was really like—who God really is. (See Philippians 2:1-11)

It is the Christian’s task and calling to show the world what God is like. We share the words he spoke and we try to live by the ethics he taught, but we can’t in the process forget the example he set. Christ emptied himself in order to love fully and to restore completely. Our calling is the same.

Faithful Christians have been trying to address these issues for years. Back in 1973 a group of evangelicals reaffirmed the Christian responsibility for creating a more just and loving America. At the heart of the statement is this critical line:

“We deplore the historic involvement of the church in America with racism, and the conspicuous responsibility of the evangelical community for perpetuating the personal attitudes and institutional structures that have divided the Body of Christ along color lines.”

I know that it’s hard to reconcile the evangelicals who wrote that sentence with the odious vandals who desecrate the faith in our own cultural moment. But they were real and that confession is every bit as true today as it was 44 years ago. Where the church of Jesus Christ—you know, the one who gave up being God for us—when the Church of Jesus is responsible for dividing the faithful by color, it’s tempting to want to tear the whole thing down and start over. But that would be missing out on what the transforming power of the gospel can do in our churches and in our lives.

It’s not enough to deplore our sinful history. We’re called to repent that sin and allow God to show us a better way. That begins with learning to see the world through another person’s eyes. It’s about asking questions—it’s about reading people you might not normally read. It’s about letting your guard down long enough to hear someone else’s story. It’s about surrendering the choice to turn your attention—and your heart—away.

It is astounding to me that there are still white supremacists in this country, and that their history is tolerated as casually as it is. The thing is, it’s been easy to ignore them because, well, they weren’t coming after me. But maybe they are. Maybe when a Confederate flag waving hatemonger attacks my black neighbor, my Jewish neighbor, or my Muslim neighbor, that violence is being done to all of us.

Until I learn to see it that way, I will be living neck-deep in my swamp of privilege.

Remembering V-E Day

Today (May 8th) is the 72nd anniversary of V-E Day, commemorating the end of World War II in Europe. The war in the Pacific would drag on for another four costly months, but on this date in 1945, citizens and leaders of the Allied nations celebrated the defeat of Nazi Germany. Part of me wants to write something about this, but it occurs to me that anything I might say will be from an enormous distance of time and experience. I never had to join the military. I never had to put my life on hold or give it up completely, in violent conflict.

But I benefited in some ways from those who did, and so I can’t let this day go by.

So I’d like to give the stage to two of the leaders who faced their enemies and made decisions that I can neither fathom nor judge. On May 8th 1945, Winston Churchill and Harry Truman addressed their nations and the listening world to announce the end of the war in Europe. I haven’t edited these speeches…they deserve to be heard in their own time and form. Thousands of people…both military and civilian…from America, Britain and Japan…would die after this celebration ended, and both leaders speak with an eye toward the task still at hand.

And yet each is beautiful…and appropriately terrible…in its own way. I invite you to give them a read, and also to heed President Truman’s call to prayer. Today is a day for sober reflection and moderate celebration.

Blessings to you this V-E Day.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill
May 8, 1945 London

My dear friends, this is your hour. This is not victory of a party or of any class. It’s a victory of the great British nation as a whole. We were the first, in this ancient island, to draw the sword against tyranny. After a while we were left all alone against the most tremendous military power that has been seen. We were all alone for a whole year.

There we stood, alone. Did anyone want to give in? [The crowd shouted “No.”] Were we down-hearted? [“No!”] The lights went out and the bombs came down. But every man, woman and child in the country had no thought of quitting the struggle. London can take it. So we came back after long months from the jaws of death, out of the mouth of hell, while all the world wondered. When shall the reputation and faith of this generation of English men and women fail? I say that in the long years to come not only will the people of this island but of the world, wherever the bird of freedom chirps in human hearts, look back to what we’ve done and they will say “do not despair, do not yield to violence and tyranny, march straightforward and die if need be-unconquered.” Now we have emerged from one deadly struggle-a terrible foe has been cast on the ground and awaits our judgment and our mercy.

But there is another foe who occupies large portions of the British Empire, a foe stained with cruelty and greed-the Japanese. I rejoice we can all take a night off today and another day tomorrow. Tomorrow our great Russian allies will also be celebrating victory and after that we must begin the task of rebuilding our hearth and homes, doing our utmost to make this country a land in which all have a chance, in which all have a duty, and we must turn ourselves to fulfill our duty to our own countrymen, and to our gallant allies of the United States who were so foully and treacherously attacked by Japan. We will go hand and hand with them. Even if it is a hard struggle we will not be the ones who will fail.

President Harry S. Truman
May 8, 1945 Washington DC

THIS IS a solemn but a glorious hour. I only wish that Franklin D. Roosevelt had lived to witness this day. General Eisenhower informs me that the forces of Germany have surrendered to the United Nations. The flags of freedom fly over all Europe.

For this victory, we join in offering our thanks to the Providence which has guided and sustained us through the dark days of adversity.

Our rejoicing is sobered and subdued by a supreme consciousness of the terrible price we have paid to rid the world of Hitler and his evil band. Let us not forget, my fellow Americans, the sorrow and the heartache which today abide in the homes of so many of our neighbors-neighbors whose most priceless possession has been rendered as a sacrifice to redeem our liberty.

We can repay the debt which we owe to our God, to our dead and to our children only by work–by ceaseless devotion to the responsibilities which lie ahead of us. If I could give you a single watchword for the coming months, that word is–work, work, and more work.

We must work to finish the war. Our victory is but half-won. The West is free, but the East is still in bondage to the treacherous tyranny of the Japanese. When the last Japanese division has surrendered unconditionally, then only will our fighting job be done.

We must work to bind up the wounds of a suffering world–to build an abiding peace, a peace rooted in justice and in law. We can build such a peace only by hard, toilsome, painstaking work–by understanding and working with our allies in peace as we have in war.

The job ahead is no less important, no less urgent, no less difficult than the task which now happily is done.

I call upon every American to stick to his post until the last battle is won. Until that day, let no man abandon his post or slacken his efforts. And now, I want to read to you my formal proclamation of this occasion:

A Proclamation–The Allied armies, through sacrifice and devotion and with God’s help, have wrung from Germany a final and unconditional surrender. The western world has been freed of the evil forces which for five years and longer have imprisoned the bodies and broken the lives of millions upon millions of free-born men. They have violated their churches, destroyed their homes, corrupted their children, and murdered their loved ones. Our Armies of Liberation have restored freedom to these suffering peoples, whose spirit and will the oppressors could never enslave.

Much remains to be done. The victory won in the West must now be won in the East. The whole world must be cleansed of the evil from which half the world has been freed. United, the peace-loving nations have demonstrated in the West that their arms are stronger by far than the might of the dictators or the tyranny of military cliques that once called us soft and weak. The power of our peoples to defend themselves against all enemies will be proved in the Pacific war as it has been proved in Europe.

For the triumph of spirit and of arms which we have won, and for its promise to the peoples everywhere who join us in the love of freedom, it is fitting that we, as a nation, give thanks to Almighty God, who has strengthened us and given us the victory.

Now, therefore, I, Harry S. Truman, President of the United States of America, do hereby appoint Sunday, May 13, 1945, to be a day of prayer.

I call upon the people of the United States, whatever their faith, to unite in offering joyful thanks to God for the victory we have won, and to pray that He will support us to the end of our present struggle and guide us into the ways of peace.

I also call upon my countrymen to dedicate this day of prayer to the memory of those who have given their lives to make possible our victory.

A Rant for Today

In the discussion over so-called “religious liberty”, the point has been made that I should be more tolerant of the views of Christians who are more socially (though arguably NOT biblically) conservative than I.

I’ve been wrestling with that because the argument is compelling, at least on the surface. But let’s consider the story below, excerpted from the website of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“When Bob Huskey’s health began to deteriorate, his husband, Jack Zawadaski, knew time was short. Jack made plans with the funeral home to transport and cremate Bob’s body. He prepared himself for the inevitable. He signed the paperwork. He said goodbye. But the day Bob died, the funeral home refused to transport his body. It told Jack it doesn’t ‘deal with their kind’.”

Now I’m being asked to be tolerant of the actions of the funeral home because they claim that their behavior is rooted in their Christian faith. We’re going to examine that assertion in a moment, but for now I’m wondering if that logic would hold for other variants of belief, Christian and not. Would I feel the same instinctive revulsion under other circumstances? For example:

If an atheist funeral director denied a Christian the same services that were denied to the gay couple in the story?

If a racist Christian denied service to a black customer, presumably of any faith?

If a Democrat told a grieving Republican that she was not welcome in his business?

Part of me wants to say that the market should be allowed to correct this over time. People who behave like this are asses who lack the compassion we expect as a part of the social contract. But macro-answers aren’t adequate for the individual wounds this practice would cause in the meantime. The more basic question at hand is this:

Does being tolerant include being tolerant of these cruel kinds of acts?

I don’t think it does, at least not from my understanding of Christian faith. From a Christian point of view there is no valid expression of our faith that calls for incivility toward those we perceive as faithless or (more on point) enemies.

Much has been made of the bakery that denied service to a gay couple. In practical terms, there is nothing about denying someone a cake with a rainbow on it that rises to the level of “freedom of religion”. Worse, you can bet those bakers aren’t denying too many pastries to customers who are gluttons, something with a lot more biblical proscription behind it.

No matter what one believes about homosexuality, there is nothing even tangentially Christian about being a jackass to gay people. In fact, there is an overwhelming biblical witness that argues precisely the opposite, including words from the savior of the universe himself. I have to say that the real intolerance on this issue is using the gospel of Jesus Christ to defend one’s refusal to bake a cake with a rainbow on it.

And that’s the root of the problem for me. I can understand committed Christians who struggle with homosexuality on biblical terms, but those same biblical texts are absolutely crystal clear on how people of Christian faith are meant to interact with others—the Bible calls them “neighbors”—who hold different or even opposite views. Let’s look at what the Bible actually says, not about any individual sin, but about how we’re meant to treat each other.

Matthew 5:43-48 seems pretty on-point, with Jesus saying the loving one’s enemies is a God-like behavior he’d like us to have.

In Luke 10:25-37 Jesus turns our ethical models upside-down when he uses a culturally unacceptable person (a Samaritan) as the hero in a story about understanding who our neighbors really are.

In John 4:4-14 Jesus meets another Samaritan, this time a woman (another cultural no-no) and shares a drink of water with her.

These are not miraculous stories of Jesus, rather they are prescriptive texts for Christian behavior. Each of them (and others) demonstrates that faith in Christ calls us to tolerance for the other—and frankly, it doesn’t sanction shrill calls for tolerance of us when we fail in our Christian ethics.

That’s important, because what we have now is a group of Christians who are failing in these most basic Christian behaviors, and asking the secular government to protect them in the name of “religious liberty”.

Now I would never say such a thing, but I can imagine Jesus asking just who in the hell they think they are.

For now, though, we’re left with this accelerated erosion of Christian witness in the public square. Don’t get me wrong—it happens plenty on the left, and the point of this whole blog is to call out both when needed. But today and under the current Administration, it is the Christian right wing that is embarrassing the faith. It is the conservative wing of the church that overwhelmingly supported a cruel and thoughtless man for president, and is using him to further non-Christian objectives in the name of Jesus himself.

I take it back. Who the hell do they think they are?

Welcome to Lent

Below is my favorite introduction to the season of Lent, taken from a book by Henri Nouwen called Show Me the Way. Lent is a hard season for us because it represents a call to repentance, reflection and a handful of other things we’re not so good at. Still, taking 40 days or so to think about Christ’s work in our lives before we dive into the happy hymns and chocolate bunnies of Easter can’t be a bad thing. Here’s the quote:

“God’s mercy is greater than our sins. There is an awareness of sin that does not lead to God but to self-preoccupation. Our temptation is to be so impressed by our sins and failures and so overwhelmed by our lack of generosity that we get stuck in a paralyzing guilt. It is the guilt that says: ‘I am too sinful to deserve God’s mercy.’ It is the guilt that leads to introspection instead of directing our eyes to God. It is the guilt that has become an idol and therefore a form of pride.

Lent is the time to break down this idol and to direct our attention to our loving Lord. The question is: ‘Are we like Judas, who was so overcome by his sin that he could not believe in God’s mercy any longer and hanged himself, or are we like Peter who returned to his Lord with repentance and cried bitterly for his sins?’ The season of Lent, during which winter and spring struggle with each other for dominance, helps us in a special way to cry out for God’s mercy.”

Isn’t that beautiful and haunting and challenging all at the same time? I tend to think so much of my own failures that I forget that my sin is not the point. God’s grace, given to us through Jesus Christ, is the true point of my life’s story, and yours…and yours…and yours.

We live out that struggle between the seasons on a daily basis, between the cold and death of winter and the restored and rediscovered life of spring. Between the awareness of just how far we stray from God, and the shock at what he has accomplished in order to draw us near. Lent is our time to pause and take notice of what is happening around us and in us. It’s not just for self-reflection, though that’s a key part of it. Lent is a time to sharpen our focus on Christ and his world, on the needs of people around us, on the gifts we’ve been given to meet those needs, and to discover all over again the hope that we have because of the Easter miracle.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Easter will come, but for now we try to re-create the sense of conviction that being in God’s presence prompts in each one of us. To repent and ask for forgiveness. And to anticipate that day when life wins the battle once and for all. Welcome to Lent.

In the Scottish Book of Common Order there is a prayer designated for today, for the beginning of the Lenten season. Make it yours as you begin this sober journey that leads to the Cross, to the empty tomb and beyond.

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing that you have made, and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent. Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that, lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, we may receive from you, the God of all mercy, perfect forgiveness and peace. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

On Refugees, Transgender Kids, and Lost Sheep

Today I’m thinking about the Parable of the Lost Sheep.

“See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven. What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.” (Matthew 18:10-14)

Jesus is revealing something about his character here, and I think it bears on some of the things we’re hearing in the news. What Jesus describes here is pretty counter-intuitive, right? A shepherd, essentially a small business owner, leaves 99 (potentially, literally, the lion’s share) of his sheep behind to go and chase the one who left. Not only that, but he does it joyfully and lovingly and in full awareness of the risks involved.

Now this being a parable and all, we’re supposed to look for the inner meaning—the reality behind the story that tells us something about how we’re meant to live. Sheep, when they’re gathered in a large flock and protected by a shepherd, are as safe as they can be. But a lone sheep wandering off the margins is weak and in danger of being devoured, and so it becomes a symbol for anyone who is beyond the relative safety of community. We’re meant to notice how the shepherd responds to that lone, lost sheep.

I say all that because our Christian faith is often guided by small and manageable logical statements—think the “if/then” equations we used to do in school. Here’s a common one for Christians: “If we’re supposed to be imitators of Christ, and Christ does something, then we’re meant to do that thing, too.”

Here’s why I bring this up. Refugees and recent immigrants and transgender kids make up, oddly, about 1% of the American population, leaving the other 99% percent of us to make a decision about how we treat them. It is an undeniable truth that each of those three groups face marginalization and dangers simply because of who they are; they live under the constant threat of being devoured, physically and socially. In the Parable of the Good Shepherd, the character that represents Jesus the Messiah risks everything to bring that lost sheep back to safety—he revels in the joy of leaving his safe place behind and making sure that 1% of his sheep are protected.

You can see where I’m headed with this.

This is less about partisan politics than it is about speaking Christian gospel to power. Jesus risked everything to make sure the 1% weren’t marginalized, and gave everything to redeem us all. We represent not only the 99% of this story, but also the Good Shepherd. If we’re supposed to be imitators of Christ, then we’re supposed to be imitators of Christ. Not everything is that simple, but this one is.

Christians can vote whichever way they choose, but once that vote is cast, the unmistakable call on each of our lives is to call and hold our elected leaders to principles that reflect the one we call Savior. We do that even when (maybe especially when) those gospel values run contrary to those of our government or culture. Anything less is the worst kind of compromise. Anything less makes us the unseen danger of the Parable of the Lost Sheep, instead of the faithful disciples of the shepherd.

So yeah, I’ve been haunted by the Parable of the Lost Sheep today. How about you?

Today We Have a Headcount

(I’m giving myself room for one angry lament today.)

Today we have a headcount.

As many of us—most of us, in fact—have been shocked over the last 18 months at the petulant incivility of Donald Trump, the hardest part has been trying to understand why someone would support a man like him.

Now at least we have a sense of the scope of the problem.

I knew that my country had a race problem.

I knew that women in this country had a legitimate complaint about the way they were treated.

I knew there was a simmering level of hatred toward those who were perceived to be threats to our society: gays, Muslims, people who wanted access to health care.

I knew that too many had disconnected the nostalgia for our immigrant parents and grandparents from the immigrant who lives next door.

I knew that too many of my fellow Americans were bitter, fearful, angry people.

I just never knew how many, until now. It looks like the final count will settle at right about 60 million. I hope I never lose the feeling of being stunned by that number.

There are, as I see it, three main categories of Americans who voted for Donald Trump.

The first group truly believes in his rhetoric and vision for America. They are afraid and angry. They rail at a system they don’t understand, but from which they have benefitted immensely. They don’t like anyone who isn’t like them. They match their hatred of Islam only with their ignorance of its principles. The men among them think they are entitled to grab the genitalia of women with impunity.

As strange as it is to say, I can live with knowing that this group exists. I always figured that they were out there, and I didn’t care as long as they weren’t in the majority. It’s not the Trump True Believers I loathe right now—that’s reserved to the other two groups.

Because the decisive balance of Trump’s support came from Americans who either slavishly voted their party line over their conscience, or who hated Hillary Clinton so much that even Donald Trump seemed acceptable.

This was never a contest over policy, it was a referendum on decency, and 60 million of you failed.

If you have daughters, may you face them with embarrassment and regret, as you have now given men in this country—or at least the President—permission to greet them in the most appalling ways.

If you’re raising sons, I’m curious to know just what exactly you will teach them about what it means to be a man.

If you have gay friends or neighbors, may you fumble for words to explain your choice, and not break eye contact until you have absorbed their pain and suspicion of you.

If you’re lucky enough to have a Muslim friend, may you have the courage to ask any number of questions you should have asked before you cast your vote.

Still, as a historian, I have hope.

This country survived the Civil War and Reconstruction. It came through the Depression and the Second World War and fought its way through the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War. When our democracy seemed fragile, as during the Vietnam War and the Richard Nixon and even the Bill Clinton scandals, we pulled together and found new ways to live as Americans.

All of that seems like a quaint and distant memory today, though I still believe we can do better.

There’s a lot that is broken about our country—racism, sexism, homophobia, and the abandonment of our own working class come to mind. But we’ve had bigger problems than those, and we’ve had bigger problems than Donald Trump and his 60 millions. Now is the time to lick wounds, love our neighbors, regroup, and peacefully claim back the country we thought we had.

At least we know the scope of the task before us.

Today we have a headcount.