Words matter!

There was a book by the great science fiction writer Robert Heinlein that I loved to read. Methuselah’s Children was originally a story which was expanded into a novel. It was the story of an incredibly long-lived family and the struggles between them and the “normal” people who believed that the Howards had discovered a secret of long life and were keeping it from them.

Ultimately the Howards were forced to leave earth…partially driven out by the subtle use of words. The words in and of themselves were not problematic, but when they were put together in specific ways, they were weighted in a way against the Howards that built walls and created separation between members of communities.

We have found out again tonight that words matter. Twenty people have lost their lives–and more may yet die.

Why?

We don’t have all the information yet, but it seems that the young man was angry about what he saw as a Hispanic “invasion” of Texas and hated the thought of “race mixing.” Where did he get those ideas?

When the president of the United States calls people with non-white skin rapists, vermin, criminals…when he separates children with non-white skin from their parents and puts them in cages…when he calls the countries occupied by people with non-white skin “shithole countries”…when he tweets concerns about people with non-white skin “breeding”…he is setting a mood and establishing a perspective that says that people with non-white skin are somehow “less than.”

When he refuses to specifically disavow ideology that raises people with white skin to a superior position over everyone else…when he says that there were “good people on both sides” at a rally where people were killed protesting that ideology…when he refuses to shut down a chant of “send them back” towards women with non-white skin who are American citizens…he is signaling that white Americans are more important than anyone else.

He–and we–cannot have it both ways. The words that we use matter, and when individuals use our words as a reason to harass, assault, or kill any other person simply because of their ethnicity or race, gender or sexual orientation, or religious belief, it is hypocritical to then send thoughts and prayers to the families of the victims and the survivors.

Our words matter…and we have to take responsibility for them. That responsibility starts at the top, but it also includes us. If we do not speak out against those words that build walls, that raise one group of people to a superior position over another, then we are also culpable when someone takes those words to heart and decides that those who are “less than” should be killed.

In the words of a leading Jewish rabbi of the 20th century:

Speech has power. Words do not fade. What starts out as a sound, ends in a deed.

We can choose to make our words end in good deeds…or they can end in tragedies. Which will it be?

What is church?

If you’re like me, you grew up believing that “church” was meeting with like-minded believers in a specific building on Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night–and sometimes every night if there was a series or revival going on.

But what if that’s only a part of what church is?

And what if that’s not even the most important part?

What if “church” is more about our relationships with everyone we meet…whether they share our beliefs or not?

What if “church” takes place at work…on the playground…at a restaurant…in a bar?

What if “church” doesn’t have to have its own building but could be happy meeting in someone’s home…or a rented building…or a park?

What if “church” meant using the money we so often spend to keep the lights on and the air conditioning and heating running and used it to feed the hungry…help provide homes for the homeless?

What if “church” meant sometimes going to jail in order to protest injustice? Or getting together to write letters to (or call) members of Congress to push for less spending on unnecessary military might and more to meet social needs?

Yes, meeting together to worship with like-minded believers is important. But it’s important because it gives us renewed strength to go out and actually “be church” in all the other places and situations we find ourselves.

What if “church” meant we were really willing to pray this prayer…and live it? How would our world be different?

Mission prayer

The plain truth…

I have to admit, I always get a little worried when someone starts out a conversation with words similar to “The plain truth is…”. I wonder if we will agree on what that plain truth is.

But I’m going to try it. Please realize that this is “the plain truth” from my perspective only–but I hope it might spark some thinking and much-needed dialogue.

The plain truth is that most of us live where we live and how much clothing, shelter, food, and safety we have through no initial effort of our own. We were born into specific places–with the blessings and/or challenges that surround us in those places and cultures and we have grown up to think that what we experience is normal.

For those of us who have never needed to worry about where we are going to sleep, what we are going to eat, whether we will survive this day without being shot–or raped–or assaulted in some other way, we often find ourselves thinking that people in those situations “deserve” what they are experiencing–or that they just need to pull themselves up…to work harder, to save more. Then they could live like we do.

But what if we could think–just for a few minutes–what life might be like for us if we were born into a different family…a different culture? What if we were the ones who were afraid for ourselves…our children? What if we were the ones wanting desperately to find some way for our children and grandchildren to have a better future? What if we knew that if we stayed where we were, we were facing assault or death each and every day?

Would something–anything–sound better?

The plain truth is that any of us could find ourselves in those situations.

The plain truth is that yes, there are policies that need fixing–but we are called to work together to try to find ways to make our policies work for everyone.

The plain truth is that every person–even those who look or worship differently from us…who speak different languages from us…and yes, even those who might hate us–are brothers and sisters.

The plain truth is that until we see ourselves in “the other”…until we are able to see the Divine in “the other”…until we are willing to give up some of our abundance that others might have enough…we are living in darkness.

 

 

Dissent and criticism

Dissent and criticism of leaders and the status quo is not un-American. In fact, one could make a case for the fact that they are very American values, since the United States was forged out of dissent and criticism. We were birthed in dissent and criticism of the status quo of being an English colony…and it was not an easy birth. Harsh words were thrown at those who did not agree with a particular viewpoint…and some were literally forced from their homes because they did not agree with actions that were being taken.

We tend to forget that. Our history in some ways has whitewashed the whole process, making it seem inevitable. But it wasn’t. And the founding fathers of the United States were not always nice or polite with each other. In fact, if you read some of the letters and newspapers, they were downright brutal!

And dissent and criticism of the status quo have been a significant part of who we are ever since. Opposition to slavery…those who fought for religious freedom…individuals who fought against the treatment of Native Americans…those who supported the rights of individuals to come to the United States to find freedom and new hope…pacifists…women who fought for the right to vote (and to control their own bodies)… The list could go on and on.

Dissent and criticism of leaders and the status quo are woven into the very fabric of who we are.

And for those who claim to be inheritors and followers of the Judeo-Christian heritage, dissent and criticism are also part of that heritage. The Hebrew scriptures are full of sermons and challenges from prophets who challenged the status quo…who called both the leadership and individuals to be better than they were…to live up to what they said they believed.

Jesus himself challenged the status quo. We have often tended to forget just how radical his teachings and actions were. He challenged not only the leadership of Rome but also the religious (and political) leaders of his own people. He didn’t hold back either:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! (Matthew 23:23-24)

Scribes knew the law and could draw up legal documents. Pharisees were religious leaders (and were also legal experts). Jesus didn’t seem to have much use for their focusing on the letter of the law while ignoring the things that mattered more.

So when we accuse critics of the status quo as somehow being un-American or un-Christian, we’re just plain wrong. We need to hear those voices that challenge us to be our better selves…to live up to what we claim to believe.

We can disagree with how to get there–but we need to be reminded that at one point in our history, people in other countries saw the United States as a place of hope…a place of new beginnings. We took pride in what Emma Lazarus wrote in 1883–and what is mounted on the Statue of Liberty. Those who dissent and offer criticism of what we have become do so because they want us to live up to these words of hope:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

 

Jesus wept…

The shortest verse in the Bible (in some translations) is just two words long: Jesus wept.

Why? Why did he weep at this time?

Jesus had some devoted followers–male and female. Some provided financial support…some shared his message…some gave emotional support…and others provided a place where he could pause and be refreshed.

Lazarus, along with his sisters Mary and Martha, seemed to be among those who provided a place for renewal. And Lazarus had died. We don’t know what caused his death. But the Bible shares an interesting point–when Jesus had gotten word that Lazarus was sick, he didn’t hurry off to the house. He waited two days.

When he arrived, Martha and Mary scolded him for not coming earlier, and also heard their friends asking why he didn’t do something? He wept–and then he went to the tomb…where he returned Lazarus to life.

In our English language, “weeping” carries deeper connotations than merely “crying.” It implies a reaction to an experience that has reached deep inside us–that has touched our hearts and souls.

So…Jesus wept. He wept for the loss of a friend…for the inability of friends to trust him.

But this wasn’t the only time Jesus wept.

He had also wept right after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, earlier in the week.

Why? People had acclaimed him as the messiah…had cheered him and flocked to him. So why weep?

Luke says that he wept because the people of Jerusalem didn’t really understand who he was…didn’t realize what they needed to do to bring / have peace. He wept because he saw the devastation that would come upon them. His soul was touched in deep sorrow for the people he wanted to reach–but who didn’t understand.

And I wonder…today, is Jesus weeping?

When there are children separated from parents and kept in cages without even basic sanitary supplies…

When children of God are called by vile and hateful names simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity…

When other children of God are seen as “vermin” to be exterminated because of their ethnic origin or country or skin color…

When the rich become obscenely richer while the poor struggle for food and shelter…

When we ignore climate change because we don’t want to make necessary changes to slow it–because those changes might make us uncomfortable…

When so many innocents are caught in war-torn nations with no hope of a better future…

When politicians are more concerned about being re-elected than about working together to deal with real problems that affect real people…

When gun violence continues to take lives and all we offer is “thoughts and prayers”…

When words of division, hatred and violence have become the default political language…

When we are unable to see the face of God in everyone we meet…

Then yes, I think Jesus is weeping.

A prophetic challenge for our time

Recently I have seen a number of posts suggesting that because Donald Trump is president, we should all be supportive of him as president and should uphold him in prayer…that even if we do not agree with his policies, hopefully we will learn to be kinder and more accepting as a result of (or in response to) his policies. I wish I could be that hopeful.

Some have also suggested that ministers should keep politics out of what they preach or post or share. While I agree that overt politics have no place in preaching (i.e., suggesting that everyone who is listening should vote a specific way), I cannot ignore the prophetic call within my faith tradition that says this:

Above all else, strive to be faithful to Christ’s vision of the peaceable Kingdom of God on earth. Courageously challenge cultural, political, and religious trends that are contrary to the reconciling and restoring purposes of God. Pursue peace.

There are subtle, yet powerful, influences in the world, some even claiming to represent Christ, that seek to divide people and nations to accomplish their destructive aims. That which seeks to harden one human heart against another by constructing walls of fear and prejudice is not of God. Be especially alert to these influences, lest they divide you or divert you from the mission to which you are called.

God, the Eternal Creator, weeps for the poor, displaced, mistreated, and diseased of the world because of their unnecessary suffering. Such conditions are not God’s will. Open your ears to hear the pleading of mothers and fathers in all nations who desperately seek a future of hope for their children. Do not turn away from them. For in their welfare resides your welfare.

The earth, lovingly created as an environment for life to flourish, shudders in distress because creation’s natural and living systems are becoming exhausted from carrying the burden of human greed and conflict. Humankind must awaken from its illusion of independence and unrestrained consumption without lasting consequences.

This challenge came to us in 2007…but it seems even more appropriate today. I am a minister, and I am both frightened and appalled by what I am seeing happen in this country that I love.

I see an administration whose policies do not bring restoration and reconciliation…whose policies divide people and nations…that calls other children of God by hateful names…that has no empathy for mothers and fathers who are trying to find a better future for their children.

I see an administration that is rolling back environmental protections…overturning policies that have helped Mother Nature begin to recover from our greed and conflict. We are reaching a point of no return…and I am afraid that we are not willing to make the necessary changes before it is too late.

And so yes, I will  pray for the president and his administration. But at the same time, I will also call out those “cultural, political, and religious trends that are contrary to the reconciling and restoring purposes of God.”

And I will continue to “pursue peace”–God’s peace of shalom that brings wholeness, healing, and reconciliation.

I met God today…

I met God today…and God didn’t look at all like I expected!

God smiled at me…in the guise of a small child playing on the playground.

God asked me for help…as a homeless man standing on the corner of the intersection near my home.

God challenged me…in several disguises:

  • as a protestor challenging unjust policies,
  • as a policeman trying to create a safe environment,
  • as someone at church whose political beliefs are very different from my own,
  • as an immigrant struggling to speak English,
  • as a young woman wearing a hijab,
  • as a drag queen reading stories to children in the library,
  • in an angry person, afraid of losing the privileges they have grown accustomed to,
  • as a white supremacist,
  • as a military veteran.

God needed me to stand with her…as a scared young woman who needed to tell her parents she was gay.

God asked me to share in rejoicing…as a same-sex couple committing themselves to each other in marriage….

God asked me to read other books of scripture in which God has shared Godself…telling me that each book of scripture is incomplete because none of us understand God completely.

God asked me one simple favor…to open my eyes so I can see God in every person, because each is created in God’s image.