On #MeToo – Confession & Intention

A few miles from one of our denomination’s church campgrounds is a rather rough-and-tumble bar.  It’s not someplace you’d likely ordinarily choose to stop.  But sometimes bodily urgencies don’t give you a choice.  In that bar, on the way to the restroom, is a large sign, intricately carved in wood, that says, “Sexual Harassment Will Not Be Reported But It Will Be Graded.”

I’m mortified and ashamed that I ever thought there was anything humorous about that sign.

But I did.

And so in my own way I contributed to the untold decades of sexual intimidation and harassment that millions of women are now reporting on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere with the oh-so-poignant and oh-so-horrifyingly simple hashtag #MeToo.

And I realize things that I should have realized and somehow acted on long ago:

  • That I have the luxury of not ever having to think about the daily possibility of being sexually objectified, catcalled, and subject to the very real chance of being assaulted.  But my wife and my daughters and my mother and every woman has had to do so.  And that is simply wrong, and my silence has helped make it possible.
  • That such harassment is only different in degree, not kind, from the daily diminutions and degradations that women deal with:
    • the car salesman who addresses only the husband,
    • the bank whose “policy” puts the man’s name on the mortgage ahead of the woman’s even if she is the one with the larger income and who has done all the work to get to that point,
    • the church folks who don’t “approve” of women pastors or who compliment men’s sermons but tell women ministers they enjoyed their “little talk” and feel free to ask women ministerial candidates offensive questions they would never ask men.
  • That a too-often-ignored fact about our culture’s obsession with guns and our unwillingness to treat it as a public health crisis has meant that simply living in a state with a high rate of firearm ownership increases a woman’s risk of being fatally shot in a domestic violence incident (a woman is fatally shot by her partner every sixteen hours), and the presence of firearms often increases the lethality of attacks.
  • That the unconscionable pay gap percentage between women and men (true of every race and ethnicity and horrifyingly true for women of color) is in its own way an assault.

The realization of these things – and so many more – has convicted me, even if I should have been convicted and should have been speaking out more long ago.

So let me say:  I apologize for my obtuseness and sometimes (honest shame would compel me to say) even willful blindness.  I apologize that I have ever thought jokes objectifying or slandering women were ever funny.  I apologize that I have not highlighted how our major social problems too often disproportionately hurt women (like the opioid crisis).

But apologies without actions are not enough.  Apologies must pave the way for new futures.

So here is my commitment:

  • I will seek to truly listen more carefully and with greater sensitivity when women tell of their experiences.
  • I will call out my acquaintances when they slander, objectify, and verbally assault women.
  • I will not downplay or allow to get lost the distinctive ways that social problems and social policies continue to diminish women and even make them more vulnerable to assault and harassment.
  • I will seek to purge my language of words and phrases whose only use is to degrade women and which have no analogue as applied to men: “shrew” (look up its etymology) or “bitchiness” or “shrill.”
  • I will intentionally teach the boys who may come into my care for an hour or a lifetime that respect for women is not simply “nice,” but is the fundamental way that decent people treat human beings.

There’s more, but perhaps that’s enough to start.   The power and poignancy of #MeToo ought to be paralleled by men who recognize where they have been and done less than they could have and who in tangible ways from now on #WillBeYourAlly.


Weary, Weary, Weary. A Pastoral Letter on the Occasion of the Las Vegas Shootings

I am weary of writing pastoral letters in response to mass shootings.  Bone- and soul-weary. And I suspect that you, too, are weary of receiving such letters.

Over the years, I’ve written such letters in response to the Blacksburg college shootings, the massacre of first-graders at Newtown, and the vile executions of those enjoying a night on the town at Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub.

I am weary.  Bone- and soul-weary.  But not as weary as I would have been if I had written such letters after every one of the 273 mass shootings so far this year, or the 483 mass shootings in 2016, or the 372 mass shootings in 2015, and on and on and on.  Linger on those numbers for a moment — even if they are almost literally unimaginable.  Except they’re not, are they?

I am weary.  Bone- and soul-weary.  And you are likely just as weary.  But none of us are as weary, as devastated, as bereaved as the literally thousands of victims of those shootings and their friends and families, not as weary, as devastated, as bereaved as a child murdered in a crib or a mother taken from her children or a man who will never walk again because we as a nation, as a people, will not confess that we have failed in the most basic test that Jesus offered: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  We have not protected that grieving mother, that bereft spouse, that dead toddler in the way that we would want those whom we love protected and safe from the depredations of our unwillingness as a people to face and rationally deal with the greatest public health crisis of our day.

I am weary. Bone- and soul-weary of the easy availability of assault weaponry — that has no place outside of war — which kills our police officers and make their jobs infinitely more difficult, of a sick surfeit of the kind of guns that have no legitimate civilian use, of it being harder to get a building permit to erect a fence or get a driver’s license or than it is to purchase a weapon of mass destruction.

Please understand: I am not “anti-gun.”  Most of the hunters I have known feed their families on the meat that they obtain through hunting and respect the enormous privilege they have of carrying a deadly weapon.  I have fond memories of bonding with my father when he first showed me how to fire a shotgun when I was a teenager and we were visiting a friend’s ranch, or when my brothers and my dad and I spent long-ago afternoons plinking at soda cans with an air rifle, or when my brother-in-law took me skeet shooting.  I like to shoot and though it has been awhile since I have done so, I would happily do so again sometime with someone who could re-teach me what I need to know about gun safety.

But in none of those cases was a semi-automatic weapon necessary.  Nor was a high-capacity clip.  Nor was ammunition that was designed solely to shred the human body or punch through brick and mortar.  Now, please hear me:  I am not advocating, as the slur so often goes, “taking your guns away.”  Frankly, there are very few people that take that position and those who would inflame you to think so are offering damnable lies.  My own theological understanding is that we live in an imperfect world and, short of the Kingdom that is promised, we will sometimes have to use instruments of violence to protect the innocent.  But that reality is never, ever a justification for not doing everything that we can to make sure that how and to whom the instruments of violence are available honors what we know about what will keep the most people safe.

Because that, my friends, is precisely what the issue is: safety.  We are in the midst, as I say, of a public health crisis.  The good news is that Americans have typically been very good at addressing and ameliorating public health crises — polio no longer threatens with each new summer and AIDS is not an immediate death sentence.  My plea is simply this:  that we would use our knowledge and experience to address this crisis as a public health emergency, for I am convinced that we would have far fewer such shootings when reasonable precautions are put in place for the kinds of weaponry and ammunition that are available.  We know how to do this.  We do.  What we have lacked is the will and the respect for our fellow countrymen and -women to make it happen.

And as Christians, my plea is that we follow Jesus’ example of always, always seeking to protect the vulnerable.  After all, He is the One who said it was better to be dropped into the sea tied to a millstone than to harm a child.  There is far, far too much harm afoot these days, harm that could be avoided even if short of the Kingdom there will still be evil that occurs.  But we can do better.  There are those that say if someone’s heart and intent is evil, he or she will find a way to act on that intent and will find a weapon to do so.  That is likely true.  But let us not lose nuance here: had the Las Vegas gunman been armed with throwing knives instead of — as the police are now reporting — both semi- and fully automatic weapons, a huge portion of those 500+ dead and injured would still be alive and well.

I’m weary, bone- and soul-weary.  Our Lord and Savior invites me and all to “Come, all you are weary.”  But then, then, He says go back into the world to love, to care, to protect the vulnerable.

We can do that so much better than we have done.  We can.

We must.

Already and Not Yet: A Reflection for Juneteenth

by Chuck and Barbara Blaisdell

It is commonly (and correctly) observed that Christians are to live between “the already” and “the not yet.”  That is, in Christ we have been shown that God is a God of unconditional love for each and all and that that love cannot and will not be defeated even by death. But that Good News is also “not yet,” for too many people still do not know of that God but only the lesser gods of jugmentalism and self-justification.   Likewise, too many people are also denied the justice that is also God’s expectation for each and every creature God has made.  If all we knew was “the already” then that would be a license for complacency and smugness.  If all we knew was “the not yet,” then it would be hard not to despair in a world where too much evil is perpetrated upon the innocent, where women can be assaulted and then re-assaulted in the courtroom and the press while their attackers go unpunished, where terrified children suffer and die on the shores of distant oceans and nearby sidewalks because of mean-spirited fears.

Today is Juneteenth.  In some ways it is the American civic analogue of the theology of “already/not yet.”  Too many white Americans may not yet know the story: on June 19, 1865, a military commander announced to the people of Galveston and the state of Texas that those who had been enslaved were free.  Just as with too many who don’t yet know a God of love for all people, the word of emancipation came late; Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had been effected on January 1, 1863.  But then, as too often nowadays too, Texas was a latecomer to to “God’s truth is marching on.”

Juneteenth, then, is the celebration of what has been done – that in the eyes of the United States of America there is to be no caste by race, no subjugation of one color to another, no human being ever to own another human being again.  That has been accomplished. But, of course, Juneteenth is also “not yet” — the great historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr., points out in detail that is heartening and painful just how the message of Juneteenth both spread and was resisted by both overt racists and those who think that racism is a thing of the past.  Every American should learn more of the meaning of Juneteenth and give thanks for “the already” and be spurred to make “the not yet” an ever-nearer reality.

The message of Juneteenth is also a powerful portent, promise, and prod to Americans to make its “not yet” ever more a reality for every religion, race, class, and orientation. America still has too far to go in living out that promise as we mourn today a child murdered virtually in sight of the Capitol simply for being a Muslim. We hear voices of Muslim American children who have learned and cherish the American dream in a way that ought both inspire and shame us.

The prophet Isaiah, himself announcing “the not yet,” foresaw a day when “a little child will lead them.” May that day be now, as the voices of those Muslim children remind us of who we are called to be and as the celebration of Juneteenth reminds us that we are called to be one people, under God, with liberty and justice for all, for all.

For ALL.

May it be so, sooner than later.

Happy New Year! Musings on Traveling and Tree Trunks


Every country and culture have their own distinctive ways of celebrating the new year.  In parts of South America, people walk around inside their homes carrying empty suitcases.  They do so hoping that the upcoming year will provide them ample opportunities to travel. It is believed that the faster one walks, the farther he or she will travel.  In parts of Siberia, it is the custom on New Year’s Day to jump into a frozen lake while holding a tree trunk.  Both of these got me to thinking:   I too am carrying around a suitcase, but this one is not empty.  It’s full, even over-full, and too often I find that I am carrying around with me old regrets, past mistakes, what-if’s that I keep re-playing in my mind, words I wish I hadn’t said, opportunities I regret not taking advantage of, the good that I could have done but failed to do.  Too often that over-laden suitcase then indeed seems to morph into a heavy tree trunk which I seem destined to hang on to as I plunge into a chilly new year.

But I’m hoping not to hang on to it, and I hope you aren’t either.  For while there are no New Year’s messages to be found in the Bible, there is the grand and glorious good news that has been born to us in this season:  that the coming of Christ can make all things new, that you can be freed from the guilt and shame of past mistakes, that new life, new hope, and new ways of living are indeed possible — that you can unpack your suitcase and look to load it up instead in the new year with acts of love, acts of hope, acts of courage, acts of joy.  You can see your life, as I said in a sermon a couple of weeks ago, “as a gift to be un-wrapped and not a burden to be borne.”

So, dive in – but empty that suitcase, put that heavy tree trunk down.  For as the hymn we sang on Christmas morning says: “Light and life to all He brings, risen with healing in His wings…. Born that we no more may die… Born to give us second birth.”  May you indeed know the joy and possibility of new birth in the coming year, luggage lightened, burdens given over to God.  Happy New Year!


And We Are Numbered Too: On Not Sanitizing the Story – A Christmas Reflection

In the first decades of the first century, Christianity did not spread as fast as it might have because to those Greco-Roman folks outside of Palestine, the idea that God would have come to earth as a baby to a no-name couple who didn’t have the money to find more seemly transportation and who were so poor they couldn’t even book the Bethlehem Motel 6 seemed ludicrous. The Apostle Paul talks about “the scandal of the cross” – that God’s own Son would die such an undignified death – but it is also accurate to say there was also the “scandal” of God down in the dirt in the muck and messiness of life, the “scandal” of a God choosing to be made manifest in the pain and sweat of childbirth.

For you see the mythological “gods” of the Greeks and Romans were aloof. They had little to do with human beings unless it was to occasionally come to earth to torment some poor soul. And their birth stories are downright bizarre and anything but human: The goddess Athena was born from Zeus’ head. Zeus seduced the goddess Hera by disguising himself as a cuckoo bird (although I’m not sure why that was seductive!). He gave birth to Dionysus from his thigh. These “gods” weren’t very nice folks, either: Cronus swallowed his children when they were born; Zeus escaped but family systems theory apparently rings true even in the Greek pantheon for he not only swallowed his children but also his pregnant wife. One wonders why followers of such so-called “gods” would see the Christian nativity narrative as unseemly (!) but they did, and they mocked early Christians for worshiping such a low-class God who would suffer such self-debasement as to come into this world in the guise of a squalling infant.

But in the face of such mockery, let us say this: Thanks be to God that that is how it happened! The birth story of Jesus reminds us ever and always that God is indeed not aloof from creation, not un-caring, but so loved this world that God became one of us. And that is always, always our reminder that we should never seek to go too far in sanitizing the story, in making Jesus so transcendently winsome that He does not know what it is like to live as a human. For as a professor of mine long ago said, “If God is only transcendent, such a god doesn’t really care for us; but if God is only human like the rest of us, such a God is unable to save us.” But the Christmas story as Luke tells it is indeed the story of a God who is both all-encompassing unconditional love and a human life that is born and lives in the way that all humans get themselves born and live. It is the story of both the magnificent transcendence of stars and angels, and the down-to-earth realities of grubby shepherds and smelly animal stalls.

And again let us say: thank God for that. The very human Jesus – born to parents under the dominion of an oppressive empire, soon to be refugees fleeing government-sponsored terror – reminds us that the children of Aleppo, and the children who go to bed hungry in this community, and the scores of teenagers in this city forced into the streets by their parents when they reveal their sexual orientation, and the millions of children who die each year around the world for lack of clean water are our brothers and sisters too. And we dare not so sanitize and “transcendentalize” and pretty up the story that we love Jesus but not these other ones as well. For the unconditional love of God for each and all and God’s demand for justice to each and all did indeed come to earth to save us and to challenge us to share that love and help enact that justice.

Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph were headed to Bethlehem in response to what he called the “first census” ordered by the governor. But, my friends, it is not the last census. For Christmas comes to us as a wondrous gift, “veiled in flesh the Godhead see,” as the carol puts it. It comes to us as amazing and unstinting grace, whereby you and I have been grafted on to God’s people who also knew that grace from the summit of Mt. Sinai. But it also comes to us, as it were, as a new census; for you see, we too are invited to joyfully and gratefully number ourselves among those who will continue the work of that Babe of Bethlehem.

Shall we?

From a sermon preached on Christmas Eve at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Colorado Springs, Colorado


Will We Be So Damaged? Thoughts on November 9 and the “Facebook-ization” of Our Lives

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing to you, Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (Psalm 19:14 CEB)

I have to tell you: I am worried.  I am worried that we as God’s people have found ourselves increasingly incapable or – worse! – unwilling to submit our thoughts and our actions to the standard the Psalmist offers us as we have moved through this election season.  I am worried that come the day after the election on November 9 we may find that we don’t know how to return to words and actions that we want to be pleasing to God and instead all we will know how to do is offer and applaud the worst of personal attacks and slurs.  I am worried that the bonds of affection, love, care and grace that have united us as the people of God may be so strained that they will no longer hold us together as one body in Christ.

Some of this I lay at the feet of Facebook and Twitter and the like.  It’s just impossible to have a sustained, thoughtful, nuanced discussion of ideas when the whole point is to make things as short and as barbed as possible.  The Twitter phenomenon, I believe, has touched us all, whether or not you know a tweet from a twerp, and has inevitably if subtly pushed all of us into more pointed, less nuanced, and often more attack-oriented language.  And I cannot imagine that God finds that pleasing.

The Facebook phenomenon is even more pronounced and has more affected our lives. Worldwide, there are almost two billion Facebook users.  Over half of those folks log on daily, and worldwide every day almost five billion Facebook posts are made.  In the United States, 20% of all daily website visits are to Facebook.  But it’s not just Facebook’s enormous reach that has led to a terrible trend in our culture, it’s something else: First, Facebook has redefined the notion of what a “friend” is in a way that is simply shallow and at odds with the Christian life. What happens is this: More and more, your “friends” become only those people who approve of what you post.  Which means that more and more your views go unchallenged; more and more you are inhabiting an echo chamber where only variations of your own voice are ever heard.  More and more, walls are built up between people, more and more people compete to have the most inflammatory post that their circle of “friends” can “like” and the cycle spirals and continues and worsens.  And I cannot imagine that God finds that pleasing.

Secondly, more and more we define who are our “friends” by whether we “like” their politics.  And with all of that comes less and less nuance, less and less of an ability to see that most people and most issues are painted in complex shades of gray and that no candidate is a saint or a devil.  But I want to challenge you: I know that in my life – and I hope it is true in yours – the best friends are those who don’t simply serve as your personal echo chamber, who love you enough to say when they believe you are wrong, who care enough about you to try hard to understand you and do you the honor of taking you seriously – which means never just accepting what you have to say as gospel just because you said it.  Do you have a friend like that?  The Facebook phenomenon is making it harder and harder for that to happen.  And I cannot imagine that God finds that pleasing.

There’s a third troubling thing about the “Face-book-ization” of our shared life together: “binary thinking.”  When someone posts something on Facebook you are invited to react to it – to either “like” or (by your silence)“dislike” it.  But where is the button that you can push that says “I find part of what your saying to be true and helpful, but part of it seems misleading to me”?  Or the button that says “You make a good point but I think that you have misstated a certain position.”  But being either a responsible citizen or Christian demands of us that we be able to think about complex things in complex ways. The more that binary thinking has dominated the airwaves, the internet, and the media, the more you and I, again, get subtly but insidiously captured by it – and the more our real-life relations and our ability to think hard and complexly about difficult and complex things will suffer. And I cannot imagine that God finds that pleasing.

Fourth and finally, the echo chamber where we only listen to our own views and the effect of over-simple binary thinking that doesn’t do justice to complexity also subtly but inevitably has led to something that would make Jesus weep: we too often no longer listen to one another in order to understand each other, but simply in order to attack each other.  As Justice Clarence Thomas puts it (not someone I often find myself quoting!!),  “We have decided that rather than confront the disagreements and the differences of opinion, we’ll simply annihilate the person who disagrees with us.”  Or as Gary Peluso-Verdend, President of Phillips Theological Seminary, puts it, “We have fallen into the trap of turning opponents into enemies and failed to look for [God’s] image in the faces [even] of persons whose moral stances we deplore.”  And I cannot imagine that God finds that pleasing.

There WILL be times when mature, sincere, thoughtful Christians will disagree.  But our claim to follow a Lord who was born of an unwed mother, whose family had to flee for their lives as political refugees from terror, whose understanding of God led Him to a death as the victim of unjustly-used governmental power means that our faith absolutely ought to affect what we think about family planning and immigration and refugee issues and what the limits of governmental reach and the role of governmental power should be – and which candidate we should vote for. If your faith or mine doesn’t prod us to think about these things – and not just echo the nasty, mean, shrill, over-simple sound-bites all around us then it is a faith that too cheap and it is too easy.

But: We WILL sometimes disagree on the specifics.  We will even disagree on whom to vote for who will best carry out our beliefs and convictions about all these things and so much more. But the question that we have today and will have come on November 9 is this: Will this season in our nation’s life so have damaged us that we cannot come together around the Table of our Lord to celebrate his mercy to us together?  When all is said and done in this season of our electoral lives, I hope that the answer will continue to be that it is the image of God through Jesus Christ – the One who demanded that we always, always care for the “least of these” – who is stamped on your soul and mine.   I don’t want to bear the image of hateful anger to certain folks.  I don’t want the image that is on me to be forever tarnished by a campaign that has too often invited glee and gloating – from all sides – at the heights of nastiness and meanness that are abounding around us.  I don’t want us to think only in over-simple ways about some of the most distressing and complex of issues.  I don’t want us to see those with whom we disagree – sometimes profoundly – become “enemies” to be annihilated.

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing to you, Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”  On November 9 – and every day! – will you join me in praying this prayer in all the tough moments of our lives?  Will you join me in trying to live up to what God hopes of us as a people instead of living down to the standards of a too-often hate-filled world?  Will you join me, in Peluso-Verdend’s words, in vowing to drink less “deeply from the well of anger, fear, and resentment” and more often “from the well of kindness, compassion, and love”?


I am grateful to the Rev. Barbara Blaisdell for conversation and her insights which helped spark and contributed to this post and sermon.

From a sermon (text or audio) preached at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Colorado Springs, Colorado, November 6, 2016.

Ears To Hear….

21922-1-gridbox-hearingaid2-420x344-ljc I recently got a hearing aid.  The genetic lottery gifted me with the same condition that my father had which includes significant ringing in one ear (called tinnitus) and seriously diminished hearing in that ear along with more slowly diminishing hearing in the other ear.  After a couple of years of increasing frustration (and frustration from the people around me at how I was more and more saying “What?” or “Say again?”), I consulted a wonderful audiologist.  After some extensive testing, he recommended one hearing aid for the worst (and ringing) ear, and he fitted me with a tiny gray sliver of over-the-ear electronics with its little cord that goes into my ear canal (I can now pretend I am a Secret Service agent).  The experience has been the occasion for reflection along with the realization or reminder of certain things:

  1. This experience has reminded me that diminishment of our physical capabilities over time is impossible to deny. Before she died, my mother used to say “I get up in the morning and look in the mirror and say ‘Who is that old lady and when did that happen?!?’ Because in my mind I’m still twenty-five!”  Every day I appreciate my mother’s wry wisdom more and more.  But I also know I have a choice: to focus on those physical foibles, looking backward instead of forward, anxious about what tomorrow brings in the face of knowing that I have many more yesterdays behind me than I have tomorrows in front of me.  Or, I can give thanks for the wondrous gifts that increasing years also bring:
  • I can focus on how my love and appreciation for my wife Barbara is more profound, deeper, and passionate with each passing season.
  • I can revel in the amazing people that our now-adult children have become.
  • I can know that some of the things I once drew lines in the sand over were either really not worth fighting about or were the wrong lines.
  • My increasing years now give me the opportunity to give thanks for and nurture those things that bind people of good heart together instead of the things that divide and inflame and scare.
  • I can take joy at being of an age and station that I find deeply satisfying offering the fruits of my experience in ministry to those new to ministry as I once was and as I once was blessed by such mentors.
  1. My hearing aid is not perfect. I want it to be.  I want it to magically restore my ears so that I have 20/20 hearing, like I did when I was a child and could hear the summer’s ice cream truck from several counties away.  But it won’t do that.  And that has caused me to realize that pining for the perfect is a way of avoiding the possible.  We do not yet live in the Kingdom; on this earth we will make imperfect choice amidst situations where there is no clarity much less perfection to be had.   Our motivations are never as pure as we think they are and none of us can claim the perfect moral high ground.  To insist that we can do nothing because we can’t do the perfect makes Jesus weep at all the good that you and I fail to do because we are pining after the perfect instead.  To fail to offer love to our neighbor because it won’t be perfectly reciprocated is to fail our faith.  So, even with my new hearing aid, I can’t hear perfectly, but I can hear the call of Christ to — in the lovely words attributed to the founder of the Methodist movement John Wesley – “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”
  1. In the last couple of years I found more and more that I didn’t quite get what people were saying and so I often simply assumed what they were saying, interpolating into their words something that wasn’t necessarily there at all. That experience has made me realize that all of us – whatever our aural acuity – do the very same thing too often.  We hear what we want to hear, or, more exactly, we often hear what fear is driving us to hear.  We look for the “real” truth behind something someone says.  We succumb to conspiracy theories instead of offering the presumption of good faith.  We read and pass along vile things said about good people that are forwarded to us or posted on Facebook, demonizing fellow brothers or sisters in Christ and fellow children of God.  And, again, Jesus weeps.
  1. The extra acuity that has come from my new hearing aid has been a joy. I’m less frustrated.  People are less frustrated with me.  But when the semi-truck is alongside me in full air-brake mode, or when the car adjacent at a stoplight has bass notes that could be heard on Mars, I’m really grateful my hearing has a tiny little mute button.  I don’t need to hear those things.  They do me no good.  And – what about you? – I also need to sometimes mute some of the noise in my life:  the noise of cynicism and jadedness that tries to seep into my soul, the noise of those voices that shrilly seek to scare, the noise of a consumer culture that incessantly coos at me that the way to happiness is always and only more and more stuff, the noise of those who mistakenly say that to be faithful is to erect better barriers instead of building better bridges.  I need to mute those noises.  Will you join me?

In Psalm 40, the Psalmist talks with gratitude about who God is and what God has done for him, saying “You’ve opened my ears so I can listen” (verse 6, The Message).  But the original Hebrew is much more earthy than that; it says of God, “You have dug out my ears.”[1]  My continued prayer, for you and for me, is that God will continue to cut through the din around us with the sounds of grace unconditional and love everlasting and justice and hope for all people.  Those are the sounds I want to keep hearing ever more clearly and want to be moved by ever more nearly.  May God dig out our ears that we may hear those sounds with clarity and convincingness!

[1] It was the Reverend Barbara Blaisdell who put me on to this wording in one of her always-marvelous sermons; she in turn notes that she gives credit to Dr. Fred Craddock for this translation that he offered in a lecture where she was present.

Use Your Words…On Fatal Fearfulness & Not Fighting the Wrong War

I have been thinking a great deal this past week about the phrase “second-class people.” I have been thinking about it after reading our church’s Student Associate Minister Darryl Searuggs’ marvelous sermon on July 3 in which he reminded us so eloquently that what we celebrate as Independence Day might even be better called “Interdependence Day” since our great country and any of its highest achievements could not have been possible without people of good will and noble aspirations depending on one another.

I have been thinking about that phrase “second-class people” as I have watched with horror and dismay and profound sadness at the events of the last few days. Two young black men shot to death, one of whom was simply doing exactly what I can recall doing on those occasions when I’ve been stopped by the police while driving – reaching for my wallet. And five police officers murdered in a cowardly despicable rain of terrorizing bullets, the videos of which reminded me more of scenes from Beirut or Bagdad than the United States.

I have wondered what all of these things have in common, and the answer I have come to is this: it is the continuing legacy of racism that continues to cause some people to be treated as second-class.  Such racism is rooted in the fear of “the other,” the “different,” that continues to cause some people to be treated as “second-class.”

I do not believe that when Officer Yanez shot Philando Castile as he reached for his wallet it was because he intentionally decided that the man was “second class.” No, the unconscious, unintentional but oh-so-real legacy of racism was even audible in his voice as he realized the results of his actions. His was a fatal fearfulness. The man who decided to terrorize what had been a peaceful protest – and after all, America itself was born in protest – by murdering white police officers is also an unintentional byproduct of a history of racism that has yet to be dealt with or even too often acknowledged.

Does this mean that he or Officer Yanez were not thereby responsible for their actions? By no means!  Every one of us is capable of choosing to transcend the worst that is in us, things that are in us that our best selves don’t want there – like the fearfulness born of the racism that is part and parcel of American history. But we are able to transcend, we are able to face the fearfulness inside us so much better when we do it together.  Darryl’s sermon said it succinctly: we need each other. We need each other to help make each other better people. We need each other to help overcome the fearfulness that corrodes our souls and our society.

To do so, we must forswear the slogans and the bumper-sticker gotcha’s that simply inflame the fearfulness. Despite the prattle of certain pundits, there is no “war on police,” and such language only fans the fearfulness in the face of the actual fact that killings of police were down dramatically last year. And there is no intentional “war on black lives.” Yes, there are some who would applaud such a war but I believe that the true threat, the real threat to black lives – similar in many ways to  earlier eras of American history when there was also a real threat to Irish lives and German lives – is borne out of that unacknowledged, un-confronted and too often unconscious institutional racism that has birthed a judicial and penal system that is utterly unfair and founded in fear.

So let us not fight the wrong war:

  • If there is to be a war, let it be a war on racism.
  • If there is to be a war, let it be a war on refusing to confront the feckless fearfulness that causes some lives to be treated as second-class.
  • If there is to be a war, let it be a war on acting as if all of us don’t need each other.
  • If there is to be a war, let it be a war on the too-easy availability of assault weapons that put our police and our fellow citizens at mortal risk every day.

I am convinced, because I claim Christ as my savior, that such battles can be won. I am convinced that even though Paul’s words are not yet true on this earth – “that there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female,” and, we may add, black nor white – you and I can help make them more true as we do all we can to make sure our words and our actions do not exacerbate the fearfulness that only leads to death. Dallas mayor Mike Rawlings on Friday night said “Use your words carefully. If it’s from the pulpit, from the political spectrum we need to use good words….”

He’s right.  May God help us to do so.

Adapted from a sermon preached at First Christian Church  (Disciples of Christ), Colorado Springs, Colorado, July 10, 2016.

Cornbread Hermeneutics – How to Read (and not to read) the Bible

It’s one of the things that skeptics of Christianity so often say: how can Christianity be true when the Bible is so “contradictory”? If you Google the phrase “Is the Bible contradictory?” you will get a half a million hits and thousands of those hits are webpages devoted to cataloguing the apparent contradictions in the Bible. On the face of it, though, the critics have a point. You can indeed find through both Testaments assertions that seem at odds with each other. In fact, let me name just a handful: In the story of King David, God purportedly sent a prophet to threaten a famine if David did not do as God wanted; but one place in the Bible says it was to be a seven-year famine and another place says it was to be a three-year famine. When Ahaziah becomes King of Israel, was he twenty-two years old or forty-two?  King Solomon apparently really liked his horses; one book in the Bible said he had four-thousand stalls in his barn, but another says he had forty-thousand. I would hate to have the job of cleaning either number of stables! Perhaps that’s why the scripture also tells us that King Solomon built a palace containing a lot of bathrooms – two thousand by one account, but over three thousand by another.

We could go on and on, and all those websites do, at great and persnickety length. What do we do with the fact that indeed the Bible often does indeed seem to have contradictory facts? To begin to answer that question, let me go to what will seem a most unlikely subject: the history of cornbread in America. Recently, the Charlotte Observer newspaper published a fascinating story whose opening question was why is there such a great divide between those who put sugar in their cornbread and those who don’t. But then the story goes on to delve into a number of different interrelated facts that suggest that the burning issue of sugar-or-no-sugar is also related to the differences between African American and white recipes, whether cornmeal is water-ground or stone-ground, the economics of white cornmeal versus yellow cornmeal, and the difference in recipes depending on how influenced a particular area was by the colonial British. The article also noted that over four centuries, cooks both white and black had played, as all cooks do, with their recipes – adding this, subtracting that, mixing it this way or mixing it that way, cooking it on the stove or an oven, and so on and so on. The point? The recipes for how you make cornbread are not static, once-for-all things but are composed by cooks who are in a living conversation about and adaptation of the tradition handed down to them. That sentence is important so I’m going say it again: cornbread recipes, like all recipes, are not static, but are the product of a conversation with and adaptation of the recipes handed on to them and which new cooks will in turn hand on.

My friends, that fact about cornbread is also the most important fact about how we should understand the Bible and its purported contradictions. The most important thing to remember about the Bible is that the Bible is a four-thousand year old document whose origins goes back even further and which is the record of many different voices with many different “takes” on who God is and what God wants of humanity. In short, the Bible is a long-running conversation, not a book of computer source code, not a phone book (remember those?) where you run your fingers over the page to find a bit of information.

And this also means that just as those cornbread cooks received, adapted, and handed on their recipes – sometimes disagreeing with the way previous cooks had done it! – so to the Bible is the record of many voices who sometimes are in disagreement with one another.  When Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount that “You have heard that it was said… But I say to you….” he is not repudiating the principles of Judaism. Nor is he, as too many people have tragically wanted to claim, rejecting his own Jewish people. No, what he is doing is what the writers of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, had constantly done and which was faithfully recorded in the scripture: they are having a conversation, even arguments sometimes, with the tradition in the service of that tradition, in the hopes of making it better.

With cornbread, you argue with the tradition of recipes handed on to you for the sake of making tastier cornbread. An what Jesus is doing is arguing with the Biblical tradition for the sake of making the gracious love of God for each and all even more fully known. When Jesus responds the way he does, he is participating in the conversation in the same way that the Bible records the very different points of view of the Book of Ruth, on the one hand, and the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah on the other. Perhaps you remember: After the Hebrew people returned from their exile in Babylon, Nehemiah and Ezra wanted to “purify” the people and they issued edicts that no “foreigners” could immigrate to the land and, in fact, those who were already there must be deported. They even demanded that Jewish men who were married to non-Jews divorce their wives and send them away. Yes, that’s in the Bible.

But so is the Book of Ruth which is a counter-argument to Ezra and Nehemiah for it is the story of God’s faithfulness and love and care being beautifully demonstrated precisely by a foreigner! Both points of view are in the Bible. Are these “contradictory”? No. Only in the shallowest sense. They are much better understood as two parts of an ongoing conversation which the compilers of the Bible had the courage to leave in so that we too could learn from that conversation and participate in that tradition – and now have the opportunity ourselves to decide whether we will be more like Ezra and Nehemiah, operating out of fear and wanting to “purify” society or whether we will be more like the story of Ruth, recognizing that God works in and through all kinds of people.

Many of us have probably seen on a bumper sticker or have had slung at us the over-simple slogan “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” Do you begin to see why such a point of view simply doesn’t do justice to this marvelous, complex, tradition-infused book? And, of course, the understanding that I’m offering here is just not something you can reduce to a bumper sticker or slogan.

Which leads me to a second point: In addition to pointing out that the Bible is the record of a conversation not just a book of rules, the Bible is also the conversational record of a growing understanding of the universality of God’s grace. The trajectory of the development of cornbread recipes is towards better and better tasting cornbread, right? (You probably wouldn’t want to eat 17th century campfire cornbread whose recipe included ashes from the campfire). The trajectory of the Bible is an ever-clearer witness to God’s not being simply the God of one tribe or one group and that God does not wish evil and hurt on anyone – for God is the loving creator of everyone. The conversation recorded in the totality of the Bible moves towards an ever-widening the circle of grace.

There are some harsh passages in the Bible about women. 1 Timothy tells women that they are to be “submissive” (a passage, by the way that in the hands of too many male clergy has had the awful effect of telling women that it is their “Godly duty” to put up with physical violence). In one of his letters, Paul famously says that in church women should be silent and submissive and are not permitted speak; to do so, Paul says in 1 Corinthians, is in fact “shameful.” (1)  But these are not the only witnesses in the Bible by any means; there is a whole other side to the conversation. There are powerful women portrayed in the Hebrew Bible and there are also powerful women of faith in the New Testament. Even Paul himself seems to be of two minds about this, depending on whom he is writing to and what their situation is. In his very last letter, the mature Paul seems to have decided which way the conversation needs to go in order to advance: He greets several folks at the end of that letter including “Priscilla,” whom he names as a fellow minister or servant along with him. What’s more in that same mature letter to the Romans, Paul also singles out for praise a woman by the name of “Junia,” and calls her a fellow Apostle along with him. In other words, to use a phrase made sadly and tragically of late, Paul decided that “love wins” – and that the attitude he expressed when he said “there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, but all are one in Christ” is the attitude that is truest to a God of universal love for each and all, a God of ever-widening inclusion, not of exclusion.

And now it is our turn. Just as the cook is invited into the long-running conversation about how to prepare cornbread, and is invited to recognize what is good about that tradition and make it his or her own but also adding to that tradition in the interest of tastiness – so too are you and I always and ever-invited into the conversation that is the essence of this sacred book. And true conversations are never about sound-bites and slogans, true conversations are not the ones where you are not really listening but simply waiting to contradict your conversation partner. No, the best conversations are the ones that advance your understanding, advance your ability to act honorably and justly in the world as you bring to bear on the tradition your own mind, and heart, and deepest beliefs about what is good and right and just.

The famous passage from Timothy about scripture is usually translated “Every scripture is inspired and useful for teaching….” But I believe that the alternate New Revised Standard Translation (captured in the footnote to the text) is much more true to the trajectory of the Bible: “Every scripture inspired by God is also useful for teaching….” Do you hear the profound difference? In the second one we are invited into conversation and the discernment about what is truly of God and what isn’t. Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, put it this way: “Just like the cradle is not the baby, the Bible is not the word of God but it contains the word of God.” And so the Bible’s conversation challenges us to ask ourselves if Psalm 137’s statement “How blessed will be the one who grabs your babies and smashes them on a rock!” (NET Translation) is truly inspired, truly reflective of the love of God for each and all, or does it reflect the writer’s anger at being enslaved and deported to Babylon? When the Book of Leviticus offers tips about selling your daughter into slavery (Leviticus 21:7), is this truly inspired of God, does it truly contain the Christ of unconditional love, or might it best be seen as an early part of a conversation in which a primitive people engaged in acts which we rightly now abhor?

Yes, the Bible is a marvelous, sometimes soaring, sometimes wonderfully comforting book. But it also has in it, as part of a four-thousand-year-old conversation items which are not “inspired,” which do not “contain the Christ,” in Luther’s words. But it also has within its pages the very principles by which those less-than-worthy characterizations are transcended by an even more inclusive understanding of the love of God for each and all and the demand for justice God has for each and all. This, I believe, is the touchstone for evaluating any Biblical passage as either truly inspired of God or not. Or as my wife, the Rev. Barbara Blaisdell, so eloquently puts it in her marvelous study companion to Peter Gomes’ book The Good Book, “…the God that arises out of the best of the Bible comes through compellingly as a God of love and justice and liberation and healing and hope.”

It is indeed our turn to add to the conversation. For as we have seen so horrifically in the last week, there continue to be those who would cite a handful of Biblical passages from a very different place and time and culture, citing them as if they were all-purpose Chinese fortune cookies, to say odious things like those murdered and maimed in Orlando had it coming for they violated “God’s Word” [sic]. One Sacramento pastor even praised the killer and called for celebrations and the killing of more gay and lesbian folks.

But let us be clear, we have a choice: we can side with Ruth over Ezra and Nehemiah in favor of the increasingly widening circle of God’s unconditional love, or we can deem some folks as less worthy of God’s love and therefore less to be mourned when they are slaughtered, and less to be loved when they are in our midst. Does the Bible contain contradictions? Yes it does – but they are the contradictions that are part of a conversation that shows the ever-expanding awareness that God is a God of unconditional love for all people and a God of justice for all people. You can’t fit that on a bumper sticker. But all of us can offer our own witness that the Bible is ultimately a testimony to a God who indeed is love for all, and to the Son God sent who, as John 3:17 says, came into the world “not to condemn the world but that the whole world” – the whole world! – “might be saved through Him.” May it be so.

From a sermon preached at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Colorado Springs, Colorado, entitled “I’m Not Sure About a God…. 3.  Whose Book Seems So Contradictory.”

(1) Of course, the Rev. Barbara Blaisdell has this cautionary note that what I have said is in fact an over-simplification:  “Paul had actually addressed the question of women speaking in the church earlier in 1 Corinthians…. Only the question in chapter 11 is not whether women should speak or not – that seems to be accepted as a given – but rather a question of wardrobe. Should women wear modest head coverings, as was the practice of the day, or did freedom in Christ mean that they were also liberated from this custom? Paul writes, ‘Any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head…’ (11:5) Paul seems perfectly comfortable with women speaking in church if they get the wardrobe right. A woman preacher is fine-as long as she wears a hat!” From email correspondence June 17, 2016.

“Once to Every…” – A Time for Confession & Action

I grew up in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and remember being taught that it was a point of pride that because of our congregationally autonomous structure, we were the only American denomination not to split over the issue of slavery during or before the Civil War.  I am now saddened and shamed that I ever shared that pride in the fact that our Disciples forebears hid behind an organizational sleight-of-hand and did not take a stand when a whole race of God’s people were being brutalized and dehumanized by the abomination of chattel slavery.  I also fear – and am also shamed by — the fact that I likely would also have been among those who prized such specious unity over offering a Christian witness in the face of what President James Madison first called “America’s original sin.”

But such hindsight can be too easy and too cheap when it does not lead to clearer vision for the present moment and a clearer understanding of what the Gospel of Jesus Christ means and requires.  Our Disciples of Christ emphasis on the freedom of opinion and interpretation is a powerful and even counter-cultural stance in a world that so insists that only the like-minded ought to have anything to do with each other.  Our insistence that we find our unity in Christ at His Table despite our differences remains a powerfully attractive witness by those who know that God’s love is for each and all.

Yet anything, no matter how good, no matter how well-intended, can also become an idol that is destructive.  As I said in one of my sermons, an “idol” is simply something that has a power over you that it has no right to have.  And that has happened:  the good of a commitment to the freedom to interpret has become an idol when it helps contribute to a climate that has culminated in the vicious murders and maimings of almost a hundred of our brothers and sisters in Christ.  The Reverend Kevin Wright has said better than I can how this has happened.  Read and ponder his words:

Every time Christians refuse to bake a wedding cake or offer commercial services for LGBTQ folk, or rush to qualify their ‘tolerance’ with a reminder that it still doesn’t mean that they approve of the ‘gay lifestyle,’ they are saying that there is something less acceptable, less moral, and less equal about those individuals in comparison to themselves. These small refusals contribute to a larger cultural dehumanization of LGBTQ individuals, and when we make LGBTQ people less human, we allow ourselves and others to make them more expendable, more disposable, and more killable.[1]

Moreover, in accepting the tacit dehumanization of LGBTQ folks, we also harden our hearts to the dehumanization of all kinds of the “other”:  African Americans, Muslims, Hispanics.  Now, I earnestly believe that no one reading my words intends to contribute to such things.  And yet I invite you to join me in honestly asking ourselves whether our language about “tolerance” and freedom of opinion has in fact inadvertently contributed to the climate that helped make possible this horror.

It is time to move beyond the shibboleth of “freedom of opinion” and its puny cousin “tolerance.”  My congregation‘s Personnel Policy says this:  “The church does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, age, national origin, ancestry, disability, sexual orientation, or familial status.”  And we have regularly said that we intend to be a church where all are truly welcome.  It is time, though, I believe for us as individuals and as a church to go beyond such passive language to provide a full-throated, unambiguous, active and emphatic statement to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered folks who are our brothers and sisters in Christ.  I hope that we will say:

  • You are not just ‘welcome,’ you are wanted.
  • You are not just ‘accepted,’ you are loved.
  • You are not just ‘free’ to worship, you have gifts to share with the Body of Christ

I hope that we will say “We want you to help us make sure that our language and actions never inadvertently contribute to your dehumanization.”  Most of all, I hope we will say “You are safe here.”

How do we do that?  For most of my ministry, I believed it was important that in the interests of protecting “freedom of interpretation” that a congregation make no “official” statements concerning any particular theological stance.  If that was ever correct on my part, I now believe it no longer is.  The events of Orlando have made that view obsolete and even odious.  I intend, therefore, to ask our congregation’s Board to begin looking at initiating a study and action process to hopefully explicitly become what in the Disciples is called an “Open and Affirming Church.”  That is one way in which we can begin to truly signal that we truly care about all of God’s people, all of our brothers and sisters in Christ – especially those who are under such threat simply for how God made them and who God made them to love. But it is also important that each one of us individually examine our hearts.  I would therefore invite you to join me in honestly, if painfully, asking yourself if our language and attitudes have unintentionally contributed to the situation that Rev. Wright so wrenchingly describes.  Can we vow never again to laugh at a joke that is told at the expense of a fellow brother or sister in Christ because of their sexuality?  Will we speak up when folks slam and slur “those people” with falsehoods and lies?

A great, haunting, marvelous old hymn of the Church says this:  To us all, to every nation, comes the moment to decide.  In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side; Some great cause, God’s new endeavor, offering each the bloom or blight.  And the choice goes by forever ‘twixt that darkness and that light.”[2] I do NOT want us to recapitulate our forebears’ terrible mistake.  I DO want us to ever more fully extend the love, the hope, the safety of the Gospel to those who are so often demeaned.  The choice that the hymn speaks of is before us:  Please, God, do not let that choice go by us forever; please let us choose for the good.

Adapted from “Once to Every….”  — A Pastoral Letter to Members and Friends of First Christian Church

[1] https://www.facebook.com/RiversideNY/posts/10154274695586133

[2]To Us All, To Every Nation,” Chalice Hymnal, No. 634 (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1995)