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)

Language Matters

Language matters….

Technology over the last generation or two has made automobiles much less like to kill or maim you or someone else in an accident. But we don’t call that “Car Control,” we call it “Automotive Safety.”

Fifty years ago, infants too often died when they got their heads stuck between the bars of their cribs. Since then, better crib specifications have cut such deaths dramatically. But we don’t call that “crib control,” we call it “Crib Safety.”

Those of a certain age will remember that playgrounds used to have all sorts of dangers on them that were easily remedied by better design and construction techniques. But we don’t call that “Playground Control,” we call it “Playground Safety.”

Children die far less often than they used to from accidental prescription drug overdoses when curious fingers found a bottle of pills in their homes; two-handed caps have made a big difference. But we don’t call that “Pill Control,” we call it “Drug Safety.”

Those of us who see the continued horrific cycle of gun violence deaths and injuries as first of all a public health crisis — which we know how to alleviate and ameliorate — should vow never to use the words “Gun Control.” No, as with cars and cribs, the issue is not “control,” it is making the world a safer place. When those of us who wish to have better public health laws to deal with gun violence use the phrase “gun control,” we inadvertently play into that American wariness of those who supposedly want to limit freedom. But the issue here is not “freedom,” and no advocate of sensible public health laws regarding gun violence is advocating taking away guns from responsible gun owners and hunters (just like no one is advocating “coming for your cars” because seat belt use is thankfully required in the interest of both public safety and fiscal conservatism).

Because, as one philosopher once said, “language makes our world,” I have vowed in such discussions to not use the phrase “gun control” again. The issue at hand is not about “control,” it is about public health. Let’s attempt to have a nuanced and non-slogan-slinging discussion of “gun safety.”


In the Ash There Is…. – A Communion Meditation for Ash Wednesday

The man who, in the student protest movement of the late ‘60s, coined the phrase “Never trust anyone over thirty,” will soon celebrate his 76th birthday.

The computer animation company Pixar, known for its wonderful work in movies like “Toy Story,” “Finding Nemo,” and “Cars,” is full of young and talented people both behind the scenes and in the films. One of them remarked recently on his Facebook page, my wife, the Rev. Barbara Blaisdell, reported to me, that when he sees people in their 30s and 40s, he thinks “hospice care.”

On an internet discussion board where I participate, several twenty-somethings remarked that it was weird and creepy to see folks in their 50s and 60s engaging in public displays of affection.

I have sometimes remarked – in the midst of creaking knees and an occasionally recalcitrant back – that while I wouldn’t want to be 25 again, for just one day I would love to have the body of a 25 year old again.

But I haven’t been given that choice.

And, likewise, more rapidly than he ever thought possible, the man who wasn’t going to trust anyone over thirty is now well more than twice that age. And those twenty-somethings who find public passion among their elders to be unseemly will discover more quickly than they ever can imagine that they will soon be among those ranks themselves. And while this 60-something, thanks be to God, is not quite ready for hospice care, the undeniable truth is that life is indeed mortal and transient. Or as the church has put it on Ash Wednesday from the ancient of days, “From dust thou have come and to dust thou will return.”

The one thing that liberals and conservatives, scientists and mystics, atheists and theists can agree on is that we shall die. And that is partly why we gather for an Ash Wednesday worship service, to be reminded of and to acknowledge that fact in the midst of a culture that does everything it can to avoid that reality and that worships youthfulness. And yet I understand why some people dislike and avoid Ash Wednesday.  Why, these folks ask, would you ever want to come together and take an hour of your life and acknowledge that your life will end? It’s not something most of us need reminding of! Physical death has touched virtually all of us, and all of us have likely known the death and diminution and diminishment of dreams. Do we really need to acknowledge that in this way in worship?


For here is the key to why we come and why we indeed acknowledge together what we all have known and experienced: such deathliness, such “ashiness,” as it were, such diminution and diminishment is not the final word. Our culture worships youth because it does not know the truth of life abundant and life eternal, it too often denies the wisdom of the aged whose bodies may be failing but whose spirits are full of things worth knowing.

But we know, and so we are here in worship to be reminded that, yes, life is mortal and that to dust we return – but we only do so because we also know that we are God-created, God-breathed-into dust.  For even on the hard days of Ash Wednesday, or Maundy Thursday, or Good Friday, or Holy Saturday, we also know the promise of the un-defeatable reality of Easter, the reality that God does not die and therefore we are not dust only but are also God’s beloved forever. Ash Wednesday is a time for acknowledgment, yes, but it is the acknowledgment of hard things that also knows that, as the hymn says, “in the bulb there is a flower.”

And so in these ashes, dead like that apparently dead bulb, is the reminder that we are not to be captive to the culture’s lies and fears, the reminder that even in the driest and most desiccated, the power, the truth, and promise of God lies hidden. It is why we conjoin the ashes and the Table of our Lord, for this Table is the reminder that not even death – not even death – will ever defeat God’s love, ever separate us from God’s love. The feel of ash on our skin and the tang of juice and the texture of bread on our lips belong together as the testimony both to the fact that earthly life is indeed mortal, but also that that is not the only truth and it is not the ultimate truth.  No, the ultimate truth is that “just as I  am” God is with us ever, always, now and unto eternity.

In the bulb there is a flower, in the ash there is a promise, in the bread and the cup there is life abundant and life eternal.

From a Communion Meditation offered at Ash Wednesday worship, February 10, 2016,  at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Colorado Springs, Colorado

No Lesser Light

The church season of Epiphany is, for many Protestants, the least noted and least understood season of the church year.  Yet, in the early Church, Epiphany was actually celebrated two hundred year before Christmas ever came to be![1]

I find that fascinating.  Our culture’s comsumerist emphasis on Christmas makes it hard for us to imagine such a thing, but here’s the point:  Epiphany commemorates the visit of the Magi – the astrologers, “kings,” “wise men from the east” – to Jesus.  The visit from those “foreigners” to Jesus was understood to be the sign that Jesus was the Savior of the whole world, that God was the God of unconditional love for the whole world, and that EVERYONE was therefore to be welcomed as a child of God.

That is a message we need especially to hear right now.  For we are in a time when the loudest voices are not the voices of love but of hate; we are in a time when appeals to our worst instincts rather than our best are on the rise; we are in a time when too many are trying to scare us into thinking that justice should be restricted only to “our kind of people.”


The message, the reminder, the good news of Epiphany is that all kinds are “our kind” because all kinds are God’s kind.  Our faith in a God of unconditional love and radical welcome for all is not dispensable or substitutable because of our fears.

The Magi followed “that star in the east,” that light of unconditional love for each and all and justice to each and all.  May we never choose any lesser light to guide us.



[1] Dianne Demming, of the Reformed Church of America, has a nice article about the meaning of Epiphany here: http://tinyurl.com/MeaningOfEpiphany

An Angel of the Lord….

“…an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him. Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod” (Matthew 1:13-15 NRSV)

This story in this day and time is both good news and it is a challenge that you and I cannot escape. The good news is that terror didn’t win. In an almost unimaginable act of terror, Herod slaughtered dozens of innocent baby boys simply because of their religion and where they were from. But the good news is that the terror didn’t ultimately win, and God used the immense kindness of unnamed Egyptian people to take in these refugees from a thuggish regime. The Egyptians didn’t ask Mary and Joseph if they shared the same faith as the majority of the Egyptian people. They didn’t ask if they were worshipers of the Egyptian gods, they simply received them because it was the right thing to do and God thereby worked through them, those ancestors of our modern-day Muslim brothers and sisters now fleeing unimaginable horror and slaughter in their lands.  Make no mistake: We know Jesus today because when He was a refugee from terror people took him in.

But what if that Egyptian government had said “no, we will ‘protect our borders’?”  What if those unnamed families and that unnamed town where they settled had not welcomed Mary and Joseph and Mary and the Baby?  Well then – hear this! – God’s only Son would have died long before his time, long before his ministry, long before he would have had the chance to preach and teach the good news to the world.  If the Holy Family hadn’t been welcomed back then and there, then you and I would not be Christian today because there would be no Christianity, no church, no Christmas, because the terror and the fear and the suspicion would have won. Our Savior owes his earthly life to those who received Him and His family when they were refugees from terrorism.

This story confronts us with what kind of people we shall be in order to ourselves be God’s angels offering good news to the vulnerable, the scared, the victimized.  Will we, as has happened too many times in history and is happening in too many places today, close our hearts?  Or will we – those who worship a Savior whose life was saved by welcoming attitude of strangers – also show a welcoming attitude in turn?  Will we be one of God’s angels offering good news to those who hear shouted at them bad new?  Or will we join the voices of those who have forgotten that their faith was made possible by the welcome of refugees?  You see, if we are to be God’s angels in our day and time, then the question is not whether those refugees needing our help are Christians, but whether you and I will be Christian.

Will we?

From a sermon, “A New Nativity.  III. Gabriel Again, and Our Angelic Opportunity,” preached at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Colorado Springs, Colorado, December 13, 2015.

That Sheer Sense of Awe: A Thanksgiving Reflection

Someone once said that Thanksgiving is the “most American of holidays.” At its best, this annual day of remembrance and gratitude is a testimony to our realization that not a single one of us is “self-made,” that all of us are who we are because we have been the beneficiaries of the grace and love and care of so many others. We remember on this day those family members who gave us life and taught us how to live, those friends who have loved us when we were both loveable and not so loveable, those folks who have helped call us beyond our narrownesses and reminded us that God is ever-bigger and more gracious than we can imagine, and those countless folks who on this and every day serve as police officers, soldiers, doctors, nurses, pilots and flight attendants, EMTs and firefighters, and so many more who whose vocations help make life together possible.

It is my prayer this day that what we shall finally and most fully know about Thanksgiving is not the Black Friday-eve sales, not the turkey and trimmings, not the footballs games, not the predictable stories about airport passenger records broken and snowy weather somewhere in the country, but simply that sheer sense of awe that so many people have cared so deeply for us and for this country that they have courageously moved beyond their fears, have said no to xenophobia and hate, have remembered that in its beginnings Thanksgiving is about a native people who welcomed migrants to these shores four hundred years ago. May we follow their example in this day and age when God has once again placed before us the opportunity to show the hospitality that has been the defining hallmark of God’s people since the days of Abraham and Sarah. As one member of my congregation said recently,”may we love well and act bravely.”

May it indeed be so.

“Do Not Be…”

We have all watched in horror the unfolding of attacks in Paris, BeirutKenya, and now Nigeria. Our hearts are heavy.  I invite you to consider this reflection from Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) General Minister and President Sharon Watkins.  And although no state, of course, has any power over immigration law (despite the inflammatory and inaccurate remarks of some states’ governors), I am nonetheless relieved that Governor Hickenlooper has made it clear that Colorado will welcome Syrian refugees fleeing from terror, as we remember that we worship a God whose Son was also born homeless and became a refugee fleeing from terror.

We also worship a God who is clear and compelling throughout both Testaments about our Christian responsiblities to the “stranger” and the “alien” and the refugee.   Moreover, our nation’s founding ideals — so beautifully captured on the base of the Statue of Liberty — remind us that virtually all of us are the descendants of immigrants, many of whom fled violence.  We also may need to be reminded — and remind those around us — that that there is extraordinarily little reason to believe that welcoming refugees increases terror, that refugees go through an arduous vetting process, that “Refugee resettlement is the least likely route for potential terrorists,” and that of the 750,000 refugees resettled in America since 9/11 not a single one has been arrested on domestic terror charges.

One of the most ubiquitous watchwords in the Bible — said in the Psalms, said to Mary, said to Joseph, said to those at Jesus’ tomb — is “Do not be afraid.” Do not be afraid. My prayer is that that would be our guide on this and every day, and that we do not let the loudest and shrillest and often meanest and most fearful voices drown out that Word from God. Let us pray for and support the soldiers and relief workers who are fighting those who have perverted a beautiful religion to their own insidious ends, let us give of our resources to support refugee resettlement, let us remember both our deepest Christian and American ideals of being a welcoming refuge, and most of all let us not be afraid.