The Unfinished Work of Christmas

On Christmas Day, a colleague in ministry said on Facebook, “I’ve just finished my first Christmas Eve worship marathon.” She’s in her first year on the staff of a mid-sized church. I replied that sharing the Christmas story with all those people in all those different ways reminds us clergy that “it’s not about us”. We’re privileged to open ourselves as instruments to share “…good news of great joy for all the people.” (Luke 2:10)

I didn’t run this year’s marathon. I’ve run a few dozen, including during my Lutheran interim pastorate the past two years. In mid-December, our UM pastor asked for volunteers to help with the 9 and 11 PM Christmas Eve services. My wife started to sign us up. But I said not this year. We’d already planned to share the 5 PM Family service with our family, sing with the choir at the 7 PM service, and then go to our daughter’s home for supper. No Christmas marathon for me this year. I’m retired!

The next day (Christmas Eve) Rufus the Wonder Dog took me for our early morning walk. We hadn’t gone far when we heard sirens. Sirens are a daily occurrence in our neighborhood. We live about a mile from a hospital and not far from major streets. I said a prayer for the people those sirens were racing to help.

Later that morning Dianna and I set out to pick up the tamales we’d ordered for Christmas Eve supper. We stopped for lunch along the way. From our table by the window I watched “Henry” talk to some pedestrians. They appeared to be having a pretty intense discussion. Finally those folks gave him some money and moved on. Henry moved out of my view. A little later we saw “Alice” walk by on the sidewalk. She appeared to be intensely engaged in a spirited conversation with–herself. “Alice” was neatly dressed–down to her ankles. She wore serviceable socks, but no shoes. How long, we wondered, would “Alice” be able to function before some crisis overwhelmed her? How would “Alice” spend this Christmas?

While we ate our lunch, “Henry” moved to the parking lot. We met him when we went outside. “Henry” said he’d been arrested recently on a minor misdemeanor, spent a night in jail, and then released to make room for higher-priority offenders. His papers appeared to confirm his story. He sought enough money to take the bus to his minimum-wage job in a distant part of town. I found his story sufficiently believable. I violated my rule of not giving money to folks who ask for cash. If Henry was being honest, I  wouldn’t let a few dollars keep him from getting to his job on time. If not, it was on him. My wife gave him her leftovers, as she often does with obviously hungry folks. I wonder how “Henry” spent Christmas.

“The Work of Christmas”–Howard Thurman

Around 4 PM we set out for the church and the first of those two Christmas Eve services. When we stopped at a traffic light, we saw a woman we’d noticed before at that corner. On this particular (50-degree) day “Sharon” wore a thin top, shorts–and nothing on her feet. She too appeared to be carrying on an animated conversation with an invisible partner. We wondered about her as we had about “Alice”. How long before some crisis (pneumonia?) overwhelmed her?

Those three “street people” helped me rethink my choice not to “work” this Christmas Eve! Howard Thurman’s prophetic vision of “The Work of Christmas” came alive in those Christmas Eve encounters. “Henry”, “Alice”, and “Sharon”–and those sirens–call us to the true “work of Christmas”. Charity is huge in December. We do toy drives. We organize Christmas dinners for the poor, the homeless, and the lonely. We sing carols in hospitals and nursing homes. We support numerous good causes–and some not-so-good ones.

Much seasonal charity is band-aid work at best. Granted, band-aids may help stop the bleeding and begin the healing. But seasonal charity rarely leads to lasting change. The givers feel good about meeting an apparent immediate need for food, shelter, or companionship. But the new year dawns with the recipients’ situations unchanged. The homeless are still outside in the cold, the poor are still desperately destitute, and the broken are still wounded and vulnerable.

Centuries before Christ the prophet Micah defined the work of Christmas: “…what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8) The work of Christmas calls us beyond charity to justice–and far more. “The Work of Christmas” means doing all in our power to help the ancient prophetic vision of Shalom come true for all of God’s precious children within our reach. Most Christians most of the time the time oversimplify the Hebrew word’s meaning to “peace”. But “shalom” is far richer and deeper. God’s Shalom loose in the world is transformative and revolutionary.

In his book “Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin”, Dr. Cornelius Plantinga described the Old Testament concept of shalom: “The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom. We call it peace but it means far more than mere peace of mind or a cease-fire between enemies. In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness and delight – a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.”

“The Work of Christmas” does whatever it takes to let this Good News loose into every nook and cranny of life, and every dark corner of Creation. In Luke’s gospel, Mary and Zechariah sing of Shalom as they anticipate Jesus’ birth (Luke 1:46-55; Luke 1:67-79):

“Through the heartfelt mercies of our God, God’s Sunrise will break in upon us,
Shining on those in the darkness, those sitting in the shadow of death,
Then showing us the way, one foot at a time, down the path of peace.” (Luke 1:78-79 MSG)

The Work of Christmas is 24/7/365 life-changing, world-changing work, by all who follow Jesus and welcome God’s New Day of Shalom, on behalf of our neighbors and the whole Creation. On our Christian calendar, the Twelve Days of Christmas are almost over. But the Work of Christmas continues. Let’s get to work!

 

 

 

 

Kaspersky Password Manager
Create a strong password for your account

CREATE

Do not show again
Kaspersky Password Manager
Create a strong password for your account

CREATE

Do not show again
Kaspersky Password Manager

 

Create a strong password for your account

CREATE

Do not show again
Kaspersky Password Manager

 

Create a strong password for your account

CREATE

Do not show again
Kaspersky Password Manager
Create a strong password for your account

CREATE

Do not show again
Kaspersky Password Manager

Create a strong password for your account

CREATE

Do not show again

OUR TENT JUST SHRUNK!

Folks who follow this blog have heard me describe myself as a “prenatal Methodist”. My parents met through Epworth League, a church-related youth/young adult group. The Methodist Episcopal Church nurtured my parents’ growing faith and social conscience through “big tent” faith communities that embodied founding father John Wesley’s vision for the Methodist movement: “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.”

That “big tent” welcomed my father and other conscientious objectors to military service as World War II dawned, as well as my uncles who served in the US armed forces. After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, persons of Japanese descent,  many of whom were US citizens, were interned (imprisoned) in camps for the duration of the war. My mother served in the church’s ministry to those folks who lived in very difficult conditions. Some folks opposed this ministry because it felt to them like “giving aid and comfort to the enemy”. But the church’s “big tent” made space for folks with all those diverse viewpoints. Some of my mother’s Japanese intern pen pals became lifelong family friends-and Methodists!

Maynard Memorial Methodist Church, the church that helped raise my sisters and me, was located in the city of Los Angeles. Across the street was Culver City, a suburb where many church members lived. During that time (the 1950’s and ’60’s) Culver City realtors shared an unwritten “covenant” not to sell homes to African Americans. As the Civil Rights Movement grew, some church members recognized the racist nature of this practice. Our pastor at the time led the church to begin getting acquainted with an African-American congregation. That process began with an annual pulpit and choir exchange. Not everyone approved. But our Methodist “tent” had room for whites and blacks to worship together, and also for those (both black and white) not yet ready for even that step.

Maynard was about a mile away from Palms Evangelical United Brethren Church. The Methodist and EUB denominations were working toward a merger in 1968. A few years  before, the two pastors began intentional preparations for that event. They took time to build their own relationship. Then they led their two congregations to share events together and begin praying and dreaming toward their common future. Ultimately the two congregations merged as Culver Palms United Methodist Church. They sold both church properties built a new facility in a far better location. The process was not without its ups and downs. Sometimes folks struggled to “…be of one heart…” But they persevered and built a roomy, spacious tent where they could welcome their new neighbors. Almost fifty years later Culver Palms continues to serve a diverse urban congregation. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of congregations have their own unique “big tent” stories of learning to …,love alike…” even though they don’t always “…think alike.” That’s who we United Methodists are.

This week in St. Louis our United Methodist “big tent”  was rudely and drastically remodeled. Politically skilled and very hard-working conservative delegates won the day at the specially-called General Conference (the denomination’s global legislative body.) . Their “Traditional Plan” prevailed by 54 votes out of some 800+. This action reaffirmed the official denominational stance adopted in 1972: “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” (2016 Book of Discipline Par. 304.3). LBGTQ+ persons have been ineligible to serve as clergy or to be married in church facilities, and UM clergy have been forbidden to perform same-sex weddings. As adopted, this legislation continues those provisions and adds draconian sanctions for anyone who violates the rules–clergy, congregations, even bishops and annual conferences.“Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?

That loud noise you heard last Tuesday may have been the UMC’s well-advertised “Open Doors, Open Hearts, Open Minds” slamming shut! Many now see the UMC not as a “big-tent” church where all God’s people are welcome, but as a church that treats LGBTQ+ folks as second-class Christians at best. This prenatal Methodist struggles in vain to recognize the perpetrators of this action as heirs of Wesley’s movement: “May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?” This faction apparently wants to shrink the UMC’s “big tent” to fit only the “one heart” and “one opinion” acceptable in their sight. They reject the last fifty years of growing scientific, psychological, theological, and cultural understanding of human sexuality. They reject the experience of countless Christians who have moved beyond fear and literalism. Bible study, prayer, scientific progress, and simply getting to know our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters in Christ has convicted more and more followers of Jesus that we can no longer exclude these brothers and sisters. God’s love in Christ embraces them, just as they are, as it does all of us.  

It will take some time to understand fully the impact of this action. The new legislation is scheduled to take effect January 1, 2020. First it will be reviewed by the Judicial Council, the UMC’s “Supreme Court. Some or all of it may well be declared unconstitutional. The church’s regularly scheduled General Conference in 2020 will almost certainly address these issues. Clearly we are headed in a new direction, but it’s far from clear exactly what that direction is.

Meanwhile Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, arrives next Wednesday, March 6. I invite you to lay aside church politics for Lent. Let’s dig deep into our faith. Let’s focus on the basics–Love God and love your neighbor as yourself–all your neighbors, especially the ones easily within your reach. Regardless of where we stand on this issue, let’s invite God’s Spirit to form us anew into the people and the Church of God’s dreams. May we grow into a people whose loving, welcoming spirit overcomes both the perception and reality of closed doors, hearts, and minds. Let us lay aside our anger, disappointment, bitterness, and resentment. Regardless of where we stand on this issue, let’s invite God’s Spirit to form us anew into the people and the Church of God’s dreams. Let’s dare to ask God to make us a living example of Wesley’s vision: “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?”

A colleague suggests that we treat this transitional time like Holy Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Easter. It’s eerily quiet. Death seems to have the upper hand. But we hope against hope toward Resurrection! On Saturday the full force of Resurrection Life energy is let loose–until the power of evil is overcome once and for all. Whether we see it or not, transformation happens in the deepest depths. Death is dying. Life is rising. Good blossoms from what we believed was unredeemable evil. A door opens where we’d seen only a dead end. God’s new day dawns for all God’s people!

 

 

Generous Orthodoxy II–Deeply Personal with Global Implications

Three months ago I shared “Part I of a Few” about Generous Orthodoxy. Theologian Hans Frei coined the term to describe a position beyond liberal/conservative theological polarities. “Orthodoxy without generosity leads to blindness,” he wrote, “and generosity without orthodoxy is shallow and empty.” But how do we navigate that tension? How do we hold together opposing polarities? How do we engage in meaningful, respectful dialog with those whose views are polar opposites of ours?

I started writing Part 2 in early December. Then Life intervened, as it often does, with travel, holiday festivities, peaks and valleys, surprises, and U-Turns. But Christmas also sharpened this message. Christmas proclaims Love’s visible, tangible reality. God had sent assorted prophets and other messengers to tell Israel the wonder of being children of God. Finally God said, “Look, I’ll show you,” and poured Limitless Love into one human life –Jesus of Nazareth. That bold grace-full act transformed “God is love” into “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood…” (John 1:14 MSG).

“Incarnation”is the theological word that describes God’s  decision to embody/enflesh Love in Jesus. At its  best, following Jesus is always incarnational. At our best, our words, deeds, and presence are a seamless whole. We embody our faith in deeds ranging from almost-invisible acts of love and care to highly-public game-changing acts of personal sacrifice and/or leadership that energize a transformative movement. Incarnational faith looks like Schweitzer, King, Bonhoeffer, Tutu, and countless more disciples whose names we don’t know but whose lives speak volumes. 

The United Methodist Church (of which I’ve been a part as long as I’ve been) has before it an unprecedented opportunity to practice Generous Orthodoxy. In less than three weeks its General Conference (churchwide legislative meeting) will convene to address the church’s nearly-fifty-year-old running disagreement over human sexuality. Political maneuvering and gamesmanship are escalating. The noise level is peaking.  Advocates talk past each other so loudly that they overwhelm quieter voices calling the church to prayer to seek God’s will for our future. Florida Bishop Kenneth Carter has urged the church to conduct this dialog in a spirit of Generous Orthodoxy.

From where I sit (admittedly very far from the church’s inner workings), very few seem to be hearing and embracing Carter’s message. Are the delegates that laser-focused on legislative technicalities, parliamentary maneuvering, and–quite honestly–Winning? I want to believe the vast majority of those 864 folks prayerfully seek the best solution for the whole church. Legislation and rule-making are part of that process. So is the hman impact of their decisions. How has the church’s continued exclusion of LGBTQ persons from full participation affected those children of God? How will this General Conference’s decisions (or indecision!) impact them, and all the millions of UM members with various perspectives? What does Generous Orthodoxy look like in one life, one family’s life, especially when addressing this sensitive and highly charged issue?`

Rev. Chester Wenger just wanted to follow Jesus and be the best father and Mennonite pastor he could be. He didn’t know he was practicing Generous Orthodoxy long before Frei, Malcolm Gladwell, and others coined the phrase. Chester and his wife SaraJane served as missionaries in Ethiopia for many years. After the family returned to the USA, Chester continued his outstanding work in missions and Christian education. 

In the late 1970’s 15-year-old Philip Wenger told his parents that he was gay. Chester reaffirmed his love for Philip–and shared his hope that Philip would “grow out of it.” Chester also set out to learn all he could. He studied Scripture and read widely on faith and human sexuality for ten years. (Somewhere during this time Philip told his father that he hadn’t “grown out of it”.) Chester’s intense study led him to understand and accept Philip’s sexuality. Philip was excommunicated by the Mennonite church because of his sexual orientation. The Wenger family’s eight children continue to be divided on the issue. Some support their church’s position against same-sex marriage. Some believe same-sex marriage can express a couple’s Christian faith.  Long before “generous orthodoxy” had been named and described, the Wenger family had made generous orthodoxy their way of life.

SaraJane Wenger, Rev. Chester Wenger, Philip Wenger, Steve Dinnocenti

In July 2014, Pennsylvania recognized same-sex marriages. Phil and Steve, his partner of twenty-seven years, immediately applied for a marriage license. They asked Chester, now 96, to marry them.  Following the wedding Chester reported his action to his ecclesiastical superiors. “…they responded with grace-filled pastoral listening,” he said, “while acknowledging that what I’d done was out of step with established credentialing agreements…Afterward the…credentialing committee met…and retired my credentials…I am at peace with their decision and understand their need to take this action.” Why had Chester performed his son’s wedding? When asked, he replied, “…he’s my precious son.

A few months later Chester wrote “An Open Letter to My Beloved Church”. Do take time to read the whole letter. Toward the end, Chester said, “My wife and I are devoted to the Lord, with a firm commitment to the authority of the Scriptures. We strive to be faithfully obedient to Jesus. We invite the church to courageously stake out new territory, much as the early church did. We invite the church to embrace the missional opportunity to extend the church’s blessing of marriage to our homosexual children who desire to live in accountable, covenanted ways…My dear companion of 70 years and I declare our enduring love for Lancaster Mennonite Conference, for the Mennonite Church…and for all God’s people. We carry no bitterness or regret…We pray that our love in family and Church will bind us together in God’s family even when our understandings of God’s will may differ. Christ’s prayer for oneness in John 17 can be attained!” 

May Chester and SaraJane Wenger’s spirit of reconciling love infuse General Conference as it does the church’s business. And may Bishop Carter’s vision of generous orthodoxy be embodied in all they do and say: “…generous orthodoxy begins with God, and more specifically with the grace of God…A generous orthodoxy will rediscover the practices of Jesus in the gospels, calling all people into communion with him. Is that call a tacit approval of who we are, in our humanity? No, and this is true for gay and straight people…the ground is indeed level at the foot of the cross, and this is the common ground of grace.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kaspersky Password Manager
Create a strong password for your account

CREATE

Do not show again
Kaspersky Password Manager
Create a strong password for your account

CREATE

Do not show again
Kaspersky Password Manager
Create a strong password for your account

CREATE

Do not show again
Kaspersky Password Manager
Create a strong password for your account

CREATE

Do not show again
Kaspersky Password Manager
Create a strong password for your account

CREATE

Do not show again
Kaspersky Password Manager

 

Create a strong password for your account

CREATE

Do not show again
Kaspersky Password Manager
Create a strong password for your account

CREATE

Do not show again
Kaspersky Password Manager

 

Create a strong password for your account

CREATE

Do not show again
Kaspersky Password Manager
Create a strong password for your account

CREATE

Do not show again
Kaspersky Password Manager
Create a strong password for your account

CREATE

Do not show again
Kaspersky Password Manager

Create a strong password for your account

CREATE

Do not show again

“…Study War No More…”

Recently our grandson graduated from Coast Guard Intelligence School. A large delegation of his family (including Dianna and me) attended the event. The trip over Veterans Day weekend took us near historical sites from the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, and Civil War. Our family found ourselves experiencing an extended US history seminar  during the weekend of the 100th anniversary of the Armistice ending World War I on November 11, 1918.

In this country, Armistice Day evolved into our Veterans Day holiday. We honor all who have served in our country’s armed forces. The church where we worshiped that Sunday recognized veterans who were present. Many religious and secular events throughout the weekend offered veterans well-deserved recognition and appreciation for their service.

As a rule, I don’t believe patriotic observances belong in Sunday worship.   The church is not a patriotic organization. But the 100th anniversary of “the war to end all war” and “make the world safe for democracy” offered a significant “teachable moment” for the church. How do followers of the Prince of Peace manage the tension between being citizens of a nation (USA, Mexico, etc.) and citizens of God’s Kingdom? How does the church exist in a particular place and time and also honor our commitment to Christ that transcends all human and national boundaries? The church where we worshiped on Veterans Day recognized and thanked the veterans present. They remembered and gave thanks for those who had died in combat; they asked God to bless and protect those currently serving. AND THAT WAS ALL. 

The teaching moment came and went–in that congregation and, I’m afraid, in thousands of others. When the church’s patriotic observance merely mirrors secular ceremonies, we’ve failed to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ whom we call “Prince of Peace”. When we fail to share our message of transforming revolutionary hope for all humanity and all creation, we fail to be the Church. The difference between the Church of Jesus Christ and the service at the cemetery or the Legion Hall is, after all–JESUS CHRIST!

I believe an authentically Christian observance would move from grateful remembrance toward Proclamation of Good News: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15). “Repent” means far more than “Sorry.” It means “Turn around. Choose a new direction. ” “Repent/Turn Around” is Good News because it affirms that we can turn. We can change. We can become New Creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). What if Veterans Day worship invited all within reach to turn away from “studying war” toward “the things that lead to peace…” (Luke 19:42 CEB). We learned on our trip that approximately 650,000 people had died in the Civil War–about 2% of the nation’s population! This chart documents war’s death toll over many centuries. Some figures are careful approximations, of course. But these hundreds of millions of senseless deaths tell the shameful story of our continuing inhumanity to one another. More than 13 million people died in World War I, 69 million in World War II–and they’re just the tip of the iceberg. These figures include all God’s precious children who’ve died as a result of war–not only soldiers, but all the noncombatants who are warfare’s “collateral damage”. No, I didn’t add up the grand total. I didn’t want to know that number.  Let us repent of this horrific obscenity–before “studying war” is the death of us all! Let us rather share, pray, and work toward God’s dream for God’s world:

“They will beat their swords into iron plows and their spears into pruning tools.
Nation will not take up sword against nation; they will no longer learn how to make war.
All will sit underneath their own grapevines, under their own fig trees. There will be no one to terrify them;              for the mouth of the LORD of heavenly forces has spoken.”—Micah 4:3-4 (CEB)

A faith-full Veterans Day observance might move from Remembrance to Repentance to Renewal. As we said, the call to “Repent” is hollow without a meaningful possibility to which we can “Turn”.  Visionary Easter faith sees possibility even for folks like us who thought “studying war” was our only option. Easter faith sees light-years beyond “thanks for your service” to the Risen Christ’s promise that “I am making all things new…” (Revelation 21:5) When did we last proclaim that Good News on Veterans Day or Memorial Day? The promise sounds wonderfully, impossibly good. We don’t dare believe it. We dare not turn fully toward the Light of God’s New Day. We dare not “pray without ceasing” for the prophet’s dream of peace to fill the earth. We close our ears to Jesus’ disappointed “O ye of little faith” (Matthew 8:26). We offer no altar call for peacemakers in the spirit of Jesus: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” . (Matthew 5:9) Altar calls, after all, are risky business. What if nobody steps up–even me??

This turned out to be about much more than Veterans Day, didn’t it? Like so much of our Christian life, growth means choosing between the status quo we know and love and the “new thing” just coming into view. What if we believe those ancient prophets? What if we make their inspired vision our own? What if we energetically pursue the blessing of becoming peacemakers? Most of all, how do we get from here to there–and invite our neighbors?

Rick Love is a pastor whose ministry invites Christians, Jews, and Muslims to the same table–for coffee and tea, a good meal that observes everyone’s dietary restrictions, and honest discussions about what they have in common, where they differ, and how they can live together peacefully. Rick says Romans 12:18 is the key verse for practical peacemaking in the Spirit of Jesus: “If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people.” (CEB) In this video, he talks about what he calls “Peacemaking for Dummies”.

The implications of that verse would take me at least another thousand words–but not now! It will start a journey from business-as-usual to repentance toward renewal and re-creation. I invite you to spend some time with this sentence. Focus on each phrase. Start a conversation with one or a few others about how this might impact your life and relationships. If you dare, include folks whose worldviews differ from yours. Try not to yell! Expect to be surprised by what’s “possible”; by how “best” your “ability” becomes when it’s Spirit-empowered; by the depth of the “peace” you share; by the way your life is enriched as your circle of “all people” grows. `

 

 

 

GENEROUS ORTHODOXY (Part I of a few)

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God…” Romans 12:2 NRSV

Galadriel’s opening words in the movie The Lord of the Rings sound like someone (me!) reeling from an overdose of Breaking News: “The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was, is lost, for none now live who remember it.”

Civil conversation may be doomed to become part of “much that once was”. Respectful dialog across political, religious, and ideological divisions is fast becoming the exception rather than the rule. We arrogantly insist we’re completely right and “they” are totally wrong. We talk at each other rather than with each other. We yell our case at “them” and close our ears to their equally harsh response. Legislators dare not reach across the aisle, lest their colleagues accuse them of political treason. Ideological fault lines divide neighbors, families, co-workers, school classmates, and churches. Toxic polarization stifles common sense and common courtesy. It suffocates the wisdom and creativity that could give birth to new ideas, new dreams, and a new future.

We who follow the Prince of Peace often get swept up in these waves of social change. Church history includes ugly chapters like the Crusades, in which thousands of Christians and Muslims died, and the Inquisition, a 12th-century anti-heresy pogrom. More recently Christians have fought bitterly and sometimes violently over women’s rights, slavery, racial equality, biblical interpretation, human sexuality, and more. Both liberals and conservatives have weaponized the Bible against “the other side”. “If you’re not reading the Bible through our God-given set of religious and cultural lenses,” we holler across the ideological chasm, “you’re reading it upside down and inside out. Good luck with that!” Our churchy conflicts use and abuse scripture, often with reckless abandon. Our razor-sharp holier-than-thou language punishes our misguided brothers and sisters in Christ. Our conflicts can be as vicious and damaging as any dust-up at the neighborhood bar, the city council or school board, or a family celebration gone south. You know, that time an inadvertent (or not!) remark triggered a nuclear meltdown whose fallout still poisons the atmosphere at every gathering of the clan.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…” In other words– People of faith, we’re better than that! Yet our church fights mostly conform to the faultlines fragmenting our society. In the face of revolutionary change we choose “the way we’ve always done it” over “the renewing of our minds” by the power of the Holy Spirit. We beat each other with our Bibles, proclaim that our side alone has the truth, and question the sincerity and even the salvation ofthose who dare to disagree with us—and thus (obviously) with God! Currently the United Methodist Church (UMC) is caught up in such a struggle over its theology of human sexuality. Some of our leaders have set an example of respectful and meaningful conversations despite significant differences. Bishop Robert Hoshibata is leading another helpful series of Holy Huddles in our Desert Southwest Annual Conference. These events offer opportunities for clergy and laity to speak honestly and listen deeply to each other. But will this spirit infuse and transform the grassroots of the UMC’s thousands of local churches? Or will our “conformity” to the world’s winner-take-all ways prove devastating for many churches, communities, and individuals?

Recently I’ve been learning about a transforming way called “Generous Orthodoxy”. What?? Yes, “Generous orthodoxy” sounds like an oxymoron—two words headed so far in opposite directions that they can’t possibly stay together. Our traditional, cramped understanding of “orthodoxy” fuels that conclusion. But some wise folks are exploring ways that “generous orthodoxy” might be an idea whose time has come.

Theologian Hans Frei may have originated the term. He envisioned the possibility of “…a kind of generous orthodoxy which would have in it an element of liberalism…like the Christian Century [a liberal theological journal] and an element of evangelicalism…like Christianity Today [a similar conservative journal]. I don’t know if there is a voice between these two…if there is, I would like to pursue it.”

Anglican preacher and theologian Fleming Rutledge goes deeper: “…ortho-doxy (Greek for “right doctrine”)…has come to sound constricted and unimaginative at best, oppressive and tyrannical at worst…we cannot do without orthodoxy, for everything else must be tested against it, but that orthodox (traditional, classical) Christian faith should by definition always be generous as our God is generous; lavish in his creation, binding himself in an unconditional covenant, revealing himself in the calling of a people, self-sacrificing in the death of his Son, prodigal in the gifts of the Spirit, justifying the ungodly and indeed, offending the “righteous” by the indiscriminate nature of his favor. True Christian orthodoxy therefore cannot be narrow, pinched, or defensive but always spacious, adventurous and unafraid.” She echoes Frei’s earlier words: “Generosity without orthodoxy is nothing, but orthodoxy without generosity is worse than nothing.”

Can this oxymoron live? Can we share an inviting, welcoming, Christ-centered orthodoxy? Can we listen to and love those with whom we differ? Can we share open and meaningful dialog, rather than maneuvering to get the last word and be the “winners”? Next February the UMC’s General Conference legislative body, will meet to address the church’s policy regarding issues of human sexuality. Then the thousands of UMC congregations will have to discern how General Conference’s action relates to their understandings and ministry. What a gift it would be for them to be able to do that in a climate of Generous Orthodoxy! This wisdom is circulating at some levels of our church. But in my limited experience, I don’t sense that it’s reaching the grassroots quickly or deeply enough. Five years ago Bishop Kenneth Carter shared the concept with the people he serves in Florida. More recently he’s expanded this material into a book called “Embracing the Wideness”. I’m sure Bishop Carter’s wisdom is being well-used in some settings. But it’s apparently new information for a lot of folks out west where I live. If I were actively serving a congregation, we’d be immersing ourselves in this approach. We’d be learning to practice “generous orthodoxy” in all we did together. It’s an oxymoron whose time has come!

Bishop Carter clearly links generous orthodoxy with God’s grace. “A generous orthodoxy begins with God,” he writes, “and more specifically with the grace of God.” Toward the end of his Florida message, he says, “A generous orthodoxy will rediscover the practices of Jesus in the gospels, calling all people into communion with him. Is that call a tacit approval of who we are, in our humanity? No, and this is true for gay and straight people…the ground is indeed level at the foot of the cross, and this is the common ground of grace.”

This is the first of a few posts on this topic. If you’re curious, follow some of these links. Agree and disagree. Future posts will look at the way “generous orthodoxy” played out in a painful, yet ultimately redemptive, episode in one family’s life; the connection between grace and generous orthodoxy; and practical ways to help Paul’s dream come to life so that our lives, our churches, our communities, our world are “…transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may discern what is the will of God…”

“Let’s Begin with a Word of Prayer…”

I must have said that dozens, even hundreds of times, in the last fifty or so years. People of faith frequently begin our gatherings this way. So I invite you to  pray with me as I/we begin anew with this blog. Some of you know that this retired United Methodist pastor has served for the last two years as interim pastor for a Lutheran (ELCA) congregation in a community about 100 miles south of Las Vegas, NV, where we live. It took longer than anticipated for that congregation to locate and call its new fulltime pastor. But I think most of those folks would agree with me that it took just long enough.

That  Lutheran “sojourn” was a rich experience for Dianna and me. The only downside was the weekly commute that meant we lived in two places, yet often felt we weren’t really “home” in either place. But now we’re full-time residents in our only home. We’re resuming some things we let go during that assignment, including this blog. It may be redesigned eventually. My brain has more substance it wants to share, as soon as it flows through the keyboard in an acceptable form.

But for now “let’s begin with a word of prayer”. I’ve recently begun following Shifting Margins, a blog written by retired United Methodist bishop Kenneth Carder. Yesterday he shared this prayer. It says what I’ve felt, and what I’ve heard from many folks, especially in the wake of recent violence and ugliness in this country and beyond.

Prayer of Lament and Longing
Posted on October 29, 2018
Bishop Kenneth Carder

God of Love and Peace, who created us to live in harmony rooted in mutual respect, compassion, and justice: We have lost our way and now wander in the toxic wasteland of cruel hatred, shameful disrespect for the dignity of others, and the normalization of verbal and physical violence. In such a time, our prayers seem powerless and we cry out, “How long, O Lord? How long?”

Hear our laments and turn them into actions on behalf of compassion, justice, and peace.
We lament the coarseness of our public discourse, while we long for civility.
We lament the disrespect for those who differ from us, while we yearn for mutual respect amid our differences.
We lament the tribal nature of our politics, while we long for commitment to the common good.
We lament the inequity in our economics, while we want all to have access to your table of abundance.
We lament the arrogance of always having to be right, while we desire the humility to live with ambiguity and mystery.
We lament the hatred and cruelty within our life together, while we hunger to love and to be loved.

Move through the dark recesses of my own heart, O God, and purge me of all hatred, arrogance, prejudice, and ill-will. Create in me a clean heart and put a right spirit within me, that I may be an instrument of your Love and Peace. Amen.

Is It Time Yet???

Yesterday I drove past the Mandalay Bay shooting site on the Las Vegas Strip. Almost a month later the memorial site appears lovingly cared for. A steady stream of visitors includes families and friends of the victims, local residents, and tourists touched by the tragedy. Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo still appears regularly on local news shows with updates on the continuing investigation. He looks a little less tired than he did immediately after the event. The concert site remains an active crime scene closed to the public indefinitely. The yellow crime-scene tape reminds passersby of the havoc wreaked by one very sick man.

As soon as the news broke that night, we heard calls for action to address our nation’s continuing epidemic of gun violence. My initial reaction echoed Old Testament laments: “How long, O Lord?” (Psalms 13:1; 79:5; 89:46; 90:13; Isaiah 6:11). When is enough enough? But many people said, “This is not the time. First we need to grieve and show respect for the victims and their families.”  We did need time and space to process the flood of emotions we’d experienced. That’s happened very meaningfully in the Las Vegas community and across the nation.

Now it’s been almost a month. Is it time yet? If not now, when? How long, O Lord? The news cycle’s moved on to Republican infighting, the World Series (Go Dodgers!), and more. How long, O Lord? A month? Three months? A year? Today I learned that more than 800 people have died of gunshot wounds since October 1! “How long” was too long for them. Oh, I know. Anything we’d done in the last three weeks couldn’t have prevented any of those deaths. But the sooner we act, the sooner more people can live safely and without fear.

Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy (D) has re-introduced legislation calling for comprehensive background checks for gun buyers. Murphy’s been fighting this battle since the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012. While gun owners and the general public support the concept, Murphy acknowledges his bill has a slim chance of passage due primarily to NRA opposition. He’s also clear that his bill is one small piece of a vast complex puzzle. Other puzzle pieces include mental health resources, a more balanced and up-to-date approach to the Second Amendment, less glorification of guns and violence in entertainment and popular culture, and reduced availability of military-grade weapons and accessories.

I DON’T WANT TO TAKE AWAY YOUR HANDGUN, RIFLE, OR SHOTGUN YOU USE FOR PERSONAL PROTECTION, HUNTING, AND/OR TARGET SHOOTING. I do want you to consider the tension between your freedom to own and use guns and the rights of everyone else (including the 2500+ shooting victims, approximately 840 of whom died)  since October 1, 2017. One piece of this complex puzzle is many, many honest and respectful conversations between folks with drastically differing views. That will require us to set aside our preconceptions and prejudices, listen and share respectfully, try not to yell, and find common ground.

For followers of Jesus, I suggest that conversation includes the relationship between our daily walk with Jesus and our relationship with guns. Are we willing to accept reasonable regulation? Are we willing to speak out and vote against the NRA’s absolutist stance, and support politicians who do so? How do we reconcile our relationship with guns with Jesus’ call to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-45) and to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9)? As we said earlier, this dialog about guns, gun use, and violence in our culture will be more of an ultramarathon than a sprint. But we’ll never finish if we don’t get to the starting line and begin the race together.

2015 saw 372 mass shootings in this country. (A mass shooting is commonly defined as one in which four or more people die.) In December 2015 a group of Christian leaders gathered to reflect on this record violence. Out of that gathering came the Advent Declaration on Gun Violence. It represents a considered Christian approach to the issue. Whether or not you agree with every detail, I suggest it as a useful starting point for dialog around the issue with folks in your church. Of course I invite you to sign it if you feel led to do so. I have. And I won’t declare you unchristian if you choose not to! But I hope you’ll take a serious look at it, read and reflect on the scripture references, and invite some other folks to consider it with you.

It’s been almost a month. Countless “thoughts and prayers” have been offered for the victims of the Mandalay Bay shooting and other events. Is it time now for meaningful prayer and action to impact this nation’s epidemic gun violence? I know at least 800 folks–probably close to a thousand by the end of this month–who’d say a resounding “Yes!”–if only they could.

PS 1) Here are links to blogs I wrote in response to mass shootings in 2015: “Response to Roseburg” and “Real Live Hope”.

2) Where have I been all this time? This retired United Methodist has been serving as interim pastor for an ELCA Lutheran church. Great learning experience for all involved!

Words from the Past about Our Future

One convention down, one to go. Right now that feels like two too many! These extravaganzas whip the faithful into a frenzy, do their best to sell their party’s “product”  to voters, and widen the partisan fault lines separating the 330 million+ of us who reside in “…one nation…indivisible…”

RecentlyJFK assume responsibility for the future in the space of a few days a number of Facebook friends posted this JFK quote. They are a diverse group politically, spiritually, and ideologically. They don’t all know each other. But President Kennedy’s words touched them. They heard hope and possibility. They heard the Good News of a way forward. They heard the promise of healing our national brokenness. They wanted more of us to hear what they’d heard: “…not…the Republican answer, or the Democratic answer…the right answer…not …blame for the past…accept… responsibility for the future.”

What a healthy, adult approach! Fixing blame is a good way to gain political advantage, but a terrible way to solve problems. Blame binds us to the past we cannot change. Future-oriented responsibility empowers us to shape our collective future. Blaming, especially in politics, is toxic, divisive, and self-centered. By contrast, claiming and facing our future together offers new energy, new hope, and renewed purpose. It’s our future, our country, our environment, our children and grandchildren, our traditions and values to be passed on to future generations.

“Let us not seek the Republican answer, or the Democratic answer, but the right answer.”  I can hear the protests: “The R’s will say they have the right right answer, the D’s will say they do, the verbal food fight will begin, somebody will throw a fit and walk out, and we’re back where we’ve been for years—going nowhere.” How do we move together toward a “right answer” that bridges our deep and real partisan differences?

More recently some other Facebook friends shared these words from John Kennedy’s brother Robert. I don’t know thRFK when you teache original context of these words. But, except for the male-oriented language, they sound as fresh as today’s Twitter feed. Teaching and preaching fear based on human differences is an old human game. During RFK’s career as senator and later Attorney General, that fear focused largely on Communism and racial differences. Fifty years later political and religious leaders—and just plain folks– teach hate and fear of the Other with regard to a bewildering range of fears and prejudices. We’ve demonized so many sorts of folk as “Them” that we’re struggling desperately to find an Us with room enough for all our uniquenesses.

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical “South Pacific” taught us correctly that “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear.”  That specific “hate and fear” was the island community’s view of love between a US soldier stationed on a South Pacific island and a native woman. Both the native culture and the US military base culture forbade that relationship. In the theater, love conquers all and the couple lives happily ever after. But our real-life experience too often validates RFK’s wisdom: “When you teach a [person] to hate and fear [the neighbor]…you… learn to confront others not as fellow citizens, but as enemies.”

As I stand on this small island of sanity between the two parties’ conventions, I hunger for leaders who affirm the Kennedys’ wisdom. Who will lead our nation toward the right answer for all of us, not just for their special interests? Who will renounce the blame game and lead us—all of us—to take responsibility for our common future? Who will reject hate and fear as motivations for political and social action? Who will take the lead in refusing to demonize the Other? Who will lead us beyond a culture of toxic fear, hate, and prejudice toward a culture of mutual respect and even love for one another? Who will lead us to see others with whom we differ not as enemies but as neighbors?

Elections can obscure our view of life’s Big Picture. In case you’re struggling with that, the prophet Isaiah offers a very clear view of it. God’s dream for God’s world is that Really Big Picture:

But here on this mountain, God-of-the-Angel-Armies
    will throw a feast for all the people of the world,
A feast of the finest foods, a feast with vintage wines,
    a feast of seven courses, a feast lavish with gourmet desserts.
And here on this mountain, God will banish
    the pall of doom hanging over all peoples,
The shadow of doom darkening all nations.
    Yes, he’ll banish death forever.
And God will wipe the tears from every face.
    He’ll remove every sign of disgrace
From his people, wherever they are.
    Yes! God says so!”  Isaiah 25:6-9 MSG

messianic banquet 7-16

This “messianic banquet” sounds too good to be true—“all the people of the world” sharing an incredibly lavish feast together, the end of death and “every sign of disgrace”. Followers of Jesus believe we act out God’s dream for God’s world every time we share the Lord’s Supper.  All are welcome at the table. We feast on the very life of God. Christ’s body and blood transform us into new people. We come away forgiven, renewed, reconciled to God and one another.

This vision puts day-to-day politics in perspective. It reminds us that God’s dream for our neighbors on the other side of political, religious, and social issues is for them to sit with us at God’s ultimate feast. It helps us see each person as God’s precious child. That identity supercedes all the other labels we stick on one another. God’s dream leads us to choose God’s limitless Love that prepares, invites, and works ceaselessly to gather God’s children at God’s table. It empowers us to reject “carefully-taught” hate and fear that poisons every aspect of our life together. Claiming and living out this vision is the best way I know for us to take responsibility for the future we leave as our legacy–NO MATTER WHO WINS THIS ELECTION.

 

Damn Christians Part II

“Because I’m a [damn] Christian.”—Will Campbell

Orlando clubI’d scarcely clicked “Publish” on my last post “Needed-Damn Christians”—when I realized I needed to say more. I’d told the story of the late Will Campbell and his unique ministry to folks on all sides of political and religious divides. I described his presence at the long-delayed murder trial of Ku Klux Klan leader Sam Bowers. Bowers had allegedly ordered the killing of a number of civil rights activists, most notably Vernon Dahmer—in the mid-1960’s! In 1998, thirty-twoyears after the fact, Bowers stood trial again in Mississippi, this time with new evidence and a realistic chance of being convicted. Campbell spent some of the time at the trial sitting with Dahmer’s large family on one side of the courtroom–and about the same amount sitting with Sam Bowers, who sat all alone on the other side. When a reporter asked why he did this, Campbell growled, “Because I’m a damn Christian.”  I concluded that our fragmented society needs more “damn Christians” who will share the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:20) modeled by Jesus and pursued by Campbell, Martin Luther King, and countless others. I said, “I believe the church’s place relative to the red and blue faultline running through American society is standing tall with our feet planted firmly on both sides… with neighbors who are easy to love and with those we struggle to love.”

But I hadn’t said much about how we arrive at that conviction, or what equips us for that uncomfortable and challenging stance. Then the Pulse Nightclub shooting happened early Sunday morning. It brought folks together. It also re-opened some old wounds and re-started some old arguments:

  • Omar Mateen’s anti-gay feelings clearly informed his choice of target. Those feelings still live in many hearts and minds.
  • He was an admirer or supporter of Isis. That’s enough to reanimate both rational concern over terror and misinformed or simply mean-spirited anti-Muslim prejudice. The ongoing investigation seeks to determine the exact nature and strength of that connection in this incident.
  • His primary weapon was an assault rifle like the ones banned from sale in this country until 2004. We’re having that yelling match again.

Thirty or so hours after the shooting, before all the dead are identified and their loved ones notified, the noise around these divisive issues grows ever louder. Politicians speak out, seeking every advantage. Activists on both sides strain to shout down the opposition. But if we’re simply yelling past each other, once again we’ll generate plenty of heat but precious little light.

What if some “damn Christians” dare to love our neighbors more than our ideology? Something could change. If we behave differently, the future would play out differently. Don’t misunderstand me. I have very strong convictions about these issues. But beyond the issues are our relationships with our neighbors. “If it is possible,” Paul urges us, “so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:18 NRSV)

So I offer here a framework within which we who follow Jesus might find ways to “live peaceably” with “all sorts and conditions of persons” while still maintaining the integrity of our convictions.

  1. We see and honor the image of God in every person.

“God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.” (Genesis 1:27 CEB)

Every human being bears the divine image. No exceptions. No exclusions. No weasel words. No fudge factor. Sharing this divine DNA makes all seven billion of us family–for better or worse! That includes all those folks who post their ridiculous nonsense online (and who feel the same way about our brilliant, witty, profound posts); folks from places whose names we can’t possibly twist our tongues around; folks with whom we fit perfectly and folks with whom we clash catastrophically; folks who energize us and folks who drain us; folks with whom we feel welcome and folks who just give us the creeps. All of us, in all our glory and uniqueness, created alike bearing the divine image. All means all. “Damn Christians” practice the spiritual discipline of looking for the divine image, no matter how hidden, marred, or disfigured, in every human being.

  1. We recognize every person as someone for whom Christ died.

“This is how much God loved the world: He gave his…one and only Son…so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.” John 3:16 MSG

Still no exclusionary clause. “…whole and lasting life” is God’s will for each of us and all our divine kin on this planet. Not exactly the message we get from our “I’ve got mine and I’ll take yours if I want it” culture. Claiming God’s gift doesn’t require a dazzling resume or a twenty-page application. It requires only “believing”–trusting with our whole being– that the way of life we see in Jesus leads away from destruction toward more and better life than we’d dared to imagine.

Easy to say, but very hard to accept. Abundant negative evidence exists, much provided by so-called “Christians” in the form of both actions and deadly silence. Our not-yet-believing neighbors want to be told less and shown more. “Believing” takes what God always knew it would take—incarnational evidence.

Orlando hug

  1. We will embody Christ for others through everything we do and are.

 “Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what…When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human!” Philippians 2:5-7 MSG

 That’s all it takes. Just turn my back on this 21st-century  privileged, entitled, “I want it all” culture. Climb down the ladder I’ve worked so hard climbing up. Invest myself in folks from whom I thought I’d managed to insulate and isolate myself. Give up my self-important illusions and just be my created-in-the-divine-image self. All that takes is someone who …didn’t think so much of himself…” “didn’t …cling to…status…” “…set aside…privileges…took on the status of a slave, became human.” It takes some “damn Christian” foolish enough to follow Jesus to places and people most folks say aren’t worth the effort; foolish enough to believe “God loved the world…” means the whole creation and everyone who’s ever been or ever would be a part of it. Some damn Christian like Miss Velma Westbury. According to Will Campbell, Miss Velma often said, ‘”If you just love the folks what’s easy to love,that really ain’t no love at all…If you love one, you have to love’em all.”

“Of course,” Campbell points out, “some folks said Miss Velma was crazy.”

NEEDED–DAMN CHRISTIANS

epa02317367 Taylor Strowger (10) from Darfield explores earthquake damage to Highfield Road, 30km west of Christchurch, New Zealand, on 05 September 2010. It will take at least a year to rebuild the  centre of Christchurch, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said on 05 September as aftershocks continued to rock the city in the wake of a devastating 7.1-magnitude earthquake.  EPA/DAVID WETHEY AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND OUT

The fault lines grow more sharply defined daily in our polarized society. So many of us are so sure we are so right about so much that we’ve spawned multiple versions of “Political correctness”. Their specific content varies according to where we are, whom we’re with, who might overhear us. But all are variations on the theme: “Feel free to express yourself—as long as you don’t say this, do that, go there, embrace and affirm Them.”

 The faultlines fragment our legislatures, our churches, our families, our schools, our workplaces, our neighborhoods, our media. The increasingly bitter presidential race is the loudest, most visible–and most obnoxious?—sign of our fragmentation. Some folks continue to study candidates and issues with an open mind. Others choose to sit on the sidelines. Once again their first choice–“None of the Above”– isn’t on the ballot. But a great many have made their decision, can’t conceive of changing their minds, and speak of those who disagree in terms ranging from impolite and inappropriate to vicious and profane.

OMG IS HE REALLY GOING THERE? WHICH SIDE IS HE GOING TO TICK OFF FIRST?? WILL MY DEVICE EXPLODE IF I KEEP READING??? WILL I GET SO MAD I HURL IT ACROSS THE ROOM AGAINST THE WALL OUT THE FRONT DOOR INTO THE SWIMMING POOL?!?!?

Breathe. Inhale. Exhale.  Again.  Once more. That’s better.

Where should the church stand with regard to our nation’s politico-socio-economic-spiritual faultline? Some say “as far away as possible!” Others urge everyone to study the issues—in private, at home—and vote. And please, PLEASE don’t disturb our peace by mentioning this stuff on Sunday morning. Still others have chosen their side and feel called to persuade everyone within reach. How, we wonder together in our self-righteous holy huddles, could an intelligent person, a sane person, a fully-devoted (thinking-like-me) Christian, a real (thinking-like-me) American, possibly choose otherwise?

Sixty years or so ago our nation found itself similarly polarized. That fault line was black and white, not red and blue. The Civil Rights Movement was begnning to transform every aspect of life in the old South—and beyond, for those who had eyes to see. Folks on both sides were convinced of their side’s absolute righteousness and the other side’s absolute unrighteousness, even wickedness.

In the midst of this foundation-shaking chaos lived a white man named Will Campbell. He’d grown up on a farm in Mississippi. His parents had taught him their Baptist faith—so well that he’d been ordained a Baptist minister at age 17. After serving his country in World War II, he completed his education (Wake Forest, Tulane, Yale Divinity School) and returned to the South. In 1957 Will Campbell was one of four ministers who escorted the Little Rock Nine, the black students who integrated Little Rock, Arkansas public schools. In the late ‘50’s and early ‘60’s he supported, organized, and participated in numerous marches, sit-ins, and other actions. He founded an organization called The Committee of Southern Churchmen, which published Katallegete, a journal whose title is the Greek word translated “Be reconciled” (2 Corinthians 5:20).

In 1965 Will Campbell met an Episcopal seminary student named Jonathan Daniels. Jon was helping register black voters in Lowndes County, Alabama. He and his fellow workers literally risked their lives daily to do what we take for granted today–thanks to the courageous efforts of people like them. One day Will heard that Jonathan and another man had been shot by a sheriff named Thomas Coleman. Campbell’s book Brother to a Dragonfly describes the conversation Will had with his longtime (agnostic) friend P.D. East.. In a previous conversation, East had pushed Campbell to define the Gospel. The result was, “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.”

Now as Will relates the story, P.D. said, “‘Come on, Brother.Let’s talk about your definition. Was Jonathan a bastard?’… I knew that if I said no he would leave me alone and if I said yes he wouldn’t. And I knew my definition would be blown if I said no. So I said, ‘Yes.’

” ‘All right. Is Thomas Coleman a bastard?’ That one was a lot easier. ’Yes. Thomas Coleman is a bastard.’

“‘Okay. Let me get this straight now… Jonathan Daniel was a bastard. Thomas Coleman is a bastard. Right? Which one of these two bastards do you think God loves the most?’

“[P.D’s] voice now was almost a whisper as he leaned forward, staring me directly in the eyes…He leaned his face closer to mine, patting first his own knee and then mine, holding the other hand aloft in oath-taking fashion. ‘Which one of these two bastards does God love the most? Does he love that little dead bastard Jonathan the most? Or does He love that living bastard Thomas the most?’”

The agnostic had led his Baptist preacher friend to–conversion: “I remember trying to sort out the sadness and the joy…then this too became clear.

“I was laughing at myself, at twenty years of a ministry which had become…a ministry of liberal sophistication…denying not only the Faith I professed to hold but my history and my people—the Thomas Colemans. Loved. And if loved, forgiven. And if forgiven, reconciled. Yet sitting there in his own jail cell, the blood of two of his and my brothers on his hands. The thought gave me a shaking chill in a non-air-conditioned room in August.”

Will began to understand how ordinary white people like Thomas Coleman and black people were both oppressed by the racist system in the South. Will began reaching out to “racists”, including Klansmen and their families. He hung out with them, sipped whisky with them, officiated at their weddings and funerals–and took intense heat from both white and black “liberals” who couldn’t understand “we’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway.”

In 1998 Will Campbell attended the trial of Sam Bowers, Grand Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. He was charged (again) with ordering the murders of numerous civil rights activists in the ‘60’s, most notably Vernon Dahmer. Sam Bowers sat alone on one side of the courtroom. Dahmer’s large extended family sat on the other side. During the trial Campbell sat with the Dahmers some of the time and with Sam Bowers some of the time. One day a puzzled reporter asked him why he did that. Will growled, “Because I’m a [damn] Christian.”

So to answer my question—I believe the church’s place relative to the red and blue faultline running through American society is standing tall with our feet planted firmly on both sides. Our place is both with neighbors who are easy to love and with those we struggle to love.  We need some “damn Christians” who know from painful, joyful experience that “we’re all bastards but God loves us anyway”. That love frees us to love our neighbors more than any idolatrously-enshrined political, religious, or ideological orthodoxy. That love can grow a new generation called to share Will Campbell’s passion for “reconciliation”:

…”if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived! All of these new things are from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and who gave us the ministry of reconciliation.  In other words, God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them. He has trusted us with this message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors who represent Christ. God is negotiating with you through us. We beg you as Christ’s representatives, “Be reconciled to God!”  (2 Corinthians 5:17-20 CEB)

               


Categories