Archive for January, 2016

Happy Birthday

My mother Rosalie Higgs was born Jan. 19, 1913. She died Jan. 2, 2012, shortly before her 99th birthday. My brother-in-law Mike Bunch put together the collage below as his way of giving thanks for her life. But his website ( refused to cooperate this morning when he was ready to post it. So I’m doing that for him on behalf of our family. FYI the picture in the lower right-hand corner shows Mike taking Mom for a motorcycle ride at Mike and Kathy’s wedding reception. Mom was approaching 90 at the time.




Unarmed Truth and Unconditional Love

Sometimes a phrase grabs me and won’t let go–like last Tuesday as I listened to President Obama’s State of the Union message. I was listening with about one-and-a-half ears when I heard “…unarmed truth and unconditional love…” “Never heard that before,” I thought to myself. “Unconditional love” isn’t new. Granted, it’s talked about far more than practiced. But “unarmed truth”? That phrase took me completely by surprise. And the more I reflect, the more I discover that the two together have a synergy far greater than their individual parts.

Toward the end of his speech, the President challenged  us—all 300+ million of us–to participate actively in public life by voting, volunteering, and adding our diverse voices to the conversation. “That’s the country we love,” he said. ”Clear-eyed, big-hearted, undaunted by challenge, optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” A few minutes later, He said that when his term ended, I’ll be right there with you as a citizen—inspired by those voices…that have helped America travel so far…Voices Dr. King believed would have the final word—voices of unarmed truth and unconditional love.” He said it again! The phrase comes from Martin Luther King’s 1964 Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. That is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.” 


I hear a ringing Christian affirmation in Dr. King’s words. True, he doesn’t explicitly mention God or Jesus. But he affirms the servant lifestyle of “unarmed truth and unconditional love” that we see in Jesus and all who follow him. He proclaims Easter faith—“…right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”—and ultimate hope—“…unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word…” Our President embedded in his message a strong mini-sermon for “all who have ears to hear…”, including persons of other faiths and no religious affiliation who share our practice of “…unarmed truth and unconditional love…”

 “Unarmed truth” is assertive, not aggressive. It speaks up for itself, meets challenges to itself and challenges untruth. It attacks issues rather than persons. “Unarmed truth” respects individuals and their freedom. It does not manipulate or coerce. It speaks passionately and persuasively, shares its message freely but not invasively, and its “talk” is consistent with the talkers’ daily “walk”. “Unarmed truth” does not “sell” or “market” itself. It simply, clearly, unapologetically offers itself to “all who have ears to hear”. It welcomes dialog and listens actively to other views. “Armed truth”, on the other hand, doesn’t do dialog well. It tells all within reach that it is the only real truth. Its relentless conviction of its own absolute rightness runs roughshod over everything and everyone in its path. Religiously, “armed truth” claims exclusive access to the “correct” vision of God, the way to salvation, etc. Such exclusiveness rejects the validity of any other opinion or approach. Politically, “armed truth” continually constricts freedom in order to systematically and self-righteously eliminate all opposition. Dictatorships throughout history have used “armed truth” to claim and consolidate their power. Today terrorists like Al Quaeda and Isis seek to achieve power through the violent propagation of their own “armed truth”. Their efforts are ultimately doomed just as those of the present and past dictators of Iran, Libya and other African states, assorted Central and South American regimes, Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany—and others you may name.

I hear a very specific definition of “truth” beneath Dr. King’s words: “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life’.” (John 14:6 NRSV) Christians believe that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection embodies God’s Truth about God, humanity, and our relationships with God and each other: “…the Word became flesh and lived among us…full of grace and truth… grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:14, 17 NRSV)

Grace and truth go together. Unconditional love is one definition of grace. The Creator loves each and every one of the 7 billion+ of us who occupy this planet. Every human alive, previously alive, or who will live in the future, bears “the image of God”(Genesis 1:26-27). Just as all humanity has in common 98% or so of our DNA, so we share the spiritual DNA of the Creator of all that is. Tragically, human history can be read as the story of the family of God fracturing and re-combining over time into families, tribes, nations, religions, and various assorted ingroups and outgroups. Those groups offer their members and allies conditional love that’s not really love at all. They (we)play nice when it suits them. But their (our) ultimate goal remains to impose their “armed truth” on others, usually at a frightful human cost.

Yet every so often one of us, a few of us, or a whole host of us rise up to say, “NO! We can live differently.” Dr. King led one such movement in this country beginning in 1955. When he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Gunnar Jahn, Chairman of the Nobel Committee, described him as“…the first person in the Western world to have shown us that a struggle can be waged without violence…the man who has never abandoned his faith in the unarmed struggle he is waging, who has suffered for his faith, who has been imprisoned on many occasions, whose home has been subject to bomb attacks, whose life and the lives of his family have been threatened, and who nevertheless has never faltered.”

In his acceptance speech, Dr. King shared the vision that energized him: “I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land. And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and ‘every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid.’”(Micah 4:4)

I hadn’t planned to write a piece for Martin Luther King Day. But sometimes the material (and the Spirit?) lead in another direction. Will you join me in renewed commitment to “unarmed truth and unconditional love”? Take some time somewhere this holiday weekend to reflect on the shape of those qualities in your life, your family, your church, your workplace, your neighborhood, wherever you live your life. Who else might share your commitment?  What transforming difference can you make together?

Above all, never doubt that “…unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”

Christians and “American Rage”

Anger 2

Grassroots politics in our country just keeps getting angrier. The anger has simmered for years, fueled by opportunistic politicians and talk-radio commentators. In this election season presidential candidates across the spectrum are fanning the flames. Unfortunately, they appear more interested in transforming the anger into votes than in finding lasting solutions to the issues generating the anger. “American Rage”, an Esquire Magazine/NBC News joint survey, asked a diverse group of 3000 Americans their views regarding a wide range of current issues. I encourage you to read this study in detail, to consider its implications for our life together, and of course to raise questions where warranted.

“American Rage” identifies three main factors shaping our collective anger:

  • Experience of unfair treatment–70% of blacks, 48% of women, and even 21% of white men expressed anger about the way they are treated in this country.
  • Empathy measures our concern about how others are treated. Blacks and Hispanics surveyed reported the most anger about how various other minorities are treated, while Whites reported the least anger about the treatment of other groups.
  • Expectations refers to disappointment and frustration with regard to one’s current situation and future prospects: “Are you disappointed? Do you feel stifled and shortchanged and sold a bill of goods? Then you’re probably pretty angry. Consider the white men and women in our survey: From their views on the state of the American dream (dead) and America’s role in the world (not what it used to be) to how their life is working out for them (not quite what they’d had in mind), a plurality of whites tends to view life through a veil of disappointment… we see the anger of perceived disenfranchisement—a sense that the majority has become a persecuted minority, the bitterness of a promise that didn’t pan out…”

 How do Christians relate to this collective anger? Some of us ignore it and hope it goes away. After all, politics isn’t very “spiritual”. And didn’t Jesus say anger was pretty close to murder? “You’re familiar with the command of the ancients, ‘Do not murder.’ I’m telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder.” (Matthew 5:21-22 MSG) So let’s not even go there. We’ll suppress it, repress it, deny it, ignore the anger of “those people”. anger 3

Some of us plunge into the fray and choose up sides that fit our theological and/or political views. Decades of experience have taught me that church people can fight as dirty as anybody—even politicians! Still, we may feel some guilt about mixing it up with folks. We have a dim memory of that Bible verse: “Be angry or do not sin.” Then somebody reads us the real thing: “Be angry and do not sin.” (Ephesians 4 :26 NKJV) Now we’re confused! Aren’t “anger” and “do not sin” mutually exclusive? How—in God’s name–can we hold them together?

Another translation says (and continues), “Go ahead and be angry. You do well to be angry—but don’t use your anger as fuel for revenge. And don’t stay angry. Don’t go to bed angry. Don’t give the Devil that kind of foothold in your life.” (Ephesians 4:26-27 MSG) Anger and other feelings are neither good nor bad in themselves. We may express feelings lovingly or unlovingly, healingly or hurtfully, etc. It’s not the anger. It’s the poisonous hate festering deep inside; our careful nurturing of resentment; our targeted hate that identifies the person with whom we’re angry with the issue that divides us. “Be angry and do not sin.” Address the issue—promptly, clearly, lovingly (well under 100 decibels!). Speak your piece and be sure your neighbor knows you will listen to him/her/them as intensely as you have spoken. Be angry over the issue and be equally clear that the other is, like you, a beloved child of God—no matter how maddening their recent words or deeds!

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Anger without sin

  • Does not dehumanize, demonize, disrespect, diminish, label, or stereotype the other. It recognizes each person’s full humanity and treats him/her/them as we would expect to be treated if the situation were reversed.
  • Is not all about me. It seeks God’s will, not my self-justification. It seeks the best outcome for all.
  • Isn’t a winner-take-all fight-to-the-death. Its goal is collaboration, constructive action, community-building, and reconciliation.
  • Willingly listens to differing perspectives. It knows that mutual understanding and respect are the foundation for consensus or at least agreeing to disagree agreeably.

We who follow Jesus can offer a unique witness in our angry, polarized society. Father Richard Rohr’s writings express the shape of this witness. His Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico organizes its life around Eight Core Principles. Two of them especially fit this discussion. No. 1–“The teaching of Jesus is our central reference point.” Yes, anger is close to murder. Our murderous heart wants to obliterate that other person, we just haven’t acted on it. “The teachings of Jesus” also include “Love your neighbor as yourself”, “Love your enemy…”, and others that make it hard to stay (self-)righteously polarized.

Core Principle No. 3 states, “The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better. Oppositional energy only creates more of the same.” In fact, the more “oppositional energy” we generate, the more we lose sight of the most vulnerable people in our society. This principle challenges us to follow another way. Instead of playing down to the opposition’s level, let’s raise our game and challenge others to live and relate at that higher level.

In the first century Paul called Christians in Rome to “the practice of the better”: “If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody. Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do… Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he’s thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness. Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good.” (Romans 12:18-21 MSG)

“Be angry and do not sin.” What does that look like in your family; your workplace; your neighborhood; your church? How will you pursue “the practice of the better” where you live your life?