Archive for the 'Martin Luther King' Category

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.”

Transformed NonConformists, the Creative Maladjusted, and the Spirit

For the secomakingdisciplestransformationnd year in a row I’m helping teach our church’s Confirmation class. Confirmation in the United Methodist Church (and some others) invites students in middle-school and above to take a deeper look at Christian faith. Ideally these young men and women will  “confirm” as their own the Christian faith they’ve learned from their families and their church. We’re about a month away from our church’s Confirmation celebration. On that great day, these youth will join twelve million other United Methodists in our mission “… to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. “ (2012 United Methodist Book of Discipline, Par. 120). They’ll share our mutual promise to support this mission with our “prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness”. While this generation’s discipleship will reflect their God-given uniqueness and the times in which they live, they’ll also show a strong “family resemblance” to previous generations of the Christian community.

The world in which we live and serve as “disciples of Jesus Christ” hasn’t stood still during our four-month journey. It’s continued to change at a pace somewhere between breathless and chaotic. Much of that change runs counter to our vision of “the transformation of the world”. I wonder how well we’ve equipped our students for their/our transforming mission. Doing church “the way we’ve always done it” won’t work any better than it has for the last few decades. Our class is learning the Church’s traditions. One we often fail to teach is that God is “making all things new” (Revelation 21:5) and invites us to partner in that continuing process of God’s Spirit uses God’s people to tell the Christian story in new ways that touch peoples’ hearts and “make new” our ever-changing world.

Jim Wallis wrote recently about an inter-racial, ecumenical gathering on the 48th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination (April 5, 1968) at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Ebenezer is the church both Dr. King and his father served for many years. Wallis’ closing remarks that evening included some of Dr. King’s own words: “This hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists … The saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority… Human salvation lies in the hands of the creative maladjusted.” (Strength to Love)Transformed NonconformistDr. King described the post-Easter church perfectly! Jesus’ first followers formed a community of radical sharing. They welcomed the poor, the crippled, everyone their Jewish religious leaders had labeled “unclean”. Then Peter and Paul threw open the doors of the church to Gentiles—the most unclean of all! And that was just the beginning. These “transformed nonconformists” were out to change everything!  I would argue that the Spirit moves more often through out-liers than through the Establishment:

  • In 5th-Century Ireland pirates captured a Christian named Patrick. This “nonconforming minority” of one got to know his captors so well that he translated the story of Jesus into their own cultural expressions and eventually baptized many of them.
  • In Germany in 1517 a “creatively maladjusted” young monk challenged the massive Christian monopoly known as the Roman Catholic Church. Martin Luther’s boldness ignited a revolutionary transformation in the Church of Jesus Christ.
  • In early 18th-century England two seminarians invited fellow students to form an intentional community. These “Methodists”, as their critics called them, set out to live a more disciplined Christian life together. They embraced their new name. John Wesley wrote the words for the new movement, and his brother Charles wrote the music. John struggled for a while, but eventually experienced a personal transformation that focused and energized his ministry. The “nonconforming minority” called Methodists grew into today’s global Methodist movement that is millions strong.

The history of the Church is full of “nonconforming minorities” and “creatively maladjusted” communities like the Desert Fathers, the Mennonites, Clarence Jordan and Koinonia Farm, Howard Thurman and the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, Henri Nouwen and L’Arche Daybreak, Sojourners Community, Cecil Williams and Glide Memorial Church. Beyond these headliners, millions of very ordinary followers of Jesus share God’s transforming love in Christ each day in countless ways all over our planet.

Last fall I wrote about “Doing Jesus’ Laundry”.  Fifteen-year-old Caroline Gowan needed a community service project to complete requirements for a Girl Scout award. Caroline and her mother regularly made their own laundry detergent, and donated some to their church’s food  pantry. Clients welcomed it because it saved them some money, but they still spent up to $20-30 every time they went to a laundromat. Caroline thought, prayed, studied—and formed a plan. She arranged to use a local laundromat one afternoon a month. She enlisted her church’s help with donations of money, supplies, and volunteers. She spread the word as widely as she knew how. Last June “Loads of Love” began washing clothes and sharing God’s love in Bonaire, GA. They come in with dirty laundry,” Caroline says, “and leave with a renewed spirit and clean clothes…I feel like not only am I doing something for the people around me and that I am doing something for people I don’t even know, but that I’m doing something for the Lord. I am doing Jesus’ laundry!”

A few daysJesus Laundry ago I heard from Caroline’s mother! She’d seen my post. Caroline had received her Girl Scout Gold Award. “Loads of Love” continues “doing Jesus’ laundry” in Bonaire, GA and many other communities. Last Friday,” Michelle said, “27 volunteers from her family joined [Caroline] to serve the people in this community in honor of our grandmother and her legacy of service. Cousins came from all over the state and we had a family reunion at the laundromat. We began the night with $250 in quarters and when we left, we had done dozens of loads and had $315 in the box. There is no way to explain it other than ‘loaves and fishes math’. One thing she knows; God wants her to continue this ministry”. 

Thank God for “transformed nonconformists” like Paul, Peter, Patrick, Caroline Gowan, and all the rest! Thousands of youth are in Confirmation classes like ours this Spring. May the Spirit form them into “transformed nonconformists” serving our God who “makes all things new”!

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.”


Last Thursday shock and horror at 2015’s forty-fifth school shooting shook our nation. That’s a horrific pace of more than one a week. “Prayers for Oregon” memes flooded Facebook. A visibly shaken and angry President Obama spoke to the press and the nation about our collective failure to take meaningful action to stop this deadly trend. Self-interested parties on all sides immediately restated their long-held polarized positions. Mr. Obama’s sentiments echoed the many spiritual leaders who called challenged us to move beyond prayer to action. Sixteen years after Columbine, ten years after Red Lake, eight years after Virginia Tech, the millions of words we’ve thrown at the issue as we’ve talked around and past each other have failed to prevent 142 school shootings since Sandy Hook.          blessed-are-the-peacemakers_t_nv

Yes, for God’s sake and the sake of potential future shooting victims, let’s move beyond prayer to action. “Beyond prayer” doesn’t mean not praying. For me it means maximizing the synergy of active prayer and prayerful action. Prayer informs, shapes, and fuels our action. Action drives us deeper into prayer as we seek God’s will while we are active in many different ways and settings. A colleague of mine shared this prayer on her Facebook page: God of love, you give us minds to think, hearts to love, and a soul which longs to know you. Help us listen to your voice in addressing the violence which permeates our culture, and give us the strength and will to do what you ask of us, to bring hope and healing. In Jesus’ name. Amen. (Rev. Sharon Ragland, 10/3/15) 

Beyond prayer to action—what action? Let us who claim to follow the Prince of Peace covenant together to return to our roots as a peace-full people. Let us take seriously Jesus’ call to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9), to love our enemies, (Matthew 5:44-45), to choose reconciliation and restoration over retribution (Matthew 5:17-48). Let us grow together into a peace-full people marked by peace-full words, deeds, thoughts, and prayer. We talk constantly about personal “peace with God” and “peace of mind”. But we haven’t learned (been willing to learn? been taught?) a robust biblical understanding of Shalom that embraces all human activity and indeed the whole creation. Peace-full people refuse to isolate personal “peace with God” from God’s continuing mission to bring peace and wholeness to all Creation. As long as any of God’s precious children are caught up in chaos and violence, my personal peace as a follower of Jesus, a peace-maker, is disturbed.

The Hebrew word “Shalom” is frequently translated as “peace”. But the word’s complex meanings include “peace”, “soundness”, prosperity”, “wholeness”, and more. Eirene” is the predominant Greek word for “peace” in the New Testament. It carries Shalom’s richness and enriches it further with insights like this: “Christ is our peace. He made both Jews and Gentiles into one group. With his body, he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us. He canceled the detailed rules of the Law so that he could create one new person out of the two groups, making peace. He reconciled them both as one body to God by the cross, which ended the hostility to God.” (Ephesians 2:14-16 CEB) Yes, the passage speaks about the Christian community. But that process of reconciling a broken human family is God’s mission for the Church and God’s dream for all humankind (2 Corinthians 5:17-21).

Peace-full action by a peace-full people involves (re)discovering and (re)committing to peacemaking and “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18). What a stark (and welcome) contrast to “…the violence which permeates our culture…”! United Methodist Bishop Robert Hoshibata wrote to members of our Desert Southwest Annual Conference shortly after the Roseburg shooting. One of his suggested steps “beyond prayer” was Bible Study. He lifted up a three-session study, “Kingdom Dreams, Violent Realities”. Of course three sessions are just enough to start the conversation. But no journey begins without that first step. Let us also rediscover the peacemaking tradition in Christianity. It includes early Christians who found service in the Roman army incompatible with their faith; historic peace churches like the Mennonites and Quakers, and more contemporary advocates of nonviolence including Thomas Merton. Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., William Sloane Coffin, and many more. Let us reclaim our fundamental identity as peacemakers and reconcilers in the Spirit of Jesus. We will experience invaluable “on-the-job training” as we share deeply-held convictions, seek common ground and shared truth, and struggle to understand and love brothers and sisters with whom we disagree passionately.

Our beginning conversations about how we follow Jesus as peacemakers in this society will lead us into deeper dialog regarding our attitudes toward war and the military; the depiction of guns and violence in contemporary culture; about whether allowing our children playing video games (or watching us play) where the object is to kill a human being (even a cartoon) is compatible with becoming peace-full people; about capital punishment and prison reform; about how we live peacefully in our congregations with diverse and sometimes polarized opinions; and much more.

Bishop Hoshibata’s letter quoted the hymn “God of Grace and God of Glory:

“Cure thy children’s warring madness, bend our pride to thy control;

Shame our wanton, selfish gladness, rich in things and poor in soul…”

Bishop Bob (as he invites us to call him) stopped there, but I’m sure he’d support adding the final verse:

“Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.

Let the search for thy salvation be our glory evermore.

 Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, serving thee whom we adore,

Serving thee whom we adore.”

May Harry Emerson Fosdick’s words open us to “…listen to your voice in addressing the violence which permeates our culture, and give us the strength and will to do what you ask of us, to bring hope and healing. In Jesus’ name. Amen.”



Beyond “Je suis…”

Folks like me who speak minimal French have had one phrase burned into our memory: “Je suis”—“I am”. Following the January 7 terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo, millions identified with the victims: “Je suis Charlie”—“I am Charlie”. The related attack on the kosher grocery store amplified the sentiment: “Je suis juif”—“I am a Jew”. People all over the planet stood in solidarity with those victims of terrorism and anti-semitism. The following Sunday’s massive demonstration brought together world leaders who agree on little else. That day in the streets of Paris they stood side-by-side for freedom of expression and against terrorism and violence. “How long,” I wondered, “will all this solidarity last? When will this news cycle end and self-centered business as usual return to center stage?”

Then I wondered further: “Je suis—folks we usually squeeze out of our circle?” “Je suis Michael Brown? Eric Garner? George Zimmerman? Trayvon Martin? The homeless folks lined up outside the shelter waiting for it to open?  Their colleagues who hold handmade cardboard signs at busy intersections? Je suis those on the far side of our social, cultural, generational, religious, and ideological divides? You know, the folks we can’t talk to without yelling but love to talk about. (It’s always easier to talk about “them” when “them” aren’t present. Besides, labeling “them”  prevents or at least postpones the discovery that “them” are every bit as wonderfully and maddeningly human as we are! Every breach in the “them” barrier reveals how much like “us” are the dreaded “them”. Stereotyping labels don’t’ stick to folks with names, faces, and lives so much like ours.)

In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, I see hopeful ripples of “Je suis…:”

  • January is a month designated for education and action to stop the global epidemic of human trafficking. Slowly but surely folks are getting the message.
  • I heard a Golden-Globe winning actor describe how the experience of making “Selma” taught him at a deep level that “I am” the marcher hit by the fire hose, the person facing excessive discrimination as he/she seeks to register to vote, the congregation whose church is fire-bombed, and all the other characters in that continuing drama.(Sorry, I don’t know his name. I’m celebrity-challenged).
  • The developed world loudly mourned the events in Paris, but paid far less attention to Boko Haram’s latest brutal attack in Nigeria. The terrorists slaughtered hundreds, perhaps as many as two thousand. The United Methodist Bishop in Nigeria affirmed that Sunday demonstration for the twenty or so victims in Paris. But when, he wondered, would he see comparable support for Boko Haram’s victims. (Not so far, have we?)
  • We just celebrated Martin Luther King Day. The next day (yesterday) our nation’s first African-American president gave the State of the Union address. That’s huge progress. But we have so far to go. Have the black-white struggles of recent months set the stage for faithful conversation and action? Will we finally move beyond the ceremonial nods-to-the-cause that politicians of all stripes have learned to deliver in mid-January? When will a critical mass emerge to follow Dr. King’s lead with bold moves toward deep and lasting healing of the racism that infects our society—and our planet?

One word—INCARNATION. The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.” (John 1:14 The Message) We celebrate Jesus’ birth because he grew up to become our window into the heart of God. That living window reveals God’s presence in every aspect of our life, and in every life. “Black lives matter” along with every other “sort and condition” of humankind. Rich and privileged lives matter. The least favored and most despised among us matter just as much. All of us who share this planet matter equally to God because every human life contains a spark of God. That’s how our Creator created us: “God created human beings; he created them godlike, reflecting God’s nature.” (Genesis 1:27 The Message) That “reflection” has been dented, scratched, almost totally obscured over time. But Christmas reminds us who we are in God’s sight–“created…reflecting God’s nature”–all of us. ”Little Lord Jesus”  invites us to treat each other with appropriate respect so that reflection may be renewed in us and all within our reach.

We Christians get out that word Incarnation every December. A few weeks later we put it away  in the garage with all the other seasonal trappings. (My wife says that’s next on my to-do list.) But some rebels among us keep at least one nativity scene out all year. It proclaims “Incarnation!” 24/7/365. Incarnation affirms the sacred worth of every human life. Incarnation affirms that the God who’s moved into our neighborhood in Jesus came to heal the terminal illness (sin) that afflicts humanity and grotesquely distorts the reflection of God’s nature. That purpose may be delayed but not defeated. We see that reflection laser-clear in Jesus. That “reflectivity” is in every person, even the ones in whom we see no trace. Ask God to help you see your neighbor, your enemy, the strangers you usually ignore, with God’s own eyes. As we look deeply for that “reflecting-God’s-nature”-ness in other people, we’ll  start seeing them differently.

Soon we’ll be ready for the next step. We’ll move beyond “Je suis”—“I am…” to “Nous sommes une famille”—“We are family”. “Family” share the same DNA—the same creator, so to speak. We can choose the causes we identify with—free speech, democratic society, etc. But we can’t choose family. It’s a deeper, permanent relationship. Transformative change comes as our circle of “Nous sommes une famille” grows ever wider.

I have no master plan to get 7 billion-plus people to that point. But you and I can begin with ourselves and the people in our lives. If you’ve put all your nativities away, get one out. Keep it in plain sight all year. Teach your family and your guests why it’s there. Be an evangelist. Teach the curious a little French: “Nous sommes une famille”. Then watch and wonder as one early Christian’s witness happens before your very eyes: “The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness; the darkness couldn’t put it out.” (John 1:5 The Message)

While We Were Dreaming…

What a great celebration for the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. King’s stirring “I Have a Dream” speech. I hope and pray that we’ll see widespread renewed commitment to achieving that dream. We’ve made remarkable progress in the last fifty years. But while we’ve been celebrating in recent days, I’ve been reminded how very far it is to that time when “…justice rolls like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” (Thank God Dr. King listened to singer Mahalia Jackson’s urging to dump his manuscript and tell the Spirit-inspired truth. May more of us preachers tune our ears to hear such voices and our hearts to follow their lead!)

Some recent experiences got me thinking along this line. Last Friday the son of some friends of ours chose to end his life. He’d battled mental illness for years. His family had fought the battle alongside him. Along the way they’d discovered the dismal lack of resources, funding, and caring available to those who suffer from mental illness. Today yet another family mourns its tragic loss because we choose not to provide sufficient resources to meet the basic health needs of some of our most vulnerable neighbors. Want to know more? The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill is a good starting point.

Last Monday my wife and I spent the day with long-time friends in Tucson, Arizona. When we had some time to fill before dinner, we decided to visit the nearby Titan Missile Museum.  The Titan II missile was developed and deployed in the early 1960’s. Launch sites were built around Air Force bases in Tucson, Little Rock, Arkansas, and Wichita, Kansas. Each of the 54 sites housed a single missile equipped with a 9-megaton nuclear warhead capable of destroying everything within up to 900 square miles when detonated. The hardened silo and underground control center were designed to survive a first-strike and still be able to launch a retaliatory strike.

These missiles supported our defense policy of Mutual Assured Destruction. Very simply, US leaders believed that if we could keep the Russians convinced that any missile attack launched on this country would be met with a response that would inflict unacceptable damage on their country (not to mention the rest of the planet!), they would never fire the first shot. And if we believed the same about their capability, neither would we initiate an attack.

In the 1980’s the missiles were phased out, due to a combination of arms reduction treaties and technological advances that made the Titan II obsolete. All the sites have now been de-commissioned. The other 53 have been dismantled and converted to other uses. Vista de la Montana United Methodist Church is built on one former Titan II site north of Tucson!

This museum is the only Titan II site still relatively intact. I’m grateful for the service of all who built and maintained these sites over the years. The retired Air Force members who were our guides recalled their service proudly. My father-in-law worked at this particular site as a civilian contractor for two years.  But the musem reminds us of a disturbing chapter in our history. The US and the USSR spent countless billions on the deadly game of nuclear chicken we called Mutual Assured Destruction. It truly was MADness. For me, going down in the missile control center and experiencing a simulated launch wasn’t the game our guides tried to make it. It was a chilling reminder of the MADness of which we humans are capable. Right now that madness is playing out in Syria, Afghanistan, Egypt, and Washington D.C.. Too many times in too many places we have chosen to fight rather than to recognize the other’s humanity and do the hard work of finding a way to live together in peace. We’ve stepped back from the brink of imminent nuclear holocaust, but we still have the firepower to destroy life on this planet. We must find another way.

In the midst of it all Miley Cyrus took the stage. I didn’t watch the VMA Awards. But I heard and saw more than enough. Some agent/talent guru convinced Miley that debasing and disrespecting herself would advance her career. Her handlers clearly loved dollars and ratings more than their client. Was Miley so brainwashed by our hyper-sexualized culture that she went along? Did she buy into a success-at-any-cost mentality? Has she so little respect for herself as a woman? Did anyone in her life love her enough to speak up:  “Is this really what you want to do? This isn’t who you are. I believe you have enough talent to connect with your audience in a way that’s mutually respectful instead of mutually degrading.” The issue goes beyond Miley to all the young girls who will see her and follow her lead, and all the young men who will take Robin Thicke for a role model.

While we were “dreaming” and reaffirming Dr. King’s vision of a new world, these nightmares and others continued unabated. Fifty years ago Dr. King spoke of “the fierce urgency of Now” when he called us beyond talk to substantive action. President Obama echoed the words and the call in his speech on Wednesday. Maybe your life doesn’t have much “fierce urgency” at the moment. But mentally ill people and their families and caregivers do. So do other vulnerable members of our communities who scramble for scraps and leftovers of time, money, and attention. The  victims of violence and war in this country and many others feel that fierce urgency. So do the women and men victimized by our hyper-sexualized culture. So do lots of other folks with lots of other equally pressing issues.

We may not be feeling much “fierce urgency” for ourselves right now. But we’re easily within reach of someone who is. Our Risen Lord is already at work in these situations. He’s expecting his followers—you and me—to join him. Let’s not make him wait any longer. When we drag our feet, we deny Dr. King’s dream that is also God’s dream for the world.