Friday, February 12, 2016

Blessed Are the Peacemakers

Syrian children wait to receive aid from humanitarian agencies in refugee camp.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, 
for they will be called children of God.”
Matthew 5:9

It is not much.

But the United States and Russia have announced an agreement to deliver humanitarian aid to besieged Syrian cities suffering starvation after years of civil war. And the delivery of aid would be followed by a temporary halt to the carnage.

Sergei Lavrov and John Kerry repeatedly cautioned that the agreement only exists on paper. “What we have here are words on paper, what we need to see in the next few days are actions on the ground," said Kerry.

The BBC reports five major components of the plan:

To try to immediately step up aid deliveries to besieged and hard-to-reach areas in Syria.
For a US/Russia-led task force to work to achieve a "cessation of hostilities" across Syria beginning in one week's time.
"Cessation of hostilities" will exclude action against so-called Islamic State group, jihadist group al-Nusra Front and other UN-designated terrorist groups.
To work towards an eventual ceasefire and implementation of a UN-backed plan for political transition in Syria.

The agreement does not include ISIS. U.S. allies will continue to bomb ISIS forces. And the cessation of hostilities will not take place for a week, if it takes place at all. As Secretary of State John Kerry observed, “The real test is whether all parties honor those commitments.”

The United Nations has announced its determination to use the temporary (and incomplete) truce to deliver as much aid as possible to besieged cities and towns. And the hope is that this brief respite will be an opportunity for further negotiation aimed at a settlement. Speaking for one segment of the rebel coalition, told reporters, "If we see action and implementation on the ground, we will be soon in Geneva," referring to the Swiss city where the United Nations hopes to broker peace talks between the rebels and the Syrian government.

The cost so far has been staggering. In the almost five years of civil war over 250,000 people have been killed and another 13.5 million refugees have been displaced.

And even in a region known for complicated alliances and allegiances, the Syrian civil war is a special case. Bashar al-Assad is a brutal dictator who has used chemical weapons on his own people, but he is also part of the Alawite minority and the protector of the Alawite people against the Sunni majority. The rebels who oppose him include many fighting for democracy, but the opposition also includes ISIS and those who sympathize with their goals. Assad has the support of Iran and Russia, both claiming to be fighting ISIS, but their major efforts seem directed toward propping up Assad.

The good guys are hard to find, but the suffering is everywhere.

Peacemaking is always difficult. It is especially difficult in the Middle East, where hostilities and antagonisms have been nurtured over centuries. And even by the standards of conflict in the Middle East, the Syrian civil war is in a class by itself.

And the difficulty of peacemaking is compounded because violence always seems so uncomplicated. As one presidential candidate declared with regard to ISIS in Syria, “We will carpet-bomb them into oblivion. I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out!”

Jesus called peacemakers the children of God. He also made it clear that those who waged peace would routinely be slandered and ridiculed. 

When peacemaking fails, we call it naïve. When violence fails, as it has in Syria and throughout the Middle East, we call for more deadly force.

If peacemaking fails, it is evidence that we need more violence.

If violence fails, it is evidence that we need more violence.

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.”
Luke 19:41-42

Wednesday, February 10, 2016


A Guest Column
By Rev. F. Richard Garland
I have a love/hate relationship with Lent. At its best it can foster a healthy self examination that leads to insight and new possibilities. At its worst it is a long, dark, weary slog through the ‘oughts and the shall nots’ of religion. I seldom go willingly into Lent.
Not long ago, I walked into a sanctuary and, there in the center aisle, I was greeted by a basin of water, behind which was a large mirror, upon which was written, “You are beloved.” It was the beginning of the season of Epiphany. In the bulletin there was offered an invitation for people to pause, touch the water, to remember their Baptism and be thankful. We were reminded that, as was Jesus at his Baptism, we are beloved of God. It is a stark contrast to the beginning of Lent when we are also reminded, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Both are true, and it got me to wondering if Epiphany has something to teach us in Lent. 

What if we spent the necessary time of Lenten introspection listening for the deeper, wiser voice that reminds us that we are beloved of God - a season of light teaching us how to cope with the dark.
In the creation story God says: “Let there be light.” The first voice of creation is the voice of life, overcoming the dark, formless void.

In John’s gospel the Word becomes flesh - a light that shines in the darkness. In Luke’s gospel at the baptism of Jesus there is a voice, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” In the Book of Revelation there is a voice from the throne: “The home of God is with mortals.” “I am making all things new.” These are the voices of life, of hope, of Love, of vision - the deeper, wiser voices that bring health and wholeness, physically and spiritually.
In our journey through Lent we are called to listen to these voices - voices that heal, nurture and build up. Otherwise, as Christine Valters Paintner warns: “When we continue to follow the judge or the inner critic, or any of the especially loud and vocal voices inside us, without recourse to the whole range of who we are, we can become depleted by self doubt and insecurity.”
So, where does one start? Where does one go to hear this deeper wiser voice? 

For people of faith there is no better place than the Book of Psalms. The Book of Psalms was Jesus’ prayer book. The Psalms have been the staple of worshiping people for millennia. The Psalms have been a source book for life from the very beginning. There is no dimension of life that the Psalms do not touch. Throughout the Psalms you will encounter the voice of God, in all of its depth and all of its wisdom. How does one start? By reading them of course! Preferably out loud. Why out loud? Because it slows one down. 
By the way, I found a wonderful website - - where you can set up your own reading plan and receive a daily email that includes the bible text for the day. Try it out - go to the site - click on Psalms - set the time frame [I would suggest 90 days] - and check the box for ‘send a daily email’ and voila! You have a reading plan!
The process of listening for the deeper wiser, voice is really quite simple:
+++ Read the Psalms out loud - make note and be open to the voice and words you hear.
+++ Pray: “O God, what are you trying to teach me through these words?”
+++ Reflect on where this deeper wisdom will lead you in your walk of faith. 

In his wonderful little book “Praying the Psalms,” Thomas Merton observes: “The Psalms establish us in God, they unite us to Him in Christ.” “The function of the Psalms is to reveal to us God as the ‘treasure’ whom we love because He has first loved us.” You are beloved!

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Lent Is a Time to Reflect on What Matters Most

Jesus in the Wilderness

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 
Luke 4:1-2

If Lent were a candidate running for President of the United States or President of the ninth grade class, it would come in last. As the pollsters say, it has really high “unfavorables.” Nobody likes Lent. Some of us pretend to like it because we think we ought to, but no one really likes it. 

The observance of Lent among Christians is complicated at best and dysfunctional at worst. In Lent we tend to confirm the worst stereotypes of Christian behavior. We focus on small and petty things. Lent does not bring out the best in Christianity.

The Gospel reading for the First Sunday in Lent is always the temptation story. We read it from different Gospels depending on the Lectionary cycle, but the story is always the same. After Jesus is baptized by John, he is led into the wilderness for a time of reflection and contemplation. It is one of those rare occasions when the accounts in Matthew, Mark and Luke are nearly identical. 

There are two places where we tend to get stuck. The first is with “the devil.” We picture a mythical creature with horns and a tale. And some of us wonder how this can be “real.” Which totally misses the point. Temptation is about what happens inside of us and this was no different for Jesus. In his commentary, legendary scholar William Barclay points out that the struggle takes place within the mind of Jesus, but this does not make it any less real. 

The second place we tend to get stuck is on the last phrase of the second verse in Luke’s account. “He was famished.” And that leads us to the widespread Lenten practice of giving up something we like for Lent. Sometimes it’s chocolate or ice cream or all desserts. If that helps us to meditate on our faith journey then it’s a good thing, but my guess is that most of the time it just makes us grumpy. And grumpy Christians don’t make a very compelling witness.

All three accounts agree on a key detail: it is the Spirit that leads Jesus into the wilderness.

Jesus needed a time of preparation, introspection and contemplation. And we need that, too. It is good, between the hurry of the Christmas and New Year’s holidays and the busyness of the spring, that we pause and reflect. It is a good time to contemplate our fears and hopes for the future, and to remember the joys and sorrows of the past. And in all of that, to ask serious questions about life and faith. What is it that really matters? What do we really care about? How will we put our ideals and our faith into action?

Monday, February 1, 2016

Saving the World: A Reflection on John 3:16

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him
may not perish but may have eternal life.”
John 3:16

Several years ago on a Wednesday morning I was planning the worship service with Kim Wertz, our Music Director at the time, and Carol Reale, who was then and is now our Pastor of Christian Education and Family Ministry. 

As we were talking about the sermon, I said something about how the material was pretty heavy going. And Kim said, “Sometimes when you get into what various theologians or scholars think, I feel like I get lost in the footnotes. It’s good to know about Barth and Fosdick, or whomever, but I also want to know what you believe. It’s not that I’m going to believe whatever you believe, but that I want to know where you are in all of this.”

So I wrote this with Kim’s comment in mind. 

I think it’s important to look at where we are in the tradition and where it has taken us over the years. But it’s also important to say that this is what I believe, and this is why I believe it. Before we look more closely at this text, to use a thoroughly non-Methodist manner of speaking, let me put my cards on the table. 

I believe that we come from God and we go to God. I believe that God is the one who gives us life, and in the end, God is the one who calls us home. I believe in what theologians call universal salvation. My guess is that this is really what most United Methodist pastors believe, if you really press them, but most pastors would not say it as directly as I would. 

I believe that no one is ever lost. In the end, we all go home to God.

My friend Kent Moorehead used to say that every preacher has just three sermons. He or she may dress them up in different ways and present them with different illustrations connected to different biblical texts, but it’s still just three basic sermons. 

The truth is that I don’t even have three sermons. I have one sermon. It’s about the grace of God.

In the Bible, there are passages that speak of God’s grace and others that speak of judgment. There is a tension between them. But in the end, we have to decide where we will come down. I believe that the Apostle Paul is right when he says that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” I believe that has happened and it is the truth on which everything else rests. I believe that grace is the last word.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” It is a beautiful verse and it is one of the best loved verses in the Bible. But it is also a source of division. 

Unfortunately, it has often been used by Christians to give a message of exclusion. In this judgmental reading of the text, the main point is that those who believe in Jesus have eternal life, and those who do not believe, perish. In this reading, the point is not grace, but judgment. 

It is as if the verse said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who did not believe in him would go to hell.” We can see immediately that whatever else it might mean, it cannot mean that. It cannot mean that the point of Jesus’ life and teaching was to expose non-believers and condemn them.

For God so loved the world

God loves the world. God loves what God has made, even though that world has in so many ways turned against God and rejected him. Nevertheless, God loves the world. For Greeks and Romans, this was an astonishing thought. Pagan gods and goddesses were distant, aloof, judgmental, capricious and uncaring. The notion of a compassionate God was a foreign concept.

God loves the universe; the cosmos. God loves people and plants and animals, mountains and rivers and streams, oceans and deserts and prairies and forests. God loves the stars and the planets. And it is more than just the natural world. God loves art and music, poetry and drama, great cities and little villages. God loves technology and science and medicine. God loves civilization and culture and society. It is not always good. It is not always what it should be, but it is still loved by God. And God loves the process by which it becomes something new and better, the progress of the ages. God loves culture in the same way that he loves human beings. We are loved as we are, but we are supposed to change and grow.

That he gave his only Son,

God sent Jesus to show us what God is like, and to teach us what God expects from us. This is the gift of God’s presence among us. Sometimes this giving of Jesus is interpreted as God sacrificing Jesus for us. In this crude understanding of the Doctrine of the Atonement, the idea is that God is angry with human sin, and there must be a sacrifice to appease God’s anger. Jesus takes our place, and dies for us, so that his death pays for our sins.

This crude theology is morally suspect. 

It is as if you, as a parent, had four children. Three of them were impossible. They were mean and cruel. But the fourth child was perfect and was exactly the kind of person you wanted him or her to be. And you were so angry that you were ready to kill the three horrible children, but you decided that you would kill the perfect one instead. And somehow, killing the perfect child would get rid of your anger toward the other three. 

You wouldn’t do that. No parent would do that. And I don’t believe God would do that, either.

Jesus did not die because God was angry with humanity. He died because his perfect faithfulness collided with human sin. He was faithful, even to death. He gave up his life rather than deny who he was or to whom he belonged. His faithfulness challenged Herod and Pilate, and collided with the empire. He held out the Kingdom of God, and highlighted the differences between God and Empire. He challenged everything that was wrong with the world, and for that he was killed. In that inevitable collision, as Paul said, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” But his death was caused by human sin, not by God’s anger.

So that everyone who believes in him

We speak of believing as if it were the same as thinking or guessing. “Do you believe the Red Sox will get back to the World Series?” That is not a faith question. (Okay, maybe it is a faith question, but you get the idea.) We believe that one candidate would make a better president than another. We believe that we need to get enough sleep and exercise.

But believing, in the biblical sense, is not the same as thinking. And it does not mean agreeing to a set of propositions. It is not giving assent to a doctrine. To believe, in the biblical sense, is to give one’s heart. When we say that we believe in Jesus, we mean that we give our hearts to him. If we live in him, he will live in us.

May not perish but may have eternal life.

Eternal life is the gift which Jesus offers to his followers immediately. They can choose to live the abundant life which God offers today and live, from now on, in the unending presence of God. The alternative is to continue in their old lives. The offer holds within it an element of self-judgment. We have to decide where we stand.

We do not become Christians by osmosis. We do not become Christians by sitting next to other Christians, although it helps. We do not become Christians by going to church or by studying the Bible, or by singing hymns, though all of that helps. We become Christians by asking Jesus to come into our lives and deciding to follow him.

In our choosing, we determine our own experience.

We can choose to live consciously in the unending presence of God from now on. Or not. But our decision does not determine whether or not God loves us, only how we experience that. 

God is saving the world. The whole we world. Because God loves the world.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Reconciliation Is Not Indoctrination

So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.
Matthew 5:23-24

Our culture is obsessed with lots of things. When it comes to obsessions, we are multi-taskers. We are obsessed with wealth and fame and power and celebrity. 

But within our many obsessions, sex has a special place.

And within the church we have our own special obsession with sexual orientation.

With all that is happening in the world, from rising income inequality to global warming, from the violence in the Middle East to the violence on our own streets, one might reasonably ask, why has the church focused so narrowly on this issue?

There are really two answers. 

The first is that sexual orientation is not our only focus. We are doing lots of things all around the world that address every major issue faced by humankind. Most of it just flies under the radar because although it is important, it has little entertainment value. 

The second answer is that the treatment of our LBGTQ sisters and brothers is an issue for which the church bears a special responsibility. We have done great harm in the name of faith. Sometimes we have done it inadvertently, or even with the best of intentions. Other times we have done it vengefully and without remorse. But we have done it. It is uniquely our sin.

This is an issue on which we must seek reconciliation before we can faithfully come before God to offer our gifts.

John Lomperis, the United Methodist Director for the Insitute on Religion and Democracy posted a blog with the provocative title: “Are Methodist Sunday Schools, VBS for LGBTQ Indoctrination? Should young children be indoctrinated in LGBTQ ideology in United Methodist Vacation Bible Schools and Sunday schools?”

For information on the IRD, click here

Mr. Lomperis complains that at a Chicago event called “Winter Warming,” the Reconciling Methodist Network, RMN, presented a program for indoctrinating children in the “ideology” of LGBTQ advocates. The article is inflammatory and accusatory, and there are many points where one might reasonably take offense. I want to address just two of them.

The first comes from the title of the blog post. 

The online Merriam Webster dictionary defines “indoctrinate” as “to teach (someone) to fully accept the ideas, opinions, and beliefs of a particular group and to not consider other ideas, opinions, and beliefs.” My Microsoft Office thesaurus lists "brainwashing" and "propaganda" as common synonyms.

My guess is that we don’t want anyone indoctrinating our children with any particular point of view, period. That’s not how we grow faithful disciples or responsible citizens or thoughtful adults.

But I wouldn’t call creating a climate in which children can accept and affirm the diverse family groups and individuals they will encounter in their lives as “indoctrination.”

The second issue relates to gender identity.

Mr. Lomperis tells of the presentation given by M. Barclay, whose name at birth was Mary Ann Kaiser. He writes, “She shared about her own more recent experiences as a transgendered individual who has 'physically transitioned in some ways,' now self-identifying as not conforming to gender binaries and using the pronoun 'they' rather than 'she.' She also gave a broader overview of some of the often confusing aspects of transgenderism, including how part of transgenderist ideology is that people did not change genders but rather they were never truly the gender they were assigned at birth—except for folk in the narrow sub-category of ‘gender-fluid.’”

The reality that some people live with, of never feeling that their biology matches their internal sense of who they really are, is not “transgenderist ideology.” It is their reality. And it is incredibly painful. It is not something one chooses.

He follows his description of the presentation with an apology which is not really an apology. He writes, with parentheses: “(I realize that transgenderist ideology would protest my use of female pronouns for Ms. Barclay. It is not my intention to insult or hurt anyone’s feelings. But when someone is facing what needs to be named as a severe delusion of not recognizing his or her own God-given sex – long recognized by psychiatrists as a mental disorder – true compassion involves helping people come back to reality, rather than “humoring them” by saying anything to encourage or enable their very self-destructive confusion.)”

Contrary to his assertion, transgender people do recognize their own “God-given sex,” just like Mr. Lomperis wants them to; the problem is that the identity that God has given them does not match their biology. It is cruel to insist that they are delusional and that the only solution is for them to sit down and be quiet and pretend that nothing is wrong.

This is not easy. For many of us it is uncomfortable. But it is long past time for us to “leave our gifts at the altar,” and go “and be reconciled.”

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Donald Trump and Seeking Forgiveness

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 
He said to them, 
“When you pray, say: 
Father in heaven, 
hallowed be your name. 
Your kingdom come. 
Give us each day our daily bread. 
And forgive us our sins, 
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. 
And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
Luke 11:1-4

Have you ever asked God for forgiveness?

For most Christians that is not a difficult question.

Some of us might want to clarify the question and explain that we were using symbolic language. But apart from scholarly theological discourse, most Christians would see it as a simple and straight forward question.

The answer is, “Yes.”

And we might follow up by asking, “Is this a trick question?”

Nevertheless, last summer when pollster Frank Luntz asked presidential candidate Donald Trump whether he had ever asked God for forgiveness, he said it was a tough question. But after reflecting briefly, Trump said that he did not think that he had ever asked God for forgiveness.

Since he also says that he regularly attends church, we might wonder what he thinks he is doing when he recites the Lord’s Prayer.

Apparently this does not matter to a vast number of Evangelical Christians, who consistently name him in public opinion polls as their favorite candidate.

Go figure.

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni writes: “Let me get this straight. If I want the admiration and blessings of the most flamboyant, judgmental Christians in America, I should marry three times, do a queasy-making amount of sexual boasting, verbally degrade women, talk trash about pretty much everyone else while I’m at it, encourage gamblers to hemorrhage their savings in casinos bearing my name and crow incessantly about how much money I’ve amassed?”

Bruni goes on to observe that the Donald “just about runs the table on the seven deadly sins. He personifies greed, embodies pride, radiates lust. Wrath is covered by his anti-immigrant, anti-“losers” rants, and if we interpret gluttony to include big buildings and not just Big Macs, he’s a glutton through and through. That leaves envy and sloth. I’m betting that he harbors plenty of the former, though I’ll concede that he exhibits none of the latter.”

More recently, on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Jake Tapper asked him about some of the attack lines being used against him, including that statement that he has never asked God for forgiveness.

Trump was unfazed by the question. “I have a very great relationship with God,” he said. “I like to be good. I don’t like to have to ask for forgiveness. And I am good. I don’t do a lot of things that are bad. I try and do nothing that’s bad.”

In Romans, Paul writes, “There is no one who is righteous, not one . . . no one does good, not even one.”

But then again, Paul never met the Donald.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Unarmed Truth and Unconditional Love

I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. I believe that even amid today's mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men. I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered can build up. 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." I still believe that We Shall overcome!
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 
Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, December 10, 1964

Near the conclusion of his State of the Union speech, President Obama spoke about his hopes for our country and he talked about how he was “inspired by those voices of fairness and vision, of grit and good humor and kindness that have helped America travel so far. . . .  Voices Dr. King believed would have the final word — voices of unarmed truth and unconditional love.”

He talked about how he sees those voices “everywhere I travel in this incredible country of ours.” 

“I see you,” he said. “I know you’re there. You’re the reason why I have such incredible confidence in our future. Because I see your quiet, sturdy citizenship all the time.”

And then he listed the places and the ways and the people in whom he sees these voices of unarmed truth and unconditional love:

“I see it in the Dreamer who stays up late to finish her science project, and the teacher who comes in early because he knows she might someday cure a disease.

“I see it in the American who served his time, and dreams of starting over — and the business owner who gives him that second chance. The protester determined to prove that justice matters, and the young cop walking the beat, treating everybody with respect, doing the brave, quiet work of keeping us safe.

“I see it in the soldier who gives almost everything to save his brothers, the nurse who tends to him ’til he can run a marathon, and the community that lines up to cheer him on.

“It’s the son who finds the courage to come out as who he is, and the father whose love for that son overrides everything he’s been taught.

“I see it in the elderly woman who will wait in line to cast her vote as long as she has to; the new citizen who casts his for the first time; the volunteers at the polls who believe every vote should count, because each of them in different ways know how much that precious right is worth.”

It was a moving moment.

As a pastor, and specifically as a United Methodist pastor, I found my attention focused on that vignette of the son “who finds the courage to come out,” and the father “whose love for that son overrides everything he has been taught.”

Sadly, the Christian church generally and United Methodists specifically, have too often been responsible for teaching fathers and mothers to reject their gay sons and daughters. 

There is language in our United Methodist Book of Discipline which is supposed to mitigate that rejection, but when we tell people that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” some amount of rejection is inevitable. 

Bill Ziegler was a great United Methodist preacher, whom I was blessed to have as a mentor and friend. He was a tireless advocate for social justice and for the inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the church and in the culture. Whenever we debated an issue like this, he would always caution us to remember, “this is a human being you’re talking about.” 

For Bill, it was always personal.

In our debates about how we deal with the “issue” of sexual orientation in the United Methodist Church, we often talk as if we have forgotten that this is about human beings. We are debating the inclusion or exclusion of human beings.

In the end, it’s not about polity, or doctrine, or the Book of Discipline. In the end, it’s not about the authority of scripture (though on that score we can be reasonably certain that love wins), it’s about human beings.

Over the centuries the church has often fallen short of what it ought to be as the Body of Christ in the world. That’s not because the church is more fallible than other institutions or communities, it’s because our expectations are so much higher. But this is a mistake we need to correct.

Unarmed truth and unconditional love need to have the final word.

We need to be the community that gives the son “the courage to come out,” not the institution that teaches the father that he cannot accept who his son is.

This is about human beings and we need to get it right.