Guarding Each One’s Dignity

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As my siblings and I grew up in church youth groups, we learned a moving song in a minor key that still holds meaning for me, especially in these critical times: We Are One in the Spirit. There’s a verse in it that has returned to me in light of current events:

We will work with each other; we will work side by side; (repeat)

And we’ll guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride;

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love;

Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

Dignity 

On today’s social and political stage, we don’t see much evidence of people treating one another with dignity, much less, love! I can point to news stories of would-be immigrants in crowded, unsanitary detention centers, parents who sell videos of their children to sex traffickers, and the desecration of the historical marker over the site where Emmett Till was murdered. In addition, very recently, I watched in horror as President Trump unleashed attacking tweets against four duly-elected congresswomen, spewing racist comments and showing his ignorance by calling for these U.S. citizens “to go back where they came from!” Then, even when vigilant fellow Americans called him on his rhetoric and behavior, he triple-quadrupled down, never apologizing, exhibiting no remorse, and, by his silent waiting during his rally, encouraging members of the audience to join in when some chanted, “Send them back!” He certainly was not treating these public servants with dignity, nor acting in a dignified way!

This is a major problem given the high ideals of our democracy, and for a nation “under God!” Most obviously, when people are not treated with dignity, we have stomped on the opening words of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [people] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The lack of dignity in the public sphere is also a theological problem. The Hebrew scriptures, particularly Genesis 1, instruct us that ALL people are created in the image of God, the Creator, and therefore, worthy of justice and respect. Plus, Jesus enjoins us in the Gospels to love one another as God has loved us, each one and everyone. From this cornerstone credo comes the religious teaching that “the exercise of freedom belongs to everyone because it is inseparable from his or her dignity as a human person” (Catechism of the Catholic Church), and the more secular United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Other religions also prioritize human dignity; in the Quran, for example, Moses and Jesus are “role-models of dignity because they did not abandon their self-respect by bowing to social pressures.” (Wikipedia)

Indignant

I immediately felt indignant last week when the tirade against Omar, Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, and Pressley unfolded on our television screens! It took me back to dealing with schoolyard bullies who always seemed to identify and pick on those they considered most vulnerable (those of whom they were ironically the most afraid).

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Unfortunately, these four congresswomen were easy targets to Donald Trump, being female first of all, women of color, one a member of a minority religion, and all of them bearing the kind of names that the President trips over, lazily calling them instead, “the squad.” These legislators articulate positions and promote policies that he abhors, but, unwilling or unable to honestly debate the rationales that motivate and direct them, he played to old tropes of race and socialism, aiming at the lowest common denominator.

When the President of our country picks this kind of fight, it surely doesn’t promote dignity amid our differences or unity in our plurality! Enlightenment thereby eludes us.

“Indignant” turns out to be the exact right word for my emotion in the face of such hostility because it derives from the Latin: “in” for NOT and “dingus” for WORTHY. When in everyday life we experience the exact opposite of dignity, it is natural to feel indignant.

While these women are completely capable of taking care of themselves, I noticed how I wanted to leap to their rescue. Childhood instincts kicked in, and I was tempted to somehow defend them by returning evil for evil. I wanted to do something or say something that would insult the bullies, cut the critics of the women to the quick, and convert the guilty. Of course, the theological principle of dignity applies as much to me, even in my moral outrage and self-proclaimed righteous anger!

“Somewhere in us a dignity presides that is more gracious than the smallness that fuels us with fear and force.”

John O’Donohue

Dignified

I felt better when, rooting for them from my living room, I watched the dignified way that the four women conducted themselves during their press conference.

UnknownThey put their constituents first, addressed the real issues, reiterated their love of country, and accurately described the tweets from the Oval Office as intentional distractions. (Upon further reflection, I think President Trump’s ultimate goal in this goading was to paint the entire Democratic Party with the broad brush of ‘socialism,’ in order to simplify his coming campaign for re-election.) These Representatives did not retreat; they did not rant.

After all, none of us can control what others will do with their power. We cannot guarantee that what we say will change their minds and hearts. Only the image of the Divine within them can do that. But we can always exercise our own freedom and power in a manner that adheres to the reality of inviolable human worth! We can always respect others, even when they dis-respect us. As difficult as it is to do, this is really the only rewarding way to proceed. 

It is an active endeavor, then, for Christians to become one in the Spirit, to work with others side by side, and to guard each one’s dignity as the song promotes. When there are affronts to God’s image in all of us, we who are claimed by Christ cannot give into easy distractions, or hide in passivity, or settle into silence!

Each of us must do what conscience dictates, of course, but I’ve found myself creating a dignity to-do list in the wake of this particular infraction. To actively guard each one’s inherent spiritual dignity and practice democracy, I plan to register on their websites my commendation of the four women, and on the White House comment line, my displeasure over the racially-charged tweets. I will also pray for President Trump, for the Congresswomen, and for our nation. In other words, by God’s grace and image within, I commit to show up, stand up, and speak up, with dignity.

 

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Oh, God!

During this bonus time between interim ministries, Steve and I have had more free evenings, and we have watched more movies. Sometimes, we select older films.

Oh, God! poster

The other night, we had a hankering to re-view “Oh, God!” The 1977 movie directed by Carl Reiner stars John Denver as Jerry Landers, an assistant grocery store manager, who receives a written message from “God” out of the blue, summoning him to an interview. Jerry can’t quite forget this strange invitation and goes to the appointment. He locates the stark white office space, hears a voice through the old-school intercom, and sits down in its lone chair, wondering what would come next. The voice introduces itself as God and quickly tries to recruit Jerry to get the word out that God exists, cares about creation, and wants us to look after each other and the world. Later, God appears to him visually, in a human form that Jerry is more likely to find relatable and believable – as an old man – played by the comedian George Burns!

At many points in their mission adventure, Jerry finds himself confused and at his wits end, but God always shows up to help. Then, after the trial scene when God has appeared and talked to the people gathered in the courtroom, Jerry and God don’t connect again to compare notes or to take the mission further. Jerry is seemingly left on his own to convince the people who had been present to believe their own eyes and ears. Without benefit of the vision and the voice of the Divine, he has to personally lean on faith too. Jerry loses his job, and as the family is driving out of town, moving to a new home, Jerry hears the phone ringing in a booth by the road. He stops, and God greets him.

A detail I noticed this time in watching this scene was Jerry’s delight. His eyes twinkle and he smiles from ear to ear, so genuinely happy to see his divine friend. I imagine Jerry saying, “Oh, God, it is so good to see you again!” It is a touching encounter, one that all of us have had in sweet reunions with friends or family. It is clear that the two characters have shared the most poignant of experiences and have grown close. Keeping company with each other through wonderful and tough times, they forged a bond that makes this moment of reconnection precious.

Granted, this movie is an anthropomorphized fantasy about communication with God, but I wondered whether my relationship to God could become like this through prayer, one in which I would sorely miss and eagerly await the time together. I think of the sentiment of the hymn writer, William Walford: “Sweet hour of prayer, sweet hour of prayer, the joys I feel, the bliss I share of those whose anxious spirits burn with strong desires for thy return.”

I begin most of my spontaneous, personal prayers with “Oh, God.” “Oh, God, can you help me be patient and kind?” “Oh, God, thank you for a loving family.” “Oh, God, the color of the flowers out my window are so beautiful!” Anne Lamott calls “Help,” “Thanks,” and “Wow!” the three essential prayers. To her categories, I would add stream-of-consciousness prayers, ones in which my mind wanders from thought to thought and topic to topic almost without regard to the listening God. Another type is laments: “Oh, God, when will injustice recede and your will be done?”

Anne Lamott book cover

The kind of prayer relationship with God that I have just described is admittedly more about me asking, expressing, speaking, and wanting something from a Higher Power than about my waiting or listening for God’s word. I may not say anything out loud during these private moments, but I still fill all corners of the time with petitions and self-absorbed pleas. When I am busily engaged in pastoral ministry, though, I come across many situations in which I need divine assistance, and even through this imperfect, inequitable prayer relationship, I often find that the serenity and guidance that I desperately need comes to me across the day when I have begun it on my knees. A significant ingredient in the joy Jerry Landers feels upon the return of the Almighty is that these two have walked together through the ups and downs of doing mission in the world.

On the other hand, my habit of prayer as described above is not as mutual as is the  two-way conversation between Jerry and God. If I’m the one doing all the talking, where is the give and take, and how will I ever hear God’s replies, challenges, or calls to action?! While I believe that the loving God turns to the voice of all her children in all circumstances and that we ought not be preoccupied with praying perfectly, I also realize that my usual pattern of prayer needs some adjustment. Right now it is lacking in silent listening and simply resting. By portraying God as a comedian in relationship with a reluctant apostle, the movie “Oh, God!” allows us to see what dialogical prayer might be like and, as the Bible does, shows us the kind of relationship that abiding in Christ fosters.

To enter this new dialogical spiritual dimension, I think that at this stage of life I must even more consistently practice contemplative prayer. Instead of treating my personal prayers as I do my professional ones, filling the time with my thoughts, words, and wants, editing and polishing the text and sharpening my technique, my growing edge is to wait in silence before God, to trust Love, and listen for what the Friend I cherish will tell me. Before saying “Oh, God,” I need to sit in the open spaces of generative quiet.

 

Praying By Candlelight

A number of years ago, I began to light a taper candle when I would sit to read or pray or write. Doing so reminds me of the presence of God, and the flame is mesmerizing; it creates in me a blessed stillness. With the lit candle next to me, it is also as if I have a silent, soul companion, which allows me to feel less anxious and to receive inspiration for the day and the task at hand.

Candlelight on a table:desk

I look at the candle longer during these moments of meditation than when we light candles on other occasions, and I began to notice how the match flame catches to the wick and sizzles, how the wick soaks up the melting wax like fuel, how the flame itself is multicolored, and how the top of the candle becomes luminous as it is consumed. It struck me that a taper candle is a finely tuned, light producing system, one to which a human life might be compared.

lit taper candle full length

Thus I started envisioning the wick as the soul or essence of me running down through the ‘candlewax’ of my work, relationships, and daily life. The flaming match represents the spark of God, and when it touches the wick ‘in me,’ my own light is born. So it is that who I am and how I am living in my body and in the world in relationship to the flame of the Spirit becomes a witness to others. If air currents are calm, often my light witnesses to this stillness and reaches upward, growing brighter, but sometimes even the breeze from a window threatens to extinguish it. On yet other mornings, my candle flame pulsates and seems to dance with joy before my eyes, allowing me to ask myself what kind of witness I am actually bearing.

So it is that praying by candlelight gives me the opportunity on any given day to assess my spiritual state and invite God’s grace into it, the lit candle serving as a sort of spiritual director. If the wick is buried in the pileup of the stuff of my life, for instance, I can “dig” around in prayer to free it and catch the spark. If the flame is terribly erratic, I can pray about the troubles in society and seek serenity.

In the early years of this spiritual practice, I also watched in suspense as the candle burned down over time. I observed how the wick can catch hold even at the bottom of the taper, and by the generosity of God, the little nub of a candle can still produce a large flame of bright vigor. Finally, at the moment the melted wax gives its all and the wick is no more, the flame simply goes to dark, emitting yet a wisp of rising smoke, like prayerful incense before God, and leaving the gift of profound peace in my soul.

candle flame to wisp of smoke

(This piece was just included in the summer spiritual practices booklet produced by the Christian Education committee at Trinitarian Congregational Church, Concord, MA.)

What are we going to do today, God?

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This isn’t a childhood picture of me, but at times I look like this little girl, because from a young age, I have rubbed my hands together briskly when I’m excited or getting ready to do something new or interesting. My 60th birthday tomorrow. Starting a new interim ministry next week. It’s possible that I picked up this habit from my father, but now it’s all mine, and it has even come to carry theological meaning.

You see, during my years of ministry, my hand habit expanded. When I work on the sermon, for example, and I sense the message coming together, I spontaneously rub my hands. It has become a reliable sign of the movement of the Holy Spirit. Whenever I perceive that God is up to something and I’m participating in it, well, it’s a personal, down to earth eschatological moment (see my last blog post).

In this same vein, I recall a friend’s story. Jim is a seasoned educator, and at one time, he was in charge of the media resources for his elementary school. There was a student there – we’ll call him Mark – who didn’t fit in too well with his classmates or in the structure of the traditional classroom. Teachers were having trouble with him, and Jim offered to try to relate to him, enlisting him as his student assistant. The two would travel from class to class, meeting their audiovisual needs, and Mark flourished in this learning environment. Every morning he’d come to school early, find Jim, and, probably rubbing his hands together, ask: “What are we going to do today, Jim, what are we going to do today?”

It occurs to me that if we believe in a living, loving, leading God, every day will be new and full of potential, Jesus Christ will be the good teacher, and the Holy Spirit will be flowing through the channels in and between us, just waiting to be noticed. What would it be like to have such faith? To live like this? I imagine it would be an adventure, one of putting our hands together in expectation, asking: “What are we going to do today, God, what are we going to do today?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eschatology Down to Earth

 

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Over the past few months my personal bible-reading has been the gospel of Mark. Early on, I was so taken by the Common English Bible’s translation of Mark 1:15 that during my reading of the subsequent doings and teachings of Jesus, I would read each pericope aloud and then, like a liturgical refrain, insert Mark 1:15:

NOW IS THE TIME! HERE COMES GOD’S KINGDOM!

CHANGE YOUR HEARTS AND LIVES, AND TRUST THIS GOOD NEWS!

This refrain summarizes Jesus’ preaching and teaching – his gospel – and, as I suggested in the post of last month, it captures the anticipation that surrounded Jesus’ ministry. But what did he mean by it?

Did Jesus mean that in that moment and in him personally, God was fulfilling the Jewish hopes for the arrival of the Messiah? Did he mean that somehow, not then clear, yet imminently, God’s kingdom would arrive on earth? Or in another dimension? Before or after their individual deaths? Apart from him or only through him? Did he mean that it would come whether they were ready or not? Or did their changing and trusting usher it in, even in the slightest?

 alpha-and-omega-eschatology

These are not all the possibilities of interpretation by a long shot! Indeed, it’s no wonder that so many schools of thought have arisen over the nature of God’s Kingdom. “Eschatology” is the theological term that refers to the study of the end things, the future of humanity and creation, and the Kingdom or Reign or Rule of God, and by my count there are at least nine approaches or types.

Realized eschatology conceives of the Kingdom as having already arrived in Jesus and his ministry. The Preterist view thinks of God’s rule as having occurred in the past too, but particularly that the events in the book of Revelation point to historical people and events that happened in the first and second century. A futurist would say that Jesus meant that the rule of God would take place in the future, and of course there are variations on this idea. Imminent eschatology thinks of the Kingdom as soon and in-breaking. A historist would emphasize its future nature, but the second coming on a specific date that one might determine through prophecies, and a millennialist (of which there are numerous kinds) anticipates a thousand years of Christ’s rule, either after or before his second coming. An inaugurated eschatology is a stance that combines the reign arriving now and not yet; Jesus ushered it in and it is growing, either through the efforts of the church or by mysterious means, but its fulfillment is still to be. Besides these types, there are those who hold to the Kingdom of God as a symbol of an ideal, experienced by us spiritually, but not necessarily a social instantiation on earth as it is in heaven.

I did not ask the participants in my dissertation project – the members of the case study congregations – to reveal their personal or congregational eschatology, and they did not explicitly name the “Kingdom” or “Reign of God” as that which was motivating or empowering their transformation as church. However, they described their church life before transformation efforts as having been negative, turned inward, dull, confused, lost, and even dead – God was not real to them – but since their prayerful efforts at change, church had become positive, turned outward, vibrant, and more clear; they felt “found,” and alive, and they gave God/Jesus Christ/the Holy Spirit the credit for the change.

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In the here and now, I contend, they were experiencing the living, loving, and leading God. Because they had experienced the Divine at work and active in their midst, they had a present and a future to look forward to. In Markan eschatological terms, they had changed their hearts and minds, and were now trusting God’s lead (reign/kingdom). It was my conclusion that they were practicing the reign of God, allowing God to rule, or in other words, dancing to the lead of God in the present, while awaiting its completion in God’s good time.

What these congregations experienced is a transformation that is available to all of us – an eschatology that is faithful to the good news of Jesus and worthy of our yearning and participation. I think this down-to-earth, dancing eschatology is one that can especially nourish the church of today. To trust the leadership of God above all earthly leaders, to test the spirits through the Holy Spirit as we move together in the world, and to know that as individuals and as the church, we can avoid getting stuck in the status quo or in our own impatience is really good news, just as it was in Mark 1:15, plus a really good way to live what Jesus meant!

 

Anticipation in New Years and Epiphany

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I really like this picture of the blue cityscape with fireworks in the sky because it visually reminds me of both New Years and Epiphany. The two always fall in the same week on the calendar: the New Year on January 1 and Epiphany on January 6, but in our thoughts and actions, I think we usually keep these secular and religious holidays separate from each other. Even though colorful fireworks usher in the New Year and a bright, singular star, Epiphany, we think of January 1 as being for recovery and resolutions, while Epiphany is about the Light shining in the darkness, the Magi bowing to the Christ child with gifts, and the baptism of the adult Jesus in the Jordan River. Where’s the link? Well, I think one thing connecting the two days is anticipation.

This coming Sunday, for instance, the first after the Epiphany, many folks in the pews will hear anew the story of Jesus’ baptism, this year from Matthew’s version. The lead up is John preaching about the Reign of God: “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the Kingdom of Heaven!” (Common English Bible) It was their anticipation of God’s leadership in their time that drew the crowds and Jesus to that liminal river to be baptized. It was anticipation that their world could be different, sin and foolishness washed away, and their own lives new, full of light and purpose!

For some people a new year stirs up anticipation and serves as that sort of threshold. They hope that in and of itself 2017 will give them the verve to realize their goals and dreams. The changing of the year does do this, I’m sure, to a degree, but I find that I need more fuel for the long haul than just typing that new number on the emails I send. So to sustain my feelings of anticipation, excitement, and hope, I find myself returning to the sacred story.

After Jesus’ baptism and that glorious beginning, the same Holy Spirit that had descended upon him in the form of a dove drove him into the wilderness where the temptations surfaced. I think of that period when a New Year’s resolution to lose weight meets the discipline of working out and eating less, only way more so. Jesus comes up against his deep and largely hidden desires for fame and power, the limits of the flesh, and enticements to abuse divine authority. This is the crucible that not only he has known, the intersection where one’s anticipation of the Reign of God is forced to learn the discipline of letting God actually rule!

This is the between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place, where the rubber meets the road, when push comes to shove, when one has to cut bait or fish, and John realized it, even when he issued the invitation to the water. On the Jordan boundary between the former things and the Promised Land, he declared: “Here comes the Kingdom of Heaven. Change your hearts and lives.”

To receive and experience the Kingdom that we say we so anticipate, to forgive ourselves and others, to be new, and in order for 2017 to be a truly different year, you and I must change our hearts and lives, that is, practice following the lead of the Holy One whom we love, through hunger, temptation, and wilderness, here and now. Indeed, at the very crux of the anticipation of God’s leadership fulfilled on earth as it is in heaven is us taking the extended hand and actively praying, moment-to-moment, with Jesus.

Your will be done” is the surest and strongest connection between New Years and Epiphany.

open-hand-thy-will-be-done

 

 

How do we witness boldly in the aftermath of the elections?

No matter who you voted for November 8, if you claim to be a Christian and you are part of a church community, you are asking yourself: “What should/can I do now, in the aftermath of the elections?”

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Like many Christians (not all, I realize), I was both surprised and deeply concerned after Donald Trump won the electoral college, and it has taken a while to process my feelings and the facts, and to develop some footing for future action. The Sunday before we voted on Tuesday, I was glad to hear from the pastor of our home church, Hope Central Church in Jamaica Plain, MA – not knowing at that point just what the outcome of the election would be – that our church sanctuary would be open on Wednesday for people to gather in silence “after the noise” of the contentious campaign. This was what was needed. People came, and from the surrounding community as well, to rest in the Holy Spirit and to regroup. In my view this was a simple and profound, non-politicized act of witness to the reign of God.

The research I conducted with congregations in transformation showed that one of the things that changed about them from before transformation to the present was their new practiced belief that church is to be about witness. Church is not just for them. They lived into this shift through twelve areas of church life. Worship was now about witness, education was about witness, welcome was about witness, etc., as well as was their increased visibility and action in the wider community. Their witness in word and deed also became bolder than it had been when they were in the throws of decline. As I reflected theologically upon the way they were now practicing their beliefs, and sought to name that to which they were now bearing witness, I concluded that it was to the good news of God’s leadership/reign – the good news that Jesus proclaimed and embodied.

In my estimation, this season of our country’s life calls for more than the kind of comfortable silence that supports the status quo, or a superficial unity. It requires bold witness from people of faith, the kind that is prayerfully grounded in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, reflects the reign of God, and is Spirit-led. As such, your bold witness will be contextualized to your church and your community. It will arise with integrity from your gifts, but amplified, and it will transform you as much or more than others. It will be a witness of integrity; strategic, never violent, and for the long haul.

goldfish-taking-a-risk

So in my context, were I pastoring a congregation, I would push my shy self to:

  1. Boldly gather circles of conversation, even across political differences and surely across color, class, and gender, in order to process the elections together, understand one another, and find common ground; maybe even to discern the lead of God for action. Yes, participants would indeed need to agree to behaviors of “generous listening” (Susan Garrett) and respectful speech, building their capacity for such in the process of this dialogue.
  2. Boldly stand vigil in solidarity and advocate for “the least of these” as Jesus commanded (credit for this thought to Rachel Bell). Following this call of Christ will mean witness not in words alone, but service unto the poor, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned…and to those who are most vulnerable and afraid for their safety in the wake of campaign rhetoric and life experience: people of color, immigrants, Muslims, and LGBTQ sisters and brothers.
  3. Boldly speak and write, with respect and compassion, about our deepest moral values. To me, this means describing what the world would be like if what God wanted was desired and done, that is, to draw a compelling picture of what Jesus prayed for: “the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven.” What does that world look like? And as compared to what we have now? Exercising the courage of the Holy Spirit, you and I and our congregations can ask this question out loud at appropriate junctures, and we just may provoke Amen Action from others as they catch the reign of God vision.mercywitnesslifetogether