Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Citizens First of the Kingdom

Not long after I came to Asheville, the Republican Men’s Club of Buncombe County invited me to their breakfast meeting to tell them about myself and my hopes for our church’s future.  It’s not my practice to speak at meetings, formal or informal, of political parties, but the man who invited me was a member of this church and someone I liked and respected.  He assured me that there was no hidden agenda, no intent to identify me with any particular candidate or issue, and no expectation other than I meet the folks who would gather and get better acquainted.  I decided to go. 

We met in the back room at Cornerstone Restaurant, and I enjoyed talking with the men at my table over pancakes and coffee.  After the plates had been cleared from the tables, my friend introduced me, and I began my talk in what I thought was a lighthearted way.  I said: “I was born in West Virginia and spent a lot of time there as a boy.  I remember that, in my maternal grandfather’s kitchen, over the little table where he drank his coffee in the mornings, there were two pictures.  Over his left shoulder was FDR who, according to my grandfather, saved him and his family from starvation in the Great Depression.  Over his right shoulder was a painting of Jesus Christ, who, my grandfather said saved him from sin. Every morning when I was at his house, those three faces—Jesus, FDR, and Papa Fred—looked at me as I had my cheerios. I can see those faces this morning as I speak to the Republican Men’s Club of Buncombe County, and none of the three is smiling at me.”  

It was supposed to be funny.  I thought it was.  I was the only one who thought it was.

In fairness, the men there didn’t know me, so they didn’t know that, while I have strong political opinions, I also understand that God doesn’t play favorites with nations or political parties.  As we commonly say, “God is neither an American nor a Democrat nor a Republican.”

I don’t believe that, if the Democrats were unhindered by Republicans that they would create a society characterized by the Sermon on the Mount, and I don’t believe that, if the Republicans faced no opposition from Democrats, that they would make a culture where everyone kept all ten of the Ten Commandments. Political parties are made up of human beings, which means that they are collectively as capable of sin and stupidity as any individual human being, and they are also capable of wisdom and goodness.  The fellows at the Republican Men’s Club didn’t know how little stock I put in either, or any, party, even though, at the same time, I think political involvement is an important responsibility for all of us.

I spoke to those Republican men in October of 2001, and you remember what had happened in September—on 9-11—of 2001.  All of us who gathered for breakfast that day were reeling from and grieving over the terror attacks which had recently shaken our nation and the world.  There was a lot of talk about impending war, “going after the terrorists,” and giving up some of our civil liberties in order to feel safe.  Laughter was hard to come by in those days.

So they didn’t know me, and the times were tense; but as I left Cornerstone that day, I also thought how our political culture was making it harder for us to work together to solve our problems.  It was true then, and it is true now, that most Americans are, when they aren’t forced to choose left or right, Democrat or Republican, blue or red, are middle of the road pragmatists.  We want to do what works will work to solve our problems, make our communities safer and our schools better, build and maintain a solid economic base, take care of people who can’t take care of themselves, protect people against discrimination, ensure equal and civil rights, and defend ourselves against violence and crime.  

The more locally we can work on our problems, the better solutions we come up with, because we know each other, see each other in the grocery store, sit in the same bleachers at high school football games on Friday nights, and serve each other the Lord’s Supper on Sunday at church. 

But, the broader the arena, the more polarized we become—to the point that, on the national level, the polarization is paralysis; it often seems that the only things which get done are the kinds of things which ensure that nothing gets done.  

The polarization and paralysis of our national politics are in the news we read and hear every day.  All the posturing, position-taking, and partisan name-calling on the national level have an effect on how we see each other closer to home.  We forget our commonalities and magnify our differences; we let the divisions of Washington, D.C. become divisions in our communities and families and, even, our churches.  These days, I think sadly, most churches are blue or red; there are hardly any “purple” churches left, and I think it’s a real loss.

I have a modest hope: I’d like for us to realize, or realize anew, that, as followers of Jesus, we are citizens first of the Kingdom of God and only afterward citizens of our nation.  Our primary loyalty is to the kingdom—the rule and reign, the will and way—of God made known in Jesus.  The agenda of that kingdom always transcends, something judges and sometimes affirms, all our “political” arrangements.  For a Christian, there is nothing ultimate about politics, and a Christian recognizes that governments, political parties, economic theories, and foreign policies, like all things human, “fall short of the glory of God.”

Since it is true that our first and enduring commitment is to the kingdom of God, I think Gregory Boyd, a Minnesota pastor and sometime seminary professor, got it right when he said, in The Myth of A Christian Nation: “The distinctly kingdom question is not, ‘How should we vote?’  The distinctly kingdom question is, ‘How should we live?’”   (pp. 47-48)

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter and Our Need for Hope

We have a deep and pressing need for hope. 

It takes hope for parents to bring a baby into the world, to hold a little one in their arms and to become, from that child’s first breath, the people most responsible for providing what that child needs and for shaping how he or she feels about the world and about God.

It takes hope to help a friend or family member who struggles with addiction—to believe, on the one hand, that he can quit drinking or drugging or excessively spending or dangerously overeating; and, on the other, to know that he can only do it meaningfully if you don’t try to do the impossible, which is to do it for him. You and he need hope that there are health and happiness on the other side of your tough love and his hard work.  Otherwise, you’ll give up when it gets really challenging, and so will he, and the vicious, downward cycle will start again.

It takes hope to begin a new job in a strange place with people you don’t know—hope that, somehow, God and you, in partnership, can fashion your work into a means of growth and becoming, not just of putting-in time and earning a paycheck.

It takes hope to undergo heart bypass surgery or chemotherapy, to get out of bed and take those first painful and halting steps after knee replacement, and to return to routine after a harrowing season of depression.

It takes hope to make a new home out of a new house, to rebuild a shattered life, and to forgive, yet again, people whose ability to hurt you exceeds their capacity to understand the ways they do. 

It takes hope to walk to a grave, leave a loved one’s body there, and return to the home you once shared, but where you now live alone.

We have to have hope—the feeling that there is welcome ahead of us and not rejection; a conviction that mercy will mend all our brokenness, and a confidence that grace will set-right all that we got wrong and all that went wrong. 

For me, Easter is the assurance that hope lives on the other side of even the bleakest despair. It is the promise that love is stronger than fear and that life is more enduring than everything which threatens it.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

A Blessing for Holy Week

Take heart and hope from the promises of this Holy Week: when you feel good and glad, Jesus joins your parade of celebration.  When you gather at the table with people who love you, Jesus is there; he serves you the bread, and he offers you the cup.  When you pray in loneliness and fear, Jesus weeps and bleeds with you.  When you feel on trial and condemned, he stands with you as your advocate and friend.  When you have gone down, down as far as death, you have not gone past the reach of Jesus’ saving love.  In him you rise, and you live. Go into this week with the assurance that, whatever it brings, Jesus will bring you through it and into full and joyful life.  Amen.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Freedom from Self-Consciousness

Several years ago, I realized that, for a long time, I had been fighting-back tears whenever I would see children run gleefully around a playground or hear them squeal with delight as they played, or notice their wonder over wildflowers, squirrels and birdsong.  It would happen, too, when I listened to a choir of children sing at the top of their lungs without embarrassment or when I saw a kids’ soccer team take the field with buoyant energy.

For a good while, I assumed that the tears must have welled-up in me because I was grieving something I had lost in childhood but couldn’t quite name as an adult. 

Then I noticed, though--and I know this is odd--that I would also get misty-eyed when I saw big men (having been big most of my life)  doing outrageous things—sometimes consequential outrageous things and sometimes silly outrageous things.  When John Goodman would waltz around the kitchen on “Roseanne,” or John Belushi would sing and dance like a wild man in his Blues Brothers’ routine, or Willard Scott would dress up like Carmen Miranda or Ronald McDonald or take off his toupee on national television, or Luciano Pavorotti would sing without restraint, I could hardly contain an odd mixture of joy and sadness.

What, I wondered, did playful children and these big men doing outrageous things have in common?  For a few moments at least, they “forgot themselves”; they were free from the burden of self-consciousness.

Jesus said we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves; and it’s also true, I think that we should love ourselves as we love our neighbors.  It’s right and good to include ourselves in our circle of wise and tender care.  “Self-care,” though, is not the same thing as “self-consciousness.”

When we are mired up in self-consciousness, we worry constantly about how we will appear to others, what they will think of us, and what they will do to us.   We live cautiously and carefully, not taking risks, because we might fail, and not dreaming dreams, because they might not come true.   Self-conscious people learn to defend themselves and hold themselves back from life.  

When Jesus calls us to “deny ourselves,” he’s inviting us, in part, to let go of our “false selves.”  I also think he’s offering us the gift of freedom from the burden of self-consciousness; he’s pointing us toward the exhilarating experience of “losing” ourselves in marvels, mysteries, joys, and wonders which are greater than we but which graciously include and welcome us. 

Friday, April 4, 2014

Toward All Thnigs Made New

As I make my slow way through this frequently labored and often labyrinthine Lenten season, I am grateful that Resurrection lures us toward the future which it has already opened-up. Light and hope stream into our present circumstances;  they show us that love is visible even in the dark, assure us that presence speaks through silence, and promise us that courage flows along with tears.  With the pull of the future, the magnetic power of Omega, and the open arms of the Risen One, today becomes the passage to eternity and ordinary things become tokens of miracle. I am sustained by the awareness that we  live, not toward nothing, but toward all things made new.     And I am so grateful.