Friday, February 17, 2017

Why Ashes, and Why Give Up things for Lent

Ash Wednesday - this year, falling on March 1st - is later in the calendar year than in many years, so I wanted to take advantage of the extra time to write a couple of "pre-Lent" messages about Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent. 

Two of the most frequently asked questions about Ash Wednesday and Lent are 

1) Why do we put ashes on our foreheads? and 
2) Why do we give up things for Lent?

More about #2 next week, but a short answer to #1 is that we put ashes on our foreheads because ashes are a sign of mortality and penitence. 
"Mortality" means, bluntly, that at some point or another, we will die. "Penitence" means taking stock of one's misdoings. 

Ash Wednesday, it is said, is a kind of Christian Yom Kippur - and as Rabbi Alexis Roberts says of that day, 

"Many say we're practicing to be dead: looking over our values, accomplishments, and failures as though it was all over and now we have to make an accounting." 

"Thinking about our mortality" is NOT the same thing as "being morbid," although those two words share the same root. Morbidity has to do with thinking about our unhealthy state; mortality has to do with thinking about the fact that we are mortal. And the point of thinking about our mortality is to maximize the time we have on earth: to seize the day; to embrace and do all the good we can. 

Ash Wednesday can therefore be thought of as an invitation from the church to have your annual spiritual checkup. 

#2: Why do we give up things for Lent? 

Again, more about this in next week's e-vangelon, but a short answer is we give up things for Lent for a very simple reason: to find out what we've become unduly attached to; to find out what has a hold on us...to find out what things, people, and habits we have allowed ourselves to settle for, as substitutes for an adventure with God. 

So -- as we hear each year during the Ash Wednesday service -- we are encouraged, during Lent, to take seriously the ancient spiritual practices of prayerfasting, and almsgiving.

The point of prayer, fasting from certain foods and alcohol, and giving alms (giving away more money) is not to make ourselves suffer, it is to learn something about ourselves. To learn what has a hold on us.

God is a God of freedom, and following God and God's commandments (such as praying, fasting, and giving away money) does not restrict our freedom, it can lead to true freedom and deeper joy.

In other words, the intention of spiritual practices like contemplation, fasting from certain foods and alcohol, and almsgiving, is meant to help us explore the mystery of our hearts, and by so doing, transform our lives. 


Until next week...

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Let's Unpack One Trump Tweet on Refugees


No one can  -- and I certainly don't want to try -- to unpack every tweet the person currently holding the office of President of the United States sends out.

No one has the time to respond to every one of his tweets on just one issue. Although I wish I had the time on the issue of the Executive Orders recently issued in regard to refugees.

But every so often I feel I MUST respond to at least SOME of those tweets, lest I grow accustomed to them as normal. And I refuse to normalize the abnormal. 

Take one of Saturday's tweets, for example: in response to Judge Robart's temporarily stopping an Executive Orders, there was this: 



“What is our country coming to when a judge can halt a Homeland Security travel ban and anyone, even with bad intentions, can come into U.S.?” 

Let's unpack: 

"What is our country coming to..." 
  • Does that lament sound familiar? Ask yourself: who often says it, where do you hear it from the most? Is it a positive, hopeful line of thinking? I will give credit to Trump for being "on message" here: it's a "Make America Great Again" appeal, an appeal for some indeterminate time when America was great. But that claim relies on a lack of specificity: when was that time, exactly? What decade? And who was it great for? Gays? Blacks? Women? 
  • "What's our country coming to" is a general, unspecific lament that things are turning to crap. That we're "coming to" or "heading toward" something awful.
  • "What is our country coming to?" invokes a sense of dread: imagine if someone said, at your dinner table, "what is our family coming to?" You'd be alarmed, right? You'd say, "what do you mean by that, what's the matter?" It's alarmist language
  • Alarmist language is manipulative. "What is our country coming to..." begins like, and sounds like a question -- Trump's tweet ends with a question mark -- but it's really not intended to invite a response so much as it is intended to be an expression of deep anxiety. Again, if someone said "what's this family coming to?" at your dinner table, it'd be difficult to go on talking about anything other than that person's question/statement. It's a conversational hijack. 
  • The power of the lament/anxiety relies almost entirely on a lack of specifics: it breaks down when engaged. 
..."when a judge can halt a Homeland Security travel ban..."
  • Pay attention to the implied "possessive" -- to whom does Donald Trump want us to believe the travel ban belongs? Homeland Security, that's who. Notice he doesn't say "...when a judge can halt my travel ban..." or even "...when a judge can halt my Executive Order..." His intention here is to wrap his travel ban in the good graces of Homeland Security. Make it seem "my executive order = homeland security." 
  • Remember, though, the "Homeland Security travel ban" was only a travel ban because Homeland Security was instructed to -- required to -- implement the Executive Order. With the order stayed and Homeland Security no longer implementing it, it can't be said to be a "Homeland Security travel ban." 
  • The judge halted a Donald Trump travel ban, and its constitutionality is being challenged in court. 
"...and anyone, even with bad intentions, can come into U.S.?"

Let's skip over the bad grammar: I know he means to say "anyone, even those with bad intentions can come into the United States."  Let's give him a break there: the medium he's using is Twitter, and I suppose The President of the United States doesn't have time to pay careful attention to what he is telling more than 23 million followers on his personal Twitter account and over 15 million followers on his official presidential Twitter account. I want to address the substance of what he is saying, because the substance of what he is saying here is wretched: 
  • "anyone" cannot come "into U.S." under the previous (and now current again) refugee law. 
  • To be considered a refugee, migrants must show they have been persecuted or fear persecution based on their race, religion, nationality or membership in a social or political group.
  • Like with the family that our church and Lutheran Social Services and Homestretch is sponsoring, and who, thank God arrived before Inauguration Day, it typically takes between 18 and 24 months for someone to be screened by government officials before they can be granted to be part of the program. There is an extremely rigorous vetting process, including screenings done by Homeland Security and the FBI.  
  • In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, the program allowed 85,000 people to settle in the U.S., and 72% of them were women and children.
  • Refugees coming into the United States are the most carefully screened of any U.S. travelers. To say otherwise is a lie.
Banning the refugee program out of a fear that immigrants endanger this nation is like banning AA meetings out of a fear that people in recovery endanger their families.

So, why this Executive Order? And why such defensiveness over the fact that it is being challenged in courts of law? 

Because, I think, the judge's order upholds one of the United States' core values: that refugees and immigrants are good and positive things. 

What needs to be named, and re-named, and re-named again is that this travel ban is NOT in the category of "ensuring public safety;" is it in the category of politically-motivated fear-mongering.*

It's a classic, enemy-based, "let's scare people about immigrant, refugees and 'others'" so we can distract ourselves from ourselves."

It's a "look over there, so we don't have to look at our own internal proclivities to glorify violence" stance.

Even in the aftermath of 9-11, President Bush was very careful – took pains! -- to make a distinction between Muslims and terrorists; this ban (on predominantly Muslim-majority nations, this defacto ban on Muslims) dangerously blurs the line. 

It is also cruel to those in the process, many of whom jeopardized their lives by helping Americans and American allies, which is why they got into trouble and became refugees in the first place.
    Thank God "a judge" stayed this unjust, unnecessary, and cruel Executive Order because through that Executive Order -- during its brief but world-disrupting implementation -- we turned our back on vulnerable people. We violated our nation's core values. We discriminated against people based on their religious beliefs. 

    Overturning the travel ban protected our constitutionally-based separation of powers, saved the lives of innocent people, and, by allowing more grateful refugees to complete their journeys into our nation, made us more secure, not less. 

    Don't let any early-morning tweet convince you otherwise.

    --##--


    *(p.s., adding to this post on Monday, February 6). In yet another tweet, it got worse: According to the Wall Street Journal

    "Over the weekend [February 4th  Mr. Trump repeatedly criticized Judge Robart’s ruling. “Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril,” he posted Sunday afternoon on Twitter. “If something happens blame him and court system. People pouring in. Bad!”

    Let's unpack:

    "...a judge would put our country in such peril." 
    • ...a judge would put.."
      • Notice that the President of the United States is attempting to make a Federal judge the the actor -- the agent, the responsible party -- for whatever it is the President is about to claim. 
      • And what is he about to claim? What will "a judge" supposedly responsible for? Putting
    • ...our country in such peril."
      • The President of the United States is accusing a Federal judge of "[putting] our country in "such peril." 
        • The definition of "peril" is "serious and immediate danger." 
        • The claim here is that a judge -- by allowing refugees to resume entering the country through the mechanisms in place before the Executive Order -- is putting the country in serious and immediate danger. 
        • That claim of course assumes, without giving any evidence, that refugees pose a danger to the nation's security.
      • "in such peril" -- begs, but does not answer the question, "of what such peril?" It is a generic claim; it comes across as ominous. 
      • The claim is therefore an unspecified kind of fear-mongering. 
      • Perhaps one could expect such things during a rough-and-tumble campaign. But this is the President of the United States sending this message to tens of millions of people.  
    "...if something happens..."
    • "If something happens" -- again, a vague, ominous implication. It begs us to ponder what that "something" might be. What might happen
    • Pause for a second and ponder the fact that the President of the United States is inviting tens of millions of people to imagine that "something" might happen. 
      • He does not say if this "something" will be a good thing or a bad thing. 
      • But the President of the United States is implying, or invoking a fear of something bad happening, right? Because if "something" good happened, we would thank them. But here the President of the United States is saying "if something happens" we should "blame" someone for it. 

    So, again, the President of the United States is implying, or suggesting that refugees might cause something bad to happen.

    And then, the closer: 

    "...blame him the court system..." 

    Q: If something bad does happen, who are we are supposed to blame for it?
    A: A judge and "[the] court system" who is challenging the constitutionality of the order.

    Think about it: the President of the United States has told tens of millions of people that if something bad happens, we are to blame a specific judge and "[the] court system" for that bad thing happening. 

    "I think it’s best not to single out judges for criticism," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) told CNN on Sunday. Are conservative Republicans beginning to be alarmed over the President's behavior? 

    --##-- 



    Saturday, February 4, 2017

    "So-called" Judge Robart?

    This clip is of the United States Senate voting, on June 17, 2004, on President George W. Bush's nomination of James L. Robart to be the U.S. District Judge for the Western District at Washington. Judge Robart is the one who issued a ruling yesterday that temporarily blocks one of the Executive Orders on immigration and refugees.

    As an exercise in democracy, watch the clip. It's only 51 seconds long. Wait for it -- notice whose vote was the last affirmative vote.

    Note what the final vote count was.
    video

    After watching, ask yourself: are there any other steps in our democracy that necessary to confirming a District judge?

    After answering those questions, ask yourself:

    Why would the person currently holding the office of President of the United States refer to Robart as a "so-called" judge?

    “The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!” Trump wrote.

    The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!
    Recall that "so-called" means something is false...ostensible...supposed...not actually the case

    Keep in mind the "so-called" phrase is in reference to the judge -- the office or position of judge itself, and is not about the substance of the ruling. 

    (In my opinion, calling the judge's ruling a "so-called ruling" -- you know, calling the legitimacy or accuracy of the legal ruling into question -- would have been fair game. Rough and tumble politics and all.)

    But that is not what is going on here: what is being called into question is the legitimacy of the judge himself.

    Please, ask yourself: 

    What is the intention of a President calling a judge who reverses one of his orders a "so-called" judge? 

    Is it unreasonable to conclude this is an attempt, deliberately or not, by the President of the United States to undermine people's trust in this Judge, and therefore in the American judicial system, particularly when the attempt is coupled with an accusation that the judge's ruling "takes law-enforcement away from our country"? 

    What is the end game of this Administration there? 

    Are there United States Senators, other judges, or conservative Republicans who are alarmed by this?



    Friday, February 3, 2017

    Salt and Light: "Accountability is not about watching what you are doing. It is about being on fire."

    There's a definition of "accountability" I heard some time ago, one I shared last Sunday during our Adult Forum's exploration of the Sermon on the Mount.

    "Accountability is not about watching what you are doing. It is about being on fire."

    That seems to be the point Jesus is making when he tells his followers that they - we - are "the salt of the earth" and "the light of the world."

    There is a great scene a in the movie Walk the Line, the movie about Johnny Cash, that makes this same point:

    It's where Johnny Cash is first auditioning, when he and two of his buddies are singing a gospel song to the famous producer Sam Phillips.

    Sam interrupts them and tells them he can't sell gospel, not the way they were singing it, because when he was singing it, he didn't believe him. Johnny Cash is offended and says, "are you saying I don't believe in God?"

    Sam Phillips says, "You know exactly what I'm telling you. We've already heard that song a hundred times. Just like that. Just... like... how... you... sing it.

    Johnny Cash: "Well, you didn't let us bring it home."

    Phillips says,  

    "Bring... bring it home? All right, let's bring it home. If you was hit by a truck and you was lying out there in that gutter dying, and you had time to sing ONE song. Huh? 

    "One song that people would remember before you're dirt. One song that would let God know how you felt about your time here on Earth. One song that would sum you up.

    "You tellin' me that's the song you'd sing?

    "That same Jimmy Davis tune we hear on the radio all day, about your 'peace within,' and how it's real, and how you're gonna shout it?

    "Or... would you sing somethin' different. Somethin' real. Somethin' YOU felt.

    "Cause I'm telling you right now, that's the kind of song people want to hear. That's the kind of song that truly saves people."

    That's when Johnny Cash tells him he does have a couple other songs that he hadn't thought about sharing...

    ...and he rips into Folsom Prison Blues.

    And launches an astonishing career.

    Brothers and Sisters in Christ: accountability is not about watching what you are doing. It's about being on fire; seasoning those around you with your unique salt, being and bringing the Light that you uniquely were put on the face of this earth to bring.

    If you don't be that salt you are meant to be, or bring the Light that you are meant to bring - if you yield to the easy but soul- and joy-killing temptation to live someone else's life or the life someone else thinks you should be living, you'll go to your grave having deprived the world of some of the reasons God put you here.

    So let's be -- and help one another be -- accountable: on fire. 

    Monday, January 30, 2017

    The Beatitudes, Lady Liberty, and Refugees

    A sermon preached January 29, 2017
    The Rev. John Ohmer, Rector
    The Falls Church Episcopal

    When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

    “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

    “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

    “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

    “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

    “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

    “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

    “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

    “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

    “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.




    I miss Presidents Bush.

    That is a little inside joke – for those of you who were not here two Sundays ago, let me let you in on it: 

    Rev. Kelly was preaching, and she began her sermon with “I’m going to miss Michelle Obama.” She quickly pointed out that was not a partisan thing to say: having been in the White House for 8 years, she was going to be leaving no matter who had been elected and Kelly was going to miss her no matter what…Kelly’s point had everything to do with the gospel of the day, John the Baptist pointing to Jesus, losing a couple of his own disciples to Jesus and not only not caring, but delighting in it, because John the Baptist new something deep down which you and I need to know deep down, and that is “IT IS NOT ABOUT YOU.” 

    It’s not about you

    One thing that Christianity gets right about human psychology is that selfishness – self-interest, self-centeredness – is a sure path to misery and joylessness and loneliness. 

    But that conversely, and ironically, thinking of and giving credit to OTHERS, asking what is not in one’s own self-interest but what is in the best interest of others, thinking of and giving credit to others, being outward-focused, is a sure path to joy and inner peace. 

    No where is that made clearer than in the Gospels, and no where in the gospels is it clearer than in Matthew, and no where in Matthew is it clearer than the Sermon on the Mount and no where in the sermon on the mount is it clearer than the beatitudes, assigned by the lectionary for this Sunday, and which we just heard. 

    We hear this whole series of counter-intuitive claims: blessed are they, happy are they, favored by God are…

    …and who are the blessed, who are the happy?

    The rich, the strong and mighty, the full, the popular? 

    No, ironically, the blessed are, happy are they, favored by God are 

    they who are poor, 
    meek
    hungry
    the persecuted.

    Now for some reason this week, as I’ve been pondering this passage and thinking about the poor, the meek, the hungry, and the persecuted, I don’t know why, but I kept thinking about the Statute of Liberty. 

    Most people are familiar with a couple lines near the end of the poem that is written on a tablet within the pedestal on the Statute of Liberty in New York: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

    The poem is called “The New Colossus” by the Jewish poet Emma Lazarus. 

    Here’s the whole poem:

    Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
    with conquering limbs astride from land to land;
    Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
    A mighty woman with a torch,
    whose flame is the imprisoned lightening,
    and her name
    Mother of Exiles. 

    From her beacon-hand
    Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
    The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

    “Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she with silent lips.

    “Give me your tired, your poor,
    Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
    The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
    Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
    I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

    As I said before from this pulpit: 

    What is the sentiment of the Statute of Liberty? 

    “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp.”

    Keep, well-established nations of the world, your well-respected, well-established people. 

    Keep ‘em. We don’t want ‘em!

    We don’t want your well-rested, creative, well-educated immigrants.

    No – the statute of liberty, the statute of freedom, the statute of independence cries out,

    “Give me your tired, your exhausted.

    Give me your poor…give me those who’ve never heard, and don’t care, about the stock market because the only fluctuation they care about is the fluctuation of their empty stomachs.

    Keep, ancient land, all your nicely-dressed people who might come over in Business Class.

         Give me those huddled masses in the back of the U-Haul.

         Give me the wretched refuse that is packed onto rafts. 

    Send them to me: the homeless, the tempest-tossed, the frightened. Here. 

    Send them here, to America. 

    That sentiment – that ideal, that philosophy, that core value of – of preferring the poor, the lost, the least – of asking what is in the best interests of others, of being outward focused, has its roots  roots not only in the Bible and in the human heart, but in the public policy of this country.

    The reason I said I miss Presidents Bush is that they got that. That sentiment, that core value, had been shared by every president in my lifetime, which doesn’t go as far back as some of you, but does go all the way back to Eisenhower, who knew a thing or two about how to fight and protect American interests in a dangerous world.  

    The Executive Order signed Friday and – late-breaking news, to some degree has been stayed by two different Federal judges -- is a four month moratorium on the entire U.S. refugee-resettlement program. 

    It indefinitely bars Syrians from entering the U.S., and for at least 3 months, suspends visas for individuals from predominately Muslim countries of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, although case-by-case exceptions can be made for people from “minority religions” in those countries, which pretty much means Christians. 

    The President, who has the authority to determine how many refugees the U.S. admits, slashed, from 110,000 to 50,000 the number of displaced persons our nation will accept in the current fiscal year. 

    To be considered a refugee, migrants must show they have been persecuted or fear persecution based on their race, religion, nationality or membership in a social or political group.

    Like with the family that this church and Lutheran Social Services and Homestretch is sponsoring, and who thank God arrived before Inauguration Day, it typically takes between 18 and 24 months for someone to be screened by government officials before they can be granted part of the program. 

    In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, the program allowed 85,000 people to settle in the U.S., and 72% of them were women and children. 

    Refugees are the most vetted, the most carefully screened people of any category of traveller. 

    Banning the refugee program out of a fear that immigrants endanger this nation is like banning AA meetings out of a fear that people in recovery endanger their families.


    The stance of "let's review the process until we can figure out what's going on" is in the category of politically-motivated fear-mongering. 

    It's a classic enemy-based, "let's scare people about immigrant, refugees and 'others'" so we can distract ourselves from ourselves." 

    It's a "look over there, so we don't have to look at our own internal proclivities to glorify violence" stance. 

    Even in the aftermath of 9-11, President Bush was very careful – took pains -- to make a distinction between Muslims and terrorists; this ban (on predominantly Muslim-majority nations, this defacto ban on Muslims) dangerously blurs the line. 

    It is also cruel to those in the process, many of whom jeopardized their lives by helping Americans and American allies, which is why they got into trouble and became refugees in the first place.


    We are turning our back on vulnerable people. 

    We are undermining our core values. 

    We are discriminating against Muslims. 

    In his Pastoral address to the Diocese on Friday, Bishop Johnston said, 

    “I’m raising the bar for my Christian voice because it is now apparent to me that here in the United States (although certainly not limited to our country) a fear-driven, isolationist nationalism seriously threatens the Gospel’s vision for human life and community by propping up self-interest as nothing short of an idol.”

    Hear that again:
    “a fear-driven, isolationist nationalism seriously threatens the Gospel’s vision for human life and community by propping up self-interest as nothing short of an idol.”

    Jesus never said or exemplified “self first” Quite the contrary. We follow a lord who said, “love one another as I have loved you.” 

    What can we do? 

    What can we do? 

    I'm reminded of the story told about someone who made an appointment to see his pastor, and said he'd noticed all these homeless people downtown, and everyone was ignoring them, and no one was helping them, so he decided to make eye contact with each one. He spoke with several. He took some to lunch. He said to the pastor, "why doesn't the church do something about these homeless people?" The pastor said, "sounds to me like the church just did do something."  

    as a great example, in response to my e-vangelon post, a parishioner who teaches at a community college teacher emailed me. 

    With their permission, I want to read you part of what their email said, because it's a great example of "the church doing something" --  

    "If only folks could see and hear what I do EVERY  day from my students (the majority of whom are Muslim and immigrants - over 100 nations are represented on my campus) - there is fear, shame (young women removing their hijabs and a young man telling me not to call him Mohammad in the classroom), undocumented students and immigrants who believe they or their parents will be hauled off and sent back to their home countries, regardless of how long they have lived here.  It brings me to tears to see these lovely, peaceful young people living in a world of fear and shame based on their religion and ethnicity - it is truly heartbreaking.

    I have decided to reach out to some of my Muslim students and ask to pray with them and I hope they will join me at church one Sunday too. 

    Thanks again and keep speaking out - some of us need to hear it  Since you quoted Bonhoeffer, I will end my note with another quote by him   “Not to speak is to speak, not to act is to act.”


    Now again, as Bishop Wright of Atlanta reminded the diocese, this is not partisan. He said he’s been preaching long enough to know that people hear things that are not said.  “We are more than red or blue, conservative or liberal: we are a Royal Priesthood.” These are baptismal covenant values; they are Gospel values. 

    What can we do? Well, it’s true that sometimes silence is wisdom; sometimes silence is cowardice. Spend time discerning, in prayer and conversation, the difference. 

    What can we do? Get involved in a ministry. Or consider that your involvement with a helping organization to be your ministry -- the work God has sent you out to do -- because the vast majority of Christian ministry happens not under the roof of the church, but by the auspices of the church in your daily life.

    What can we do? 

    Again, thank God, the refugees we welcomed last Tuesday got here just under the wire, but our ministry with them -- and with others who are our society's most vulnerable members -- is far from over. 

    Obeying our Lord, and --  as Easter people who are confident that God's love always wins in the end -- we will continue to do everything in our power to help and protect them and others who seek our help and protection. 

    And as long as we are outwardly focused, God's power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine -- thanks be to God. 

    --##--


    Thursday, January 26, 2017

    Regarding Refugees

    Although it's been barely a week since the inauguration, this administration's actions are causing many of us to become more actively engaged. 

    I may strongly disagree with the new administration on a wide host of issues, but on most of of them, I try very hard to give others the benefit of the doubt, and I try to maintain a posture that "people of good faith can agree to disagree." 

    However, the Judeo-Christian mandate (Exodus 23:9, Matthew 25) to welcome refugees is, for me -- pastorally, personally and professionally -- a central (not peripheral) matter; a place to take a very firm stance. 

    Caring for the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant/refugee/stranger in our midst is not only the American and patriotic thing to do, it is the Judeo-Christian thing to do -- and anyone who says otherwise does not just have a different point of view: they are wrong.

    This is not a new stance for me: as I said in a sermon in September of 2105 (read that here if you want) the best posture of our country is to be open and generous toward refugees and immigrants. And as I said in a sermon in June of 2016, sometimes it is irresponsible for us to be silent. (Read that sermon here if you wish.) 

    Please know that I will continue to write, teach, and yes, preach about our Gospel imperative to welcome the stranger. It is impossible to keep our Baptismal Covenant and also stand silently by in the face of thinly disguised xenophobia and the scapegoating of immigrants -- actions which will almost certainly result in the loss of innocent lives. 

    So, what can we do? What can you do an individual Christian, and what are we to do as a church? 

    The Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer listed "three possible ways in which the church can act towards the state."*

    The first is for the church to question the state regarding its actions and their legitimacy -- to help the state be the state as God has ordained. That means making your voice heard. Sometimes silence is wisdom; sometimes silence is cowardice. Spend time discerning, in prayer and conversation, the difference. 

    The second way is "to aid the victims of state action." Bonhoeffer said that the church "has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community." That means getting involved in a ministry. Or considering that your involvement with a helping organization to be your ministry -- the work God has sent you out to do -- because the vast majority of Christian ministry happens not under the roof of the church, but by the auspices of the church in your daily life.

    The third way the church can act toward the state, Bonhoeffer said, "is not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself." He meant that a stick must be jammed into the spokes of the wheel to stop the vehicle. That means "it is sometimes not enough to help those crushed by the evil actions of a state; at some point the church must directly take action against the state to stop it from perpetrating evil."

    Thank God, the refugee family we welcomed last Tuesday -- including a 12 and 10 year old child -- got here just under the wire: because they are from Iraq, under these proposed changes, this family would have been stuck in Baghdad for who knows how long. And who knows at what cost. 

    Still, our ministry with them -- and with others who are our society's most vulnerable members -- is far from over. 

    Obeying our Lord, and -- as Easter people who are confident that God's love always wins in the end -- we will continue to do everything in our power to help and protect them and others who seek our help and protection. 

    And God's power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. 

    Thursday, January 5, 2017

    New Year's Resolutions, Reading...and a Church's Vision

    Each new year, I'm good at making, and getting a start on New Year's Resolutions. (I'm less good at, you know, actually keeping them...but that's another story.)
     
    Last year, one of my resolutions was to read more. Since most of what I read is non-fiction -- in fact, one time when Elizabeth was little, she looked at my bookshelves and said, "it seems all you have are God books" - I decided to read more fiction in 2016.
     
    So about this time last year, I made a list of some modern-but-classic (prize-winning) books of fiction that somehow I'd missed reading over the years, and bought them: Anne Tyler's Breathing Lessons, Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose (and later, on someone's recommendation, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall).
     
    The bad news is, I haven't gotten more than 30 pages into any one of those.
     
    The good news is, I didn't borrow those books -- I bought them. They're right there on my writing desk where I see them, and where they beckon to me. (Further good news is, with them sitting right there, I don't have to make any new reading resolutions for 2017!)  
     
    The best news - and the reason I mention all this -- is that I didn't need to get too far into Angle of Repose before running across this, one of Stegner's classic lines, which I wrote in my journal:  
     
    "I would like to hear your life as you heard it, coming at you, instead of hearing it as I do, a sober sound of expectations reduced, desires blunted, hopes deferred or abandoned, chances lost, defeats accepted, griefs borne."
     
    That, my brothers and sisters in Christ, is a large part of the reason we, as The Falls Church Episcopal, will, over the course of 2017, create a new 3-5 year vision for our parish: a  v ision is a powerful antidote to the condition Stegner describes. 

    A 3-5 year vision lifts our eyes beyond the adrenaline-fueled urgencies of the day to the Holy Spirit-filled callings of the decade.
     
    A 3-5 year vision keeps us thriving, growing, giving.
     
    So - with apologies to Stegner, God willing and empowering, 
    • we will NOT listen to the "sober sound of expectations reduced," but instead will listen to the spirit-filled sound of raised expectations;
    • we will not accept "desires blunted" as a fact of life - not in our individual lives and certainly not in our church life - but will sharpen desires and lift them even higher;
    • any "hopes deferred or abandoned" - not just those of our faith community and our wider community, but of our nation will be addressed, and any within our power to affect, we'll revive and restore those hopes; and
    • any "chances lost, defeats accepted, and griefs borne" will be put to rest in the sure and certain hope of resurrection - not "resurrection" as a general principle, but in sure and certain hope of the resurrection of Christ, who restores all chances, conquers all defeats, and redeems all grief.
    I do realize that the 3-5 year vision we put together will have some resolutions that - like my reading plan! - might not get fully realized. 

    But vision plans aren't shelved. They are kept front and center where for the next four or so years they will beckon to us...remind us...and motivate us.
     

    Thursday, December 1, 2016

    "Full of Joy and Nearly Always in Trouble" -- are The Book of Common Prayer's baptismal covenant promises political?

    I was in an interesting conversation the other day about whether or not our baptismal covenant promises are "political."

    I don't think they are. But I do know that keeping any one of them will likely have political ramifications.

    Take for example our promise to "continue in the apostle's teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers." That's not political activity in the United States or other nations where there is freedom of religion -- but try keeping that promise in parts of the world where practicing Christianity is illegal or persecuted, and you'll quickly find out how political those actions are.

    Promising to "persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, to repent and return to the Lord" may not seem to be "political" as long as you're thinking of "resisting evil" and "sin" in terms of your own petty vices and therefore "repenting" as a personal matter between you and God.

    But what if you broaden the concepts, ala Abraham Lincoln, to think of "falling into sin" as the ways you fall into cultural or societal sins (racial prejudice, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism, to name three) and then promise to persevere in resisting the evil of White Nationalism? I suspect that might have some political ramifications.

    Promising to "proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ" may not seem to be political, until you realize that we live in a political culture that proclaims, by word and example, the Bad News of Fear and Cynicism. So - fair warning/promise - if you talk the talk AND walk the walk of the Gospel, you'll end up in the good company of Christians around the world and throughout history who are "full of joy and nearly always in trouble."

    Promising to "seek and serve Christ in all people, loving your neighbor as yourself" may not seem like an inherently political action. Until you seek and serve Christ in those who voted differently than you, and love them as yourself.

    Which brings us to the final promise: "to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being." Unless we insist on somehow spiritualizing those concepts, it's impossible to keep that promise without it having political implications.

    For example: one way I'm keeping that promise - an action of worship and prayer that has explicit political implications, and one which I invite you to join me in - is that this Sunday evening (December 4 at 5:00 pm), I'm going to join our three bishops and other people from around the Diocese of Virginia who are making a point of standing in solidarity with our Latino/Hispanic brothers and sisters in Christ by attending a "Service of Light and Hope" at the local, predominately Latino/Hispanic Episcopal church of Santa Maria (7000 Arlington Blvd., Arlington).

    As our bishops remind us, "many members of our Latino congregations are experiencing fear and uncertainty in light of words our president-elect has spoken about immigrants in America, and as the Church, we are committed to uplifting our Latino/Hispanic brothers and sisters during these times."

    There are few things in Scripture that are as explicit as the command to care for the alien among us - not because it's the "nice" or "Christian" thing to do, but because it is part of our own identity: the Bible reminds us that we were once strangers and aliens ourselves. If you read the Biblical story of Christmas, you'll find that shortly after the serene manger scene, Joseph and Mary scurry the infant Jesus out of Israel and become a refugee family themselves, fleeing persecution and seeking safety in a foreign country far away from home.

    Part of the Advent/Christmas message is that in becoming a human baby, God became vulnerable. And part of what it means to follow that God is to keep our baptismal promises...and part of that that means is to stand with, by, and for the vulnerable among us.

    Tuesday, November 22, 2016

    Thanksgiving Parade!

    Whether or not watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade is part of your family's custom, there's another "Thanksgiving Parade" I invite you to make part of your life -- your daily life.  

    And that's to think back over the past 24 hours of your life, imagining each hour going by you slowly -- and ask yourself, "what happened in that hour for which I can be grateful?" And then turn your "feeling of gratitude" into a "prayer of Thanksgiving." 

    Your "thanksgiving parade" might go something like this -- this was mine, today: 
    • (upon awakening) -- I'm grateful for my warm bed and comfortable pillow; thank you God for giving me a warm home to sleep in. 
    • 5:45, first cup of coffee: I'm grateful for coffee; for milk -- for cows, for farmers, for truckers. Thank you, God, for coffee and milk getting to me. 
    • 7:00, walking Sadie, our dog: I'm grateful for Sadie; thank you, God, for exercise -- the fact that I can exercise. God please be with _____ who are grieving having to put their dog down yesterday; give me new appreciation for our dog's companionship. 
    • 8:00, prayer: I'm grateful for time to pray, to read the Bible, to journal. Thank you God, for giving me faith. 
    • 9:00, planning time: I'm grateful for good organization at the church; I thank God I've found a personal task management app I find useful. 
    • 10:00, staff meeting: I'm grateful for Terri, our "front office" Administrative Assistant. I turn my "feeling of gratitude" into an "action of Thanksgiving" by pointing out that at the Day School Board meeting which I attended last night, several of the board members commented about how wonderful Terri is at greeting Day School children. I share that with the rest of the staff, in Terri's presence. I go on to say that many churches (and businesses) have either "highly competent" or "very friendly" people in the front office, but it's rare to have both, at the same time, in equal measure, in one person, as we do in Terri. 
    • 11:30, Day School Children's Chapel: I use "thanksgiving parade" as a theme for my sermon; I'm grateful for the inspiration, and I give thanks for the parents and teachers. 
    • 1:30 -- a surprise visit from an old friend, who is in D.C. interviewing for a job! I'm grateful for her insights; I thank God for inspiring her to come by the church and visit. 
    You get the idea. You go through each hour of your past day, looking only for those things for which you are grateful. You then turn your feeling of gratitude into a prayer (or better yet, an action) of Thanks-giving. 


    And there you have it: a Thanksgiving Parade that you don't just watch, but create in your own heart and mind...one that will -- by increasing your sense of gratitude -- drastically reduce  the amount of complaining and worrying you do, as you relish how blessed you are in so many ways.     

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