We had such a beautiful Sunday, yesterday. Teresa and I fasted for social justice and mercy during the day with our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and many others from the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. We also heard from a special guest in Sunday School, Imam Tarif Shraim of the Islamic Community Center of Potomac (the ICCP). He attended with another teacher from the ICCP and several of their youth.
I met Imam Shraim at his mosque on my birthday, March 31 of this year, when I attended Friday prayers with other guests invited from our parish of St. John’s Episcopal Church Norwood. By the way, both Imam Shraim and Reverend Sari Ateek, our pastor, are Palestinians. When they are together you can feel the contagious energy of two humans thrilled to be present with each other.
Imam Shraim was gracious and wise as he shared with our combined Sunday School of 8th to 12th graders some of what it is like to be a Muslim in America. He shared his own story of facing racial and religious hatred here in America (a high speed pursuit and attempt to run his family off the road) because they have brown skin and his wife chooses to wear a head scarf. He expressed sincere gratitude for his welcome at St. John’s, and he invited us all to visit the ICCP any time we can make it. I plan to visit again as soon as my work schedule allows, hopefully during the coming celebration of Ramadan, beginning the evening of May 27 until June 25.
It warmed my heart to spend our class time helping our students grow in their understanding of our shared humanity with our Muslim neighbors, and our shared religious heritage and aspirations. I loved that our epistle reading in worship that morning was of the Apostle Paul in Athens, Acts 17:22-31. I’ve always believed that this should be a foundational text for our interaction with other faiths and adherents of other faiths. Paul shows respect for them and appreciation for what they share in common, and he even quotes their own poets. There is a humility and graciousness in this text that we have lost in so many of our own interactions with other faiths. Paul has a message to share and his own faith convictions, of course, but he doesn’t belittle, hate, fear or condemn the aspirations of the Athenians.
I pray that this is a week marked by more love, more learning and more service. May we find ourselves drawn to a shared grace and mercy for all people, and may we speak loudly and consistently against the hatred, fear and violence that threaten so many of our neighbors. And to support our prayer, may we do more loving, do more learning, and may we do more service. This is our calling as followers of Christ, to be known by our love: love for neighbors, love for friends and family, love for enemies, love for all. “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” Colossians 3:14
I will begin with a confession: It is so hard for me to pray for Donald Trump. As we approach his inauguration it only gets more difficult. But I want to pray for him. I know I should pray for him.
So many of Donald Trump’s words and actions over the last year and a half of public campaigning to be President have offended my sense of civility, stood in stark contrast to my Christian values and often defied every attempt to reconcile them with facts and truth. It’s still difficult to find myself in this situation, where this man is going to hold an office I respect so much. And when I try to pray for him, I can’t escape a feeling that in praying for him I am validating him. I guess I’m still somewhat stuck in the competition and win/lose pain of the election. I mean, if he does well, does that validate the horrible things he said about people? If he prospers, does that validate his fear-mongering and divisive language?
To pray for someone is to love them, and praying for Donald Trump is difficult for me because I have difficulty genuinely loving him. His words and actions have alienated so many people I do love, and so many people with whom I find myself identifying. Yet, at the same time he is a human being, created in the image of God and in possession of the same dignity and worth as those people he routinely criminalized and demonized for political gain. And here’s the kicker… as a human being, God loves Donald Trump as much as anyone is loved. God’s heart breaks over Trump’s words and actions of fear-mongering and division far more than my calloused heart may be bruised.
Oh my soul… the trouble is not that Trump is so difficult to pray for, the trouble is that I sometimes find it so difficult to love. And love is at the core of Christ’s teachings: 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:43-48
Jesus teaches that we best reflect God’s nature when we love those who are least like us and those who like us least. Our love is most divine when we love those we least like. Of course we all believe that we’re the “good” and they’re the “evil,” don’t we? I want to pray for our new president, and I will. But before I can do that I have to spend some time remaking my heart. I need to meditate and focus on loving someone whose words and actions I cannot love. I’ll need to spend some time with Jesus and seek the kind of transformation that allowed him to love those who opposed him, who slandered him and who eventually killed him. Surely, no love has been asked of me that would be so costly as when Jesus prayed for those in the act of killing him, “Father, forgive them. They do not know what they are doing.”
I will continue to speak against the things that Donald Trump says and does which offend civility, faith and fact, but I have to start loving him. I have to start loving him because I have to pray for him. Back to that passage one more time, it’s just not that simple or true to believe that I’m the righteous and he’s the unrighteous. Those labels wash away in the downpour of God’s love.
If you’ve been around me much you may know of my affection for the Book of Sirach, sometimes called Ecclesiasticus, an apocryphal book not always included in English translations of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. It’s a very practical book of wisdom, one ancient mind’s interpretation of Hebrew Law and faith for those outside of Israel or those within who wish to study deeper into God’s instruction.
As an ancient book and being set entirely in an ancient worldview and mindset, there are many things which do not immediately resonate with us. But even across the thousands of years, there is so much to learn from these words. In the passage we’re reading today the writer of Sirach prepares us to gossip less, be more forgiving and less judgmental, and to seek truth in our relationships, to give the benefit of the doubt and to extend grace to others. Check it out…
4 One who trusts others too quickly has a shallow mind,
and one who sins does wrong to himself.
5 One who rejoices in wickedness will be condemned,
6 but one who hates gossip has less evil.
7 Never repeat a conversation,
and you will lose nothing at all.
8 With friend or foe do not report it,
and unless it would be a sin for you, do not reveal it;
9 for someone may have heard you and watched you,
and in time will hate you.
10 Have you heard something? Let it die with you.
Be brave, it will not make you burst!
11 Having heard something, the fool suffers birth pangs
like a woman in labor with a child.
12 Like an arrow stuck in a person’s thigh,
so is gossip inside a fool.
13 Question a friend; perhaps he did not do it;
or if he did, so that he may not do it again.
14 Question a neighbor; perhaps he did not say it;
or if he said it, so that he may not repeat it.
15 Question a friend, for often it is slander;
so do not believe everything you hear.
16 A person may make a slip without intending it.
Who has not sinned with his tongue?
17 Question your neighbor before you threaten him;
and let the law of the Most High take its course.
As we move into 2017 this can become a worthy intention for us all, especially in this day of social media and internet driven false-news. When inflammatory things are said of anyone, give the benefit of the doubt. This is a faithful and graceful practice for our immediate neighbors as well as those in public office and service. Can you relate to the metaphor of a fool hearing some juicy gossip and suffering birth pangs until it’s repeated? I can.
I believe 2017 needs just a bit more chilling out and listening and a lot less freaking out and screaming from me and from you, from all of us. Because, as this ancient writer reminds us, we can all make mistakes, often without even realizing it.
With a new year just around the corner many of us are thinking about the intentions we would carry forward, the regrets we’d leave behind and the treasures we would maintain. Of course the date doesn’t matter that much, but it’s always a welcome gift to be in a liminal moment, a place of change and even renewal, when our hearts and minds are bent naturally to reflect and to dream.
One year closes and another opens. What will my new year bring? What will I bring to the new year? As people of faith we believe that God goes with us, and that God knows what awaits us… but we also know all too well that our faith is not in what we see but in what we hope. As much as God might know, we do not. This is the essence of hope. This is why we take such tight hold on these times to reflect and to dream. Hope is this intersection of what is not known and what is known. We recognize that the coming year has so much we cannot yet see, but also that God walks beside us, going before us, and coming after. Days of lightness and days of darkness are the same, rain and shine both speak of God’s presence, for in Christ all matter has been sung the song of love.
Still, to stand and look across the divide from one year to the next is exciting. I look back and see that I have too often neglected prayer. I have too often neglected to study. I have too often neglected to love. I see also that God has both ministered to me through the many and various people in my life, and God has ministered to them through me. God’s will is done regardless of my prayer, but I would have eyes wide open and be awake to see as much as I can. So I look out at the coming year and I pray: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Perhaps the deepest blessing of a past year in which I did not see myself doing all that I should have done is seeing all that was done in spite of me, and in spite of any of my failing, and just beyond it to see God’s smile. To be reminded that almost there is sometimes exactly the place where I was going to be regardless of my effort or my intention. Almost there was the place I needed to be. Almost there was there all along. This is the root of hope for a new year, and all the intentions I may place within it. I do not hope for a better year, but for the year that is needed, for me, for those I love, for all in this hurting world of conflict and hatred.
I intend so much for this new year. No doubt in twelve months I will look back with some regrets. No worries. As long as God is there, the rain and shine, the darkness and light, the ups and downs of my year will be just fine. Deus in adjutorium meum intende.
I was inspired recently by a friend who was finishing up a year of reading a book a week in 2016, and I honestly wondered if I could do the same. After some reflection, I’ve decided to take on this challenge in 2017, and I’m starting now in 2016’s Advent Season.
I can’t begin fully describe the deep blessing it has been to choose and read The Wounded Healer by the late Father Henri J.M. Nouwen this week. I’ve read many of his books, and I’ve owned this one for a long time, but I hadn’t applied the effort to read it. It is God’s steadfast grace that Father Nouwen is spending this time with me this week. This is most definitely not just going to be a new year’s resolution, but a gift to myself in 2017.
Father Nouwen has written a guidebook that though several decades old still has these amazing bits of wisdom to instruct and inspire. He focuses on several core values like compassion, presence and hope in ministry. He leads us from an expression of frantic faith based in worry and shame to a living faith in the shadow of our human suffering and joy that affirms our human connection to each other and says to the hurting and confused, “I am here.” He writes, “For a compassionate person nothing human is alien: no joy and no sorrow, no way of living and no way of dying.” Amen.
This is not a book like others of his that I have read in the past; this is a wholly different experience of Father Nouwen’s wisdom and gift. I recall reading his book In The Name of Jesus over and over when Teresa and I were in seminary, but The Wounded Healer strikes a different chord, a more human chord that grounds us firmly in the life of humanity, with all its struggles, failings and beauty. It challenges us to lay aside the formulae of conversion and salvation, the easy words and ritual and habit, and to be fully present, without judgement and recognizing God’s pervading love. “It is not the task of Christian leaders to go around nervously trying to redeem people, to save them at the last minute, to put them on the right track. For we are redeemed once and for all. Christian leaders are called to help others affirm this great news, and to make visible in daily events the fact that behind the dirty curtain of our painful symptoms there is something great to be seen: the face of God in whose image we are shaped.”
I’ve made new year’s resolutions before, and failed. I’ve made new year’s resolutions and succeeded. I make this one with hope and with the joy of God’s blessing on this week’s reading. What will you give to yourself in the coming year? Choose something good, ok?
Today marks the beginning of a new Advent Season, a new year for the Christian Liturgical Calendar. Some of the passages for this special day pulse with the theme of peace and call us to a mental posture of prayer and sobriety. It feels right to stop and think on peace in such times of disagreement, civil unrest and conflict around the world.
Perhaps we can embrace a posture of seeking and desiring more peace. Perhaps getting drunk on power and lust is not going to make the world so needed by our millions of hurting neighbors. Perhaps we can begin in this new advent Season to speak more and act decisively and help create a greater peace in our homes, school, communities, nations and world. Perhaps the only question is if we will, not if we can.
Allow me to share some of today’s good stuff.
Today’s Collect… Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
From Psalm 122… Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls and quietness within your towers. For my brethren and companions’ sake, I pray for your prosperity. Because of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek to do you good.”
From Isaiah 2… For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!
From Romans 3… You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
And from Jesus in Matthew 24… Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
And I’d like to end with a benediction we often hear at St. John’s, attributed to the Rev. William Sloane Coffin. It makes for in inspiring and challenging close to worship!
“May God give you Grace
never to sell yourself short!
Grace to risk something big
for something good!
Grace to remember
that the world is too dangerous
for anything but truth
and too small
for anything but Love!
The Blessing of God Almighty, Father,
Son and Holy Spirit be with us
now and remain with us this day and always.
A four-year-old blog post of mine on preachers inciting violence has been coming to mind lately in light of the recent events in Orlando, and the hate-filled preaching of some pastors. Violence is a sickness, especially violence shrouded in religious piety. More than ever, our world needs those who will love in the face of hate and work to heal the sickness of these preachers. I’m sharing a recent nasty example from a pastor’s Facebook postings, and then linking in my blog from four years ago on preachers who incite violence. Lord, have mercy.
Recent nastiness in the name of Christ…
My post of four years ago: On Preachers Who Incite Violence
We must loudly and strongly, with civil tongues and constant hearts, repudiate these voices and their messages. We must stand against these messages of hate and violence. Silence is not an option, no more than violence. Answer them with sure, true and sincere messages of love. May our voices never cease to sing and weave the story of God’s unending love.