Just Life

Blind Piety

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equals human first runPresident Trump’s America is looking less and less American, and totally un-Christian. With the flurry of controversial executive orders our new President has shown the effects of something with which many Christians in the West seem to suffer: blind piety. All in the name of morals and American values, with a strong dash of dishonesty and fear-mongering, our new President shreds the image of America around the world and moves us farther from the Christian values of justice, mercy and love for our neighbors. President Trump road a wave of this blind self-centered piety and unreasoning fear all the way to the White House. Now some of the most vulnerable people on the planet are beginning to pay the price.

What is blind piety? Piety is defined as a quality of being religious or reverent. Blind piety is a religiosity that ignores its negative and hurtful impact on the people around it. Jesus actually condemned it in his own day, and an apt name would also be shallow piety or even mean piety. Jesus condemned the religious leaders of his day who acted piously in vowing their income to the support of the Temple, but in doing so actually neglected their own aging parents who were in need. (Matthew 15) Now, I always wondered at that passage thinking, “How will something like that ever find a dynamic equivalent, today?” Well, ask and receive. It’s been played out on our national stage just this week. With an executive order that piously calls on abortion as a reason to cut our nation’s international help to some of the most needful and most defenseless women and families around the world our President has endangered lives, and many religious people are applauding and smiling. Blind piety. Mean religion. Just as in the day of Jesus, religion used to deny people our assistance is an affront to God.

sighing jesusAt another time (Luke 14) Jesus chastises the hypocrisy of the religious thinkers who would refuse to help a fellow human being because of the religious obligations of not working on the Sabbath, but of course they would rescue a child or an animal in sudden distress. The hypocrisy is staggering, and it’s playing out before our eyes in this day and age. Our leaders are turning away from the most needful and endangered children on the planet, and mantling themselves in faith and patriotism while doing it! The President continues to narrate his actions with the familiar and completely dishonest alternative facts about a lack of vetting and the danger represented by refugees. He targets Muslim nations and vilifies and criminalizes the most vulnerable people on the planet. He speaks of walling us off from others, as though we are not all connected human beings with a shared and mutual life on this planet. These actions are not Christian, American or moral.

Why did Jesus condemn those religious leaders of his day? It was for what they had neglected: people. People are at the core of religious law, as he named that core: justice and mercy and faith. (Matthew 23) Jesus will later sum up the Law in two expressions of love: love for God and love for neighbor. (Matthew 25) The problem is not that religion is against people, but these people were misunderstanding their religion. We are guilty in the same way today when we turn from justice, mercy and faith to hide behind fear, exclusion and dishonesty. Some have chosen a blind piety that neglects people.

imageThe sad truth is that these Christians in the West are turning from one of our oldest and deepest religious values: the heart of a stranger. Far back in our oldest Jewish religious roots as Christians is this amazing idea of identifying with the endangered. God gave Israel strict rules for protecting the alien and stranger among them, for blessing them and for serving them. The people of Israel were reminded of their own time as strangers in a strange land, and therefore they should hold to the heart of a stranger. (Exodus 22 & 23, Deuteronomy 24) That is an amazing statement and command of empathy and service. Until the incarnation of Christ into human flesh I cannot think of a more identificational statement in scripture.

These current events call for our silence to be broken and our voices raised. This political landscape suddenly shifts to assault our deepest religious values and we cannot withhold our condemnation of these executive actions. Let us be courageous and true. Let us be vocal and honest. Let us speak against these executive actions and their false religiouslity, blind piety and alternative facts. Let us be as courageous as Jesus to speak for justice, mercy and faith. That courage got him ridiculed, cast out and killed, but most of us face far less danger in our privileged status here in our own country. Privilege is never a license to ignore injustice, forget mercy or live faithlessly in our own time.

Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, Todd
(to the greater glory of God)

My Brother Kurt

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Rainbow ButtonI had a message pop up in Facebook the other day, my friend Kurt from St John’s had been poking around my blog and reading some of the things I have written on LGBTQ inclusion and acceptance. He correctly pointed out that I was a little out of date… he didn’t say “dude, you’re slacking off,” but he should have. He would have been right.

He also graciously offered me permission to share a short article he wrote this past year for St John’s on what it meant to be asked to help our parish organize a group to march in the annual Pride Parade in DC. He did a great job organizing, by the way… it was my first Pride Parade and I’m hooked.

Here’s the text of his article, and a few Parade photos… please receive it as a gift from Kurt, a brother in Christ, a humble man and a deeply good soul.

AMDG, Todd


Pride Parade Story by Kurt Ellison

It wasn’t long ago that someone stopped me and said, “So what’s the deal with the Pride Parade? Why is St. John’s marching?”

That is no small answer!

As a teenager that grew up at St. John’s, I could tell that we were definitely a church that was not of one mind about the whole gay issue. We had gay clergy, but when it came to choosing a new rector in 1997, St. John’s said overwhelmingly (in its profile survey) that it did not want a gay rector. (Yes, it’s true!)

As St. John’s wrestled with where it was and searched for a new rector, so I was wrestling with who I was – a gay kid who loved my church (and I still do). Living in Chicago as an adult, I found myself at the annual pride parade, and fascinated by the churches that were marching in the parade, and thinking, “Wow, my home church (St. John’s) would never do this!”

Years later, I moved back to the area to look after my ailing parents, I eventually came back to St. John’s and was curious to see how things had changed. Imagine my surprise when Susan Pizza and Sari Ateek eventually asked if I would write a grant for the Norwood Parish Fund to get us to participate in Pride.

I had to think for a while, and pray seriously about it. I was the type of person to watch a parade, not necessarily march in one, much less write a grant proposal, or organize a contingent. In my prayers, I could picture God having a good laugh saying, “HA HA, Kurt! You thought St. John’s would never do this! Now you have to man up!” How could I say no?

I wrote the proposal to the NPF. It got approved (kudos to the NPF folks!). We bought frisbees with the church logo, a banner, and advertised in Crossroads. 25 people showed up to march. We had a blast!

The gay community does not always receive a welcoming message from churches (understatement!). Other churches, while supportive and inclusive are not necessarily putting their message of welcome out there. Marching in the parade tells a whole community that they are welcome at St. John’s. It is a positive risk for the Gospel.

What amazes me still after three years of marching is how grateful people are to see the churches marching in the Pride Parade. All along the parade route we hear time and again, “Thank you for coming!”, and “Thank you, St. John’s!” In 2015 it is no small thing to say, “ALL ARE WELCOME HERE!”

Our pastor, Rev. Sari!

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…and the man of the hour, Kurt!

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Below is one I took at the Parade in 2016!

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I Get To Sermonize Some!

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IMG_1594I got a welcome email from our pastor, Rev. Sari, with some dates for me to do some guest preaching at St. John’s in Bethesda/Chevy Chase! Here are the dates and service times of my up-coming opportunities…

January 22 at 5pm
March 5 at 5pm
April 2 at 8am, 11:15am and 5pm

It’s exciting that two of the dates are in the Lenten Season, a deep and reflective time of every year. My thinking right now is to engage the Gospel passages on each of these Sundays as listed in the lectionary. (Links to the passages for each Sunday are inserted above with their dates.)

St. John’s is always a safe place for everyone. The inclusive and welcoming spirit there is one of the reasons we were able to make the congregation our home. You’re always welcome to visit for services, and of course, it would be pure joy to see you drop in when I’m given the privilege to share a message. Questions? Drop me a note with the form supplied below.

AMDG, Todd

 

Praying for Trump

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truth in loveI 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.

AMDG, Todd

More Grace in 2017

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curb your angerIf 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…

Sirach 19:4-17
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.

AMDG, Todd

Noverim Te Noverim Me

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i-am-a-word-of-god“I would know you, I would know myself!” This is the second week of my gift to myself to read a book a week. I’m going again with a shorter book while I reawaken my reading skills, but shorter does not mean lesser or lighter! This week I read a classic from the late Trappist Monk Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer.

So many quotes I want to share, so many insights and amazing turns of phrase. It’s a book written primarily for those in the monastic vocation, but still accessible by all people. It is a book on prayer, really a collection of short essays on the practice and necessity of prayer: “…all Christians ought, theoretically at least, to have enough interest in prayer to be able to read and make use of what is here said for monks, adapting it to the circumstances of their own vocation. Certainly, in the pressures of modern urban life, many will face the need for a certain interior silence and discipline simply to keep themselves together, to maintain their human and Christian identity and their spiritual freedom.”

Merton reminds us that contemplative prayer will always be at its base simple. I don’t know about you, but that gives me a large measure of hope. I won’t bore you with a synopsis of all points throughout the book, I’m not the best reader or writer to do that. I would like to share however one particular desire kindled in me by the book: to learn some Latin! I so resonate with a simple prayer of the earliest monks: “Deus in adjutorium meum intende!” The opening line of Psalm 70, “Make haste, O God, to deliver me!” And the simplicity of this prayer snippet from St. Augustine of Hippo: “Noverim te noverim me” I would know you, I would know myself. Along with my weekly book reading stack I now have a fresh copy of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Learning Latin. I’m already into the second chapter. *^_^*

It’s a blessing to have a book in this second week of my book-a-week gift to myself to remind me so pointedly that we are all pilgrims on a journey, no competition to arrive, just a need to keep moving. “We do not want to be beginners. But let us be convinced of the fact that we will never be anything else but beginners, all of our life!”

AMDG, Todd

Almost There

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img_0608With 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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPerhaps 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.

AMDG, Todd