Saturday, March 30, 2024

Cruelty Meets Holy Saturday - Reflection Meets Politics VI

 And the silence of the dawn arose after "It is finished."

For years, Holy Saturday felt weird to me. There was all the intensity of the prior week's ministrations—meals, solemn readings, funeral-esk music, sanctuary stripping, communion—and then this dead space of Holy Saturday. In my childhood church experience, the only thing that happened on Holy Saturday was my mother did her routine flower arranging for Easter morning and placed it on the altar at church for the next morning's anticipated celebration.   In my kid's understanding, Holy Saturday was a boring letdown.  My mom said that was the way it was supposed to feel.

"This is how it is supposed to feel"—when conscience and faith need to be consulted on the unfolding events in which one is involved. Holy Saturday is a pause. In one's conscience, what is happening? World events, even local events, can have disturbing impacts on our emotional life flow.  It is somewhat easy to push them aside with the brain's self-protection of, "It can't happen to me."  It feels as though that is our only means of coping. But the blows to one's sense of safety and protection feel the punch just the same.

  • A friend's cancer diagnosis or fatal heart attack.  
  • A mom and three children's lives are snuffed out by the flash of a teen's car speeding over 100 mph in a 40.
  • An innocent random woman minding her own business driving to work is hit & killed by a bullet from a shooter in the woods. 
  • A bridge collapses, and six construction workers are gone.
  • Miniscule parachute drops are falling to feed thousands of starving Palestinians ironically while the intentional counteraction of killing them continues its relentless climb toward a million dead.
  • The earth's "carrying capacity" is well beyond sustainable, yet voracious consumption of her resources continues, while in the halls of power, stuffed shirts quibble about the significance and validity of individual data points.

It is overwhelming to absorb all of the "it is finished" happenings.  We need a daily "Holy Saturday" to find a pause button and soak in the redeeming and calming silence—a day apart from the torrent—to reconnect with the Holy. 

Jesus' closing discourses were all about this life circumstance. Terror, destruction, and the end of life are not time-limited. They have always been and are a part of human existence—wars and rumors of wars, death, hatred, persecution—"yet not a hair of your head will perish.  By your endurance you will gain your lives" (Luke 21:18)  . Some Pollyanna language is put in Jesus' mouth, but Jesus' life example was not rooted in Pollyanna. Rather, he was pragmatic and hands-on.  As we endure and hold tight to faith in eternal existence, "the former will pass away, and all things will become new." (Rev 21)

We have Holy Saturday(s) to bathe in silent reflection on how our very DNA is entwined with the eternal love of God.  In love, we were born.  By love, we live. Through love, we return.  Regardless of the horrors of daily "crucifixions," we cannot succumb to the oceans of tears. We continue the mission to serve with kindness and empathy.  We arise again day after day, even after being beaten down, to walk the Good Road, to be living witnesses to the Eternal Love that cannot be extinguished.  Ever. 


Monday, March 18, 2024

Reflection on Faith and Politics - V -What Do You Want?

At the end of Chapter 10 in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is passing through Jericho when a blind man, Bartimaeus, yells out to him.  Bartimaeus causes such a ruckus that, in spite of the crowd trying to hush him up, Jesus turns and asks him, "What do you want from me?" 

Indeed, what do the masses of people clamoring to claim the Christian faith want from him today?  Many people claim to follow him yet hold a stubborn, obtuse belief in their own privileged position with Jesus.  They claim special rights for themselves as though Jesus commissioned them, in particular, to gather in only their own close friends and family -- that they determine what act Jesus will perform for the downcast - the hungry, the immigrant, the poor.  They are no different than the crowd then - scolding the needy and pushing them to the back of the line.  Perhaps this selfish grasping to hold Jesus only to themselves is why there are so many different churches across the United States landscape?  Perhaps the social toxicity of white privilege bought worldly political power so they could demand that Jesus bless them in their blindness rather than heal them? 

Greed, fear, and hardness of heart are not acts of Jesus. Greed and self-protection are not bedrocks of the Christian faith. They do not permit lovingkindness to thrive or other virtues to lift a society's care for the infinite number of ways trouble and hardship can strike any one of us without warning. In fact, the hardness of heart and the clutching pearls of privilege fuel desperation, which in turn leads to responses of violence, crime, and war.  There is no better example of this escalation in war and violence than the Hamas v. Israeli conflict. Healing this kind of human blindness will take far more than the retreat into silos of vengeful self-justification or hiding in hopes it won't breach our doors.

What we all want is a true pathway to peace and healing of all ills—social, physical, and emotional.  We won't get there if we are the noisy crowd shoving the needy to the rear or only watching out for Number 1.  Jesus' response to need was to notice it and do what he could to help.  This should be the faith model we could all adopt, remembering that frequently, all another person needs is a smile and to be seen.     

Saturday, March 16, 2024

Reflection on Faith and Politics - IV: False v True Prophets

 "Stay alert or you may be led down a false path!" he told them.  "Many will come representing me, 'I am the Chosen One,' they will claim, and many will listen to their lies."  -- Mark 13:5-6 (First Nations Version: An Indigenous Translation of the New Testament)

History is littered with false prophets and saviors  In each of their times and places, they have garnered their set of devout followers. To be a successful false prophet/savior the main ingredients have been personal charisma and the illusion of wealth or success.  Oftentimes, the ruse was most often aided by having a small cadre of conspirators to mingle in the crowd and "attest" to the miracles claimed by the prophet.  They are all in on the fleecing. Gallons of snake oil have been hawked on legions of gullible, unsuspecting souls. 

So what sets Jesus (or any truly helpful prophet/teacher) apart from the riff-raff?  How can we discern authentic wisdom, action, or advice?  I'd offer these suggestions.  

One is that the teacher/prophet does not gain financially from their followers. Authentic wisdom is not for sale. The corollary is also true—the more one has to pay to acquire the "wisdom" (or "secret"), the more worthless it is.

Two, if the profit motive is removed, then one's intuition or internal spirit voice can more accurately discern the truth or value of the advice.  If the person hearing can apply or incorporate the teaching into their life with positive net results, one can more readily trust the truth.

Third, most validly wise teaching/advice is grounded in furthering positive virtues such that not only is an individual aided by the teaching, but the larger community benefits as well.  Examples include virtues such as love, compassion, kindness, forgiveness, restoration/healing, and sharing.  Obviously, if the advice fosters more fear, greed, xenophobia, or violence, beware of the lies and do not follow (or aid) that false prophet. 

It is vividly apparent in our present-day political field whether candidates or individuals for public office meet the criteria above or not.  Let those with ears hear. 

Friday, March 15, 2024

Reflections on Faith & Politics - III -- Growing Together

  I am the vine. You are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit because apart from me, you can do nothing.  John 15:5

A very discordant social construct crept into humans' ways: the teaching that rugged individualism was noble. This construct metastasized during the U.S. "Wild West" (beginning roughly in the early 19th century.)  Caucasian individuals were given cheap or free acreages of land (taken from Native American tribes by force) to farm so as to develop the US from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans.  The myth that lives on today is that these brave, honorable people "pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps" and "made America what it is today."  Politically, still, there is implicit hearkening back to how "the West was won."  It is a belief that often colors discussions about labor, immigration, and the social safety net. Not until President Obama did any U.S. leader explicitly argue that all we had accomplished was the result of very large teams of individuals taking on large development projects together that benefited everyone.

Jesus was also making this connection.  Nobody can thrive in a total vacuum.  Human mental, spiritual, and physical health is rooted in the need for strong social connections and interactions.  The "lifeblood" of a human community is the cooperation that takes place between people.  Jesus' use of the vine and branches is an accurate metaphor. Together we are all fed.  Apart from one another, apart from our life together, things do not usually go well - certainly not for a very large number of individuals - the growing homeless population being a constant example, or the implicit suggestions that keeping a gun under your pillow will keep you (and your family safe.) 

What we see happening today in politics and socially is a sundering of cooperation and togetherness. The "Make America Great Again" slogan hearkens back to an era that never was and only exists in the lie of "self-made men"-- industrialists who robbed from the poor, destitute laborers, and vulnerable migrants/ hoard and amass tremendous wealth that in God's Realm on earth would have been shared equally with everyone. 

Jesus' teaching here encourages us to see ourselves as thriving plants that grow in response to connection to spirit and life. Together, we can bring kindness, understanding, and sharing for the good of all.  



Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Reflection on Faith & Politics -II -- Follow Me

 If any of you wish to be my follower, you must put aside your selfish ambition, shoulder your cross daily, and follow me.  Luke:923 

There are many messages (cultural & familial) and experiences in life that shape, mold, and color our brain's processing pathways.  These pathways are a major factor in determining our perception and interpretation of the world.  There are a number of social norms that feed into the inaccuracies we adopt.  Shame is a large one.  It plays havoc with our self-esteem. Shaming is one of the powerful tools used early in childhood to discipline and shape one's conscience and behavior.  Religion has always relied on shaming.  Another common social norm is winning is better than losing. In fact, to compete and win is drummed into us from the earliest team sports we are thrown into in elementary school.  I would posit that we don't even get to an idea of cooperation until several years later.  By that time, the message is set: beating your opponent is strength, and helping others is weak.  The third lesson taught through the subtleties of culture is that more is better.  Social norms strongly reward the "accumulators."  The one who has much is rich, and with wealth comes power and strength.  Each of these cultural influences subtly encourages hoarding, dominating, and even cheating to make up for any felt "weakness."  In turn, we see this powerfully reflected in the politics playing out, in the economy operating, and in our interactions with one another. 

To follow Jesus/"taking up our cross (our truest self)," likely means putting aside the pre-programmed social selfish ambitions. This is not denying the importance of ambition.  Healthy ambition is how human life broadens and expands.  Healthy ambition is the engine that moves the world in positive, life-affirming directions.  It is difficult, however, to find this part of ourselves if we've had parents, teachers, preachers, and coaches hammering the point that you only "make something of yourself" by getting ahead of all the competition. Most of us would accept the point that billionaires are probably at the top of the heap in this kind of societal game. But are they happier?  Is the world a better place?  Is the rest of the world happier as we all give up our own paltry worldly wealth that enables billionaires to hoard more of the money and resources (that do have a finite supply)?

In the First Nations Version (of the New Testament) this passage goes on, "The ones who hold on to their lives will lose them, but those who are willing to lay down their lives for me and my message will live.  How will it help you to get everything you want but lose what it means to be who Creator made you to be?  Is there anything in this world worth trading for that? (Luke 9:24-25)

These words are not meant to be taken in the literal sense. Rather, holding onto a life of shame, feeling like "a loser," or caving into the constrictions and external definitions of who we are by others will cause you to lose yourself and who God created you to be.  The ropes and chains holding us back from being our "true self" will diminish the full beauty of the created order as it was intended.  Love and happiness have a difficult time shining through the smudged-up glass of shame and hoarding. Imagine the difference we would witness in the world if love and helping hands were the rule and if striving (and finding) our intended purpose was the driving force in society.  It would transform politics and everything about how humans interact.  

Monday, March 11, 2024

A Christ-Follower's Reflections on Faith & U.S. Politics/Church

 U.S. History and Church history have always been my favorite subjects.  But in my almost 69 years I have never seen nor imagined that both entities would fall so radically out of whack.  Nor would I have thought it possible that basic institutions within each would be reverting backward in time to ages and battles already fought and supposedly settled.

 It is mid-March 2024 and the US presidential election is fast falling into full swing.  Except for the rubber stamping of respective political conventions, the main two candidates have been selected: Donald J. Trump for the Republican party and Joseph Biden for the Democratic party.  The differences between them couldn’t be starker.  One, the present incumbent President, is a near-life-long politician with extensive experience in Congress and the White House.  The other is a one-term President under multiple criminal and civil indictments with significant monetary fines already placed against him.  He continues making unproven claims of a rigged election four years ago.

The Church is in almost as much disarray. While there has been a wide spectrum from conservative to liberal churches for many decades, for the past decade or so, a polarizing spirit has taken hold. The soul representing the Church has become a cacophony of bickering voices, often with an angry, unforgiving pitch.  In addition, a large segment of disgruntled, angry, traumatized individuals have disaffiliated themselves from the Church and are openly hostile toward it. In all spheres, social media has mostly only magnified the intensity and list of grievances and wrongs.

This is going to be a set of treatises aimed at promoting daily faith reflection and, hopefully, providing an oar of hope with which to paddle one’s canoe through the roiling, oily, odorous swamp. We shall see.

Day One:

Then the Pharisees came and began to argue with Jesus, asking for a sign from heaven to test him. Sighing deeply in his spirit, he said, “Why does this generation look for a sign?  I tell you the truth, no sign will be given to this generation.”  Mark 8:11-12

“Sighing deeply in his spirit…”  That captures it exactly. The challenges of dealing with the bubbling stew of competing “truths” and conspiracies/misinformation abound in a social pressure cooker that is pretty banged up and dented already from three long years of viral violence wrought by COVID-19, leaving most of us exhausted, stressed, on-edge, and weary.  Where can we find a sign or a signpost pointing us to relief from a sense of ever-building calamity?  Jesus’ response is not very helpful to us: “No sign will be given…”  But the sign they were looking for had already been given.  They just didn’t want to see it or couldn’t because their mindset blocked them from seeing.

The problem with mindsets, stereotypes, and crazy notions planted in our craniums is that, too frequently, they predispose what we see to a fantasy interpretation our brains paint.  It is like when a friend is speaking, and if they pause momentarily in mid-sentence, we jump in to finish their sentence for them, except that we get it completely wrong.

The Jewish hierarchy didn’t want to believe Jesus was the Messiah, and the works he was doing were so fantastic that “you’d be a dope to believe he was really doing that.” Jesus had signs all over the place, and they simply were never going to accept them because of their bias.

So, what biases and mindsets are predetermining what we see happening before our very eyes?  Perhaps just as important, can we use knowledge of Jesus and how our brains work to “pre-program” how we interpret what we see/hear?  What if we took Jesus’ signs and sayings as The Program?  How would we change our approach to the “news” or the vitriol/grievances flying left and right?

I’ll be laying out some possibilities and proposals in the coming days.


What do you think about Jesus’ signs?

Who has had the most influence on your understanding and beliefs about Jesus?

Are you open to exploring other interpretations and understandings of faith? Why or why not?

Sunday, March 3, 2024

Lent 2 - Sermon

 A sermon preached at St. Luke Episcopal Church, Renton, WA on 2/15/2024.  The gospel passage was Mark 7:1-15 -- disciples eating with unclean hands. 

Dominance and submission – two startling words to start a sermon you don’t hear every Sunday.  They are two fundamental powers present in all human interactions.  The interplay of give and take with these two powers appears any time two people or two groups begin relating.  The range of possibilities are endless.  When they are in an ideal balance back and forth, it’s like a couple skilled at dancing where they are beautifully in sync and stunningly flow across the floor.  But when the two powers aren’t in balance, it can be like my wife and me dancing – where we don’t even try dancing anymore because we have never resolved in almost 50 years who is leading. In all human relationships, there is this dance, so to speak, between who leads and who follows.  In every conversation, these powers are at play.  Who, for instance. has not been in a work setting conversation where “the boss” gives us instructions?  Or when you’re with friends – have you noticed if the conversation is flowing smoothly, it is because each participant takes their turn with about equal time talking and listening?  But what happens to the conversation if one person dominates the conversation?

Groups have these same dominance/submission power dynamics.  Let’s cut to the gospel lesson.  Judaism, at the approximate time the Gospel of Mark was written, had grown their Law from the 10 commandments in the days of Moses to just over 600 commandments covering every aspect of life… from what kettle you could cook vegetables in to who could sit where in the synagogue.  It was a way that the religion dominated their adherents’ lives.  As the adherent, you could be put out if you didn’t submit to the rules.  So, we see the Pharisees, who were basically the beat cops, calling out Jesus’ disciples for their slovenly eating behavior of not having washed their hands. They remind me of a kindergarten teacher scolding their students for not having sung the Alphabet Song slowly enough while washing their hands.

But Jesus jumps in to defend his disciples (shrewdly) by raising a question with the Pharisees about a law violation they themselves were committing.  He had noted that in their stumbling over themselves to prove their extraordinary piety and devotion, they were offering a lot of sacrifices or korban.  Sacrifices cost a lot of money.  So Jesus asks, in essence, with all you’re spending on sacrifices, what’s going to be left for you to take care of your aging parents – and if you can’t take care of them because you’ve given it all to sacrifices, how is that honoring your father and mother?  One of the key jujitsu moves to flip the position of who is dominating is to ask a question.  Here, Jesus asks the question about the Pharisee's incongruity in nit-pickiness.

It does seem to rock them back on their heels, and then Jesus, occupying a dominant position, teaches his followers, saying for the first time explicitly that the dietary laws (that occupied a large chunk of Jewish law) mean absolutely nothing.  What counts in his realm is what comes from a person’s heart.

I want everyone to be clear about the judo move Jesus pulled here on the Pharisees.  They’re in the dominant social position to issue fiats and orders and call people on the carpet for what they deem improper behavior.  And Jesus turns from a submissive adherent to the powers that be to a dominant place of teaching his faithful followers they can ignore the dietary laws in total. All by asking a simple question of the powers that called for an accounting of their own hypocrisy.

This is a skill we would all do well to have in our quiver for all of the times along the Good Way when we might run into the powerful, the bullies, the obtuse, the difficult, and the wrong-headed folks in the world. Have you ever had the experience of being confronted about a belief or behavior that we have then bowed to because their dominance/authority was strong enough that we lost our voice?   It happens to all of us, but I suspect that women and people of color find themselves in these difficult, lonely, silence-imposing tough spots with anyone claiming some kind of authority over us (real, assumed, or imagined.) There are many troublesome tales of rigid churches silencing women or demanding the right belief to be part of the community.  Or mansplainers at work who take your ideas and claim them as their own.  Or bosses who behave as if they own us and presume we will work whatever hours they throw at us.  In the church, there are many who don’t feel it appropriate or okay to ask questions about doctrine and theology or they get ignored and the message is clearly sent that questioning is not acceptable. Flipping it happens when we are brave enough to ask why those behaviors are okay.

I would call what Jesus demonstrates here: “Wild Spiriting.”  He didn’t need 600 laws to tell him what the right way was. As adults, if our hearts are grounded in God’s love, we really don’t need a bunch of rules or authorities telling us how to act, what to think, who to love or help, or how to behave. Love is a powerful guide.  Wild Spiriting uses the dominant spirit of love to call out love-stifling conventions, rules, and societal trends that are just wrong.  Wild Spiriting can guide and direct us in any relationship even those where we can sometimes find ourselves mute in the face of wrong.  Anytime something happens where we come away from it feeling less-than, guilty, or sorrowful about not having said/done something -- Wild Spiriting calls us home and reminds us to whom we belong. Wild Spiriting is where love, kindness, compassion, care, and certainty of God’s blessing upon us is the only license we need to step out of submission & confront the wrong or injustice we see or experience.

So Wild Spiriting and the Christian faith are powered by an alternating current of domination & submission.  It requires the submission phase of observing silence, study, and steady contemplation in prayer and listening to God with the flip into the dominance of getting one’s hands dirty – asking, working, leading, and challenging to broaden the Way/the Good Road/the Path for ever greater equality, compassion, and healing justice. 

Treading this path alone can be challenging.  The powers we face can be very intimidating.  But hopefully, here, in this church – I hope you can feel safe to use your voice to engage and ask questions.  To practice the jujitsu of flipping submission to domination and vice versa. To practice the fine arts of Wild Spiriting – where we encourage, name, report on successes, and get pulled up when all our responses to a sinful world have felt puny/weak. It is here where we’re reminded of our worthiness as God’s ambassadors and children. Never to oppress or flaunt, but to open dialogue, articulate clearly The Good Way, and, with our hearts leading, inspire the changes needed for a more perfect balanced world that can dance beautifully/gracefully across God’s majestic ballroom.