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Jesus said, “Love Your Enemies” and There’s More

 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  Jesus in Matthew 5:43-44

I was in seminary when a would-be assassin severely wounded President Reagan. One of my classmates – a second-career student with a young child – was not a fan of Reagan, but she was staggered by a conversation with her daughter that night. At the dinner table, the daughter said with all seriousness, “Mommy, we’re glad that Reagan got shot, right?

My friend dropped her fork and said, “Oh honey, no. We don’t agree with him, but we never want him to be hurt.” My friend was mortified and it was a good reminder for her to be clear in teaching her child that even when we disagree with people, we don’t wish them harm.

I fear that this sensibility has changed especially in the 21st Century Church.

From David Brooks’ opinion piece in The New York Times yesterday:

“Over the last 72 hours, I have received multiple death threats and thousands upon thousands of emails from Christians saying the nastiest and most vulgar things I have ever heard toward my family and ministry. I have been labeled a coward, sellout, a traitor to the Holy Spirit, and cussed out at least 500 times.”

This was written on social media by Charlotte Pastor Jeremiah Johnson after he shared this letter with his congregation in which he criticized the President.  Among other things, Pastor Johnson wrote that there is “potential great danger and trouble ahead for America if he is re-elected.”  It clearly didn’t go well with his followers.

Jeremiah Johnson got death threats. Death. Threats.

It’s not enough to disagree politically with someone these days.  Now Christians are threatening other Christians with death threats.  Or better stated, some Christians who do not consider others to be Christian enough are threatening each other.

Our nation is consumed with this kind of enmity.  Not only are we not praying for our enemies.  Some of us are threatening to kill them.

Political speeches past: “The President was my opponent and not my enemy.” Bob Dole (1996)

Political speeches present: “He’s going to do things you wouldn’t think are even possible because he’s following the radical left agenda.  Take away your guns, destroy your Second Amendment. No religion.  No anything. Hurt the Bible. Hurt God. He’s against God.  He’s against guns.  He’s against energy, our kind of energy.” Donald Trump (2020)

So, here’s my question, Christians:

  • What are we doing to give our children and our neighbors the idea that physically hurting people with whom we disagree politically, theologically, culturally is okay?  Do we casually blurt out things like, “Nancy Pelosi should be strung up” or “Somebody should punch Ivanka Trump in the face.“?  If you feel that way, try the decaf.  If you say such things, watch your tongue.
  • What are we doing to curb the meanness in the world?  Do we laugh off friends and family who make violent statements?  Do we claim to have “no enemies” but we make it clear that we “hate” everyone on the other side of the political divide?

We are supposed to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth.  We are called to pray for our enemies and those who persecute us.  This never means that Jesus wants us to wield a weapon while wearing a John 3:16 shirt.

It’s up to us to speak the truth in love. 

Nothing looked like love on January 6th, 2021 in Our Nation’s Capitol but it’s not enough to point fingers and be shocked.  We need to clean up our own acts and our own words.  We need to open our Bibles and get on our knees.

Happy Friday.

Image source.

These People Will Change Your Life in 2021

Ordinarily I write an end-of-the-year post about my discoveries in the previous year. Sometimes my “discoveries” reveal that I am a late bloomer or a late-to-the-party girl. The end of the year felt heavy a couple weeks ago but I’m ready to share some resources that will change your life.  It’s important to nourish our souls while grappling with the serious issues of our world. Here you go:

  • Bernadette Joy Maulion became one of my new favorite people last year for so many reasons. She is the Brene Brown of personal finance with a goal to help women (and specifically women of color) build wealth.  Coming from a lifetime of little to zero financial savvy myself, Bernadette has made it fun to become financially stable and secure.  She teaches online classes here and you can join her Debt Crushers group here.  And you can hear part of her story here.  
  • Jimmy Greene is a professional saxaphonist who is also known for other things.  I love his online presence.  I love his #HymnOnSunday each week. His words and music soothe the soul and not in a Hallmark card way.  He is married to Nelba Marquez-Greene who is a national treasure.  He is the father of Ana Grace and Isaiah.
  • Nelba Marquez-Greene is one of the best human beings on the earth. She has deep faith in God and also sometimes wants to break things.  In other words, she is an authentic follower of Jesus. See above.
  • Edgar Villenueva (the author not the Peruvian politician) wrote one of the best books I read last year: Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance. His N.C. roots caught my attention and his clear explanation of colonialism and its impact on philanthropy kept me engaged.  I literally see everything through a different lens because of this book.

If you have any life-changing resources you’d like to share, I invite you to do so in the comments or in a link to your own blog.  We need to be spiritually nourished in these days and I love it when a seemingly secular subject (e.g. finance, music, philanthropy) is reframed as a theological practice.

Have a wonderful Tuesday.

Image is an original painting by Ana Grace Marquez-Greene.

It’s Good Time to Talk about What Makes Our Country Great

“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal”  Thomas Jefferson (1776)

“And when I meet Thomas Jefferson I’mma compel him to include women in the sequel” Angelica Schuyler via Lin Manuel Miranda (2009)

We all know that when Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence that by “all men” he was not including enslaved men, immigrant men, or any women.  Some men were not considered fully human.  Men identified as “white” were considered intellectually superior.  Women were still considered the property of their fathers and then their husbands.

And so for hundreds of years, we have said “All men are created equal” but we didn’t mean it literally. It was more aspirational than true.

The evidence is overwhelming that we did not truly consider all men and all women to be created equal: Jim Crow Laws, Racial Segregation, Red Lining, Inequities in Education & Medical Treatment & Law Enforcement & Voting Rights & Prison Sentencing & Financial Opportunities & Banking Laws & Bodily Self-Determination & Marriage Rights & . . . I could go on and on and on.

As I’ve written before, I’m a fan of straight white men.  And it’s true that white men have held almost all of the power in business, sports, politics, entertainment, publishing, religion, medicine, and education throughout our nation’s history.

But here’s the blessing some of us are embracing: Every one of those entities is improved when a diversity of people are included in how they operate.  We are better when we include a full range of experiences, perspectives and voices in leadership.

You can look it up everywhere: Forbes. Harvard Business ReviewThe United States Office of Personnel Management. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church USA. (page 36)  Obviously, this is not a complete list of resources, but please do your own homework.

If the point is to be as effective and impactful as possible – whether our goal is to make more money or expand the reign of God or – don’t we want this?

Diversity is not a gimmick.  This opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal felt cynical and shortsighted.  Yes, there are many “firsts” on the incoming President’s cabinet but this is not a gimmick; it’s what we do in an increasingly multicultural nation in order to govern well.

What makes our country great?  I believe we are best when we include people whose perspectives are not the same as our own.

And when people do not feel heard, they lash out whether they are White Men who feel they are losing power or Black People who feel they never had equal power.

Sharing power is not easy.  But it makes a country great.

We are increasingly not merely a democracy but a multicultural democracy.  Thanks be to God because – if we let it happen – it will make us a greater nation.

Image is from the Ellis Island Immigration Museum.

Something Jesus Never Said: “Let’s Pretend Like That Didn’t Happen”

After a disturbing event in a church I was serving a while back, the elders were discussing how to respond. One elder – a distinguished older man – said this:

Let’s just pretend like it didn’t happen.

 

Some people naturally avoid conflict and some use conflict as a tool for relational growth. I am curious about the people whose ordinarily active social media accounts have been silent about what happened on Capitol Hill Wednesday afternoon.

Congregations would be healthier, families would be healthier, and work places would be healthier if we addressed conflict directly.  Directly addressing conflict doesn’t mean we duke it out until one side is left standing.  It means connecting to understand each other. 

Yes, it will be uncomfortable and most of us like comfortable.

I’ve tried to reach out to people I love who voted for Trump in hopes of understanding where they are coming from. I want to understand what I see as a gaping disconnect between what they say they believe as People of Faith and/or People Who Love Their Country and what the current administration is about.  Most are not interested in grappling together and I chalk that up to conflict avoidance.  But it’s more complicated than that.

Part of Christian spirituality involves engaging in practices that move us closer to being the people God created us to be.  This is why we confess our sins and try to change our ways.  This is why we ask neighbors to forgive us so that relationships can be repaired.  This is why we study scripture to understand what God is calling us to do.  This is why we meet in spiritual groups to challenge each other and admonish each other.

When we refuse to grapple with conflict, we are missing the opportunity to understand ourselves and each other better.  Read the stories of Jesus through the lens of identifying conflict and we quickly see that Jesus always – always – stepped into it rather than walk away.

  • He could have ignored the Woman at the Well rather than engage in a conversation with her.
  • He could have walked past Zaccheus sitting up in the sycamore tree to avoid connecting with a tax collector and all the subsequent fallout he’d bring upon himself.
  • He could have avoided lepers, bleeding people, and mentally anguished people in order to avoid the criticism of the Pharisees.

But he didn’t.  

It occurs to me that much of our conflict avoidance is also about our privilege.  

Me: I feel sick inside watching the Confederate flag being paraded in the halls of Congress.

Conflict Avoider: We don’t know all the details.

Me: Do you care that my (brown) daughter-in-law is having to carry her passport to work to avoid being pulled aside by someone who accuses her of being “an illegal”? 

CA: (no comment)

Me: What can we do about the fact that police officers are more brutal to peaceful BLM protesters than they were to MAGA protesters wielding flag poles and breaking windows in Statuary Hall?

CA: I’d rather think about “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable.”  Let’s think positively!

If we forget what we saw with our own eyes and heard with our own ears and not address what made that happen on Wednesday, I believe we are displeasing the God who came to earth to show us a different way.  Jesus addressed hypocrisy and injustice every day.  And I believe he expects this of us too. 

To ignore the suffering and inequities we see makes us just like the priest and the Levite in the Good Samaritan (when we tell ourselves we’re the Good Samaritan.)

If we already have amnesia or if we simply want to pretend like something ugly or uncomfortable never happened on Wednesday in Washington, DC, I believe we are enraging God who literally died to show us how to serve the least of these.

Don’t be an agitator,” someone told me recently.  And the Holy Spirit helped me blurt, “But Jesus was an agitator.

Those of us who are privileged and can pretend that white supremacy, abject poverty, rampant homelessness, and financial injustice aren’t real because they don’t impact us personally might call it conflict avoidance.  (It’s not impacting  me personally, so I’ll just put it out of our minds and go play golf.)  But it’s also an affront to the God who created us to be in relationship with each other and especially with the vulnerable.

Please don’t quickly “move on” from what happened Wednesday.  Yes, I put a pleasant photo on Instagram Wednesday night myself because I need restorative beauty too.  And we need restorative beauty in order to have the energy to address the world’s conflict and the interpersonal conflicts around us.

What I know is that Jesus never said, “Let’s pretend that didn’t happen.

Image source.

A Time to Swear

Some of us will say there is no good time to swear. It breaks the 4th Commandment (“Thou shall not take the LORD’s name in vain.”) It shows a lack of vocabulary. It’s lazy. I’ve heard all these comments.

It bothers me when people speak in a way that every other word is an F bomb. This seems to diminish the power of that word.

And I can’t take it when people actually do take God’s name in vain. When I hear “G-D (anything) I literally feel pain. My dad used to swear by spelling D-A-M-N long after his kids could spell but he never added the G– before it.

Last evening I was asked to write a prayer for the night of Epiphany on a day when a mob desecrated The People’s House, when thugs broke into the offices of members of Congress and staffers hid in closets and under desks. My prayer was called a “Prayer for Epiphany when there’s a ****show in our Nation’s Capitol.” I was asked if that title was okay and I said it was. I’m sorry if it offends you.

Sometimes there are no words that have the same impact as a colorful scatalogical word. We Christians are often shocked when pastors and other people of faith dare to express themselves with such words. I for one believe that sometimes they are the only words that capture the depth of what’s happening.

What happened in our nation’s Capitol yesterday was devastating. Arlington, VA was my home for over twenty years. My home. My children’s home. What I saw yesterday happened less than 10 miles from our former house and it was horrifying. It was swear-worthy.

And . . .

. . . and, we live in a nation that can do better. We are called to do better, to be better. Our nation was founded on noble principles but we have fallen short of those noble principles and we continue to fall short every time white men are allowed to storm a federal building and be asked to disperse peacefully while we all know that if that mob had been black or brown men, they would have been shot. We know this.

It makes me want to swear.

We Could Just Go Home and Lock the Doors. Or . . .

And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. Matthew 2:12

I’m moved by Shannon Weston’s post about Epiphany from a few years back. Her point is that it’s curious that the Wise Men – after bringing gifts to the baby Jesus and being warned in a dream not to report back to Herod  – chose to leave “for their own country by another road.”  James Taylor even wrote a song about this detail.

It’s curious because the Magi could have made other choices:

  • They could have helped the Holy Family escape, perhaps to their own home countries.
  • They could have gone to to Rome and reported the truth about Herod. Yes, he builds things, but he’s a bloodthirsty ruler.
  • They could have returned to Herod but thrown him off track. “Your Majesty, they’ve headed north to Phoenicia!”

But instead they went home by another way.  In other words they took the easy way out.

What happened next?  The Holy Family became refugees in Egypt.  All Israelite boys under age two were slaughtered throughout Palestine.  This could have been avoided if the Magi had taken responsibility to serve their neighbors, if they had been brave.

As a theologian, I can make the case that God’s plan involved the escape to Egypt and the fulfillment of Jeremiah 31:15.  God clearly works even (and especially?) when human beings are on the wrong side of history.

But on Epiphany 2021 when there are still people fleeing for their lives, when there are still innocents being sacrificed, imagine what it might look like if we could be brave.  Instead of returning home after coming face to face with evil, after learning that people are in danger, imagine if we stepped up and helped them.  We don’t merely return to our homes and lock the doors.  We serve those in need as if they were the Holy Family.

Imagine.  Imagine being not only wise, but also being faithful in 2021.

Image is The Wise Men by JC Leyendecker (1874-1951)

What Happens Next?

We don’t know what’s going to happen this week, next week, or by this time next year.  Sometimes this is for the best because we couldn’t take it, or it would be distracting. Sometimes it feels terrible to imagine what could happen, and so we don’t think about it unless we are Walking Stress Storms.

In my first parish, the local funeral director made a habit of phoning me at the beginning of the new year and asking me to bet him on his predictions about who would die that year. You read that correctly.

He called and literally said, “Here’s the list of who I think will die this year. Are you in?”

I was not in.

This is the same funeral director who would call me after a member passed and say, “Guess who died?” I did not want to guess. “You won’t believe it,” he would continue. “Just guess.

It must be hard to be a funeral director in a tiny town.

As a pastor to pastors in 2021, I am trying to imagine what this year will bring to our congregations, especially if the pandemic ends.  It’s quite possible that in January 2022 we will still be standing in line for vaccines.  Or maybe we will need new vaccines for new strains of COVID-21.  Assuming we will be able to meet face-to-face safely again, I’m venturing to guess that:

  • Congregations will offer both in-person and virtual gatherings ffor the rest of our lives.
  • About half of our pre-2020 in-person participants will “return” to worship and other events.
  • Those who found community in other congregations besides their own during Covid will continue to engage with those other congregations while staying with their “home church.”
  • Lots of churches will close, especially if they could not bring themselves to become 21st Century churches by 2020 (which is already 1/5 of the way through the 21st Century.)
  • Churches will call pastors who look nothing like all the other pastors before them in appearances or skill sets.

I could be wrong here, of course.  

Stepping out in faith is scary.  But what if we embraced the adventure of it?  What if we ventured out – socially distanced, of course – expecting God to show us something we need to see?

In the meantime, please pray with me regarding what’s going to happen in our country this week and next week and this time next year.  There will surprises and I trust God that each surprise will bring something good, at least in the long run. 

The Last Thank You Note

I figured out long ago that resolutions do not work for me. (And neither do “Star Words.” Sorry – creative colleagues.)

Instead of writing resolutions, I write/re-write my funeral plans on the first couple days of each new year. It’s under “If I Die Today” on my computer. HH knows the password.

My plans change from year to year depending on what’s going on and what happened over the previous months, but I want to be ready. I am semi-obsessed with death having officiated at hundreds of funerals, memorial services, and graveside events and having experienced death in my own family. I am surprised that I am still alive, if you want to know the truth. I expected to die of cancer in my mid-50s or – if lucky – by 60. But here I am and life is sweet and I have a lot to be grateful for.

And so part of my funeral planning is writing The Last Thank You Note. It can be read at my memorial service, if someone wants to take that on, but it’s basically a brief thank you to God for my life. It’s only by grace that I’ve enjoyed the life I’ve had and I am especially cognizant of this when I look at the lives of those friends of mine who – from the get go – never had what I had from birth: attentive parents, a roof over my head, enough food to eat, good health, good education. Oh, and pale pigmentation.

Have you ever been to A Great Funeral that made you want to be a better person? Those testimonies of well-lived lives that were about serving others, having bravery in the face of danger, rising from the ashes of tragedy? I have been privileged to bury some of my favorite people and it’s made me want to be better myself. World War II heroes. Single parents who raised amazing kids in difficult circumstances. Farmers who kept everything going. Immigrants who took menial jobs so that their kids could go to college. Brave children. Brave teenagers. Brave young adults. I’ve buried at least one spy. (The government eulogist said, “He always made sure the women and children were safe” and I thought that guy had been a professor.)

Great funerals are inspiring. But the best are like thank you notes. They point not to the ives of the dead but to what made them truly alive.

This is how I start out 2021 in hopes that I live to see 2022 and 2023 and as many years as I’m given. Happy New Year. It is a gift from God.

“Of course, giving is down.”

As I check in with pastors and other church leaders at the end of 2020, I often hear this phrase when I ask how things are going: “Of course, giving is down.” Let’s unpack that on this penultimate day of a difficult year.

  • Of course. We often assume that when things are difficult certain things are destined to happen in response.  Of course we are low-energy considering the holidays are over.  Of course we are sad because of the pandemic losses.  Of course our congregations are responding negatively after ___ happens.  Imagine – though – if our sacred assumptions in the throes of loss and pain is that we are overwhelmed with an awareness of our blessings.  The tragedies that could have happened, but didn’t.  The times cuts healed and aches subsided. The moments we noticed that God is still with us.
  • Giving.  We have countless opportunities to give something of ourselves every day.  A kindness.  A smile – even behind a facemask. An encouraging word. A decision to share a portion of our time or money.  There is no excuse to refrain from giving as long as we have breath.
  • Is down.  There is no reason for “down” to be the only direction things are going.  We continue to sing Hallelujah – even in hell. We continue to look up to the One whom we call Immanuel. It’s quite possible that what we truly need increases in these days.

For what it’s worth, giving is going up in some of our congregations.  Expecting God to help us rise even from death is what we fundamentally believe as followers of Jesus.  

May our souls sing “Of course giving is up!” in a variety of ways. Happy New Year!

2020: Helpful Things We Learned

Yes, it was a rough year. Excruciating actually. You don’t need me to remind you why and how.

But we’ve learned quite a bit in this year of pandemic/election craziness/bitter divisions. Here are a couple things:

  1. Good leaders are good leaders – no matter what’s going on. They know how to pivot when plans need to be changed. They know to accept failures as their own and to acknowledge others for successes. They do not withhold important information from colleagues in order to hoard power. They are permission-giving within the parameters of The Big Picture (which for congregations is to expand the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven.) Good leaders ponder how “the worst thing that could happen” might actually open doors for better things (e.g. Moving from 100% in-person Church to a blend of in-person and virtual Church.)  Good leaders are both vulnerable and hopeful.
  2. Proximity determines our truth. Brian Stevenson talks about the importance of proximity in terms of loving our neighbors as ourselves. If we and our neighbors remained employed, well-fed, healthy, and comfortable during these Covid Months, then 2020 was not so bad. And so maybe we didn’t believe that the virus was as deadly as the media said. Maybe we didn’t pay much attention to relief packages debated by our Congress. Maybe we loved these months of working from home. This is the definition of privilege: if it doesn’t impact us, we don’t believe there’s a problem.
  3. Crisis reveals what we value.  Do we hunker down with a year’s supply of toilet paper?  Or do we step up in our charitable giving?  I know people who’ve lost their jobs and are still serving as generously as they are able.
  4. Crisis reveals our politics.  Do we believe that bolstering the financial power of corporations will help our country more than bolstering the financial power of families? Or the other way around?

Special note to Pastor Nominating Committees: if your congregation is seeking new leadership in 2021, please keep what we’ve learned in mind:

  • Please call a leader to be your next pastor – not someone you can control, not someone who will never offend anyone, not someone who fears the congregation more than they fear God.
  • Please call a leader who encourages authentic relationships with a wide variety of God’s children both within and outside the church walls.  The congregation will not impact the community if the pastor has no interest in the community.
  • Please call a leader who knows that the Church is not the building.  The building is merely one tool for ministry and if it’s not being used as often as possible as a tool for ministry, then it’s probably an idol.
  • The Bible is an equal opportunity offender in terms of politics.  If we try to live our lives through the lens of Scripture, each of us will see that we have all fallen short of the glory of God.  We can all do better.

Full disclosure: I am personally convicted by the number of verses about caring for the poor (more than 2000) over the number of verses about building up our own power/coffers/self-interests.  Does your voting record reflect this?

Great things can happen 2021, if we have learned anything from 2020.