Jesus’ Dumpster Fire

No need for a picture today.

It’s turning out roughly like we thought it would, this off-the-rails democracy meltdown. And it will get back on the rails as democracy does, with a muddling mixture of blood, anger and, eventually finding some grown-ups where you least expect them. The British long observed that you can count on the Americans to do the right thing…after we’ve exhausted every other possible alternative. I think we’re about ready to try the right thing.

Black young men have been tasting the blood for years, now joined by a young woman who could have been one of my daughters. They were raised to show up at events like that.

We’ll pick up the pace of democratic muddling after  the one selling those red hats has identified himself—once again—with the ones swinging the rods, doing the salutes and driving their junkers into crowds.

John Lewis has been dealing with those kinds of people longer than anyone in elected office. He had stayed away from the inauguration because of the obvious, the man is simply not a legitimate president and we should cease treating his as such. Sunday will drop Mr Trump below the thirties in the polls, but polls don’t vote.  It is up the republicans who own this dumpster fire.

The key to putting that fire out is the behavior of the eight out of ten evangelicals who supported his illegitimacy while knowing his obvious moral emptiness. They made a nose-holding calculation to take an an anti-abortion supreme court justice in exchange for an unknown dumpster full of political waste. Now they know what’s in the dumpster—nuclear war, a melting planet and Nazis goobers.

The abortion issue is pretty much the only one splitting evangelicals out of range of the broader political process.  While (having daughters) I disagree with them on this one, I understand their commitment to their position. And I can totally understand the way it links in their minds to sexuality without boundaries reinforced by a culture that is happy to sell anything from toilet paper to tires with the scent of sex.

Now that they have their Supreme Court Justice it is time for them to take responsibility for the rest of the ugliness in what is now seen as Jesus’ dumpster. It is encouraging that nearly every single one of the evangelical advisors to his Illegitimacy ran for the light and made extremely clear that Jesus wasn’t a Nazi. You’d think that might have come up before now, but it is a start. But good example of how much of a baby step it is is modeled by Johnnie Moore, a former senior vice president at Liberty University and also one of the President’s evangelical advisers, “White supremacism, racism, and anti-Semitism are bigotry and they are pure evil. I hate them, and I call upon all Americans to defy them with intentional acts of solidarity and love.” Good start.

And then he just can’t help himself: “The right remains too passive and the left remains too political when it comes to ethnic divisions in this country. One side underestimates the issue and the other side provokes further conflict. Both sides distrust each other. This must end if we are to find national healing.” Many sides, many sides, blah, blah, blah. Pilot washing his hands.

Marv Knox, a longtime Baptist progressive, did an oped in the Dallas Morning News in the Dallas paper today with paragraphs of powerful language decrying bigotry. But in the end, he hardly took a swing that mattered: “Now is the time for white Christians to contact their friends of color and friends of other faiths and express their love and solidarity, and then ask a simple, vital question: “How can I help you?” Really? That’s it?

This is work for other white protestants like me and Marv, not Blacks, agnostics or anyone with a rainbow. This is a white and male and Christian problem so white and male and Christians have to step up. There is a long tradition of us white protestant clergy babbling like Mr. T did on the golf course while bloody-minded men mutter on the church doorsteps. Lots of men have a choir robe and a white one, too.

Who needs robes with this president? Silence from the pulpit and you’ve got a bonfire.

White evangelicals must severe themselves from this moral meltdown or their Jesus will be toxic for three generations. They will have made the horrible calculation of the German Lutherans who let Jesus burn in the Nazi fires.

Jesus tends to rise again and again, so don’t worry about him.

But if you want any role in America for a protestant witness, this is the week to show it.

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Gathering before dawn


The cross we forgot to put up the week before Easter. Ooops.

It’s easy to forget really important things. This is especially so when handling thousands of life-and-death events and a couple billion dollars amid the melt-down of political process utterly devoid of grown-ups. Take my own institution, Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. We remembered to put the 35-ton Moravian star on top of the building at Christmas. But…how to say this? We forgot to put up the cross this year during Lent. A former chaplain called, wondering if a policy decision had been made to secularize things; roll the bunnies and eggs, but hide Jesus, sort of like a Walmart TV add? Nope, we just forgot. When reminded, up went the cross in about an hour. Even when you forget, it’s easy to remember. It just takes a nudge.

The Reverend Doctor Susan Thistlethwaite, former president of the Chicago Theological Seminary said at The Carter Center that churches and hospitals should have to qualify in some way before they are allowed to put up a cross. It’s not a pom-pom that you wave to cheer on your religious team. It’s a signal that you remember that life is found by giving it away; that the most important possible thing cannot be bought at all, but is there for the receiving—grace, forgiveness, a second, third and fourth chance built into the very fabric of the universe by a loving God. And it’s a signal that while none of us can qualify as “righteous,” Dr. King said we can all be great, because we can all serve. Abundant life is found in giving it all away, especially to the stranger, widow, orphan, poor, voiceless and cast-out. Looks like an ER to me.

A hospital or church doesn’t show that by putting up a cross. This particularly weird symbol points away from religious symbolism entirely. The god of Israel hated that stuff, as most every god does. Amos stated the obvious; “you know what God requires; love mercy, do justice and walk humbly.” That will get you killed; ask Jesus. And it will bring you to life, too. That’s what we’re trying to remember.

What would that look like today if you happen to be a hospital born of a movement of confident grace and healing? And what would it look like if you were in a community with one of those institutions and thought it showed signs of remembering who it was?

On September 5th and 6th Stakeholder Health will convene at Howard University in Washington, DC to help faith-inspired healthcare and their faith-inspired community to remember and then imagine and then commit. Unlike a bazzilion DC conferences that are full of  whining and scheming, this one is about remembering how to give it all away. It is about how faith makes us bold and risky, not privileged and safe. Hence the name: Faith in Health: Reasons, Risks and Responsibilities.

Stakeholder Health has been thinking about this ever since the White House came to the tough streets of Memphis in a blizzard in 2011 and discovered hundreds of tough-minded congregations in covenant with a faith-inspired hospital called Methodist. An extraordinary learning journey ensued that led through several White House events and others around the country. What were we trying to learn? We wanted to know if it was possible—and then how—for these institutions to give themselves to the well-being and wholeness of their communities. This learning came to sharp focus last year in a book of many authors, “Insights from New Systems of Health.” It is not imaginary, but testimony of work already alive on the toughest streets. It’s all about resilience, and obvious but radical new ways of understanding money, and crazy smart ways of doing community health workers, leadership, relational technology, global perspectives and over and over and over—being deeply accountable to our mission. It feels like life pulsing. We talk about the Leading Causes of Life. Here you can look it up.

Those involved in the learning are pretty buzzed at all this. But we know that even very large institutions aren’t capable of achieving what is possible without a fundamentally new depth and breadth of partnership with the faith already alive on the ground. Many hospitals chatter on about population health as if it is something that can be done to a passive community, sort of like one might do liver surgery on an anaesthetised patient. We seek partnerships not out of etiquette, but utterly practical need. It’s the only way the possibilities become realities.


Shadi Qasem, MD, Pathology Wake Forest Baptist Health and Coordinator, J’ummah Services

It’s time to wake everyone up and ask what is possible at this late date, even while the planet melts and those in power seem drunk with violence and the tools of fear. This might be the place to note that politicians have always seemed to have a knack for taking religious traditions built for shalom and turning them blunt, dumb and mean. The easiest way to do that is to turn them against another faith which is even easier if one hasn’t actually met any real members of that group. It’s hard to be mean or frightened of someone in your day-care pool or that you’ve prayed with. Nobody expected this would be necessary in the 21st century, but it is now a fundamental competence of anyone in a leadership role in healthcare or public health to know how to engage faith and the structures of faith as partners in a broad health strategy.

The convening in September is not for everyone. Don’t come if you think faith is best left behind or that the best of faith is behind us. Don’t come if you think that your medical computers and machines can be programmed to create health without needing any grown-ups on the streets. Don’t come if you’re more interested in death than life. And don’t come if you think that your churches and mosques and temples have pretty much done all that your God had hoped you might be doing.

There won’t be any healthcare, political or religious glamoratti dropping their powerpoints onto a compliant audience. This is actual dialogue with grown-ups talking to each other about how to be deeply accountable for what matters most. We’ll open with worship and take some time to understand the extraordinary witness of gathering at Howard during the 150th year of its tenacious witness for mercy and justice. And then we’ll dive in with the lead authors of the Stakeholder Health book sharpening the implications of the collective learning so that the faith partners see how crucial they are to what is possible. And we’ll talk about how its not much easier for a congregation to be faithful than a hospital. We’ll pray together; sing like any movement does and hope for the Spirit to move us beyond ourselves. Lots of details to follow, of course. But you can register here now.

Moravian Brass

Moravians know that no movement survives without music. They could not imagine a gathering without brass.

I’m writing this the morning before Easter in the village of Salem where TC and I live. Tonight around midnight brass bands from Moravian congregations all over the city start walking the streets in their neighborhoods playing hymns, gradually moving toward Salem. They play all night even though not many people can hear through the modern sealed windows. Some probably think they are dreaming of hearing the old hymns and don’t even know some actual people are playing the music. Hardly anybody knows what it means. But in the dark the bands can hear each other; as they come closer they tease. One band will play a phrase and then stop. Another two thirds of a mile away will pick it up. It’s not organized, but there is no anxiety about getting it right; people have gotten it right enough for a couple hundred years. Meanwhile in the early dark of God’s Acre a congregation of people begin to gather; people of many persuasions intrigued by the constancy of the Moravians, some wondering about their own faith stirring. By dawn hundreds of brass ensembles have found their way, some straggling in right as the sun breaks over the ridge into the dogwoods and cypress of the graveyard. It is beautiful. More important than that; it rings true in a curiously non-creedal kind of way.

God's Acre in Old Salem.

You can see life whole by looking back on it, here in God’s Acre, Old Salem.

I hope we come in September like that, playing the songs of the new systems of health on our own streets first, echoing, then converging so that we might all learn to be great in service. The link to register is here.

The table is set by the Investing Partners of Stakeholder Health with some supplemental funding from The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Henny Youngman once said of love something that is more true of faith: you can’t buy it; but it can cost you a great deal.

This gathering is free, but it might cost you a lot.

The whole point is how to give it all away.

Something to think about this particular weekend. Remember that.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Crafting life together

fullsizerender-8It can all fall apart, this democracy thing. It’s not like gravity that makes rocks fall, even if you don’t believe in it. Democracy only lives in the mind and spirit and evaporates when we forget it. The belief that people can elect people who care enough to more or less do what they said they’d try to do rests on a fragile set of behaviors and values. For instance, that elected ones won’t lie and laugh at the same time. Basic stuff; it’s a low bar but one we have dropped below.

I was on a Delta flight to Denver Wednesday on my way to a meeting of the Stakeholder Health Advisory Council. Trapped in a middle seat between two suits who immediately turned the inflight video monitor on Fox News inches from my face. The guy on my left opened up a vast laptop with a powerpoint about the 10 things you need to know about illegal immigrants, including the “fact” that 79% of food stamps go to illegals. I’m pretty sure that in North Carolina half of food stamps go to Baptists, because half of everybody is a Baptist. I didn’t know how to begin the conversation, so I just turned on CNN. I’ll do better next time.

How do we craft a working democracy again; one where we can talk to each other? In a nation where hardly any of us came from here, you wouldn’t think that would be that hard. We are all a muddle, all some kind of mutt. My last name is Norwegian, but 15/16th is something else. Nobody is the same, even those that think we are. All the Evangelicals and Catholics turn out to have abortions and divorces at nearly the exact rates as the liberals, who are presumed to not be Evangelical or Catholic, even though many are. We are all just doing the best we can to be decent parents, brothers, sisters and citizens, the whole time we know we are not doing a very great job of any of those roles.


Loma Linda University’s San Bernadino Campus includes a community health clinic and a stunning gateway school for high school students to begin their journey into health professions.

In such a motley group, it is important to avoid letting someone else tell you who to be afraid of. This is especially important when by any rational basis you have never actually met one of the fearsome people. I’m thinking, of course, of the many Muslim physicians without whom our hospitals named Baptist would have to close. And the many, kind family-oriented Spanish-speaking men and women who have found refuge in our city, rebuilding the south side of town with an entrepreneurial earnestness. Why be afraid of them? I’m more afraid of the people trying to make me afraid.

Of course, others want me to be afraid of white small town Baptists, who did, admittedly, vote for our current White House occupant, which I find mystifying. In my actual experience, these folks are kind and generous to any request for mercy, willing to drop anything to go build a wheel-chair ramp for a total stranger. The rural churches are naïve about the ecumenical nature of opioids addiction, alcoholism or poverty. If I needed food, I’d head to a church, confident they’d help no matter how inconvenient.

Here in gentle Winston-Salem, we had some very ugly, but predictable, outbreaks of threats against the two Muslim Mosques where our doctors worship. We don’t know who did it; but I’m sure they’ve never met a Muslim. I’m certain that, if we asked the Baptist Men’s groups to turn off Fox News and head over to provide protection, they’d do it. If they brought their wives, everyone would quickly find pull out grandchild pictures and complain about the teenagers. The kids would play soccer together as they do at school.

Sometimes, all it takes is an invitation to do better. Many of those claimed as friends of the mean have simply not been invited by to do anything else than put a dumb red hat. Shame on us for not asking more.

Jerry Winslow  is the chair of the Stakeholder Health Advisory Council. He and I were together a couple of weeks ago at Loma Linda University Health’s institute for Health Policy and Leadership. Amid the heavy policy discussion we found some time to turn a gorgeous piece of maple burl and reclaim a piece of chestnut bowl I had managed to turn a hole in the bottom of. Jerry, the son of a German immigrant home builder, has been a master craftsman of wood for decades.


Jerry Winslow, teaching as always, this time at the lathe.

On Saturday Jerry took me over to the 1909 Gamble House, the epitome of “craftsman” architecture in Pasadena. It is a revelation in simplicity. Every single joint, lamp, door, handle, light, stair tread and attic beam was thought about and then crafted to express a perfect blend of form and function. The two architect brothers, Greene and Greene, were part of a vibrant global movement that saw in craftsmanship the hope for democracy, the possibility of a human culture. This was no small thing to believe amid the turn of the raw and violent century where industrial bigots had their way nearly unfettered. Something as modest as a well-crafted cottage might seem hopelessly irrelevant against the unstoppable tide of crass exploitation. But not if that cottage, or chair, or perfectly made lamp is an expression of integrity, consistent with a whole way of relationship to other people and the created order. What if such people outnumbers the mean crass ones? What if they—we—crafted a democracy?


Just a few of the billion perfectly crafted details designed into the Gamble House.

In fact, the craftsman movement was a strong signal about what mattered most, a thoughtfulness about how to live a well and worthy life. Frank Loyd Wright (a man of no small number of peccadillos) said of the movement: “Do not think that simplistic means something like the side of a barn, but something with a graceful sense of beauty in its utility from which discord and all that is meaningless has been eliminated. Do not imagine that repose means taking it easy for the safe forest, but rather because it is perfectly adjusted in relationship to the whole, in absolute poise, leaving nothing but a quiet satisfaction with its sense of completeness.” (Architecture and Machine, 1894).

It is time to craft democracy again with the same thoughtful attention to form and function as our earlier teachers lent to working with wood and home. Some of the old tools work fine, if sharpened again. Jerry still uses tools he acquired decades ago, now sharpened to a fraction of their original length. I just bought some 100-year old Sears Craftsman tools on EBay for $25. Old tools still work:  Precinct 601 met in the Single Brothers House of Old Salem where democracy has been argued for a couple centuries. We elected a new party precinct chair, Kate Hayden, who looks for all the world like Bernie’s granddaughter, but knows the craft of elections. First job is to get to know each other, have a party for the party, read some books and talk like humans who are capable of caring and thinking about what matters.

I have some very modern carbide tools, too. Likewise, we need to craft to the relational technologies like twitter that are too powerful to leave to the mean and desperate. This is how I think of 100 Million Healthier Lives, the unprecedented collaboration led by Dr. Soma Stout of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement. The craftsman movement has something of the same challenge to figure out what to do with industrial machines; but democracy is played for much higher stakes than any lathe. Respect the medium; watch the density and grain if on a lathe; watch the pattern of need if crafting public policy. If you don’t love the wood or the people, go do something else.

When there was much to fear in a culture gone to mere machinery, the craftsman movement trusted thoughtfulness and beauty from integrity and the life well-lived.  These democratic and communitarian values stayed alive in the culture expressing themselves later in the practical compassion of the Civilian Conservation Corps (which turned Jerry’s German immigrant father into a craftsman), Social Security, the policies favoring religious hospitals and non-profit health insurance. They crafted institutions that removed abject fear of penury from aging and made it possible to fight a skirmish, if not war, on poverty itself. Think of it as graceful joinery the Greene brothers would have liked.

IMG_4988 2

Jerry’s old tools fit for the craft. “Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside thoroughly used up, totally worn out and proclaiming, “wow! What a ride!”

Democracy can all fall apart; But it can also heal and find its heartbeat. I think that is what is happening.

The meanest bully by the beach that we find so shocking today is nothing compared to the raw and untethered industrial power a hundred years ago. We have seen worse bluster fail before well-crafted policies and institutions built by people no smarter than us who wanted their life to simply be good.

They even left some tools behind that just need to be sharpened, put to the grain by hands willing to learn. Find your party precinct meeting, show up and get ready for the next cycle of voting. Make an appointment with your congressman just to tell them what you care about. Take your state representative out for lunch with a couple friends. Volunteer for a church mission committee and go find somebody to help. Plant a couple hundred trees like my brother did at his Presbyterian Church along with some Muslims up the block. Go read a book to a kid. This is how you craft a community, a culture, a life.

Let’s do that.


Posted in 100 million lives, Beloved Community, leading causes of life, stakeholder health, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Post post truth


Even lying in the brush, just barely cleared of the vines the old apple wood is like sculpture.

How is the post truth era coming work out for everybody? Turns out it doesn’t take long for truth to pop out when you least expect it like dandelions on an early spring lawn.

You Know Who has already passed his tipping point, although much damage remains to be experienced with the collapse of the trappings. Every goon in the wide world sees their opening, so a lot of young men and vulnerable women are going to suffer while he and his minor minions tweet, flay and golf in their bubble. He is his own parody, only believed by a shrinking portion of his sad and anxious core who are already starting to peel away in embarrassment. It is already past time to be afraid of him and his overmatched helpers.


Rabbi Mark Cohn from Temple Emanuel helps bless the United Health Center facility. He explains that “anointing” in Hebrew means preparation for justice and mercy.

It is critical that we not amplify the damage of the collapse by reinforcing the false boundaries he has worked so hard to draw between citizens and humans who actually share real challenges. I am thinking of the many left behind towns in North Carolina filled with people who care about each other just as we occasionally have a chance to care for them in our medical settings. Most of the people in this part of the state voted for him, and not all with mixed feelings. Many are deeply frustrated and angry. But is a false boundary drawn between the vulnerable white, brown, blue and black. It is a false boundary drawn between Baptist, Catholic, the nones and the handful of Muslims in part of the world. It is a false boundary between those who speak Spanish and those who speak mountain.

Do not let your enemy tell you who your enemies are. Good advice for politics or bars. That’s what the rural poor whites fall for every damn time, as the rich manage to convince them to fear and then hate someone entirely irrelevant to their actual problems such as Blacks, Syrians or Mexicans or Baptists.

And be slow to follow the herd of your friends’ fears, too.

In real life our identity, interests, hopes and fears lie every which way across the lines supposed to divide us and contain us. This is why the communion table has no gate and no price.

This is why great drama is so disturbingly powerful; it helps us see the astonishing way that humanity is found across all the divides that benefit the rich and powerful. But what are words for in a time supposed to be beyond truth? They bring us back to truth by way of our humanity. I was talking about this with my daughter, Lauren, who happens to be the most produced living playwright in America these days (look it up). She should know.


Set from the Book of Will by Lauren Gunderson staged at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts 

In her most recent play, The Book of Will, one of the Kings’ Men tries to comfort a fellow actor who has lost his wife. They find refuge on an empty stage, which in Lauren’s mind is as a holy sanctuary. “History walks here, love is lived here, Loss is met and wept for and understood and survived here and not the first time but every time. WE play love’s first look and life’s last here every day. And you will see yourself in it, or your fear, or your future before the play’s end. And you will test your heart against trouble and joy, and every time you’ll feel a flicker or a fountain of feeling that, yes, you are yet living.”

The truth draws us across false boundaries into common humanity. This is exactly why the powerful and privileged pour time and fabulous amounts of money into lies. The truth does make us free; free from false boundaries. When anyone tells you to hate someone, ask who would benefit?

This kind of radical truth sizzles and simmers with the energy of liberation—another reason the powerful fear it. It turns accurate science and deeply reflected true language into fire.


Gradually the second life of the old wood emerges.

Earlier in the play a young woman explains to Ben Johnson why Shakespeare’s stories burned their way across lines of class and privilege: “A poet of the heart always beats a scholar. No highborn Latin rationalism can grip like a story of passion, of men and women alight with revenge or love or loss because we are animals at heart and isn’t that exciting. You wrote for professors, he wrote for people. And for good or ill, the later rule the world I live in.”

Roughly one and a half millennia before Mr. Shakespeare another traveling voice said with some passion, “” Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Philippians 4:8, NIV).

It is a time for true language in the pulpit or precinct, stage or screen, with keyboard or voice.


Even while still on the lathe the grain leaps into view with just a bit of beeswax. 

Yesterday a small group gathered in the waiting room of the new United Health Center offices on Peters Creek Parkway not far from our home and even closer to the hospital. We gathered to anoint this federally qualified health center (FQHC) in the languages of those who see this as a sign that God hasn’t given up on the people in this funny little Piedmont town, so filled with poor and vulnerable people it literally doesn’t know what to do. An FQHC is about the only thing Republicans and Democrats like, although the structure dates to the earliest days of the Johnson era war on poverty. The first one actually started in a church in Mississippi by Drs John Hatch and Jack Geiger when the state legislature tried to block it from opening. Mercy is still a pretty radical idea that deserves anointing whenever it breaks
We closed in common voice, as we often do, “For God so loved the world that God sends us to live here. Never be afraid of who God loves. Never give up on who God loves. Now we go to heal and find our healing, to make peace and find our peace.”

Tell that story; don’t add to the dividing narrative.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Assassinated Refugee


Shadi Qasem, MD, Pathology Wake Forest Baptist Health and Coordinator, J’ummah Services

We gathered in chapel that often give refuge to the grieving, Davis Chapel of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. Today, we gathered to give each other the shelter of our shared prayers for peace, reconcilliation, simple decency in a time filled with vitriol. The worst behavior in public seems to be amplified and sanctified by those who use the same language we prayed in in accents of Arabic and southern english. We can’t be chasing vile tweets of the powerful with prayers, but then again, where else can we begin, but find our way into common space and life up prayers?

As a Vice President of an Academic Medical Center, I am glad to speak in and honor the language of the many faiths of my colleagues, patients and neighbors. Today I pray in my natural language, that of my birth–and second birth—and as a follower of the One with no home at all, Jesus.

Gracious God, who came to us on the run, to parents of no count hidden in a barn. The Holy Refugee, despised for befriending the despised, a worry to those in power and distraction to those who trust only the power of politics and violence. You never voted and nobody ever voted for you; but you showed us the way of radical kindness, healing and disruptive truth that led to a cross and then life continuing.

Guide our feet that we not run your race in vain.


Prayers from the Buddhist Tradition offered by Lauren West-Livingston, Wake Forest University School of Medicine, MD/ PhD, 2022

Forgive us for we know not what we do…when we are complicit with the powers that mock your love. Forgive us for we know not what to do when all of those people in our government who wield those powers are varieties of Christians, claiming you as I do.

While we wait for wisdom about that, give us today the heart for brave kindness so that we will call by name friends the government would give no name and tell us to fear. Make us crazy with hope that the truth will make us all free find the minor courage to act with mercy and justice for all.

Break our hearts wide open today and every day so that your love might flow in and then through, reconciling your children across all the meaningless boundaries that are less than the only holy allegiance that saves and makes whole.

In the strong and gentle name of the assassinated and risen savior Jesus, I offer this prayer, Amen.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Thanks for the fish

IMG_0537Sunday morning I found myself, an incurable optimist, preaching perched on the chasm of doom, 46 hours into a Trump presidency. Green Street United Methodist is the archetype of the raggedly dogged social action church. The kind that Newt things is dead, when, actually, it’s not even tired. But Sunday was still a tough sell for hope.

The first lectionary text for the day was better suited to the more triumphal congregations; it’s the one from Isaiah, about how the light is now shining out of deep darkness. I skipped that one, muttering. Here’s the thing; nothing in the scripture helps us much right now, if the subject is democratic process. We are way off the biblical map, since the canon closed 9 centuries before the Magna Carta, 13 before European convicts settled the Carolinas, 14 before the Moravians came down the Shenandoah to what is now precinct 601 in Forsyth County. It was 16 centuries before anyone but white men could vote in anything worthy of the name democracy. Jesus didn’t vote and nobody voted for him.

So there is no relevant political guidance to found, although I will point out that there is a lot in the Bible that the absolute rulers found comforting. Every king since Constantine had their very own Christian chapel and Christian chaplain. John Wesley isn’t a lot of help either. He thought his American followers were way off the rails with the democracy thing. He opposed the revolution, supported the King and scolded all of our founding fathers for their childish overreaching.

It’s only quite recently that it occurred to any theologian that people of faith could create a democratic government with qualities of mercy and justice. And they never would have imagined that once we had it, we would let it float away on a froth of nonsense. How has the brief American experiment come to this? Especially now amid a vast tide of rootless suffering on a melting planet. This is simply beyond the imagination of any of the biblical authors except maybe whacked out Ezekiel and the inscrutable dude who wrote Revelations.

I don’t know about you, but I’m attending the Democratic party precinct 601 meeting next month. I’m ashamed to say it will be my first meeting. Perhaps you have many such missed citizen opportunities, too. Quit missing them. Programs and policies laboriously put in place over decades are about to evaporate at the clumsy hands of people who know not much of anything, much less what their actions will do those with the least capacity to absorb one more blow, one more insult, live with one more burden. Put your phone down and show up.

The Bible doesn’t help us know how to fix democracy; but it does have a lot to say about how to live without having power and even more about not needing it.

You don’t need Ezekiel or the Revelations dude at a moment like this. Head for Jesus. Look at what he did right after his mentor John was arrested by Homeland Security. Herod didn’t need to tweet his move; everybody knew his appetites and paranoia; it was just a matter of time till he went after John like someone we know went after John Lewis. Jesus was part of John’s movement, so wasn’t surprised by the arrest. When Herod made his move, Jesus headed for the hills. Then in utter vulnerability he came back down, started forming and collecting his confoundingly unexpected movement. His was not like John’s, except in its radicality. Jesus’ radicality went much farther and in a different direction than your normal righteous protest. It was marked from the first by a ridiculous amount of healing and radical generosity that made no sense. It was almost as if Jesus was declaring an end to religion, not just offering a new flavor. This was confusing from the start and unsatisfying to revolutionaries and rulers ever since.

What did Jesus find in the wilderness? In the second half of my life, I find myself going to the wild places more and more. Two weeks after the election I was in the wilderness end of the Grand Canyon down a mile from the rim near the river. On the way back up, I learned a lot as we were caught in a winter storm.

As we picked our way up the trail, we heard stone move high above us, then bounce once, twice, three times and, after a long silence a swinging sword, a sharp crack more like a cannon far below. Even through the sleet and wind, the sound cut hard with menace even though we knew the Canyon wasn’t thinking about anything but gravity.

Nature and the fundamental drivers of large scale change do not care what humans think, feel or tweet. The Colorado plateau tilted up over millions of years, draining an ocean that cut like a saw through a billion years of rock in what by geologic standards was a relative handful of years. It carved a cathedral. But, I don’t even think the Canyon knows or cares about its own beauty.

Don’t worry about the Canyon. The climate deniers will be long gone before another few rocks fall; we will all be entirely unremembered before the river cuts another quarter inch from the basalt floor. This is the natural fact Jesus would have learned in the wilds east of Jerusalem.

img_0875I think Jesus went to the wild places to remember another natural fact more preposterous than all the canyons on earth; that amid all the harshness, fragility and loss, loving kindness survives. Humans care and care for each other, even as blood, race, wealth, politics, religion and ethnicity fall like nameless stone from the cliffs. The rocks fall, the kindness survives.

What could be more obvious than the fact that everyone who has ever lived died, felt pain and knew sorrow. We know it for ourselves and we know it for all those we love, too. Bitter resignation makes sense. But generation after generation, we find lovingkindness.

Life is fragile, short and harsh, THEREFORE be radical in your love.

My Mom died a few days short of 18 years ago. She was a practical person not given to symbol. I’m more of a romantic, so when she was near death, I took her hand and asked her if she had last words for me. She looked at me and said, “no, I think you’ve got it. You’ll remember what you need when the time comes.”

Today is a time for us to remember what Jesus told us. We need it now. Wayne Merritt, a Baptist drinking buddy who taught me Greek, said that Jesus’ message was that you will know the truth and the truth will make you odd.

Jesus came out of the wilderness and gave himself to healing —and never stopped, even for the Sabbath. He said that he would stop healing when his Parent did. How preposterous; how human, how holy; we don’t know whether to laugh at him or cry for how strange that is to us.

And what did he do beside healing pretty much everyone in sight? What does he tell his movement to do? He doesn’t give them a box of tricks to win anything at all, but a way to live; And what a crazy way! How happy are the humble, those who know sorrow, who claim nothing, who are starving for goodness. Here it shifts: How happy are the merciful (not desiring to show mercy, but doing it); and so too those who are actually sincere and those who do the work of peacemaking. And, here it gets even worse: happy are those who suffer persecution for the cause of goodness, especially when people tweet about you and make things up entirely. If you suffer for living a true life of radical generosity, how lucky you are!

This, Jesus says, is what salt is for, what a light is for, what we are for.

He keeps the radical pedal down, which must have been a shock to those just looking for some free medical care or to get some demons released. Jesus said that anger is as bad as murder! Anyone who calls someone a fool commits a serious crime and that anyone who says someone is lost is himself heading straight to the fire. Recently, I happen to frequently call a particular group lost fools, which makes me guilty of both of those. I wish Jesus would be more reasonable and supportive of our movement.

But he didn’t get more reasonable; he just keeps getting worse. Don’t tell people that God will guarantee your promise, no eye for an eye, no hitting back and if the cop makes you do one mile, give them another. And give to anybody who asks anything (I can tell you that’s dumb; that’s why I ended up in the pulpit!).

On and on, page after page, without a single tip about how to beat Herod, his deeply annoying glameroti and his horrible ever-grinning children. “Jesus……..impossible,” every king and king-hater has said for two millennia.

“Comfort my people, for in the darkness we have a seen a great light.” But the light of Jesus is not the light we want. It is not a way out or a way over, but a way through; a way to live day by day, year by year, even generation after generation after generation, if we have to, waiting for the promises of god for mercy and justice to be realized. And what do we do while we wait for the big show? Go do mercy and some justice, that’s what. Jesus’ promise is that you and I can live this way, The Way, the only way which gives life a chance at all.

Come and be part of the end of all fear, especially the fear of all death and all that claims the power to kill. Come and give your body and mind to The Way that leads to life. Give yourself away, every bit and you will feel the life flow where once you held tight to your little fears and hopes. Give it away, every bit. Be part of the healing and don’t start big. Before you make a big holy show of it, think of your brother, sister, former spouse or left-behind friend; go make peace with them first. Come away from the anger and scheming. Quit bargaining and holding your minor gains as if they will last. Live this way now and you will find life flowing freely, abundant, overflowing beyond all measure at all.

You might point out that, technically, it didn’t work out so well for Jesus or those who bet their lives on his words. Herod won without a recount. Pilot, two clicks meaner; he won, too. Most kings do. But take a look at the end of Jesus story.

The story of the boats and fishers is so good that it show up in all four gospels in four different ways. John puts the story in the tender days after the assassination and scattering, when the fishermen went back to fishing for fish. Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, Zebedee’s sons and two other disciples were hiding at the lake north of Mt. Airy. Peter announced that he was going fishing and since nobody wanted to be left behind, they all tumbled in. They stayed out all night, and caught nothing. They headed back in, even more discouraged than when they started, except now hungry, too. Jesus watched from the beach across the early still mist and then called, “children, have you caught anything to eat?” (No, of course.) “Cast on the right side where its deeper and you’ll find some.” They netted so many they couldn’t haul them in. John reports that it was 153, which is like counting the beer bottles left on the lawn after beating Carolina. Peter, sure didn’t count the fish. Naked, he jumped out of the boat, pushing his way a hundred yards through waste-deep water to get to his beloved friend.

Jesus had started a charcoal fire going on the beach, expecting the haul, toasting some bread. “Bring me some of the fish; y’all need some breakfast.”

Listen to the tenderness of the one who calls us into a preposterous Way of generous vulnerability. This is a savior who knows we need to eat as much as we need hope; and that we need hope as much as we need breakfast.

Be as careful with each others’ hearts and spirits in these tender days as Jesus was that morning.

Jesus does not give us a way to beat the mean and violent, but neither it is a counsel to give way to the liars and schemers. He gives us The Way to not be like them. So do not let your fear draw you toward them or their way. They have no power over you and they have no power to stop you from living The Way of Life. Their castles are as froth on the waves. You are drawing from a deeper place, carried by a deeper current, that can cut through stone like the Colorado.

The healer is here among as we fish, and type and give away our lives in healing, or teaching or raising up the voice of hope through art or kindness. Give yourself to life-giving now, not later; save nothing back for a safer or smarter time. The Reign of God is at hand, says Jesus. I think he meant your very fingertips.

“Hey,” says Jesus, “do you want some fish?”

Posted in 100 million lives, deeply woven roots, leading causes of life | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Christmas Benediction


A clearing in the Black Forest near Goettelfingen, Germany

Few countries know more about the dark side of the blend of Christianity, nationalism and strong-man politics than Germany. And few peoples have shown as generous a spirit as have the Germans in recent years regarding the horrors of the Syrian experience. As I think of our own troubling passage as a people, nation and faith, this word from Jim Cochrane seemed my best gift on Christmas.

Today, a year ago, a group of 30 or so Syrian refugees arrived quite suddenly, in the dark, to our little Black Forest village named Goettelfingen (one translation: home of little gods). We knew some people were coming but not who or even exactly when. Renate, as the local pastor, immediately jumped in to help them get into the unused B&B that was now to be their home. None of the Syrians spoke German, or French, one a tiny bit of English, but fortunately, a young man, Mohamed, also a refugee but in Germany for a while, came from a town some 20 miles away, and helped translate.
The next evening, tomorrow a year ago, as is the custom in Germany, Renate led the key Christmas eve service — far more important than Christmas Day, the one day you can be sure the place is jam packed. It is also the time for the children’s nativity play that they had been rehearsing over the past weeks. However one assesses it, it is a genuinely holy day, a day “set aside.”
Renate had invited the Syrians, thinking that they might find it helpful to get a feel of how Germans are culturally on a special occasion, a contribution to some kind of warmth and hospitality and an opening for some potential integration over time, in both directions. Knowing they were Muslims and in any case would understand very little, she did not expect them to come.
The church filled up, yes indeed, jam packed, kids in front of the tree near the altar, all dressed up for their play. The bells began to ring to signal the beginning of worship. Just then the woman who greeted people at the door rushed in to Renate: “They are COMING! What are we going to do? Where will they fit?”
Out of the dark down the one significant road came the Syrians, the whole group, half of them children of various ages. Renate asked the stewards to clear a space in the front, got all children to sit on the floor, has some folks go upstairs to sit on the stairs or squeeze in, and the Syrians were all accommodated up front.
Later we learned that the Syrian children were particularly excited that one of the nativity play figures was “just like us” — Mary, with a shawl over her head.
Meanwhile the service continued. As it came to an end, Renate began the benediction, the prayer of well-being and release back “into the world.” She was barely into this final prayer when a cellphone rang — one of the Syrian guests has forgotten to switch one off and in embarrassment scrambled to shut it down. But enough had been heard. The phone was set for the final and fifth call to prayer for the day: “Allahu akbar!” it rang out into the middle of the Christian prayer. What a moment … it was stunning, it stopped everyone short. And it changed Goettelfingen forever whether all the inhabitants had recognized it or not.
That is the new world, and even if already part of the present, that is the future. There is nothing that can stop human beings from spreading, from having to encounter each other across many strangenesses or barriers, and from having willy-nilly to live up to the best of which we are capable in that regard. We have that capacity, and we know it, and we can live out of it. All those who are frightened by that thought or resist the apparent loss of some imagined “pure” or “originary” or “unadulterated” previous identity will have to come to terms with it no matter how much they may in the meanwhile hurt others in their fear or anger. And in that lies our hope and the task of helping everyone along.
And that story and thought, despite the negativities our this time and the pathologies that seem so strong, is what I want to share with you all in wishing each of you on behalf of the Leading Causes of Life Initiative Core Group a richly festive and enlivening season at the end of this year and a promising new year ahead.

James R Cochrane
   Emeritus Professor (Religious Studies) &
   Senior Research Associate (School of Public Health & Family Medicine), University of Cape Town.
   Adjunct Professor (Dept of Social Sciences & Health Policy), Wake Forest School of Medicine, USA.


The view from the sanctuary of the Lutheran church in Goettelfingen



Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment