Loving Las Vegas

A hand reaching out of a puddle in the forest.I’ve never been to Vegas, but after the mass shooting there last night, they’ve been on my mind and heart this morning. Enough that I posted this to Facebook this morning:

Praying for #LasVegas, and for a country that can seemingly agree on nothing except that we should pray.
Maybe that’s the best place to start.

Of course, sharing such a sentiment gets “likes” and positive comments.

And, then I read this post from my friend Jared Slack:

the fact there we’re all secretly hoping Stephen Paddock (Vegas shooter) is a by-product of our political/religious rivals is the problem.

After that bounced around in me for a while, I realized a potential shortcoming of my post.

I left it too easy for us to end up just praying for the other. Sure, “others” like victims, victim’s families, friends, residents of Las Vegas, the shooter and his family, friends, etc.

But if all we all agree to do is pray like that, for the other, whoever the other might be, I think we give in to remaining caught in this tragic cycle of simply agreeing to pray.

What if we moved a step further?

What if we invited God, in our prayers, to help us see the steps we, ourselves, can make beyond the impasse of only agreeing that we can and should pray?

If we remain in our place, disagreeing with so many others about so much, and only willing to agree to pray, I believe we find ourselves in the place of the Pharisee in this story from Luke 18

Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust: “Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself with these words, ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even lift his eyes to look toward heaven. Rather, he struck his chest and said, ‘God, show mercy to me, a sinner.’ I tell you, this person went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”

I hereby commit to continuing to pray for Las Vegas, victims, victim’s families and friends, Stephen Paddock, his family and loved ones.

I further commit to finding, meeting, interacting, and listening to some of the “others.” for whom I am praying. Let’s call this reaching out.

When I reach out, the place for me to reach out from is the recognition that something or some things about me and the way I view and move in the world might be part of the problem.

I am reaching out not only to help, but for help.

Never Forget

Today is the 16th anniversary of September 11, 2001. It is also the first time in almost a year that I’ve posted.

Welcome back!  Thanks for reading.

On my run this morning, I realized today was September 11th. I was struck, then, to notice that the weather was very much like it had been that day 16 years ago.

I remember much about the day. I suppose it is one of those days I will never forget.

Yet, I cringe a little when I hear the phrase “Never Forget.”

It reminds me of another day I will never forget. This day was almost a year later, and, though I don’t remember the date, I’ll always remember the day.

I was preparing for a mission trip. I was also preparing for my divorce to be final. After I had apparently said something bitter, a friend suggested I should consider forgiving my almost-ex-wife.

I said (another thing I will never forget): “Oh, I know I need to forgive her, but not yet. I’m going to let it stew awhile.”

Saying those words aloud woke me up. I knew, from having told other people, that refusing to forgive someone is like taking poison and hoping they’ll get sick (thank you, Anne Lamott, I think). Hearing myself say this started me on the road to forgiveness.

(to be clear: I do not hold my ex-wife solely responsible for our divorce. Therefore, I hope she has forgiven me as well)

I’ll always remember my first marriage, and my first wife. I do not remember it as I did in those first few days and months afterward. I still remember, I will never forget, but my memories have taken different form and occupy a different place in my heart.

As you remember traumatic events in your past, whether national tragedies or personal hitches, may you find the grace of remembering them differently as wounds heal.

 

Yes, Caesar, whatever you say, Caesar

veterans-dayWithin limits, of course.

If you know me at all, you can imagine how confused I was to hear this yesterday at our church’s Veteran’s Day Luncheon:

Note the order here: the nation was telling the churches to celebrate this day.

I reacted, but controlled it. Someone else had the floor. This gave me time to figure my response.

The State doesn’t tell the church what to do!  How dare they? Who do they think they are. The wheels of thought spun inside me, measured by the knowledge that I was surrounded by people, many of whom had served in war, and at least some of whom don’t have exactly the same ecclesiology I do.

As the speaker concluded, she shared that this description of the history of Veteran’s Day came from The United Methodist Church.

My thoughts took an abrupt turn, but not full 180.

Promoting and enduring peace and honoring those who offered themselves to the cause of freedom and justice were certainly worthy values that I could encourage, even lead, my church to uphold.

I’m still nonconstantinian, but I have realized that maybe there is more left to render to Caesar than I thought before yesterday.

My recent brush with the Law

 

You know that sinking feeling you get when you look in your rear-view mirror and see a police car with lights flashing?  And you heard the siren before you saw it?  And then the next feeling is supposed to be relief because you pull to the side and the police car zooms on past?

Well, I got the first of those feelings without the second a couple of weeks ago, when I got my first speeding ticket in quite a few years.

No doubt I was guilty. 30 in a 20. I hadn’t noticed the change, thought I was keeping up with traffic; you know the drill.

So I pulled over, put the car in Park, put my hands on the steering wheel, and waited.

We had a fine conversation. I kept hoping that I might be let off with a warning. Might have, except it was in a school zone.  I guess I want no tolerance in a school zone. Maybe even more than I want a citation.

I can’t say I have been stopped a lot of times.  I also can’t say that I have always thought that stopping me and writing me a citation was really the best thing to do.  So, I rolled a stop sign, but there was NO ONE else on the road! Oh, yeah, except that parked police car down the street….

For all the times I’ve been stopped, maybe ten over the 35+ years I have been driving, I have always been treated well.

Judging from ONLY my own experience, I cannot make any sense of the challenges our society currently faces over policing.

On the other hand, there are too many stories, and too many incidents, for me to believe that there is not a problem.

But I am absolutely convinced of this: the problem is not the police, and the problem is not one particular race or class of people. The problem is us; the problem is in and with all of us, and until we can all admit that, I do not expect the problem will get any better.

And I don’t know anyone who wants things to keep going like they are. I don’t believe there is anyone who wants things to keep going like they are. But when, and how, are we going to get past the fear and hashtags that frame all of this?

Who is willing to stop vilifying the other, WHOEVER the “other” might be?

I am going to try. Wouldn’t you agree it is worth a try?

If it is worth a try, would you also agree that it has to start with ME trying, and YOU trying, not waiting around for THEM to try?

That’s from my recent brush with the Law. May your next brush with the law be at least as smooth as mine.

 

Ban the Ban!

This just in: TVLand has banned Dukes of Hazard reruns!

Ok, technically, that’s just not right.  A TV channel doesn’t “ban” shows.  A TV channel chooses which shows to air and which not to air.

So, to say that TVLand has decided to pull Dukes of Hazard episodes from its arsenal would be correct.  But to say TVLand has banned Dukes of Hazard would ONLY be correct if one went on to characterize EVERY OTHER show that TVLAND doesn’t air as similarly banned.

Of course, if one is trying to rally the troops against the rising tide of removing the Confederate Battle Flag from the American Public, then throwing the word “ban” in may be very helpful.

We Americans don’t like being told what to do or what not to do.

TVLand refuses to allow Americans the freedom to watch Dukes of Hazard!

Well, no, not really; TVLand has merely decided that if Americans want to watch the Dukes of Hazard, they will do it somewhere besides TVLand.

TVLand, along with a growing number of other commercial enterprises (Walmart, Sear, Ebay, Etsy, Amazon, and others), is no longer participating in selling products that feature that flag. I believe it is within their rights to so choose.

And we all knew, didn’t we, that businesses deciding to stop selling such products would lead to a run on these same products?

Yeah, that’s kind of how we are as Americans: we don’t like being told what we can and what we cannot buy.

Just don’t confuse the freedom to buy something with the ability to find someone willing to sell it.

God and Country

This is the 5th sermon in our Pop Culture Series.
popculture4


I believe I should start today by saying that it’s easy to get this wrong. Preachers, and Christians, and people of all faiths have, for all time, often misrepresented either their faith or their nation in the interest of the other.

About God and country, it is easier to get things wrong then to get things right. So please pray with me that we get things more right than wrong. And that whether we get things right or wrong, that we do so motivated first and foremost buy our intent to follow Jesus no matter what.

<prayer>

I wanted to start this message with this: 8-10 seconds of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA“, but then thought better of it.  How would that go over?  Would I just be using that song to evoke a particular emotion or response?

What response would I want you to have if I played it?

Lee Iacocca tried to pay Springsteen for the rights to use it to represent Chrysler Corp.

Ronald Reagan didn’t ask for permission; he just used it. You get to do that if you are President.

I’m not sure either Iacocca or the Gipper ever actually listened to the song. Have you actually listened to “Born in the USA”?

I’ve told some of you that along my path as a Jesus-follower I was, for a time, a fundamentalist.  I do not use that label derogatorily at all: I described myself that way at the time.  That time included the period in my late teens when I burned all my rock and roll.

It was “devil music,” you see.  Or at least that’s what I came to believe at the hands of some pretty convincing preachers.

I owned some, so I burned it.  Why not just give it away?  What, and contribute to someone else’s delinquency?  Not a chance.

It’s been more than 35 years since I burned those albums.  I have, I’ll admit, re-aquired some of the music – of course, now it is in digital form.

One of the things that I gained from those experiences, though, was a strong desire to hear the words – to listen for the words of a song – and to understand the message.

Sometimes that isn’t easy with rock and roll, but I learned to do it.  It’s easier now, of course, with any search engine.

One of the arguments those pretty convincing preachers used against rock music was about the music itself. Some of them even referred to it as “African tribal rhythms” which were, of course, demonic.

I’m not sure you could get much more racist than that, but back then, I was just an impressionable teenager. I didn’t realize how racist we could be without even trying.

I think maybe we are learning how racist we can be without trying.  In fact, I believe that if we aren’t trying NOT to be racist, those of us in the majority, those of us with privilege, should learn to assume we are being racist at least some of the time. We ought also to befriend people who are different than we are.  I learned last fall during the uproar in Ferguson, that the average white american has one black friend.

Are you and I better than average?  We can be. We should be. We must be.

So, in 1984, when “Born in the USA” came out, I listened. To the music and the words.  The music makes it feel like it’s really upbeat, maybe even positively patriotic.

The words present a different message.

However, I don’t think this means it isn’t a patriotic song.  I think this means that Patriotism is probably best lived as something other than “MY country right or wrong.”

Countries are sometimes wrong.

This country, the US, was founded on such recognition!  The breakaway from the crown of Great Britain was, to a large degree, about freedom to be able to say what they feel needs to be said.

Sometimes today we forget this.  Sometimes it seems like of one questions the decisions of an elected leader one is said to hate the country.

My observations lead me to this conclusion: If your guy (or woman) is the person in elected office, opponents are un-American to question his or her actions.  If the person in elected office isn’t “your” person – is someone you didn’t vote for, you can not only question decisions, but motivations, personality, anything you want.

I don’t believe that kind of bickering and hateful arguing is patriotic. What’s more serious, I am pretty sure people who are trying to follow Jesus better every day don’t treat other human beings that way.

But I’m not here today to lecture or preach on how to be patriotic.  I’m here today to worship God and, particularly today, to offer some thoughts, hopefully inspired thoughts, about how we, as Christians in America, navigate being Americans and Christians in a world that is often mostly steered by Pop Culture.

First, we can and ought to give thanks that we live in a land where people are free to worship according to the dictates of their conscience.  This is one of the earliest truths and longest held truths about the US.

On the other hand, in a land where one can freely worship literally anything one wants to worship, it is hard to keep people focused on what or who ought to be worshiped.

And this is a place that Pop Culture really challenges us.  Worship means “expressing, feeling, or showing that one values – holds worthy – the object of worship. Typically a deity.”

What do we worship?  Let me ask this differently: What do we value? To what do we attribute worth?

Some of us worship sports teams.  Some of us worship particular bands.  Some of us worship some specific restaurant, or car company or band or television channel. Or shampoo or soft drink or caffeinated beverage (oouch!)

Pop Culture cultivates this wide-spread worship within us because producers of pop culture like money and advertisers like to sell product.

Which makes for a perfect marriage.

We worship what we want, and, as Americans, we are free to worship anything we want!

I’m pretty sure this is not what either the Founders of the US or Jesus had in mind.

I believe we are missing the boat with this understanding of freedom of worship. We’re missing it on worship, and we’re also missing it on freedom.

Just briefly here’s how we are missing it on freedom. The kind of freedom Jesus talks about, and he does a lot of this talking in John 8, such as “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teaching. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” A few verses later he says, “therefore, if the Son makes you free, you are free indeed.”

Jesus is not talking about his followers about freedom of the press, freedom to assembly, of religion, or any of the other “freedoms” Americans know and value.

Because, let’s face it, we don’t follow Jesus because a government says it’s okay for us to follow Jesus. We follow Jesus because the One who created us calls us to follow – whether any government allows it or not.

Now, on to how we miss it on worship:

There’s a good reason the 10 commandments start this way:

I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

You must have no other gods before me.

Do not make an idol for yourself—no form whatsoever—of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. Do not bow down to them or worship them, because I, the Lord your God, am a passionate God (Exodus 20:2-5)

God knew then and God knows now that we are creatures hungry to worship. We’ve proven this true: you can find a person who worships anything!

But, of course, before we go pointing fingers at people who worship cats or dogs or trees or anything else, what do we worship?

Sure, we say we worship God – after all, we are here, right?! But on Thursday morning at 10:00, if we were to ask 5 people who knew you well what you worship, what would they say?

What does your calendar – the way you spend your time – say you worship?

What does your bank account or your credit card statement say you worship?

We worship God – the God we know first and foremost in Jesus – but this God is a passionate God, and wants, even demands, our worship.

While we are thankful that we live in a land where we are free to worship, we have to continually check our focus – what are we worshiping? Do I put God before every other thing that clamors for my attention, my money, my time?

Fast forward from Exodus 20 to 1 Samuel 8. The people, God’s people, have settled in the land God has given them. They have lived through several generations since Exodus 20.  They still tell those stories – reminding one another that God has delivered them; that God loves them!

By now, they’ve added other stories.  They’ve added stories about  Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, Samson, and others.  God had raised up someone – called a Judge – to deliver God’s people whenever it was needed. But now, Samuel, the last Judge, was nearing death and the people wanted something else.

They wanted a king. Why? Because everyone else had a King!

So many years, so many generations, so little change!

We still want to be like everyone else. (But if everyone wants to be like everyone else, then who starts it?  We’ll talk more about this next week.)

God gave in to their request for a king.  Samuel wrote that this request for a king, driven by a desire to be like everyone else, is the people’s rejection of God.

We run the same risk when we want a king to take the place that God rightly holds in the lives of the people God has delivered.

Which brings us to the gospel reading for today. Which starts with this: “Then the Pharisees met together to find a way to trap Jesus in his words.”

Have you ever known someone who tried to trap people in their words?  Are you someone who tries to trap people in their words?

Religion and politics were as challenging then as they are now!  God’s people had returned to their homeland, the Promised Land, but remained under the thumb of a king – Caesar.

The religious – the Pharisees – sought to trap Jesus – to catch him offending either church or state.  “Should we pay taxes?” they asked. If he answered yes, he favored Rome. If he answered no, they could turn him over to Rome for treason.  Either way, they would no longer have to deal with Jesus.

Yet Jesus was too wise for them.  We all know the middle way he chose: “show me the coin used to pay the tax,” he said.  It had Caesar’s picture on it, so, Jesus concluded that they should – and we should – “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

This sounds SO wise, so simple!

But how do we know the difference?

We learn the difference by following Jesus.

This passage is, of course, about far more than paying taxes.  It is about divided loyalty.

The challenge we have, even in America, is divided loyalty.  How do we know when to give Caesar our loyalty and when to give God our loyalty?  Please understand – though we don’t have a king (1 Samuel 8) and we don’t’ have a Caesar (Matthew 22), we have both.  I’ve called the President Caesar for more than 20 years now. Some like it more when I call Obama Caesar than George W. Bush, but the truth I believe God wants us to hear is that either, or both, in their elected position, function as Caesar.

Ah, but this is America!  The greatest Republic, the best representative democracy the world has ever known!  We have no Caesar!

There is some truth to this:  the place and time we are in history, this age of exceptional individualism, the rule of law being what it is, maybe the President isn’t Caesar.

If not, if we have been set free from the bondage of external royalty, then each of us has become his or her own King or Queen.

So: you are Caesar. I am Caesar.

And still, we must give to God what is God’s.

How do we learn, how do we know, what is God’s?

By following Jesus.

Sounds simple, right?  Let’s try it together.  For God and country.

What we can (must?) learn from the Bloods and Crips.

On this day, April 28, in 1992, the Bloods and the Crips, rival gangs in Los Angeles, declared a truce.

This was the day before the riots started in response to the not guilty verdict in the trial of police accused of beating Rodney King.

This is not written about what is happening now in Baltimore, or these days around the country. This post is not about police violence or the violence in communities that leads to police violence.

This post is about peace. Or at least truce.  The Bloods and the Crips can lay down their arms, their hatred, their distrust, their contradictory narratives of who is a fault or who is right and who is wrong.

They could stop fighting each other. They could, and did, stop killing each other.

It makes me wonder. Ooh, it makes me wonder.

Can Tea Partiers and Progressives stop fighting each other?

Can Republicans and Democrats stop fighting each other?

Can Sunni and Shia stop fighting each other?

Can evangelical Christians and progressive Christians stop fighting each other?

Can opposing factions in The United Methodist Church stop fighting each other?

Let’s see if we can learn this simple lesson from history: that on April 28, 1992, the Bloods and the Crips stopped fighting.