When Character Counts

Yesterday Senator Jeff Flake R-Arizona dropped a political bombshell.  In a speech from the senate floor he took to task the deteriorating state of political discourse in our nation.  He took to task President Trump for his personal attacks on those who disagree with him and his propensity to not tell the truth. http://www.cnn.com/2017/10/24/politics/jeff-flake-retirement-speech-full-text/index.html

Mr. Flake a conservative Republican, was calling his president out for a lack of character and a lack of allegiance to underlying democratic values.  Values that  transcend political affiliation.  He was calling out his fellow Republicans in Congress for their often silent complicity.  Complicity in not confronting their president, for his lack of decency and integrity.

We must never regard as “normal” the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals. We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country – the personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms, and institutions, the flagrant disregard for truth or decency, the reckless provocations, most often for the pettiest and most personal reasons, reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with the fortunes of the people that we have all been elected to serve.

What draws me to this speech is his passionate reminder to affirm what we hold in common.  He reminds us that democracy is a fragile enterprise that transcends disagreements on policy.  Democracy can only survive and flourish as we remain true to our underlying democratic values.

Mr. Flake also announced that he would not run for reelection. An acknowledgment that he could not survive a primary against a political opponent who embraces Trumps divisive political formula.  Such is the political climate within which we live.

Yesterday, Jeff Flake was a profile in courage.  Speaking truth to power and calling his colleagues in Congress both Republican and Democrat to accountability.  To practice good governance where compromise is not a dirty word and demonizing the opponent in 140 characters is not allowed to stand.

David Brooks a conservative commentator for the New York Times has written a book entitled: ‘The Road to Character’.  He focuses on the deeper values that should inform our lives.  Brooks  call us to rebalance the scales between our “resume virtues” – achieving wealth, fame and status – and our “eulogy virtues,” those that exist at the core of our being: kindness, bravery, honesty and faithfulness.

Brooks and Flake remind us that as a nation we are at our best when we seek to live by  our ‘eulogy virtues ‘ those positive even noble values that inspire us to be a good and principled people.

This is what Jeff Flake (and Bob Corker and John McCain) have chosen to stand for.

Jeff Flake calls upon elected officials to ensure our core values remain in place.  He calls citizens like you and me to understand and uphold our core democratic values.  To strive to become what  Abraham Lincoln called ‘a more perfect union’.

This has always been our strength and our hope.

 

Fire and Fury from the Golf Club

In-between rounds of golf, President Trump is engaged in a high stakes game of chest thumping between himself and Kim Jong-un  Through provocative tweets and over the top language our president is leading our foreign policy into uncertain  waters.

In response to North Korea’s apparent ability to launch a nuclear weapon to the USA, Mr. Trump has stepped up his threats.  Never one to be subtle, patient or educated on the nuances of an issue,  he has chosen to use language intended to humiliate and provoke his opponent.  In today’s New York Times (8/9/2017):

“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” Mr. Trump told reporters at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., where he is spending much of the month on a working vacation. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

Referring to North Korea’s volatile leader, Kim Jong-un, Mr. Trump said, “He has been very threatening beyond a normal state, and as I said, they will be met with fire and fury, and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.”

‘Fire and fury’ evokes images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  In 2013 the church I was serving in Oregon hosted survivors of the nuclear bomb in Hiroshima.  Now elderly men and women they were children and teenagers when the bomb was dropped.  Known as the ‘Hibakusha’ which literally means ‘explosion-affected people’.

Once numbering 650,000 there are now approx. 173,000 who remain.  Witness’ to the horror of the bombing and the often life-long health effects.  http://www.hiroshimapeacemedia.jp/?lang=en

These survivors came to the United States in 2013  as ‘Ambassadors for Peace’. They came to tell their story with the hope that no one else would ever suffer the effects of nuclear war.  They came to bear witness to the 100,ooo who died the day the bomb dropped in Hiroshima and the 70,000 who died in Nagasaki.

Mr. Trump apparently has little interest in history.  Most likely he has never met a hibakusha, heard their stories, felt their pain.

Rather, our president who is easily slighted, impulsive and bored by details, is leading our nation and all who live on or in proximity to the Korean peninsula, into grave danger.  For the first time since World War 2, the Japanese who live along the north-west coast are taking part in air raid trainings.

Yet war, particularly nuclear war, is so horrific it must be unthinkable.  The answer remains with diplomatic initiatives by our nation and the neighboring nations of North and South Korea.  The hard, frustrating, long term work of finding ways to live together as a global community is the only way forward.

I am fearful for what will happen when two erratic, impulsive leaders, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un are allowed to write history for the rest of us.  We can’t control what North Korea does but as citizens of the United States we can try to make our voices heard.

What can be done?  We can hope that calmer heads prevail in the Trump administration.  Thus far our president has proven resistant.

Another option is to call upon Congressional leaders to move towards impeachment based upon the inability of Mr. Trump to responsibly lead.   The 25th Amendment also places power within a president’s cabinet to remove a sitting president due to incapacity to lead.

As a citizen I’m getting educated.  A good overview can be found in this article: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/17/us/politics/how-the-impeachment-process-works-trump-clinton.html .

Meanwhile our president tweets and rages.  Lord have mercy.

Heresy of the Prosperity Gospel

Paula White and Joel Osteen are two of the most prominent advocates of the Prosperity Gospel.  Paula White from her pulpit in Florida and Joel Osteen from his pulpit in Texas will each preach on any given Sunday to more people than in my 30 years of ministry.


Prosperity theology (sometimes referred to as the ‘prosperity gospel’, the health and wealth gospel, or the gospel of success) is a Christian religious doctrine that financial blessing is the will of God for Christians, and that faith, positive thinking, and donations to Christian ministries will increase one’s material wealth.

It is a faith tradition with which Donald Trump and his penchant for conspicuous consumption has long  been associated. His “spiritual adviser” is Paula White, who as the leader of New Destiny Christian Center near Orlando, Fla., is perhaps the best known prosperity preacher in the country

“Every day you’re [living] your destiny, designed by God and discovered by you,” White said in a recent sermon. “You’re either in a position of abundance, you’re in a position of prosperity, or you’re in a position of poverty. Now that’s in every area of your life. … You’re living abundant in your affairs of life — and that includes your financial conditions — or you’re living in poverty.”

The prosperity gospel is a merging of selective excerpts from the Bible, with materialism, with positive thinking going back to Dale Carnegie, Norman Vincent Peale and more recently Robert Schuler and his ‘Glass Cathedral’.   Oprah in a not dissimilar manner blends positive thinking with a cafeteria approach to spirituality. All speak to the belief that positive thinking leads to good outcomes and is a blessing from a Divine source.

I’m all for positive thinking.  I try to be a ‘glass half full’ kind of guy.

But to equate good outcomes with God’s favor is problematic.  Rabbi Harold Kushner in his classic book ‘When Bad Things Happen to Good People’, shares the story of his own family.  Their son Aaron was born with an incurable disease that they knew would lead to Aaron’s death in his teens.

Listen to what well-meaning people offered to the Rabbi and his wife: ‘God is testing you’.  Or, ‘God is punishing you’.  Or, ‘God is teaching you an important lesson’.  Rabbi Kushner response? “I don’t want any part of a God who is so petty as to punish an innocent child for any perceived sin of another….Nor, do want to worship a God who would test or teach us a lesson with the price tag being the death of a child.”

I wonder what the prosperity gospel adherents would say to the rabbi and his family?   Classic prosperity gospel teaching is that such tragedy is the result of a ‘lack of faith’.

Kate Bowler, a theologian and historian at Duke University, wrote an opinion article in the New York Times in Feb. 2016 entitled: ‘Death the Prosperity Gospel and Me’.  She writes: ‘I am a historian of the American prosperity gospel. Put simply, the prosperity gospel is the belief that God grants health and wealth to those with the right kind of faith.’

She goes on to wonder what such proponents make of her recent diagnosis.  In her early 30’s with a toddler at home, she is diagnosed with Stage 4 Cancer.  Is it because she’s a critic of the prosperity gospel?  Is it because she doesn’t believe deeply enough? https://www.nytimes.com/…/death-the-prosperity-gospel-and-me.html

I understand the allure of the prosperity theology.  But simply put it is antithetical to what Jesus said and how he lived.  In Luke’s Gospel 4:  14 – 30  he stood before his hometown neighbors and quoted from the prophet Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then Jesus got specific and sought to apply these teachings to the injustice and societal exploitation of this time. How did his neighbors respond?  They tried to throw him off a cliff.  They didn’t like how he called them to renounce their privilege and stand in solidarity with those who were powerless and forgotten.

Elsewhere Jesus said, ‘Take up your cross and follow me’…and, ‘the last will be first’ and ‘whatever you do for the most vulnerable you do unto me.’   This is hard stuff.  It doesn’t fill huge arenas with promises of personal wealth and good health.

Rather it’s all about standing with and standing up for those who are on the margins, those without a voice.  Those being rounded up for deportation.  Welcoming immigrants and refugees that others would keep out.

The way of Jesus, the way of the Hebrew prophets is about selflessness not selfishness.  Paradoxically it’s about being great as we humble ourselves in service to others.

It’s about washing feet (Gospel of John 13) . It’s about being a servant.

Such a message doesn’t fill arenas or draw a massive television audience.  But it is the Gospel of Jesus.  It’s a Gospel that has withstood all attempts to trivialize or control.

This is the Good News. Thanks be to God.

Stories from the March: We Belong to One Another

The Women’s March https://www.womensmarch.com on the day following President Trump’s Inauguration was a grassroots movement that brought millions into the streets (in cities across the nation and world).  Each person who marched has their own story. 

This is the second of two ‘guest blog’ installments by my friend and pastoral colleague, Julie Flowers https://www.fbcbeverly.org/ In the week since the March, President Trump has already written a flurry of executive orders and signaled plans for new laws.  Changes that I believe will erode our core values as a nation. 

Democracy is a fragile enterprise and requires that each generation give voice to and protect those core values that define who we want to be.  I invite you to read Julie’s story, reflect on what you hold dear and get involved.  

Installment 2: In Which We March

(Intersectionality, Connection, Anti-Racism, Feminism, and a Moment That Could be a Movement)

 We followed the crush of people up the stairs and out of the Metro station, stepping out into the overcast Washington, D.C. morning. Elisabeth and I paused, trying to get our bearings. There were people everywhere. There were street vendors calling to us, selling hats, shirts, and buttons; there were crowds moving in a throng toward the National Mall; there were Women’s March volunteers in orange mesh vests, answering questions and pointing the way toward where the marchers were gathering: down toward the Mall, past the vast island of port-a-potties, a chanting, cheering, sign-holding crowded that already, even at this early morning hour, stretched for city blocks. Taking it all in, Elisabeth and I set out toward the Mall, as chants of “Fired up! Ready to go!” echoed just beyond us.

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We made our way, merging into the crowd we had seen in the distance. Now we were not outsiders looking in – we were one with this mass of people, closely packed into the streets. The crowd was mostly women, although there were certainly a large number of men – of all ages, all races, and with varied stories. Some were there in wheelchairs. Others walked with a walker or a cane. Some clutched the hands of young children or wore babies in carriers, securely strapped to their bodies. And we were a part of it.

All around us, we saw signs – “Look at that one!” we would call out to one another, as we noticed a favorite. We took pictures. Everyone was talking, strangers in the crowd becoming friends, even if only for those few moments. We were united in a common cause – resisting hate and standing up for women, for our POC sisters and brothers, for immigrants, for Muslims, for the environment, for education, for freedom.

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Something happened, there in that place. For those moments, in that unique time, in a crowd that could have been pushy and angry with one another, annoyed at being packed in too tight and too close, annoyed at being hungry and thirsty and tired, the opposite happened. People saw one another. People worked together to make sure a wheelchair could easily pass through. Young people stopped to help older people down a curb or over a low fence. A middle-aged woman led a young woman who looked faint out of the tightest part of the crowd by the hand. They had only met moments before when the older woman noticed the younger one was struggling, and now, in this place, they were friends – and more than that – they belonged to one another.

There was an attention to and a care for the mutual well-being of those in that crowd. I saw people look one another in the eye. I heard people offer words of care, kindness, and support. I saw countless people in one area open bags and produce a wide array of snacks for a little boy who was hungry.

Lilla Watson, an Indigenous woman and artist from Australia, said:

“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is tied up with mine, then let us work together.”

In those moments, crowded together there on the National Mall, spilling over onto city street upon city street, there was the spark of the realization that our liberation is, indeed, bound up with one another. We were a sea of stories; a sea of backgrounds; a sea of experiences, and we could not – and we cannot – rise without one another.

Feminism – and make no mistake, the feminist movement has room for women and men – must be an intersectional endeavor if we truly want to bring about our shared liberation. Intersectionality, a term first coined by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw is a means to express the reality that women experience oppression in varying configurations and degrees of intensity.

There is no one-size-fits-all type of feminism. For example, black women face both sexism and racism as they navigate their day-to-day lives. Or a black lesbian woman faces racism, sexism, and homophobia. Intersectionality is the term given to acknowledging those layers and unique lived experiences of women.

To forge a way forward, to truly resist the hateful rhetoric and damaging and dangerous actions of Donald Trump’s administration, we must acknowledge that our liberation is bound up in one another’s. As a white woman, too, I am committed to acknowledging and checking the privilege that the system affords me for nothing more than the color of the skin into which I was born, and to inviting the voices and the experiences and the leadership of my sisters of color to come forward. Women and men of color in this nation have been fighting and marching and chanting and organizing against a system that oppresses and disenfranchises them for hundreds of years.

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For many of us, waking up in despair on November 9th and all that has unfolded since, has been but a small taste of what it’s been like to stand in their shoes in this nation. Respect for their voices, their experiences, and their struggle is imperative if we wish to move ahead and win liberation against tyranny and hate for all of us. If we wish to move ahead and save our planet. If we wish to move ahead and protect women’s rights to make choices about their own bodies. If we wish to move ahead and fight for equal rights and dignity and justice for all people.

Our liberation is bound up with each other. Divided, we will fall. There is no question.

The women’s marches – not only in Washington, D.C. but all across the nation and around the world – were a moment. But there is, within that moment, the power and the potential to unleash a movement. A beautiful, powerful, intersectional, anti-racist, feminist, justice-seeking, movement.

The chants of the march echo still in my ears: “The people, united, will never be defeated!”

May it be so.

If you want to read more about feminism, intersectionality, and the Women’s March, here are a few resources (not intended to exhaustive in any way!) to get you started:

http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/01/why-our-feminism-must-be-intersectional/

http://www.vox.com/identities/2017/1/17/14267766/womens-march-on-washington-inauguration-trump-feminism-intersectionaltiy-race-class

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/intersectionality-womens-march-on-washington_us_5883e2bce4b096b4a23248bb

Making America Great

This past week I attended the funeral of a 96-year-old named Bill.  His grandson described Bill as a quiet man who laughed easily, worked hard, was generous and loved his family.  Bill worked in the shipping and receiving department for a local hospital.  After his shift he’d often visit staff and patients, serving as an unofficial chaplain.

His grandson said:  “My grandfather was a good man.  A family man.  Whose goodness made him great”.

I’ve been thinking about the grandson’s words in this post-election season. President-elect Trump would have us believe that greatness is defined by the wealth one accumulates and the power one possesses.

This is not a new idea.  Nations build statues to military heroes and name buildings after wealthy donors.  By one measure these are great men and women worthy of recognition.

Yet, when I think of the people I consider to be great, I think of people who are humble in heart.  People who exhibit generosity and sensitivity toward others.  Ordinary people who don’t think of themselves as brave but are capable of doing brave things.

People who pave our roads and teach our kids.  People who risk their lives for the well-being of others.  People guided by a strong moral compass.

Mr. Trump now our President-elect ran his campaign on the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’.  I pray that he has the wisdom and dare I say, the humility, to look for guidance from everyday people like ‘Bill’, who was laid to rest at age 96.

A good man.  A man who dedicated his life to his family and being a helpful neighbor.   That’s a definition of greatness I can embrace.

 

 

Antidote to Election Bitterness

This has been a bitter, nasty political season.  The level of vitriol which transcends political party has created fissures among groups and within families.

Whichever political party wins the presidential and congressional election we will all have  work to do.  It will take work to live into the promise of our Pledge of Allegiance…‘one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all’.

How do we mend the divisions that threaten to pull us even further apart? How do we live into the values that guide us?

To begin we must understand the deep-seated fear and despair that many in our nation are feeling. We need to understand what brought about this alienation and offer practical and effective solutions.

People need to have hope.  In the absence of hope the gulf that separates us will only deepen and grow.  This is the long-term challenge for those we elect and for all citizens.

At the risk of appearing simplistic, I offer two steps that I think are essential in restoring us to unity as a people. 1) Listen.  Find people who voted differently than you and simply ask them ‘why’.  Don’t argue. Listen to understand why they feel the way they do.  Listen to their fears.  Listen to their hopes.

Understanding one another’s fears and hopes are essential first steps to finding solutions.  Listening to understand is a profound expression of respect. We may not readily agree on solutions but when we feel heard we are already on our way to finding common ground.

2) Offer kindness.  This political season has made us more coarse as a society.  We’ve talked at and past one another.  How can we respond?  With kindness.  https://www.randomactsofkindness.org/kindness-ideas

Starting with election day intentionally offer a ‘random act of kindness’.  Offer an act of kindness at least once a day for one week.  Who knows, it may become a life-giving habit.

In line for coffee?  Buy a cup for the person behind you.  At an intersection?  Flash your lights and let someone else make their turn.  Passing someone on the sidewalk?  Say ‘hello’.   See someone looking tired and stressed?  Offer a silent prayer of blessing.

Have a neighbor or family member who you’ve been avoiding because of politics?  Offer a gift of kindness.

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Not only will the act of kindness bless someone else, it will also begin to soften your heart too.  The path to reconciliation ain’t rocket science. Listening and offering acts of kindness can go a long way in bringing us back together as ‘one people’.

Come Wednesday morning nearly half of us will be pissed off or despondent.

Win or lose we each can choose how we will respond.  We can choose to listen and be kind.  In such simple acts we will find our way as a nation.

Donald Trump Meets The Paper Bag Princess

Twenty years ago I was a Dad with two young daughters. I knew I couldn’t protect them from all the foibles of society. What was within my control was to be the best Dad I could be. To offer them a healthy male role model. I knew that they were fortunate to have a wonderful role model in their mother. The wild card was me.

I had the power to do good or do harm. I knew my daughters were growing up in a society that too often objectifies girls, defining how they should look. I knew too that society can place limits on the dreams of girls and boys.

My hope for our two daughters was that they would grow up to be strong, confident, adventurous, curious and compassionate women. We’ve encouraged our girls to dream big, trust their instincts and have a heart for those on the margins.

Have I always been successful? No. Am I sometimes inconsistent? Yes. But I keep on trying to be the best dad I can be.

I’m grateful that we’ve raised our two remarkable daughters in a supportive church and community. It truly takes a village.

So it’s troubling on many levels to see that the presumptive Republican nominee for President is a misogynist. Donald Trump has called his fellow candidate, Carly Fiorina ‘ugly’ and dismissed Fox newscaster Megyn Kelly with crude language. The New York Times recently published an article entitled, ‘Crossing the Line: Trump’s Private Conduct With Women’. Based on dozens of interviews the article offers a consistent pattern of objectifying and belittling women who stand up to him.

I don’t want Mr. Trump in the White House. I don’t want him around my daughters. There is already to much sexism, we don’t need it coming from our nations highest office.

When our girls were little, I went to the library looking for a story where the girl was the hero. The librarian introduced me to a book entitled ‘The Paper Bag Princess’. The book tells the story of a girl waiting to be rescued by her prince. After waiting a very long time, the princess decides to rescue herself. Along the way she fights dragons and eventually meets her prince. The prince however is hapless and in need of being rescued from dragons. The princess rescues the prince. Instead of saying ‘thank you’, the rescued prince, critiques the princess for having a torn dress and disheveled hair. To her credit, the princess calls him a ‘jerk’ and tells him to ‘take a hike’.

Paper Bag Princess

I read this book many times. Our daughters grew up believing that they too were strong, smart and adventurous. The lives they are living testify to this.

This election is personal. Not only for the sake of my daughters but for all girls and boys. Children are looking to us adults to show them what it means to be a healthy woman and man. Mr. Trump, you’ve met your match in The Paper Bag Princess.