Luke, Love, Follow

The call to discipleship is less about certifying our eternal destiny through faith in Jesus as the Christ, and more about becoming followers who continue his work during our earthly pilgrimage.  Jesus was pretty clear about what that means.  To follow him is to love others as he loves us, which is not something we can do if we’re not well informed about how he loves us.  Paul’s oft repeated advice to “walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5) is not particularly helpful.  Jesus demonstrated what love means by what he said and did, and for that we need to turn to the gospel records.

As the year of Luke draws to a close, it’s time to revisit the question with which it began.  How does what Jesus said and did in Luke’s gospel help us understand what it means to love one another as he does?  It would be naive to believe keeping the question at the forefront of our long study in Luke has helped each of us answer it in new, more profound ways.  In truth, we’re easily distracted by many things, and, if pressed, would have to admit we’ve given it only momentary, haphazard thought when reminded to do so in a sermon.  

The collective we includes me, and I’m the sermonizer who raised the question in the first place, as I do each year on the Sunday after Pentecost, occasionally reminding the congregation of it during our intensive six month study.  If I’m among those easily distracted by many things, consider parishioners whose daily obligations are far away from church and worship.  It’s hard to stay focussed on Jesus’ commandment, even as we promise to do so, which is why we repeat it each year.

I have no idea how the year of Luke has gone for others, but I decided to go back over his narrative, examining again those areas of discipleship I meant to work on, need to work on, will try to work on.  It’s a never ending process with progress incremental at best.  Saintly canonization with never be mine, so with that in mind here are a few of the things Luke’s Jesus has encouraged me to work on:

Struggling with what it means to follow Jesus is a good thing, so don’t stop.

Be more willing to welcome the unwelcome and recognize the good neighbor in the one whom I’ve prejudged to be untrustworthy.  Really see the other, especially the other whom I do not wish to see.

Do good, not evil, even to enemies.  Parenthetically, I’m unaware of having enemies, but there are people I really don’t like, and learning to good for them and with them isn’t easy.

Beyond the pulpit and altar, give those hungry for the Word something to hear, and to those hungry for food something to eat.

More boldly proclaim the good news of God in Christ without flaunting or being a jerk about it.

It may not look like much, but considering it’s an agenda that gets reexamined each year in the light of a different gospel, it’s challenge enough: a rewarding challenge to be sure, but challenge enough.

In a few weeks we’ll begin the year of Mark.  We’ll fiddle around with Mark during Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent and Easter, while adding large portions of John and Acts into the mix.  After Pentecost, we’ll enter ordinary time and take our annual six month deep dive into the gospel, asking the same question we ask each year.  If we’re to love one another as Jesus loves us, how does Mark help us understand what that means?  

Trump’s True Believers

Solid Trump voters are a mystery.  Without the slightest hint of guile, they profess him to be the most honest, God fearing, promise keeping president ever, and are proud of all he is doing to make and keep America great.  I was struck by the sincerity of a local man whose letter to the editor made these assertions about the president he so admires:

  • Trump exalts God and seeks God’s guidance for the good of the nation.
  • He doesn’t claim to be pure.  His lies, sins, and locker-room talk can be over looked because we all fall short.
  • He gets his point across, leaving no one in doubt.
  • He’s the most fully transparent president ever, who has done all that is possible to keep his promises.
  • An excellent businessman, he can’t be bought and sold like politicians can.
  • He doesn’t accept favors or bribes.
  • He doesn’t bow to foreign nations.
  • He doesn’t apologize for the U.S.A.: the greatest nation in the world. 
  • He’s trying to make it greater, and with God’s help he will help us turn from our evil ways, innuendos, incivility and become a better place to live in. 

That’s quite a list, and the most curious thing about it is that the reverse of each point is demonstrably true, so one is left to wonder how any reasonable person could not be aware of it?  Yet, I suspect this letter writer is, in all other things, a reasonable person.  What would it take for him to recognize that:

  • Trump, basking in the company of certain clergy and thumping the occasional bible, has no idea what Christianity is about, what’s in the bible, and has never been a church going Christian in any place at any time.
  • His lies, sins and locker room-talk are well beyond normal deviation of behavior in American society.  His history of betrayals, cheating and disloyalty to all but himself have been publicly catalogued for years, repudiating all that Christianity stands for.
  • Doubt is precisely what he inspires in everyone with whom he does business.  His word can’t be trusted.  His decisions appear erratic, poorly thought out, and frequently abandoned.  Blame always falls on someone else, and he refuses to accept responsibility for anything that doesn’t reflect a shining light on his ego.  “Never complain, never explain,” attributed to Benjamin Disraeli, is often used by the powerful to avoid being held accountable by lesser mortals.  Trump’s version is, “Complain loud and often, never back down, and never admit being wrong.”
  • His reputation as an excellent businessman lies in tatters for any who take a close look.  Certainly, he’s amassed considerable wealth on top of the wealth he inherited, but at tremendous cost to those he’s cheated along the way, and with some speculation that his holdings are a house of cards held together with foreign debt.
  • He is easily bought and sold by those to whom he’s indebted, on whose largesse his future is dependent.  Banks, Saudi princes, favor seekers streaming to his properties, and wealthy patrons of his clubs all own a piece of him.  He can be bought, or at least rented, with a word or two of fawning flattery, and he assumes the reverse is also true.  Everyone can be bought, and used until their usefulness has expired.  It makes everyone disposable.
  • It’s true that he doesn’t bow to foreign nations.  No president has.  But Trump has insulted and betrayed long standing allies, while cozying up to a variety of dictators that have not been friendly toward the U.S.  He’s destroyed trading relationships, and moved already violent parts of the world toward greater instability and violence. 
  • In the process of not apologizing for the U.S., he’s ignored history, and eroded America’s hard earned respect and place of dignity as a world leader.  Although economically powerful and militarily strong, it’s become an object of derision, no longer trustworthy in anything it says or does. 
  • I suspect God is not amused by Trump’s behavior epitomizing the worst of the incivility that appears to dominate the nation.  Of innuendos he is the king, of moral failure, the champion, of rending the fabric of social harmony, the expert.

The letter writer, and other Trump true believers, are likely to dismiss such rebuttals as the ravings of a left wing lunatic suffering from Trump derangement syndrome.  Whatever evidence is presented is chalked up to “fake news,” or simply ignored as if it didn’t exist.  To them, the world of mainstream media can never be trusted.  Facts and opinions have equal value.  Elected representatives are crooked, and professional staff are “deep state” conspirators secretly running things.  

Trump, and only Trump, remains as the one to preserve their rights and freedom.  In defense of American individualism’s commitment to self reliance and personal freedom unhindered by governmental interference, they’re willing to give up both to the authoritarian rule of a would be autocrat.  In defense of hard working heartland Americans, they turn to a flamboyant playboy whose inherited wealth and tawdry business practices have enabled him to avoid hard work, and any knowledge of what it entails.  The so called traditional family values they cherish have been violated time and again by the one to whom they turn for their protection.  His utter incompetence at managing the affairs of state eludes them.  They live in fear of an imaginary left wing socialist takeover, and are certain they see it in every candidate for office who is not a Trump supporter.  They are, in short, both gullible and dangerous because they won’t be dissuaded until long after the disaster has unfolded around them

The Meaning of the Liturgy

As Episcopalians, we’re pretty good at explaining what the liturgy is, and how it works, but fail at explaining why it’s essential to our ways of worship, or what it’s supposed to mean in the lives of parishioners. It’s pointless to turn to Hachett, Dix, or any of the dozens of academics who have blessed us with their studied insights. Ordinary Episcopalians have no interest in being saddled with erudite tomes. They just want to know what it means.

An old friend wandered away from the Episcopal Church a few years ago, saying the liturgy had become meaningless. He’s recently returned after faithfully exploring other worship opportunities, but I’m guessing still without an understanding of the meaning and purpose of our liturgy. Following in his footsteps, another friend has also wandered off with more or less the same complaint, but added to it an admission that, after thirty years of Episcopal worship, she still has no idea what it means to be an Episcopalian in contrast to any other denomination. We’re fond of saying that what Episcopalians believe is revealed in the liturgy of our worship. Apparently it’s a revelation not all that apparent to many.

It says something about how poorly we’ve guided folks sitting in the pews to a deeper understanding of what it means to be Episcopalian, and how the liturgy functions to enrich the experience of God’s presence. Mea culpa. Adult Christian education was my passion. Well attended classes dove into scripture and traversed the theological history of Western Christianity. Those interested were given the opportunity to learn all about the structure of the liturgy, but I suspect learned little of its deeper meaning.

The whole purpose of liturgy is to serve as a conduit through which participants move, body and soul, from the secular world into God’s presence, there to be fed with holy food and drink, before being sent back into the world to do God’s work. If that’s not what it does, it’s not good liturgy, and if parishioners don’t understand the meaning of their role in it, it doesn’t matter how good it is.

Consider the prelude. It’s not the warm up for the main act, but an invitation to reorient body and mind in preparation for entrance into holy time and space, which we do symbolically through the opening hymn and procession. The intentionality of prayers for cleansed thoughts, songs of praise to God, and collects focusing attention, prepare the way to hear more clearly. Our lengthy readings from the Hebrew scriptures, Psalms, epistles and gospel are intended to help us hear the Word of God speaking through the ancient texts. The Episcopal tradition of relatively short sermons is meant to guide worshipers toward a deeper understanding of the Word revealed in scripture for their own lives and the conditions in which they live.

Affirming the faith of the church in the words of the Nicene Creed draws an extraordinarily large and permeable circle of what we understand Christianity to be. The prayers of the people are elements of a community wide conversation with God, something like a town hall meeting, in which questions and concerns for the welfare of the church, community, nation and world are raised, along with more personal cares.

Our general confession of sins certainly brings to mind personal failures, but it’s really our confession that we, as the community of the faithful, have not lived up to our own standards of loving God and neighbor. We, as the community, ask not only for God’s forgiveness, but for God’s blessing that we might do better. Our first step in that direction is to offer to one another a sign of God’s peace.

My own take is that the announcements that often follow the peace are part of the offertory, an offering of our shared ministries to the glory of God’s name. They are part and parcel with ‘passing the plate’ and bringing the elements of Holy Communion to the altar.

Finally, it’s time to celebrate Holy Communion, that moment to which the liturgy has been leading. We have been made ready to receive the holy food and drink of new and unending life, in which we recognize the true presence of Christ for us, with us, and in us. It is the holiest of our time in holy time and space. Renewed and restored, we are sent out to do the work God has given us to do.

We’re only human. There are some days when our liturgical form of worship renders to us the fullness of all it intends. There are some days when burdened by other concerns it just doesn’t. There are many days when we grasp moments of God’s transcendent presence, but our minds wander hither and yon to who knows where. That’s life.

Looking down on each other: Let’s stop it

If, as my previous column argued, the practice of looking down on each other is a destructive force in American society, the question becomes; what would it take for us to stop looking down on each other?  It’s a problem in every culture on earth going back for centuries.  Like other social issues, it’s only one facet of a complex ever mutating structure of beliefs, attitudes and values (Rokeach, 1968) that defines peoples and places. 

How the question might be answered by others, I’ll leave to them, but as a Christian pastor and priest, I believe God has given us answers we cannot ignore.  Are we destined to put each other down, trying to salve egos, claim status, and gain the advantage?  “He has told you O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6).  It’s not a platitude.  It’s a definitive answer to the question.  Jesus said do it this way, “…love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13).  They are commandments, not suggestions.  If we want to live in harmony and prosperity with one another, it is the way, there is no other.   

The hard part for each of us, and especially for Christians, is our deep attachment to the beliefs, attitudes and values with which we were raised.  They’re so familiar to us that we’re hardly aware we have them;  they run in the background of daily life, invisible but powerfully influential.  As people of faith, it’s easy to assume they must be God’s ways also.  And they seem to be as long as they go unchallenged.  But God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, our ways are not God’s ways, and it is God’s ways that give life to creation, and God’s words that will accomplish what they intend (Isaiah 55).  God’s ways will always challenge the social values of our times and places, because our social values will always be corrupted by our need to claim power and status at the expense of others.  

For Christians there is no other place to start, no other way to go, and no higher authority to whom one might appeal.  It is not ours to impose our faith on others, but it is our responsibility to demonstrate our faith by following as best we can in the way of Jesus:

  • Be unpretentious about status and power
  • Be honest about our part in the world’s problems
  • Thirst for righteousness
  • Give mercy priority over retribution, reconciliation over revenge
  • Seek peace not war
  • Show courage in the face of persecution
  • Be persons of integrity
  • Live daily life to the glory of God without being a jerk about it
  • Let yes be yes, and no be no without elaboration
  • Confront violence in radically peaceful ways
  • Pray for enemies
  • Live into generosity
  • Avoid rash judgments of others
  • Maintain conversation with God in simple words
  • Show respect and honor for that which is holy

Christians, taking seriously their obligation to follow Jesus, are not going to fix the nation’s problems of polarization.  We are not going to eliminate “looking down” on others as a pervasively divisive practice.  But we can be more intentional about not participating in it.  We can demonstrate a better way.  Following in the way of Jesus requires the courage to confront unrighteousness and injustice with conviction.  Christians are not anybody’s doormat.  But neither can we claim inerrancy for ourselves, nor for our understanding of God’s will.  Our claims to truth must always be provisional.  The best we can do is work with others to do better than we have done to care for creation as stewards responsible for handing it on in as healthy a way as we can to those who will follow.  It’s the best we can do, and we have often failed to do our best.    

Who looks down on Who?

Who looks down on who? One of the standing tropes used to explain Trump’s popularity among working class people is that they’ve had it with urban elites looking down on them.  They demand respect and willingly give their support to him because he panders to their demand.  His pandering appears authentic because he talks and struts like a burlesque imitation of a sit-com version of a working class man who has made it big. Just look at him shoving the elite around, talking trash about the powerful, and bulldozing his way through red tape, regulatory restrictions, and all the refined standards of behavior from which the elite look down on ordinary people. 

It’s pandering because Trump has no affection for, and little understanding of what ordinary people go through in their daily lives.  As long as his adoring crowds vote for him, they’re useful to him.  Otherwise they’re of no use, disposable, every one of them.  The burlesque of his behavior is not in imitation of Archie Bunker or Roseanne Conner.  It’s who he really is.  Ironically, he’s genuine phony, an authentic fake.  He’s transparently dependable like no other president.  He can be depended on to lie, cheat and betray in plain sight for everyone to see.  It’s hard to know how he’ll go down in history, but he won’t be forgotten.  It’s a rare thing to find a charlatan who proudly boasts of his charlantry able to rise to the presidency of a wealthy, democratic empirical power such as ours.  But I digress.

There’s a long history of the working class bogeyman: the foppish urban elite who got their legacy diplomas from Harvard or Yale, and their money from grandpa.  Books, movies, cartoons, and comedy routines are filled  with them.  Magazines hype their lifestyles.  Tabloids exploit their celebrity foibles.  The flood of holiday catalogues promises you too can wear what they wear.  Do they really exist?  Yes, in small numbers who often live isolated lives.

More often, those who have acquired a measure of wealth, success, and power have risen from the ranks.  They’re deeply respectful of the value and talents of the working class because they’ve done the work, making life long friends along the way.  They’re aware of the advantages they were born into, or came their way, and know that dumb luck played a role in the opportunities they made the best of.  Greater in number are millions in the hard working middle class who will never be rich, but are  committed to making life better in their communities and the nation.  They too have nothing but respect for those who consider themselves working class. 

What about the liberals in coastal cities who always vote contrary to the values of real heartland Americans?  Cities are big, whether on the coast or inland.  The millions who live in them are not elite.  They’re working people struggling to make it through life. The greater number came from somewhere else, perhaps the very heart of the heartland.  The values they vote for are for better education, more fair justice, decent health care, a cleaner environment, a more efficient infrastructure, and the like.  Liberal or not, they’re the values of the heartland.  They carry their prejudices with them, just like everyone else, but in a cosmopolitan mix of prejudices, it’s hard to impose one’s own on others.  A mythical white middle class ethos drawn from the post war era has dominated urban and rural areas alike.  It’s lost the domineering power it once had in big cities, but not without a fight still going on.  Smaller cities and rural areas with fewer competing forces can hold on longer, but not forever.  It’s not a new thing.  It’s been going on since the mid 19th century.    

So who looks down on who?  The other day, a friend with a union job on the railroad posted a cartoon.  One half was of a hard working hard hat, the other was of an impoverished fast food worker.   The caption labeled the fast food worker as a graduate philosopher with no practical skills or value to society.  It labeled the hard hat as the true backbone of America, and finished with a sarcastic stab at well educated, worthless people who look down on the working class.  Who looks down on who?

What it tells me is that some who consider themselves in the working class also assign an inferior place for themselves on a social hierarchy that lives mostly in their imaginations.  Their defense is to turn the tables, belittling those whom they consider elite in what ever way they can, to make themselves feel more worthy.  It’s a worthiness already theirs, if they will accept it, widely recognized by those who do not consider themselves part of the working class.  They are the ones believing themselves to be inferior to others.  It’s time to lay it aside, taking pride without prejudice in the work they do.