Trump’s Approval Rating & Why They Believe

I’m among those dismayed by Trump’s approval ratings. The latest average of ten presidential rating polls show approval at 47%, with wide variation. The trend line over the course of his administration has been bouncing around from a low of 35% to a high of 49%, and a few individual polls rate him well above 50%. The overall trend has been slightly upward in recent months. Some commentators tout the high numbers as they laud his performance. Others note how he’s not getting the bump other presidents have received during times of national emergency, and dismiss the polls as inaccurate. I both distrust them and think they need to be taken seriously.

If Trump is to be defeated this fall, it cannot be ignored that close to a half of those queried approve of him no matter what. It can’t be analyzed away. There it is. A little less than half the adult population approves of a man who lies deliberately about things he knows to be untrue; lies ignorantly about things he knows nothing about; peppers his conversation with crude, belittling insults about anyone who challenges him; and cannot stay focussed on anything long enough to understand it. His history of business failure and corruption are public record – his personal immorality equally so. Receiving an economy in good health and growing, he slowed down its growth, got a tax bill passed that enriched the few and did not do one thing he promised it would, then claimed he’d produced the best economy ever. He single handedly destroyed our standing among the community of nations. He bungled our immigration problems, creating Dickensian conditions for would be immigrants, and unleashed Gestapo like roundups of the undocumented. Mountains of clear evidence proved his malfeasance in office, and a feckless Senate majority didn’t have the moral courage to do anything about it. Now he’s stumbled and bumbled management of the COVID-19 response, yet gives himself high marks for the great job he’s doing.

How is it possible nearly half the adult population can approve of performance like that?

The answer, I fear, is both obvious and disheartening, because I’m not convinced there is much to be done about it. It isn’t simply a steady diet of Fox News running constantly in homes across the nation. Its most popular shows are nothing more than propaganda for the Trump political operation. If Fox is the only television news source one watches, it may be impossible for one’s preexisting right wing persuasions not to be welded in place. That we know, but if we think pouring more truthful or progressive programing out to the public will change their minds, we’re badly mistaken. They’re not watching and don’t trust the mainstream or lamestream news, and they don’t read reliable newspapers.

Fox is the most obvious culprit, but probably not the most dangerous. Local a.m. talk radio stations dominate the radio landscape. Calling themselves conservative, they feature right wing provocateurs, disinterested in truth, and intent on fomenting as much right wing angst as possible. The local station in our community, for example, begins the day well enough with an interview show featuring local news, goofy humor, and interviews with community leaders. It’s worth listening to, but it’s the lead in to a day of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage and the like. Their crude vitriol is the background noise of homes and shops all over town. Maybe they listen, maybe they don’t, but droning all day, every day does its damage. And some do listen: an acquaintance once told me I should listen because they say some good things. Another said he can’t understand why people don’t like Trump, an honest president who tells the truth.

Television and radio are the front and back doors to an internet community of right wingers and the gullible curious. I don’t mean traditional conservatives; I mean anti government, tax avoiding, racially prejudiced, conspiracy touting extremists who revel in scapegoating targeted ethnic groups and anything liberal as intent on destroying all that right thinking people believe in. Without saying it out loud, they shout Danger! Arm Yourselves! They’re Coming to Get You! Some call it the dark web, but it’s not so dark. It’s right there in the open, anyone can look, maybe not enter the inner sanctum, but at least look.

My Twitter, FB and news feeds favor mainstream media and commentators on the progressive side, and they can give you the impression that everyone knows and understands what’s going on from that perspective, but everyone doesn’t. The right wing internet sites are numerous and have tens of thousands of subscribers. The point is, cable t.v. news, a.m. talk radio, and extremist right wing websites form a substantial collective force that willingly gives Trump their uncritical support with unshakable belief that he’s doing a terrific job and saving their way of life in the process. What is objectively real is either disbelieved or irrelevant.

I wish I knew how to let the light of verifiable evidence and data driven fact to enter into that world, but I don’t. Maybe you do. A good many residents of that world claim to be Christian. I wish I knew how to let the light of Christ enter into their hearts and minds, but I don’t. Maybe you do. And before someone says it, yes, there’s a far left wing version of the same thing, but it’s minuscule in comparison, and has little influence over the voting public. And no, Bernie is not their flag bearer. He’s way too centrist for them.

Pseudo Christianity in The Time of Pandemic

It surprises no one that a.m. talk radio hosts ridicule the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic, blame liberal socialists for insisting that it is, and laud Trump for his decisive leadership of the federal government’s response.  Sadly, it no longer surprises me that so many believe them, preferring their propagandistic screeds to verifiable facts and informed commentary.

What troubles me more are the number of so called Christian figures doing the same, claiming the name of Christ along the way.  They call the pandemic a fraud, assert it’s punishment from God, blame homosexuals and socialists, and deny there is a need to go on with the foolishness of social distancing.  Falwell may be the most well known.  Mormonish Beck is a fellow traveler with a large radioland following.  Paula White,Trump’s spiritual advisor, peddles pseudo Christianity promising miracles and money – for a fee.  Some, such as Jimmy Baker, sell fake cures.  Lesser known are a  smattering of mega church pastors refusing to cancel large Sunday gatherings for a disease conjured up by liberals, or is it a Chinese plot, take your pick.

It troubles me more because they do not faithfully represent or follow where Jesus has led, or what the Church has struggled to truthfully proclaim for two thousand years.  They and their specious theologies are not Christian no matter how often they use his name.  They’ve deceived thousands who have become devoted believers and beguiled funders. 

The immediate response, of course, is: “How dare you!  Who do you think you are?  What gives you the right to challenge my faith?  How arrogant!  What makes you think you know better?”  Unlike Ms. White, I can’t claim God has spoken directly to me, nor can I claim to be an authoritative and respected theologian.  At best I’m a second rate theologian, and an enthusiastic if mediocre student of most everything else.

I dare and claim the right by the words and deeds of Jesus as recorded in the gospels; by the epistles reporting how early congregations of the eastern Mediterranean struggled to understand them; and by the writings of the ethical prophets in the Hebrew scriptures.  I dare and claim the right by the writings of the pre and post Nicene ‘fathers’ of the Church, by the great reformers, and by the inspired writings of today’s deep thinkers.

Centering them are the Sermon on the Mount; the two greatest commandments on which hang all the law and prophets, and the new commandment to love one another as Jesus loves us.  From this center has emerged an abundance of room to express genuine Christian faith in an abundance of ways: genuine even in contention with each other.  

If what is said and done cannot connect directly with the center, they are not of Christ.  I’m reminded of something Jesus said: “Woe to you…hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.  So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matt 23).  

They’re tough words from a loving Christ, not to be taken lightly.  If you want to follow Jesus, say and do as you are able for the loving good of yourself and your neighbor.  At least do no harm, but I think we can each do more than that.  Ignore those who would have you do otherwise, no matter how often they use the name of Jesus.  They are not of Christ.

Dry Bones & Tombs: preparing for Sunday

Here are a few observations on the lessons for this coming Sunday.  You may find them helpful in preparing for online or at home worship.

The lessons for Sunday, March 29 are from Ezekiel, the valley of dry bones, and John, the raising of Lazarus, both very familiar.  In between is a short passage from chapter 8 of Paul’s letter to the Romans about how new life is ours through the Spirit that dwells in us.

Because we know the stories well it’s easy to skim them with a sense they have nothing new to say.  God’s Spirit speaking to us through scripture disagrees.  There is always something new being said to those who listen.  But what could it be?  Let’s see.

About 600 years before Jesus the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians, and many people were sent into exile in Babylon.  With no temple and the priesthood scattered, what did it mean to be an Israelite?  For that matter, they wondered who exactly is God and what would become of them? How could they hope when the future looked so bleak?  They’re serious questions not unlike a few of our own.  Into that mess came Ezekiel, living in exile with the others, and, according to his own book, more than a little looney.  He acted out prophecies in some very odd ways.  You can read about them for yourself.  But in this passage he offered God’s word of hope in a fairly clear way.  No matter how dead and defeated they were, God intended to give them new life, and had the power to do it.  

It’s likely they understood it to mean new life for the nation of Israel that their decedents would enjoy.  Although God spoke through Ezekiel about his power to restore life to the dead who were no more than dry bones lying scattered about the desert floor, the people of the time couldn’t easily comprehend that it might refer to them personally.  Jewish understanding of personal resurrection and a heavenly afterlife in God’s presence developed in the centuries after their return to Jerusalem from Babylon.  By the time of Jesus, the Pharisees understood it well, but the Sadducees didn’t.  

We’re much the same.  It’s hard to comprehend the new things God is saying when they don’t fit easily with what we think we already know and believe.  The voices of prophecy include many spouting religious sounding words God has nothing to do with.  It takes time to discern what is genuine, and it certainly helps to have prophets less nutty than Ezekiel.   

And so we come to John’s gospel where a new thing so utterly unbelievable was incomprehensible to those who were eye witnesses.

In the form we have it, John’s gospel came late, maybe twenty or thirty years after the others.  There was plenty of time to reflect on Jesus’ life, teaching, death and resurrection, and to consider what was needed to fill in what the others had excluded, or didn’t know about.  The raising of Lazarus, for instance, was not recorded in the other gospels: we don’t know why.  In this passage from John, God made a bold statement: there is no condition of death beyond God’s power to give life to whomever God chooses, whenever and however God chooses to do it. 

I have no doubt Jesus wept because it was a rotten trick to play on Lazarus.  Ripping him from new life in God’s loving embrace to return to ordinary life as an object lesson for the disciples?  It meant he had to live, suffer, and die all over again.  Could we not be satisfied with the reality of Jesus’ resurrection?  I guess not.  The disciples had to witness resurrection in an ordinary human being like themselves.  I think there are good reasons why it came before Christ’s own death and resurrection, and wonder what you think.  Give it some prayerful reflection.

We’re getting close to Holy Week and Easter.  We’ve been following Jesus on his way to Jerusalem for almost forty days.  We’ve seen the power of God at work through what he’s said and done.  If we were among his disciples, we couldn’t possibly understand it wasn’t God’s power working in him.  Jesus is the power of God.  God had been walking and talking with them all this time, but how could they have known.  Lazarus was a clue, but the fullness of the revelation would not come until Easter. 

That same power is as intimately present in our lives today, as it was in their’s so long ago.  We already know about Easter, but the fullness of its meaning may have escaped us, just as the greater meaning of Ezekiel’s dry bones escaped the exiled Israelites, and the meaning of Lazarus’s resurrection escaped the disciples.

Holy Week and Easter are going to be a little weird this year.  In a sense, we’ve been exiled, our churches are off limits, our clergy scattered, sickness and death surround us, our movements are restricted, ordinary life has been put on hold.  It’s dry bones and tombs.  But thanks be to God, we are already living into our eternal life through Christ Jesus.  We can say with Paul: “…Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Jesus doesn’t have the power of life, he is the power of life, and his Spirit dwells in us giving us new and eternal life.

Following Jesus in Challenging Times

These are challenging times.  It’s often said that God won’t give us more than we can bear, which suggests God has brought the challenging times upon us, and we have the strength to endure them.  It’s meant well, but it’s wrong.  

The scripture not correctly cited is from Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth where he wrote, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.  God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”  It’s encouragement to follow Jesus even when it seems no one else does, especially in matters of worship amongst the dominant pagan religions of the day.

In these challenging times, what does following Jesus mean?  It has to mean more than “I accept Jesus as my personal lord and savior.”  That’s just bumper sticker faith with no more substance than the paper it’s printed on. Paul gave it a lot of thought as he tried to guide new congregations in the eastern Mediterranean.  His own experiences of beatings, imprisonment, and hard living on the road provided deep insights worth sharing.  Following Jesus, he had learned, meant dropping one’s ego defenses to allow God’s presence to enter, bringing with it new ways of thinking and acting.  They were gifts.  Gifts from God that one does not have to reach for, but can only accept.  How hard that is for us to do, including Paul himself.  It means surrendering more of our ego than is comfortable.

What sort of gifts?  Very strange ones indeed because they seem incompatible with common sense and reasonable self interest.  To the extent we are willing to accept them, they change our lives.  It’s not something we do, it’s something they do. 

What are they?  They’re elements of godly love expressed through humans for the benefit of humanity.  Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans (Rom. 12) that they include a type of humility that doesn’t place one’s self above others, yet never surrenders the self confidence of being a child of God.  They encourage us to do what is noble in the sight of all, boldly hating what is evil, yet overcoming it with good.  This is not the sort of stuff we’re inclined to do on our own.  It’s God working through us, but only if we allow it.  A gift is not a gift until it’s accepted.

Writing to the Ephesians, he counseled them to “let no evil talk come out of your mouths.”  Well that’s a bummer because I have a lot of not very nice things to say, and sometime do.  But what is evil talk?  It’s talk that oppresses, sows contempt for the vulnerable, verbally assaults and batters, spreads rumors, destroys reputations, incites needless fear, and manipulates for selfish purposes the lives and goods of others.  We’re not likely to be up to it on our own.  It’s only by letting down our defenses that we’re able to accept the gift of God’s presence working through us that we can discover ourselves beginning to live into a new way of being.  Beginning, not attaining.  Be kind to yourself.  It’s a start, not a finish.

So where does it all lead?  I mean in this life, not some other life yet to come.  By Paul’s own experience, it leads to love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.  It dispenses with pointless competitiveness and envy, and discovers contentment, even in hard times.  That according to the letter to the Galatians.  

I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise, but not everyone wants these gifts.  They’re counterintuitive.  They weaken arguments for the self sufficiency of rugged individualism.  They undermine the logic of Machiavellian tactics to grab power and position.  All that can be said in their defense is they are God’s ways that God would have be human ways for the good of humanity.  Following Jesus means giving up the parts of one’s self that are suspicious of these godly gifts to make room for them.  In making room, even a small room, they will begin to grow and guide toward new ways of living in community with one another. 

One final note.  It’s commonly believed that to accept these gifts, and begin living into them, makes one into a milquetoast doormat easily trampled on.  It doesn’t work that way.  It leads, oddly enough, to greater courage to stand firmly and forcefully against all the powers of oppression, degradation, and injustice that infect the societies in which we live. 

What’s Next After C-19?

For thousands of years, wars, epidemics, and economic and natural disasters have reshaped cultures and changed the directions of societies.  Recorded history goes back only a half dozen millennia or so, but the same forces were molding the world’s history long before that.  In its own way, the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 is taking its place among them.  The question is whether there are historical precedents that might shed light on where we could be headed after it passes.

Looking at the lessons of war and natural disaster will probably not help.  Wars, for all their slaughter, tend to generate high levels of employment and technological advancements.  True, they bankrupt nations, but in their wake is opportunity for entrepreneurs to employ wartime technologies for beneficial peacetime use.  Natural disasters are usually localized events that can destroy everything in their paths, but the rest of the world continues on with barely a notice.  Pandemics and epidemics have global impacts, but don’t destroy property as they destroy lives.

Previous examples are the places to look for potential guidance.  For instance, the so called Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 proved isolation and social distancing helped stem its spread.  Failure to do so helped accelerate the contagion, making it more deadly.  Truth be told, it probably should have been called the “Kansas Flu” since the first major outbreak occurred among returning soldiers bivouacked in Kansas.  Beyond that, 1918 may not be terribly instructive.  It came on the heels of WWI, which for all its terrible cost, set the stage for the economic and technological swagger of the “Roaring Twenties,” which, in their turn, set the stage for the global depression of the 30s leading to WWII. 

What we know about our own pandemic is this.  We had been cruising along on the crest of history’s longest sustained wave of economic growth.  Although  political and economic warning bells were ringing, few took them seriously.  It didn’t matter; the warning bells could not anticipate a viral pandemic, so even their ringers were taken be surprise.  The majority of American business and industry was shut down in an instant, not for economic reasons, but to enforce infection containment measures.  Normal daily life for most people has come to an abrupt halt.  The economic impact on their lives has been immediate and brutal.  Goods and services are unavailable at any price, not because they’re scarce, but because businesses are closed, and some may not survive.  

The social impact is tolerable for the time being, but social distancing deflates joy from life, and makes optimistic planning for the near future difficult.  It leads to a shared sense of dark, unpredictable times that’s not good for our collective mental health.

Is this another time of plague, another Black Death (1347-1352) sweeping away enormous portions of the population?  No, it isn’t.  The social distancing measures governments have imposed on their populations will prevent it from becoming anything like that.  They can’t stop or cure the outbreak, but they will slow it down, save lives, and limit its duration.  Nevertheless, the 14th century plague that decimated Europe and portions of Asia may offer some instruction.  The severe disruption caused by the deaths of more than a third of the population cleared the way for significant changes leading to renaissance in learning, art, technology, international trade, land use, new forms of government and greater freedom for peasants.  It was a high cost to pay.  Those who benefitted most from the old ways didn’t give them up easily.  Still, the seeds of modernity were sown.  Therein lies the lesson.  Massive wide spread dislocation of social and economic life caused by pandemic opens opportunities for new and better ways to emerge.

Our time of “plague” will last perhaps months, not years.  It will not be as deadly, because we are taking the precautions others didn’t, and have better ways of caring for the sick.  The essentials of economic recovery remain in place.  War hasn’t destroyed vast swaths of the nation; it’s all there to resume operating when it is safe to do so.  Once social distancing is no longer needed, life will return speedily, but not without change.  The demise of some businesses and ways of doing business will open pathways for new forms to emerge.  A sense of national unity and shared responsibility will linger for a time.  The illusion of America First, and America alone will have been shattered.  Massive governmental intervention needed to contain the effects of equally massive economic dislocations will have political ramifications not unlike those of FDR’s New Deal.  It won’t be dreaded socialism, but it will embed more progressive ways of governing – hopefully under a different president.  

Nativists, isolationists, libertarians, white supremacists, and tea partiers will scream, rail and whine, but what they most fear will have been shown to be a chimera.  With luck, their howling will no longer be politically influential.  Right wing scare mongering on talk radio, internet sites and cable t.v. will not go away, but maybe more people will stop listening and believing.  We can hope so.

The Man Born Blind

The tiny rural congregation I serve a few times a month is closed for the duration, so I’m offering a weekly meditation to give them something to consider as they prepare for video streamed worship made available to every congregation. Here it is for your consideration also.

In these days of uncertainty and unknowing, bombarded as we are with conflicting news, it’s hard to understand what we see going on in the world about us.  Making sense out of it is difficult.  It’s timely that this week’s gospel lesson from John 9 tells the story of a man born blind to whom Jesus gives new sight.  It may help us deal with our own sense of inward blindness.  We shall see.

A person born blind has no way to understand what visual images mean. Their usual ways of sensing the world about them are thrown into chaos.  Everything is frighteningly confusing.  The process of learning how to use sight takes time, lots of it.  We may not be physically blind, but what we see going on around us these days has upended our usual ways of understanding things.  It’s going to take time to make sense of it. 

The miracle in the story of Jesus and the man born blind is not that he could suddenly see, but that he could see with understanding.  In an instant he had clarity of vision; there was no confusion about how to make sense out of the never before seen visual images surrounding him.  He knew without doubt that the healing power of God had entered, and remained, in his body, mind and soul.  That was some miracle.  But wait, there’s more. 

He knew the man named Jesus had done it, but who was Jesus?  It took time for him to begin comprehending that whoever Jesus was, he was of God in a way that no one else could be.  The story leads us to believe that days passed before the religious leadership interrogated him, then sought out his parents, then interrogated him again.  In those passing days he discovered that with his vision he also received a gift of holy insight into godly truth.  He, an unlearned beggar, knew what the religious leaders didn’t.  Even though he told them, they would not listen: listen to an ignorant beggar, certainly not.  “Here’s an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes.  We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will.  Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.  If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”

Even so he had no idea what Jesus looked like.  When Jesus found him, he had to ask.  In that moment his sight and insight filled him with new understanding: this is the Messiah.  He knew he was in the presence of God, and he worshiped.  We hear no more about him, but my guess is he became one of the disciples. 

We do hear more about the religious leaders.  Huffing and puffing that they, being learned in scripture and faithful in worship to the last detail, were not spiritually blind like the beggar.  Jesus was brutally honest with them.  Because you think you see everything clearly, your sin remains, he said.  Was he talking to me?  I think he might have been.

When John Newton wrote the words, “Amazing grace…Twas blind but now I see,” he meant new sight with understanding had enveloped him, new sight blessing him with fuller understanding of what Jesus meant when he gave the new commandment to love one another as he loves us.  For Newton it was a command to love in word and deed as a person who would bring a greater measure of God’s healing justice into the world.

He had to make room for new sight by giving up old ways of seeing things, old ways of assuming class, privilege, power and self righteousness.  Those are costly things to give up.  It wasn’t easy.  It took time.

Jesus knows well what my inward blindness is, and yours too.  But new sight is ours to have because he’s already given it.  We only have to accept it, and to live into it with intentionality.  The fruit of new vision is found in all that is good, right and true, and what is good, right and true is found in all that Jesus said and did.  

I work at it.  It ebbs and flows in my life, better some days, not so good on others. The process of learning how to use new sight takes time, lots of it.

The Woman Who Didn’t Know Her Place: a study of character

In his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote that “…suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us…”  They’re words sometimes used to belittle people, especially young people, whom we believe have not experienced enough of the character building adversity we did, and, therefore, don’t have enough character.  It’s a common theme passed down from generation to generation, and more that highly suspect.  Still, what exactly is character?  It’s a word with many meanings in English: what a character; you’re a character; he’s a character actor; she has character; etc.  It’s clear that Paul meant character in the sense of courage, integrity, fearlessness, self reliance, and generosity.  Where in scripture might we find an example of such a person?

We would find her in the episode from John’s gospel about the woman at the well.  Jesus, thirsty from a long morning’s walk, stopped about midday at a Samaritan village well (John 4.5-42).  There he met a woman who had come to draw water.  What follows is the longest conversation recorded in any of the gospels.  Jews had nothing to do with Samaritans, whom they treated with contempt.  Men were to have nothing to do with unaccompanied women.  Women were to be obediently subordinate when in the appropriate presence of men.

Jesus broke all the rules by talking with her, a lone woman and a despised Samaritan at that.  She broke all the rules about what Samaritans and women were supposed to be like.  It’s often said that she was at the well at noon because she was an outcast, not welcomed by the good ladies of the village who came in the cool of the morning, not in the heat of midday.  I’m not so sure.

She’s bold, honest and fearless.  Asked for a drink of water, she didn’t meekly give it to him.  She interrogated him.  “How is it you ask me, a Samaritan, for a drink?”  When Jesus suggested he had living water to give so one would never thirst again, she didn’t buy it. “The well is deep.  I have a bucket, but you don’t, so where do you get this water?”  “Give me some, then I wouldn’t have to come out here every day.”  This was a woman who stood her ground, wasn’t going to be scammed, and rules about submissive lady like behavior weren’t going to stop her.

Eventually, Jesus told her to go get her husband, and she forthrightly said she didn’t have one.  When Jesus said he already knew all her secrets (“…to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid…”), she was unafraid to admit it was true that she’d had five husbands and was now living with man, but not married.  Suspecting he might be a prophet, she posed a serious question: Where is the correct place to worship God?  She got a serious answer: It’s the place where you are, in the moment you are there, through your spirit in communion with God’s spirit.  Which, as it turned out, is exactly what was going on in that place at that moment. 

One reason I’m not so sure she was a village outcast is that she left Jesus to tell the villagers whom she had met and what had happened.  They not only listened, but went out to see for themselves.  I doubt that would happen without her having a certain amount of standing and authority.  I imagine she was a force to be reckoned with in that village. 

So what about the five husbands, and the guy she was now living with?  She may have been widowed.  It happens.  Given her self confident character, she may have been divorced by husbands who found her attractive, but didn’t get the passive, obedient wife they expected.  And the current guy?  Maybe she’d just had it with marriage ceremonies that didn’t mean anything.  Maybe they were genuine soul mates.  We will never know.  We can only imagine what we imagine. 

The point is, if you want to know what character is, she’s got it.  And Jesus honored it by staying for several days, further breaking the rule: Jews have nothing to do with Samaritans.

When you are in conversation with Jesus, what do you talk about?

Love In The Time of COVID-19

The seasons of Passover and Easter will soon be upon us. They always bring questions about their meaning, and how or whether they’re related, but this year is different. The COVID-19 pandemic has generated other questions, among them: What do the Hebrew and Christian scriptures have to say that might be helpful?

The first thing to note is they do not promise magical answers to the difficulties of life, including the frightening threat of pandemics. Nor, contrary to what some may have heard, do they promise that right belief, or prayers said in the right way, will lead to a prosperous life of plenty free from the realities others have to endure.

From start to finish they are the stories of persevering endurance as people learned what it means to have faith in God, who is free to engage with creation as ‘he’ will, and always for its good in God’s own time. Paul, writing to the churches in Rome, tried to put it in words like these: “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope and hope does not disappoint.” In the same letter he wrote, “God makes all things work together for good for those who love God.” He wrote those words having endured prison, beatings, ship wrecks and poverty. Yet, out of it the good news of salvation spread to a world of spiritually starving people suffering the hardest of hard lives. Paul, having experienced the fullness of God’s love, declared everything else to be trash. It was worth that much.

His experience was not an exception. The Hebrew scriptures are filled with stories of people such as Isaac, Joseph, Moses and Jeremiah. Isaac was a neer-do-well son who scammed anyone he could. Escaping the posse, he became the indentured servant of his uncle, an even bigger scam artist, whom he had to serve for over fourteen years before he could make his escape. It took him all that time to mature into the responsible patriarch from whom would come the twelve tribes of Israel.

Joseph was a teenage brat so irritating that his older brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt. It took a decade in an Egyptian prison for him to become the man who would rise to save Egypt, and his own family, from years of famine. In time, the Hebrews who took refuge in Egypt became an enslaved people. Four hundred years later, Moses, raised in Pharaoh’s household of wealth and privilege, was exiled to the desert where he learned its ways, and came face-to-face with God. Through him,God delivered the people from slavery into new life in a promised land.

Indentured servitude, years in prison, and desert exile are not the good things of life, but through them God prepared the way of deliverance and a greater good to come for God’s people.

It didn’t always go well, largely due to human selfishness, greed, and desire to make gods into their own image. Centuries later, Jeremiah was called by God to be ‘his’ prophet when he was only a boy, a job he held until old age. He was reviled during the whole of his life for telling the people the truth about their misbehavior, warning them about what would happen if they kept it up. They didn’t listen, the worst happened, Jeremiah was blamed, and he complained bitterly to God about how he was mistreated. But through his misery and national defeat and destruction, a path was opened for the fullness of Jewish faith to develop, and with it renewed hope for better times. For we Christians, it also prepared the way for the coming of Jesus Christ, who opened an even broader path to encompass all humanity.

What Hebrew and Christian scripture offers is the story of God’s love giving strength and fullness of life for those willing to accept it. But it never promises an easy life. It’s a pattern repeated trough the ages right to our own time. This nation has struggled through wars, famine, plague, civil unrest, and corruption, always to emerge in a better place, with God’s faithful helping lead the way through, and the way forward.

The seasons of Passover and Easter that will soon be upon us recall with thanksgiving the difficult, often brutal times through which our ancestors were delivered by the abounding and steadfast love of God, the difficult times of our lives that we’ve endured by God’s grace, and the greater good that lies ahead for us, and for generations yet to come.

Ours is a curious faith. If you want magic, it’s not for you. We are called to love God and love one another, stranger and friend alike. That’s the one rule not open to debate. It’s the way to a better life, a good life, not for us only but for all. It’s true we stumble along the way, but in God’s abounding and steadfast love a path forward will always be opened.

What Gives Value To Money?

The local paper’s letters to the editor page is often a source of inspiration for these columns. A recent letter offered a history of U.S. money in which the writer asserted the only real money is silver and gold coinage, or second best, paper money backed by silver and gold bullion. Paper money backed only by the “faith and credit” of the government is the cause of all our woes. It’s backed by nothing of value, he wrote.

The nation ran a trade surplus when it used real money, he wrote, but sank into trade deficits after it turned away from the silver and gold standard. How they’re related he didn’t explain, because there isn’t any cause and effect relationship to connect them. His views are not uncommon, but they fail on several points. Among them, silver and gold have no intrinsic value. They’re worth something because society has found a use for them. It’s the use that has value. Moreover, currencies backed by the productivity of a stable national economy are backed by something that adds measurable value. For that reason, the U.S. dollar has long been the world’s reserve currency without the need of silver and gold because it’s been backed by a stable, strong economy in a stable, strong democracy governed by transparent rules of law. At least until the current administration, but more on that another time.

If a national economy declines in productivity, or its government falls into chaos, its currency may lose value, and it’s true that hoarding the family jewels can be a hedge against it, but only if they can be bartered for goods, preferably in another economy with a stronger currency. Suppose all the world’s currencies go bad. The pretty rocks and shiny minerals would have value only to the extent they could be traded for food, shelter and clothing. It’s an extent with limits. In a time of great need, I might trade one of my scrawny chickens for one of your bags of grain, but for a bag of gold? What good would it be? I’d trade for it only if I had enough chickens in surplus, and a good chance the gold could be traded later for more food, clothing or shelter. Consider the biblical story of the Pharaoh, Joseph and famine. Joseph, who had predicted seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, was charged by Pharaoh to manage preparations. During the seven years of plenty he levied a 5% tax on grain production. He hoarded grain, not gold, silver or jewels, but grain. When the seven years of famine began, Egypt had stores of grain to sell. Foreigners paid with gold, but Egyptians paid with land. By the end of the famine, Pharaoh had a lot of gold and owned most of the land, or so the story goes. One of the many morals in it is that grain, not gold, was the true currency of strength in time of need. Those who had gold traded it for food at a dear cost.

I’ve often wondered why people attribute intrinsic value to silver, gold and jewels. It baffles me. They’re worth something on the market only because human convention agrees they have value. In other words, they’re backed not by the faith and credit of a nation, but by the whims of public opinion. Admittedly, public opinion has ascribed value to them for thousands of years, but mostly because holders of power and wealth reserved them for themselves, bidding against each other for possession. As raw minerals, their value was in the potential use to which they could be put in the hands of skilled artisans. In our age they have additional value for industrial and commercial purposes, which is a good thing as long as we remember that it’s their usefulness for a purpose that gives them value, and not something they possess intrinsically.

So what makes for a strong, resilient national currency? A national economy that maximizes economic opportunity for its citizens, which means an economy of people well educated, skilled, healthy, fed, and adequately housed. They’re conditions optimized only in democratic societies where free people are as committed to the well being of the community as they are to their individual self interests.

Jesus, Nick & Yoda

It’s Saturday night and some preachers are struggling with sermon preparation that has to say something about a reading from the third chapter of John’s gospel. It’s a passage about a nighttime visit to Jesus from Nicodemus, a high ranking pharisee who is interested in learning more. It has to be the strangest passage in the gospel narratives. In it Nicodemus and Jesus exchange words, but they’re not as a dialogue in which conversation leads to mutual understanding. Nicodemus speaks in the ordinary language of every day life, while Jesus responds with mystical non sequiturs that leave today’s readers wondering if they, along with Nick, are just not spiritually sophisticated enough to get it.

It goes a little like this: It’s night. Nicodemus has apparently heard quite a bit about Jesus and is curious enough to seek him out for some one-on-one conversation. He opens by acknowledging that ‘we’ know you are a teacher from God. Who the ‘we’ are is unknown. My guess is that others had urged him to go find out more about this guy.

Jesus’ response? You can’t see the kingdom unless you are born from above. Who asked to see it? How does it relate to Nick’s greeting? Maybe something’s missing from the record.

Nevertheless, Nicodemus asks an obvious follow up question: How can one be born after having grown old? It’s a perfectly reasonable question worthy of a reasonable answer. So what does he get?

He gets a short monologue about how you can’t enter God’s kingdom, much less see it, without being born of water and Spirit. Most of us recognize the allusion to Christian baptism, but what sense would that have made to Nick? Then Jesus goes on to tell Nick not to be astonished, that flesh is born of flesh while spirit is born of spirit, and the wind goes where it wants, and it’s the same for spiritual people.

Even Yoda makes more sense than that, so it’s no surprise that Nicodemus responds with, What!?, only to be admonished for being a teacher of the faith yet too dense to understand these heavenly truths.

John’s gospel is full of mystery and mysticism. Its poetry, pithy aphorisms assuring believers of God’s love, its description of the divine Jesus knowing and in control of everything, yet displaying the human Jesus in the grittiness of daily life, is what makes it a favorite among new Christians and veterans alike. But this passage leaves honest listeners scratching their heads and preachers stumbling over what to say. Now and then I hear someone nearly swoon over the profundity of it as if they had special insight. I’m fairly certain they don’t. Even my go to commentator, Ray Brown, had trouble with it.

None of this prevents the passage from being included in the lectionary, so something helpful has to be said about it. I’ve generally begun by reminding listeners (there are a few) that John’s gospel is intent on answering one question only: What does it mean to say that Jesus is the Son of God? This passage, which may be a poorly edited version of a more complete story told by John, reveals truth about the full integration in Jesus of divinity and humanity, of material and spiritual, and that in Jesus’ presence the reality of the kingdom is both seen and entered. It’s a garbled passage, so don’t get too hung up over it. The truth it reveals gets worked out more clearly as the gospel narrative develops.