Love Draws the Circle Wide

Westboro Baptist Church planned some picketing in my community today. If you have somehow missed Westboro’s hate-filled speech, consider yourself fortunate. Fred Phelps, who started the church, found fame when he and his people started to picket the funerals of soldiers around the country. They held up signs with hate messages aimed at people who were gay or lesbian, using derogatory terms.   The targeting of soldiers was a warped logic which tied the war against terror to what the Westboro people believe, is the country’s willingness to have gay and lesbian members in the armed services. In their arrogance, they cheered the deaths of those who gave their lives for our nation.    Choosing to intrude on the heartbreak of  parents, spouse and children, they  brought their hateful agenda  and picketed funerals.  Westboro’s goal in Minnesota today, was to protest decisions by the University of Minnesota Hospital as well as a local high school related to transgender youth.

What has always stunned me about the Westboro Baptist church are actions which are antithetical to Christian Love and compassion. As a pastor I find it hard to reconcile the Jesus of the gospels with the arrogance and self-righteous attitude of the Westboro church.  I found myself  praying that our young people were protected from the hate speech and that the Westboro people had changed hearts. Ironically, at the very end of his life, Fred Phelps was excommunicated from the church he founded, because he came to see the world more compassionately than his followers. He pushed for reconciliation with two of his granddaughters who had been shunned by the church. The church he grew became even narrower in their ability to love and accept people than he had been. There was no longer room for Fred Phelps in his own church.

Edward Markham’s poem, “Outwitted”  is a favorite of mine, for its insistence that God loves all of the world’s people and wants us to do the same.

“He drew a circle that shut me out –
Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!”

God is the one that keeps drawing us into the larger circle. God pulls us from the isolation of judgmentalism, arrogance and self-righteousness into the greater truths of love, compassion, mercy, kindness, gentleness and humility.

I’ve heard no news coverage of Westboro Baptist Church today. The community made a decision not to confront or encourage a counter-protest in the places Westboro chose to picket, so the group would be denied the publicity they wanted. I don’t know if they came and picketed or not. I do know that the community decided to work together and silence their message of hate, by simply ignoring it. It was a teachable moment to remember that the greatest commandment,  after loving God with all our heart, minds’ soul and strength,  is to love our neighbor as ourself.

Echo Chambers in the Church

The problem we have in communicating with each other is that so many of us live in echo chambers. We choose friends who think like us and believe what we believe. We listen to and read the media which reinforces our world view. Sometimes, in order to simply ignore what other people believe, we avoid the subjects we disagree on. We often do that so no one gets upset. It may make peace for the moment, but it sure is hard to understand where another person is coming from, when we never talk about the subjects we disagree about.

The trouble with echo chambers is that the echo only responds with what we have already said. “Hello” shouted into a canyon may return multiple times – but it doesn’t challenge our thoughts, beliefs or values. It gives no opinion other than our own. It doesn’t cause us to do that walk in “another person’s shoes” that can be so enlightening. Instead it only reinforces what we already believe.

My denomination, The United Methodist Church, has spent the entire period of my ministry trying to come up with common language that all of us can live with related to the GLBT community. We agonize over whether clergy will be allowed to marry gay and lesbian couples. We put language in our church rule book, The Discipline, that disallows any person in a homosexual relationship from serving as clergy in our Conferences. Since my ordination in 1985, many denominations have come to terms with a changing world view on sexuality as genetic factors have been linked to sexual orientation. Others, like my own, are frozen in a different time span. What makes it even more difficult is that the United Methodist Church has a growing number of members in Africa, where in some countries, homosexuality is not only frowned on, but outlawed. A church that has positive statements related to the issue can also be outlawed in those countries.

Some days, I am completely frustrated with my denominations inability to find a way where we can all live together. Yet, I realize that what is frustrating for me, is incredibly painful for my colleagues in ministry whose sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, brothers and sisters are among those who feel the sting of rejection by the church. As do our members in local churches who carry that same sting of rejection for themselves or their cherished family members.

Many of us would just like all references to homosexuality taken out of the Discipline, allowing each Conference (Local body giving oversight in a certain area) to make decisions about these matters. Others are terrified of that direction. Last year, in 2016, my denomination almost reached the point of splitting. My bishop is asking all of the clergy in my Conference to pray for an upcoming meeting of Clergy in looking for a way forward – a way to move beyond our impasse.

Of one thing I am sure . . . if there were easy answers, we would have found them already. In preparation for our upcoming meeting, our bishop has asked us to spend time meditating and Journaling around the first chapter in the book of Acts. It is that point when Jesus leaves his disciples, asking them to remain in Jerusalem. He promises that they will receive power as the Holy Spirit comes upon them. I think what my denomination needs, what my church needs,  is that in our listening and praying, we open ourselves to God’s Holy Spirit. In doing so, God may just give us the wisdom to move beyond our entrenched positions. God might surprise us by taking our divided house and making us whole.

God is on the Side of the Poor

I try to stay out of politics when I’m writing. When I do write about politics I try to be objective and balance the different sides of an issue. It’s difficult when what you really want to do is to scream at politicians who, either have no comprehension of the policies they are creating and how their decisions will impact the working poor, or simply don’t care. I try to believe that it is  ignorance and not open hostility toward people who are living on the edge. This week Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) a member of the House Judiciary Committee was talking about the roll out of the new Health Care bill and made a comment that the poor will have to choose between the new IPhone and health care. Wow . . . all I could think of was a low-cost plan I have been looking at that would give me a reconditioned older model IPhone as part of the package. At twenty-five dollars a month, I would have my own, new to me, IPhone.

It is so easy to judge the needy. Why, we ask are they making that decision? Isn’t that a foolish use of scarce resources? Hey, I’m making due with an old flip phone ( And I am) . . . Why should they have something better? Of course, I’m also making due with a tablet, PC, Laptop and high speed internet connection. I don’t need a smart phone to read email, fill in a job application, search for jobs or get updates from my kid’s school. I can do all I really need with the connections I already have. In our digitally interconnected world, lacking Internet access is more than an inconvenience, it is a handicap. Schools, doctors, social service agencies along with employers, all use email or web pages to communicate.

Aside from the obvious, the new health care plan will take us backwards in health care. Only 3 percent of people searching for health care were impacted by steep premium hikes. Instead of working on a solution for that subset, we seem to be heading down a path of total destruction for a much larger group of people. The promise of a health care package that would be “Wonderful” reassured a lot of voters. What is clear is that this replacement will not cover the most vulnerable people in the country. It won’t cover some people in my life who are really important to me. There is nothing “Wonderful” about it unless you already have plenty and aren’t looking for genuine help. It would make health care unaffordable for the working poor who don’t have coverage through their employer.

So I wonder how anyone who has made those promises can face the people in their districts? And when will they realize that not everyone who shows up at a town hall fearing this heath care law voted for their opponent.   When will they  accept that when they take on the role of representing a district or a state, it includes everyone within the boundaries?  The problem with too many politicians is that as long as one can deny the hardships they are inflicting through their policies, they can pretend that they aren’t hurting anyone.

Yet, God is not mocked. We end up reaping what we sow. Because God is always but always on the side of the most vulnerable. God is on the side of the poor.

What is a Christian to do in this World of Alternative Facts, Values, Assumptions and Differing News Sources?

     What is a Christian to do in this world of alternative facts, values, assumptions and differing news sources? How do we stand as people of faith, living our lives with the hope of Christ? Does it matter what our neighbors think? If it does, then is social media the best transmitter of transformation? Has anyone’s view of the world changed because of someone’s political post, or has it only reinforced one’s own view?

My younger brother is using humor to cope with the barrage of political differences on social media. His Facebook posts have sported a variety of comics which lighten the spirit. Last Friday night was an especially potent day of competing views of the new President and the series of executive orders that have been signed. Some posters were asking for tolerance in the expression of their view point. One wrote with dismay about people who had defriended her after she had posted a political post. She said that she didn’t want to lose friends who disagreed with her position. She would much rather have a conversation and hear what her friends believed.

In the midst of the Friday barrage an old friend had posted these words of Madeline L’Engle. “We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.” The definition of a Christian is still, to be a follower of Jesus. Jesus had a lot to say about the way we treat each other. He was heavy on the bit about loving one another. He didn’t limit that to people who shared our particular expression of faith or our politics. In fact, he directed us in an entirely different direction. “Jesus said, You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbors and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:43-45 Jesus never said that this would be easy. What he said, was to love.

So, in that light, can we be gentle with the people we disagree with? Can we show God’s love to each person and not just those in our political camp? Do we have to agree with each other politically, to be friends in this new era? Are the people we disagree with, really our enemies? Or are they simply people who view the world differently? Can we respectfully disagree with one another, have a conversation and not slam those who don’t believe like us? Can we pray for people on the other side of the political divide? Certainly, those misguided souls need somebody’s prayers. Does that mean that we can’t find a way to fight for our values and beliefs? Of course not. But do we really need to leave that divisive mean-spirited post in the comment section of our newspaper? Or the equally nasty one on social media? Or would we be far more effective communicating our concerns by contacting our elected leaders, through phone, email, actual letter or a visit to their local office? And doing all of that with respect.

The late Madeline L’Engle was wise. We are drawn to those whose expression of Christian love radiates out of them. We bask in their light, in the loveliness of it. When I think of people who have altered my view of the world, it has been those who were shedding kindness and light who have had the greatest influence. In this seriously divided time, may we be the people who spread kindness, compassion and love.

For you see, as Christians we do have a common news source.  We call it the Bible.  We have the words of Jesus to guide us.   We have the truths of Scripture to reflect on.   We have reminders of how we are to live and speak and be with each other.  Jesus said it best, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”    John 13:34 

Inauguration – Changing Visions – Changing Dreams

The Domes, Milwaukee Mitchel Park“The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”              I Samuel 16:7

Change is always difficult. When it comes unbidden by us, the changes created are more difficult to accept. Today, our country changed hands. President Obama stepped back and President Trump took the oath of office. We have a new president, which one segment of our nation is thrilled is here. Meanwhile, another segment feels a deep loss and fear. In our divided nation we’ve grown tense and uneasy. We do not trust each other or what motivates those whose values are different from our own. We no longer believe in the good intentions of people whose political views are not like ours. Distrust breeds alienation, false assumptions, division and fear.

On this inauguration weekend, it is good to remember that God sees us all so differently. God doesn’t see blue states and red states, Republicans or Democrats. The color of our skin, the place where we live and our wealth matters little to God. No, God looks inside us. God understands what we are made of. God looks into our hearts. God sees into the very center or our being. God knows our dreams, our hopes, our aspirations. God sees the goodness in us and in those we disagree with.

On our coins are printed the words, “In God We Trust.” Today, in the changing of presidents, is a good day to begin praying for our nation and all it’s leaders. For in some way that none of us really understand, God does work through our prayers. Our hearts are touched with the love of God. We find ourselves being changed in our praying. Divisions between people are bridged. Mountains move, in spite of logic, reason and common sense.

So let us pray for the unity of our nation and wisdom for its leaders. Let us pray for integrity, compassion and justice to rule the hearts of all our leaders. Let us pray for minds open to hear another viewpoint, patience to understand another heart and light to see God’s vision for our nation. Let us live the words on our coins and truly trust in God.

Standing at the Door

Samuel Shoemaker, in his poem, “I Stand By the Door,” writes:soft-church

“I stay near the door.
I neither go too far in, nor stay too far out,
The door is the most important door in the world—

It is the door through which people  walk when they find God.

People . . . Crave to know where the door is.
And all that so many ever find
Is only a wall where a door ought to be.
They creep along the wall like the blind,
With outstretched, groping hands.
Feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door
Yet they never find it . . .
People die outside that door as starving beggar’s die,
On cold nights in cruel cities in the dead of winter
Die for want of what is within their grasp.”

This haunting poem brings back vivid memories of leaving the Emergency Shelter at Simpson United Methodist Church in Minneapolis, one sub-zero winter day. My family had helped at the shelter that night. On the way to the car, one of my children drew my attention to a man finding refuge in the doorway of the church. He had a single blanket wrapped around himself as he lay huddled for warmth in the bitter cold. Throughout the night he had lain there, outside of the warmth of the shelter within.  He had been “outside the door” while fellowship, warm coffee and hot chocolate, a place to sleep and the security of being in a warm room, lay inside. He had missed out.

There are many people who “miss out,” who “miss the door” and the message of God’s love, acceptance, forgiveness and grace. When I ask people about their faith and what it means to them, I hear words about God being present. They talk about care and other expressions of loving compassion, found in their faith community.

Samuel Shoemaker used to invite people to experiment with Christianity. He invited them to surrender as much of themselves to as much of God as they could accept at that time in their life. He encouraged them to pray and open their hearts in honest dialog with God. I would invite you to do the same. Experiment with the Christian faith. Start a journal. Write your prayers in plain and honest words. Open your heart to God through your honesty. Be willing to go where God leads.   What I know to be true is this – God always hears our prayers and the groaning of our hearts – God wants no one left outside the door.

* Samuel Shoemaker a portion of his work ” I Stand by the Door” (Paraphrased)

Getting Ready for Christmas

christmas-angelI’ve never been one to be over prepared, when it comes to Christmas. Usually, you’ll find me late on Christmas Eve wrapping presents for Christmas morning. One year, when my children were small, I was following my usual pace. Everything would get done. It would be finished on time, after all I’d always succeeded. My schedule for Christmas Eve day, was firmly set in my mind on the evening before as I planned out everything that needed to be done. A small banner for the sanctuary at church, packages to wrap and more cookies to bake.

The one item I’d left out of my preparation planning was the fact of being pregnant with a baby due on January 4th. Early Christmas Eve morning I realized that the day would require some significant changes. My son arrived very quickly after that, at home while his siblings were opening their presents. The banner didn’t get made and certain cookies were never baked. Leaving for the hospital, my five year old son announced, “I like all my presents, but I like my baby brother best of all.”

A baby is, after all, what Christmas is about. A baby that doesn’t wait until everything is done or the household is in order. A baby that makes an appearance when ready, not on a predetermined schedule. Bethlehem’s child surprises us with unexpected appearances. In the midst of singing a carol, taking cookies to a neighbor, stuck in traffic listening to the songs of Christmas, or opening a Christmas card from an old friend, Christ touches the heart.

In these days of Advent may you pause in your busyness to remember Jesus and truly rejoice in God’s gift of love, who came not for a few moments in time but for an eternity.