Civility is Basic to Christian Life

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.”

This passage from Phillipians 2, written by the apostle Paul,  has been the focus of my devotional life in the past week. I’ve been reminded that humility is one of the gifts of the Spirit and that when we stop assuming we are better than everyone else, we begin to see what we can learn from people who think differently. Every day, as I have read through the passage, I have been struck by the discord in our country and how people of faith have gotten caught up in those divisions. Sometimes we have contributed to them and acted in ways that were not constructive.

Today my local paper, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, headlined an editorial, “Six steps to make America more civil again.” The piece was by Doug R. Berdie, of Minneapolis, a semiretired marketing executive and researcher. He names simple things we can do to create a healthier emotional environment . . .  from showing simple consideration for the people around us when we are shopping to doing a good deed each day. (I suspect doing a good deed for a person you don’t know well and happen to disagree with might help even more.) He named: Giving other people the benefit of the doubt; Helping in practical and tangible ways; Leaving our surroundings better than we find them.

We have been engaged in ripping apart the soul of our country. Our collective conversation has been bitter and divisive. We find it difficult to agree on much and even when we do, there is someone able to punch a hole in that unity. So, this past week, I found myself chastened often when I read the words, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

We are tempted to only look out for “me and mine,” but God asks us to stretch our minds and open our hearts. God asks us to see others as God’s children, who are loved and cherished by God even as we are loved. Scripture tells us, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” (Phillipians 2:3-4)   What a difference we could make in our communities if we started with respect for all of God’s children.

When Washington Plays Havoc With Your Values – Contending With Difficulties

In January of 1780, Abigail Adams, wife of President John Adams wrote to her son John Quincy Adams, who would later become the sixth  US president, “These are the times in which a genius would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed . . . The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties . . . Great necessities call out great virtues. When a mind is raised, and animated by scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant, wake into life and form the character of the hero and the statesman.”

I learned a new word recently, “Awfulizing.” A person engaged in “Awfulizing” assumes the worst case scenario will come true in any situation. “Awfulizers,” can only see the potential hazard ahead and prepare themselves for a disaster. I think I’ve been doing a good bit of “Awfulizing” myself in recent weeks.

I have watched unfolding events in Washington with despair. Every time I’ve seen regulations cut that would protect consumers, the environment or the work place -I’ve set off on a case of “Awfulizing.” I’ve agonized over the House version of the health care bill. Each time, I have assumed the worst that can happen will happen. That was before the past weeks in Washington, where there has been a media circus revolving around connections between Russia and the Trump campaign, resignations and the timing of firings. While all of this is going on, the concerns and needs of ordinary people are put aside in the midst of the latest scandal talk.

I read an article a few weeks ago where a person likened today’s period of “Isn’t this awful” thinking to the experience of England in the Blitz. During an eight-month period, from the fall of 1940 to late spring of 1941, England was bombed almost daily. While many people in England are bemoaning *Brexit the writer pointed out, that any fallout from Brexit could not compare to what people endured as they lived through the Blitz in London. The writer then added, nor does it compare to the height of World War II when almost every family in the United States had one or more family members deployed in the war effort.

What I’ve been forgetting in all of my “Awfulizing” is that, while I don’t like much of what is happening in Washington these days, God is still God. God still works through God’s people for good. God is a God of justice. When God works in the hearts, minds and souls’ of God’s people, truth rises to the surface. There is “Awfulizing” and there is action. God always calls us to move from looking at the problems in our world to working on positive solutions. The choice is really ours. Where does God need us today? Is it “Awfulizing” or is it to start working for solutions?

*Brexit -The decision in 2016 by popular vote for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. The decision impacts everything from trade and students attending colleges outside of the UK, to international banking.

Getting the Big Rocks into the Right Place

One day I was running an errand when, to my surprise and delight, I saw an eagle flying low, circling overhead. It was an awesome sight to see that eagle’s spread out wings. I would have missed it, if it hadn’t been for a couple out walking, who paused to look overhead. I stopped to see what they were so engrossed in. To my amazement, there was a majestic bald eagle hovering over the neighborhood. I started to think of what else I’d been missing of beauty, in the busy days I live. What gifts of joy and laughter, beauty, friendship, love and peace would have been mine, if I had simply paused to look and see around me?

I used to have on my desk a jar of stones which were there in part because of the following story, by an anonymous author.

  “A man stood in front of the group of high-powered over-achievers, announcing that it was time for a quiz. He pulled out a one-gallon, wide-mouthed mason jar and set it on a table in front of him. Then he produced about a dozen fist-sized rocks and carefully placed them, one at a time, into the jar.  When the jar was filled to the top and no more rocks would fit inside, he asked, “Is this Jar full?

Everyone in the class said, “Yes”. He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel, pouring the gravel in and shaking the jar causing pieces of gravel to work themselves down into the spaces between the big rocks.  Once more, he asked the group if the jar was full. By then they had figured out that more could be packed into the jar, and sure enough it wasn’t long before the man added sand, then water to the jar.

After demonstrating how much could fit in the jar, he asked his seminar attenders what the point of his illustration was. One of the group answered immediately, “The point is, no matter how full your schedule is, if you try really hard, you can always fit some more things into it.”

“No,” the speaker replied, “that’s not the point. The truth this illustration teaches us is: If you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all.”

I find that I need to keep relearning the same lessons. I need to  remember to set my priorities and put first what really needs to be first in my life. I need to be reminded to make room for what is  important.     Fortunately, God is patiently waiting, when we forget . . . waiting for us to get the big rocks into their proper place.

What are You Feeding Your Soul ?

Everywhere I went people asked about our presidential election, during my recent trip to Vancouver BC.   I quickly discovered that Canadians are anxious for us to make a good decision.  I can’t remember an election that has troubled me more than this one.  There are so many things I could say about the appalling spectacle we’ve been subjected to, it is difficult to begin.    Civility has been discarded for innuendo.  Lies for truth.   Arrogance for honesty.   Books have been written, which tell false tales.    Debates are billed as if they were  wrestling matches.   Among true followers, violence has at times been encouraged.    With the degree of rancor, anger and  resentment that has been fueled,  I fear for all of us after the election.   I wonder  how that will spill over for the losing side.      Will  we remember that another election is coming four years from now?  Or will those on the losing side decide violence is the answer?   Who are we really as a people? What is it that we are feeding out souls?

There is a story of an old Cherokee who was teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – it is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.  The other is good – it is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. This same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

To which the old Cherokee wisely replied,”The one you feed.”

We become that which we spend our lives dwelling on. If we feed our souls hurt and pain, we grow angry. If we feed on self-pity, we become convinced that we alone suffer. If we feed  resentment, it grows into hate. But, it is also true that when we choose to focus our thoughts on the good in our lives, we began to see that good in many places. If we feed on compassion, we become more compassionate. If we feed on joy, our hearts grow lighter and more thankful for the blessings which God continues to give us, day by day.  If we open our hearts to wisdom we can begin to see anther’s point of view.

The scripture puts it another way, “Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” Philippians 4:8

What is it that you’re feeding your soul today?

Jesus Doesn’t Give Our Politics a Pass on Loving our Neighbor

The Domes, Milwaukee Mitchel ParkWe seem to have found our lesser selves this election cycle, forgetting our guiding principles as a nation. In a season of distrust, anger replaces reason. Emotional barrages are launched towards groups we disagree with. Resentment masquerades as wisdom. Facebook posts taunt anyone who doesn’t agree with our viewpoint. Comments on news sites sling hate. Our digital world allows us to express our opinions sometimes openly, often anonymously, and too often viciously. With our rhetoric we blind ourselves to the realities in other people’s lives and their very real pain.

In the midst of this summer of discontent I believe people of faith have a special responsibility to create safe spaces for conversation and places to build bridges of understanding. We need to be the people who remember that when Jesus told us to “love one another” and to “do to others what we want done to ourselves” he didn’t give our Facebook and Twitter posts or our anonymous newspaper comments a pass on that.

Instead we are called to be the people who bridge rivers of distrust and cross oceans of false assumptions. We are to be people who listen and hear – who allow space for conversation, dignity and respect . . . Creating places of empathy and understanding even as we stand, polar opposites from each other. Of all people, faith communities must model respect and dignity as we talk to each other.

Three weeks ago, a riot on a bridge in St. Paul MN turned into a place of violence as police were pelted with fireworks, rocks, bricks, glass bottles and chunks of concrete. The riot crew out of a demonstration over the death of Philando Castile, who died during a traffic stop. This week, on that very same bridge a different crowd gathered. There was no plan, only an urgent need as a young woman climbed over a fence, planning to jump onto I 35W. Some took hold of her T Shirt, others reached through the chain link fence to grab hold of her. Construction barrels were pushed into the busy highway to divert traffic. Police arrived. The fence was pulled back and cut through. A young woman, who believed that no one loved here, discovered how many people cared. Together, police and community pulled her through the fence to safety. Afterward people lingered celebrating a life saved together.

John Wesley said, “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite.”

Syrian Refugees – Adrift and In Desperate Need

Every Thursday morning we held a Bible Study in the church kitchen of a small rural church I served between 1988 and 1994. Stories were told and memories of earlier days shared. What surprised me most about the history of the area were stories of World War I. The church was located only a few miles from a large German community which had at first questioned the wisdom of going to war with Germany. That question drew the attention of state and federal authorities, making the whole area suspect. Mail was scrutinized for signs of treason. The parents and grandparents of my class members had lived under constant threat of making a wrong comment, angering a neighbor, or being perceived as less than supportive of the war. Fear of these German immigrants had a grip on the nation.

World War II brought additional scrutiny, but at a lesser scale. Another ethnic group was arousing more fear . . . Japanese Americans. We would build Internment Camps, for almost 120,000 Japanese. Of those 80,000 were second generation Americans. In 1980 an investigation into the camps revealed that racism, and not national security, had led to their creation. Prejudice had led our political leaders to wrongly assume these citizens were just not American enough to trust.

The furor over a decision to take in 10,000 of the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, adrift and in desperate need, has challenged my understanding of the country I call home. I fear for the soul of our nation as the conversation about receiving Syrian immigrants has become more and more hostile. Politicians have in turn said, they would forcibly return Syrian refugees, or only allow Christians to enter our country. A mayor even suggested we create a new set of Internment Camps.

Jesus was once asked, “Who is my neighbor?” He responded by telling the story of a man from Jericho on his way to Damascus falling among thieves. (Luke 10:25-37) Jesus’s first listeners would have been aware of the dangers of traveling from Jericho to Damascus. One would not take the trip alone unless absolutely necessary. As the story unfolds, first a priest, then a teacher of the law saw the injured man, but decided to ignore him. Stopping to help the injured man would put anyone who did so at risk. This was a dangerous road. The threat of more robbers hidden behind the rocks could not be discounted. Then a Samaritan came along the path. He also would have been anxious about unseen bandits still in the area, but he, in seeing the injured man, went to him. This stranger of a different culture and religious tradition, bound up the man’s wounds and took him to an Inn where he continued to care for the man.

Jesus was not unaware of fear that would keep us from loving our neighbors. I think he told this story to remind us that there are times when we simply need to face our fear and do the right thing. Jesus cuts to the heart. He tells us what we need to hear and not what we want to hear. Jesus speaks truth to power . . . truth to callousness . . . truth to our prejudices and biases . . . truth to our fears. He cuts through our defenses, to the reality which lies behind. The Samaritan confronted his fear, then crossed cultural and religious obstacles to care for a wounded man.

In the end Jesus says, “It’s about love.” Love for God . . . Love for others. He reminds us that we are loved by God. Our best response to that love is to reach out in love to those who most need our care. As Jesus ended his story about the man we refer to as the Good Samaritan, he asked the one who had posed the original question, “Who then is the neighbor?” The response was immediate, “The one who showed him mercy.” Then Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.” Does Jesus ask any less from us?

Will We Live Out Our Heritage as People of Faith or Will We Succumb to fear?

In a scene reminiscent of World War II, when nations around the world refused refuge to Jewish people fleeing the death camps of Hitler, today we are preparing to abandon another group of refugees. Fear can paralyze. It can keep us from honoring our commitments to people in need. Since the Paris attacks, fear has swept around this country and Europe. Fear of the stranger and fear of the refugee. Some in Congress are already preparing legislation to prevent any more refugees from Syria coming to our borders.

The scripture says, “Perfect love casts out all fear.” (I John 4:18) I once mixed the wording of the verse up when I was putting together a sermon. Instead of “Perfect love casts out fear,” I wrote, “Perfect fear casts out love.” This is the paradox of love and fear. When we allow fear to rule our hearts, it is difficult to love our neighbor. Fear pushes love away. It sets a barrier between “us and them.” Instead of concern over another’s well being, we are fearful that reaching out will be a danger to ourselves and our families.

In the Biblical drama the people of Israel seek refuge in foreign lands as desperate situations arrive. Abraham and Sarah move when famine breaks out. The Israelites will seek refuge in Egypt as another famine threatens their lives. Mary and Joseph, under threat, will take that same journey when they are warned of impending death for the infant Jesus. So it is that Jesus begins his life as a displaced person seeking political sanctuary from the vicious regime of Herod.

We are placed in this time of history and called to live out our faith in action. It would be easier to site security and let someone else deal with the refugees. History records the trauma of decisions made to the Jewish population before and during World War II. It is the same kind of mentality which caused us to imprison people of German descent during World War I and Japanese decent in World War II. We look back with regret on our fears as we sort through the lessons of history.

Today we stand on the cusp of another decision. Will we live out our heritage as people of faith or will we succumb to fear?