Won’t You Be My Neighbor

I watched the new documentary on the life of Fred Rogers (a.k.a. Mr. Rogers) last night. I think it should be required viewing for all human beings!

We all need to hear his message of love and acceptance and affirming the dignity of every person. He truly believed that listening to people, creating a safe space for them to share their feelings, was the way to overcome evil and to heal the world.

If you get a chance, listen to this song. The words are:

It’s you I like,
It’s not the things you wear,
It’s not the way you do your hair–
But it’s you I like
The way you are right now,
The way down deep inside you–
Not the things that hide you,
Not your toys–
They’re just beside you.

But it’s you I like–
Every part of you,
Your skin, your eyes, your feelings
Whether old or new.
I hope that you’ll remember
Even when you’re feeling blue
That it’s you I like,
It’s you yourself,
It’s you, it’s you I like.

You can see Mr. Rogers visit with Jeff Ehrlinger and listen to the song here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5BZlyxS37Kk

It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

Symptoms

To follow up on my comments from yesterday on the situation at the US/Mexico border — I observe that focusing on building a wall, prosecuting people who cross illegally, and treating desperate people as if they were criminals is a mistaken priority. It’s like using drugs to treat a disease that’s caused by dirty water.

Clean up the dirty water.

In this case, focus attention on the social and economic conditions that provoke people to leave their homes. How can people have productive work, feed their families and live in safety?

Many small projects that empower people will be more effective than building a wall. Look, for example at Cafe Justo / Just Coffee in Agua Prieta, MX / Douglas, AZ. http://www.justcoffee.org/about-us-1/

They saw that people were leaving their homes in Southern Mexico and coming to the border looking for work and ways to send home money. That led to the coffee cooperative and a business that now allows people to stay on their land and stay at home with their families.

Hiding Behind the Law

This morning there was more coverage of the plight of families who are seeking asylum in our country and in particular the way parents are being separated from their children. Apparently this is a new strategy adopted by the presidential administration to deter people from coming to our borders.

As I listened to administration officials defend the new policy and interpretation of the law, I was reminded of Samuel Johnson’s famous assertion that “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” In the same spirit, one could say that bullies hide behind the law.

Mennonite pastor, Melissa Florer-Bixler reflects on US Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ use of the 13th chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Romans to defend the separation of mothers from their children. Rev. Florer-Bixler says “I am certain of this: the Bible is a weapon in the hands of coercive power. Jeff Sessions, like other tyrants before him, utilizes scripture for the good of the empire, to keep people silent, in line, submissive.”

The law is not the only tool we have. We have Jesus’ command to love one another as he loved us, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We might think about the forces that drive these people from their homes, forces that make them so desperate they will face a dangerous journey and risk their lives for a chance of safety.

Our elected leaders might consider how to promote safety and economic development in Mexico and Central America, so that people might have the chance to stay in their own homes with their own families and culture and not place themselves at the mercy of strangers who seem not to even try to understand their plight. To dismiss these people as “illegals” is to treat them as less than human, to refuse to try to understand why they are fleeing.

We would be better served by addressing the causes of migration, rather than simply using harsh measures to treat the symptoms.

God’s Family Is More Diverse Than We Think

This post is what appeared in the Rome Sentinel newspaper on Saturday, April 28, in the “Religion” column that we local pastors take turns writing. Just had to give digital readers equal time!

Each of the seven Sundays of Easter there’s a reading from Acts instead of an Old Testament reading. The reason for this is to think about what it means to be Easter people, people whose lives are shaped by the good news of Jesus.

This week, the story is about how Philip met an official of the Queen of Ethiopia on a highway one day. The man was riding in a chariot, reading from Isaiah. Looking up, he saw Philip and asked him to help him understand what he was reading.

The Ethiopian official was a eunuch. If you don’t know that word, it means he had been castrated, probably before adolescence – emasculated so he would be safe around the women of the royal court. According to Jewish purity laws, someone who had been “cut off” in this way was unclean and was not to be admitted into the assembly of the people of God.

However, the man’s “unusual” sexual identity was not a barrier to Philip, nor to the Holy Spirit. Philip explained what the man was reading from Isaiah, and helped him understand. Then, as the chariot passed a body of water, the man asked to be baptized. They got down. Philip baptized him. Then Philip went on his way to the next work the spirit had for him, and the Ethiopian man went on his way rejoicing at his inclusion in the people of God.

We see in this story a connection to a promise made in Isaiah 56, verses 4 and 5. “To the eunuchs who… hold fast my covenant, I will give… a monument better than sons and daughters… and everlasting name that shall not be cut off.”

Isaiah’s promise and the Spirit’s action through Philip are more welcoming and more inclusive than the purity codes, and more welcoming than some of the judgments people pass nowadays. What if God’s covenant and God’s family are not limited by our narrow, traditional norms? What if human experience of gender and identity is more diverse than we have thought? God welcomes people who are hungry for the Spirit, and invites us to widen our hearts and our tables in response.

God’s welcome may stretch our comfort level and challenge our categories of human identity. The invitation of the Gospel, though, is that we are all one. Each of us is different. Each of us is broken. And, each of us is loved. The way we have divided ourselves is by walls of our own construction. We don’t have to be “right,” just to recognize and respond to God’s all-inclusive love and grace.

Wondering About Guns

This is my contribution on this day of remembrance one month after the killings in Parkland, Florida.

That the possession of deadly weapons has become a very divisive issue is an understatement. Some people feel more secure with guns around. For some, the presence of guns is very frightening. I can understand that.

What I can’t understand is the way the Second Amendment has been twisted to support a supposed individual right to own guns, as if that right were absolute and did not need to be balanced with other rights, such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In particular, I can’t understand why anyone would claim that raising the age at which someone can legally purchase a gun in order to promote public safety is a violation of constitutional rights.

The Second Amendment said that because we need a militia to provide for the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. (emphasis mine) That meant – in 1791 – that the authorities could not come and take your gun, because if they did, and our country was attacked by some enemy, we would not be able to defend ourselves and the security of our nation would be in jeopardy.

Now, in 2018 and for a long time, we have a standing army, a national guard, and other branches of the military, who are all well-armed and capable of defending this free state. We have police. We have no need of citizen militias. The need that existed 227 years ago for ordinary citizens to have arms available to defend the country no longer exists.

I’m simply thinking logically. That the modern Supreme Court has construed this amendment as protecting an individual right to possess deadly weapons for personal use not related to national defense seems absurd.

One would think that, with the enormous number of people killed by guns — 60% of gun deaths are from suicide — we would want to register guns, keep track of them, issue permits only to people who can and will use them safely, and do whatever we can to limit their use to legitimate purposes.

I realize that “people kill people” as defenders of gun rights like to say. But people kill people with deadly weapons. And the deadlier the weapon, the more people can be killed. I would think that in the aftermath of so many massacres, we’d want to limit the availability of guns and seek to control them more effectively. I realize there are about as many guns out there as people in our country. It will be hard to control them. But we have to start, for the sake of our children and the lives of generations to come.

The bottom line for me is that we should have a bias toward keeping people safe rather than to further spread the availability of guns.

Confidence

These words of wisdom were in the Sojourners “Verse & Voice” today, and are worth sharing:
 
“Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.” – Marianne Williamson
 
After all, the other person’s emotions and responses are their responsibility, not yours. At the same time, I don’t want to run over people, simply to state my convictions and act on them without apology. And then be willing to listen.
 
And the prayer is, “Lord, you do not call us to shrink ourselves. Let us not be afraid to grow and expand, to stand steadfast in your confidence and grace, for your blessed spirit lives within us.”

The Kingdom of Heaven

This post will appear in the Rome Sentinel on Saturday, February 10. I have the privilege of taking a turn writing the religion column a few times a year in our local paper. But, since a lot of people don’t read the paper any more, especially younger people, here’s my column for those of you who prefer digital media.

Jesus came to Galilee saying, “The time is fulfilled, and kingdom of heaven has come near; repent, and believe the good news.”  — Mark 1:14-15

At the heart of my Christian faith is the conviction that Jesus came to proclaim a new reality that was breaking into the world. He referred to this as the “kingdom of heaven.” Some use the phrase “reign of God.” The Jews used the word, “shalom” to refer to a state of being where everything was whole and in harmony. Judaism also has a term that describes the reason God’s people exist: “tikkun olam” is the work of “healing the world.” I believe it is that same work that Jesus came to fulfill by inviting people into the “kingdom of heaven.”

I believe that part of the modern evangelical movement has distorted the message of Jesus.

The distortion I see is reducing Jesus’ invitation to enter the kingdom of heaven to nothing more than a claim that if you believe certain ideas you’ll “go to heaven” after you die. That kind of escapist religion treats God’s creation as a disposable and temporary place that humans have a license to foul up because they are just practicing for real life in “heaven.” To treat the earth with such contempt is to spit in God’s face.

What I believe Jesus came to do is to enlist people into a new community, a new reality, people who are committed to mending the world, restoring the creation, being part of God’s redemptive work. The Word became flesh. Jesus came to bring heaven to earth, not to lead an escape from earth to another realm. That other realm is here, “among you” or “within you” as Jesus said. That other realm is our hope, hope to release people from the hell of warfare and anger, addiction and despair, greed and abuse.

I don’t think of another place called heaven or another place called hell. They are present realities. They are spiritual realities. At the same time, I believe that nothing in life or in death can ever separate us from the love of God. God will hold me when my mortal life is through.

One idea that makes sense to me is what C. S. Lewis said long ago in Mere Christianity. “Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you… into something a little different than it was before. All your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.”

The invitation Jesus offers us is urgent. We only need to look around us to see how urgent it is. The world is in a mess. Turn around. Change your life. Get with the program. Let the Way of Jesus shape your life, for the mending of the world, for shalom, for the new life of the kingdom of heaven. Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to God, and be part of God’s healing of this suffering world.

The People God Calls Blessed

These seemed good thoughts to share in a time when we have had enough of criticism and shrill disagreement, and need to remember who we are and are called to be, beyond all definitions, affiliations and ideologies. Words fail. And we have had too many words. We need embodied love. Though it is silent, its speech is heard louder than words. Only love can heal us.

This blessing below was written by Ruth Burgess of the Iona Community in Scotland.

If I’m reading it right (in Matthew 25:34-46)
the people God calls blessed
are the ones who
feed the hungry
welcome the stranger
befriend those in trouble
care for those in pain.

Not a word about
who or what they do or don’t believe in,
only a description of how they live their lives.

So I ask a blessing, God,
on my friends
who cannot
or do not
believe in you.
A blessing that they are not expecting
yet one which they will recognize.
A blessing of joy, integrity and justice,
a blessing of love and life.

A Christian Witness in Partisan Times

Last week I had our church secretary send out a letter from Harold Delhagen, the leader of the Synod of the Northeast of the Presbyterian Church USA. Harold wrote an open letter to members of Presbyterian churches in our region, reflecting on President Trump’s disdainful and condescending manner of speaking about people from certain countries that he considers inferior and from where he would prefer people not immigrate to the US. I wrote a short cover letter in which I asked people to pray for the president, our nation, and ourselves as we seek to bear witness to Christian character in the face of the President’s dismissal of people he seems to believe are below him. My observation was that is not a Christian attitude or position.

I received an anonymous letter in the mail today which mistakes my attempt to provide Christian guidance and theological reflection for what the writer of the letter called “serving as a shill for the left.” (By the way, the writer used the Irish spelling of my last name in addressing the letter — “Prendergast,” which is always fun to see! My ancestors somehow lost that spelling when they crossed the ocean.)

Anyway, the letter reminds me of a time when I was living in Iowa and I preached a pro-life sermon in which I expressed my gratitude that the state legislature of Iowa had taken a stand against the death penalty. My sermon was organized around the pro-life teachings of the Bible. All one of the elderly gentlemen in the congregation could hear was a partisan argument, and said to me as he left the sanctuary, “Well, I see you’re taking your sermon material from the Des Moines Register!”

I am not, as the anonymous writer of the letter stated, “a mouthpiece for the Democratic party.” I seek to provide a Christian analysis of the political and social issues of the day. And, truth be told, my comments about the president are nowhere near as harsh as those of the good old conservative columnists, George Will and David Brooks, both of whom write political columns. I seek to encourage spiritual reflection on the world around us.

Neither were my remarks as critical as the pronouncements of Old Testament prophets, Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea and company, all of whom were unstinting critics of the kings of Israel. In the old days (I’m talking roughly Renaissance era) there was a tradition of literature that was expressed in a document called the “Mirror for Magistrates.” This was a collection of cautionary tales for earthly rulers who were encouraged to look in the mirror and see their faults, and be warned to improve their lives.

It may be the Mr. Trump is not so much racist as he is an arrogant, privileged elitist who is so unaware of and insensitive to ordinary people that he just doesn’t know any better than to speak with contempt of people that our Christian Scriptures remind us are our brothers and sisters, fellow humans made in God’s image, and who are worthy of our respect. I pray that, even at the old age he has reached, Mr. Trump might learn some humility and wisdom.

Health Care?

To me, it seems obvious that the Republican establishment is not interested in improving the quality of or access to health care for regular people. They seem focused on saving money for wealthy people who resent having to pay anything to provide health care for people who can’t afford it. They’re selfish. The implication of their attempts to get rid of the Affordable Care Act is that they must believe there are some people who don’t deserve health care.

We all pay for medical care for people who don’t have insurance, though. People go to the ER and hospitals pass along that cost in their overhead and you and I pay for it anyway in increased costs.

The only answer that makes sense to me is a single-payer plan where we ALL pay in and we ALL get coverage. It should be progressive, where those with more pay more. That’s how our Presbyterian Church medical plan is structured now. The employer pays an amount equal to a percentage of the employee’s salary. Churches with low-paid pastors are subsidized by bigger churches with high-paid pastors. It works.

The only way it will work for our country is if our elected officials realize that basic health care is a right and we need to provide it in order to have a healthy nation with a healthy population, and that if it’s important for us as a nation, we all need to pay for it.