Leadership & Listening

Yesterday morning, listening to Morning Edition, host Rachel Martin was interviewing historian, Jeffrey Engel. Engel is with the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Mr. Engel shared this insight into the character and leadership style of President George H W Bush: “… from time to time, President Bush, if he had a few moments on his calendar, would call up a foreign leader, whether in Africa, whether in Asia, whether in – somewhere else, and just ask them, what’s going on in your world? What do you think is important? And just listen.”

“And just listen.” Wow.

Think about that in the context of today’s political climate in which hostile tweets and angry criticism fill the air. President Bush has been described again and again in the last few days as a man of humility. It takes humility to listen deeply to another person. Humility considers that the other person knows something, sees something, that you don’t. Humility realizes that one’s own perspective is limited and partial. Humility knows that leadership requires building relationships and managing a broad spectrum of gifts and attributes.

Many years ago a pastor colleague said, “Leadership doesn’t mean having all the answers. Leadership is about asking the questions.”

George H W Bush left us a legacy and an example of the kind of leadership our country, our world, our communities need in these days of partisan division — the gift of listening.

Thank you, Mr. Bush.

The Caravan (again)

Got back Saturday night from the trip organized by Frontera de Cristo –  http://www.fronteradecristo.org – and Cafe Justo – http://www.justcoffee.org – the Border to Border Delegation: Coffee, Migration and Faith.

One clear message I heard from the Mexicans I talked to was this: “Everyone who leaves home suffers.” No one wants to leave their home. The people who do, the people in “the caravan,” people who have to pay thousands of dollars to smugglers to get them across the border, people who are exhausted and sick from walking – they leave home because they believe they have no other choice.

It’s not an invasion. It’s not a threat. The caravan is made up of people who fear they will never see their family members in the US again because the border has become so tight. They are willing to risk their lives to reunite their families.

The caravan is made up, too, of people who are so afraid for their lives that they will risk them on the highway, in the desert, in places where they don’t speak the language, in order to find safety.

Don’t believe the lies that the President and other politicians are telling about these migrants. Trump is trying inflame people’s fears and ignorance in order to get them to vote for his candidates.

Think instead about what God says. Throughout the Law of Moses and the words of the Old Testament prophets the command is repeated: “Do not oppress the resident alien in your land; remember that you were strangers and aliens in the land of Egypt.”

And remember Jesus: “Whatever you have done for one of the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you have done for me.”

There are a lot of suffering migrants on the road who long for home, family and safety. It’s not a crime to migrate. No human being is illegal.

The Migrant Caravan

Thousands of people are so desperate that they will sell their possessions, borrow money, leave behind all they have known for the chance at a better life in a place they’ve never seen, where they don’t know the language, where they don’t know anyone. They pin their hopes on an unknown end where it must be better, where it must be safer, where they will work doing anything to care for their children.

And all some politicians can do is to use the plight of these people as weapons in a partisan electoral war. If our president knows any better, he doesn’t show it. He threatens to cut off aid to the countries from where these people are coming, as if further impoverishing them will help anything.

Most politicians seems to focus on the symptom, not the cause. They focus on the perceived threat and talk about desperate people as if they were the problem instead of working with Central American governments to address causes of violence and social instability.

The people who organized the caravan call attention to the underlying needs, the forces that drive people from their homes. I hope we can see the people as human beings, not as a threat. They need peace and a safe place to live. Our leaders need to work with leaders in those countries to bring order and stability to the lives of people who endure such chaos that they are willing to walk a thousand miles just for the chance of a new life.

Dear President Trump, they deserve our help, not your scorn.

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.