Aww… Do I Have To?

I can imagine the disciples of Jesus saying that when he reminded them that the most important things God had ever said to them were: 1) love God with everything you’ve got, and 2) love your neighbor as you love yourself.

In fact, there’s that famous story of the young lawyer (what is it about lawyers?) who wanted to argue with Jesus about that and said, “But who is my neighbor?” So Jesus tells that story of the Syrian refugee who stops to help the white guy who got mugged. Well… it was really a Samaritan and a Jew in the original, but you have to translate because we don’t know what the heck a Samaritan is!

Or it could be a gay couple and a wedding caterer.

I don’t understand why this has gotten to be such an issue that we have to have legislation passed one way or the other. Look, folks, “love your neighbor” does not mean you have to like them, approve of them or endorse their lifestyle. But it does mean that your Lord expects you to act for their good, to treat them with respect and to deal with them as you find them, not as you wish them to be.

That goes both ways. Jesus expects me to love white supremacists and black lives matter activists equally. That sounds good in the abstract, but it’s really, really hard to do. My preferences and prejudices affect who I’d rather hang out with – or approve of.

I saw recently a reminder of something the Trappist Monk, Thomas Merton, said about love: “The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image.” He said if we only love what we wish them to be and not who they are at this moment, we do not really love them.

Maybe the bottom line question is whether we can trust God and stop trying to control people. Speaking just for myself – I don’t need to be protected from other people’s existence. God invites me to consider that my neighbor is – all of my neighbors are – another person made in God’s image whom I am called to love. When that prolific letter-writer, Paul, said look not only to your own interests, but to the interests of others, he didn’t qualify the statement with “if you approve of them.”

Clearly, we have a lot to learn and a long way to go. But God is patient. And God is love. For that, I am eternally grateful.

Relationship Maintenance

We’ve all heard the term “high-maintenance” used as a negative characteristic when it comes to a person with whom one is connected. Those people are draining, hard to handle, irritating.

But we do admit that every relationship takes some kind of maintenance. If I don’t pay attention to my marriage the relationship won’t thrive, won’t be mutual, won’t be loving. What would life be like with your partner if you thought only of yourself?

I saw a Tom Toles cartoon today that showed a globe. Each country was labeled thus: “America First,” “Venezuela First,” “India First,” “China First,” “France First,” etc. The little cartoonist guy in the corner says, “Where does that leave peace?”

Which sent me to the Bible to look up something in the letter to the church at Philippi. Advice from the Apostle Paul to that church was, “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.”

Well?

If there exists such a thing as “enlightened self-interest” that would be it. We will make our country great — we will make ourselves great — by loving our neighbors, especially the enemy and stranger. Peace on earth.

Governors

So, when I was young my father told this joke:

There was a young man driving an old, dilapidated bus on a Georgia highway, going way too fast. A State Trooper pulled him over. When the trooper approached the open side door of the bus he looked in at the young driver and said, “Son, ain’t you got a governor on this bus?”

To which the driver replied, “No sir. It smells that way all the time!”

I was reminded of that joke this morning when I heard Andrew Cuomo, the Governor of New York, proposing that we pass a law requiring governors on trucks on our highways to limit their speed. In case you don’t know, a mechanical governor is a device that can be installed on the engine of a vehicle to limit the maximum RPMs of the engine.

One ponders, though, the usefulness of governors and Governors!

Who Needs God?

A thought for the day: Someone said, “People who can buy or otherwise arrange for themselves everything they ever wanted for Christmas have no need of a God.”

I wonder — is my receptivity to God inversely proportional to my comfort and my ability to supply my own needs? The old hymn based on Psalm 23 says, “My Shepherd will supply my need….” What if I can take care of myself, don’t need to depend on anyone else, can insulate myself from the world and its threats? What am I cheating myself out of if I can live my own life without anyone else?

How much of God do I encounter only in relationship? I wonder if mystics only get to that point because they’ve been so grounded in the God who comes to us in community.

All of this reminds me of a song by Peter Mayer about Christmas Morning. After singing about all things one might want for Christmas, he says, “Then again, in light of life’s uncertainties, you may not find a single one of these. But, guaranteed, underneath that tree, you’ll find a brand new day begun, the ones who love you, the turning earth, and a great big shining sun.”

Those are, indeed, gifts of Christmas to be treasured by rich and poor alike, if only we know our need.

Season of Wonder

I read in a post by someone else recently that Gregory of Nyssa (a spiritual leader from the 4th Century) said, “Concepts create idols; only wonder comprehends anything. People kill one another over idols. Wonder makes us fall to our knees.”

People talk about Christmas as a season of wonder. It’s hard to be hateful and destructive if you’re lost in wonder, gazing in awe at a baby or another natural wonder. What if we thought of the wonder of Christmas as a spiritual discipline that we might cultivate and carry in our hearts to shape our manner of living?

What if we could look into the face of another human being and catch a glimpse of that baby, that miracle of life? What if we could see that before or despite the other fearful things we imagine?

May you carry wonder in your heart and soul today and always!

Everyone at the Table

The UCC “Still Speaking” daily devotional this morning said it as well or better than I’ve seen it. The writer reminded us that, according to Jesus, everyone belongs at the table. When he got invited to a fancy dinner at a Pharisee’s home, he used to occasion to teach about that.

She then made the point that when people say “Black Lives Matter” it means
– not only Black Lives Matter
– Black Lives don’t Matter instead of other lives, but
– Black Lives Matter too.

We won’t be OK until we treat everyone with the same standards. We won’t be OK until we realize that some people in our country are still treated as if they matter less. We won’t be OK until there truly is “…liberty and justice for ALL!”

So, you can’t be taught by Jesus that everyone belongs at the table without learning the political implications. Following Jesus is not a creed; it’s about how you treat people; it’s about how you love your neighbor as you love yourself.

Pearl Harbor, the A-Bomb, and My Father

The best thing about today, December 7, is that it is the birthday of my son, Allan, and of his grandmother, my wife’s mother! How cool is that? For a kid and his Gran to have the same birthday!

Of course, it is also the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, 75 years ago. At that time, my father was 18 years old, and a student at Georgia Tech. After war was declared, Tech cancelled summer breaks. Students went to school year-round in order to get more people trained more quickly in order to contribute now that the nation was at war.

By the summer of 1943, Dad was a graduate of Tech with a degree in Chemical Engineering. He started a Master’s program, but by the winter of 1944 his country was insistent that he do more than go to school. A combination of failing his draft board physical, his degree in  engineering and his father knowing someone connected with some important research, led my father to a job at Oak Ridge National Laboratory working with a group of engineers refining uranium. That uranium found its way into some of the first nuclear weapons.

When I was a child, a framed certificate hung in the hallway outside my parents’ bedroom that said something like: “To Robert A Pendergrast with appreciation for work contributing to the successful conclusion of World War II.” Dad never said much about it. When I would ask, he simply said that he worked in a lab that refined uranium. There was a little copper shovel sitting on the coffee table in our living room that was a tool they had used in the lab.

The only time I remember Dad talking about the bomb was once when I was older. I think I was in high school. The Viet Nam war was on and I, like many of my friends, was not eager to serve in a war that by the early 70s seemed like a dead end.  We were sitting on the porch and I asked him something about his work at Oak Ridge. First he said that the bomb had hastened the end of the war, and that it had certainly saved many lives that would have been lost had we invaded Japan.

But then he started talking about the night of August 9, 1945. When they heard in Oak Ridge about the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan, there was wild celebration, my father said. All his friends were cheering. “But all I could think about,” he said, “was all those people burned alive.” And he started to cry. “And all those damned fools were driving around honking their horns and drinking beer!” And that was about all he said. He didn’t get philosophical. He didn’t condemn the war. But he didn’t have to. He said it all. “All those people, burned alive, and those damned fools were driving around honking their horns and drinking beer!”

I wonder — does anyone really win in a war? If so, what have they won? And what have they lost? And, in our remembrance 75 years later, what is it we want to remember? What is it we want to forget, but can’t? The best reason I can think of for keeping the memory alive is so we remember the cost – of bombing, of being bombed, and of carrying the memory. And maybe, just maybe, if we remember the cost we will turn our energy more and more to the things that lead to peace.

Daily Prompt: Sacred

Words convey meaning. Words serve the purpose of those who utter them. Words can heal. Words can wound. Words can communicate the holy or the profane, the sacred or the selfish.

Every tradition has sacred ground. Speaking from my tradition, the concept of “sacred” is related to justice and righteousness. God is holy, and God calls all creation to share in that holiness, which is to join in the dance of communion, to look upon the other as part of the sacred dance. God has made us all and called us good. Our unending task is to look, to notice, to find the good in the other that is different and that complements, that supplies what I don’t know or have.

Careless speech is destructive of the sacred. To speak with contempt about any other part of creation is to spit in God’s face and to damage the sacred dance. It is with that in mind that I come to these words.

In the Gospel of Luke we read, “The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.” (chapter 6, verse 45, New Revised Standard)

Be careful, then, how you speak. And even more, be careful of what you put into your heart. What you fill yourself with will show itself in your manner of speech. If you fill your heart with profanity (I’m not talking about words so much as attitudes and intentions) it will show in your speech and deeds.

I have to confess that I am afraid when I listen to our President-Elect. How can a person who speaks with such contempt for broad swaths of the American public fulfill the role of national leader? Any marriage counselor will tell you that contempt will kill a marriage. It will kill the relationship between a public servant and the public. The president has a sacred trust to care for all of the people and to lead by example.

Please, Mr. Trump, don’t poison our national conversation any more with such demeaning words. Weak and vulnerable people need our care, not our mockery. Strangers need our welcome. I expect better of my president. And I hold out hope that we can restore a commitment to respect the sacred in one another.

via Daily Prompt: Sacred

What’s Next?

So we’re wondering what to do now? What’s next? Whatever you think of the results of the election or the process that got us here, I don’t know many people who are really happy about it. We’re glad it’s over, but it’s not really over. I think there’s a lot of work to do and I’m not talking about forming a Cabinet or a transition team.

I’m thinking about how to put some substance into this idea of unity, bridging divides, healing after all the hateful talk. You don’t just let it go. It stays inside you. Your anger and hurt doesn’t just go away. And a lot of people are afraid.

I remember the years I spent as an interim pastor. I planned and led events looking at congregation history, church culture, unwritten rules, hopes and expectations. I’d always tell people that the main purpose was not finding “the answer.” The main purpose was to get people together to talk and tell stories, to think about their life together, and to listen to one another. The biggest benefit was intangible. Something happened to the people in that congregation just by spending time listening to each other, especially after a conflict. The outcome eventually was healing. If we took the time to listen.

So my prescription for what to do next is to talk to each other. And I mean talk to people who didn’t vote with you, who posted things you were offended by, people about whom you make judgmental assumptions. I’m talking about hard work here. Listening to people whom you disagree with to try to learn why they think and vote like they do.

I realize that I’m giving myself more work to do here. Since I’m the pastor and I’m giving this advice, I need to walk the talk. I need to organize something to bring people together to listen and talk – across these supposed divides. So, hold me accountable. Help me.

My hope is that we’ll find common ground, that maybe we’ll change for the better, that we can decide to stop cutting each other down. In the end, I don’t believe in sides, in kinds of people. I’m idealistic enough to believe that we are all human beings and that we can find common purpose.

You know there are only two kinds of people in the world, don’t you? The kind who believe there are two kinds of people and the kind who know better!

We can only discover what’s next by exploring, talking to each other, and making a commitment to listening to each other and accepting one another with all our differences — as God accepts each one of us.

This Day

I woke this morning to the strange and surprising news of the US Elections. I was disappointed, yes, but more puzzled than anything. What does this mean? What deeper and larger hopes and fears led voters to this decision?

I imagine that, had the election had a different outcome, there would be people waking up today to strange and surprising news, and wondering why others voted the way they did. We do not all have the same experiences and perceptions. The heart has its reasons.

But, I’m not writing this morning to guess at or to judge the feelings and experiences of people I don’t know.

I want to remind us all of what has not changed.

This day is still a gift from God, full of possibility and hope, ready for us to engage and use our gifts, love our neighbors, reach out and build community. Our call as Christians is still the same as it was yesterday — to bear witness to the good news we have received, to live as followers of the One who gave himself for others. Our work, our job description, and the needs of the world have not changed. The places where the world is in pain still need a healing touch. The places where people are afraid and angry still need a kind and courageous word.

We may be skeptical of the leadership and direction these election results will bring, but let us be hopeful skeptics. And let us commit ourselves to build up and not to tear down. Our leaders and our candidates set us a poor example with campaigns full of personal attacks and disdain for one another. We can do better. We can work together to build a community that serves and welcomes all of its citizens.

This is not the end. This is simply one more day. A day God gives us and in which God invites to to love and work, to live with joy, compassion and hope.