Tag Archives: religion

A Gentile Goes to a Passover Seder

For almost two years now, I have spent my Thursday mornings at a local synagogue, joining them for Torah study. It’s been a wonderfully rich experience for me to study the Bible with my Jewish older cousins of the faith. Their wisdom steeped in centuries of ancient tradition has given me a whole other perspective from which to understand scriptures our two religions both revere as God’s Word to be read, trusted, and lived out. Just as important to me have been the new friendships I’ve made with my Jewish neighbors. I’ve come to admire their dedication to be faithful Jews within the framework of a religion that contains so much beauty, mystery, and meaning.

So a few weeks ago as I was walking out of Torah study, one of my classmates asked, “Chris, do you have someplace to go for the holidays?” He was asking about Passover. I loved the way he asked that. I’m a non-Jew– a Christian, a Gentile. Of course I’m homeless for the holidays! When I replied that I had no plans, he and his wife invited me to their Seder. I happily agreed.

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The Seder plate, place settings, and the cup of Elijah

As a Christian, I have been somewhat familiar with the Passover Seder. After all, our sacrament of Eucharist (The Lord’s Table), derives from the Seder celebrated by Jesus and his disciples. There are the scriptures from Exodus which lay out the requirement for Israel to observe the Festival of Passover with unleavened bread, bitter herbs, lamb, and a recollection of God’s deliverance of the Hebrews from their bondage in Egypt. Several years ago at a previous church, we put together and held a Seder meal, based on a Haggadah (the Seder ritual book) and experiences of members who have Jewish family members.

But I knew this would be different. This was the real deal- the Seder meal of a Jewish family, something which they have inherited and practiced over their lifetimes down through the lifetimes of countless generations. I was really looking forward to a treat like this.

My son Jacob and I ended up going together. I wasn’t sure how Jacob would do. He’s 8-years-old and has Down syndrome. There would be a lot of people, commotion, and food and rituals he didn’t know over a long, late night. For my son, that could very well have been a recipe for disaster.

The evening came and we arrived at my friends’ home to the rich smells of food cooking and the mirth of a house full of family and guests. Hor d’oeuvres, drinks, and conversation filled our first hour. Lots of last-minute cooking preparations were brewing in the kitchen with women rushing here and there to take food out of the oven and fill platters. Kids were hanging out together munching on vegetables, matzo, and various dips.

About an hour later, folks started to gather around several tables pushed together to accommodate about 25 people for the Seder. Plates, silverware, napkins, glasses, platters and bowls with matzo, maror, charoset, and salt water were all meticulously arranged and set. Copies of the Haggadah were stacked on each end of the tables. Like typical families, there were intense negotiations around who would sit where and who was serving what. Once settled, the Passover candles were lit, and we began reading through the Haggadah.

Reading through the Seder Haggadah was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced as a Christian. It was highly scripted. Certain things are done and said at prescripted times. And yet, as with any family gathering, the kids got the giggles, sometimes we got confused about who was reading what, and the occasional, “Hey, you’re not supposed to drink your wine right then!” Yet the whole thing rolled along with a force and intentionality that had the weight of centuries behind us. It was the perfect blend of unmovable tradition with family dynamic eccentricities.

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Jacob at the Seder

It took about an hour to work our way through the Haggadah leading up to the meal. Jacob was doing amazingly well. Other than a soda, he hadn’t had a bite to eat. I couldn’t convince him to try any matza, and I didn’t even bother getting him to try bitter herbs or charoset! By this point we were well beyond our regular dinner time and even creeping past his bed time. I felt a melt-down on its way when finally we were served a very traditional hard-boiled egg which we were encouraged to eat with salt water. Jacob ate some of that. Then came the matzo ball soup. I wasn’t sure Jacob would eat it, and he wasn’t either, but by this time, rubbing his belly and beginning to cry, I think he would have tried just about anything. Jacob devoured the soup!

Then the meal proper was served. It was the largest family meal I have ever seen. Like any traditional family meal, every dish was a revered family recipe highly anticipated for Passover. There were four different meats, several traditional Jewish vegetable dishes, salads, plenty of wine, and deserts.

Following the meal there are traditionally many other prayers, including two more cups of wine, but this family typically doesn’t get around to that. No matter. Their obligation to keep the Passover- eating matza, maror, and offering the pesach- were kept and fulfilled. We remembered God’s faithfulness and God’s power to save his people time and again.

It was very late when Jacob I left. My friends’ house was still filled with family and guests eating desert and enjoying each others’ company. But the feelings from the deep impression that Seder made on my mind and heart still linger. It was a rich evening in every respect, and long into the night I kept thinking about how my son and I were swept up into a tradition that dates back to Moses and the Israelites in Egypt.

Much has changed with the Seder through the centuries, especially after the destruction of the Temple right before the turn of the first century C.E. Even as I try to imagine Jesus and his disciples having their Seder the night before he was crucified, I know that the ritual Jews follow today is substantially different from what first century Jews practiced. Some of the prayers and practices, the liturgy, and even the foods are different. One major difference is that Jews today rarely if ever use lamb for their Seder, even though the Bible commands it. With the exception of a roasted shank bone on the Seder plate, the absence of lamb is out of respect for the absence of the pascal sacrifices which discontinued after the destruction of the Temple.

Still, I sensed the emergence of a long, long tradition of prayer, questions, telling the story, eating unleavened bread and bitter herbs, psalms and songs, the strains of which stretch back through the millennia. The effort alone, based on the biblical obligation to keep the Passover festival and to keep it holy, which has been kept sacred through Israel’s long, long history, carried through times of peace, persecution, homecoming and exile, even the horrific devastation of the Holocaust- the holy commitment to keep the Passover has remained unchanged. The power of it surged to yet another incarnation with an annual Seder meal within one more Jewish home, a perpetual meal in which Jacob and I shared a taste, on that first night of Passover.

One last thought: at the great banquet table of God at the end of time, I would like to think that in addition to our celebration and singing, there would be plenty of wine, charoset, potato kugel, brisket, and my friend Joyce’s sweet potato tzimmes on the table. Short of that, their Seder was most definitely a slice of heaven.

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Life in the New World, 20 Years after a Death

img_205020 years ago on this day, February 8, 1997, my fiancée Diane Michelle Thompson died in a car accident while driving to work. It was in the early morning, and the roads were icy. Diane lost control of her car when she slipped on a patch of black ice. Her car crossed the road and slammed into a telephone pole killing her instantly. She was just 22-years-old. I was a month away from my 23rd birthday.

Diane and I had been engaged for almost 2 years and were 4 months away from our wedding day. In fact, we were just about to start addressing our wedding invitations when she died. We had already purchased our wedding rings.

I distinctly remember that morning. At around 8 AM, Diane’s work called to see if I knew where she was. (She sometimes went to work from my house, and I was an emergency contact for her.) That call concerned me a little, but then again, Diane was never known for her promptness to much of anything. Still that was late, even for her. I told them I hadn’t heard from Diane, but to please have her check in with me when she got there.

A little while later, the phone rang again. It was Diane’s father.

“Chris,” he said. “It’s Mike. Listen, I’ve got some really bad news.”

“Really? What’s wrong?” I asked. Mike had a stoic, matter-of-fact way of talking about most things, but I could sense tension in his voice. This call was for something quite different.

“Chris, listen… Diane was on her way to work. Her car slipped on the ice and she got into an accident. She didn’t make it,” he said.

I paused a moment, not sure how to gauge what he just said. “Didn’t make it? Well, what do you mean? Is she alright?”

“No, no, you don’t understand,” he said. “She. Didn’t. Make it.” Suddenly the ominous weight of what Mike just said sunk right into my skull.

“You mean… She’s dead?” I asked. Those words fell out of my mouth lingering there in a vacuum of disembodied space.

“Yeah…” he mumbled. I closed my eyes. I don’t remember the rest of the conversation.

The life I had known up until that moment quickly vanished. When I opened my eyes again, it was like I found myself vaulted into an alternate universe. I had no idea where I was or what to do. The same people and surroundings were still there, but with Diane suddenly gone, it was all a mere shell of what used to be. I was scared, paralyzed, lost. Before me was a dark, murky future I didn’t know and didn’t want. I was taken captive into a whole New World, and at first, I did all I could to break free from it. It was a world without Diane, without all my hopes, dreams, and plans. It felt like a barren wasteland of vague memories and shattered expectations.

I wanted to wake up and go home.

†††††††

20 years later, I find myself in this same New World. I have since learned to embrace it and thrive in it, and I’ve received the unique gifts it has offered me, most especially its lessons about life and death. This New World reminds me how fragile our existence is and how uncertain our tomorrow is, if it even exists at all. This New World insists on doing whatever is most important Today, while it is still Today.

And like the cherubim who guard the way into Eden with flaming swords, my New World doesn’t let me enter the Old World gardens of What If, Should Have Been, and Could Have Been. Once in a while I find myself wandering over to see if I can catch a glimpse into those Old World gardens. I think about where Diane and I would be if she were still alive. What would she look like now? What would our children be like? What memories would we have made together?

But then the phone rings. I get a text. My wife or one of my children calls my name, and just as quickly, I find myself back in the New World where I belong. It’s certainly not perfect or ideal. (Then again, taking off my rosy lenses of reminiscence, the Old World with Diane wasn’t exactly perfection, either- far from it.) 20 years ago, I wanted nothing to do with this New World, but now, I can’t fathom my life without all that God has given me since. I have a beautiful wife, companion and partner named Blairlee. I have three beautiful children- Kathryn, Grace Elizabeth and Jacob, all gifts from God in this world into which God had a hand in bringing me.

With that said, I have a strange confession: in a way, I will always love and miss Diane. At first glance, that may seem scandalous, even pathetic. How could I love and miss a person who is dead while being a happily married husband and father?

The most powerful lesson this New World has graciously taught me is this: love, true love, never ends. Love adapts and changes, as it should. Love brings about different ties and obligations over time. For example, I will always love my children, and I’m imagining that I will miss them when they venture out on their own to begin their adult lives. Yet my love for them, properly evolved, cannot keep them from living as full-fledged adults. In a similar vein, that’s where I find myself with Diane. I still love her for the woman she was and for the enormous impact she has had on my life, before and after her death. I miss that she’s still not here among us, most especially with her parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. And while not teetering too far into Old World longing, I recognize the truth that if Diane were still alive, we would be married, our lives looking quite differently than they do today.

But that’s where New World love and grief meet a healthy conclusion. I do not long for a ghost to jettison me from the life I have inherited as a result of her tragic death 20 years ago. (She wouldn’t tolerate that foolishness anyway.) As we say, “Life goes on.”  At times, it is a stoic determination to keep one foot in front of the other, and at best, a grand celebration that death has been swallowed up in the victory of life. Either way, as Peter Gabriel once wisely sang, “life carries on, and on, and on.” Indeed it does.

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Why Bother with Churches Full of Hypocrites?

(The following is adapted from a sermon I preached on Sunday January 22, 2017.)

“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

“Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.

“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”

‭Matthew‬ ‭23:1-13, 15, 23-28‬

As I thought about today’s topic- the claim made by many non-religious skeptics that the church is filled with hypocrites- I could not avoid this passage of scripture. It’s harsh. It’s very difficult to read, and believe me, it’s even more difficult to teach and preach. And yet, the jarring parts of the Bible which perplex and disturb us are most likely the things we need to hear the most.

The more I read today’s passage, the more I’m convinced that this body of Jesus’ teaching was preserved very intentionally to admonish the whole church. Jesus allows us no room to sit in idle condemnation of other people, whether it’s the Pharisees of yesterday or today. This passage stands as a mirror to the Pharisee ensconced in each of us. It’s a warning, a gut check, a spiritual reality check.

img_1185Even then, Jesus was not condemning or writing off these fellow Jews. Of the major Jewish sects in his time, Jesus was most at home with the Pharisees. Jesus shared the Pharisees’ commitment to faithfully live out Torah in the world. Jesus shared their theology, especially the Jewish belief in the resurrection and the kingdom to come. So Jesus was not addressing the Pharisees as an outsider rebel rouser railing against an evil establishment, but as a likeminded Jew. This was very much an in-house confrontation.

As Jesus confronted the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, I don’t hear stern anger or harsh pulpit pounding. I hear despair and deep disappointment. I do see anger in Jesus’ words, too, but it was anger from a broken heart rather than righteous indignation.

Hypocrisy…  In essence, hypocrisy is claiming to be something I’m not. It’s a deception, a living lie. I become a hypocrite when I insist on a virtue I do not possess while hiding behind a plastic mask of righteousness.

Hypocrisy is driven by one thing: fear. It’s the fear of confronting my  whole self- both the good and bad, my angels and my demons, my purity and my impurity. It’s the fear of others seeing and confronting the real me. It’s the fear of being unloved, under-valued, and under-appreciated.

And when it comes to the world of spirituality and religion, hypocrisy is particularly ugly and all too easy to find. It’s our most costly liability. We people of faith hold up very high standards of values, virtue, and righteousness. At times we prophetically challenge evil and unrighteousness in our world. So when we act in contradiction to the life of faith and righteousness we profess, especially when our duplicity wounds other people, our hypocrisy becomes terribly egregious.

When Jesus called out the egregious hypocrisy of the Pharisees, he pulled no punches. He accused the Pharisees of showboating their religious practices and adornments to impress the masses. He chastised their scrupulous interpretations of religious law while flatly ignoring more pressing issues of justice and mercy.  Jesus called out their painstaking efforts to fulfill every public religious obligation while blinding themselves to their inner corruption.

Look at that list. Little has changed!  Today’s people of faith can be just as showy and pompous with their religious practices while typifying that old adage of being “so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly good.” People of faith often excel in outward appearances of religious dedication while relegating the brokenness within them to the back closets of denial.

ghosts handWorse still, most people rarely own up to their hypocrisy. That’s because an honest confession of hypocrisy is an admission to living a lie. The illusion has been delusion. Feigned substance has been a wispy shadow. That’s why the typical reaction to a charge of hypocrisy is to lob the accusation right back at the accuser with an incensed retort of  “Who do you think you are to judge me?”

Other than a denial-infused response, how can we disciples of Jesus Christ best respond to the skeptics’ charge of hypocrisy? It’s very simple, actually: own it.

It’s been my experience that the harshest critics of the church, those who readily point out our hypocrisies, have been significantly wounded and deeply disappointed by the church. For many of them, I’m sure it’s cathartic. It’s also a way to mobilize a resistance against our malevolence.That said, we make matters worse when we respond to our critics by saying things like:

“That doesn’t describe me or my church.”

“That happened a long time ago.  It’s time to move on and get over it!”

“You are talking about those other Christians who give a bad name to good Christians like us.”

Those kinds of statements are simply other shades of denial.

Non-Christian skeptics keenly see something about us that we sometimes fail to see about ourselves. They know that Christians everywhere and from every era are bound together as the church. And they’re right. We would also say that each of us are a part of the living body of Christ, a body that encompasses everyone who has been baptized into the faith of Jesus. That would include saints and villains like St. Francis of Assisi and an American South slaveholder, Dorothy Day and Fred Phelps, Sojourner Truth and Pope Urban II (who called for the First Crusade), the many Christians who turned a blind eye to the Holocaust and the Venerable Andrey Sheptytsky, a Ukrainian Greek Catholic archbishop who risked his life housing hundreds of Jews escaping Nazi persecution. All of these Christians and all the rest of us share in one church, sharing both our great good and our terrible actions and inactions.

We must therefore listen to those who hold grievances against the church, acknowledge them, ask their forgiveness and God’s forgiveness, and commit ourselves even more fervently to be like Jesus.

In his book Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, Donald Miller writes about his experience of being a Christian campus minister at Reed College in Oregon, a liberal, humanist college whose faculty and student body by and large regard organized religion with a high degree of disdain.

Every year Reed College holds a weekend of unbridled revelry called Renn Fayre. On the last night, they lock out any authorities to spend the entire night partying, getting drunk and high with the option painting their naked bodies blue while running around campus.

Donald Miller and his friends decided to be there for that final night and set up a booth with a sign that said “Confess Your Sins”. There was a catch, however. If any students approached the booth, the participants inside the booth would spend time confessing their sins and the sins of the church to these students. A student named Jake gave into his curiosity and visited the booth. Donald Miller shared with him who they were and why they were there. Once Jake expressed an interest, Miller confessed his sins to Jake:

“There’s a lot. I will keep it short… Jesus said to feed the poor and to heal the sick. I have never done very much about that. Jesus said to love those who persecute me. I tend to lash out, especially if I feel threatened, you know, if my ego gets threatened. Jesus did not mix His spirituality with politics. I grew up doing that. It got in the way of the central message of Christ. I know that was wrong, and I know that a lot of people will not listen to the words of Christ because people like me, who know Him, carry our own agendas into the conversation rather than just relaying the message Christ wanted to get across. There’s a lot more.”

“It’s all right, man,” Jake said, very tenderly. His eyes were starting to water.

“Well,” I said, clearing my throat, “I am sorry for all that.”

“I forgive you,” Jake said. And he meant it.

“Thanks,” I told him. (Miller, Blue Like Jazz, 123-4)

Miller recalled that most of these confessionals ended in tearful embraces. Indeed, God melted hearts, most especially those belonging to Donald Miller and his friends. That night was a major turning point in their lives.

img_1177This kind of humility and authenticity is the perfect antidote to the poison of hypocrisy. It is strikingly unusual. It’s an uncanny abasement of ego and arrogance that defies reason. But this is indeed the kind of selfless love- the only kind of love- that has the power to change hearts, beginning with our own.

It’s my prayer that we who claim the name of Jesus would be a people of his cross-shaped grace, that in the face of criticism, we would offer an attentive ear and an open mind. I want us to be a people who utterly reject pretentiousness and defensiveness to claim an honest heart that remains open and ready to offer God’s love and grace to anyone. I want us to be disciples of Jesus who, instead of merely wearing a cross, choose to bear his cross, thereby being transformed into a new creation of humble servants who love and bless all people with God’s uniquely selfless, self-giving love.

We see that love most perfectly in Jesus Christ. May others perfectly see him in us.

Amen.

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What Happened to the War on Christmas??

It just occurred to me that with the advent of Christmas, something has been conspicuously missing.

img_1131This year there are no angry warning blasts about the conspiratorial War on Christmas! Barely a peep. Every year we hear rants and laments about how our godless culture is removing any religious semblance of Christmas out of the mainstream, to the point that we can’t even mention the word “Christmas” anymore. We’re appalled at retail chains for their “holiday” sales and their “Happy Holidays” banners. We’ve been urged to boycott these stores. Schools and public places are taking down their nativity scenes and silencing Christmas songs, replacing them with paltry “Winter Holidays” political correctness. Christ has been Xed out with “Merry Xmas”. Santa has pushed Jesus aside, too.Heck, Starbucks doesn’t even mention holidays or snowflakes on their coffee cups! Poor Jesus.

What is the world coming to??

But this year, all those familiar gloom and doom refrains have been MIA. Why?

I’ve got a theory: there are weightier issues to fret about. The Middle East is edging towards the brink of explosion with Syria being the fuse. We’re on the other side of the most negative, bitterly divisive Presidential election we’ve ever faced in our lifetimes, leaving many people angry and scared. The EU is close to collapse. More of the world is opting for a nativist, nationalistic populism. Our economy is nowhere near stable. We’ve battled over marriage and bathrooms and sitting out the National Anthem.

When it comes down do it, we are so easily distractable. We talk, post, and tweet about whatever storm, real or fabricated, that happens to be raging in the news and social media. Meanwhile yesterday’s storm is long forgotten. (Ask someone now if the dress is blue or gold and watch how many confused responses you get!) Today, all it takes is a few prominent voices to broadcast a storm warning, i.e. “There’s a War on Christmas,” to get the masses debating the issue.

But this year other storms have taken center stage in our public debate, and no one has taken up the War on Christmas cause.

All in all, our distracted silence demonstrates what a silly issue the War on Christmas has been, and how ridiculously shrill the demonstrators have sounded.

Look, here are some basic facts:

  • I can politely wish someone a Merry Christmas and not worry about being condemned, arrested, or assaulted. If I’m extra polite, I can avoid doing that with folks I know don’t observe Christmas. (After all, who has ever come to Jesus after being plastered with “Merry Christmas” greetings?)
  • I can set up my Christmas tree and nativity scene, put lights on my house, and even set up Christmas stuff on my lawn without fear of the government charging me for religious expression.
  • I can freely go to church and celebrate Advent and Christ’s birth and Epiphany, knowing that my government protects my right to worship as I choose.
  • If it so offends me, I can choose not patronize stores or restaurants that refuse to acknowledge the word “Christmas”.
  • I can write any number of blog posts, columns, editorials and books, and organize demonstrations to end any War on Christmas. However, I cannot stop anyone from calling me an idiot. That’s their right, too.

Frankly, I’m relieved there’s no War on Christmas storm warning this year. That has given many of us tremendous freedom to simply tell and live the good news of Jesus’ birth without having to compete for bandwidth with the doomsdayers. Many of my fellow Christians undervalue the compelling message of Emmanuel, God with us in Jesus Christ, especially when it’s shared humbly, passionately, and in a way that connects with our lives as they are:

God is faithful to keep his promises. God loves us and comes to us just as we are. God was birthed right in the middle of our broken messes to bring us love, grace, forgiveness, and a renewed relationship with him. The greatest gift we’ll ever know is the friend, Savior, and Lord we can have in Jesus. The birth of Jesus is more powerful than any one religion because anyone, anywhere, of any race, culture, or belief can discover him.

Isn’t that awesome? Why rant about a so-called War on Christmas when we’ve got a living treasure that has captivated human hearts for nearly 2000 years?

So… next year, can we make it two years in a row that we don’t bemoan the death of Christmas? Please? Instead, let’s learn and relearn how to tell the glad tidings of good news for a world longing for any kind of good news.

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After The Election, Will You Be a Divider or a Healer?

Barring an election night dispute, on Wednesday morning we will wake up to a world in which the 45th President of the United States will be President-elect Donald John Trump or President-elect Hillary Rodham Clinton. When we head out for the day, almost every person we meet will feel elated and optimistic or scared and angry. The rest will have slumped into an apathetic “whatever”.

We can also expect that the President-elect will have to work with a divided Congress, nation, and world.

The Senate will most likely revert to Democratic control while the House remains under Republican control, meaning that whoever is elected President will face the same potential for gridlock and who-will-blink-first-showdowns we’ve seen for the past six years.

Outside of the Washington, the President-elect will face an American population more bitterly divided than at any time in our history, second only to the tumult leading up to our Civil War.

Beyond our shores, he or she will face a Middle East on the brink of region-wide war and nuclear proliferation, a crumbling European Union, the continuing rise of China, a North Korea with expanding nuclear weaponry, and a growing Russian geopolitical domination that has been decisively anti-western.

During times of such peril and division, we look to our leaders to be the great problem solvers and peacemakers. Yet how many presidential and congressional candidates have we elected to “fix the mess in Washington” and provide leadership to the free world, only to find them mired and absorbed into the same messes? It proves that our leaders are a reflection of We the People, and if we are divided and unable to resolve our own conflicts, how can we reasonably expect the politicians we elect to do any better?

img_1030So no matter who becomes the next President-elect this week, you and I will have an equally critical choice to make. Will we be a divider or a healer? Will the things we say, the attitudes we harbor, and the way we treat our neighbors and our leaders stir up further division or offer a balm of healing? While our choice of the next President will be highly consequential to our country and world, the way you and I choose to carry on in the wake of this election will be even more consequential. It’s a choice each of us will make, intentionally or unintentionally, and our choices will reverberate for years to come.

I think we all know what divisive behavior and attitudes look like. So let me offer some ideas on what a healer looks like.

  • Healers carefully measure how they talk about leaders with whom they disagree and the folks who vote for them. Instead of launching ad hominem attacks, resorting to shrill cries that the sky is falling and the antichrist has arrived, or parading around unchecked, unsubstantiated statements about the other side, healers listen and then calmly share their views with the intention of establishing common ground.
  • Instead of looking at the other side with incredulity and spite, healers try very hard to understand what others are saying and what drives them to say those things. Healers empathize with what’s at stake within opposition voices, even when they disagree with how opposing voices see the challenges in our world and their proposed remedies.
  • Rather than taking to social media to spout off their political and social views, which really takes no discipline or real courage to do, healers think twice about what they post. Healers aim to share things that move their social network to think deeply and join in respectful conversation.
  • Instead of attacking the character, intelligence, and perceived motivations of leaders they disagree with, healers respect the office of that leader and offer alternative ideas, even passionately, with the motivation of reaching consensus, not victory over the opposition.
  • Rather than mocking and vilifying opposition voices, healers make every opportunity to engage in meaningful conversation based on respect for the other.

All of this points to a critical question: after this election, will you be a healer or a divider? If you say “neither” while complaining about our divisiveness, your abstention vote goes right to the dividers. Those who sit in apathy and quiet cynicism are just as deadly to our communal health as the ones who are actively dividing us. They simply add to the negativity.

So… in the post-election season, I’ve got several ideas for you to try.

First, if you can’t control your propensity to gloat or rant on social media, do the rest of a favor and go read a book, take a long walk, or sign out for a few weeks or months. Please.

Second, find someone who voted differently than you and have lunch. Make it your goal to learn more about their desires, fears, hopes and dreams. Then establish some places for you both to come together. Short of that, just listen to understand. It will be worth it.

Third, trust that no matter what happens, people are people, and so are you. If you can’t identify with other people- the “them” people- on some basic level, then make that a worthwhile goal. Listen and identify with people on their terms. Sure, if you do, the partisan dividers will call you weak-spined, unprincipled, a sell out, etc. Whatever. Any effort you make will bring healing to our nation and world.

And remember, anything we do to bring healing to our nation and our world, no matter how small or quiet, will indeed make a huge difference, mostly because there are so few healers out there. But you and I can be one of them, if we dare to have the love, courage, and grace to do it.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
‭‭Matthew‬ ‭5:9‬

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Trying to Be Reasonable in an Age of Hotheaded Sloganeering

Facebook is a funny place to be sometimes. That’s funny as in weird, conducive to eye-rolling, and even downright frustrating. All you have to do is dropkick any public issue into the fray and watch what happens. Every issue becomes hot-button. People post and repost memes and videos to spout off their views. If you have a view, you probably have a hashtag. (Hashtags are the new bumper sticker.)

DebateAll of this is symptomatic of folks talking at each other and past each other without truly listening to each other. Many of us don’t seem to have the time or the interest to have open, respectful conversations anymore. Or perhaps our cynical natures have written that off as a worthless endeavor. Some tip their hat to it and dabble in a meaningful conversation here and there, but then go right back to ranting out their viewpoints.

This is an angry, fearful, sardonic, pessimistic era in which we live. We question and make assumptions about everyone’s motives. If you voice an opinion, prepare yourself for the backlash. Everyone wants to be heard, but few choose to listen. Compromise is a pathetic word for sellouts and the noodle-spined. Humor and sarcasm are barely distinguishable. And any attempt to be a calm voice of reason in this climate requires an endless supply of patience and persistence. I’m finding that out for myself.

Now I don’t want to saint myself as the wise, reasonable one among a crowd of sinful loudmouth partisans. I don’t want to be the curmudgeonly hermit who holes himself away as the virtuous remnant of reason. In other words, I don’t want my contributions to unwittingly add to the swarm of negativity I think I perceive in others.

But if we’re all going to behave differently, we have to diagnose the problem and give it a name. The name I give it is Hotheaded Sloganeering.

  • Hotheaded– easily angered, easily offended, quick to jump to conclusions about the opposition
  • Sloganeering– the repeated use of soundbite-sized arguments and statements to solidify support for a view or a cause

For example, last week I wrote a piece about Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem. I offered what I thought was a reasonable approach by saying that Kaepernick is well within his rights to free speech, and that what he did represents the very best of our American liberties for which many have fought hard to protect. Note: I did not evaluate the merits of Kaepernick’s actions or the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of what he did. I simply hopped off the bandwagon of criticizing Kaepernick’s fundamental rights as an American to not honor his country’s flag or anthem in the name of protesting the injustice of racism.

However, I’ve since then heard a lot of the following: “Sure, he has the right to do that, but he shouldn’t have. If he’s a real American, a grateful American, then he should be standing for the country who lets him do that. He should be barred for doing that. He’s totally out of line. If he doesn’t like this country, then he should leave it.”

And then I heard others say, “All you flag wavers are always telling black people to protest peacefully. Kaepernick does, and you demonize him, too. You just want black people to sit down and shut up, or in this case, stand up and shut up. That’s because you feel threatened if black people should rise up and become equals to you.”

[Sigh…]

While we’re busy shouting at each other we’ve failed to see that we are all trying to figure out the same thing- what it means for America to be America and for all of us to be Americans with dignity. Racial equality and patriotism. Two aspects of this same issue. Yet people take their aspect of choice, hold it up high as the sole battleground of the American struggle, and charge full steam ahead.

Meanwhile we find ourselves caught in a web of cognitive dissonance, character assassinations, and competing angles of the same issue.

The only way to break this logjam of unreason and disrespect is to make a concerted effort to experiment with another tactic. Humility.

Humility is tough to pin down because the moment we think we have it, we’ve probably lost it. That results in a self-assuring pride parading itself as humility. There’s a lot of this false humility out there, and I have to admit I’ve been found guilty of possession, too. Yet despite the lesser angels of our nature, I have discovered that the test for genuine humility is the ability to listen with the purpose of understanding.

Let the guard down. Put aside fear and suspicion. Bring a curious mind and heart. Look for reasons to respect different voices. Be open to the possibility that our ingrained presumptions are incomplete and inaccurate. Let others be themselves and show grace towards the unintentional things they do or say that cause us pain. At the same time, learn where others’ wounds are and the unintentional things we say and do that throw salt into those wounds. Respect that those wounds are real. Expect that the way forward will take some time to discern and that it will be a lot more complex than we think. Hang in there, anticipating that there will be some bumps and bruises along the way. But if we can do all this, the way forward will be life-giving and will bring more of us onboard together.

It’s tough to be reasonable in this age. Peacemaking is not for wimps. Sometimes it seems like an elusive quest to find people who will partner with us and stay in it for the long run. However, I’m convinced that no matter the issue or challenge we face, our work will stand the test of time. It will certainly long surpass the shallow notions and futile efforts of all the hotheaded sloganeering we hear around us… especially on Facebook.

 

 

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Is It un-American to Sit Out the National Anthem?

There are very few things closer to the American spirit than football. If anybody wants to see quintessential Americanism, they need to hang around during football season. They’ll get a dose of American hyper-competitiveness, parties, wagers, fist pumps, plenty of yelling at the TV and just 60 minutes of the fun, fast brute violence of highly paid gladiators slamming, pushing and scraping for points on the gridiron. Now that’s America. (Oh yes… Go Skins!)

Equally American is a certain pre-game ritual at almost every sporting event. For a few moments there is absolute silence as a lone voice performs one of the most difficult songs for a vocalist to sing, our National Anthem. One is expected to stand, gentlemen to remove their hats, and face the flag while placing their right hand over the heart. That’s the standard thing for any American citizen to do. At the bare minimum, everyone in attendance is expected to stand as a sign of respect. Refusing to stand is often scorned as dishonorable and decisively un-American.

Or is it? Can we give that another look?

The American experiment has been a struggle between competing values. That has built our greatness and has continued to define American excellence. For example, at our founding, we made a radical declaration that all people are created equal with inalienable human rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; meanwhile 20% of our population were forcibly enslaved. Even after the abolishment of slavery 151 years ago, we have still struggled ensure equality and dignity for all African-Americans. That struggle has pushed us to live into our credo.

Another example: We want and need efficient representative government, but there’s also this keen vigilance in the American spirit to be on guard against any governmental intrusion into our lives. We celebrate our freedom and rugged individualism while despising even a hint of tyranny. However we expect our government to protect those freedoms and “promote the general welfare”, with force if necessary. Just don’t tread on me.

Colin KaepernickRecently a national football player put himself into the middle of another clash of competing American values- American patriotism vs. our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech. Enter the San Fransisco 49ers starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick, a very talented athlete who at times has been no stranger to controversy.

During the playing of the National Anthem at a preseason game, Kaepernick refused to stand with everyone else. His sit out was widely noticed and roundly booed. Later he stated,

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

As expected Kaepernick has been fiercely criticized for his sit out of the National Anthem. People have accused him of being un-American and furthering disunity. We’ve heard the usual refrains of, “If he doesn’t like our flag, he’s free to leave.” “There are thousands of soldiers and sailors who have died under that flag protecting his freedoms. He’s dishonoring them!” And of course, the internet trolls came out en masse to graffiti his Twitter account with racial epithets.

Were Kaepernick’s actions and statements justified? Was his behavior un-American? Those are two separate questions.

Without commenting here on the justifiability of Kaepernick’s sit out, I do say this:

Colin Kaepernick’s conscientious sit out of the National Anthem demonstrates what is best about America.

There have been and continue to be kingdoms, empires, and nations who would have severely penalized Kaepernick’s behavior as disloyal and even treasonous.

But that would never happen in the United States. In fact, embedded in our founding documents are Kaepernick’s rights to freely speak, even against his own country. He can pontificate. He can refuse to participate in patriotic exercises. He can even burn the flag of the country who guarantees his right to do so. And while he does any of that, his country’s law enforcement and entire legal system stand by to arrest and prosecute anyone who threatens his wellbeing or his ability to speak freely.

As a Christian, I have had brothers and sisters throughout the centuries who been restricted by their government to assemble, worship, and speak out when necessary against the evils and injustices of that country. I am blessed to live in a nation that protects my right to conscience, even if my loyalty to Jesus ever kept me from participating in patriotic exercises.

That reality alone builds my pride in what is best about America.

So Colin, as a fellow American, I salute your right to sit out our National Anthem as a very American thing to do. For my own reasons I won’t be joining you, and later on I might share why. But in the meantime, you have my support to exercise your conscience. I will defend you for it, too. But far more importantly, the United States of America, including those who defend and uphold your liberty, stand behind you, too.

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