Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Serpent

"Let us consider the first fifty years of our national history. There was never a moment during this time when the slavery issue was not a sleeping serpent. That issue lay coiled up under the table during the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention in 1787."
-- John Jay Chapman

If we were to examine the complete history of our nation, even to the present day, that snake is still present. Even through all our progress to a more egalitarian society, that snake, like the serpent in the Garden of Eden, lays coiled and ready to strike.  The toxic venom spewed out during the 2016 presidential campaign is proof of the serpent's enduring presence.

We might protest that in this day and age, in the 21st century, there is no slavery or open racism. But the snake takes many forms and has ways of blending in with its surroundings. It starts with the premise that some people are less than fully human. That there are those who are "three-fifths of other persons" (words written in the Constitution). The devaluation of people. This is the serpent's poison. This devaluation does not limit itself to a historically enslaved race. Any person, of any non-white color, and women, even white women, can feel the weights on the scales of justice tip against them.  Racism, misogyny, antisemitism, and xenophobia are just camouflaged forms of the same serpent.

I realize I am taking quite a leap to speak about injustice towards people of color, other religions, and women when I am non of these. How can I speak of things I have never experienced? I can't. But I can speak from where I have been. And that place is ignorance.

I have been ignorant of the privilege my gender, my race, and my ethnicity afforded me. I have never had to worry when walking alone, even at night, that someone would try to rape me. I have never had to worry that I was being profiled or been told "we'd like to look around in your vehicle". I have never had my Midwestern accent questioned nor have I been looked down upon as a "foreigner." I have never been persecuted because of my religion. I have never been profiled at the border because of my color or surname.

I was ignorant of the serpent. I would remain so until I went through a "conversion". It was not an instantaneous process. My conversion was a product of  disillusionment, searching, circumstances, experiencing the humanity of others, and my own choices. At lot of it had to do with my faith journey and how it kept bringing me back to words of Jesus. There was also disappointment. I joined up with people who were just beginning to reach out to the "least of these" only to watch my hopes dashed as they retreated to a safe insularity. Eventually I left that insular world. Circumstances in my career had an influence as well. As I met more and more people from other parts of the world I discovered their humanity. Then there were the writings of  Bonhoeffer, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, MLK, Mother Teresa, Victor Hugo, Coates, and Dorothy Day to name a few. Reading their stories and their insight into the heart of God softened my own heart. My work with like-hearted people and young men in a mission endeavor has opened my heart even more.

I have learned that the serpent sees vulnerability in our fears. Our fears are many: security, job, health, crime, and terrorism. The serpent knows these issues provoke our primal instincts. He knows where to strike. The serpent also knows the questions that lead us to doubt: "Did God really say?" But we can also remember these words: "Fear Not!", "perfect love casts out fear", and "love one another". Once I let my heart open up to the words of Christ, compassion towards others followed. Love overcame fear! I became willing to risk for others. I learned that the love of God is the only cure for the venom of the serpent.

Saturday, February 11, 2017


As the message of Jesus passed through each era and each reorganization of society, it acquired some characteristics of the culture at large. The first, most obvious examples are when Jesus' message passed from Jewish culture, to Greek, Roman, and finally to our present Western culture. Each culture absorbed it, but it too was absorbed by each culture.

Modern Western culture is nearly all about business and finance. The emphasis in our present society is on the "deal" or transaction. This philosophy has slipped into the church and has almost completely supplanted Jesus' message. Jesus' message (the Gospel) is so corrupted by this line of thought, that most believers assume the Kingdom of God operates like the marketplace. Quid pro quo.

For example, let's take teaching on Salvation. Many denominations teach that if you participate in some action or make a declaration of faith, you are "saved" . Quid pro quo. The "prosperity gospel" distorts Jesus' teaching still further, by proposing that if you give a "seed offering" of money, you will be blessed by God. Quid pro quo. Even in the Catholic tradition, indulgences are an older example of this thinking. All the while, though grace is taught, transaction is understood and assumed.

So, if Jesus' message was corrupted, what was His message regarding the Kingdom of God? And how does it differ from what our culture tells us? The best example I know is that of the Prodigal Son.
“There was a man who had two sons.  The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. 
“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. 
“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father. 
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 
“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate. 
“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ 
The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ 
“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”  Luke 15: 11-32

The younger son left with his father's name and money. Now he spent it all. He was broke. He had nowhere else to go. In his despair, he remembered the kindness of his father towards workers. His countenance brightened. He set out resolutely to return to his father's house. But he was not same man who left. He was transformed. He now understood the world's harshness, it's lack of mercy, and he recognized the love and kindness of his Father.

When his father saw him walking towards the house, his compassion overwhelmed him. He ran and embraced his son. He put a ring on his finger and threw a banquet to celebrate his return. Meanwhile the elder brother heard of his brother's return and was incensed at his father's lavish welcome. He protested to his father, "all these years I have served you, yet you didn't give me a goat". To his transactional mindset, the father's grace made no sense at all. And as long as we remain in a transactional mindset, it will make no sense to us either. We will continue act according to the rules of the market.

But Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God operates differently. You can't buy it directly. Oh, you can buy the field that contains it. But you can't give anything in exchange for it. The Kingdom of God and the Love of God are transformational. There is no prerequisite to receive it, save one. We must be emptied of the power and inclination to transact. No deals. Often this process requires suffering, loss, and disillusionment. With the old ideas bankrupt, we are open to new possibilities. This has been my journey. 

Sunday, January 29, 2017

History is Repeating Itself...

The executive orders issued this week banning travel to the US to building a wall, brought to me a flood of emotions from sadness, to fear, to anger. I thought about my very existence. My father fled Poland during World War II through a number of countries, finally ending up in the US. His father, mother, and sister did not make it. Except for my sister, I have no surviving relatives on my father's side.

As a young man, I worked in a TV repair shop (yes, we used to fix them).  I made many service calls to Polish neighborhoods in southwest Detroit. In those days, very few homes were air conditioned. In the summer heat, my customers wore light garments with short sleeves. From time to time I would see numbers tattooed on people's forearms. We would briefly look each other in the eye without a word. No comments were necessary.

I married the daughter of immigrants. My entire family is built on immigration. So yes,  I get emotional when talking about immigration. 

Today, I live and work with a multitude of ethnicities. I have been welcomed into the homes of Muslim families. I break bread and share drinks with coworkers and neighbors come from all over the globe. Some own businesses that employ people and in so doing, multiply the GDP of this nation. All of these people are hard-working, tax paying citizens. And good neighbors. This is the rich DNA of America. This is an existential issue. If we deny immigration, America will die of a self-inflicted wound.

So in this new climate, I worry. I worry about my neighbors and co-workers being profiled. I worry about their families. I worry about them when they travel outside our borders that another arbitrary order will come down and block their entry. I worry that history is repeating itself. 

Singling out an ethnic or religious group as an "enemy" is the beginning of road that humanity has been down many times. It is a time-honored political strategy to create an "enemy" and make them the object of fear and derision. America is better than this. And, if America is not better than this, then we should dispense with the pretense. That we are a nation of immigrants. Once we shut the door, we are not. That we are a "Christian" nation. If we bar the "least of these", then we are not. We have denied Christ.

On the Statue of Liberty, there is a plaque and inscription by Emma Lazarus:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
If we bar the "tired, poor masses" who have been huddled in refugee camps for years, who have fled unimaginable violence, then we should give the statue back to France. We are not deserving of the gift and the honor it bestows.

Or perhaps we will wake up to what is threatening to overtake us.  We will become politically active. We will join forces and stand up for what is good and right about America. Because if we don't stand up for what is good and right about our country, we will lose it.

Friday, December 30, 2016

The Kingdom of God is People

Those of us who are old enough will remember Charleston Heston's role in the dystopian sci-fi classic "Soylent Green". The movie was titled after a fictional nutritional substance that humanity depended on for survival. In the movie he plays an detective who investigates a murder. He follows the evidence to its end. When he realizes the truth, he belts out that iconic line, "Soylent Green is people!"

In many ways this movie was a product of its time. The era produced an entire genre of post-apocalyptic movies. Certainly they were all a  commentary on our fears and self-destructive tendencies. Perhaps even on consumerism's endpoint where we consume ourselves. Those would all be a topic for another blog. For now I want to focus on "people".

Throughout His ministry, Jesus tried to convey truths about the Kingdom of God to people. Think of all the metaphors Jesus used to describe "Kingdom of God". A treasure  hidden in a field. A pearl of great price. A mustard seed.

When he sent his disciples out, he instructed them to say "The Kingdom of God is Near". He never told them how to describe or define this kingdom. They were simply to announce it's nearness.

So what is the Kingdom of God? What was it that Jesus alluded to, told parables about, announced the presence of, but never directly defined? It was hidden in plain sight, right in front of everyone. The Kingdom of God is people! People following Jesus. It's that simple.

The Kingdom of God is people following Jesus. They adhere to his teachings. They follow his example. If Jesus said "love your neighbor", then they love their neighbors. If Jesus said be kind and hospitable to marginalized people ("the least of these"), then his followers are kind and hospitable. If Jesus said forgive enemies, then they forgive their enemies. If Jesus said "love one another as I have loved you", then his people, kingdom people, love one another.

The Kingdom of God is built with rejected and marginalized people,  the people no one else wants. Jesus' followers love them,  re-humanize them, and build a family out of them. That is how the Kingdom grows.

The only evidence of this Kingdom is the lives of its people. Their disposition and actions towards others. When people are re-humanized by Jesus,  have their dignity restored, when people feel like people in the presence of Jesus' followers, the Kingdom is near. Because The Kingdom of God is people!

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Advent - One Single Change

"Something burns in our hearts that would gladly come out.  Something often flames up in our soul that we would like to call out to all people — a question, a complaint, a word of defiance, a rejoicing, a stark truth — something of the sort that a person simply cannot keep to himself, once it is there. It saddens us to be so alone, to be unable to share with anyone what moves us....Above all it saddens us that we are so cut off from each other, that there are always such different worlds — you in your house and me in my house, you with your thoughts and me with mine.  This is simply not the way life is meant to be, this separate life we all lead.  But with one single change we could have infinitely more joy and good fortune and righteousness among us, if we could open our hearts and talk with each other." - Karl Barth "To Believe" Advent Meditation 

As Advent 2016 approaches, I am brought back to this reading. Again it is as if Karl Barth's message was a personal letter to me and to so many of us. Barth describes a fire in our soul that finds no outlet for expression.  He laments our isolation, how each of us inhabit separate dwellings. When we do venture out, we mute our desire for heartfelt conversation. We are afraid and resort to small talk. Barth compares this to Zechariah's muteness after his encounter with the angel.  This is the isolation of modern society. For if there is no one to hear our voice, to share our griefs and joys, then how are we even alive in a way that makes us human?

That is why Christ came into the world, to make us human. To re-humanize us. But to do this, he had to experience the world with all its barriers and isolation. His entry into the world began with a frantic search for somewhere to enter it. Door after door was shut on them until at last Mary and Joseph had to settle for a stable.  Instead of being welcomed into the warmth of a household, Jesus was welcomed into the chill of night air among the animals. An event which should have been shared with family and friends was shared with strangers, shepherds in the fields who were called by the angels.

There was no peace on earth for the child Jesus. Shortly after his birth Herod attempted to kill him. His family fled to Egypt and waited there until Herod's death. Because Herod's son ascended to his father's throne, his family bypassed Bethlehem and settled in Nazareth. His family had to settle in a strange town and make a life there.

The story of Jesus' family is a story many in this world can relate to. If you can't relate, take a moment, close your eyes, and imagine yourself as the target of ethnic cleansing or your city bombed into oblivion. Imagine running for your life. Imagine travelling at night through the woods. Imagine taking rickety boats to cross rivers and seas. Imagine giving your life savings to smugglers to get you through to safety. Finally you arrive at a safe place but in that place you are a foreigner. You don't speak the language. People stare at you. You keep your head down. You feel isolated. Dehumanized. Rejected. Again the barriers.

God, incarnate in Jesus, could barely find a way into this world. Once here his life was in danger. He became other, vulnerable as anyone  could be in this world. Yet he came anyway. He demonstrated hope aginst insurmountable odds. He crossed the barrier between heaven and earth, between God and man, between man and man. He "destroyed the dividing barrier of hostility". In his person he brought the Kingdom of God to earth. 

We look back and romanticize his coming with all the cultural trappings accumulated over the centuries. We celebrate the miracles that happened so long ago. Yet the miracle awaits each of us. The words he spoke still echo down through the centuries. The challenge: Follow me. The miracle happens in our lives the moment we take up that challenge.

When we decide to follow, our preoccupation with tradition, gifts, token alms, and what is written on our coffee cups fall by the wayside. We fix our eyes on Jesus and his path. There will definitely be barriers. Following Jesus, we dare to cross them. Following Jesus is "one single change" after another that combine to form a path. A narrow way. We change our habits and practices. We notice people. We linger a bit longer in conversation. We listen, We knock on a door for the first time. We mend fences. We forgive. We notice the pan handler, not to fling a coin, but to ask his name. It's not easy, but it is the only way. We can take courage from those who have discovered the words of Jesus and followed. Some have written their journey down. We should read their stories. In the end, their journey began with "one single change".

Monday, October 17, 2016

A Full Life

Michael P Zissimos

October 18, 1984 - December 30, 2014
October 18th is my nephew's birthday. He would have been 32 years old. I do miss him. Not just because the empty chair at family gatherings, but because of who he was.

Mike had a heart for special needs individuals. He had worked with the special needs ministry at his church. He also helped brain-injured adults relearn computer skills at his prior position in a rehabilitation facility. In reading posts on his memorial page, I came to realize how many people he helped. He didn't talk about helping people, he just did it. Mike loved God and he showed it by loving people.

Mostly I spent time with Mike as we gathered formally for birthdays and holidays. We saw a lot of each other informally as well. His childhood home was only half a mile from our first home. In the summer we often walked to his house.

Our get-togethers continued after he grew up. We had each other over for dinner. We went to the Detroit Auto Show. We traveled to Chicago together to visit his cousins. We enjoyed the attractions of downtown Chicago, especially Shedd's Aquarium.

Mike was a Detroit sports fan through and through. Like all Detroit sports fans, we complained about the Lions. We enjoyed ballgames at Comerica Park and that one last Wings game together at Joe Louis Arena.

Mike was also an avid motorcyclist. He used every opportunity to ride. He was a member of a riders' group at his church.

Mike liked superhero movies and parties.  Though I'm a "wet-blanket" when it comes to parties, I dressed up as Clark Kent for his 30th.

Mike had a Greek heritage,  but was fond of only only one Greek dish...lamb chops. So from time to time, Uncle Alex barbecued lamb chops for Mike.

I learned about many of the good things in Mike's life after he was gone. The qualities that made him special. His heart of gold. The small and largely unknown acts of kindness. It seems that we only hear and appreciate the good qualities of a person when they are gone.

"Strange isn't it? Each man's life touches so many others."
- Clarence (It's a Wonderful Life)

Mike's life had meaning and value. He gave meaning and value to those who may have had no value to society or who may have felt they lost their value. He added meaning and value to my life. So how do we, how do I,  honor his memory?

Forgive now...we don't know if we will have another opportunity
Love now...we don't know how long we have with others
Live now... Don't wait until the future...we don't know if we have it.

Mike's life was short, shorter than it should have been, but it was a full life, because he loved.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Why am I Here? Perhaps as a Warning

I am the son of a refugee. My father fled Poland in 1939 just days after it was invaded by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Horse-drawn artillery and wooden biplanes had no chance against the mechanized forces of two world powers. He decided to flee to Romania. As fighter planes approached to strafe those fleeing, he dove into a ditch for cover. He felt the repeated thump of machine gun bullets impacting the ground. After the planes left and he felt it was safe to get up,  he arose to discover every other person in the ditch was dead. He just happened to be in the place that was between rounds.

I can't help but be a student of history, since my life is the product of it. It seems so ironic that I owe my existence to the rise of demagogue. Eighty-three years ago in Europe a man rose to power on the promise of restored national glory, renewed economic prosperity, and the defeat of foreign and domestic foes. He knew how to channel the public angst into wild-eyed devotion. Crowds were spell-bound before him. There was only one catch....enemies had to be named and destroyed. The rest is history, so to speak.

So pardon me when I sense a darkening cloud casting its shadow over our country. A demagogue has arisen who knows how to work a crowd. He has said he will "Make America Great Again".  He has blown by all boundaries of civility, all the lines that his opponents and predecessors would not dare cross. The truth of what he says does not matter. His character does not matter. That he has stiffed countless people that have worked for him does not matter. That he says outrageous things about minorities, women, and even veterans is excused as forthrightness. He has named our enemies which somehow all happen to be people of color. He has talked about mass-roundups, internment, and deportations. He has talked about the exclusion and public marking of religious groups. He has talked about legitimizing racial profiling and searches. He has talked about muzzling the press because "they say bad things" about him.

Some of us are going to vote for him because we believe in him. Some of us are going to vote for him because we despise "her". Some of us will vote for him because we are afraid. Some of us are going to vote for him because he has thrown us a bone about some issue dear to our hearts. Some of us are going to stay home because our candidate lost the primaries. Some of us will stand on principle and vote third party. We will say to ourselves, "so what if he gets elected, we will only have to put up with him for four or eight years. What have we got to lose?" Everything!

Let's not delude ourselves about constitutional limits and protections or that we are a nation of laws. Constitutions, amendments, and protections of the law operate under the assumption of  a collective good will. That if things don't go my (our) way, we will live to fight another day through the legal process and perhaps through a change of national conscience. In our past, universal suffrage and the Civil Rights struggle were able to advance in this way. In our past however, there have also been reversals:  the Japaneses internment, Communist witch-hunts, and the Kent State massacre, to name a few. It doesn't take much to throw constitutional protections out the window when it suits a collective national will. Just a little fear will do it.

So why then am I here? I very nearly was not. Perhaps I'm here as a warning. History does repeat itself.