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, lies 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, immigrants, 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 none 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 when I was pulled over by police that I was being profiled or that I would be shot if I took my hands off the wheel. 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. I became disillusioned with faith communities that had no interest in reaching out beyond their property line. 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.