Exposing the Cracks

Posted: September 2, 2017 in Uncategorized

I am now reading  David Brooks’ moral fishing expedition The Road to Character (Random House, 2015).  This is his own quest for some moral compass in the midst of a culture that has lost one. In particular he is looking for a larger set of morals for the public square, not an overly individualized version. And where does one go to find that, especially when the traditional role of religion has been minimized in that regard? Where do narcissistic people turn after they have caved in upon themselves? His answer is to select characters of virtue who exhibit admirable qualities, all shaped differently by different influences. They are often flawed heroes. But they could be called inspirations, examples. Reading this book is pleasurable and uplifting mostly due to the biographies. As to guidance for a moral system it is a bit like dragging a magnet through file shavings, picking up random fragments as we go.

In the section on George Eliot the author described the Victorian era in which she lived and how rising science caused great consternation and varying reaction among religious people: “Science was beginning to expose cracks in the Church’s description of human creation.”(155)

The response to this state of affairs moved in a variety of directions. For laced up Victorians one answer was to double-down on the moral front, living more restricted than ever. Some Church people moved back to the ancient way of things, reclaiming a more medieval form of worship, buildings and piety. Some moved inward to the place of personal devotion and mysticism. Others moved outward in social relevance by addressing the evils of society. Others such as the Diests sought out the universals of truth without tying them to dogma or religious structures; God the divine clockmaker has set things in motion but is relatively uninvolved in the ordinary way of things. Figure it out, said they, and move as a moral person in the world the best you can.

In moments of transition such as these do the faithful isolate in order to affirm and claim tradition and the truths the value? Do they engage in order to become more relevant? And if so how do they maintain the balance between honoring their own center and finding a faithful response in the world?

We all have our blind spots, our unawareness of influences, both past and present. In reading these descriptions I became aware of one of mine. I grew up in a religious community that leaned on tradition to articulate the universals of belief and practice and also a kind of enlightenment rationalism that engaged with all arbiters of truth. In other words our responseto the dilemma of Eliot would be to constantly reassess the sources of truth, both religious and secular. Science is not to be avoided but rather engaged with. Social contexts are meant to be explored and entered. And all this while continuing to look through some kind of spiritual lens, the universal sources of truth within and without.

When the cracks are exposed we move inward, outward, upward and forward. The answer is in the future, as the Process theologians would say. It is yet to appear. And we should not be afraid.

What are your influences, past and present? Where do you lodge your authority? How do you negotiate the truths of tradition and the demands of the present moment? What do you do when the cracks are exposed?


What IS Labor Day, Anyway?

Posted: August 31, 2017 in Uncategorized

When I was growing up I would ask my parents why there was a federal holiday the first weekend of September and they really couldn’t tell me, at least not very well. They weren’t union and didn’t know much about the labor movement to begin with. So for them it was something generic about the dignity of work. Work was good for you and it was good to be industrious. They praised the Protestant work ethic. Then grilled on Monday.

What they didn’t share were the deplorable conditions for workers preceding the labor movement in our country. Wages, conditions, hours, children, unemployment insurance – all of these things were routinely ignored by powerful employers. It wasn’t until collective bargaining, strikes and legislation that the lives of workers were honored and protected.

There has always a tension between management and organized labor. That was due to more than profit margins and impact on the bottom line; it had to do with ownership’s desired autonomy to do whatever it chose to do. Restrictions, standards, mandates and money created conflict. It often became violent.

Over the past few decades the power of the unions – and membership in them – has declined overall. With that decline the wages and benefits of unrepresented labor have also stagnated or declined.

Over time powerful political entities have methodically stripped away power from the workers. Corporations talk about valuing their labor force but decisions are routinely made that pursue exactly the opposite course. In fact, as workers’ wages have declined upper level management’s salaries have skyrocketed, creating huge and increasing gaps. That is one of the reasons why employee loyalty is now at very low levels. Today they can’t count on the kind of security that middle income Americans assumed as recently as a generation ago. They no longer expect to hold a long-term career in the same organization. Morale sags and so does production and innovation.

Of course, there are many shining examples of companies that have responsible investment in their workers. Investing in staff and workers is always the critical first step in making sure that an organization performs at high levels and the labor pool is dependable. It shows in these company’s bottom lines. The organizations that are built to last, to borrow the phrase, know how to do this. A living wage is a start. So are health insurance benefits. And a retirement.

We make a mistake if we consider these issues of labor, employment and wages as only political matters and business concerns. These are actually moral issues that have to do with our understanding of the dignity of work, the social contract between management and labor, and fairness in the treatment of workers. Just watch when tax reform comes before our congress. Watch carefully and ask who the proposed changes will benefit. Ask yourself if it represents a benefit to the broad middle of our society. I believe we will be shocked by the bias. And it will not be a bias toward the worker.

Until we restart valuing workers in a real way I suggest that we just cancel Labor Day. We can make up another reason to have a long weekend. But let’s not pretend that we have the same appreciation for the rights and well-being of workers that we used to before we started devaluing them. Let’s not pretend. That would be, now what’s that called? Oh yeah, hypocritical, that’s it.

This is a moral issue.

Last Saturday I joined with other interfaith clergy to staff a booth at our local Columbia, Missouri Pridefest. It was a large well-attended event. Our booth had a simple concept: We were offering blessings. The form was a kind of glitter paste we would apply to hands, foreheads or cheeks. Lots of people seized the opportunity.

Of course there were those who declined, maybe one-third of those passing by. Some may have been like me, not wanting to get glittered up. For most of the crowd that was not a problem. I suspect others carried grave suspicions about religion in general, so receiving a “blessing” from a religious stranger represented maximum threat. I’ll pass on this one.

Many others presented themselves with curiosity or even longing. All ages responded. They chose their color and where they wanted it applied. And then a pastor gave a simple blessing, something like, “May your life always be filled with peace and joy; you are loved; you are a child of God.” That was typically followed by big smiles and gestures of appreciation. Some were moved to tears. Without having the luxury of long conversations I can imagine why.

For some who had no religious background to speak of this was intuitive, the interior longing for transcendence that many of us have in native ways. They know there are sacred things out there that are mediated by people, events, and experiences. This was one, and if they risked it, they found something, perhaps the tiniest affirmation. It meant a great deal to some. They closed their eyes and soaked it up.

For a smaller number this was a reaffirmation of something they had misplaced or lost, a memory from childhood. Some said explicitly that they hadn’t had touch with church since they had come out or been rejected by a church. One woman sobbed. Her partner said that she was a preacher’s daughter and had lost it all. And now she was given this little gift of love and faith.

Though I still wonder how to reach to the margins to those who have been forgotten or rejected by society and have my doubts about how well mainstream churches can reach out, there is something here. We have to go to them not the other way around. Love has to be the real currency. And probably those within their own community need to do the reaching. It’s an open question. There are so many unsafe churches out there and the LGBTQ community is rightly cautious. Many churches say “welcome to all” but when people enter they discover the opposite under a thick coat of religious varnish.

My favorite response came from a man who said that he really needed a blessing. He was struggling with depression and couldn’t lift up and out. He said that he grew up a very fundamentalist Christian and simply couldn’t stand the rigid and judgemental way of faith. When we said that love is the answer and that we fully accept those in the LGTBQ community he asked, “So you love Jesus? And you also love us unconditionally?” When we answered yes he said, “Amazing! So you can love Jesus and not be an a%$hole?”

That gave us a laugh. But it also told a truth. He and many others equate the two,  Christians with a%$holes. That couldn’t more sobering right now, considering what Christians are doing and how. But that gives us our charge. We have to demonstrate that it ain’t necessarily so. I love Jesus. And I really don’t want to be, well, you know.



Charlottesville Prayer

Posted: August 16, 2017 in Uncategorized

A prayer offered by Rev. Nick Larson, a colleague who serves with me at Broadway Christian Church in Columbia, Missouri:

“O Gracious God,

I come before your throne with a heavy heart, looking for words to share, because I am afraid. I’m afraid of what has happened in Charlottesville, Virginia. Violence, hate, bigotry was on full display, as some gathered to ‘unite the right.’ They brought shields, clubs, polo shirts, tiki-torches and blood-curdling menace in their hearts. And it brought fear. Terror was spread, white supremacy was channeled into overt interpersonal violence.

O Spirit of Comfort we need your presence in that place and in this place.

As we turn this to you, I admit, I am struggling; I am struggling because I see such evil on full display. I am struggling because those people gathered for hate were people of my generation, they looked like our co-workers, our colleagues, our brothers, our cousins. People I know and love, who also have white skin and wear polo shirts.

They are people who, like I was, were raised being taught the evil done by generations before…taught about gas chambers, of burning crosses, and of hanging trees. And yet their thought was not of the tragedy or horror… but…saw those perpetrating those evils and thought they had some interesting ideas. They want to see all that hate of generations past return. And they didn’t even bother to wear hoods.

And yet, even in the midst of the stream of images that filled our screens. I saw ones that stood against it. I saw a powerful image of a black officer, standing at a barricade protecting the very men that want his rights taken away. This, O God must be a drop of your tears washing away this hate.

And yet, even in the midst of this perversion of humanity, some tried to stop it. Local business owners; city officials; the university; thinking people; compassionate people; decent humans and citizens. They tried to stop, or at least change the venue for this disturbing display of hatred and racism that marched through their streets. This, O God must be a drop of your tears washing away this evil.

And yet, even in the face of silence, some spoke out. My screen was filled with everyone from neighbors to preachers to most politicians denouncing these supremacists. Calling for healing, uniting against hate, people calling out to you, lamenting this tragedy. This, O God must be drops of your tears washing away out divisions.

For if I know anything, I know you are weeping. For you are not racist, you declare us all your children. For you do not condone hate, you lay down your life in front of it. For you do not rank us, you call the first to be last. For indeed, you call us not to wield power over others, but instead to exercise restraint.

So may your Spirit and tears rain down upon Charlottesville, and all the dark corners of our world where hatred resides, may it come like a rushing river to wash away that which hides each person’s divine beauty. May it transform the hearts of protesters, for without it I fear they will be lost to hatred forever.

And May we, here, gathered far away from that place, choose you, so that we do not allow this evil to take root. May we each find the voice to call out in lament to you and lift this before you. And so this morning we pray.

For every pastor, rabbi, imam, chaplain of all stripes and any other caregiver who will have to pick up the pieces in Charlottesville tomorrow and going forward…

For every professor at UVA who will have to make sense of these last few days while teaching biochemistry, physics, humanities, and all other manner of classes…

For those wounded in the violence and for their healers; for the witnesses; the warriors; the perpetrators…

For the families of those who have died…particularly the family of Heather Heyer who was savagely ripped from this world by a mad man…

For clergy and students gathered, standing against hatred and racism, we thank you for their courage and passion…

For everyone who still lives there and will have to face the threats in coming days…

And for this nation that we may once and for all confess, repent, and tell the truth about this sin that threatens to destroy us all…

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

I am reminded of the words of your prophet Isaiah which calls us to see the new things you are doing…and yet, My God, after events like this, I have a hard time seeing how you are going to make a way through this desert, how will you bring a river in this wilderness, how will you transform hate and terrorism like this and make it new?

So we do, what we do, we turn to you, so that you might be the one to lead us to new life. We confess that in this darkness it is hard to see the goodness of your world; when all we see is hardship; all we feel is despair; all we face seems hopeless. We confess that without you, we only seem to bury that goodness. Without you, we too despise and reject what is different, what seems useless, what doesn’t help us in our immediate need.

And yet, with you, we know hope. With you, we know that we are not alone. With you, we know that your goodness and mercy will be with us all the days of our lives, including this one, leading us into eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.”




“Moral Inversion” is the way that evil deflects truth-telling so that it will not be exposed.  It does so by claiming that up is down, white is black, true is untrue and untrue is true. Most often evil distracts by blaming others.  Recently in events and language surrounding Charlottesville evil deflected attention from the cancer of the KKK, Nazis and White Supremists by charging that the crowd protesting that evil was really the problem. “Poor, poor white supremists – how persecuted they are!” Moral inversion is also accomplished by creating false equivalencies: “There are really two sides to this issue, good and bad are on both sides. You’ve got Hitler and his truth and Ghandi and his. It’s all a matter of how you view it.”

The corrective to attempts at moral inversion is direct truth telling by trusted eye witnesses. In Charlottesville clergy gathered to provide flesh and blood presence and witness, a faithful opposition to the subculture of hate and racism in our society. One of our Disciples of Christ ministers, Jeff Moore of Webster Groves Christian Church in St. Louis, was there and one of those witnesses. I share his eye witness, first person account at the fateful rally:

“Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ, By now you have heard news and seen images of the chaos in Charlottesville as white supremacists brought their hatred and violence to threaten the people there. I was present, along with many interfaith clergy, students, and concerned citizens, and saw first hand the ways in which armed neo nazis and neo fascists attempted to intimidate people of color, lgbtqi people, and the entire city.

The good news is that the people of Charlottesville were not intimidated, and, as we clergy sang and chanted as we protected people and held the street – “love has already won.” We clergy were present to provide a prayerful witness against this hatred and to speak and demonstrate God’s love for all. We were also on hand to aid first responders and help calm and move the crowd as more than a dozen people were injured and one woman died as the result of a hate-filled hit and run into a crowd. Two people also lost their lives in a helicopter crash late Saturday afternoon.

I saw hundreds of people stand for love and peace – offering food, water, medical care, and supportive presence. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to call out and resist injustice, and to love courageously and compassionately because God infinitely loves us and all people. We must continue to speak and act for the dignity and liberation of all those who have been targeted by racist, homophobic, fear-filled evil. What happens in Charlottesville, and in all places, matters to us as people of faith because, as Martin Luther King, Jr. has said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Please continue to keep the people of Charlottesville in your thoughts and prayers as they care for one another and continue to actively resist those who would spread hate and violence.”

Jesus and White Supremacy

Posted: August 13, 2017 in Uncategorized

It’s Sunday, and of the remaining practicing Christians, a rapidly diminishing company, many will be in their houses of worship this morning, praying, singing, preaching, communing. On the surface of these many different traditions within the Christian household, even with the differences, you see much of the same thing going on. On the surface.

When it comes to how these many stripes of Christians relate the faith to personal lives and our social situations there are large culverts that separate them. They may all love Jesus but the Jesus they love is portrayed in surprisingly different ways. And the derived moral sense from this portrayal of Jesus is also very different.

So if you happen to be a Christian this is a conversation for you. If you’re not maybe you can tune in to understand why it is that people who supposedly bear the same name – Christian – look and act so radically different.

Let’s go for the low-hanging fruit first. Many just use the faith label while not seriously considering the content of the faith. They have a worldview to which they are already disposed and find religious sounding mottos to endorse it. This has created some of the worst behavior throughout history. We see it today among the Christian identity movements like the KKK and Neo-Nazis. They have nothing to do with Chrisitanity. They delude themselves.

But those are the easy ones. No one outside of their recycling echo chamber of hate buys it. The hard ones are the least observable. You will know them by their fruit and how they address recent events in Virginia and elsewhere shows their true colors. You will discover it in worship. Will they ignore the hatred and bigotry? Will they somehow rationalize the behavior and make excuses? Will they denounce such speech and actions on the one hand but continue to practice it in a thousand other ways at the same time?  And the big one: Do they endorse and support political figures, legislation and policies that continue systematic discrimination?

My Christian friends of many kinds:

Jesus was not a white supremacist.  He was not even white. And he was not Christian. He was a Jewish peasant living in the midst of a brutal occupation. He found and proclaimed God in the midst of all that. He was killed for denouncing religious hypocrisy and governmental oppression. We love him for it. And we fear what following him will require of us.

What it requires of us today is clearly opposing all that which is not the way of love, everything that is unjust and fueled by hatred. What it requires is putting our lives – our security, reputations and comfort – on the line. This of course means that we have to draw a distinction between the way of Jesus and the cultural values that we breath in like the air around us. The distortion of our hearts and minds – what we Christians have called sin – keeps us from reflecting the divine life and speaking of it. Today and every day we will either take a stand for the radical way of Jesus or not.

Taking this stand means being very clear about what is and is not the way of Jesus. Our voice is important. And faithful teaching and preaching and shepherding will help people know what is and is not the path. This will take lots of courage. We will need to encourage and pray for one another. We can’t do it alone and yet each one must do it alone, make the moral decision alone.

Where do we stand? I hope our answer will be that we stand with the one who made our lives oh so much better but also more dangerous.

Can you imagine Jesus participating in anything like the hatred we witnessed in Virginia yesterday?  Or in hatred and violence of the centuries? Of course not.

Denounce it, good Christians. Don’t participate in it yourselves.  Dare to pronounce a reign and kingdom of God that includes an entirely different vision. If we will we will not end up a part of the popular masses of Christians who make Jesus into an icon but don’t follow him. Refuse to do that. If we will our reward will be found in a conscience and heart at rest. Remember that after the cross comes resurrection. And it may take a cross.


If you mean it, Mr. President

Posted: August 12, 2017 in Uncategorized

if you mean what you say about bigotry, hate and violence in Virgina, Mr. President, then dismiss Steve Bannon immediately. He and others like him represent and create the source of these problems.

While you are at it declare that racism is not welcome in our country in any form. Denounce it. Especially among elected leaders.

Do not court global leaders who exemplify those same vices.

And then cease referring to violation taking place “on many sides.” There is only one side of the evil underbelly of our nation. Denounce it. Do not reinforce it. And do not welcome them into your camp.

That is, Mr. President, if you mean what you say.