Week One in Trump’s America

trump-winWe are in Bizarro world now, where unless someone hands you a pamphlet entitled “I’m a White Nationalist: Ask Me How” you cannot suggest that they have troubling ties to white nationalism. I know that many people are enjoying this new climate, where all evidence is dismissed as leftist fear mongering, but some of us have to live in the real world where people that we love – I mean, not just people that you see on TV or that one guy in the IT department whose name you can’t remember – but people who are actually precious to us, are threatened by the climate that Trump helped to create.

No, I’m not a dummy: Trump didn’t create racism, sexism, or xenophobia. Our country was born in a paradox – a revolutionary declaration of the equality of all human beings offered up by a country that rejected that equality in practice. Our entire history has been a series of forward motions and switchbacks when it comes to treating each other as equal before God, before the law, in community with each other. And Trump’s campaign wasn’t just a switchback. It has the potential to be a complete reversal of direction. He chose his rhetoric and his surrogates. He knew what he was doing. I don’t actually think he did it because he, himself, is a vehement ideologue. I think it was political pragmatism. If there is one thing that Trump’s entire life shows, it’s that he uses people to gain what he wants. It’s not about principle. It’s about him.

But now real people – white nationalists, anti-semites, MRAs and more – have been emboldened by Trump and his victory. They believe this is their country now. I know, because they’ve spent the last week telling us. And real people – racial, ethnic, religious and sexual minorities and more – are in greater danger, are feeling disheartened, displaced, afraid.

And many of you, Trump voters, say out of one side of your mouth that you are not racist, not sexist, not interested in harming immigrants, or oppressing Muslims. You voted for Trump because (fill in the blank with SCOTUS, trade agreements, Clinton’s corruption, etc.). But out of the other side of your mouth you refuse to acknowledge that Breitbart News has been a platform for the Alt Right – even though Steve Bannon himself SAID it’s a platform for the Alt Right. You refuse to believe the Alt Right even exists (“What even is this thing you liberals keep whining about?”) When major news outlets report spikes in racist incidents, you blame it on media lies, or wonder if anti-Trump forces are doing these things for attention. When you hear about specific episodes involving people or places you know, you say, “But those are just isolated incidents.” Then you accuse us of being divisive, negative, not “accepting” the results of the election.

I accept the outcome. We voted. I know how the electoral college works. Donald Trump is going to be my president, and I hope and pray that he becomes a better person as president than we’ve seen up to this point. I believe that’s possible.

But when he appoints his children to head his “blind trust” and also to positions within his administration, I have reason to worry about corruption. When he appoints Kris Kobach to be his immigration strategist, I have reason to worry about millions of my fellows residents who weren’t born in this country, and the millions of refugees who even now are seeking safe haven around the world. When he appoints Steve Bannon as his “Chief Strategist”, on equal footing with his Chief of Staff, I have reason to remind you that Steve Bannon has troubling connections to white nationalism, anti-Muslim, anti-woman and anti-LGBT rhetoric. How can Trump be a unifying president for all Americans while having THAT guy whispering in his ear? White supremacist groups get it: they’re celebrating this election and these appointments. If they can see it, why can’t you?

I might also point out that this white nationalism (or ethno-nationalism) is part of a backlash sweeping across Western Europe. This was never happening in isolation. This was never just about abortion or email scandals.

You can absolutely be a Trump supporter and not be a bigot. But you can’t be a Trump supporter and not a bigot while also turning a blind idea to bigotry in the inner circle at the White House. You can’t be a Trump supporter and not a bigot while pretending you’re not smart enough to connect the dots. And you can’t be a Trump supporter and not a bigot while telling people like me to sit down, be still, be quiet, be positive.

This has been one of the worst weeks of my life as I’ve tried to come to terms with what half of this country just said to my family and to other people I love. I am angry. I am afraid. I am wounded. I am estranged from white Evangelicalism. But I’m not going to be quiet. When Trump acts in a way that honors all of us (as he did when he told people to stop harassing Muslims and Hispanics) I will acknowledge it, and thank him. When he threatens my “family” (and I mean that in a much broader sense than just my children), I will speak up. If you are a decent person, I expect you to do the same.

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A Donald J. Trump Link Salad

no trumpI never blog anymore: I just rant on Facebook. But today I’m going to use this platform to share a few links about our newly anointed Republican nominee for president, in an attempt to consolidate my ranting. Then, of course, I’ll share this on Facebook.

For the last year I’ve been fretting about how terrible candidate Trump is for the country. Note, not just how terrible he will be as president, but how terrible, horrible, no good, very bad his candidacy has already been. Emboldened by “tells it like it is” Trump, all of the worst people – racists and xenophobes, sexists and homophobes, bigots and violent scary zealots of every kind – have come crawling out of their squalid basements, showing their twisted faces to the world as they rave about taking America back from “them”.

Mind you, I’m not describing all Trump supporters, just certain ones. Ones that urinate on a homeless man, or beat peaceful protesters, or fantasize about naming White Supremacist communities after Trump. You know the type.

We’ll be seeing more of those Trump supporters if Donald J. is elected. I predict the Brexit phenomenon will be in full effect, with minorities paying the price. To the victor goes the spoils, and if Trump is victorious it may spoil everything.

Okay, not everything. I’m exaggerating, perhaps – but by how much? Do we really want to find out? It would appear that some of you do. You’ve decided that Trump is God’s man for the hour, even though you are not a racist – don’t be silly! – and anyway, he’s better than Clinton, amirite?

I don’t want to see what America becomes under this “America First” candidate, but I’m only one voter and all of my rants seem to have changed zero minds. In fact, I’ve watched with dismay as many of my “Trump is gross” conservative friends have, one by one, climbed aboard the Trump train. I will never get on that train. In fact, I’d suggest you stop talking to me about the Trump train. It evokes all the wrong images, and reminds me of someone who, reportedly, made the trains run on time.

Anyway. Here’s a recent collection of things that you might want to read about Trump. Strike that:  these are things I want you to read about Trump. I do have an agenda! These pieces seem to me to offer solid evidence for why this man should not be the President of the United States. Your opinions may vary, but if we elect him I want the record to show that I tried, dear God, I tried. I did everything I knew to do to keep it from happening. You don’t need rumors or conspiracy theories with Trump: you only need to track with what he’s saying and doing. We’ll never be able to say he didn’t warn us.

  1.  “Donald Trumps Ghostwriter Tells All” from The New Yorker
    Some people might find it concerning that the man who really wrote “The Art of the Deal” considers Trump a sociopath and worries that his election might “lead to the end of civilization”.  But, you know, you be the judge.
  2. 141 Things Donald Trump Has Said and Done That Make Him Unfit to Be President from Slate
    Trump says and does so many shocking things that no one’s brain can retain it all.  I think it’s probably a psychological defense mechanism that all of the “there’s no way he can politically survive having said/done that”moments just fade into a dismaying blob in our memories (because Trump keeps surviving).  I’ve been wishing, though, that someone was keeping a record that we could refer back to, perhaps before stepping into that voting booth.  Here ya go.  Thanks, Slate
  3. The Daily Trump:  Filling a Time Capsule from The Atlantic
    James Fallows, bless him, has been doing something similar to what Slate did, but it’s more in depth.  He’s created a series of short reflections on things happening in and around the Trump campaign, writing with a surprising equilibrium even when discussing horrors like Trump’s response to Orlando’s Pulse shooting.  Fallows is also a committed fact-checker.
  4. Crossing the Line:  How Donald Trump Behaved Women in Private from The New York Times
    Donald Trump has a problematic history with women, and that’s putting it mildly.  Would he be the first president to be a misogynist?  Sadly, no.   The first to sexually exploit women with less power?  Absolutely not.  But just because we’ve given the keys to the house to piggish men in the past doesn’t mean it shouldn’t bother us in the present.
  5. Why the New Child Rape Case Filed Against Trump Should Not Be Ignored from The Huffington Post
    I’m not finding Trump guilty – that’s not my job.  But did you even know this lawsuit was a thing?  It is.  It’s a thing.  We should know this is thing as we’re deciding how to vote.

This  will keep you busy for a while.  “But what about Hillary?” someone will say.  “What about the terrible stories that you could have shared about her?”  Yes, well.  Feel free to create that list, and if you are a person who communicates respectfully with me, I’ll read the articles you list.  I’m just asking you to read these materials thoughtfully, critically, and ask yourself again whether Donald Trump is really the person you want leading our country.

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On Civil Disobedience and the Respectable Response

Photo by nathanmac87 on Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by nathanmac87 on Flickr Creative Commons

In the wake of the Chicago Trump rally shutdown and the traffic stoppage protest in Arizona, I’ve been hearing a lot about civil disobedience and protest.   I also heard the opinions of the people around me at the St. Louis Trump rally, including the woman sitting next to me who kept indignantly asking why the protesters who disrupted the rally didn’t have to “follow the rules” like the rest of us – but this question was being asked as protesters were being hauled out of the venue by police.    I’ve heard that protesters are rude, disrespectful, that they’re depriving Trump of his free speech – yesterday I even saw protesters referred to as “fascist storm troopers”.  So I’m joining this conversation with a few thoughts of my own.  I’ll preface them by saying that I am committed to non-violence – not only physical non-violence, but non-violence in speech – even in political protest. “Do not overcome evil by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21)

Note:  This is a lightly edited version of thoughts I first posted on Facebook.

1. We are the political heirs of insurrectionists. Long before we had declared our independence (itself an illegal act), there were violent protests against British soldiers in the colonies. Those soldiers weren’t the occupying force of foreign invaders: they were the agents of “our” lawful government. They experienced regular verbal and physical harassment, but I’ve yet to read an American history curriculum that treated those protesters as agitators, law breakers or violent thugs. We esteem and honor them. Perhaps the willingness to defy authority is part of what makes us Americans. Perhaps it’s written into our DNA as a people. Perhaps every act of protest and civil disobedience that has ever taken place in the United States is tied to our birth in a violent revolution.

2. Most people who commit acts of civil disobedience as a form of protest are prepared to face the legal consequences. They are prepared to be removed from Trump rallies by security or law enforcement, for instance. They know that they may even be arrested, depending on what transpires. The law does not, however, give anyone the right to assault those protesters – and when they’re assaulted they are victims of a crime. A rally attendee who punches or kicks a protester is no less in violation of the law than someone who is trespassing on private property. That seems an obvious thing to say, but I’ve seen it directly contradicted this week.

3. I believe walking on the American flag is a terrible thing to do, even though I recognize the law that protects free speech in such cases. I think it’s a terrible thing to do not because I revere the flag (I don’t), but because I have empathy for those who do. There are, after all, things I revere – most notably the cross – and I know how it feels to see the cross desecrated by the KKK, for instance. That same empathy extends to Muslims when they see their Quran desecrated. Remember Abu Ghraib? I understand the outrage over the flag, I just don’t think it should be selective.

4. There was a time when absolute non-violence was a strategy in the Civil Rights movement, and protesters were trained to meet resistance with “Soul Force”. I often hear people waxing nostalgic for the days when protesters knew how to behave in “respectable” ways. We forget that those protesters – including Dr. King, so often quoted on the Right these days – were labeled agitators, criminals, Communists. We forget that their non-violence was answered with dogs, fire hoses, beatings, bombings, and assassination. Those are the good old days that Trump hearkens back to when he wishes protesters could be “carried out on stretchers” and “would never come back”.

5. Many politicians present a false front: I’m as cynical about that as anyone. The dignified, respectable face often conceals a terrible character. But Trump hasn’t even bothered to pretend. We know what we’re getting with him, and his supporters do not have plausible deniability. For months, years even, Trump has been telling us what he really thinks: that blacks are lazy, that Jews should be counting his money, that Mexican immigrants are rapists, that Muslims hate America, that members of the press are disgusting, and that women are just pieces of a**. He’s advocated torture and the targeted assassination of the families of terror suspects. And as Trump has rejected our national ideals; as he’s demeaned, degraded and threatened huge swaths of the people who live in this country; respectable people responded by saying, “He’s just telling it like it is.” “He’s saying what everyone else is afraid to say.” “He’s got some good ideas.” Is it any wonder, you who have defended Trump while he has attacked your fellow Americans, that those protesters may now see you as the enemy? That they do not trust your motives in backing Trump? We’ve been sowing the wind in letting Trump’s campaign get this far. Now we may see what it looks like to reap the whirlwind.

6. I am, I suppose, a respectable person. I might wave a sign about loving your neighbor, but I won’t be blocking traffic or shouting profanities at Trump supporters. But what of it? I’m still complicit. I enjoyed the early days of Trump’s candidacy. I laughed at his outrageous statements, ignoring the poison they were tapping into. Some of us have relished sticking it to the establishment GOP, others of us are so consumed with contempt for Trump’s opponents that we can’t recognize the qualitative difference between disagreeing on policy and disagreeing on the humanity of people you may be elected to serve. Now we look at the people who are made most vulnerable by what Trump is peddling, and we ask with consternation, “Why are they so angry? Why can’t they just behave?”

Would you? If a presidential front runner was attacking you, or the people that you love, would you be quiet? Would you be respectable? Would you behave?
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In the Trump Bubble

12670781_10209044807576521_732114729376879552_n“You’re going to do what? Are you crazy?”
“Please, Mom, don’t go!  You’ll do something stupid and get hurt!”
“Let me know if you need to be bailed out of jail.”

I went because I want to understand. I went because this freight train is bearing down on all of us, and it’s not losing speed, and it terrifies me. That part is both ironic and embarrassing, since one of the dominant themes of my pontificating is that the people of God should never be driven by fear.

But I’m afraid of a Trump presidency. I’m not exactly afraid of Trump himself, who still seems to me like a ridiculous blowhard, but I’m afraid of what he’s selling. I’m afraid of what it means for freedom of religion and freedom of the press. I’m afraid it means more division, more violence, more oppression of the “other”. I’m afraid of what a Trump presidency will mean for my children. And honestly, I’m afraid of Trump followers themselves.

So I decided to go the Trump rally in St. Louis and talk to some of them. It was an exercise in empathy – trying to listen and learn from people who….okay, I’m not proud of it, but my view of Trump supporters has been pretty dim. Kathryn Schultz delivered a TED talk in which she said that when we believe people are wrong we assume that there must be one of three explanations: the one who is wrong is either ignorant, stupid or evil. Maybe I was thinking of Trump supporters in those categories. Are they ignorant? If so, how can we disabuse them of this ignorance? Are they stupid? If so, how has Trump managed to rally so many stupid people to his cause? Are they evil? If so, that’s the most terrifying possibility of all, right?

But for one day, I decided to mostly shut my mouth, open my mind, and listen with respect. Perhaps this would help to quiet some of my fears and re-humanize people who have become a scary monolith to me.

I also hoped that hearing Trump in person might unravel the mystery of his appeal. Perhaps he has some power as a speaker that just isn’t coming through my television screen?

12805744_10209044927139510_6131126868462624950_n
I think I succeeded in my first goal, but as for unraveling the mystery of Trump’s appeal? Nope. He’s a terrible speaker. Really, objectively speaking, terrible. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I stood in line for almost three hours and was inside the rally for another three, so I had plenty of time to chat with the folks around me. My first observation is that the people I encountered – granted, a tiny fraction of a crowd of thousands – were brighter than I expected.

(If at this moment you are offended that I didn’t expect Trump fans to be bright, that’s cool. I get it. I’m trying to be honest about my assumptions going in, and my assumptions do not make me look good.)

I met a teacher, a retired social worker, two counselors who work at a maximum security prison, an estimator for a restoration company, several college students, and the Young Conservatives chapter from an excellent nearby high school. These were professionals, educated people.

There went my buried assumption that these people were all stupid.

With each encounter I began in the same way. I identified myself as a blogger and asked if they’d be willing to talk about their views. And then, “Are you a Trump supporter?” Only once did that question not get an affirmative answer, by the way. The young man sitting in front of me at the rally smiled sheepishly, shook his head and said quietly, “Bernie.” Then we bonded. Every other person was willing to be placed on Team Trump, so my next question was, “What do you like about him?”

trump buttonsI heard the same answers over and over: “He’s an outsider.” “He says what he means.” “He believes what he says.” “He’s not an establishment politician.” Even my Bernie-loving friend said, “There’s no one in this room who can deny that Trump means what he says.”

The longer I spoke with people the more I thought that part of Trump’s appeal is rooted in a deep distrust and cynicism toward the political system. When I was young the Conservatives were the true believers in “The System”, the ones who saw protest and rebellion as not only wrong, but unnecessary because “We have the greatest form of government in the world”. Our elder Conservatives encouraged us to trust in that system and the people in power. But Trump supporters aren’t buying it. They are as sick of and angry at the system as any rock throwing protester could ever be. Over and over (mostly from the older Trump supporters) I heard that there’s no difference between the parties – that they’re all in the pocket for the same corporations and globalist movements. “You can’t trust anyone who relies on the GOP for financing. Trump talks like a man who is not pandering to the Party.”

12800410_10209044810336590_5321947911028694644_nWhen I asked what issues mattered most, again there were common answers. The national debt. Trade policy. Rising healthcare costs. “Bringing jobs back to America.”
“So, it’s the economy?” I asked Joe, who had already attended four Trump rallies in three states. “Yes, I’d say it is.” Even the Young Conservatives gave the economy as Trump’s biggest selling point. “I want to be an entrepreneur, and I don’t want the national debt dragging us down,” one of them said. “I really believe Trump can balance the budget.”

A couple of people mentioned immigration policy, and one college student mentioned ISIS. But I wasn’t really hearing racism or Islamophobia in their answers to my questions. Nor did any of them seem like the sort of people who would punch a protester in the face. So I started poking the hornet’s nest just a bit, asking about Trump’s attacks on the press (“He’s just reacting to media bias” one of the high school boys told me. “A 1996 study showed that 91% of all journalists were liberal voters.” “That was twenty years ago,” another boy said, at which point he was identified by his friends as the “liberal” in the group.) And over and over I asked this question: “There’s a large Muslim population in St. Louis. Many of them have been here for decades, some all of their lives, working in our hospitals, our universities, established in the community. Do they have anything to fear from the kind of climate that Trump’s campaign is creating?”

Here is where the troubling stuff came out. Joe, a kindly guy who choked up talking about a friend who recently received him American citizenship, shared his conviction that Muslims can never be trusted. “If an uprising happens, Muslims will always side with Muslims.” I asked him if Trump’s suggestion to register all Muslims in America seemed like a good idea to him. “Well, we have to start somewhere,” Joe said.

“The Koran and Sharia Law are not compatible with the American Constitution and our way of life,” the retired social worker said. “They want to force us to convert, and that’s wrong isn’t it? Muslims have a problem. If Christians were doing what Muslims are doing right now, we would have a problem. They’re beheading people, putting people in cages and setting them on fire-” At this point, the Bernie fan asked her if it was fair to judge all Muslims by the actions of extremists. I added, “You know, most of the victims of ISIS are Muslims.” “Right,” she said. “It’s like Chicago. It’s like black on black crime.”

Yikes.

trump signAnd on it went. The subject of immigration in general seemed to bring up ugly ideas. Even refugees were talked about as just tools of the “global movement” (“They’re forcing them into these little towns to take the jobs.”) Lurid details of murders by immigrants were shared both from the stage and by those sitting near me.

As for those nice young high school boys? As the line into the rally approached the barricaded protest area, one of the boys said, “Oh, look, they’ve got them behind fences. I didn’t know we were going to the zoo today.” That was the one time during the day that I lost my cool. I turned around and said, “That’s the kind of thing you shouldn’t say if you don’t want people to think you’re a bigot.”

So are these Trump followers evil? No. And yes, in that all of us are capable of carrying around evil ideas. Joe, with his Trump hat, Trump shirt, and phone full of photos from previous Trump rallies, should have scared me. But he was such a nice guy, even after I told him that I’m not a Trump supporter. We shook hands after our time in line, and I felt I’d made a new friend. But he’s a friend who would compromise religious freedom and sees all American Muslims as a threat. What do I do with that, except remember that evil isn’t usually perpetrated by monsters? It’s us – ordinary people – who make the triumph of evil possible. It really is banal, and someone may be kind, polite, generous, compassionate….and capable of thinking, saying, and doing terrible things. That could be me. That could be you.

And if I wasn’t aware of this dangerous admixture in Trump supporters (and humanity in general), Trump’s speech would have convinced me. You’ve probably heard about the protests in St. Louis. They rolled out in well-timed interruptions so that Trump’s speech (which was ridiculous and rambling anyway) was consumed by his reactions to the protesters. It became, in other words, a long discourse on Trump’s contempt for the protesters and his longing for more violence. I encourage you to watch this video montage from Rachel Maddow which includes most of what Trump said to and about the protesters yesterday. And every time – every time that Trump shouted “Get ’em out!” or heaped verbal abuse on them, or pined for the good old days when you could rough up a protester with impunity – the crowd went wild. All of those polite, respectable, Conservative Americans were hungry for just this. And that scares me.

The Bernie fan is also an Evangelical Christian, and he turned to me and said, “This is like a Roman Colosseum…..He (Trump) is definitely not a man of God.”

I nodded, and tried to smile, but I think we were both feeling a little sick by that point.

no trumpWhen we left the rally we were met by a sea of protesters. I waded down into that crowd to take pictures and wish them well. I hope that they resist the hatred and blood lust that Trump is selling, because it can suck you in even as you fight it. While waiting to get into the rally I had talked to an 8th grade girl named Melanie who said she had been harassed both online and at school because she likes Donald Trump. “They’ve called me all kinds of names that I can’t repeat to you,” she said. I told her that I have a daughter in 8th grade, too. I told her that I was sorry that she’s been bullied for her political views. “That sucks,” I said. And I meant it. We ought to be able to stand against the ugliness around us without being consumed by it. I don’t want to hate Joe. I don’t want to see anyone hurt. I want us to recognize that the capacity for evil is in all of us, and Trump is exploiting that capacity for his own ends. I saw a protest sign that said, “Hate has no home here”. I suspect the young woman holding that sign was referring to St. Louis, but the days ahead are going to require a renewed commitment from all of us – left and right, whoever we’re voting for, to stamp that sign on our own hearts and minds. Hate has no home here.

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The Lord Has Come: Lace Up Your Boots (A Sermon for Christmas Sunday)

Army-boots

22 When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses,Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”, 24 and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:

29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
    you may now dismiss[c] your servant in peace.
30 For my eyes have seen your salvation,
31     which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
    and the glory of your people Israel.”

33 The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Luke 2:22-35

We’re now, officially, in the Christmas season on the Christian calendar. As with Easter, we Christians don’t settle for just one day in which to remember and celebrate the highest and holiest events in our shared history: we get a whole season. But because of the way that we observe cultural Christmas – doing most of our shopping and decorating and singing and eating and partying in the lead up to Christmas, during Advent – by this point, December 27, most of us are done. Right? Some of us are ready to get that tree down today. Get it out of the way. Clean up the mess, stop singing those Christmas carols, move on. We’re sort of of hungover from Christmas.

That’s one reason that it’s a challenge to preach on the Sunday after Christmas.

But this year, for me at least, something else is at work. Our cultural Christmas – and indeed, much of our “Christian” Christmas, the way we observe this holiday in our churches – feels toothless. It feels disconnected from real life. What is this season about, anyway? If you ask the person on the street (who in America, statistically, is likely to identify as Christian) what Christmas means, what answer will you get?  Family, generosity, being nicer to people than you usually are?  Maybe if you ask for the “religious” version of the meaning you’ll get to a virgin, and a baby, and angels, and shepherds, and peace on earth, goodwill to men!

Can we admit that it sometimes feels like empty sentimentality, like we’re drumming up good feelings and talking about this story as if something dramatic and wonderful is happening – and yet it doesn’t feel like it connects to the world in which we live?

Perhaps the sentimentality is unavoidable in a story involving a baby. Because who doesn’t love a baby? They’re sweet and cuddly and adorable! But is the world really different, because of that baby?

We lit candles in the Advent season for hope, love, joy and peace. But do we have those things, really, because Jesus has come?

Three years ago, right in the middle of the Advent season, the Sandy Hook shooting happened and 26 people lost their lives – most of them young children. I imagine some of those families had nativities on display in their homes that December, celebrating the Prince of Peace, and then they lost their children to an act of violence. Last year, December 16, terrorists attacked a school in Peshwar, Pakistan and killed 148 people; almost all of them children. And as we know, it didn’t end there. In 2015, in Nigeria, Kenya, Yemen, Syria, Cameroon, Iraq, Egypt, Russia, and France – globally, terrorism took its toll. And here, too, we were not immune to horrifying acts of violence, in Charleston and Chatanooga, Roseburg, OR and Colorado Springs – and in San Bernardino…

And that’s only looking at 2015 through one filter. We’ve also been transfixed by the plight of millions of refugees seeking sanctuary, by continuing racial tension in this country, by our political candidates saying one terrible thing after another. That poison seemed to spread like a virus and from people that I know – Christians that I know, personally -I’ve heard the most appalling and hateful rhetoric directed at the poor, refugees, immigrants, liberals, conservatives; against sexual, ethnic and religious minorities. I have lived half a century of Christmases, and more than ever before I understand why, in the middle of the Civil War, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the words:  “And in despair I bowed my head. There is no peace on earth, I said. For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, goodwill to men.”

If we see the birth of Christ as a sweet, sentimental lovely story about the birth of a baby who (theoretically) was supposed to make everything better and sort things out, this post-Advent season can seem almost embarrassing. It can feel like escapism, like waking from a dream.  We sang, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” – and “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” – and he did, he came.  The question is, what difference does it make?

And so we come to Simeon in the temple. Mary is following the law that requires her to be present herself for purification, with a sacrifice, forty days after the birth of a son. Mary and Joseph are actually going beyond the letter of the law in presenting their firstborn son to the Lord in the temple, perhaps echoing Hannah’s dedication of Samuel to the Lord’s service. And it’s here that they meet Simeon who has been waiting, and waiting, and waiting to see the Messiah. We know almost nothing about this man except that at some point he’s received a promise that he won’t die until it he has seen Israel’s Messiah – and now, at last, in this forty day old baby, Simeon is seeing the salvation of God. Simeon prayers this beautiful prayer of Thankgiving, which in Latin is often called the “Nunc Dimittis” – “Now Dismiss”.  “Now, Lord, dismiss your servant….” or in other words, “You can let me die happy now, Lord.” But Simeon has something to say to Mary, too, and it’s not happy.  Not sentimental. Not sweet.“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against,  so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

This is a warning. The coming of the Messiah will not be like flipping a switch and suddenly the world is right, and uncomplicated, and everyone loves each other and nothing bad is going to happen. No, Mary, this child is going to causing the rising and falling of many. He will be spoken against. He will expose people for who they really are. And you, Mary, are going to experience great pain as this child’s mother. Buckle up. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

But I don’t think this surprised Mary. Do you remember her song, The Magnigicat?   The song she sang after learning that she would give birth to the Messiah?  There’s a reason that the theologian Scott McKnight nicknamed her Incendiary Mary.  Listen to part of The Magnificat:

He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.

The Magnficat is a song of social upheaval – anticipating the upside down Kingdom that the Messiah will bring in which the proud, the powerful, and the well to do are brought low. And you know what? When the privileged are threatened they tend to resist, to fight back, to use their power to try to hold on to what they have.  And so Simeon warns Mary. “Some will rise, others will fall, your son will make enemies, and it’s not going to be easy.”

Not sweet. Not sentimental. I don’t think Mary was a weak woman in any way, our portraits of her to the contrary. The incarnation required tough virtues, and I suspect that Mary’s strength of character is part of what qualified her for the job.

Over and over in the birth narratives we see how subversive this Messiah is, how much trouble he is going to stir up with the status quo. He is born in a situation that causes scandal – to a woman not yet married; to a couple who are virtually homeless, begging for shelter at the time of his birth. The angel army of God comes to announce the news of his arrival and they come to shepherds.  SHEPHERDS! Shepherds were seen as dirty, disrespected outcasts in Judaism.  They did the work no one else wanted to do, but everyone needed done (perhaps like many of our farm laborers today). and it’s to them that the angels appear. Can you imagine how offensive that idea must have been to religious leaders, that the angels of God would come to shepherds and not to the professionals?

The next worshippers that the narratives give us are the Magi.  Gentiles!  Pagans, probably!

And by the time that those Magi are traveling to see Jesus, this baby has already made his first political enemy, Herod, who rightly sees this infant as a threat and wants to kill him.

Any notion that we have that the birth of Jesus made everything sweet and lovely for either his family or his people, the Jews, is utterly destroyed by what happens next. After being warned in a dream, Jesus and his family flee from Herod and become political refugees in Egypt.  Our Savior was a child refugee.  But countless other little boys were unable to flee and died at the hands of those in power as Herod sought to kill Jesus. The slaughter of the innocents.

Matthew 2:18 says,“A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning.  Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more. “

I posted that scripture online after the Sandy Hook shooting, and again after the school shooting in Pakistan. In some ways it seems the world has changed so little. The powerful still do whatever they need to do to hold on to what they have, and the innocents still suffer. I thought of the passage again this year, looking at the photos of little Aylan Kurdi – the 3 year old refugee whose body washed up on a Greek beach, representing so many innocents whose names we will never know.

But of course, we know that the story did not end with Jesus as a child refugee. He survived, he grew up, left his home, and one day Jesus walked into that same temple in Jerusalem and read this passage from Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me 
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind, 
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

And then Jesus went out and proved that he meant what he and said, and he did it right up until those in power killed him. Then, in the greatest plot twist in human history, Jesus conquered death itself.

Before ascending to his Father,  Jesus told his followers to do what he had done. All of it. Bring the same good news to the poor, the captive, the oppressed, the blind. Live in the upside down kingdom that will comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Be despised, mocked, rejected, hunted – don’t be surprised if some of you get killed for my sake. But don’t worry, because I conquered my death, and I’ll conquer YOUR death, too. And lo, I am with you ALWAYS – even to the end of the age.

Friends, there is nothing sweet or sentimental about that, nothing that denies the ugliness of a fallen world. And yet that is the gift of the incarnation. The incarnation is Emmanuel,  God-with-us. God-forever-with-us in the battle against sin, spiritual blindness, bondage, hatred, destruction and death itself. It is not a battle for the weak. It absolutely requires those Christmas virtues of hope, love, joy and peace – but radically redefined into something unbreakable. Hope born of our rock-solid conviction that what we see now is not all that is; that history is leading to the restoration of all that God created; love – even enemy love – that sees the image of God in everyone, that sees every person as worthy of the death Christ died for us. Love that is, as Dostoyevsky said, “labor and fortitude”. Joy that is rooted in being known and loved by God, in being sure that we belong to Him, in believing that even our suffering can be made into something beautiful by Him.  And peace that is not simply something we possess but something that we struggle to give, to create in the world around us. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons and daughters of God.”

In the world we live in, we need defiant hope, love, joy, and peace. We look straight into the face of the world’s evil and say, “I refuse to surrender to this. I will not be shaped by this but by the character of my king, the one who came for me. I will fight until my last breath to bring good news to all people.”

We are the citizens of a Kingdom that is now and not yet. It was established with the coming of the King; it will be fulfilled at his return – but in the meantime, we may feel sometimes that we live behind enemy lines (because we do), or that we are being asked to live upside down lives in comparison to the values of the world around us (because we are). And that’s hard. Not simply hard as in difficult (thought it can be), but hard as in firm, sturdy, unshakable…defiant.

As I prepared this sermon I asked the Lord to help me find an example of that sort of defiant love, or hope, or joy, or peace – a practical example from the world around me. There are many examples from Christian history, of course – of missionaries and martyrs; of those who fought against slavery, and for civil rights, who served widows and orphans.  But something happened this past week, and I read about it in the news, and thought – this is a perfect example! Except for an ironic twist.

Many of you will have already heard this story. Somalia is the home to an extremist Islamist group called Al Shabbab. It was Al Shabbab that attacked Garissa University in Kenya, killing 147 people, specifically sorting out Christians from Muslim students and targeting the Christians for death. This is typical for Al Shabbab, and in fact, one strategy they use often is to cross the border from Somalia into Kenya and ambush buses traveling along the border – and then they will separate the Christian passengers from the Muslims, killing the Christians. In one incident, 36 passengers from one bus were killed.  It’s so common that buses often have police escorts these days.  But on this day, Dec. 21, the police escort had broken down and a bus kept going in this dangerous border region. Al Shabbab militants ambushed the bus, boarded it, and the militants attempted to separate the passengers into Christians and Muslims. But THIS time, the passengers didn’t comply.  More notably, the Muslim passengers didn’t comply.  Here’s a quote from one of the  Muslim men who was on the bus:  We even gave some non-Muslims our religious attire to wear in the bus so that they would not be identified easily. We stuck together tightly,” Abdi said. “The militants threatened to shoot us, but we still refused and protected our brothers and sisters. Finally they gave up and left but warned that they would be back.”

Many of the Muslims on the bus were women who shared their hijabs with non-Muslims women.  One of the women even reported saying to the militants, “Either kill us all, or leave us all alone.”

That is a demonstration of defiant love for neighbor – and a demonstration of practical peacemaking, of refusing to let the powerful write the rules for how the world will operate. Not on this day, not in this place, not on this bus.

And does it ruin the story that this act of neighbor love was performed by Muslims, and not Christians? I don’t think so. The story of God is full of unexpected people doing God’s work. From Ruth, to Rahab, to the Magi themselves and the Good Samaritan in Jesus’ parable.   Remember that the Samaritans were considered idolatrous half-breeds by the Jews, and the Samaritan is the hero of that story. I think those Muslims gave us a beautiful example of God-inspired, tough-as-nails love. The kind of love that brought God himself into human skin to suffer and die for us. The kind of love that gave Mary and Joseph the courage to birth and nurture the Son of God in the face of scandal, homelessness, and persecution. The kind of love that Jesus said would mark his followers.

I think again of what that passenger on the bus said, “We stuck together tightly,” “The militants threatened to shoot us, but we still refused and protected our brothers and sisters. Finally they gave up and left but warned that they would be back.”

As we leave another Advent season and celebrate the coming of our king, that’s a pretty good description of how we can live. We stick together – not just Christians with Christians, Americans with Americans – but treating all of those created by God as worthy of our care, of our risk. We refuse the demands of a fallen world that we see only us & them, that we place protecting ourselves and what’s ours above the good of our neighbor. We refuse hopelessness, despair, hatred, bigotry, rage and fear. Until our King returns evil will always threaten, the powerful will always try to have their way – but we know that the baby in Bethlehem really did change everything. For starters, he blew the gates off the kingdom of God – that’s how we got it.  He turned the world upside down, conquered death itself, and remains with us – God with us – God forever with us – through the Spirit who gives us strength to live tough-as-nails hope, love, joy and peace.

And so Longfellow, in the middle of the Civil War, could go on to write:   “I heard the bells roll loud and deep, God is not dead nor doth he sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail – with peace on earth, goodwill to men.”

The Lord has come, and the powerful won’t like it. The Lord has come, and it’s not going to be easy. The Lord has come, prepare to be tested. The Lord has come. Buckle up. Lace up your boots. Be strong, be courageous. You are soldiers of his Kingdom, sent to liberate a world that is still behind enemy lines.

Joy to the world, the Lord has come. May you live a defiant Christmas story.

 

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American Christianity’s no-cost discipleship

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A Syrian refugee and her newborn, photo by Russel Watkins, Dept. for International Development

“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, leader in the German Confessing Church

Today one of my Facebook friends compared the Middle Eastern refugees to snakes. Not a few of the refugees, mind you, but all of them – complete with side by side pictures of a writhing pile of rattlesnakes and a crowd of refugees. When I tried to engage with him he suggested I post my address so that “they” (I guess he and the 165 people who had liked his status) could send refugees to my house. Frankly, I don’t care if refugees have my address, but I’m not offering it to 166 American bigots.

This friend (who is no longer my Facebook friend) identifies as a Christian. He called 11 million men, women and children snakes, and he will go to church this next Sunday and pray to the same God to whom I pray. I am not convinced that we share a common faith.

Comparing refugees to snakes may be the worst thing I’ve seen, but not by much. Over the last few days I’ve seen Christians say, over and over, that the refugees are not our problem, might have diseases, might be terrorists, might cost us money, only want to use us, and besides, “They’re not even Christians.”

There is room to discuss vetting and funding and logistical concerns.  No one that I know is suggesting that we eliminate all security measures and hang out at the airport with “ISIS welcome here” signs.  But these days, even suggesting that Christians acknowledge the humanity of other humans is too much for some people.

A few months ago I saw the leaders of countless churches rising to fight against same sex marriage based on a handful of scriptures. There are hundreds of places in the Bible that address caring for the poor, refugees, widows, orphans, foreigners, and (because Jesus was nothing if not inclusive) our enemies. But where are those same Christian leaders? Where’s all that zeal for the Bible now?

Church, for the love of God, BE THE CHURCH. Jesus died for us, yes, but first he spent three years teaching us what it means to follow him and we have made obedience to him optional. We value our comfort and wealth more than the lives of our fellow humans.  We have come to believe that discipleship should cost us nothing.   This isn’t the gospel: it’s some syncretistic monstrosity – the Church of the American Way of Life.

I am starting to think that America needs a new Barmen Declaration, a new Confessing Church, and a whole lot more people reading Bonhoeffer.

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What, you too?

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“Friendship is born at that moment when one man says to another: “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .” C.S. Lewis

I bought a t-shirt at the Storyline Conference.  It’s a great t-shirt:  a calming shade of blue, a very soft cotton.  I love it already.  I also love what is says:  “Your story matters.”

I spent days at the conference plotting out the major turning points in my life, examining my roles and relationships, learning how to craft a better story.  All of this was inspiring, but there was a big question below the surface, pressing in on me at every moment:  what next?  I’ve spent several months living with that question.  Having lost my minister’s license, how do I proceed in ministry?  God called me, the body that has been given the authority to affirm that call has said “No”-  so what  now?

I still don’t know the answer, which is fine.  Really, it’s fine.  I mean, you can’t expect a three day conference to sort out your entire life, can you?  Maybe I wanted God to split the heavens and show up with a five point plan for me, but deep down I knew that wasn’t realistic.

Nevertheless, I did get a revelation of sorts.  It came when I put on that t-shirt.  “You story matters,” my t-shirt said.  But why, specifically?  How?  If I’ve been called to the care of souls (which I still believe, license or not), how does my story aid me in that endeavor?

So standing there in front of the mirror in my new shirt, reading it backwards, I suddenly thought, “My story matters not because it’s unique,  but because it’s not unique.”

Boom.

Right?

I mean, I understand that in its sum total my story is probably fairly unusual.  I don’t know a lot of other homeschooling feminist film critic defrocked pastor-moms.  But the pieces of my story?  Not a one is unique to me.  And here’s the good part:  that’s what makes them useful.  That’s what makes them meaningful, in the most literal sense.  All language is a social phenomenon, and certainly that includes our stories.  In the play Shadowlands, playwright William Nicholson has C.S. Lewis say, “We read to know that we are not alone.” We write, I think, for the same reason:  for connection.

“Tell me your deep, dark secret; and I will tell you mine.  Is that your deep dark secret?  Oh, well, never mind.” – Vigilantes of Love

I don’t know if I’ve discovered some profound  insight, or something that everyone else already knows.  Either way, it feels new to me.  If I was the only mother who had ever failed spectacularly, why bother admitting to it?  If I was the only one who had ever strained against gendered theology, if every other woman was content with submission and domesticity, why bring it up?   I tell the truth about my life because experience has taught me that there is always someone out there who needs to know that they are not alone.  Do you want to know that someone understands something of your anxiety and depression, your crises of faith, body image problems, sexual shame, ADD, general rage against the machine attitude?  I’m your gal.

But that list of “issues” is not all of me, I realize.  And maybe I don’t talk about the rest often enough because I’m allergic to sounding like Pollyanna.  It’s not simply my pain that I have to share, but hope that’s come out of pain – because (to be a bit cliché) I’m not who I want to be, but thank God I’m not who I used to be.  My story includes significant growth as a parent, finding my voice as a woman in the church, relief from grief and shame, channeling my anger into advocacy, and….well, I still live with the ADD, as anyone who knows me well can affirm.   My story is an ongoing mixture of challenges and change, and I want to offer it not because it’s special but because it’s universal.  Because your story, too, is one of challenges and change.

Maybe, reader-friend, if we could meet for coffee this afternoon we would find the places were our stories intersect.  And I could say, “Me too!  You’re not alone.  This can get better. Let’s do this thing together.”

“One thing I do know:  I was blind, but now I see.” – John 9:25

For now, aside from any credentials I may or may not receive, this is what I know about my ministry.  I am useful insofar as I am willing to share my life with others so that they won’t feel alone; so that they will feel less ashamed; so that they won’t give up.  My story contains a lot of crap.   Also a lot of grace, more love than I will ever deserve, some really funny stuff, and increasing amounts of hope.

I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to go around being emotionally naked, or that we should all be constantly spilling our guts.  That can be a shtick, and Lord save me from that shtick!  Even vulnerability can be faked.  But I don’t know…it seems to me that all that’s been stripped away in recent years has brought me to this place:  not much reputation to protect, not much to lose, with a hunger to connect over true stories.  Yours. Mine.  Flawed central characters.  Crazy plot twists.  The occasional villain.  Stories leading some place good, stories that haven’t yet reached their ends.  And always, always stories that allow us to say to each other, “What?  You, too?”

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