Is your loyalty worth it?

Yesterday, I read an article about a woman who was a major fan of the current occupant of the White House.  I frame it this way because there have been other people who have occupied the White House who have had huge fans as well.  And, assuming there will be other occupants of the White House, it is a fair assumption that there will also be major fans of those individuals as well.  These fans will give their undying devotion and turn a blind eye to all negative aspects of the object of their loyalty – no matter how bad it is.

This isn’t about the current occupant of the White House.  There’s nothing special about him really.  Or any of the previous occupants either.  You see, the story could have been about any number of people who are major fans of politicians.  Or celebrities.  Or celebrity pastors.  Or sports figures.

The story gave some details of how this person came to become a major fan and has stuck with the president through thick and thin.  But the really interesting part of the article was about what her loyalty has cost her.

Her grandson has essentially disowned her.  She has lost friends and family members have shied away from her.  But she is sticking with the president.

I wonder, if that kind of loyalty worth it?  Is it worth losing family and friends for loyalty to someone who is temporarily in a position of power and in the spotlight?  I’m not talking about quiet support.  I’m talking about vocal support.

Was it worth it for die-hard fans of the previous occupant of the White House?  Or the one before him?  Or before him?  Or any of them?

The reality is this – occupants of the White House are there for 4-8 years normally.  You are stuck with your family for a lifetime.  And they know where you live.  And you’re more likely to see them than any celebrity or person of influence.

Is your loyalty to someone who is here today and will be gone tomorrow worth this much?  Is partisan loyalty worth this much?  Is ideology worth this much?  Are you willing to die for your party?  For you ideology?  Are you willing to be alone in the world for these things?  For a politician?  Is it worth it?

What does this kind of loyalty offer in return?  The women in the story said the following about her loyalty – “I’ve saved America and I am very proud.”

Salvation.

Politics and religion are more similar than we like to admit.  It’s no surprise that for most of human history, religion and politics have been intimately related – often with politics using and abusing religion for its own ends.  Sometimes religion using and abusing politics.  The end goal for either one was the acquisition and use of power.

And both have a message of salvation.  Both paint a picture of salvation.  And both offer saviors who come to our rescue to save us from evil.  I’m not surprised that political rhetoric uses and abuses religious terms.  Politics can often look and act like a religious cult.

While there are born again evangelicals who believe that God sent the current occupant of the White House to save the nation, it would be wise to remember that there were plenty of people who talked about the previous occupant of the White House in terms of “Messiah.”

And in both cases, they are wrong.  They have traded in faith in God for other things.  They have cheapened religion and faith and put faith in flawed human beings and broken ideologies.  They have elevated politics and partisan loyalty to the level of faith and obedience to God.  They have made idols out of parties and figures who can not save anyone or anything.

This isn’t the first time people have put their faith in flawed humans and ideologies.  If you read the book of Daniel, you will see story after story about a king who demands blind loyalty and worship by his followers and offers them false salvation.  Only he disappoints people over and over again.  When you look at Rome, you see the mixing of religion and politics to the point where the emperor was considered a god who brought Glad Tidings, Good News, and salvation.  He was Lord of Lord, King of Kings.  And he was to be worshiped and people of the empire were to have blind loyalty.  He offered salvation and peace.  And he also failed ultimately.  Time after time, humanity has bought into the faulty notion that we can save ourselves and others.  That our systems offer salvation.  That our ideologies can save us.

And every time, we fail miserably costing people’s lives and creating destruction.  We don’t learn very easily.

There will be others who will rise to power.  And there will be plenty who follow blindly, offering their loyalty to another false savior who will disappoint and fail.

Yet, in history, there has only been one true Savior – Jesus.  He doesn’t come offering false salvation.  He doesn’t promise to bring peace by destroying our enemies.

Loyalty to him is costly though, just as loyalty to anyone we consider a savior has been throughout history.  But the difference is this – loyalty to Jesus is worth it.  He is the only one that offers true salvation.  Peter said it best – “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)

Where does our loyalty lie?  With who?  Are they worth it?

Presidential Alert

Like all of you, I received the test emergency broadcast text listed as the Presidential Alert. Why call it a Presidential Alert?

Why not something like the Emergency Broadcast System, or something everyone is already familiar with.  I was half expecting the alert to be followed up with some kind of tweet from the President mocking a government agency or someone he doesn’t like for some reason or other.

An alert is something that needs our attention.  My hope is this is the last time I every receive something from this alert.  Ever.  Usually alerts aren’t good news.  We get enough bad news – I don’t need more bad news sent as an alert overpowering my cell phone.

I wonder if the church could do something similar.  We could call it Jesus Alert.  In a way it would be similar.  Just as we know that the President didn’t send this alert, we also know Jesus wouldn’t be sending out such an alert either.  So what would it say?

Maybe something “I’m coming back…Now.”  Or maybe, “Resurrection in 3…2…1…Now.”

Maybe it would be a simple message like “I love you” or “I forgive you.”

Or maybe it would be more vocal like “Start doing the stuff I told you to do.”

At any rate, I think there are times when we could all use a Jesus Alert.  At the very least it would be a reminder that Jesus is connected to us always.

Jesus Alert.  Check you phone.

Peace

On Sunday, one of my parishioners asked me if I ever found peace.  She was worried about me.  I appreciate that.  I thanked her and said yes, I have peace from different places.  But this short interaction caused me to think over the last couple of days.  They have been full days – lots of driving, professional training, pastoral care, social ministry, meetings, visitations, phone calls, attempts as keeping up with e-mail, and a little bit of family time and sleep pinched in too.

Do I experience peace, is the question.  Often I express many things in my blog that are not peaceful – but they are things that happen in the world.  In a sense I don’t experience peace – I don’t receive peace from the world and the way that it is.  Often, the world is stressful and broken.  In the last two days I have spoken with a family whose father is dying, worked with a man who was hungry and tired, did pastoral care with someone who was in the midst of change, checked in on the sick and home bound.  I also watched comment after comment on Dr. Ford and Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh.  So many comments back and forth.  So many people who are convinced they are right, regardless of the truth – which not a single one of us really knows.  So convinced that any question that might differ from an established opinion wasn’t just wrong, but turned the other person into an enemy.

All of this breaks my heart.

Where do I experience peace?  Often times, when I am alone.  When I can block out the noise of people arguing about who is right and scapegoating those who are wrong.

I experience peace when I go on a run with our dog.  We are tethered together – each of us are limited to how fast or slow we can go because of the tethering of a leash.  We run.  We get distracted, but pull each other back on track.  Running is therapeutic for me.  It is a release of stress.  It is in nature where the only argument that exists is how long something alive will live.  There is no argument about who is right and who is wrong.  There is no loyalty to artificial and temporary organizations like political parties.  There is only living.

I receive peace when I listen to classical music and orthodox chant.  These are calming sounds that orient me towards the holy.

I receive peace when I have a visit with a home bound person.  There is no rat race, no trying to impress.  There is no position or authority issues.  There is no ignoring the reality that exists around us.  There is honesty with people who are home bound.  There is no fear of just sitting in silence without words being necessary.  Presence is all that a person wants.  It is a breath of fresh air.

I receive peace when I take time to be with God – reading Scripture and praying and writing thoughts and feelings.   These are times I can ask God questions – not looking for answers though.  The answers don’t matter really.  Each time I ask a question, it opens up the door to understanding, to deeper relationship with God.

I receive peace.  And then I live on that peace.   The world is very broken.  There is homelessness, opioid addictions, poverty, drug abuse, domestic violence, human trafficking, power struggles, arrogance, and more in so many places – even within our own families and communities.  Often we would prefer to pretend these things aren’t happening.  But pretending they don’t exist is not peaceful to me.  It’s really painful to know that these things go on and that we aren’t willing or able to respond, or at least acknowledge that they exist in our midst.  It is much more peaceful to me to acknowledge their reality than to have a sham of false peace.  At least we can be honest.  And that is a starting place.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus says “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called Children of God.” (Matthew 5:9).  Peace isn’t a passive thing that just comes to us.  We are called to be peacemakers – to create peace where there is none.  We aren’t called to just slip away and experience peace.  It’s not all about us.  We are called to take the peace that we know and to insert it where peace is not known.  The only way to do that though is to acknowledge the lack of peace that exists.  How else to bring peace where it isn’t?

 

Excuses

Excuses are those things that we say to give ourselves cover for when we screw up.  It doesn’t feel good to know that you are in the wrong or have wronged someone else.  And so, to protect ourselves, we make excuses.

There are also others who make excuses for us – tell things that aren’t exactly true, or are based loosely on the truth because of their relationship with.  They do it to protect us.  There is the reality of the situation (We screwed up) and there is the belief about a person (I really like this person).  We are so concerned with being right that we will ignore reality in order to protect our own beliefs and so we make excuses.

And in each case, the excuses are actually wrong.  When we screw up, we should own up to it.  But often times we don’t.  I have been guilty of this far too many times in my life.   And it helps when I am called out on it.  I realize what I’m doing and have to face the reality.  And I have a choice to make – accept reality or defend my belief.  I could give an excuse and say it wasn’t on anything serious, but that would be just making more excuses.  I’m not perfect by any stretch on this.

I think we live in an age of excuses.  We see excuses being made for politicians all the time – either they tell excuses for behaviors they have done or mis-truths or lies they have told.  They don’t want to look bad.  They have an agenda to push forward.  Our current president is really good at coming up with excuses for anything negative that might have happened – and it’s always someone else’s fault.   And just to fair, there are many Democrats who do the same thing.  President Clinton did this plenty of times too.  He also had a difficult time dealing with reality.

We have heard excuses from church officials over why child sexual abuse was covered up for so long.  Often these excuses are an attempt to protect the institution.  But all it takes is one credible account and the excuses fall apart.  And the institution is hurt.  But more importantly, people have been hurt.

Jesus heard plenty of excuses during his time walking this earth.  He heard excuses of why people couldn’t follow him.  They had other things to do, chores to take care of, stuff to take care of.  They had all sorts of excuses.  And they all fell short.  They weren’t willing to let it all go and take up the invitation to follow Jesus.  It was too costly and they didn’t want to admit it.

Excuses ultimately never accomplish the actual goal of protecting you or anyone else.  They usually make matters worse.  They tell the other person that you can’t be trusted, that you aren’t open to the truth, that you aren’t humble, that you think you are perfect and without mistake.  Excuses are a replacement for something else that is needed in our lives – confession.

We all need confession from time to time – saying that we screwed up, that it was our fault, and that we are sorry.  We need forgiveness too.

So instead of excuses, let’s strive for confession and forgiveness and even reconciliation.  It’s a lot harder.  There’s a great investment of self in these things.  But in the end, it’s worth it.  We all need these things – even the people who claim that they don’t need forgiveness.  They are just making an excuse for their brokenness.  We need confession.  And we need to be humble about hearing confession too – because sooner or later we’ll be the one confessing.

The Cost of Claiming Jesus

Do we think about what Jesus says for our lives?

Do we think about who he tells us God blesses?

Do we actually allow the words he says to sink in?  To impact us? To shake us to our core?

Blessed are the peacemakers.  Blessed are those who mourn.  Blessed are those who thirst for righteousness.  Blessed are the poor in spirit.  Why do you call me Lord, Lord, but do not do what I tell you?

Instead, do we set up walls and barriers to Jesus and his words and what they mean?  Do we tell God what’s off-limits in our lives?

Do we claim to be a follower of Jesus and at the same time tell him to butt out of our ideological beliefs and partisan loyalties?  What happens when our ideology and political preferences come in conflict with what Jesus said?  Which loyalty do we choose?

Do we claim to be a follower of Jesus and at the same time tell him to keep his hands off our finances and money?

Do we claim to be a follower of Jesus and then ignore what Jesus says about the poor, homeless, the powerless, and more because speaking up and/or acting and responding is uncomfortable and inconvenient?

If you think following Jesus is comfortable and convenient I challenge you theologically to point out Jesus’ words that call for his followers to be comfortable and convenient.   You might have trouble though considering Jesus said “If any are to be my followers, they are to deny themselves, pick up their cross, and follow me.”  (Luke 9:23)

 

The status quo

A blogger I read wrote something that caught my attention:

The problem when you let people who are directly (or indirectly) benefiting from the status quo decide about the future of something, then that future is going to look a lot like the current status quo. No matter whether the status quo is changing or not. And the status quo is always changing…

– Yann Girard

There is a great deal of wisdom in these words.

You can see examples of this play out throughout history.  Think of empires.  Empires desire the status quo and will use whatever means necessary to maintain the status quo.

Except the status quo is always changing.  So it is a moving target.  An empire attempts to control the movement and contain it.  Except it is a losing battle.  Every empire that has ever existed has lost this battle at some point – every one.  Because it is impossible to contain the always changing.  The always changing keeps going while you tire and wear out.

This isn’t true just for empires, but all things in the world – Every organization, business, church, institution, etc.  Every established thing is fighting a losing battle to maintain the status quo.

Why?

I think it is an extension of ourselves.  Organizations, businesses, churches, and institutions are made up of people.  And as people age, they change.  The status quo changes because our bodies and minds change.  We can’t control the aging process or maintain our bodies the way they were when we were 20.  It’s not possible.  Yet, we spend so much time, energy, money, and effort to do just that.  And we lose when we try that.

If the status quo is always changing, then the question is this – what do we do?  We respond and adjust.  We adapt.  Adaptions allow for survival and continuing.  That’s true for organisms and organizations.  Trying to maintain the status quo, or turn back the clock is a losing proposition – every time.  And it’s not what we are called to.

Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’

(Luke 9:62)

 

It’s easy to succumb to the dark

It’s easy to see the darkness and negativity.  It’s easy to hear the dehumanizing and belittling language.  It’s easy to watch violence and destruction.  It’s easy to see abuse.  It’s easy to see how the poor, the outsider, and the stranger are pushed away or held down.  It’s easy to hear anger and fear.  It’s easy to see the walls of separation that are built to keep certain people out and others in.  It’s easy to hear the language of religion being used and abused by politicians and parties.  It’s easy to get down on humanity and the culture.  To see those without and be in despair.  It is easy to grasp hopelessness.

But that is not what followers of Christ are called to.  We aren’t called to see and hear these things and give up hope.  Instead we called to recognize that they exist – they are the reality of this world.  We are called to see them for what they are and to call the thing what it is – evil, unjust.  We are called to respond to what God has done for us.  We are called to serve those around us, to proclaim Good News, to offer hope.  To show love and care.  To welcome the stranger, the child, the outcast, the poor.

We are called to do all of this because we have a message of hope.  The world may be crappy, but God offers a promise of healing and wholeness.  God offers a promise of Revelation 21.  God offers a promise.  And that is good news.  It is the best news ever.  It is a message of hope.  One that not only just gets us through the day, but gives us life to try things, to risk it all, to care.

It’s easy to succumb to the darkness.  It’s much more fulfilling to embrace and be embraced by the light.

“Well, what 17 year old boy hasn’t done that?”

Last week I saw a short interview segment of women who were asked about the accusations against Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

One said “Well, what 17-year-old boy hasn’t done that?”

Leave the politics of the situation aside for the time being.  They are actually secondary to the accusations.  I believe there is a presumption of innocence and the burden of proof is on the accuser.   The accusations will play out and either Kavanaugh will end up on the Court or not. That’s not what I’m writing about today.

I’m rather upset at statements like the one that I highlighted.  In one moment, they didn’t believe the accusations.  And in the next moment, they were rationalizing them away if they did happen.

If they did happen, then there are no rational arguments to defend such actions.  Ever.

And frankly, I was rather ticked off by the flippant statement – “Well, what 17-year-old boy hasn’t done that?”

Well, me for one.  And I imagine I’m not alone.  In fact, I’m probably in good company with many other men who were 17 and never assaulted a woman.  I don’t appreciate this woman’s low expectation of young men.  I don’t appreciate the rationalization in order to advance a cause.  I don’t appreciate excuses being made for abusive behavior – regardless of who actually does the abuse.

There is never a good reason to abuse a woman, or anyone for that matter.  When an accusation comes up, it should be investigated so that the truth might come out.  It shouldn’t be fluffed off as something flippant.  No wonder people hesitate in reporting abuse against them.  When they do come forward, they are often belittled, threatened more, and abused by those who don’t like accusations.  This has got to stop.

A night of blessing

Last night was our ministry night at Flying J.  We had some of our usual guests and missed some of our other folks.  The night started as it usually does – with laundry.  We get people set up with laundry, get it going, and then head over to Denny’s for a meal.

This time would be a bit different though.  After we placed our orders, I invited everyone into an informal worship at the table.  I read the Gospel lesson for this coming Sunday, then asked everyone what they wanted to lift up in prayer.  Each person had a prayer concern or a thanksgiving to share.  One of our families was grateful for being able to get into a house.  This was truly a blessing that we all cheered for.  When everyone offered up what their prayer was, we prayed together.

Then we did communion.  Everyone participated.  It was quite a meaningful moment for me – to offer communion in a restaurant. We used a loaf of Italian bread and grape juice.  And everyone communed, including the children.  Here we were, about 15 people celebrating the Lord’s supper – people who the Good News was created for.  People who can truly appreciate what daily bread is.

And then our food came and we continued with our conversation.  The kids and some of our guests told jokes, we laughed, we heard stories, we listened.

And when it was time for the bill, I was handed a check for $11.50.  For 15 people.  I thought there was a mistake.  No, no mistake.  The waitress proceeded to tell me that someone paid for the vast majority of our bill – over $165.  Wow.  What a blessing.  We don’t know who our angel was, but we were grateful to them for their immense generosity.

We finished up dinner, got several people set up for showers, and were on our way for the night.

Ministry at Flying J is never dull.  There are serious concerns and challenges that each person and family faces – often many challenges thrown in all at once.  Often there are things that have no easy solutions.  But we are there.  We spend time with people who face these challenges.  We can’t solve the challenges that people face.  But we listen.  We offer respect.  We offer a sense of community.  We make sure people are clean and fed.  And now we worship together too.  Sometimes it doesn’t feel like much.  But I know that it far more than just the limited material things that we can offer.  This is what Good News for the poor is all about.  It’s a message of recognizing people’s humanity.  It is a message of community and reminding people that they matter.  It’s a message that lets people know that they are not alone.  That they are loved.  That they have worth and value because they are God’s children.

Our nights at Flying J are not just a blessing for the people who we serve.  These nights are a blessing for us also.  It is not uncommon that our families come with extra supplies to be distributed to others in need.  One of our guests came with a coupon for a discount at Denny’s.  They may not have a lot, but what they have, they share and contribute.  It’s their offering for this ministry.  And that is a blessing.

Families on the edge

I hear from many families that are right on the edge.  Usually they are families on the wrong side of that edge.  They are families that are trying to do the right thing, but are just shy of making it.  In the last week, I’ve heard from several families who are on the edge of being homeless.  They are the families that live in the motels along the Carlisle Pike.  They pay a ridiculous weekly rate for a crappy motel room.  What they pay has been climbing more and more – some as high as $400 a week.  That’s more than many mortgages in this area.  And for what?

I spoke with one family yesterday on the phone – and the phone call lasted about an hour.  They told me they were looking for help with paying the rent for the motel room they are in.  The woman starts a new job today, but won’t be paid until next week.  The guy has an application in with the company who owns the motel – for a position at another motel that is owned by the same family.  He said he felt pretty good about his chances.  He wants to work.

They are on the list with the county homeless assistance program – #2 on the list in fact.  They have been working with a plethora of agencies over the last 10 weeks and the follow-up has been slow.  Mostly because there just isn’t much available to help people like this family.  Apparently a roaring economy doesn’t trickle its way down this far.

And this family is not alone.  If I had to guess, I would say there are a couple hundred similar families with similar stories along the Carlisle Pike, in the dozen or so motels.  This is not an exaggeration.  Each of these families are in similar situations – They are right on the edge.  They are one medical bill or auto repair bill away from true homelessness.  They have enough to pay the exorbitant weekly rent for their room, but don’t have enough to save up for a security deposit and first month rent, which would be cheaper and better in the long run.  They are trapped in a vicious cycle.

When I spoke with this family, the guy told me they were originally number 842 on the list to receive help for housing.  842.  That’s a long list.  That’s a serious problem.  And that’s just one county in Pennsylvania.  Multiply that across the country and you start to get a sense of how bad the situation is.  The economy might be roaring for some, but it is failing for so many more.

What is the Christian thing to do?  I think it is to ask the dangerous question – why is this happening?  Blaming all these families as the sole cause of the problem is a cop-out.  It is an answer that swears off a responsibility from the rest of society to respond and offer a correction.  The Christian response certainly isn’t to say that only the strong survive and that the ends justify the means.  That is the heartless answer, but one that some in positions of power seem to believe in.

We are limited in what we can do.  There are only so many people we can work with – we are already stretched thin.  There is only so much money that we have access to.  Yet the need far exceeds what we are capable of.  And saying no to someone who is just on the edge is difficult.  And it sucks.  But sometimes, it’s all you have because of the limitations.  We can’t help everyone.  But in those times, I can at least spend an hour listening to someone.  I can ask questions.  I can treat a person with respect.  I can believe them.

At the end of the phone call, the guy thanked me for listening and for any help that we might be able to offer.  The women thanked me as well.  I wasn’t able to offer anything materially.  But I offered what I had – a listening ear, encouragement.  What do you have to offer?