Set Free for Freedom

Jesus’ apostle named Paul wrote these words in his letter to the Galatian church.

“For freedom God through his anointed one has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

“For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.  For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”

“Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want.”

“But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law.”

“Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.”

“By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.”

How do these words speak to you today?

Dialogue (Part 1 & 2)… & 3 & 4

Last night our three sisters and brothers-in-law got to see Chicago in concert in Kansas City. The second song was led by the author Robert Lamm — Dialogue (Part 1 & 2). As I “sang” the lyrics I could recall screaming the words with Terry Kath’s voice and guitar on the LP at full volume in our Frat house in college. I still want to shout down war, starvation, and “repression closing round” as I hear others say, “if you had my outlook your feelings would be numb — you’d always think that everything is fine.”

A few years before, the inserts and posters of “Chicago Live at Carnegie Hall” set read: “we can change the system”. Dialogue Part 2 proclaimed “we can change the world now, we can save the children, we can make it better, we can make it happen.”

I wonder what parts of Dialogue 1 & 2 I need to hear today? I wonder what Dialogue Part 3 might be about?

One option could be the dialogue in churches about whether the kingdom of God that Jesus talked most about is someplace you go after you die, or is it a vision for the world now? As Brian McLaren writes in his new book “Do I Stay Christian?”, is the church a refrigeration unit before shipment to a final destination, or does following Jesus mean actively working to change our systems that are leading to the violent or climatic destruction of our whole ecosystem. Is God’s goal to throw away our world like garbage (after pulling “my tribe out”), or is God showing us ways to save creation now?

I believe and I hope Dialogue 4 would repeat 2: “we can change the world now, we can save the children, we can make it better, we can make it happen.” What dialogues do you see going on? When have you heard, “Will you try to change things with the power that you have: the power of a million new ideas”?

William Sloane Coffin

During my final year of seminary, as 1983 began, I heard a taped sermon that transformed my life—an all-too-rare occurrence.

The sermon by William Sloane Coffin at the Riverside Church in NYC begins with words I would never forget: “As almost all of you know, a week ago last Monday night, driving in a terrible storm, my son Alexander – who to his friends was a real day-brightener, and to his family ‘fair as a star when only one is shining in the sky’ – my twenty-four-year-old Alexander, who enjoyed beating his old man at every game and in every race, beat his father to the grave.”

10 days after his son died in a wreck, the father preached this sermon to his church January 23, 1983. You can search the sermon online; you can download the audio through his archives site.

As a pastor and hospice chaplain for 35 years, Coffin’s words still ring true: “When a person dies, there are many things that can be said, and there is at least one thing that should never be said. The night after Alex died I was sitting in the living room of my sister’s house outside of Boston, when the front door opened and in came a nice-looking, middle-aged woman, carrying about eighteen quiches. When she saw me, she shook her head, then headed for the kitchen, saying sadly over her shoulder, ‘I just don’t understand the will of God.’ Instantly I was up and in hot pursuit, swarming all over her. ‘I’ll say you don’t, lady!’ I said.”

“For some reason, nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn’t go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths……. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”

Since 1983, I have imagined being in hot pursuit, swarming all over many funeral consolers. With all the best intentions to protect God or insulate pain, I have overheard each of my top twenty list of deadly things to say to a grieving person. 

When you put your personal grief into words, what do you think, write, or say? Which cultural comments have not been helpful to your grief work and journey? What expressions and actions have brought you transformative comfort? 

What Must I Do to be Saved?

The day after Tuesday’s most recent “massacre of the innocents” (Matthew 2:16-18), I opened my mailbox to find the above propaganda from Congresswoman Vicki Hartzler (or her opponent trying to smear her? — one never knows). One of the many images idolizing violent weapons manufactured to kill people looked like Patty Hearst robbing a bank in 1974. Timing is everything.

Acts 16 is one lectionary passage for this Sunday (timing again?). Paul and Silas are put in chains and in jail, because they healed a slave-girl fortune-teller. They interfered with the business of those who profited from her. It seems you suffer if you lovingly interfere with business profits — however abusive that business is. Times haven’t changed much.

An earthquake frees Paul & Silas from their cells of inaction and chains of silence. Their jailer figures the empire will kill him for allowing prisoners to escape. The jailer asks them, “What must I do to be saved?” He was NOT asking, how to get a ticket to heaven when I die; he was asking how to be saved from this empire of violence and vengeance, domination and hate all around him.

He asks what he must DO and the two tell him what to do. Believe, follow, live the life of Jesus and you and your household will be saved. Practice the life of love, sharing, community, equality, justice, peace, non-violent, active resistance to evil, and you will be saved from this system — you and your household. Find ways to participate in grace and peace everyday.

That is the question I keep hearing this week. After another arsenal annihilation, what must I do? What actions am I called to take in response? What must I do to be saved from violence, vengeance, weapons, war, autocrats, businesses profiteers who silence any dissent? What are you called to do? How might you grow in love and non-violent resistance to bring any hope of salvation to this household of our nation and world?

Chicken Soup – Too Funny

When I started reading “Chicken Soup for the Soul” books 25 years ago, it never occurred to me I’d have a story published in one. I only wrote sermons “weakly”. From April to December, 2020, when I couldn’t visit the members in person, I wrote brief reflections for First Presbyterian in Columbia. I was encouraged to write a book.

In 2021, I took several online writing classes hosted by Brian Allain on “Becoming a Spiritual Writer.” His “Writing for Your Life” presentations helped me visit with my top 5 authors along with helpful resources he makes available.

During one workshop I met the editor of the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series. Amy Newmark said she was accepting about a thousand submissions for a book with humorous stories and they’d publish 101 of those stories sometime next year. 

“Sometime next year” is today! The story I submitted last year is #51 in CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE SOUL — TOO FUNNY. I avoided my first rejection letter by choosing the best story I told for years at breakfast at pastor’s conferences to watch them spit their milk.

I still enjoy certain songs from the 70s — Vehicle, Mississippi Queen, Spirit in the Sky, Montego Bay, Brandy, etc.—each is a one-hit wonder. Today I joined the one-hit-wonder club with “This Time in Latin”. We’ll see what might come next.

What is your dream for the coming years? Where can you go for resources and support to act on your hope? What might you do if your dream became a reality?

Table-Threat to Empire

We started Lent imagining with Diana Butler Bass that the Table is the central image of Holy Week. A community was celebrating deliverance from bondage to Pharaoh’s Empire at the joyful Jewish Passover meal. Their rabbi, Jesus, says, “Love one another as I have loved you” as he washes feet. The abundant life is expressed in a communal table where everyone, everyone, everyone is welcome to eat bread and drink wine in peace and mutuality with each other and God.

This Friday we see that table shattered. John Dominic Crossan taught me to ask, “Why would Rome waste the cost of a garrison, cross, and nails if Jesus were not a threat to the Empire?” If Jesus was just talking about an afterlife, they wouldn’t care. An alternative Kingdom of God on earth was a threat to the Kingdom of Caesar on earth; there’s only room for one king at the top of the pyramid. Public execution of the leader would settle it, and deter anyone else from trying.

Every Empire before and after relies on domination by one group over others, making “the other/outsider/alien” an enemy to be controlled, systems that result in the few having the most while the vast majority possess little, using ever-increasing violence to maintain power and domination. 

Proclaiming a table for all, “each under their own vine and fig tree where no one shall make them afraid”, disarms the violence and fear that maintains the empire’s myth of scarcity. I wonder why people who follow the way of Jesus wear crosses instead of tables? Jesus never took the disciples to the cross after he died. He met them back in their last supper upper room, the Emmaus road table, the seashore breakfast table. 

What powers of domination and violence do you see crushing the table today? What causes you to despair and grieve on this Friday? Where do find your source for hope and strength?

Chicken? Chow Mein

When I became Kitchen Steward for the Sigma Chi Fraternity at Emory in 1977, I was given many recipes that had been collected over the years to help me plan daily meals for 86 brothers. One dinner was Chicken Chow Mein.

C.C.M. was popular with past kitchen stewards because it was cheap when the budget got tight. Several #10 cans of chicken chow mein and more cans of fried noodles cost less than any meal in the repertoire. C.C.M. was popular with our beloved cooks, Ethel & Pearl. Open, pour, heat… one pot clean-up… home early.

C.C.M. was not popular with anyone who tried it. What little “chicken” there was among the soggy celery was questionable. The watery sauce was gray—the color of a mouse. We were actually relieved to find it had no flavor (spare us the imagined alternative). 

Each person could “sign off” one meal a week and almost everyone got in a long line to sign off the night chicken chow mein was up.

After my second experience of mass sign-off protest, I took our last #10 can of Chicken Chow Mein down to our chapter meeting and announced its official retirement. As I hung up the can as an iconic reminder of “never again”, I received my only kitchen steward standing ovation.

What is something you keep doing, that you could allow to cease? How did you start on that path in your family system or community system? What steps do you take to discern what to let go? How would your change affect those around you? What would it take for you to act?

But wait……

My mother’s mother made many memorable statements on life. “You can judge a person’s life by how many funny-looking people come to the funeral” was one.

In her teens (and the teens of the last century), she met my grandfather while they attended the University of Kentucky in Lexington. He became the newspaper editor in Pineville, KY and then for the Lexington Herald. In a state where basketball is a religion, they were faithful followers.

In her 70’s her husband and brother died in the same year. “The two men in the world who think I’m perfect are gone,” she said.

At 90 she worried about breaking a hip: “nobody will like me anymore.” Sure enough, she lived for a year in a nursing home, knowing she’d never live anywhere else—everyone still loved her. 

One dark night, she said to a nurse by her bed, “You know, I’ve lived a full and long life. My family is doing fine. I’m tired. I think it’s time to be with God and my husband.” She closed her eyes and rolled into the covers.

Soon enough, she rolled back toward the nurse, opened her eyes and proclaimed, “But wait…. Kentucky is playing basketball this Saturday!”

As her grandson, I’m disappointed Kentucky is not playing this Saturday. (Any pull with Saint Peter doesn’t help against Saint Peters.) And yet, I can smile as I wonder what’s coming next.

What brings you joy in life? Is the anticipation or the experience itself more meaningful to you? As Mary Oliver wrote in her poem The Summer Day: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Chicken Soup – Too Funny Reflections & Questions

This episode is also available as a blog post: https://law-and-gospel.com/2022/04/19/chicken-soup-too-funny/
  1. Chicken Soup – Too Funny
  2. Table-Threat to Empire
  3. Chicken Chow Mein
  4. Kitchen Steward
  5. Second Mile