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? 

Skyhook

Friday’s story was about our three-year-son driving our minivan with minimal damage to objects or persons. How fleeting life can be. The way I saw things at the time, I wondered if God had helped to guide his little hand to shift past catastrophic reverse and into a safe drive of a few inches forward. I don’t see it that way today.

I see God as present in and loving his/her/their entire creation—including me. I don’t see our creator as operating some skyhook that rescues some people from the actions of themselves or others, while leaving others behind. From my tradition, I agree with Jesus: children, your Father in heaven “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45)

Skyhook rescue theology raises concerns for me. I can never answer the “why” question. Why would I be rescued while another suffers who is not rescued?—or the reverse of course! It’s the temptation to act like I am so special, God will rescue me from hitting the ground if I jump off a building (Matthew 4:5-7 and the other accounts of Jesus’ temptations).

Seeing a skyhook is dangerous. The “rapture” conspiracy theory (that is neither Biblical nor faithful as I see it) says God will skyhook people like my tribe before destroying the world. If God doesn’t care about this world and people who are “other” than me, then why should I? Why would I care about others, the environment, or climate change if God is going to throw it all away like garbage?

A divine skyhook takes away our human responsibility to seek answers to rampant violence, including the threat of nuclear destruction. Because God does not and will not rescue us from the consequences of our actions, we might want to reconsider our behavior.

How has skyhook rescue theology been a part of your journey of faith? When have you been reassured by seeing that way? What stumbling blocks came in your path from that perspective?

Mimicked Behavior

On a Saturday in 2000, I was in the back yard burying our beloved cat, my wife was taking a quick shower, and our son was playing safely inside. Because I had opened the garage to get the shovel, I could clearly hear the sudden crash, bang, shatter, and rolling rattle sounds that came from there.

When I ran in the garage, I saw that our mini-van had pulled forward enough to run into a metal shelving unit, bend it in half, and send its contents crashing to the hood and floor. Our three-year-old was in the driver seat, the engine running, the gear on the wheel in drive, and the doors locked.

I was thankful he had passed reverse while shifting gears, because of all the dangers of gaining speed down our hill, crossing our street, and running into our neighbor’s house. Drive had done minimal damage. 

I faced a problem: how do I get our son to unlock the van doors when he has the key? How do I hide my anxiety and anger so he’ll be willing to open the door? Seeing his anxiety and fear, I calmly said he was not in trouble but I needed him to unlock the door. He did. I hugged him hard, before we cleaned the mess together. 

Sunday morning a friend, called to ask if our son could pick up her children for church.

A three-year-old mimics the daily behavior he observes to climb up a dresser to get the correct key, open the van door, climb in, lock the doors, insert the key, start the engine, and shift the gear to drive. What behaviors does an assault-rifle murderer mimic? 

Because of law-suits, the auto industry added a safety feature; you have to have long-enough legs to put your foot on the brake to start the car. I wonder what safety-features the weapons industry might be adding today, if our rights to sue them weren’t taken away from us when they were uniquely made immune from liability by Congress in 2005 with the PLCAA?

No Guarantees

Like many towns in the 1980s, we provided an all-night party for all high school seniors the night of their graduation. Parents and community leaders organized a party of celebration, celibacy, and cheer (sans alcohol). A YMCA was transformed into a casino/nightclub/coffee house/activity center for 14 hours. As the preacher, I was assigned the roulette or craps table.

The sub-text was to guarantee the safety of the graduates on a dangerous night. One year I learned there are no guarantees no matter how hard you try.

Two hours after going home at 7 a.m., one graduate drove the two-lane thirty-mile highway to Columbia to buy something. He fell asleep at the wheel, and was killed in the car crash.

24 hours after their graduation, I hosted 24 youth with our mutual shock, silence, sobs, stories, and unanswerable questions. One life lesson we learned was that you can’t guarantee safety, no matter how many safety steps you take. The lesson was not worth the cost.

The next year, after another annual all-night sober celebration, we told the participants to sleep it off.

How have you learned that you can’t guarantee someone’s safety? Given that there are no guarantees, what steps do you take to seek safety for yourself and others? How might this reflection affect your response to this week’s guns and graduations?

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?

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?

Turn the other cheek

Soon after a slap on the LEFT cheek, the Academy tweeted it “does not condone violence of any form.” I thought: “While our industry does not condone violence, we make billions portraying it.”

Two thousand years ago my teacher spoke of a slap to the RIGHT cheek: “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (Matthew 5:39). In 2003, Walter Wink (whose lamp glows on my bookshelf) wrote: Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way.

Jesus’ word “resist” means “violently resist” (do thwart an evildoer, but with non-violent action). The “third way” to respond to injustice is (1) not passivity, (2) not violent opposition, but (3) creative non-violent resistance.

So why the RIGHT cheek? In that day, you couldn’t slap with your left palm—it was “unclean” (no toilet paper). You had to use the back of your right hand to slap the right cheek of the other. 

In the culture of Jesus, people in power could demean you and maintain control by giving you a back-handed slap: husbands over wives, masters over slaves, Roman soldiers over the conquered. By turning the other cheek, you were saying, “If you slap me again with your right palm, you will have to treat me as an equal human.”

To (1) passively take it continues the cycle of abuse. To (2) oppose violently would result in your death. To (3) create a non-violent protest leaves the abuser in a quandary—do I treat you as my equal or leave you alone? Jesus then gives two more illustrations on transforming systems of injustice, and inviting evildoers to become transformed themselves.

Mahatma Gandhi (a student of Jesus), the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (a disciple of Jesus) and countess others have used a variety of creative, non-violent actions to resist evil, transform enemies with love, and change the world.

How have you been taught to interpret “turn the other cheek” in your life? What are the usual results of passivity or violent opposition? How have you been transformed by the actions of another person’s love? In what situations are you called to action to creatively,  non-violently resist an evildoer?